Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Surge Isn't Working; al-Anbar is Quiet

January 10, nearly five months ago, President Bush told the nation he had ordered more U.S. troops to Iraq, specifically to Baghdad and the Sunni-dominated al-Anbar province. Their mission was to intervene, with Iraqi army and police battalions, to quell the predations of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, Shi’a death squads with ties to sectarian militias and the police, Sunni nationalists and former Baathists.

After an initial reduction in the number of attacks on Iraqi non-combatants, and the number of bodies dumped around Baghdad every night, the deaths started to escalate north and south of the capital. And with more U.S. troops conducting patrols, more are dying and some are being abducted and tortured before being killed.

But in al-Anbar, more desert and presumably nomadic than many other areas of Iraq, U.S. forces seem to have finally stumbled on the nexus of effective counter-insurgency: identify the sociological level that the population has identified as the one that best provides physical and mental security – and work with the elders and other authority figures recognized as the leaders of the group.

In al- Anbar, the power level is not religious sectarianism but the tribal structure, the town or village mayor who is the local sheik and the police chief who is a member of the sheik’s family and the police force and other security forces who are from other families in the bloodline.

The question now is for how long and how much patience will the Iraqis have to exhibit as they wait for the money promised by the United States to rebuild their infrastructure, their lives, and their future. The U.S. failed to respond to the challenges of a disintegrated social order in the summer of 2003; will the administration recognize the opportunity that the Iraqis of al-Anbar are providing in the summer of 2007?

Monday, May 28, 2007

Speaking of the Future

Last Friday’s entry was, for the most part, about today.

Not the date or the day of the week but about the day of remembrance once called Decoration Day ( for “decorating” tombs of Civil War dead) that falls this year on May 28.

Last Friday also happened to be the day on which West Point cadets and Annapolis midshipmen in the class of 2007 graduated and were commissioned in the Armed Forces of the United States. Commencement addresses were given by Vice President Dick Chaney to the cadets and by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to the middies.

That the entire tenor of a graduation ceremony could be set by the remarks of a commencement speaker was, at one time, not unusual. That the tenor set at West Point and Annapolis by these two high ranking administration officials clashed so sharply is indicative of the policy struggle going on within the administration over what next to do in (or to) Iraq.

As is customary, both speakers highlighted the virtues of the military academies and education. But Cheney’s list started with an odd “virtue”: a “sense of rectitude” – followed by “devotion to duty” and “acceptance of personal responsibility.” I am not sure what Cheney meant, but in the context of the administration’s overall record of mishandling contracts, ignoring or overriding internal agency checks and balances, and frustrating the constitutional process of congressional oversight of war finances and reconstruction money, for the Vice-President to trumpet “rectitude” is mind-boggling – unless he is saying that only the uniformed military have to be virtuous.

Cheney also noted that some cadets had already seen war in Afghanistan and Iraq – enlisted personnel who, on return to the U.S. applied for West Point and were accepted as cadets. And, as is Cheney’s stock in trade, he brought up September 11, 2001: the war on terror started “because the enemy attacked us first… [and] they’re working feverishly to obtain even more destructive weapons.”

Obliquely, he defends the reduction of freedom in the United States as the price of security, but says nothing about just how extensive the administration’s attack on civil liberties and human rights has been. Then came the vintage linkage to Iraq:

“America is the kind of country that stands up to brutality, terror, and injustice.”

“America is fighting this enemy in Iraq because that is where they have gathered.”

“…having removed Saddam Hussein, we promised not to allow another dictator to arise in his place.”

The last point of any significance was a statement that “the war on terror does not have to be an endless war, But to prevail in the long run, we must remove the conditions that inspire such blind, prideful hatred that drove” the 9/11 hijackers.

Nowhere is there any nod to the history of the last quarter of the 20th century and the instances of the use of U.S. military power in the Middle East.

Nowhere is there a mention of, let alone apology for, the brutality and terror perpetrated by U.S. troops (yes, a small minority) and the strenuous efforts by the administration to circumvent the rights of any person detained by the U.S. military.

Nowhere does he concede that the terrorists are in Iraq because that is where the targets (U.S. troops) are or that Iraq just might end up being ruled by a benevolent Saddam figure.

And as to “prideful hatred,” whatever Cheney may define this as, I suggest that the forces propelling the 9/11 perpetrators had more to do with the frustrations related to the social, political, and economic conditions that governments in the region have been unable or unwilling to address and the support the U.S. extends to authoritarian rulers who “are with us.”

Cheney, of course, thanked the cadets for choosing to serve their country. Secretary Gates did so too, adding that the graduates had chosen “to defend the dreams of others.” Part of that dream is contained in the U.S. Constitution which the middies (and cadets) swear to uphold and defend.

It is here that Gates diverges most sharply from Cheney. Only in the very last paragraph of the official transcript does Cheney mention the oath the cadets took when they first entered West Point and took again that morning as an integral part of their commissioning ceremony. But Gates chooses to remind the midshipmen that the oath they pledge – “to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic” – requires them to defend the various institutions enumerated or those that in the natural course of the exercise of guaranteed rights (e.g., habeas corpus in the rule of law, the right to assemble peaceably, to debate and petition government) must be secure in the national fabric. Hence Gates unequivocally states that “the Congress and the press… are the surest guarantees of the liberty of the American people.”

I read the rest of Gates’ address which focused on the traits of a competent, inspired and inspiring leader. Integrity, common decency, doing the right thing, and treating everyone with respect and dignity fall into this model. But I was drawn back to the section on the Congress and the press, so different from what most people in the military and government (outside of Congress) believe or claim they believe.

In 21 words, Gates summed the meaning of the day for those in his audience, those at West Point, and for every American: “As the Founding Fathers wisely understood, the Congress and a free press, as with a non-political military, assure a free country.”

Someone ought to tell the Vice-President.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Bush Stuck on the Offense: An Analysis

In two appearances this week, President Bush took the offensive on his “war policy” by going after critics in his own party as well as the Democratic leadership in the Congress. On Wednesday he gave the commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy and on Thursday, in the Rose Garden, held his first solo press gaggle since March.

Buoyed by Congress’ retreat on the FY2007 Iraq emergency supplemental spending bill that had been shorn of withdrawal timelines and funds the entire four months remaining in this fiscal year, the president – metaphorically – was flying high. But alas, there was one unpleasant spot in the press conference – one caused by the laws of gravity that firmly anchor presidents, press, and paupers to the earth’s surface and dictate the trajectory of objects falling toward the ground.

Yes, in an entirely unprovoked action, a bird penetrated White House airspace and dropped “droppings” that fell on the sleeve of the president’s coat. To his credit, the president brushed off the assault and pressed on, giving no ground (or other advantage) on any subject. One assumes the jacket was sent off to the dry cleaners; the fate of the bird is unknown.

Looking over the transcripts of the two events, the same “fate unknown” characterizes the road ahead in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan. The administration – as the following analysis suggests – seems immobilized (or perhaps mesmerized), unable to do anything other than “stay the course” and hope that in September they can claim the glass is more than half-full and declare victory.

Considering just the commencement speech, for the most part Bush simply re-iterated the structural changes made in the federal bureaucracy and other legislation that he touts as improving the safety of the U.S. homeland since the attacks on September 11, 2001. He did provide two new statistics in the speech when he spoke of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which now includes the Coast Guard. The United States has 360 ports protected by the Coast Guard and a shoreline of 95,000 miles that the service patrols.

The president did make three specific points that I think merit comment.

Bush: “The Iraqi government…must meet its responsibility to the Iraqi people and achieve benchmarks it has set, including adoption of a national oil law, preparations for provincial elections, progress on a new de-Baathification policy, and a review of the Iraqi constitution.”

Comment: These four items constitute the much discussed “benchmarks” that are included in the FY2007 supplemental appropriations bill that Congress is sending to the White House today. Each of these points puts the locus for action on the Iraqi government, which to date seems frozen in place by a super-gravitational force. The oil settlement, for example, is supposed to be completed by the end of May, yet key annexes dealing with revenue distribution, the new national oil company, and terms offered to foreign oil companies remain unresolved. The deadline for completing the constitutional review has already passed. And with the Iraqi parliament set for a two month vacation this summer, the chances of significant advances on any of the benchmarks appear remote at best.

Bush: “Now, in 2007, we are at a pivotal moment in this battle.”

Comment: With the lack of progress to date by the Iraqis, as described above, this seems an exaggeration. It is really a variation on the time-worn assertions that a “turning point” is at hand or that “the next six months are crucial.” The only pivot made recently was the boost or surge in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq – and the higher rate of fatalities so far in 2007.

Bush: “Victory in Iraq is important for Osama bin Laden and victory in Iraq is vital for the United States of America.”

Comment: Other remarks in this speech pertaining to bin Laden’s plan to create in Iraq terrorist cells to plan and carry out attacks outside Iraq suggest that al-Qaeda’s leaders view “victory” in Iraq as vital. From where bin Laden reportedly is hiding – along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border – he may feel that he cannot effectively influence strikes against the U.S. or other coalition partners outside of either Iraq or Afghanistan. If he could establish a planning and operational hub in Iraq, and then carry out another significant assault on the U.S., he might expect that the U.S. public would demand troops be brought back to protect the “homeland.” In contrast, “victory” in Iraq for the United States has moved from an “Iraq with a constitutional, representative government that respects civil rights and has security forces sufficient to maintain domestic order and keep Iraq from becoming a safe haven for terrorists,” to an Iraq that “is stable enough to be able to be an ally in the war on terror and to govern itself and defend itself.”

If that is what this misguided war has come down to, it can hardly be called “vital” – except for those whose lives will be lost, who will be seriously wounded, their families and friends, and those who live with the possibility that one of theirs will be the next to die.

That, not Osama bin Laden, is the real terror in the land. How deep this terror runs and how it affects the vital core of the human spirit becomes clear in the words of a 6 year old whose parent is in the war zone: “My dad’s not dead yet.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

When a Surge Strikes a Slippery Slope

Remember January 10, 2007?

That night President Bush told the American public that as decider-in-chief, he intended to “surge” an additional 21, 500 troops – five army combat brigades and four Marine regimental combat teams – INTO Iraq rather than “out” to cut the high daily death totals and provide stability and security in Baghdad and al-Anbar province.

“Surge” suggests swift, assured action over a short space of time. Those who live near water experience a real day-to-day effect (actually twice per day) is the tidal or coastal surge caused by the moon’s gravitational pull on the earth’s oceans. Although most often a concern for ship captains, such surges can adverelyalso seriously affect waterfront properties, especially when the tidal surge comes on top of a storm surge from winds blowing on-shore. (In 20th century warfare, one of the best known occasions when a tidal surge dictated the timing of amphibious operations was the landing by two U.S. one U.S. Army and one U.S. Marine Corps divisions at Inchon, Korea where the tidal surge was 22 feet.)

Hardly was the surge proclaimed before it hit the first slippery slope that, like a riptide, diffused the surge’s power until it collapsed. While advance cadres were already en route, the first major army combat units would not arrive until mid-February. Moreover, the last of the army units would not be in place until June. The Marines were positioned to react a little more quickly by shifting the 2,200-strong expeditionary unit afloat in the Persian Gulf into al-Anbar, but this also required early deployment of a brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division to reconstitute a reserve force in the war zone. On top of this, commanders in the field were voicing the need to maintain elevated troop levels well into 2008, much longer than the new commander, General David Petraeus, had intimated during his confirmation hearing.

By mid-March, the 21,500 had grown to more than 28,800 as the generals asked for and received 2,200 military police, a 2,600-strong combat aviation unit, 125 troops who would reinforce provincial reconstruction teams, and 2,400 other support troops.

These forces were added to the 52,500 troops in 15 brigade combat teams and supporting forces (a combined total of 135,000 to 140,000) that were the “steady state” level in theater, troops whose tours were suddenly extended (causing a surge of adverse emotion) by three months. Some units on-notice for deployment in the autumn were told they would go earlier and remain longer.

But more was to come. In late May, with 20 brigade combat teams in Iraq, the Pentagon confirmed a report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that rotation orders were such that in December 2007 or January 2008, as many as 98,000 combat troops might be in Iraq and a total in theater exceeding 200,000. That would be more than at anytime since the end of “major combat” on May 1, 2003 when the U.S. presence was 255,000 troops.

Increase troop numbers creates another “surge” – logistics. Food, fuel, water, and ammunition needs are met largely by the army of civilian contractors, estimated at about 126,000 by the New York Times – a quantum increase over the 9,200 that supported U.S. troops in Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990-1991. Other sources estimate that armed security guards alone may total 100,000. What is known is that at least 917 U.S. contractors have been killed in Iraq since the invasion, with 16 percent of these fatalities coming in the first three months of 2007 – the deadliest three months of the war.

Combat fatalities among U.S. military forces have also surged – 377 since January 1, 2007. According to the Pentagon, 70 percent of these casualties were from IEDs – improvised explosive devices – with each succeeding month showing more IED fatalities than the previous month.

And now, with more foot patrols as part of the effort to maintain a coalition presence in volatile regions and the hunt for the three U.S. soldiers taken prisoner last weekend, soldiers are encountering a new variation of the vehicle-borne or individual carrying an IED: a homemade IED planted along footpaths and trails to act as an anti-personnel landmine. This variation is sure to add to the overall IED toll as troops on foot have no protection for their lower extremities.

Perhaps this probability accounts for the name given these weapons: dismounted improvised explosive device – abbreviated DIED.

Monday, May 21, 2007

New Bullets, Recycled Ballots

Originally, this was going to be a round-up of what’s happening in Africa. It will be that, but in condensed form. But with a 10 hour gun battle in Tripoli, Lebanon between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam, whose leader is known to have been associated with al-Qaeda in Iraq, and with two bombs being set off in Beirut markets – reminiscent of Baghdad of late – the question is whether Lebanon is sliding toward a renewal of its 1975-1990 civil war. Meanwhile, in the Gaza Strip, Israel bombed locations it identified as missile storage or firing points or safe houses for Hamas fighters. And with Hamas fighting Fatah, with casualties heading over 100 just in the last few days, Tel Aviv agreed to allow 500 armed and trained supporters of President Abbas back into Gaza to take on (and presumably eliminate) Hamas.

Lebanon’s woes involve different actors than those that drove last summer’s 34 day war between Israel and Hezbollah. Then, virtually all of the ground action took place in the Litani River basin south to the Israeli-Lebanese border. The Israeli air force bombed Hezbollah strongholds in the southern Beirut suburbs, while the Israeli navy shelled Tyre. Few remarked the fact that Israeli commandos raided suspected Hezbollah safe houses in refugee camps in the upper Bekaa Valley in the search for the two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah.

Ironically, the Lebanese army bombarded Palestinian refugee camps, some of which were established as long ago as 1969 – and little has changed over the last 38 years. The camp’s inhabitants are denied schooling, denied most jobs, denied the opportunity to become citizens of Lebanon or, for that matter, citizens of any Arab or predominately Muslim state.

And we wonder why extremist ideologies appeal to those born into such seemingly hopeless conditions?

Briefly turning to Africa, Algeria’s current ruling parliamentary coalition won 249 of the 389 seats in last week’s election for the lower house. While President Boutiflika has restored the electoral trappings of a representative democracy, there is no doubt that this is a country ruled by one person In a turn-about for an army that seized power in 1992 to prevent the election of ultra Islamists, this year the army made known it would be completely neutral – which in Algeria translates into “vote for any candidate, as long as it is the army’s candidate.” Even so, one bomb exploded in Algiers in the interval between the first and second rounds in the balloting.

Still on election results, Nigeria’s defeated political parties and their union supporters plan to shut down the country with a 24 hour work strikes as they protest the certification of Nigeria’s apparent choice of Umaru Yar’Adua as president. Although two challenges are pending in Nigeria’s courts and no outside election monitors were willing to declare the electoral process fair, it is unlikely that the “results” will be overturned.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Speaking of History

“We are made wise not by the recollection of our past,
but by the responsibility for our future.”
George Bernard Shaw

On May 17, 2007, Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George Bush held a final joint press conference in the White House Rose Garden. Blair had announced he would resign his position effective June 27, and the Labour Party had subsequently selected the current Chancellor of the Exchequer (Treasury Secretary) Gordon Brown to succeed Blair.

In reading through the transcript of the press conference (on the White House website at, one could not help noticing two separate yet intertwined themes. The first was the personal mutual admiration society evident between the two men that will be preserved until Brown officially begins his term as prime minister expected to be carried over into the institutions of government The second was the manner in which history would judge each leader.

Unconsciously open to certain possibilities and combinations, my attention was caught the same day by a pair of notices issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released two studies that said fourth grade and twelfth grade students tested in 2006 showed significant improvement in their knowledge of U.S. history when compared to scores recorded in 1994 and 2001, respectively. Educators attributed the improvement (from 64 to 70) in the percentage of fourth graders achieving the “basic” or higher rating on the U.S. history test to increased emphasis on reading skills in grades 1-3. And while no reason was offered for the improved score (from 43 to 47 percent between 2001 and 2006) among the older students, the NAEP noted this was the first time since 1998 that scores for high school students in any subject had shown a “significant increase.”

As much as I enjoyed history and did well in it – I ranked second in my West Point graduation class in Military History – I have always been leery about history, not its study per se but the tendency to interpret or ascribe to it what is not there. All too often, those who study history and then secure positions of political or military power become captive to their idiosyncratic interpretation of history and develop a vision of the present – and the future – that become a rigid, inevitable consequence of the past.

Now I am quite aware of George Santayana's oft-cited caution that “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” But this caution cuts both ways. One must read (as NAEP tests confirm) and be able to separate history – defined as the record of the present – from myth, which is that field of consciousness out of which history emerges in its own right. Similarly, in reading history, one must make due allowance for the fact that what we read as “history,” even today, is largely the perspective victors – political, military, economic, or otherwise powerful figures.

Particularly dangerous in terms of the “history” that fourth and twelfth graders are or will be reading is the political leader who has no interest in history and thus has no yardstick by which to estimate the extent to which current conditions converge and diverge from the past. Absent this insight, there could easily be an unnecessary, radicalized, abrupt reversal of existing policies and programs rather than more appropriate adaptations.

Americans generally lack a sense of history (as the NAEP scores attest). A contributing factor is the relatively short span of U.S. history and Washington’s rapid rise to pre-eminence on the world stage. This is not to say that leaders whose countries boast long pedigrees stretch into the mists of time are any more clearly or are more enlightened than leaders of countries in the “New World” and post-colonial countries in Asia and Africa. Indeed, ascribing wisdom to the elderly simply because of their age is equally absurd.

But there is a tendency in the U.S. to dismiss history completely, to regard the American hemisphere in general and the U.S. in particular as a tabula rasa on which it is still possible, even today, to renew the sense if not the reality of the “city on the hill.”

This general disregard of history – contempt seems a little too severe a judgment – was on display at the May 17 joint press conference. In one of his extended replies to questions about Iraq and history, Bush said:

“This may not interest you, but I’ll tell you anyway – I read three
histories on George Washington last year. It’s interesting to me
that they’re still analyzing the presidency of our first President.
And my attitude is, if they’re still analyzing 1, 43 doesn’t need to
worry about it. (Laughter.) I’m not going to be around to see the
final history written on my administration.”

Now either the press corps had completely turned over (UK media were present) and those present had no corporate memory; they were being polite, or they ignored the fact that Bush had said the same thing on April 19 of this year and May 5, 2006. This repetition and the jocular manner Bush used would be puzzling had the president not already alluded to historical comparisons with that other George – not 1 (Washington) but 41 – Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush.

Politicians are not the only ones who crave to have a place in history. Henry Ford famously declared: “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.” Ford, like Bush, undervalues history because it is the collection of all these present moments, taken together, that provide a people with the collective identity within which individuals are able to develop their identity and moral compass because there is history for school children to study.

In the summer of 2003, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Tony Blair addressed a joint session of Congress in terms of western principles as found in secular western philosophical history.

“Let us say one thing: if we are wrong, we will have destroyed
a threat that at its least is responsible for inhuman carnage and
suffering. That is something I am confident history will forgive.
But if our critics are wrong, if we are right, as I believe with
every fibre of instinct and conviction I have that we are, and we
do not act, then we will have hesitated in the face of this menace
when we should have given leadership. That is something history
will not forgive.”

In the Rose Garden yesterday, he repeated this conviction, though more concisely:

“And we took a decision that we thought was very difficult.
I thought then, and I think now, it was the right decision.
History will make a judgment at a particular time.”

And perhaps this is the difference between Blair and Bush: the prime minister is not haunted by the possibility that history will judge him on the basis of comparisons with others who were also prime ministers. Bush, who still has 19 months in his second term, more and more will have his presidency tied to one issue: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To escape this fate, he must somehow play down the idea that history is a formative influence more than it is a record of the past. Blair, I think, understands that real history looks more to the future than the past, and that when he is judged, it will be by today’s fourth graders who will be the heirs and interpreters of his legacy.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Who is Going to War

As I started to write this, CNN was carrying an announcement by British General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff (the equivalent of the U.S. Army Chief of Staff), that Prince Harry will not deploy to Iraq when his battle group goes later this year. Dannatt made the decision after reviewing a number of specific threats against Harry should he deploy with his regiment as well as threats by insurgents and foreign fighters to concentrate attacks on the Prince’s regiment.

Harry is third in line to the throne after his father, Prince Charles, and his older brother, Prince William. (In irreverent British idiom, William is the “heir” and Harry is the “spare.”) But royalty per se is not the stated reason Harry will not be going to war – Charles’ younger brother, Prince Andrew, flew Lynx helicopters during the 1982 war with Argentine over the Falklands/Malvinas Islands. The tenor of General Dannatt’s statement pointed to keeping the threats to all UK regiments in Iraq more or less equal, which would not be the case for Prince Harry’s unit were he sent to Iraq with them.

Back in the U.S., President Bush finally found a general willing to become the administration’s “war czar” after at least five four-star generals declined. Lieutenant-General Douglas Lute, currently the J-3 (Operations) on the Joint Staff, has agreed to accept nomination to the post (he must be confirmed by the Senate), which carries the title of “assistant to the president.” He will need that title as he will be dealing not only with four-star commanders and senior civilian bureaucrats in the Pentagon but also with other executive branch officials. Moreover, outside of a small staff (reportedly under a dozen strong), he will have no operational or line authority to “make” things happen. He is expected to be a “fixer” and coordinator – the person with all the responsibility and no authority other than what he can exert because all Washington knows that he has direct access to the president.

Yet at the same time that the administration is re-juggling the war’s superstructure, it continues to fight without a coherent strategy that effectively integrates the actions and harmonizes the goals of the Departments of State, Defense, Judiciary, and other U.S. government agencies operating in the two countries. That, in part, makes Lute’s nomination a bit odd as his military responsibilities for the last few years, at both USCENTCOM and the Joint Staff, has been in operations, not plans.

For those who like intrigue and conspiracy, it is not difficult to weave a scenario where Lute comes in, pulls together some of the strings, and security and the economy in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to improve slightly. In reality, everyone will be watching to see exactly how much access to and influence with Bush the new “war czar” has. In the meantime, Bush will have succeeded – once the Senate gives its advice and consent – in erecting another administrative layer between the fighters in the field and himself.

And speaking of fighters, a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor notes that it is no longer just mothers of military-age men and women who are wary – even skeptical – of the efforts to entice their children into the military. Pentagon surveys show a drop from 77 percent in 2003 to 59 percent last August – before the congressional elections – of fathers who said they would be supportive of their children’s choice to enter the military. The report also notes that grandparents are less inclined than in the past to approve of military service for their grandchildren.

Still, the active duty services continue to reach their recruiting goals – for now. How much longer they can do so without going bankrupt from all the cash they are giving out (estimates are one billion dollars) in bonuses, or to what level the standards for admission might have to be adjusted down (e.g., police record, non-high school graduate, score on the military aptitude test), to meet the increased number of recruits to fill out the expanded size of the Army and Marine Corps (92,000), remains to be seen.

And then there are the 10 combat brigades that have been tapped for Iraq to keep the “surge” going into 2008.

Monday, May 14, 2007

This Is Why Bush Invaded Iraq?

This morning as I read through the messages and the Iraq-related news stories, I thought that at last Iraq might be starting to move off dead center.

No, the military situation had not improved despite the “surge” of troops into Baghdad. Three more U.S. soldiers are missing and presumed to be prisoners, raising the total to five missing. By the afternoon, U.S. fatalities had topped the 3,400 mark. Other coalition losses pushed total foreign military fatalities to 3,675 while the toll among Iraqis in the security services and the general civilian population continued to increase daily by multiple scores.

No, the U.S. failed in its effort at the Sharm al-sheikh regional security conference to have countries forgive all of Iraq’s foreign debt – about $55 billion – and outstanding reparations from the 1980-1988 war with Iran and from the 1990-1991 Gulf War for the destruction caused by invading Kuwait and from attacks on Saudi Arabia.

Yes, the Secretary of State did talk “on the fringes” with her Syrian counterpart during the meeting in Egypt. But No, she had not made or received from Iran’s representative any public communication. Yet this just- past weekend saw the announcement of forthcoming talks between the U.S. and Iran about the security situation in Iraq. At the same time – all too conveniently – the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), perhaps the best Shi’a militia, announced it was changing its name to Iraqi Islamic Supreme Council and would take direction from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

But that was where everything started to go down hill.

The U.S. reportedly was trying to limit the substance of any talks with Iran to how Iran could help stabilize Iraq. Washington refuses to talk about nuclear weapons programs, saying that is a separate topic being handled by the UN and the Europeans. Washington is also pressing ahead with plans to base missile defenses in Europe to help protect allies from Iranian missiles.

What’s missing? Internal Iraqi political dialogue that could lead to implementing the concessions promised by the Shi’a as part of the drive to bring enough Sunni and Baathists within the political process that these groups would see that the gavel, not the gun, represented a more sure and secure future.

Why do I not find this surprising despite all the rhetoric about representative government and freedom that comes from the Bush White House?

Just look around at the multiple efforts by the administration to undermine representative transparent government that respects the rights of everyone. Under cover of a re-issued Operations Security Field Manual, the Pentagon brass are attempting to regulate – and would probably ban outright if they dared – what soldiers in Iraq can send in their e-mails or what they post on their blogs by requiring the content be approved by a superior. Violations could be punished by administrative disciplinary action or court-martial.

Now, Operations Security is important. But this appears to be a cover for the latest attack aimed at transparent government through censorship – specifically, impeding the right of the people to communicate with their elected representatives. That is one right that soldiers and their families do not give up just because they are in the military.

In addition to the revised regulation, the Pentagon has told Congress that only those officers and enlisted personnel below the rank of colonel that the Pentagon “deems appropriate” will be allowed to brief or testify before Congress. And when an appearance is “permitted,” the Pentagon will insist that no transcript will be made of answers to questions from Members or their staffs directed to the briefing officer. And then there’s the “other shoe” that confirms suspicions about what is at stake: those “deemed appropriate” will be accompanied by a political appointee from the Pentagon.

The Pentagon has also cut soldiers’ access to Youtube, MySpace, and eleven other sites from Pentagon networks using the excuse that the demand is so heavy that official business cannot be conducted. At the same time, the Pentagon has been trying to get its own YouTube channel up and running with input from soldiers in the field.

The extreme stresses on the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families at home caused by the uncertainties of combat have been partially ameliorated by the ability of soldiers and Marines to communicate via e-mail and to share with others the experiences they have endured. The Pentagon’s latest actions undercut what has become a very necessary psychological release mechanism that probably has helped modulate the occurrence and the severity of post-traumatic stress disorder and the frequency of suicides.

Stand by for a new spike in bad numbers.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Commissar Cheney

Pity the “Mod Rep Eleven” who went to the White House Tuesday to pass a political warning to George Bush and his national security team: something “positive” has to happen in Iraq soon or the Republicans will face electoral defeat in 2008.

NBC reported that the eleven moderate Republicans told Bush that he had no “street credibility” when it came to the Iraq war. “The word about the war and its progress cannot come from the White House or even you, Mr. President. There is no longer any credibility. It has to come from Gen. Petraeus.” And even this may not be enough; another congressperson told the administration: “My district is prepared for defeat. We need candor, we need honesty, Mr. President.”

Reportedly, Bush listened, commiserated, and promptly sent the war’s most steadfast propagandist, Vice-President Cheney, to the Gulf to get everyone on the same page and beat down any suggestion of a coup against the current regime. His suggestion that the Iraqi parliament remain in session rather than take its annual two month summer vacation almost triggered the coup he had just warned of. So we have Washington politicians trying to rearrange the Iraqi political clock to conform to Washington’s military clock which is sure to drive the U.S. political clock.

Watching Cheney’s public appearances and hard-line statements put me in mind of the 20th century political commissars whose whole purpose was to stop a coup against the fledging communist regime in Moscow. Lenin had been forced to accept officers and men from the former tsarist army simply to be able to defend the new USSR. But neither Lenin nor Trotsky, who was in charge of the army, trusted the “converts.” So the commissars also were to “re-educate” the former tsarist troops and to distribute Kremlin propaganda. Until 1942, commissars even had the power to countermand operational orders, undoubtedly as a hedge against any attempted coup.

Such blatant mingling of politics with military matters here in the good old “U.S. of A.” could never happen, right? Just look at the insistence of the White House throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts that battlefield decisions be made by the generals in the field, not the politicians in Washington.

Well, whatever else you might do, don’t mortgage the farm on it not happening. One of the latest moves by the Bush administration would curtail congressional access to the men and women in the armed forces who see the fighting where it is up close and personal.

Back in April, according to a memo obtained by the Boston Globe, the Pentagon told the House Armed Services committee staff that the military would decide who was “deemed appropriate” in the ranks below full colonel to speak with or brief Members of Congress. No caveats – e.g., future deployment or sensitive special operations plans that lieutenant colonels and colonels write for approval of the generals – were included; this was an –across-the-board ban on anyone below the rank of general or admiral (I suspect only colonels who had commanded separate units like armored cavalry regiments would escape all restrictions) testifying before Congress. Moreover, the Pentagon memo, by Robert Wilkie, formerly a senior program director of the Bush National Security Council in the White House, listed two further restrictions on those “deemed appropriate”: no transcripts of the remarks or answers to questions would be allowed, and all officers the Pentagon “allowed” to testify had to be accompanied by a political appointee.

Now in the armed forces, legislative liaison is akin to public affairs, one of three military specialties I held. The objective of these legislative liaison and public affairs is the same: provide the maximum amount of information possible. The only substantive difference is the level of classification of the information (unclassified for the general public). Yet the military seems incapable of shedding its penchant to classify anything and everything that doesn’t move. The result is unnecessary antagonism and costly delays as the Congress, in attempting to exercise its oversight responsibilities, is forced to re-establish its authority to require the appearance of long-serving civilian bureaucrats, enlisted, noncommissioned, and junior officers, plus relevant documents, electronic records, and messages that pertain to the formation of military policy and programs.

The memo reeks of conspiracy by politicos to hide the “ground” truth from the public about what is going on in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the administration’s so-called “war on terror.” When the unvarnished truth is wanted and needed, most people go to experts for information. And the best “experts” on war – any war – are those who have been in-country fighting for extended time periods, who have sent heir comrades die, who may themselves have been wounded – not the senior officers and civilian officials who fly in and out of then country or who work in well-protected headquarters, venturing out from time to time to see how their plans are standing up to the real world.

There has already been “walk-out" by Pentagon lawyers who refused to let officers testify because a transcript was being made. In the end, however, Congress will win this battle, for it has the power to subpoena people and documents.

A good person to start with is Robert Wilkie.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Ethics of War


Last Friday’s blog ended with a plaintive musing, a question really, from a parent whose son is leaning toward joining one of the ground services, the Marine Corps or the Army. The parent’s concern was the growing evidence of a lack of integrity among the officers serving today.

That same morning, the San Diego Tribune carried a page one story about the third annual “mental health” survey of U.S. troops stationed in Iraq.

Unlike the two previous iterations of the “mental health” survey, this one was looking well beyond the onset, severity, and longevity of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and its effects on marriages and parent-child interactions or at the mental trauma introduced into the lives of the spouses or parents of those that suffered severe brain damage from improvised explosive devices, bullets, and suicide bombings.

This survey was probing mental health from the standpoint of trying to gauge what combination of factors encountered in battle lead to reprisals against civilians and noncombatants. The underlying suspicion, given Abu Ghraib, Haditha, and similar incidents is that the mental pressures arising from continuous exposure to injury and death, compounded by witnessing comrades killed and wounded by an unknown enemy against whom force could legitimately be used if the enemy were identified, causes a marked decrease in the propensity of soldiers to sustain ethical conduct.

Among Marines, the report found only 30 percent said they would inform the chain of command that property was unnecessarily destroyed, only 33 percent would inform their leaders about incidents of stealing, while a mere 40 percent said they would report members of their unit for killing or wounding an innocent civilian. In general, the responses by Army troops on these three points were about 15 percent higher.

Increased number of deployments to battle zones, longer deployments, and the level of the brutality all act to break through the training in the rules and restraints on combat that are contained in the Geneva Conventions and reflected in the rules of engagement under which U.S. forces operate. The only condition that seems to counteract the accumulation of these negative influences is strong and sustained moral example and ethical leadership from all of the unit’s noncommissioned and commissioned officers. One would also expect that similar moral and ethical leadership from the top civilians in government would be desirable, especially from those in the Pentagon.

The survey also revealed, chillingly, that Iraq has become like Vietnam was 40 years ago in terms of how the foreign troops view the indigenous population. As summed in the words of one Iraq combat veteran: “An innocent civilian? I don’t think I ever met one over there.”

Friday, May 04, 2007

Tillson Redux

A full month after the original essay on the Army's mishandling of the account of Corporal Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan appeared on the April 4 online edition of Counterpunch, I am still receiving commentaries.

The latest came May 4th from a service member stationed in Germany. He is worried about his son – currently in high school – who is a recruiter’s dream: in junior ROTC, a very high grade-point average, Eagle Scout, an outstanding athlete in more than one sport. And above all, the young man wants a military career.

The parent, obviously, has been a role model in a profession of service to his country that he made his life’s work. Yet that profession is clearly not the same one that the parent joined some 15-20 years ago (my estimate). He writes: “From what I see with today’s senior leadership I am getting that feeling of doom and parental failure if I turn him over without things improving.”

It is a conundrum for parents, especially for those who are in the military and for all who regard the military as an honorable career. And given the state of international relations, unfortunately it is a necessary one for a society that says it values and encourages individuals to develop their talents and to contribute to the well-being of their community, country, and world.

“Contributing to the community, country, and world” at one time was considered an obligation of each generation to those that followed. In the military, this obligation was encoded in the concept of a “profession” – a group that chooses to set themselves apart in the service of a higher “cause” that goes beyond self-interest.

Numerous commentators over the years have lamented that military service is more and more a “job” and less a “profession.” I suggest that a more significant contrast lies between “occupation” and “profession than “profession” and “job.” The latter word conjures the over-simplistic, prototypical “piece work” or “piece of work” repeated day after day (as on an assembly line) by a worker who puts in his or her “9-to-5” and then, when the factory whistle sounds, goes home to family, dinner, and bed – until retirement.

One who has an occupation remains identified with her or his work even when not “in” the office or “at” the factory. What sets an occupation apart from a profession is that the latter requires “special training” in the liberal arts or sciences. In its original sense, this extra training was a form of “sacrifice” insofar as it delayed entry into the economic marketplace – one that over time would accrue greater recompense to the professional than a mere “occupation” would bring. With the organization of fire brigades and police departments, the scope of the sacrifice shifted from delayed market-based compensation to potentially one’s life.

There is nothing dishonorable or “wrong” with plying an “occupation” successfully. In fact, the most successful are lauded precisely for what they accomplish, not for any ancillary “sacrifice” that might or might not be evident. Moreover, when many individuals in a community are successful in their chosen occupations, the cumulative effect provides collateral benefits for the wider society.

Somewhere along the way, however, the sense of obligation or duty that infused and transformed certain occupations into professions was tossed overboard by too many “leaders.” The damage from this abandonment of professionalism and the ethic that flowed from it – whether based on religious faith or secular humanism – was so severe that those with little or no connection with the armed forces could not help but question the integrity of those to whom the country entrusted its sons and daughters as hostages to fortune and fate.

In a perverse way, the very technology that enables killing an armed opponent who is still “over-the-horizon” insulates a significant segment of the armed forces from the danger to limb and life that has been the hallmark “sacrifice” of military service. The result is a reductionism of the military profession to a job – not in the sense of a 9-to-5 work pattern but in the mental distancing that regards a missile launched at or a bomb dropped “successfully” on an inanimate “target” (the counterpart to “piece work”) as due diligence for which reasonable compensation is due. Conversely, in that the soldier and Marine who “closes with” an enemy have to undergo specialized training to learn how to be part of an efficient multi-person killing unit, they come closest in high-tech warfare to the “professional.”

The problem this raises, at least in theory, is that those who close with an enemy – the battle-wise professionals who have personal knowledge of warfare from sustained combat – are also the ones most exposed to death or wounding from enemy counteraction. When one adds the battle-experienced who resign from the service or retire as soon as they are eligible for a pension (20 years service) to the number killed or discharged because of their wounds, the pool of those eligible for senior positions is titled numerically against those who really “know” war -- and would be more inclined to resist repeating the carnage that every war entails -- and towards those for whom past wars were more of a "bloodless" occupation.

I do not believe nor do I wish to imply that the reductionism described above, if it occurs, is calculated or even conscious. But it does seem to pervade the military and the general government more than it used to (even as I readily concede that the military, as with any other profession, undoubtedly has had within its ranks in the past less than honorable members).

How else does one explain the comment by my May 4 correspondent that his son’s “desire to enter this military is the sum of a parent’s sense of doom.”

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

From Watergate to Gonzalesgate: Accountability

April 27 on Public Broadcasting System (PBS) television saw an all-too-short and much-too-rare analysis of the ever-shifting internal and external influences that affect policy formulation and program implementation of the sitting U.S. administration.

Should you have missed the program – “Bill Moyer’s Journal” for Friday, April 27 –the segment of interest comes near the beginning, and it is so trenchant that a number of Internet sites carry it on-line. Moyers, discusses political developments of the week just ended with Jon Stewart, host of the mock news program “The Daily Show” carried on Comedy Central.

The specific event was the testimony of the Attorney General of the United States, Alberto Gonzales, before the Senate Judiciary Committee April 19 relative to the role Gonzales played in the December 2006 firing of eight federal prosecutors. The public record, including sworn testimony from current and past Justice Department officials was full of contradictions and missing documents. The entire procedure suggested that the choice of these eight (of 93 nationwide) and the timing of the dismissals was quite intentional, political, and possibly done in some cases because the prosecutors were investigating allies of the Bush White House. If the dismissals were timed to occur when Congress was in recess, the Senate would not have the opportunity to review the qualifications of the new prosecutors and render its “advice and consent.”

Gonzales had at least three weeks notice of the hearing. \Despite all that time available to search records and calendars, the Attorney General, under oath, responded 74 times – 45 times before the committee broke for lunch – with some version of “I don't recall.” (Alternate counts say 64 “I don’t know” over five hours – either way, quite a few.) Were that not frustrating enough for both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, Gonzales went out of his way to assert and reassert: “I firmly believe that nothing improper occurred.”

Stewart’s satiric streak was on display when Moyer’s ran an excerpt from the April 19 “Daily Show” broadcast. But the real depth of Stewart’s insight was his assertion on Moyer’s program that Bush administration officials seem to believe that the American public gets one chance every four years to “say its piece.” Once an election is over, the public – as well as the Congress – ought to simply slip into the background scenery of democracy and leave the executive branch run the country.

Neither Moyers nor Stewart claims that the policy the Bush White House is following is fundamentally different from attempts by previous administrations to control what information reaches the public or to conceal events that might be embarrassing or even on the margins of illegality. But they both seem of the view that the Bush administration has been more intent, more aggressive than other recent administrations in refusing to provide records and send officials to testify before Congress.

By chance, PBS also broadcast on April 28 the classic film “All the President’s Men,” the Hollywood version of the Nixon administration Watergate scandal. The film was followed by a 2003 PBS documentary, “Watergate Plus 30: Shadow of History.” This looked at both the events of Watergate and the investigation and hearings before the Senate Watergate Committee. What was eerie about the documentary are the parallels between then and now:

- a president who ignored the public’s growing opposition to a war that should never have been started;

- an expansion of the war either through secret bombing raids or adding additional thousands of troops to the war;

- a presidential assertion of expanded powers to intercept communications of U.S. residents using the “commander-in-chief” clause of the constitution;

- “missing” or irretrievable documents or tapes (the infamous 18 minute gap in the Nixon tapes); and

- the obvious administration stonewalling of Congress.

On the last point, I must concede that as often as Alberto Gonzales could not remember what he did or what he said even though he firmly believed everything done was done properly, the frequency of his memory lapses pale when compared to the 130 times that Nixon Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, during his appearance under oath before the Watergate committee, claimed he could not recall events or conversations about Watergate or the cover-up.

Haldeman, unrepentant for his role in subverting justice, went to jail for his role in the planning and cover-up of criminal activity. Alberto Gonzales, by denying any recollection of events surrounding the dismissal of presidential appointees, may well be remembered in the annals of the second George W. Bush administration as one of the nation’s most politically loyal and therefore most ineffective Attorney Generals ever to hold that office.

As disgraceful as Haldeman’s activities were and those of Nixon, in the end justice was served: one man went to jail and the other resigned in disgrace. For Gonzales and Bush, what the outcome is remains unclear. At the very least, however, placing political loyalty above loyalty to the Constitution remains a dangerous threat to the integrity of constitutional processes designed to hold both elected and appointed officials accountable for what they do or fail to do.

In this regard, both president and attorney general ought to refresh their individual memories about two principles of law: The first has its origins in Rome, reads “Ignorantia juris non excusat” – “Ignorance of the law does not excuse.”

The second is known as “willful blindness.” This occurs when a person who should have known that something was or was not done and was in a position to ask the status of a policy or an action but deliberately chose not to ask so that he could deny any knowledge (and responsibility for) an outcome. Such “willful blindness” under the law would be the equivalent of the diplomats “plausible deniability”; both are figments.

And in some locales and justice systems, purposely practicing “willful blindness” is regarded as equivalent to possessing knowledge, for how else would one know what it is that he or she is trying to remain ignorant of?

Which, ironically, leads back to Watergate and committee member Senator Howard Baker’s famous summary question – “What did the president know and when did he know it?”