Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Iraq: Still "Staying the Course"?

“Men will ever distinguish war from mere bloodshed.”
Frederick William Robertson, 19th Century English Preacher

Listening to the radio and watching television, one can only marvel at the accuracy of Preacher Robertson’s observation. Events this week associated with Iraq make the point.

November 29 in Baghdad: The Council of Representatives (a.k.a. the Iraqi Parliament) voted to extend the country’s 25 month-old state of emergency for another 30 days. The action allows the security forces to arrest and detain Iraqis without warrants and to impose curfews.

A day earlier, the UN Security Council, at the request of Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, unanimously passed Resolution 1723 (2006) extending the mandate of the 160,000 multinational troops now in Iraq to December 31, 2007. As in past resolutions, the Security Council retained the provisions giving the Iraqi government the option to ask that the mandate be revoked before the end of 2007 and requiring that the mandate be reviewed not later than June 15, 2007 if it is not revoked earlier.

In Tallinn, Estonia en route to a two day meeting of NATO heads of state, President Bush conceded that Iraq is “tough,” yet he steadfastly ignored a question as to whether the situation in Iraq is a civil war.” White House Press Secretary Tony Snow rejected the term, saying there are not yet “two clearly defined and opposing groups vying not only for power but for territory.” Others such as King Abdullah II of Jordan and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said Iraq was nearly in or on the brink of civil war, while former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell, the NBC network, and the Los Angeles Times unambiguously labeled the fighting “civil war.”

Now it is somewhat curious that the Pentagon’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (as amended through April 2006) – also known as JP-01 – defines insurgency, guerrilla warfare, and unconventional warfare, but does not have a definition for civil war. For the military, a concept or an event not defined does not exist, and thus it does not require resources, planning, or further consideration. And since the U.S. “doesn’t do civil wars,” the Pentagon can deny any and all accusations that it even thinks of inciting or otherwise getting involved in such conflicts. (The CIA doesn’t reveal how it operates in such situations, let alone that it does, so it doesn’t have to bother with denials.)

The Pentagon has an interesting disclaimer in the preface to the Dictionary of Military Terms that states that only terms “inadequately covered in standard commonly accepted dictionaries” are included. While “civil war” is not in the military dictionary, “insurgency,” “unconventional warfare,” and “guerrilla warfare” are. Conversely, the 2005 Webster’s New World College Edition Dictionary defines “insurgence,” “guerrilla,” and “civil war” but not “unconventional warfare.”

Where, one might wonder, is the three-letter word that encompasses all of the above? Well, the Dictionary of Military Terms does not define “war,” probably relying on the disclaimer noted at the start of this essay. But should this be the explanation, then the Pentagon is saying that the public, individually and collectively, is able – to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart – to recognize war when it sees it.

That same logic applies to civil war. More than 60 percent of the U.S. public thinks Iraq is a civil war. So the White House ought to listen to its own advice, stop wasting energy playing semantic games, and start pulling together regional security and economic reconstruction conferences. And as these become operational, foreign forces can disengage and withdraw.

Anything less is “staying the course” of more casualties, more destruction, more hatred.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Bad Things Do Happen in Clusters

Once again, it seems, bad things come in multiples.

Not that three or four (or more) events suddenly transpire without some warning, some hint that the world or some part of it is about to go awry.

In the Middle East/Persian Gulf, in the words of King Abdullah II of Jordan, the world may see three civil wars side-by-side in early 2007: Lebanon (again), Israel-Palestine (still), and Iraq (overlain by coalition forces). There is a fourth candidate for that unwelcome political condition – Afghanistan.

Then there are Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Russian defector and purported double agent Alexander Litvinenko, and Lebanese Minister of Industry Pierre Gemayel, all assassinated between October 10 and November 23. Politkovskaya, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s punitive policy in Chechnya, was set to publish scathing revelations of widespread kidnapping and torture of Chechens by Russian troops occupying Chechnya. The description of her wounds – particularly a bullet in her head – would in any other country, suggest assassination by party or parties unknown. Litvinenko reportedly had been cooperating with an Italian enquiry into KGB recruitment of spies in Italy during the Cold War. British doctors say he died of acute radiation poisoning. Gemayel, Minister of Industry in the Lebanese government and an outspoken opponent of Syria, was gunned down in a classic “hit” as he left his home. Conventional wisdom blames Syria, but no one has produced any evidence or even an unassailable rationale for Syria to be involved.

All this comes to mind because of a letter dated October 30 from a lady who was in Northern Ireland over a dozen times between 1970 and 1989 – that is almost from “Bloody Sunday” in Belfast to the year just before I returned to the UK as Military attaché, in which posting I visited Northern Ireland.

The letter describes not individual assassinations in civil wars but the mass assassinations characteristic of sectarian/religious or tribal/ethnic slaughter that constitute genocide. The writer compares her personal experiences in Northern Ireland with what is happening in Iraq, covering motivations – power, money, inflict fear; affiliations – political parties or pseudo parties that harbor individual assassins, death squads, and paramilitaries and militias; infiltration of state security by insurgents – Provisional IRA into the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Shi’a militia into the Iraqi police; and the selection of victims on personal characteristics such as names, residence, schools, even occupation – countered by having dual identification documents and trading houses so that one lives in the “right” place.

The lesson of Northern Ireland which the author of the letter drew – and which my own experience and study affirms – is that sectarian killings are virtually unstoppable until exhaustion sets in or complete separation is achieved – and even then there can be subsequent smaller outbreaks. Military intervention by an outside power can tamp down genocidal-scale slaughter, but that works only as long as overwhelming force is used. In such cases, the intervening force comes to be identified with one side or the other and itself becomes a target.

That’s another reason why, in the absence of a political resolution and the employment of nonviolent means to resolve lingering disputes, a policy that depends on coercion to stop coercion will inevitably fail.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Black Friday

One would have to be a hermit to not be aware that in the world of U.S. business, today is known as Black Friday. And when asked what the term means, most of the public would at least know it has to do with business, albeit fewer would know the reference comes from the days when accounts were kept by hand.

Far fewer would know of the 1940 film “Black Friday” starring Boris Karloff as a brain surgeon who replaces the diseased part of the brain of a dying friend with brain tissue from a dead mobster. The friend becomes a veritable Dr. Jeckll (meek English professor) and Mr. Hyde (gangster) who, as Karloff learns, has stashed away half a million dollars.

There is another “Black Friday” movie, one made in 2004 in India. It could have been made in Iraq today, Black Friday 2006.

The movie is the story of the series of 15 coordinated car bombings in Bombay (Mumbai) on March 12, 1993 told from the perspectives of some who were caught in the events of that day. All told, 257 people died and more than 1,400 were injured in the blasts that were blamed on militant Muslims seeking revenge for the demolition of a mosque.

So we have the “moveable” U.S. business Black Friday that is the day after Thanksgiving but oriented toward the Christian festival of Christmas, a horror movie from 1940, and a movie recounting widespread terror bombings in 1993 in a predominantly Hindu country.

For Iraqis, November 23, 2006 – celebrated as Thanksgiving by U.S. troops in Iraq – will be remembered for years, for decades, for lifetimes as a “Black Day” when more than 200 Muslims died, most from a series of 6 coordinated car bombings. And also for Iraqis, November 24, 2006 – Black Friday for U.S. businesses – will be remembered for years, for decades, for lifetimes as an especially “black day” for added hundreds of Muslims who died at the hands of the Iraqi army and various militias, some reportedly working with men dressed in official national police uniforms and driving authentic national police vehicles, while U.S. helicopters circled overhead.

And this is a country where progress is being made and about which U.S. politicians are optimistic for the future?

President Bush is scheduled to meet Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, next week in Jordan. Bush should be flexible, for after the last two days, someone other than al-Maliki might walk through the door as prime minister.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Bush Back Home -- Give Thanks

President Bush returned to the U.S. yesterday following a trip to the Far East. His main objective was to attend the fourteenth annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting held this year in Hanoi, Vietnam. He also stopped in Singapore before and in Indonesia after the APEC meeting.

White House press releases containing comments by Bush and his various counterparts were very short and neutral. In keeping with the purpose of APEC, all the press notices had something on trade. But there were some noteworthy if not eerie moments.

The first occurred in Hanoi just prior to Bush’s meeting with Vietnam’s President Nguyen Minh Triet, but its impact was probably felt more in the U.S. than in Hanoi. Under the caption “Bush in Vietnam to Bolster Business Ties,” the Washington Post ran a color photo of Bush, smiling broadly, sitting under a bust of Ho Chi Minh placed before a blood-red background. One could almost hear Ho’s spirit noting that once again, the U.S. was fighting an insurgency for which it was ill-advised and ill-prepared to take on – and one that might well end as did Vietnam.

Another example came when Bush met Chinese President Hu Jintao. The Chinese president remarked that U.S. statistics for the first ten months of 2006 showed a 35 percent jump in U.S. exports to China over the same period in 2005. Bush made no response or acknowledgement of the change. What he did do was endorse Hu’s call for the Chinese to become a nation of consumers instead of savers. Now I’m not an economist, but the professionals in the “dismal science” all seem to worry that the U.S. is a nation of consumers and not savers.

During a photo opportunity with Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard, Bush answered reporters’ questions. Asked about the significance of being in Hanoi, Bush mused: “my first reaction is history has a long march to it.” Indeed so. It’s a bit surprising that some newspaper didn’t run a headline “Bush Finally Gets to Vietnam – 35-plus years Late.” Asked about Iraq, Bush replied “We’ll succeed unless we quit.”

In Jakarta, Bush avoided any comment on troop movements, increases, decreases, or anything to do with Iraq. Facing a number of reports and proposals due in December on the way ahead in Iraq, Bush appeared most intent on not opening any window into his thinking – in particular linking “withdrawal” and “timetable” in any way. His host in this, the largest Islamic country in the world, was not so reticent. President Susili Bambang Yudhoyono advocated a “proper timetable” for U.S. and other coalition forces to disengage from Iraq.

Meanwhile, back in the Middle East, there is a new reality: Iraq and Syria have re-established diplomatic relations after a hiatus of 28 years. U.S. spokespersons seemed less than impressed, noting that 20 percent of the foreign “jihadists” come from Syria.

And in another surprise move, India and China have signed an agrrement to increase civilian nuclear cooperation. Might this be India’s “hedge” against relying exclusively on the U.S.?

Finally, the “turkeys” were pardoned – even though they had never been convicted or even stood trial for any crime.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Iraq: Shrinking Options

Suddenly, it seems, the atmosphere on Capitol Hill on Iraq has followed Washington’s weather – it’s decidedly unstable and downright chilly. Undoubtedly, this is at least partially attributable to the effects of the congressional elections which hit both Houses like a Canadian weather front.

Many of those associated with the war policy have hunkered down, hoping that the various studies in train (Pentagon, White House, Baker-Hamilton) and the pronouncements of their predecessors such as Henry Kissinger will give them cover from the sudden cold.
Others who are summoned to Capitol Hill are experiencing a much hotter side of forty-three months of unfilled rosy predictions of “turning the corner” and needing only “four to six more months.” Even the generals, unable to provide unequivocal answers to unequivocal questions, seem to finally have exhausted whatever forbearance survived this year’s congressional election.

Last week graphically illustrated this change in atmospherics. General John Abizaid, Commander of the U.S. Central Command, appeared before Congress to update the armed service committees of both Houses on Iraq. Abizaid insisted more than once that he did not believe that more troops were needed at this time in Iraq. He also said he could not recommend removing troops even on a phased drawdown. But when challenged that this meant continuing the status quo, he categorically denied this was the case.

On what basis did Abizaid’s claim he did not advocate the status quo? In short, he and his subordinate generals planned to expand the U.S. “training teams” currently embedded with Iraqi units to 22 members from the current 11 troops per team. To do this without adding more troops, units currently conducting security patrols and sweeps would be redirected to the training mission. Overall, the plan would double U.S. forces accompanying Iraqi units to 8,000. (This number of advisors would be enough to put a 22-person U.S. team with each company in the Iraqi army – assuming four companies make up an Iraqi battalion, three battalions make up a brigade, and three brigades make up each of the ten Iraqi divisions.)

Then the confusion started. Responding to a query from Senator Bill Nelson, Abizaid said that although Anbar province was critical, “More critical than Al Anbar province is Baghdad. Baghdad’s the main military effort.” Abizaid then confirmed that he had ordered deployment to the volatile Anbar province in western Iraq of his theater reserve – the 2,200-strong 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit which has been aboard ships in the Persian Gulf.

Senator McCain reminded Abizaid that he had conceded that, before the invasion in 2003, then Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki had been right when he estimated that several hundred thousand troops would be required to occupy Iraq. And while Abizaid further conceded that “more American troops would have been advisable in the early stages of May June, July” 2003, he also suggested that more Iraqi security forces and more international forces “would have made a big difference.”

Even under McCain’s sharp questioning, Abizaid held firmly to the position that increasing U.S. troop presence would, over the longer term, only delay the day that Iraqis accept responsibility for their future. He also said that adding 20,000 U.S. troops, as Senator McCain has proposed, “is simply not something that we have [the ability to sustain] right now with the size of the Army and the Marine Corps.”

Which sounds a bit like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld infamous observation: “You go to war with the army you have. They’re not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

Friday, November 17, 2006

Statistics Lie -- Again

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics
Déjà vu All over Again

Through the first 17 days of November 45 U.S. military personnel have died in Iraq. Four U.S. and one Austrian civilian have been kidnapped. At this pace, the 3,000th U.S. fatality will die on or about January 3, the day Congress reassembles.

General John Abizaid, Commander of U.S. Central Command, testified before Congress on Wednesday about Iraq and Afghanistan.

Later that day, General Mike Hayden, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Lieutenant General Mike Maples, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, also testified.

Read the short excerpts of the testimony presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Then look at the statistics for the month and since the fighting began in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then see if you can answer the one question at the bottom.

General Abizaid:
“I remain optimistic that we can stabilize Iraq.”

“The key to stabilization is effective, loyal, nonsectarian Iraqi security forces coupled with an effective government of national unity.”

“Sectarian violence…[is] still at unacceptably high levels….But it’s not nearly as bad as it was back in August. And I am encouraged by that.”

General Hayden:
“The longer this goes on, the less controlled the violence is, the more the violence devolves down to the neighborhood level.”

“Sectarian violence now presents the greatest immediate threat to Iraq’s stability an future.”

General Maples:
“I think we are making progress….I think we still have the opportunity for success.”

“The coalition forces right now are the element that is keeping Iraq together.”



Total U.S. Military Dead



U.S. Military Wounded



Coalition Military Dead



Total Indigenous SecurityForces Dead



Total Indigenous Civilian Dead



Estimated Excess Mortality from War

655,000 (Lancet)


Journalist fatalities

89 plus 35 support staff


U.S. Missing in Action



Number of Countries Originally in Coalition



Number of Countries still in Coalition



Average Number of Daily Attacks by Insurgents in January 2006



May 2006



October 2006



Number of U.S. Air strikes in last six months



Dollar Cost to Date of
Global “war” on Terror: $502 Billion
Expected Supplemental
request for 2007: $127-160 Billion

Is this what you voted for last November 7th?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Habeas Corpus -- Bush's "Enemy"?

One theme that recurs in any discussion of the professional human political animal is the attempts to manipulate the emotions, fears, and passions of the general public. Much time, talent, and money are spent shaping these elements in such a way that the voting population is lulled into surrendering individual principles for a collective self-interested stance – as shaped or defined by the class of individuals whose main concern is reelection to office.

This theme was taken up in 1882 by the Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen. His “An Enemy of the People” is a scathing critique of what he saw as a culture of political hypocrisy in his native Norway. The story revolves around a town medical doctor’s discovery that his community’s prospective economic salvation, a rebuilt health spa, actually would endanger rather than improve the health of paying visitors. But when the doctor proposes that the city fathers announce and the local newspaper publish the findings, he finds that the community quickly closes ranks against him. He is first fired from his medical position, then silenced and shunned by both the business community and the town’s “progressives,” and finally his home is attacked by a stone throwing mob calling him “an enemy of the people.” He is, in effect, stripped of all his rights without so much as an informal court hearing into the circumstances of and the science behind his claims.

Ibsen clearly was irritated by the subterfuge of proclaiming clean governance while, in truth, actual governance worked to suppress inconvenient truth, especially when the real truth would have adverse economic ramifications for the professional politicians. He once summed the matter this way: “In Norway, they do not trouble much about liberty but only about liberties – a few more or less, according to their party.”

This week, the Bush administration once again is pressing ahead to tighten its grip on the exercise of fundamental constitutional rights that it finds inconvenient in its preferred methodology for waging its “global war on terror.”

Most media noted that on November 13, the Bush Justice Department argued before the District of Columbia U.S. Circuit Appeals Court that the 440 detainees at Guantanamo could no longer pursue habeas corpus appeals in federal district courts because the Military Commissions Act of 2006 retroactively denied that right to all those accused of acts of terror against the U.S.

Fewer media noted that on the same day Justice Department lawyers in the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, were argued that the Military Commissions Act also empowers the government to hold indefinitely any immigrant, legal or illegal, arrested on suspicion of terrorism. As with the Guantanamo 440, those arrested would not be permitted to challenge their detention in civilian courts – a right heretofore normally accorded all U.S. residents – including alien residents.

This single-minded pursuit of ways to expand the curtailment of individual rights belies the president’s assurances that he heard the nation’s voice November 7. This year’s election was a referendum not only on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but a repudiation of the administration’s war of fear. The public expects this Congress to claw back the constitutional and statutory rights that the Bush administration grabbed for itself – or was meekly handed on a silver platter by a compliant Congress – over the past six years.

At stake is the survival of the oldest civil right in the western world and the foundation of constitutional democracy: the right to “present one’s body” before an impartial interlocutor to contest the basis for unexplained, secret, or wrongful incarceration.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Cleaning Up Cluster Munitions

With the U.S. congressional election last week producing a complete turnover in the objective balance of power in each chamber, it was easy to miss the renewed call by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan for “urgent action” on the issue of restricting or banning the use of cluster munitions in wartime.

Annan spoke on November 7, the opening day of the latest gathering in Geneva of the Review Conference on the Convention on Prohibitions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to have Indiscriminate Effects – whose short title is the “Convention against Inhumane Weapons.” Ever the diplomat, the UN Secretary General spoke of “recent events” – but everyone knew that he was directing attention to the July-August 2006 34 day war between Israel and Hezbollah that was fought primarily from Beirut south into the northernmost 20-25 miles of Israel.

The shooting ended some 90 days ago, but the killing and the maiming continue – from unexploded ordnance in general and unexploded cluster sub-munitions that littered the terrain, particularly in southern Lebanon. In the final two days before the ceasefire took effect, the Israeli Defense Force fired thousands of munitions, each containing 200 or more smaller explosive devices, into civilian areas between the Litani River and the Israeli-Lebanese border in an effort to restrict the movement of Hezbollah fighters and supplies. For its part, Hezbollah fired similar munitions into northern Israel, but far fewer as their source of supply – thought to be Iran through Syria – was much more limited.

A report by the UN Mine Action Coordinating Center surveyed the extent of the problem in southern Lebanon. Based on their on-the-ground survey – this was not a New York UN Headquarters armchair estimate – the Center concluded that a million cluster sub-munitions were delivered by Israeli air, artillery, or surface-to-surface missiles, with most of them aimed at villages and towns in south Lebanon. The density of the bomblets found in southern Lebanon is higher than in Kosovo or in Iraq.

Just as the density of cluster sub-munitions depends on the quantity of the larger “carrier” munitions fired or dropped from aircraft, so too does the number of sub-munitions that do not explode when striking the ground, natural or man-made objects, or people or animals. Typically, the “dud” rate runs around 15-30 percent, but in some munitions, because of misfiring, age, or damage, the dud rate can be 80 percent. And it is these “duds” – because they can still be set off by vibration, pressure, or just being handled – that wreak the greatest damage on civilian populations after the shooting stops. In fact, some anti-mine and anti-cluster munitions groups contend that the high “dud” rate is intentional as their presence reduces agricultural production, consumes resources for clearance operations that could be used for other pressing post-conflict needs, and in the long term places additional burdens on survivors who are maimed and must be cared for by government, friends, and family.

Cluster munitions are manufactured in 34 countries, but 73 (or more) countries have these weapons in their arsenals. As with landmines, which are banned by treaty (although the U.S. still refuses to sign that treaty), the first step to control the use of the more than 4 billion cluster munitions is to ban the sale or transfer of these munitions. To date, other than Hezbollah, no non-state organizations have employed these weapons – probably because they have no means of delivering the sub-monition payload. Banning all transfers of both the weapons that might employ these munitions as well as the munitions themselves would help preclude this development.

Other critical steps in addition to ending the transfer of cluster munitions are ending the production of new cluster munitions and the destruction of existing stockpiles. But as with landmines, the U.S. is likely to oppose a complete ban and argue that continued use of cluster munitions in non-urban areas is a defensive tactic employed to protect friendly forces from enemy attack or to channel enemy forces away from militarily important areas or into “kill zones.”

While the U.S. and some other manufactures will oppose a total ban, momentum is growing among the majority of countries to add cluster munitions to the list of weapons deemed “indiscriminate” in any usage. The land mine treaty has left the U.S. as the only NATO country not to be a signatory country. Under the terms of that treaty the U.S. cannot stockpile landmines with deployed U.S. forces in Europe or even transit landmines through other NATO countries without violating international law.

Significantly, just five days after Annan’s speech in Geneva, a new treaty came into force – the so-called “Explosive Remnants of War” agreement. Under its terms, warring parties are obliged to remove unexploded munitions – shells, mortars, rockets, grenades, and cluster sub-munitions – from battlefields after the end of hostilities. In a way, this is a more daunting task than cleaning up landmines in that warring parties occasionally noted where landmines had been employed. With shells and rockets, while there may be some idea of what direction they were launched, the absence of any knowledge about where the munitions actually landed increases the threat to post-conflict indigenous civilians, humanitarian and relief workers, and peacekeepers.

So far, 26 countries have ratified the treaty. That leaves 165 to go. But three years after the treaty was agreed, the ball is rolling. And for the U.S., the change in Senate leadership provides a new opportunity for action.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

November 11, 2006

With Veterans Day falling on a Saturday this year, the official observance came on November 11. In the Washington area, the main event was the opening of the new U.S. Marine Corps Museum at Quantico, Virginia. President Bush was present and spoke about the history of the Corps (November 10 is observed as the birthday of the Corps) and the sacrifices of Marines, both the veterans still alive and those who died in service to the nation.

As warm as the president’s words of praise may be, they need to be translated into care and concern for those veterans whose lives and livelihoods have been destroyed because they served in wartime.

As vital as this care is for those veterans of Iraq who have suffered terrible wounds that killed in ealier wars, they are not the only ones – and these the only negative consequences – of this war. Among National Guard and Reservists who were self employed, a number saw their businesses destroyed because no one else was available to keep the business afloat in their absence. Worse, among these veterans, some have fallen deeply into debt with no prospect of financial recovery.

One seemingly enduring consequence of war, one that lasts across decades, is the number of veterans who become homeless. In modern times in the U.S., the first major manifestation of homelessness among veterans was the “Bonus March” on Washington in 1932. The veterans were seeking payment of a bonus that Congress passed in 1924 (The Adjusted Service Certificate Law) that was to be paid in 1945. The economic plight of the veterans was but a small aspect of the larger problems associated with the Great Depression.

In fact, however, homelessness among veterans really became a national issue only in the post-Vietnam War era.

Today, every night an estimated 200,000 veterans of U.S. wars are homeless. This number is some 40 percent of the homeless across the U.S. Contrary to public perception, the majority of these 200,000 are not from the Vietnam era – that number is about 70,000 – nor did the majority endure prolonged exposure to combat.

But now, homelessness among the veterans of the second Iraq war is starting to escalate. While the published figure is 600, this is only those who have been identified as veterans by government agencies and thus undoubtedly is only the tip of the iceberg. If the patterns of past wars repeat themselves, the country and the Veterans Administration in particular stand on the cusp of a new explosion of homeless veterans.

Past experiences indicate that recognition of the service of veterans can help in their treatment. But since the problem extends beyond veterans, the administration needs to devise pragmatic and effective programs that address the root causes of all homelessness – lack of a living wage, lack of affordable housing, and lack of comprehensive health care. Headway in these areas will help veterans and, if policies are put in place quickly enough, could mitigate the effects of the current war on the future numbers of homeless veterans.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A Trillion Dollar Military Coming Soon?

The line in Shakespeare’s Richard III runs, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

Beyond the immediate exigency of a monarch unhorsed in battle that the play portrays, a broader interpretation of this passage might be framed as: “What price empire?”

In Richard’s case, his life was the price, and in the end he paid that price. On the broader scale, as the 110th Congress takes up its duties in January, it will have to decide the cost of empire and whether it is worth risking the economic well-being and future fiscal health of the United States by spending in a single year nearly a trillion dollars for offensive and defensive military programs.

How close is the U.S. to this figure? That’s a hard question because even the Pentagon doesn’t know. Its system for tracking expenditures remains so inaccurate that none of the oversight agencies – Government Accountability Office, Congressional Budget Office, and the Congressional Research Service – knows the answer either. In a recent study of how these three agencies track the costs of military operations in the administration’s “global war on terror,” their estimates differed by $9.9 billion and as much as $23.3 billion more than the Pentagon says.

However, the country is nearer than most people – including many in Congress – might think. Going through the different sources and the different congressional committees that have some appropriations power over the military budget, the following numbers emerge.

The Fiscal Year 2007 Defense appropriation bill, signed into law already, has $436.6 billion. To this must be added $11 billion authorized in prior years to cover the costs of retiree health costs. Military construction and “quality of life” issues for the current forces have grown to $59.8 billion. And military nuclear weapons programs that are funded in the Department of Energy budget add $17 billion more.

So far, military related spending for 2007 comes to $524.8.billion.

But the nation is still paying for past wars. The Veterans Administration is slated to receive $76 billion. The interest on the money borrowed to finance past wars is conservatively estimated at $169.4 billion (“conservative” because this is only 42 percent of the national debt and other organizations attribute up to 80 percent of the debt to past wars and preparation for wars).

This brings 2007 spending for military-related activities to $770.2 billion.

Then there are the future wars, the ones President Bush promises will not happen because of the preparations by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Just as the Pentagon’s preparations deter enemies, so too do the preparations of DHS – at $27 billion for 2007.
Still in the future, the word on the streets in Washington is that the anticipated 2007 supplemental funding request the White House will send to Congress in February will not be for $60 billion but for $160 billion, Moreover, the Pentagon has been given authority by the Office on Management and Budget to “borrow” $11 billion from the 2008 budget to by badly needed equipment.

Putting it all together, 2007 costs for past, current, and future wars comes to $968.2 billion – within hailing distance of the one trillion mark.

President Bush could, of course, cut the supplemental back, or Congress could. But the latter is unlikely as the Democrats are still wary of being labeled “soft on defense.” On the other hand, as the comptroller general of the United States has said, the nation cannot recover or hope to sustain its economic health unless it gets spending under control.

And the only place to start is to jettison the global “war” on terror.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Gates in for Rumsfeld

What’s more than a wave but less than a tsunami?

Either a flood or the results of the 2006 congressional elections.

If you are the president, however, it might be the announcement that you have accepted the resignation of your Secretary of Defense and the name of his successor – on the day after your party lost control of the Congress.

Robert Gates, President Bush’s choice to replace Donald Rumsfeld, is no stranger to Washington. After two years in the air force, he joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1966, rising through the ranks to become Executive Staff Director in 1981 and then Deputy Director for Intelligence in 1982. In 1986, President Reagan appointed him Deputy Director of the CIA, where he remained until 1989. He had been nominated in 1987 to be the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) and CIA head, but withdrew from consideration when it became clear the Senate would not confirm him because of his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair and in providing weapons to Saddam Hussein during the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran War. After leaving the CIA in 1989, Gates served in the White House and the National Security Council through the 1991 war that ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush nominated Gates for a second time to be DCI and CIA chief in March 1991 and he was confirmed in November 1991, serving until 1993.

Gates will see some familiar faces when he goes before Congress, for some of those who were present in the Senate in 1991 are still there and still may harbor questions about Gates’ role in the Iran-Contra affair. At the time of Gates’ first nomination to be DCI, the Special Prosecutor did not find sufficient evidence to warrant indicting Gates for either concealing information about the sale of weapons and spare parts to Iran or the funneling of money to the Contras in Nicaragua who were being helped by the CIA in trying to overthrow the Sandinistas.

(It is also ironic that this President Bush announced his choice of Gates to be the next Secretary of Defense on the day after Daniel Ortega, who was president of Nicaragua in the 1980s, won election as Nicaragua’s next president.)

The only question that seems open is whether the current U.S. Senate controlled by the Republicans will try to push through abbreviated hearings and confirm Gates as soon as possible or leave that task for the new Senate. Either way, Gates will undoubtedly be confirmed, as even the Democrats seem eager to have anyone as Secretary of Defense who is not Donald Rumsfeld.

The real test in all this will be whether the change in Defense and the change in Congress will produce any significant change in U.S. strategy in Iraq and in Afghanistan. At the very least, the U.S. public has expressed its dissatisfaction with the administration’s and the Congress’ war choices. What is needed now is planning for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and the assumption by the Iraqis of the burden for devising a political solution that will be fair and workable for all Iraqis.

Mr. Gates has his work cut out for him – as does the new Congress.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Will the Joint Chiefs Dare to Resign?

When the news broke that the lead editorial in the November 4, 2006 Army Times newspaper group – which includes the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force Times, all owned by Gannett – had called for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation, the cable news organizations portrayed the announcement as if it were a blow like no other.

Actually, this was the second time the Times group had called for Rumsfeld’s resignation. But, with the mid-term elections on Tuesday and the obviously deteriorating conditions in Iraq, the supposition was that this latest call was politically motivated.

Robert Hodierne, the managing editor of The Times group, denied that charge. Hodierne says that their decision to come out against Rumsfeld’s continued tenure was prompted by President Bush’s statement that he intended to retain Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary for the next two years.

What is significant about this editorial is that it comes from a news group whose entire focus is on the military. Its reporters cover virtually every military installation and defense industry except those that operate exclusively in the “black” world. It is sold in every military base or post exchange and available in many – and perhaps all – commissaries, the military’s grocery stores. It is read by personnel on active duty and in the National Guard and reserve components. For these reasons, the story made a splash over the weekend.

But the editorial did not, in my view, go far enough. It said that Rumsfeld was responsible for the debacle in Iraq. Without question, he bears much responsibility, but others are responsible as well. As president, George Bush is ultimately responsible for whatever occurs or does not occur during his tenure. Moreover, the generals prosecuting the war are also responsible for the advice they have given to the civilians in the Pentagon and the White House.

For example, the editorial notes that, despite the “best efforts of trainers,” the Iraqis are still not able to operate on their own. But for many months after Bush declared “mission accomplished,” there were no U.S. trainers or a coherent training program. Moreover, some U.S. personnel sent as trainers lacked the extensive background needed to be effective in that role. Their primary occupations in the military were everything but “trainers” – yet that was what they were assigned to do in Iraq.

The editorial points out that troops consistently reported that Iraqi recruits had no sense of national identity, that all they wanted was a paycheck. It says that “colonels and generals…asked their bosses for more troops” and the “service chiefs…asked for more money.”

Well, responsibility for destroying any vestige of organizational structures or symbols around which the Iraqi people could rally lies squarely at the feet of Paul Bremer and the narrow circle of neocons that occupied Rumsfeld’s Pentagon. But if the Times editorial is correct that more troops were requested, then someone in the chain of command – which runs from colonels (brigade and regimental commanders) and two-star generals (division commanders) to the three star commander of U.S. forces in Iraq to General Casey as commander of all coalition forces in Iraq to General Abezaid as head of Central Command to Rumsfeld and then Bush – is not telling the truth.

When that happens in a democracy, the nation should see two things happen immediately.

First, Congress must exercise its constitutional oversight responsibilities – what it has so spectacularly and so often failed to do in the Iraqi misadventure. By not holding probing hearings to find out who is short-circuiting these requests; to consider what, if any, institutional or bureaucratic remedies are possible; and to overcome the inevitable propensity to fight – and lose – the next war because the lessons that should have emerged from this do not see the light of day – Congress becomes completely complicit in the failure of the administration and in the deaths of those it sends to fight.

Second, and quite surprisingly, the Times editorial makes no mention of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their failure to take the one step that could have attenuated if not ended this Iraq misadventure: to publicly denounce the war and then immediately hand in their resignations.

According to Mark Perry, who has written a detailed account of the early years of the Joint Chiefs as an institution, the generals and admirals were always uncomfortable with the prospect of having to back a foreign and defense policy in whose formulation they had little input. The first time this issue surfaced publicly was 1949 during Truman’s presidency. But this so-called “revolt of the admirals” was not clear-cut, for the policy dimension was masked as interservice rivalry between the air force and navy aviation for control of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. (The air force, with a unified position and better public relations, won.)

But on August 25, 1967, policy – this time the assertion to Congress by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that the “current policy and strategy would eventually bring victory” – was indisputably the issue. McNamara was lobbying for continued massive increases in U.S. ground forces in South Vietnam, whereas all of the chiefs had proffered the view that no amount of U.S. forces could win the unwinnable.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Earle Wheeler, proposed to the other chiefs that they resign en masse to protest the “immoral” policy that would doom thousands more U.S. soldiers.Wheeler and the chiefs saw McNamara’s testimony as “a rupture of the unofficial contract between our democracy's civil and military powers, whereby the military pledges to obey the civil authorities without question but in return the civilian leaders implicitly pledge that their policies will not cause needless loss of life.” By next morning, Perry relates, Wheeler had reversed course, determining to try to work from within to change policy rather than – in effect – “mutiny” and leave the forces leaderless.

Ever since, whenever a similar dispute over policy has come up, the argument of “staying in and working to change policy” has prevailed. But between Vietnam and the present Iraq war, U.S. military forces have not been in prolonged combat. This is now the tipping point, for Vice-President Cheney, in an interview last week, said that there would be no change in administration policy in Iraq and the war on terror regardless of who wins the mid-term elections. This, in a democracy?

Whether the Times editorial will be only a symbolic gesture or exert some influence on tomorrow’s ballot remains to be seen. Its effect will be muted by the fact that most military members assigned overseas will have voted already via absentee ballots. The same holds true for those military personnel residing in the U.S. but in a state that is not their official state of residence.

That leaves the civilians, 61 percent of whom disapprove of the war, to make their voices heard, and the five chiefs, if they have the courage.

Time will tell.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Paying the Piper

The money that congressional candidates are spending for television ads for Tuesday’s election is estimated at two million dollars and rapidly heading toward the three million mark. With all that money sloshing around, voters might want to have a few facts about the nation’s finances and projected spending to ask congressional candidates their position on the U.S. economy.

A good place to start is the “big picture” from none other than David Walker, the Comptroller of the United States and the head of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), one of Congress’ investigative organizations. Walker, who has seven years remaining on his fifteen-year appointment, is criss-crossing the nation with a single message: the U.S. economy is barreling down the track without any brakes, wiper blades, or a steering wheel – with a hairpin curve dead ahead.

In a democracy, things get done when a strong plurality – better yet, a majority – become convinced that action is needed. Walker is out to get action on the debt – which means on the deficit either by cutting entitlements, raising taxes, or some combination – by barnstorming the country to give voters the facts and the figures to challenge the new Congress to act.

Currently, the national debt stands at $8.5 Trillion. Walker estimates that another $2 Trillion is being added every year that nothing is done – at a minimum. In four more years, the leading edge of the baby-boomers will hit Medicare age. This program already comprises 13 percent of the budget and by 2030 will be at 25 percent under current entitlements. But even before that, in 2008, the first “early” retirees” (age 62) will start drawing Social Security. And while the Social Security tax still collects more than is paid out in benefits, that program is also heading for a deficit of $8 Trillion.

Add in Medicaid and the ever-increasing amounts needed just to pay interest on the debt, and projections out to mid-century place the national debt around $46 Trillion, an amount that next generations will confront.

Big bucks are also being funneled to the Pentagon – and that’s on top of the big bucks already going there. A prominent Washington military analyst told wire service representatives that the air force is asking for $50 billion in supplemental funds for the current fiscal year (2007). That’s nearly half of the service’s approved budget for 2007 -- $105.9 billion. Never one to be looking behind, the Air Force reportedly is also planning on another $50 billion supplemental for 2008.

The Army has already made public its 2007 supplemental “bottom line” – $80 billion. How much the Marines will request is still being worked out. But in a new twist, the Office o Management and Budget has advanced the Pentagon $11 billion dollars on its Fiscal Year 2008 budget to cover “high priority” special projects. OMB actually allocated the money last month, just after Congress passed the Defense appropriations bill for 2007. The Army is to get $7 billion, the Air Force and Navy/Marines one billion each, with the remaining $2 billion to be allocated by the Deputy Defense Secretary before the end of the calendar year. A quick check – by no means comprehensive – indicates that “advances” have occasionally been made for education, where specific costs could be projected, but defense?

And speaking of the Army’s successful bid for more money, a colleague, Chris Hellman, noted that the Chief of Staff of the Army has again rolled out the old “defense spending as a percent of Gross Domestic Product is at historic lows” argument.

While technically correct, in actual inflation-adjusted dollars, the defense budget (which does not include the money for Iraq and Afghanistan which are “off budget”) 15 percent above the Cold War average – with a force one-third its 1990 size. In real terms, annual defense spending (minus Iraq and Afghanistan) has gone up $120 billion since September 11, 2001 – a rise of 35 percent. The reason the defense budget is a smaller percentage is that in the same time period, GDP has increased by 42 percent.

One thing that is absolutely dumb is to set spending at an arbitrary percentage rather than responding to actual conditions or needs. Under a percentage approach, should GDP decline – which might be the result of run-a-way debt – would the Pentagon argue to decrease its budget to stay at a predetermined percentage?


Thanks, Chris.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Meddling With UN Finances

It wasn’t so long ago that the Bush administration floated the idea that UN assessments for certain operational agencies in the UN Secretariat, for specialized agencies, and even for peacekeeping be made voluntary. Now there is a new, more fundamental change in the works, and it won’t be good news for the UN if the U.S. has its way.

But first, a thumbnail sketch of the assessment question.

Throughout the 1990s, Congress objected to the formula for determining the amount of the assessment for UN operations. The percentage of the UN budget assessed each country was based primarily by Gross National Product (GNP), a number that could be objectively determined by the UN. The U.S. assessment was the highest, at one point somewhere around 33% of the projected budget for peacekeeping operations worldwide and about 30% of the UN’s operational budget. But the U.S. fell so far behind in paying its assessments that it teetered on the brink of losing its vote in the General Assembly.

After years of arrearages, Senator Jesse Helms (SC) and Senator Joseph Biden (DE) struck a deal in 1998 under which, in return for “reforms” of the UN, Congress would enact legislation to eliminate the peacekeeping arrearages. As part of the deal, the U.S. unilaterally lowered its percentage of the regular assessments to 22%, leaving the UN General Assembly holding the bag for the rest.

After the regime in Baghdad was ousted, the U.S. wanted the UN to help with the reconstruction of Iraq – but only where the U.S. would allow the UN to operate. The UN’s chief representative, Serjio de Milo, refused to be hamstrung. The dispute was interrupted by a suicide car bomb that detonated just outside the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003, killing 21 international and local employees, including de Milo. UN personnel were pulled back to Jordan.

Back in the U.S., financing became a crisis again when, in 2005, Representative Henry Hyde (IL) introduced another set of UN “reform” measures. Among other provisions, the legislation directed U.S. representatives to “oppose the creation of new, or expansion of existing, United Nations peacekeeping operations” until reforms in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and in the General Assembly were adopted.

The whole tenor of the legislation was anti-peacekeeping. The original draft of the Hyde bill, H.R. 2745, included a unilateral U.S. declaration that it would pay for no more than 25 percent of the amount assessed for each operation. Moreover, Hyde called for “right-sizing” and “cost effective” missions, conditions that fly in the face of the unpredictability inherent in such operations. In particular, Hyde’s implicit call to terminate long-standing, “static” operations that “cannot fulfill their mandate” would require impossible foresight.

Now, the U.S. is proposing to abandon the GNP basis for determining assessments for a scheme based on “purchasing power parity” or PPP. This is a scheme that looks at how much of a nation’s currency is needed to buy a “shopping cart of goods” and then comparing that to how much it costs other countries. U.S. supermarkets employ this technique, the object of which is to compare costs with rivals and thus “demonstrate" one’s higher standard of living because the extra money saved can be spent elsewhere.

If adopted, economists project that U.S. assessments would decline only half a percent. What the change could do, if adopted, is so increase assessments of rapidly developing countries that these countries could not pay, thereby wreaking more havoc on UN finances than is now the case. A country would, in sheer self-defense, manipulate the content of its “basket” to minimize increases in the basket’s total value when compared to the “basket” of another country. All this assumes that data on costs of the “basket” are kept and are current, which is highly questionable. Moreover, a base currency for comparisons is needed. This probably would be the dollar, so the value of the basket when converted from a local currency to the base currency for comparison would be skewed by the relative strengths of each currency vis-à-vis the dollar.

The bottom line? The U.S. is in no position to try further meddling in the UN operations on which Washington depends so heavily. What the Bush administration ought to do is pay arrears and request enough money to pay peacekeeping costs for current and projected missions. After all, compared to what the U.S. is paying for Iraq and Afghanistan, UN peacekeeping is one of the best bargains around.