Category Archives: Strategic

Robert Gates, the quintessential national security professional, judges ex-boss Obama harshly

Coming from the source it comes from, this is pretty devastating:

In a new memoir, former defense secretary Robert Gates unleashes harsh judgments about President Obama’s leadership and his commitment to the Afghanistan war, writing that by early 2010 he had concluded the president “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”Gates cropped

Leveling one of the more serious charges that a defense secretary could make against a commander in chief sending forces into combat, Gates asserts that Obama had more than doubts about the course he had charted in Afghanistan. The president was “skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail,” Gates writes in “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.”…

The source is someone for whom I’ve always had the utmost respect, as I’ve written in the past. Other political appointees come and go, but Gates has always seemed to me the real-life version of what the fictional George Smiley was in John le Carre’s world:

Mr. Gates is a Smileyesque professional. He was the only Director of Central Intelligence ever to have come up through the ranks. He had spent two decades in the Agency, from 1969 through 1989, with a several-year hiatus at the National Security Council. He received the National Security Medal, the Presidential Citizens Medal, the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal (twice) and the Distinguished Intelligence Medal (three times).
I trust professionals, particularly those who have devoted themselves to national service. Not in every case, of course — there are idiots and scoundrels in every walk of life — but if all other things are equal, give me the pro from Dover over someone’s golf buddy every time…

You know the real-life “golf-buddies” and campaign contributors and hangers-on. The fictional counterparts to them, in the le Carre world, would be Saul Enderby and, to a lesser degree, Oliver Lacon.

It’s one thing for Republicans and other professional detractors to attack the president’s national security seriousness. For Robert Gates to do it is quite another thing.

The Economist tells America to buck up, stiffen upper lip

I’m not finding a link to the actual report itself, but I thought I’d share this release from The Economist:

November 26th 2013




After a dreadful decade abroad, Americans are unduly pessimistic about their place in the world


This week’s issue of The Economist publishes a special report on America’s foreign policy, “Time to cheer up”, which argues that the world America faces today may seem cussed and intractable, but America’s strengths are as impressive as ever.


In this report, Edward Carr, Foreign editor for The Economist looks at the advantages America has in the primacy game and shares a to-do list for the world’s superpower.  After five years immersed in a world-class financial crisis on top of a dozen more in unhappy wars, the mood in America was bound to be dark. And yet the great engines of American power are turning. The armed forces are peerless and will remain so, even when they are financed less lavishly. The economy is clawing its way back to health. Despite Iraq, the ideals of liberal democracy and open markets are potent still.


In geopolitics America has no direct challenger, but without maintenance primacy frays. One threat is Washington politics, eroding American authority in the world. The other is the shifting international system– which no longer needs America as a guard against Soviet aggression and must find a way to reflect the aspirations of emerging powers, chiefly China.


Only a country that had glimpsed supremacy would count those two threats as decline. Predictably, the unipolar moment after the Soviet collapse was transient– if only because it tempted America into relying too much on force. The return to the frustrations and reverses of everyday diplomacy is uncomfortable, no doubt; and if America withdraws or lapses into peevishness, dangerous as well. Yet the country has one tremendous advantage. What will most determine its destiny is none other than America itself.  


– ENDS –


What are we to think about the nuclear deal with Iran?

First, I don’t know enough about this to have an opinion yet, if I ever will. The closest I can come right now is to survey the views of other informed, critical observers, and see if I can begin to discern an impression.

Before this past weekend, I was very worried about the kinds of deals that were being discussed because France, Saudi Arabia and Israel were all giving them a big thumbs-down, and expressing a significant loss of faith in the United States’ willingness to push for a deal that actually would halt the Iranian nuke program.

So I do a quick check to see how those parties are reacting to this:

So… a mixed bag.

Meanwhile, back home, the Obama administration has trouble on this among two key groups:

  1. Republicans in Congress.
  2. Democrats in Congress.

The WSJ reports:

The leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties are threatening to break with President Barack Obama‘s policy and enact new punitive sanctions on Iran, arguing that the interim deal reached in Geneva on Sunday yields too much to the Islamist regime while asking too little.

“The disproportionality of this agreement makes it more likely that Democrats and Republicans will join together and pass additional sanctions when we return in December,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.), an influential member of the Senate Democratic leadership.

So maybe the deal is moot at this end. I don’t know.


Graham, McCain, et al.: Say ‘no’ to any Iran deal that eases sanctions, lets nuke program continue

This just in from Lindsey Graham:



With Geneva Negotiations Set to Resume, Senators Express Concern with Reported Deal Administration Currently Weighing – Plan Would Provide Relief from Sanctions without Significantly Rolling Back Iranian Progress towards Nuclear Weapon


Group of Senators Praise Administration’s Use of Sanctions Thus Far, Urges Negotiators to ensure that Concessions and Gains are Proportionate


Senators: Focus Should Be on Achieving a Balanced Deal That Rolls Back Iran’s Progress towards a Nuclear Weapon


WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham, Charles E. Schumer, Robert Menendez, John McCain, Bob Casey and Susan Collins wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry, expressing their support for negotiations but cautioning the Administration against accepting a deal with Iran that would roll back economic sanctions without also rolling back progress towards nuclear weapons capability. According to media reports, Administration negotiators have considered accepting an agreement that would provide relief for the Iranian regime from the debilitating economic sanctions while only requiring the Iranians to halt their work towards a nuclear weapon, rather than undoing the progress they have already made.


The senators wrote, “We feel strongly that any easing of sanctions along the lines that the P5+1 is reportedly considering should require Iran to roll back its nuclear program more significantly than now envisioned.


“It is our belief that any interim agreement with the Iranians should bring us closer to our ultimate goal which is Iran without a nuclear weapons capability.  We must ensure that the steps we take in the coming weeks and months move us towards a resolution that ultimately brings Iran in compliance with all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions, seeks to prevent Tehran from possessing any enrichment or reprocessing capability, and resolves any and all fears that Iran will develop a nuclear weapons capability.”


Under the reported agreement, the P5+1 is prepared to permit Iran to continue enriching uranium at 3.5% for civilian use, to cap but not reduce the number of centrifuges, and to continue work near the Arak heavy water nuclear reactor. The senators argue that these steps may suggest Iran is willing to temporarily slow its pursuit of a nuclear weapon, but they would allow Iran to continue making some progress towards obtaining a nuclear weapon under the cover of further negotiations.


In return, Iran would receive relief from economic sanctions, including access to previously-frozen assets. The senators said the reported agreement, “does not give us confidence that Iran is prepared to abandon unambiguously its nuclear weapons pursuit altogether, as it must.”


The full text of the letter appears below:


Dear Secretary Kerry:

We appreciate your continued efforts, in concert with our friends and allies, to negotiate with the Iranian regime. We also commend the efforts of your negotiating team to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability.  Our negotiators have benefited from the effects of tough economic sanctions in bringing Iran to the table.  Without the Administration, Congress, and our allies working together, we would not have arrived at this crucial point.

Indeed, we support the concept of an interim agreement with Iran that would roll back its nuclear program as a first step to seeking a final settlement that prevents Iran from ever developing a nuclear weapons capability. At the same time, we are concerned that the interim agreement would require us to make significant concessions before we see Iran demonstrably commit to moving away from developing a nuclear weapons capability.

It is our understanding that the interim agreement now under consideration would not require Iran to even meet the terms of prior United Nations Security Council resolutions which require Iran to suspend its reprocessing, heavy water-related and enrichment-related activities and halt ongoing construction of any uranium-enrichment, reprocessing, or heavy water-related facilities. For example, we understand that the P5+1 is prepared to permit Iran to continue enriching uranium at 3.5 percent albeit for civilian use, to cap but not reduce its number of centrifuges, and to continue work around or near the Arak heavy water nuclear reactor. While the interim agreement may suggest that Iran could be willing temporarily to slow its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, it could also allow Iran to continue making some progress toward that end under the cover of negotiations. This does not give us confidence that Iran is prepared to abandon unambiguously its nuclear weapons pursuit altogether, as it must.

Furthermore, it is our understanding that in return for certain Iranian actions, the P5+1 would allow Iran to gain access to considerable amounts of capital that have been frozen by our international sanctions. Some have estimated the value of this capital for Iran as much as $10 billion. We regard this as a major concession on our part that would not be justified by the concessions the Iranian regime would be required to make in return. If we are reducing sanctions, Iran should be reducing its nuclear capabilities.

As you know, it is not just the sanctions themselves but the threat that they would continue to tighten that has brought the Iranians to the negotiating table. Easing sanctions now without real, tangible actions by Iran to roll back its nuclear program would not only diminish this threat of future pressure, it could make it more difficult to maintain the current sanctions regime at a time when many international actors are already eager to lessen their implementation of sanctions. We feel strongly that any easing of sanctions along the lines that the P5+1 is reportedly considering should require Iran to roll back its nuclear program more significantly than now envisioned.

It is our belief that any interim agreement with the Iranians should bring us closer to our ultimate goal which is Iran without a nuclear weapons capability.  We must ensure that the steps we take in the coming weeks and months move us towards a resolution that ultimately brings Iran in compliance with all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions, seeks to prevent Tehran from possessing any enrichment or reprocessing capability, and resolves any and all fears that Iran will develop a nuclear weapons capability.

The upcoming round of negotiations could hardly be more important and we must be ever mindful of with whom we are negotiating. Iran has been the largest state sponsor of terrorism for over thirty years; its leaders routinely call for the destruction of Israel; and it arms and finances terrorist groups around the globe. We urge you and your negotiating team to fight for an interim agreement that demands as much or more of Iran as it does of the United States and our allies. We hope in the next few weeks we and our partners will redouble our efforts to gain greater proportionality and to finalize an agreement that demonstrates that Iran is moving away from the nuclear weapons path.


Just your friendly neighborhood superpower, ma’am

Every once in awhile, Slate decides to surprise me with an editorial point that I agree with.

While this piece doesn’t go terribly deeply into things (something I am not surprised to see on Slate, which often entices me with headlines for pieces that don’t deliver), at least it states some obvious points that apparently are not obvious to all my friends out there.

Excerpts from the piece headlined, “Why America’s Critics Will Miss the U.S. Superpower: For all of its faults, no one comes to the world’s aid like the United States:”

American foreign policy isn’t popular at the moment either, especially among our allies. The Germans are angry because we pointlessly tapped Angela Merkel’s telephoneThe Saudis are angry because we won’t join the war in Syria. President Obama’s failure to become the world savior that the Norwegian Nobel Committee so fervently expected him to be has caused widespread disappointment.

And yet, when a disaster unfolds and resources have to be rapidly mobilized, it’s as if nothing has changed. One of the largest typhoons on record hit the Philippines last week. The extent of the damage isn’t yet known. But the American response is already larger—by a factor of hundreds—than that of the largest economy in East Asia. The United States is sending an aircraft carrier to the worst-hit regions and has promised $20 million in emergency aid. Millions more will be raised by U.S. charities. The British are sending a warship and $16 million. Even the Vatican has promised $4 million. And the government of China, the new land of opportunity? $100,000….

The Chinese do give development aid, but differently: not in response to tragedies, not to counter disaster, but to facilitate the export of raw materials to China. There is merit to some of China’s efforts, especially in Africa. But the Chinese state is not, for the most part, interested in generosity for its own sake. Nor do many Chinese billionaires believe that new wealth brings new obligations. Several of them refused even to meet Bill Gates a few years ago, apparently because they were afraid he might ask them to give away some of their money.

All of which is not an elaborate excuse for messy America foreign policy, or the still-weak American economy, or the indecisive American president. It’s just a little reminder: U.S. strength may be waning, U.S. status may be fading, and U.S. attraction for talented foreigners may soon taper off. But there will be reasons to be sorry if America isn’t a superpower anymore, perhaps more than America’s critics think.

So, you know, it kinda does matter who the hegemonic superpower is.

France getting disgusted with us burger-eating surrender monkeys

A piece in the WSJ this morning by John Vinocur discussing the strange new paradigm whereby the French are tough on bad guys, and disgusted with Americans for wimping out:

In an interview with the Associated Press on Oct. 4, Barack Obama depicted Iran as a country living with sanctions “put in place because Iran had not been following international guidelines, and had behaved in ways that made a lot of people feel they were pursuing a nuclear weapon.”

For French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, that was a pastels-and-wispy-brushstrokes rendering of reality. Two days later, in an interview with Europe 1 radio, Mr. Fabius drew a darker, edgier picture. “As we speak,” he said, Iran keeps the centrifuges turning that are needed to make enriched uranium for nuclear bombs. But Iran is also pursuing a second, separate track toward atomic weapons with the construction, at Arak, of a heavy-water reactor producing plutonium.

That project might take “around a year” to complete. And “if it is completed, you won’t be able to destroy it,” Mr. Fabius said, “because if you bomb plutonium, it will leak.” At that point, he said, for “the Americans, the Israelis and others,” there would no longer be adequate sanctions to stop Tehran.

He gave no hint of who those “others” might be. But here was the French foreign minister talking about a possible military engagement against Iran in a more forceful manner than anything summoned so far by the U.S. president. Mr. Fabius was not advocating a strike, volunteering eventual French participation, or indulging in simple Obama-bashing. But he was expressing a kind of French contempt for the U.S. administration’s evasive vocabulary about the Iran endgame…

The French, fresh from having led the way in Libya and having very neatly clapped a stopper on al Qaeda’s doings in Mali, have little patience with American waffling, according to Mr. Vinocur. Some factors that feed into that are the president’s sudden backing away in Syria, and a broken promise by then-SecDef Leon Panetta last year, who promised to give France any help it needed in Mali, only to be overruled by the White House.

American actions or inactions aside, I find it fascinating to see how aggressive France has become on the world stage the last couple of years….

Senate panel OKs limited action against Assad

Well, President Obama has passed his first hurdle in getting authority from Congress (authority he knows he already possesses, which I’m sorry, I just can’t stop pointing out) to take military action against the Assad regime in response to crimes against humanity.

The authority the panel’s resolution grants is limited, but not all that limited:

The Senate committee’s version, released late Tuesday by a bipartisan group of senators, would permit up to 90 days of military action against the Syrian government and bar the deployment of U.S. combat troops in Syria, while allowing a small rescue mission in the event of an emergency. The White House also would be required within 30 days of enactment of the resolution to send lawmakers a plan for a diplomatic solution to end the violence in Syria.

Opening a hearing Wednesday afternoon to consider amendments to the resolution, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said it was “tightly tailored” to give the president the necessary authority but “does not authorize” the use of U.S. ground troops in Syria. The committee subsequently rejected, by a 14-4 vote, an amendment from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that would have imposed further restrictions by invoking provisions of the 1973 War Powers Resolution…

Still… it really bothers me for a commander in chief to go into a combat situation with his options for response to the situation limited. Dwight Eisenhower, who oversaw one of the most complex military plans in human history, the invasion of Normandy, famously and correctly said that before the battle begins, plans are everything. After the first shot is fired, they are nothing. You have to be able to react to the situation.

But this is about as good as it could get on the course that the president has chosen.

Unfortunately, it’s probably as good as it’s going to get, what with Rand Paul planning another of his filibuster stunts on the Senate floor, and the House prepared to do what it does best — pose and posture and demonstrate utter disregard for the responsibilities of governing.

Key Republicans line up behind action in Syria — but will the latter-day Robert Taft Republicans do so?

John Boehner and Eric Cantor have both joined Nancy Pelosi in lining up behind the president’s proposal to take limited military action in Syria.

There are reports that John McCain and Lindsey Graham are doing so as well, despite all the reservations they expressed the last couple of days.

That’s important, even impressive, given the problems Congress has had lining up behind anything in recent years.

But it doesn’t answer the big questions. A big reason why Congress has been so much more feckless than usual lately is that the leadership lining up behind a plan is not the same as Congress doing so.

One of the causes of the president’s highly disturbing indecision on this issue is attributable to the fact that his party has been drifting toward what has been its comfort zone since 1975 — reflexive opposition to any sort of military action.

But the real indecision is expected on the Republican side, where pre-1941 isolationism has been gaining a strong foothold in recent years.

In that vein, the WSJ had an interesting column today headlined, “The Robert Taft Republicans Return.” As Bret Stephens wrote,

Such faux-constitutional assertions—based on the notion that only direct attacks to the homeland constitute an actionable threat to national security—would have astonished Ronald Reagan, who invaded Grenada in 1983 without consulting a single member of Congress. It would have amazed George H.W. Bush, who gave Congress five hours notice before invading Panama. And it would have flabbergasted the Republican caucus of, say, 2002, which understood it was better to take care of threats over there rather than wait for them to arrive right here.

Then again, the views of Messrs. Paul, Lee and Amash would have sat well with Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio (1889-1953), son of a president, a man of unimpeachable integrity, high principles, probing intelligence—and unfailing bad judgment.

A history lesson: In April 1939, the man known as Mr. Republican charged that “every member of the government . . . is ballyhooing the foreign situation, trying to stir up prejudice against this country or that, and at all costs take the minds of the people off their trouble at home.” By “this country or that,” Taft meant Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The invasion of Poland was four months away.

Another history lesson: After World War II, Republicans under the leadership of Sen. Arthur Vandenberg joined Democrats to support the Truman Doctrine, the creation of NATO, and the Marshall Plan. But not Robert Taft. He opposed NATO as a threat to U.S. sovereignty, a provocation to Russia, and an undue burden on the federal fisc.

“Can we afford this new project of foreign assistance?” he asked in 1949. “I am as much against Communist aggression as anyone. . . but we can’t let them scare us into bankruptcy and the surrender of all liberty, or let them determine our foreign policies.” Substitute “Islamist” for “Communist” in that sentence, and you have a Rand Paul speech…

Obama powerfully makes case for action in Syria — then passes the buck

POTUS delivered an impressive speech in the Rose Garden today, strongly and ably making the case for why we need to act in Syria, then noting that he is fully empowered to act without anyone’s permission… and then saying he won’t decide, but will leave it to Congress.

You know, the body that can’t pass a budget. The gang that can’t raise the debt limit to keep the government functioning without a major, credit-rating-damaging meltdown. That’s who he’s asking to decide.

First, let’s quote some of the stronger passages in which the president makes the case for action:

This attack is an assault on human dignity. It also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm.

In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.

Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets…

I’m prepared to give that order…

I’m confident in the case our government has made without waiting for U.N. inspectors. I’m comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable….

What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price? What’s the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world’s people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?

Make no mistake — this has implications beyond chemical warfare. If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorist who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?

We cannot raise our children in a world where we will not follow through on the things we say, the accords we sign, the values that define us….

I will also deliver this message to the world. While the U.N. investigation has some time to report on its findings, we will insist that an atrocity committed with chemical weapons is not simply investigated, it must be confronted….

I don’t expect every nation to agree with the decision we have made. Privately we’ve heard many expressions of support from our friends. But I will ask those who care about the writ of the international community to stand publicly behind our action….

But we are the United States of America, and we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus. Out of the ashes of world war, we built an international order and enforced the rules that gave it meaning. And we did so because we believe that the rights of individuals to live in peace and dignity depends on the responsibilities of nations. We aren’t perfect, but this nation more than any other has been willing to meet those responsibilities…

Ultimately, this is not about who occupies this office at any given time; it’s about who we are as a country…. and now is the time to show the world that America keeps our commitments. We do what we say. And we lead with the belief that right makes might — not the other way around.

We all know there are no easy options. But I wasn’t elected to avoid hard decisions….

I’m ready to act in the face of this outrage….

That’s the speech, without all the “buts” and “howevers” removed. Wow. Pretty powerful, huh? What a call to arms. Note the repeated use of the word, “must:” this menace must be confronted… it must be confronted…

Except, in the end, it isn’t. The president said, “I wasn’t elected to avoid hard decisions,” even as he was avoiding this hard decision. Actually, it’s weirder than that. He’s made up his mind, and one of the things he’s made up his mind about is that we really don’t have a choice. We must act. And yet, he won’t.

If the world were a debating society, this wouldn’t matter. Act today, next month, next year, it would all be the same. The important thing would be to let everyone fully have their say, and make sure everybody feels great about the ultimate decision (which ain’t gonna happen, but that seems to be the idea here).

But in the real world, it may already be too late to act with any effectiveness, in terms of degrading Assad’s air assets, or ability to launch future chemical attacks on his people — or having any other effect that would actually be helpful.

As the president says, “The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose.” So, if we’re going to do so, the time to do it is now. Or rather, yesterday. Or several months ago, when the president’s red line had already been crossed, and those 1,429 people were still alive, when those 400 children still had futures.

In short, I am most disappointed in the president’s abdication of responsibility — especially after he so ably made the case for immediate action.

rose garden

How much WMD is ‘a whole bunch?’

Those who wondered why the Obama administration had been slow, at least before the last few days, to acknowledge that Syria had crossed its red line — or to act (you know, by actually giving rebels those promised arms) when it did own up to it — must not have paid close attention to the specific words that the president used when he drew the line:

We have been very clear to the Assad regime … that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus…

How much WMD is “a whole bunch?” I don’t know. But I think maybe we’ve finally gotten to that point…

Egypt: Now that’s what I call a coup

Back in my day, a military coup d’état was a quiet affair. We had one when I was a kid living in Ecuador in the early ’60. One day, my parents informed me there had been a “coup.” I had never heard the word. They told me it was like a revolution — the president was gone, and a military junta was in charge. (Then they had to define “junta.” It was like a committee…)

A revolution? I went to the window and looked out. Same old street, nothing interesting going on. I had expected riots, violence, surging humanity. (The story I heard later was that they just let the president have a bit too much too drink — something that wasn’t hard — put him on an airplane, and let him wake up in Panama.)

In Egypt, they known how to have the kind of coup that I was expecting when I looked out that window. Millions surging in the streets. The military moving in, shutting down demonstrations, taking over state media, and tossing out the president who was so defiant, just last night. The latest, from the BBC:

The head of Egypt’s army has given a TV address, announcing that President Mohammed Morsi is no longer in office.

Gen Abdul Fattah al-Sisi said the constitution had been suspended and the chief justice of the constitutional court would take on Mr Morsi’s powers.

Flanked by religious and opposition leaders, Gen Sisi said Mr Morsi had “failed to meet the demands of the Egyptian people”.

Anti-Morsi protesters in Cairo gave a huge cheer in response to the speech….

TV stations belonging to Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood went off air at the end of the speech….

The ousted leader’s current whereabouts are unclear…

See, now that’s a coup. Meanwhile, Morsi fights back on Twitter and Facebook. This sets up an interesting conflict between the old and the new: Is the Tweet mightier than the army? I love Twitter, but I’m old school; I’m betting on the big battalions this time.

What does it all mean, Mr. Natural? For the United States, it’s a touchy situation. This piece, written before the coup actually took place, sets out how touchy:

Over the past two years, post-revolution Egypt has been a policy minefield for the Obama administration, which has struggled to balance its support for a democratic transition with its need to preserve its interests in the region.

The latest chapter of Egypt’s fraught political transition, however, has left the administration in perhaps its most precarious position yet..

As Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi weathers a storm of opposition that could pave the way for a military coup, Washington and its ambassador in Cairo have emerged as lightning rods. Those calling for the dismissal of Morsi say the United States became too cozy with the Muslim Brotherhood, the political and social movement that brought the Islamist leader to power. The Brotherhood, meanwhile, warns that the United States is failing to speak out loudly and clearly against a military coup in the making.

After voicing support for Morsi, the Obama administration appeared to distance itself from him this week, with the White House issuing a statement saying that President Obama had told the embattled Egyptian leader in a phone call that the United States “does not support any single party or group.”

That may sound sort of hapless, but put yourself in the president’s position: Quick, who are the good guys in this mess? Not an easy question to answer…

Rewriting the rules of war, Obama-style

The New Republic this week is devoting itself to suggestions for how Barack Obama might have a more successful second term. I was sort of intrigued by this suggestion, “REWRITE THE LAWS OF WAR,” to wit:

One of the most persistent criticisms of President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism policy is that he has not definitively broken with the troubled legacy of George W. Bush. But he could put that judgment largely to rest by pushing to modernize the laws of war.

The Geneva Conventions and other similar instruments were designed to deal with traditional armies—not groups with no ties to state sponsors or that operate in failed states. Obama should organize an international conference to establish new standards and agreed-upon interpretations for such subjects as the definition of enemy combatants, the treatment of detainees, and the rendition of suspected terrorists. Drones could also be considered—especially standards to minimize civilian casualties and to establish whether targets pose an imminent threat…

Things have changed, so maybe we should convene a new gathering in Geneva. Or somewhere. If we do, here are some ideas of new rules that the president might want to suggest, but which might not go over well with other potential signatories:

  1. If you make my personal list, I get to take you out with a drone, like Zeus hurling thunderbolts from Mt. Olympus. And if you don’t like that, you just made the list, buddy.
  2. If you make our special short list, we will send in the bully-boys to give you a triple-tap in the forehead in your boudoir in the middle of the night, no matter where in the world your boudoir happens to be. As for countries who object to our doing this within their borders, you, too have a special right under this agreement: You get to try to stop us. Heh, heh.
  3. All battles must take place at night. In the event that night-vision equipment becomes sufficiently ubiquitous that all of our potential enemies have it, this rule will be revisited.
  4. Guantanamo will close when I damn’ well get around to it.

And so forth. You get the idea. I’m sort of kidding, sort of not, given the way this president has continued to conduct the War on Terror. Not only has he “not definitively broken with the troubled legacy of George W. Bush,” as TNR so daintily puts it, he has in some ways been more aggressive than his predecessor in employing the Bush Doctrine.

Basically, the way I just worded all that is probably pretty close to the way folks in some other nations out there see the current U.S. policy. And they’d probably want to address these perceptions at a convention.

So maybe POTUS would like to convene such a gathering, and maybe he wouldn’t…

Krauthammer: Syria as the Spanish Civil War


What with all the travelling I’ve been doing the last few days (I was working on the coast Wednesday and Thursday, drove to Memphis Friday, drove back yesterday), I’m just now getting to Charles Krauthammer’s column from late last week.

I liked his analogy:

The war in Syria, started by locals, is now a regional conflict, the meeting ground of two warring blocs. On one side, the radical Shiite bloc led by Iran, which overflies Iraq to supply Bashar al-Assad and sends Hezbollah to fight for him. Behind them lies Russia, which has stationed ships offshore, provided the regime with tons of weaponry and essentially claimed Syria as a Russian protectorate.

And on the other side are the Sunni Gulf states terrified of Iranian hegemony (territorial and soon nuclear); non-Arab Turkey, now convulsed by an internal uprising; and fragile Jordan, dragged in by geography.

And behind them? No one. It’s the Spanish Civil War except that only one side — the fascists — showed up. The natural ally of what began as a spontaneous, secular, liberationist uprising in Syria was the United States. For two years, it did nothing….

As will not surprise you, he is not satisfied with President Obama’s belated decision to help the rebels with nothing more than small arms and ammo.

He gets way harsh on the pres with regard to Iraq:

The tragedy is that we once had a counterweight and Obama threw it away. Obama still thinks the total evacuation of Iraq is a foreign policy triumph. In fact, his inability — unwillingness? — to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement that would have left behind a small but powerful residual force in Iraq is precisely what compels him today to re-create in Jordan a pale facsimile of that regional presence…

We had a golden opportunity to reap the rewards of this too-bloody war by establishing a strategic relationship with an Iraq that was still under American sway. Iraqi airspace, for example, was under U.S. control as we prepared to advise and rebuild Iraq’s nonexistent air force.

With our evacuation, however, Iraqi airspace today effectively belongs to Iran — over which it is flying weapons, troops and advisers to turn the tide in Syria. The U.S. air bases, the vast military equipment, the intelligence sources available in Iraq were all abandoned. Gratis…

Scramble ‘Karzai’ and you get ‘Kraazi’…

Our situation in Afghanistan just took a really dramatic downturn:

KABUL—Afghanistan’s fraying ties with the U.S. hit a new low on Sunday, as President Hamid Karzai said before meeting the new U.S. defense secretary that the Taliban kill Afghan civilians “in the service of America.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is visiting Kabul to discuss ways of ending America’s longest foreign war. On Saturday, Mr. Hagel’s first full day in Afghanistan, Taliban suicide bombers killed at least 18 people outside the Afghan Ministry of Defense in Kabul and in the eastern province of Khost.

In a televised speech Sunday, the Afghan president said the U.S. doesn’t really see the Taliban as an enemy, doesn’t want to leave the country after the coalition’s mandate ends at the end of 2014, and is engaged in negotiations with Taliban leaders behind his back.

“Taliban are every day in talks with America, but in Kabul and Khost they set off bombs to show strength to America,” Mr. Karzai said. “The bombs that went off in Kabul and Khost yesterday were not a show of power to America, but were in service to America… It was in the service of foreigners not withdrawing from Afghanistan.”…

I don’t even know what to say about this (gimme time; I’m thinking), but I thought y’all might…

In the end, Graham voted against Hagel for SecDef

Senators voted 58-41 to confirm Chuck Hagel. Not exactly a ringing consensus.

In the end, Lindsey Graham voted against Hagel:

Graham Opposes Hagel Nomination

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) made the following statement on his opposition to Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense.

“I oppose the nomination of Chuck Hagel to serve as our next Secretary of Defense.  The position of Secretary of Defense is one of the most important jobs in our government.  There were other, more capable choices available and I regret President Obama did not choose one of them. 

“Having said this, I do believe it is the President’s prerogative to pick his Cabinet and I will work with Senator Hagel to ensure our defense at home and security around the globe is not diminished. 

“I’m disappointed not one Democrat stepped forward to express concerns about Senator Hagel’s views on Israel and Iran.  I believe from his past actions, he has shown antagonism toward the State of Israel.   In these dangerous times, his nomination sends the worst possible signal to our enemies in Iran. 

“I continue to have serious questions about whether Chuck Hagel is up to the job of being our Secretary of Defense.  I hope, for the sake of our own national security, he exceeds expectations.”


Hagel nomination hearing begins, against a backdrop that is pretty far from ‘peace in our time’

I knew all these things from following the news, but I was impressed to see them listed together in a WSJ editorial this morning challenging the nomination of Chuck Hagel as SecDef:

In the week since President Obama declared “a decade of war is now ending” at his inauguration, a few things happened.

• Israeli warplanes on Wednesday struck a truck convoy outside Damascus and headed to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, according to news reports, amid concern about the spread of chemical and advanced antiaircraft weapons from convulsive Syria.

• The U.S. commander in Kabul predicted a tough spring of fighting and “an uncertain future” for Afghanistan.

• The French retook northern Mali from Islamist militias.

• Egypt’s military chief warned of the “collapse” of the Arab world’s largest nation.

• China moved ahead with naval exercises around Pacific islands disputed with Japan.

• And the Pentagon announced plans to boost American cyber defenses and set up an air base in north Africa (near Mali, Libya, Algeria, etc.)….

The Journal’s point was to wonder whether Mr. Hagel would be supportive of President Obama’s plans to cut defense spending to a percentage of the U.S. budget not seen since before Pearl Harbor (2.7 percent by 2021, compared to the current 4 percent).

By the way, Hagel’s confirmation hearing has begun, and you can watch it live here. The NYT’s report on the proceedings thus far make it sound like the nominee is doing his best to assuage concerns such as those expressed in the editorial quoted above:

WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee to be secretary of defense, on Thursday morning said that the United States must lead other nations in confronting threats, use all tools of American power in protecting its people and “maintain the strongest military in the world.”

In an opening statement at his Senate confirmation hearing, Mr. Hagel presented a broad, forceful endorsement of American military power aimed at answering critics who say he would weaken the United States. He offered strong support for Israel, said he was fully committed to the president’s goal of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and said he would keep up pressure — through Special Operations forces and drones — on terrorist groups in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.

“I believe, and always have, that America must engage — not retreat — in the world,” Mr. Hagel told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee….

But he’s facing some tough questions, such as one from Sen. Inhofe asking why his nomination has been endorsed by the Iranian foreign ministry:

“I have a difficult enough time with American politics,” Hagel says. “I have no idea.”

Look out! China only about a century behind now

The hulk of the Varyag before it was turned into the Liaoning.

Mike Fitts, whom I can rely on to keep me apprised as to foreign military intel, particularly of a naval variety, calls my attention to this report about China beginning flight operations on its first aircraft carrier:

While we here at Killer Apps were enjoying the last day of our Thanksgiving holiday, the Chinese navy was busy conducting its first ever takeoffs and landings from its brand new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, with brand-new J-15 fighter jets.

Some observers have hailed this as the start of a new era in naval history while others aren’t so impressed. So far, the U.S. Defense Department seems unconcerned.

“We are aware of media reports that the Chinese successfully landed an aircraft on the deck of a carrier,” said Pentagon press secretary George Little during a briefing with reporters this morning. “This would come as no surprise. We’ve been monitoring Chinese military developments for some time…

Which is impressive, until you read this:

The Liaoning was built with the hull of an incomplete Soviet carrier that China bought from Ukraine in 1998, claiming that it would be turned into a casino or something. Instead, China completely refurbished the ship, installing new engines, modern electronics, and sensor systems, turning the old hulk into a “starter carrier.”…

Really? China is this gigantic economic powerhouse with superpower ambitions, and yet they had to buy their first carrier third-hand, and spend 14 years tinkering with it before the first plane lands on its deck?

This got me to thinking — how many built-from-scratch carriers did little old Japan next door have in during WWII — seven decades ago? Looks like about 25 that were actually commissioned, from various sources I’ve glanced at. (Burl, help me out.)

And when was the first time a pilot landed on a carrier? An American did it in 1911. Of course, the ship wasn’t moving. The first to land on a moving warship was Squadron Commander E.H. Dunning of the Royal Navy, in 1917. The first purpose-built aircraft carrier (as opposed to a repurposed hull) was Japan’s Hōshō in 1922.

It is believed that China will commission its first homemade carrier in 2015 or 2016 — as much as 94 years after the first Japanese flattop. It will be sometime after that before the Chinese navy has worked itself  up into having an effective naval air operations force.

Yeah, I know — these new ships will do things that would look like magic from the perspective of 1922. But still. As fast as China is running to catch up, it’s rather stunning to consider how very far that nation is behind in the simple fact of naval aviation.

A dangerously simplistic view of foreign affairs

Just got a very strange release, considering that it comes from a state senator (albeit one with national ambitions):

BEAUFORT, S.C. – South Carolina State Senator Tom Davis today released the following statement regarding the vote tomorrow in the United States Senate on Sen. Rand Paul’s amendment to end U.S. aid to Pakistan, Egypt and Libya, pending the satisfaction of certain conditions.

“Today I call on South Carolina’s senators, Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham, to cast their vote in support of Sen. Paul’s amendment,” Davis said. “If these countries want to be our allies and receive our money, then they should act like it.”

“The conditions to receiving foreign aid set forth in Sen. Paul’s amendment are reasonable: the Libyan police must hand over to U.S. officials the suspects in the recent attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi; the Egyptian government must vow to protect our embassy; and the Pakistani government must release from custody Dr. Shakil Afridi, a man who risked his life to provide us with information that confirmed the location of Osama bin Laden.

“Simply put, bad behavior should not be rewarded. America currently gives approximately $4 billion a year to Pakistan, Libya and Egypt, and all we get in return is disrespect and violence. Sen. Paul put it exactly right: ‘American taxpayer dollars should not go to Libya until the murderers are delivered to justice. Nor should they go to Egypt until the Egyptians prove that they are willing and able to protect our embassy. Finally, not one more penny of American taxpayer dollars should go to Pakistan until the doctor who helped us get bin Laden is freed.’”

Really? That’s your view of it? That “all we get in return is disrespect and violence”? Do you really suppose that we have close ties to Pakistan just because Pakistan wants it? We have that relationship because, despite all the godawful aggravation we get out of the relationship, we need it. As maddening as the many factions of that nation, many of them openly hostile, can be, that’s a door we need propped open, at least a little. Just whom are punishing if we cut off that relationship entirely? Is that what it’s actually about to you — the lousy $4 billion?

And you’re going to blame the new, Libyan government, a thing largely of our creation, for what some bad actors — people they have arrested — did? Do we so little value the fact that we have a friendly regime there after more than a generation of Gaddafi (a cause to which ambassador Stevens devoted the end of his life) that we’ll just throw it away because Sen. Paul is peeved and wants to save the money?

And Egypt — is it your plan to say, now that Mubarak is gone, we don’t want to be close to you anymore, Egypt? Is that our response to the Arab Spring? Sure, it’s problematic the role the Muslim Brotherhood is playing, but isn’t that a reason to hold the new regime closer, rather than pushing it away? Do you want to return to the days of Nasser? You sure about that?

Of all of these, the one I’d like to get tough with is Pakistan, because I’ve had it with their playing footsie with terrorists. But I know that’s an emotional, rather than a coldly rational, response. And that adolescent emotional urge on my part was quite satisfied for the time being by the raid on Abbottabad, and the many strikes in the lawless northwest before that.

This isn’t a foreign policy proposal; it’s domestic posturing. And I’m sorry to see my friend Tom Davis reaching outside the purview of his office to engage in it.

This is an occasion for national unity, not sniping

This would be a good moment to remember the thing about partisan politics stopping at the water’s edge.

I got a release from Lindsey Graham last night — I’m just now getting to it in my email — that quoted the senator as saying the following:

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a leading Republican voice on foreign policy, launched a sharp attack against the Obama administration on Wednesday, saying the president’s lack of leadership would “lead to an explosion in the Middle East.” … The American disengagement, lack of leadership, and leading from behind is leading to uncertainty and doubt on all fronts. … There is no substitute for leadership by the United States and every group within the region is uncertain about who we are and what we believe.”

The thing is, when I watched the accompanying video, for the first few minutes I didn’t hear that sort of tone. Instead, the senator said the sorts of things I would expect a politician who cares about foreign policy to say. He talked about how this should not be allowed to weaken our strong ties to the new democratic leadership of Libya. He stressed that the attack — whether calculated or spontaneous — was the work of a tiny minority who do not reflect our relationship with that country.

He even expressed agreement with what Secretary of State Clinton had to say. And I like that, even though part of it may be the longtime mutual admiration society that Hillary and Lindsey have going.

Then, toward the end, he launched into the GOP talking points about the administration’s alleged failures. About the only thing I might agree with him on is that I wish we were acting more effectively to keep Assad from killing his own people in Syria.

But in his eagerness to criticize, the senator implied, if he did not exactly say, two things he should know are not true:

  1. That somehow the mess of the last couple of days is the administration’s fault.
  2. That the way forward in light of the ongoing “Arab Spring” movement is simpler and clearer than it is.

Given his respectful ties to some of the key people in the administration’s national security team, and the many areas of agreement he has with them, I would think Senator Graham would be hesitant to throw out the people he knows in favor of the uncertainties Romney would bring.

But that’s me engaging in wishful thinking, I guess. Just because Sen. Graham is occasionally an iconoclast, I like to tell myself he can be that all the time. Obviously, I’m not in charge of his re-election in two years…

This is WAY worse than the ‘Swift Boat’ thing

I had to groan when I saw the headline saying that the Obama campaign was accusing political opponents of using “Swift Boat tactics.” That’s because, not having been in a coma the past eight years, I know that when Democrats say those words, they’re not referring to the use of light watercraft to fight the Viet Cong in the Mekong Delta. If only they were.

Instead, as we all know full well, they’re invoking charges brought by a group called “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” which raised questions about John Kerry’s war service. Democrats to this day so deeply resent what that group did that they have turned “Swift Boat” into a verb, one that refers to actions they regard as mean, nasty, unethical, uncalled-for and generally beyond the pale.

I am unable to agree with Democrats on this because, well, that group raised questions I was wondering about myself (such as, where are the scars from those wounds that sent him home?). But as a nonveteran, I felt I had no moral standing to raise them. I mean, maybe he did get to go home quicker than other veterans, but he was still there longer than I was.

So I initially sort of appreciated veterans publicly asking those questions, no matter with whom they were affiliated. But in the end, that discussion got into a lot of petty back-and-forth accusations about exactly what happened when and who did what to whom, and the whole thing wasn’t really helpful, and just left a general sour taste behind. And I’d just as soon not have such things front-and-center in a presidential election.

But I don’t see it the way Democrats do. So I groaned when I saw the words.

But then I read on, and saw what elicited the phrase.

Now, this, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty nasty stuff. Maybe Democrats ought to come up with a convenient name for this, and turn it into a verb.

The Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund seems to exist primarily to call into question, as we head into the home stretch of the election, any credit the President might received for killing Osama bin Laden. (That is far from the only question it raises, but that’s the one with the emotional punch.) And that is just beyond cheesy. It’s too petty for words.

This is nursery-school playground-taunt territory. Clearly, whoever was president at the time this happened gets a certain amount of credit for what happens on his watch — just as he gets the blame when it goes wrong. Jimmy Carter didn’t make that Iran rescue mission fail, but he certainly took the rap for it.

Reuters quoted Ben Smith, whom the group describes as a former SEAL, as saying:

Mr. President, you did not kill Osama bin Laden, America did. The work that the American military has done killed Osama bin Laden. You did not.

It’s easy to believe, in the moment he says that (at 6:55 into the above video), that this guy has been a Tea Party spokesman. He evinces that certain disdain-that-dare-not-speak-its-name that TPers seem to reserve entirely for this particular president.

But aside from the tone — I mean, come on. Nobody in the country is stupid enough to think the president personally suited up, went along on the mission and shot bin Laden himself, and no one in the country has tried for a second to make anyone think that. The simplest voter in the country would laugh at the proposition. So in what way do you suppose that the president is in any way trying to take anything away from the super-soldiers who carried out this amazing raid? Perhaps the most laudable thing the president is congratulated for having done was choosing to send in the SEALs as opposed to copping out with a bombing raid. And if you don’t think it took political courage to make that decision, you don’t know anything about politics or special ops, whatever your resume says.

I go further than that. My initial reaction was that hey, that Obama is a lucky guy to have been in charge on this particular watch. But as I learned more and more about the decision-making process that preceded the operation, I saw multiple points at which the wrong decisions could have been made, and POTUS made the right calls, even when very experienced smart people in his administration were doubting that was the way to go.

The bin Laden operation, furthermore, fits within an overall pattern that had distinguished the Obama administration well before that night in Abbottabad — a sharp increase in aggressively pursuing our nation’s enemies, in Pakistan and wherever else they hide.

Of course, the fig leaf this group is offering for its pettiness is that it is objecting to the very fact that I know as much about the long-term operation as I do. It’s accusing this administration of leaking government secrets for the purpose of its own political aggrandizement. (Which presents an interesting contradiction: If the administration is leaking actual, true intel, and that information shows the president in a good light, then how do you say the president doesn’t deserve credit for what happened?)

That’s a serious charge. I’ve seen no evidence that national security has in any way been compromised in this instance — but of course, I don’t have enough access to classified information to know for sure.

But I do know this: As I mentioned above, this president has been far more aggressive than any recent predecessor in using deadly force to take out terrorists, making George W. Bush look almost timid by comparison. While I have applauded the president for this, I acknowledge such an unprecedented pattern of aggression calls, in a liberal democracy, for a certain amount of sunshine. We need to know, at least in general, about the way the president makes decisions.

By the way, I’m not outraged at the parties who appear in this group’s video, which is the centerpiece of the campaign. I don’t doubt their sincerity. There is a fundamental cognitive disconnect between people who devote their lives to serving their country in the more sensitive parts of our national security apparatus, and people who are elected and directly accountable to the voters of this country. The national security types live by operational security, and have a tendency to see any kind of public disclosure of what they do as a close cousin to treason, rather than the exercise of political accountability. Political figures can indeed go too far in the service of self-interest. But even legitimate disclosure, the kind of thing a political leader should disclose, will not be acceptable to people who, just as legitimately, define their success in large part by their ability to keep secrets.

My beef is with the people who put this piece of emotionally-charged propaganda together, and released it at such a moment. The release of this video, at this time, would make the charges in the video itself about the president’s timing in announcing bin Laden’s death rather laughable. Except, you know, there’s nothing funny about it. (And I don’t even quite follow the logic that it was somehow politically advantageous to the president to announce the success of the operation immediately. If he’d done it a week later, as they suggest, he’d have gotten just as big a political boost.)

The amount of information that is appropriate for keeping a president accountable will always be debatable, and we should engage in it energetically, to the extent we can do so without damaging the very security we seek to protect (ah, there’s the ironic rub).

And we’ve been engaging in it, as the NYT reminds us:

Security officials and members of both parties in Congress have sharply criticized leaks about classified operations under Mr. Obama, and some Republicans have complained about news briefings on the Bin Laden raid and assistance to filmmakers making a movie about the operation.

The next sentence reminds us of something else the group pointedly ignores:

But the administration has also overseen an unprecedented number of prosecutions for press disclosures, and in June, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. directed two United States attorneys to investigate leaks discussed in the Opsec video.

The petty way this group has gone about conducting its political offensive makes me less inclined to take it on faith that they know things that I do, and those things make the president look bad.

Perhaps the verb for this, going forward, should be “Opsecing.” No, that doesn’t look right. “Opsecking?” Nah. Still needs work…