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.

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