Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Black Gold or Blackmail

Venezuela’s parliament, as expected, voted today to bestow virtual dictatorial power on President Hugo Chavez. In what has been termed a unanimous vote for Venezuelan socialism, that country’s parliament gave Chavez the right to rule by decree for the next 18 months. He has promised – and there is no reason to believe that he will not implement his promises – to nationalize key sectors of the economy: telecommunications and oil in particular.

Chavez is the Bush administration’s favorite “head-of-state-to-hate” in Latin America. He replaces Fidel Castro in this role for two reasons. One, all the “experts” on Cuba’s Fidel Castro – with the notable exception of his Spanish doctor – have effectively consigned the Cuban president him to the status of “dead man walking,” Second, Castro’s Cuba doesn’t have anything the U.S. really needs whereas Venezuela is a major oil producer and supplies 15% of U.S. imports.

Meanwhile, in the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia has warned that it will not stand idly by and watch Iraq’s Sunni population be killed by Shi’a militias and militants. Then the Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, hosted an inter-sectarian conference in Mecca attended by Iranian Shi’a clerics as well as Saudi Sunnis, after which the king appealed for all parties in Iraq and Lebanon to be calm. He was quickly echoed by Iraq, Egypt and Qatar.

This raised a question about just who is “with us” or “against us?” So I took a look at the core issue – our dependency on oil. What I found about the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is the identity of the original five founders: Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Venezuela. Think about it: at one time Iran was a close ally, then it became an enemy. The U.S. supported Iraq in its war against Iran, then fought two wars with Baghdad, and now counts the government as an ally. Saudi Arabia has a checkered record of cooperating with the U.S. Venezuela has also been on both sides of the fence. That leaves Kuwait, which was the casus belli for the first Gulf War in 1990-91.

This history seems to validate Lord Palmerston’s observation that countries don’t have permanent friends or allies – only permanent interests. And some will do anything to defend those interests.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Language Ties

Language has been one of the more obvious ways to group countries in the world, especially if a “first” or primary” national language is identifiable.

Unique in this schema – and granting a very wide latitude in the definition of “English” – are the five major countries in which English is the national first-language: Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. (This listing also ignores the fact that each of these countries, including Britain, had non-English-speaking indigenous inhabitants and today has some residents who have not learned English even as a second language.)

This common linguistic bond reinforced political ties between Britain and three of the four other countries. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Canada stayed with Britain, refusing to support the upstart colonists to the south in what became the United States. Language helped cement ties between Australia and New Zealand with Britain in the 19th century in the Crimean War. It tied these three to Britain in the two world wars long enough for the U.S. to finally enter the wars and turn the tide on the western front of World War I and in Europe and Asia in World War II.

The same array of English-speaking countries became involved in new wars in the new millennium almost as soon as the calendar ushered in the 21st century. First came Afghanistan in October 2001, followed by Iraq in March 2003. This time the United States was in the lead from the beginning. Considering the world’s initial response to the events of September 11, 2001, it is not surprising that, as of January 2007, among the now 37 countries with troops in Afghanistan, Britain has the second largest contingent (surpassed only by the U.S.) at 5,200 (down 800 from November 2006), Canada is fourth (behind Germany) at 2,200 (up 200 from November), Australia has 500 (up 300 from November) and New Zealand 100 (unchanged). Britain and Canada have each lost more than 40 soldiers.

In contrast in Iraq, as President Bush decides to “surge” 21,500 more U.S. troops into Baghdad and Anbar province, other English speaking countries that sent troops in 2003 as part of the invasion force were either gone – New Zealand – or had removed significant numbers of troops – Australia down 541 or 39% and Britain down 1,300 or 15%. Canada never joined. Moreover, Britain is indicating that it may withdraw a further substantial number of soldiers sometime in 2007.

Reports from London confirm that the British people want their troops out of Iraq. The British Army Chief wants to draw down his troops in Iraq because the army is stressed. (Sound familiar?) Now more and more politicians want Tony Blair to “tie up the loose ends” on Iraq before he relinquishes the prime minister’s chair to Gordon Brown. That change is anticipated this summer.

President Bush could do worse than starting to tie up his own loose ends. Given that the U.S. presence in Iraq is twenty times larger than the UK’s, Bush needs to start now if he is to make a dent in the number of soldiers in Iraq who speak American English instead of the dominant languages spoken by the Iraqi people.

After all, it’s more important to do what is right than to simply talk about it – in any language.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Democracy Still Can Work

One of the traps into which successive administrations consistently fall is to regard elections as a sign that a country has become – or at least is well down the road toward becoming – a democracy. Many of the countries that emerged from the disintegration of the former USSR, the former Yugoslavia, and many countries in Africa that have succumbed to civil war have struggled not only to have elections once but to repeat the process two or three times without a breakdown in civil society or the rule of law.

Faith in the integrity of our own country’s electoral processes has been severely tested in the last two elections. This was especially true in the 2006 election when it became known that many voting machines would have no audit trail in case a recount were necessary. Moreover, some of the machines were susceptible to tampering from remote locations by hackers intent on changing the vote counts.

Today, however, the U.S. demonstrated – and will do so again tomorrow – that the people have other means of expressing their judgment on major policy issues.

Since the president’s State of the Union speech January 23 in which he officially announced that 21,500 additional men and women soldiers would go to Iraq, Congress has been inundated with protests from citizens who strongly oppose the “surge” plan. Congress has responded with a number of resolutions. Some address only the surge. Some also object to an announced increase in the size of the armed forces of 92,000 over the next five years. Still others call for a less belligerent attitude toward Iran.

Among the latest is House Concurrent Resolution 45 introduced by Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA). His proposal stands out from others in that he takes up the president’s challenge to those who see the surge as the wrong choice for U.S. policy in Iraq. The operative parts of H. Con. Res. 45 are

- “reposition U.S. troops…[to] meet the objective of training and equipping the Iraqi military, containing terrorism through special operations and rapid reaction forces, and ensuring the transfer of responsibility from United States to Iraqi control;

- “establish a framework…that includes…milestones and objectives within a reasonable time frame;

-“launch a new diplomatic initiative to unite the region and build international consensus for stability and reconstruction in Iraq; and

- “any policies enacted by the Administration with regard to Iraq are implemented in direct and continued consultation with Congress and relevant House and Senate committees.”

Some may not like this as being too restrictive while others might see it at too permissive. Either way, it’s a serious proposal and one that meets the president’s challenge head-on.

And the other expression of democracy? That’s tomorrows protest rally on the Mall followed on Monday with visits to the Washington offices of members of Congress to reinforce the message: stop the surge, stop the killing; support the troops (bring them home); support rebuilding (by and for Iraqis).

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Manifest Destiny or a Security Manifest

On January 23rd, George Bush delivered his sixth State of the Union address to the Congress and the U.S. public. As forecast, Bush put domestic issues first rather than, as in earlier years, foreign policy. Considering the shambles that now pass for U.S. foreign policy, this change, however politic here at home, cannot be sustained abroad. The world, once on our doorstep, is now in every room of the house. Globalization is too entrenched to be halted, let alone reversed, by any administration or nation. That leaves “adjustment,” an act seemingly unknown and certainly little practiced by this president.

For instance, on January 10th Bush attempted (and failed) to persuade a significant number of congressional Republicans and the public that his “new strategy” for “victory” in Iraq is both new and a strategy. Some analysts believe Bush painted himself into a corner, that he has so narrowed his options that, short of retreating or bombing Iraq back to the Stone Age, whatever ability he might have had to direct events is gone – or in Rumsfeld-speak, “things happen.”

A hundred-plus years ago, presidents “made” things happen globally. Manifest Destiny had gone global despite congressional objection. Teddy Roosevelt sent the U.S. fleet around the world knowing the Navy didn’t have money to pay fuel costs of the voyage. Roosevelt calculated – correctly – that Congress would not dare refuse “to support the troops.”

Globalization for George Bush is less about destiny than security – in his view, war overseas precludes war at home; inspect cargos overseas so mass destruction happens there, not here; put troops on the borders and bugs on telephones. Yes, “things happen,” but the U.S. war in Iraq need not have happened – either to Iraqis, to Americans, and to any who died because of this war.

Consider the spike in U.S. fatalities the weekend before the State of the Union: twenty-seven dead, including five killed by gunmen dressed in U.S. military uniforms driving U.S.-style vehicles and acting just like a U.S. military convoy that expects Iraqis to clear out of the way. This follows a ten-hour sustained shootout between suspected Sunni insurgents and U.S. and Iraqi security forces just a few blocks outside the Green Zone. These events speak to increasingly sophisticated analysis by insurgents of U.S. practices and battle tactics that go well beyond determining where to bury improvised explosive devices along roads or leave bombs in outdoor markets or near universities.

Bush is not the only hostage to fortune. The new military “team” named to run the war in Iraq will be under pressure to translate revised and revitalized warfighting theory into on-the-ground “success.” But much will depend on whether Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki commits additional Iraqi security troops and these troops act evenhandedly. If not, Iraqi society may disintegrate so far that it will be unable to hold together, trapping U.S. forces until a new administration comes to power – or Congress acts to force withdrawal.

Al-Maliki has said by November his troops would take the lead on all military operations in Iraq. The White House undoubtedly would welcome such a “benchmark” as vindication of its new strategy. The catch is the Iraqi demand that the Pentagon expeditiously transfer heavy armaments – tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery, combat aircraft – to the Iraqi army, equipment that U.S. troops in or going to Iraq also need.

Maybe that’s the key: in the context of the Baker-Hamilton proposed regional process, give Iraqis the equipment and fly the troops out. Iraqis want this. The American public wants this. Other Gulf allies want this – as long as U.S. forces are “over the horizon.”

As part of its war agenda, the administration has claimed the president exercises inherent, expansive executive power under the Constitution’s “commander-in-chief” clause that neither the Congress nor the courts can gainsay. After six years of constant warfare with no end in sight, the public understands that unaccountable government is manifestly unresponsive, undemocratic, and a threat to the security of our freedoms.

It’s time for Bush to adjust to the country, not the other way around.

Monday, January 22, 2007

From Green to Amber

Tonight I imagine President Bush is working on his State of the Union speech.

If so, I hope he can find a moment to reconsider his opposition to timelines or benchmarks or whatever the latest “non-cut-off or non-end point word is acceptable within the White House.

The reason for mentioning this is the high fatality rate in Iraq the last three days Over the weekend, 27 U.S. service personnel died while today nearly 90 Iraqis perished

With nine more days remaining in January so far at least 1,131 Iraqi civilians and security personnel have died. A week ago, the UN reported that in 2006, 34,452 Iraqis had been killed in the insurgent and sectarian struggles, with December’s numbers still to be finalized. These 1,131 already are 350+ more than reported for all of January 2006 and at this pace, January 2007 will see nearly 1,600 dead.

U.S. fatalities now stand at 3,057. Since December 31, 2006, when the 3,000 and 3,001 deaths were recorded, another 56 have died. For all of January 2006, the U.S. lost 62. At the current rate, this month will see at least 79 killed. The interval between the 2,500 and the 3,000 fatality was 6 ½ months, and already more than 10 percent have died, a chilling statistic in light of the increased exposure to danger that U.S. forces can expect in the coming months..

But even more worrisome is the tactic used in Karbala where insurgents dressed in U.S. military uniforms and driving U.S. vehicles and “acting” like U.S. troops penetrated three Iraqi police checkpoints and opened fire on U.S. troops providing security for a U.S.-Iraqi meeting on next steps against the insurgents. Five soldiers died. The attackers escaped.

This incident reveals a lapse in operational security – the insurgents had to know when and where the meeting would take place – and the obviously careful study by the insurgents of U.S. habits and attitudes that they were able to mimic so convincingly.

Such adaptability also suggests that those in charge of operations may want to reconsider their “color code” choice to remind everyone, from president to private, that in Iraq there is no “safe zone.” At best, it is “Forever Amber.”

Friday, January 19, 2007

Spy vesus Spy

As you will see after the next paragraph, government paranoia is at work again.

The Pentagon’s Defense Security Service (DSS), formerly the Defense Investigative Service, is responsible for conducting investigations into the background of individuals applying for a security clearance as part of the employment process for the Defense Department. It also does investigations to update information on employees that have clearances and, under its National Industrial Security Program, advises and assists defense contrators at some 11,000 contractor facilities that work on classified research or production contracts. They are, in other words, part of the Pentagon’s counter-intelligence corps that helps safeguard the nation’s secrets by checking on what employees do and who they do it with. Naturally, they are alert to every possible way that a foreign intelligence service would try in the never-ending game of spy versus spy.

Last June, DSS disclosed that it had uncovered what had to be the latest twist in spying on the U.S. Somebody – no fingers were actually pointed – was embedding nanotechnology, in the form of miniscule radio transmitters, in Canadian coins. They would then get unsuspecting defense contractors who travelled across the border to accept the coins – easily done by giving them change that included doctored coins. (For those who don’t know, the Canadians have the same coin denominations in general circulation as in the U.S. plus a two dollar coin.) In fact, DSS claimed they had actually found these coins being carried by three contractors who possessed security clearances.

Counter-intelligenc and radio spectrum experts outside DSS were baffled by the discovery. Obviously, the intent was to track where the contractors went, presumeably a first step in trying to target who had access to particular sites of interest to a foreign government.

Then last week, DSS suddenly disavowed its June report. No explanation was offered beyond that the report was “unsubstantiated.” One suspects that DSS may have revealed too much of its own capabilities to intercept and track radio transmissions and now, by denying its earlier report, hoped to cover its own security lapse.

“Sly as a fox,” you say?

Not really. More like “loopy as a loon.”

If such transmitters existed, they would have extremely short range and would be blocked by many materials used to construct “safe rooms” for classified meetings and discussions. A person outside would not be able to detect where, in a large facility, an individual had access. Moreover, the metal in the coins would play havoc with the radio signal.

But the most significant obstacle to the success of the alleged scheme was the most obvious: the target spends the coin. That automatically separates the target from the transmitter.

Oh yes. The Canadian dollar is known as the loon – most appropriate for such a loony scheme.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Iraq: Broken or Just Cracked?

Putting Iraq “Back Together Again”

“Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall…And all the king’s men
Couldn’t Put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.”

Yes, Jim Lehrer started the simile, but George Bush stayed with it, thereby trivializing the discussion about the president’s plan to send another 21,500 U.S. troops – 4,000 Marines and five Army combat brigades – to Iraq in the next four months. (In fact, the initial units are already moving.)

Bush has been promoting his “new strategy” since he spoke to the nation January 10, but so far to little effect. So when Lehrer noted a growing perception in the Middle East and elsewhere that the U.S. is getting ready to shift responsibility to Iraqis for the continuing violence in Iraq, Bush was quick to deny that the U.S. was even contemplating dumping the problem on Iraq – at least not before November 2007.

Despite the president’s protestations, the “new strategy” is a not-too-subtle attempt to impose a Washington solution on a U.S.-induced, Baghdad-located problem. Bush desperately wants to turn the page and forget the past – hence his willingness to assume responsibility for past mistakes, errors that he says will not be repeated. Should Prime Minister al-Maliki fail to come through on any part of the new strategy that the White House assigned Iraqis (more troops, more money for reconstruction), al-Maliki becomes the “fall guy” for what the U.S. destroyed but cannot now repair – or in the imagery of the nursery rhyme, broke but “couldn’t put back together again.”

What came to mind as Lehrer and Bush parried over whether Iraq was broken (Lehrer) or only “cracked” (Bush) were illustrations of the Humpty-Dumpty (H-D) rhyme that invariably depict H-D as an egg. When H-D “falls,” obviously he (it) always cracks – and usually breaks.

In the president’s own words, “if I didn't believe we could keep the egg from fully cracking, I wouldn't ask 21,000 kids – additional kids to go into Iraq to reinforce those troops that are there.”

Now one real world lesson every grocery shopper learns early is to inspect eggs before buying them to avoid getting a cracked (or broken) one. Sometimes, however, one may sneak through the inspection process. That’s far different, however, than deliberately breaking eggs before buying them because you don’t like the clerk or the store owner. Translating this scenario into the language of the rhyme, H-D represents a fragile society whose social contract has been broken by tyranny (or rebellion against tyranny) or by external invasion. Invariably, whatever emerges as the new compact and whenever it emerges, it will not replicate what has just been broken.

Moreover, seeking counsel from “all the king’s men” does not guarantee that what evolves from the chaos of the old system will be any better. In fact, if the “king’s men” are mired in the past, as so many in the current administration are, what they recommend may turn out to be worse than the old order. This is the caution – or one of the cautions – in Robert Penn Warren’s novel, All the King’s Men. Jack Burden, one of the novel’s protagonists, learns that every decision yields the unforeseeable and the unintended, either of which can painfully overwhelm the intended consequences of an action. Jack Burden and George Bush have in common the inability to recognize and accept this reality, for each envisions himself as somehow being separate from and “above” the interconnections that introduce randomness into human calculations.
That Bush has not quite leveled with the U.S. public could further complicate matters. In his January 10 speech, he spoke at length about the “Iraqi plan,” but the deafening silence from Baghdad suggests the plan’s origin was in the White House. Even congressional Republicans were excluded.

There is also a question about just how many of the 21,500 “surge” will be directly working in support of the Iraqi forces, both those already in place as well as the three new units from the north. Unlike former great empires – the Assyrian, Roman, Spanish, and more recently the Nazi and Soviet –the U.S. is extremely careful to have “force protection” units whose mission is to “watch the backs” of engaged U.S. combat formations as they conduct operations. This phenomenon reflects both the U.S. penchant for minimizing casualties and a rejection of the “classic” solution – an occasional massacre of an entire village or tribe – to the challenge of maintaining control over a large, restive population with a minimum number of troops.

Moreover, Bush plans to increase the number of “embedded troops working with and training Iraqi soldiers, but what is again unclear is just how many will have the primary duty of “force protection” as opposed to training. Obviously, the White House will avoid any distinctions as this would suggest that at least some Iraqi soldiers, police, and even politicians are less motivated by nationalism than by sectarianism.

A consequence of so much emphasis on force protection is to inhibit an understanding of a people, their culture, their needs, and their expectations, thereby often prolonging the perceived need for to subdue resistance to the “new order.” In the long run, the prospects for creating (or mending) a broken social compact that recognizes human rights and the rule of law can be hindered significantly.

There is an old saying that one has to break eggs to make an omelet. But somewhere I read recently a variation of this that was attributed to the now infamous Pentagon Office of Special Plans that many believe cooked the intelligence that led to the March 19 invasion of Iraq. Ironically, this version highlights the utter folly of “preventive war” that has driven this administration and cost the lives of scores of people of many nationalities:

“If you break some eggs, you better make an omelet.”

Monday, January 15, 2007

Exercising the War Powers Act

On January 12, President Bush spoke with CBS 60 Minutes’ correspondent Scott Pelley on the subject of Iraq. Two days earlier, Bush had addressed the U.S. and world publics, confirming what had been widely touted and widely leaked as a “new strategy for victory.”

Pelley began the interview by noting that he and the president were in the same room where the “war on terror” began – the room in which plans for the attack on Afghanistan and al-Qaeda were first discussed. Bush’s response began with what he called a “correction”: the war on terror began on the streets of New York when an enemy attacked us.”

Bush was half-right, and so was Pelley. Insofar as U.S. Central Command had no current contingency operational plan, the Camp David meeting of the “war cabinet” was the initial response to the September 11th, 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon. Bush’s statement is correct to the extent that before September 11th, the U.S. considered and generally responded to acts of terror as a law enforcement challenge. Bush was the one who made it a “war” through presidential
rhetoric, which, concurrently, bestowed undue status on al-Qaeda.

In concert with three rubber-stamp congresses, Bush has managed to morph the underlying assumption of the social contract between the public and those chosen to govern in accord with the provisions of the U.S. Constitution. The “steady state” of society that the Founders anticipated was one of non-belligerency, whether intra- or inter- national. For Bush, the “steady state” is war, and this in turn activates his constitutional status as commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States. There is no equivalent in peacetime, no commander-in-chief of the nation.

The nation has endured “Bush at war” for 64 months, and after his speech last week we seem destined to remain at war for another 12 to 18 months, at least. This extension should not go unchallenged by the Congress. The vehicle for raising the issue is the 1973 War Powers Act, passed over the veto of Richard Nixon but never put to the test in the Supreme Court.

The Act re-affirms that : “The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.

But the Act then clearly re-affirms that the three branches of government do not collapse into one simply because the U.S. is attacked or war is declared:

“The President in every possible instance shall consult with Congress before introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities or into situation where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, and after every such introduction shall consult regularly with the Congress until United States Armed Forces are no longer engaged in hostilities or have been removed from such situations.”

The President shall provide such other information as the Congress may request in the fulfillment of its constitutional responsibilities with respect to committing the Nation to war and to the use of United States Armed Forces abroad.

The Act then describes reporting frequency: “the President shall, so long as such armed forces continue to be engaged in such hostilities or situation, report to the Congress periodically on the status of such hostilities or situation as well as on the scope and duration of such hostilities or situation, but in no event shall he report to the Congress less often than once every six months.

Congress has deadlines to meet.

“Within sixty calendar days after a report is submitted or is required to be submitted…whichever is earlier, the President shall terminate any use of United States Armed Forces with respect to which such report was submitted (or required to be submitted), unless the Congress (1) has declared war or has enacted a specific authorization for such use of United States Armed Forces, (2) has extended by law such sixty-day period, or (3) is physically unable to meet as a result of an armed attack upon the United States. Such sixty-day period shall be extended for not more than an additional thirty days if the President determines and certifies to the Congress in writing that unavoidable military necessity respecting the safety of United States Armed Forces requires the continued use of such armed forces in the course of bringing about a prompt removal of such forces.

Then there is the clincher – and the reason why neither party has challenged the Act when holding the presidency: “Notwithstanding [the above], at any time that United States Armed Forces are engaged in hostilities outside the territory of the United States, its possessions and territories without a declaration of war or specific statutory authorization, such forces shall be removed by the President if the Congress so directs by concurrent resolution.”

The Democrats in Congress talk about introducing a resolution opposing the dispatch of another 21,500 U.S. troops to Iraq. How they phrase it will be the first test of their resolve, their bi-partisanship, and their commitment to heeding the voice of the people.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Iran -- The Next War?

For many in the current administration, the fact that clerics in 1979 overturned a ruler installed 23 years earlier by the CIA, seized the U.S. embassy, and held embassy personnel for 444 days marks the start of what is now a 28-year Cold War. Considering that the U.S. aided Iraq in its eight-year (1980- 1988) war against Iran, Tehran’s reciprocal hostility is understandable – as is their drive to establish the ability to enrich uranium to weapons grade levels should they decide to “go nuclear.”

In April and May 2006, the administration tried to escalate and consolidate world opposition to Iran. Eventually, a watered-down UN Security Council resolution was passed imposing sanctions should Iran not cease uranium enrichment and cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Now Washington is abuzz over what many see as the opening moves by George Bush to turn up the military heat on Iran (and also Syria). Speculation started with Bush’s speech on January 10 when he said:

“Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity and stabilizing the region in the face of extremist challenges. This begins with addressing Iran and Syria…allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces…And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.”

There have been numerous reports of Special Forces entering Iran through Afghanistan to gather information on Iran’s nuclear facilities. And undoubtedly the CIA is trying to work that and other problems. But Iran is, by all accounts, pretty much a black hole when it comes to good intelligence – perhaps surpassed only by North Korea.

Short of information on Iraq before 2003, the Bush administration adopted various exile groups, paid tens of thousands of dollars, and ended up with worthless information.

Bush said January 10 that mistakes had been made in Iraq after the invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein. He might do well to look at the record of the mistakes made in 2001 and 2002 – and not make the same mistakes with Iran.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Before the Speech

It is about 30 minutes before President Bush speaks. A few preliminary thoughts from the opening statements at a Senate Foreign relations committee hearing.

Not only has Iraq undergone a radical change in its leadership, it has undergone a radical shift – again – in the form of its government. And the men and women who are at the helm in Iraq are those who spent years in opposition to the former regime, many outside the country.

The occupying foreign soldiers and civilians destroyed the only two national groups that, other then the brutal dictator and his henchmen, could unify the country: the bureaucracy and the army, leaving Iraq a failed or at least a failing state.

Three possible outcomes loom: break-up resulting from continued militia activity; break-down into smaller political units that will cause increased instability regionwide; a gradual halt to breakdown – from two to ten or more years.

After all, developing good public policy without a sound strategy is very difficult. Just consider how much harder it is to create good public policy with bad strategy – or no strategy.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Risk and the War Racket

Companies who made huge sums of money from war by supplying guns and ammunition, often at premium prices, are called “war profiteers.” Few if any of the owners of these firms were even remotely endangered by the products they sold. Such possibilities were the lot of the conscripts that made up the field armies and the mercenaries who sold their talents for killing to the highest bidder.

While the war profiteers and the mercenaries are still to be found, conscripts in most armies in the developed world have been replaced by the “volunteer,” one whose motives for joining the military and risking death can be highly personal and unfathomable even to friends and family. Indeed, even repeated depth psychology sessions might never really reveal why individuals deliberately place themselves in potentially lethal environments when there is at hand a realistic, honorable, and as compelling an alternative not to risk death.

Such musings were prompted by an opinion piece by Werther, the nom de plume of a friend of a friend, published on January 8. Werther started with a famous 1935 quotation by that improbably named U.S. military officer, General Smedley Butler: “War is a racket…in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”

The day before, one story making the rounds of the media talked about an effort to build a new “hybrid” tactical nuclear weapon that would act as a “deep penetrating” bunker-busting munition capable of destroying tunnels and hardened bunkers and other targets buried under tens of feet of earth, stone, and concrete. One primary driver of the hybrid “solution” to the redesign may be, as press reports described developments, that technical experts at the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories were unable to agree that one design was unequivocally superior.

One suspects, however, that another factor – and very likely the real reason – for going with a “hybrid” was to spread the contracts for research, design, development and manufacture of the new design as widely as possible. This is a well-known tactic by military manufacturers that pre-dates the Mexican-American War and the gradual decline of the old government arsenal system. The objective was to insulate new weapons programs from the budget ax by getting defense contracts – and therefore jobs and payrolls – into an overwhelming number of states and districts.

Jobs and payrolls translated into votes at election time, and besides, so the logic would go, somebody had to produce what was needed for “national defense.” Of course, the other “shoe” in this arrangement was the ubiquitous presence of industry lobbyists hawking whose mission in life was to ensure that the people’s representatives did not give any industry competitor an undue advantage. (Today theses are commonly referred to as “earmarks,” but it is also possible to draw up the parameters of an item, its performance standards, or other technical or timeline considerations in such a way that, even when put to competitive bidding, only one company – the lobbyist’s – can meet all the requirements.

As distasteful and potentially corrupting as this system is for equipment – not to mention lethal when, given the long acquisition lead time required to go from concept to full operational fielding, the Pentagon fails to anticipate correctly the nature of the future battlefield – it is morally repugnant when it trickles into the “personnel acquisition” system. Since the advent of the all-volunteer force in 1973, military recruiting and retention has slowly but steadily evolved into a lethal crap shoot or a three dimensional chess game where the wrong move (enlisting or reenlisting) at the wrong time (big bonuses, lowering standards to expand the force) is the last one – except for the trip home in a coffin.

What is most troubling about this “arrangement” is that all the risk falls on the individuals. Those who are ultimately responsible for the system – who ask for and who vote for the tax breaks in-theater – most often run no risk themselves, nor do many have sons and daughters or grandchildren who are at risk. Is there a need to expand the force size because the civilian leadership miscalculated how the latest “splendid little war” would play out? The answer is to throw more monetary inducements at young people to fight wars than to fight the root causes of war.

The increases in the number of recruiters and the ever-larger budgets for military recruiting are not drawing in enough new recruits to fill all the components that make up the U.S. military.

The four active duty components all met their recruiting goals in fiscal year 2006, but only the Marine Corps Reserve and the Air Force Reserve achieved their goals for the year. The Army National Guard, Army Reserve, Air National Guard, and the Navy Reserve all missed, the latter falling way short at only 87 percent. For the first two months of fiscal year 2007, recruits for the Army Reserve numbered 79 percent of the goal and for the Navy Reserve only 91 percent.

For fiscal 2006, the Pentagon spent more than $4 billion on recruiting, including $1.8 billion on advertising, maintenance of recruiting stations, but not the pay and allowances of 22,000 military recruiters. (In terms of the “new” U.S. Army combat brigades in Iraq, those 22,000 recruiters would fill more than 6 brigades of 3,500 troops.) The enlistment bonuses for just the active duty army recruits – of which there were 80,835 in 2006 – cost the Pentagon $166 million.

Nor did the Army achieve its own qualitative standards in 2006. It wants 60 per cent of new recruits to score at least in the 50th percentile of the Armed Forces Qualification Test and to have a regular high school diploma. In 2004, 61 percent met these criteria for “high quality”; in 2006, only 47 percent made the grade. In fact, in just two years, the percentage of recruits accepted without both of these quality indicators rose from 13 to 26 percent.

The crucial question, one that is really hard to answer, is how well do these recruits really understand what they are risking. They are not dumb; but risk assessment is itself a risk, often colored by youth’s instinctive sense that they are invincible.

A civilian employee at the Pentagon remarked recently that there are a large number of luxury, sport, and sport-utility vehicles being driven around military posts these days by junior enlisted men and women. Obviously, this is where some of the bonus and tax-free money is being spent. One wonders whether the new owners will be able to still make the payments in another 12 months – or whether they will be back in Iraq or Afghanistan before the final payment comes due.

So far, just from Iraq, more than 3,000 will never know. How many more will there have to be as a result of this Wednesday’s “new strategy”?

Friday, January 05, 2007

There is no magic for Iraq

In his popular weekly radio and subsequent television quiz show, “You Bet Your Life,” Groucho Marx featured the “magic word.” If a contestant happened to utter it during the course of the show, he or she would instantly receive $25 or $50 or some other, inflation adjusted amount.

Next week, President Bush will do something similar when he addresses the U.S. public and the world on his plan for “victory” – his magic word – in Iraq. He will also officially trot out another magic word, one to replace the not-so-magic phrase of “stay the course.”

Groucho was a “straight-shooting” comedian who never leaked the magic word to a contestant. In contrast, Bush’s new magic word has been so widely leaked that it’s hard to imagine there is anyone in the country who hasn’t heard it. And there’s another difference: Groucho told contestants the amount of dollars they could win, but Bush will not be able to tell the public what it will cost in lives and national treasure to implement his new strategy. .

That strategy is wrapped up in Bush’s magic word: “surge.” Or maybe, given that the 3rd Infantry Division troops deploying to Iraq later this month are, for the first time, taking their long range heavy artillery, it’s SURGE.

Either way, the dictionary defines “surge” as a sudden, abrupt, strong increase; a sudden forceful flow; or to rise and move forward or upward. Water surges (billows); mobs surge (move forward suddenly); emotions surge (well-up unexpectedly). Although it can be a noun (tidal surges), most often surge denotes a process, a flow of energy that crests and then falls off, eventually returning to a “steady state.”

Bush is expected to call for a “sharp” increase – 30,000 to 40,000 troops – in the current 142,000-strong U.S. military presence in Iraq, with half to three-fourths of the increase going to Baghdad to “stabilize” security in the Iraqi capital.

The source of the troops for this “surge” remains unclear. Many suspect that Bush will do with regard to people what his administration has been doing with money already appropriated for Iraq: Whatever the policies, the laws, even the Constitution say, the White House will try an end run to get what it wants. The fighting has been paid for largely through “supplemental” spending bills in which everything is declared to be an “emergency” – thus requiring a rapid (surge) response that precludes careful scrutiny and judicious “unsurged” evaluation. For his expected announcement, Bush may simply declare an “emergency” exists with regard to Iraq, one that requires the Pentagon to temporarily suspend its guidelines on the length of tours of duty in Iraq (currently seven months for Marines and 12 months for army soldiers), reduce the interval between tours for both active and reserve components, and remove the cap on cumulative months in combat for reserve components, impose “stop-loss” actions that involuntarily keep men and women in uniform, or some combination of the above.

Also unclear is the time span for this “people surge.” Commentators talk of 12 to 18 or even 24 months. Even the briefest of these periods can hardly be regarded as sudden or unexpected or of short duration and thus would not fit the definition of surge. The current dismal state of affairs has been apparent on the horizon for some time; it is no surprise. Bush will undoubtedly try to make the case that more troops, more treasure, just a little more time thrown into Iraq now will prove the proverbial “turning point.” He will call for “one final surge” that will enable the U.S. to claim “victory” – the ultimate magic word – and turn over to the Iraqi people a country able to defend itself, govern itself, and care for its people.

Undue delay – that is, substantive congressional consideration – will be labeled obstructionist, defeatist, or even as giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

Well, in this case, Congress needs to act as a surge suppressor and to carefully look at what Bush asks for and what, as “commander-in-chief,” he threatens to decree. While it is true that the U.S. cannot have 535 commanders-in-chief, it is equally true that Congress has an obligation to the U.S. public and to those wearing military uniforms to restrain the executive branch from costly misadventures – especially war, and most especially wars of executive choice like Iraq.

If Bush wants to surge in Iraq, he would do better to work out how to surge electricity production and distribution to cities, villages, and homes. He needs to work out how to surge job opportunities for Iraqis rather than for U.S. or other foreign contractors.

In short, the message that the U.S. public wants – equivalent to Groucho’s magic phrase – and that Bush ought to deliver next week would declare: “More (electric) Power to the People.” For clearly, “More Firepower” isn’t the answer.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Decider's Choice

I received an email today from a retired admiral, a colleague whom I met and worked with after I retired from the army. The text of the item was the Introduction to a book, “Cheers and Tears,” written by Lieutenant General (Ret.) Charles Cooper, USMC, a Vietnam veteran who, in the months just before the start of the build-up of U.S. forces in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, worked in the Pentagon for the Chief of Naval Operations.

The introduction, titled “The Day it Became the Longest War,” details a White House meeting between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and President Johnson in which the Chiefs attempted to provide their advice directly to the commander-in-chief regarding U.S. involvement in another war in Asia a mere 12 years after the Korean armistice.

Cooper knows what happened because a requested easel for a map the Chiefs used to brief Johnson was not in the Oval Office as arranged – leaving Cooper to hold the map. Despite humiliating treatment by the president, the chiefs told Johnson that if he decided to remain engaged in Vietnam, the best military course of action – what would most rapidly bring an end to the war – would see the Navy and Air Force mine and blockade North Vietnam’s harbors and coast and bomb military significant targets. Putting ground troops in would lengthen the fight and cost untold casualties and treasure.

Reading between the lines, one suspects that the Chiefs really would have preferred Johnson to opt for immediate reversal of policy and withdrawing the advisors already in Vietnam. But they were hired to give advice on the best military option, not the best option if that didn’t include military forces.

Johnson refused to listen – and the rest is history – including more than 55,000 dead U.S. service members and tens of thousands Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and others caught up in the fighting.

Sometime next week, George "The Decider" Bush will make a similar determination about the U.S. presence in Iraq. Only his decision will involve adding troops to "stabilize" Iraq and enable the government to "stand-up" as a prelude – so the White House is intimating – to beginning the drawdown of U.S. troops.

As the president ponders, one wonders to whom he is listening – if to anyone. What is becoming clear is that the U.S. public wants a change that will get U.S. forces out of a quagmire. This was the message of November 7, 2006, and it is the message still resounding in the emails, letters, faxes, and telephone calls to Congress.

Six months and two weeks after the 2,500th U.S. soldier died in Iraq, the 3,000th died. Will this president’s decision cost another 500 lives – or more – in 2007?

Monday, January 01, 2007

Peace or War 2007?

The by-word for 2007, at least as reported by the U.S. media on December 31, 2006, is “Hope for Peace.”

Without question, this is a worthy sentiment and a noble goal to set for the world. But it is a goal that will never – because it can never – be reached. Why? Simplistically stated, global peace will exist only when each person in the world experiences that complete inner peace that spontaneously overflows into all interpersonal relations.

Diplomats speak of peace both as a goal and – more importantly – as a process. In the latter sense, peace requires real effort, a series of discussions and agreements followed by pragmatic actions implementing the agreements, modalities verifying implementation, and mechanisms enforcing adherence, should that be needed.

When politicians speak of peace as a goal, they do not always include peace as a process. In such instances, “peace” is merely the temporary absence of armed conflict, usually because one side in a dispute has been suppressed or expelled. There is no inner peace for either the “victor” nor the “vanquished.” Consequently, there is no collective external peace.

Ironically, the end of December 2006 is a time – the Christian Christmas, the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice (Eid al Adha), the secular western observance of the New Year – in which there is a collective articulated plea for “peace on earth” even as the killing goes on. In the course of two days, a former dictator is executed less as an exercise of “state justice” than as sectarian revenge. More than 60 bodies of Iraqis are found the next morning. On the final day of 2006, the cumulative number of U.S. fatalities in Iraq exceeds 3,000.

To hope and to pray for peace invests individual reason and faith in this goal – commendably so. But these are of little consequence unless they are transformed into action, into the process of doing peace, each in his or her own way.