By Amir Abbas Fakhravar and G. William Heiser.
As the Non-Aligned Movement holds its summit this week, we can expect more than the usual finger-pointing at the United States and its allies. This time, the summit is in Tehran. Iran's ruling mullahs plan on using the summit -- and the expected presence of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon -- as cover to snuff out the life of one of their most principled political opponents.
On August 31, unless the U.N. leader and others intervene, the Islamic Republic will impose a death sentence on the sickly but courageous dissident writer Arzhang Davoodi. If all goes according to standard practice, an executioner will place a cable around Arzhang's neck, haul him off his feet by a crane, and slowly strangle him.
Arzhang and Amir Fakhravar became the closest of friends as political prisoners in the regime's notorious Evin Prison. His crime, for which he was arrested in October 2003, was his participation in the PBS Frontline documentary, "Forbidden Iran," about how the regime executes its political opponents. Arzhang spoke to journalist Jane Kokan about human rights violations and in support of the Iranian student movement against the mullahs. I was one of the imprisoned student leaders at the time, heading the organization Arzhang had founded. Arzhang spoke out on my behalf, only to end up joining me in prison.
Following a trial in 2005, a Revolutionary Court imposed on Arzhang a sharia sentence of 15 years' imprisonment and 75 lashes for "spreading propaganda against the system," "establishing and directing a student organization called the Confederation of Iranian Students opposed to the government," advocacy in his writings of a secular and democratic government for his country, and participating in the PBS documentary.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei needs the U.N. Secretary General and the Non-Aligned leaders to remain unaware of -- or at least quiet about -- Arzhang's execution during their visit. The regime has spared no expense to showcase the Iranian capital as a seemingly prosperous and calm city devoid of population and discontent.
Despite a collapsed economy, the regime has spent a fortune in preparation. It constructed a lavish conference hall in the affluent Velenjak area of northern Tehran, along with a new hotel expressly for the foreign dignitaries. Authorities "beautified" the shabby routes from Tehran's two airports to the summit site, as well as other thoroughfares the foreigners are likely to use, and purchased two hundred C Class Mercedes Benz sedans to whisk the Non-Aligned and U.N. leaders to their destinations.
On Aug.5, the regime imposed a mandatory "holiday" during the summit to limit the prospect of protests by keeping people off the streets, matched with a gasoline giveaway program of to all who would leave town during the summit. Regime agents forced 1,400 homeless people out of the area. Most tellingly, the mullahs flooded Tehran with 110,000 police and security forces, as well as Basiji militia -- the force that murdered young violinist Neda Agha Soltan three years ago.
Ahmad Khatami (the cleric who maintained the late Ayatollah Khomeini's death sentence on writer Salman Rushdie) ghoulishly told followers of the reformist Green Movement that he expected no summit-related "occurrences." In the days leading up to the big event, helicopters hovered ‘round the clock over the city as snipers and plainclothes agents deployed on rooftops and in buildings surrounding the conference hall. The government closed local schools for use of security forces.
Eighty of the 120 presidents, prime ministers and dictators invited to the Non-Aligned summit will not attend. Only 51 countries will send high-level delegations.
The mullahs now risk embarrassing the U.N. leader and other dignitaries thanks to Amnesty International, which exposed the plan to kill Arzhang Davoodi. In an urgent action notice released on Aug. 23, Amnesty reported that Arzhang had been transferred in June to Section 209 of Evin Prison, where he was likely tortured. At an Aug. 28 court hearing, the regime imposed a new charge against Arzhang: "enemy against God" (moharebeh), a crime that can be punishable by death.
Few Americans have ever heard of Arzhang Davoodi, but he has sent messages of gratitude to the people of America. Early last year, at great personal risk, he secretly recorded a video from a smuggled mobile phone in Iran's Rajee-Shahr prison. In the video, he addressed the participants of the first Iran Democratic Transition Conference organized and conducted by the Confederation of Iranian Students at the George Washington University, just blocks from the White House and State Department. With Arzhang's approval, attendees were able to view the video as he delivered his illicit message from captivity.
Days later, Arzhang's jailers savagely beat him and banished him to solitary confinement.
This is what Arzhang was beaten and banished for telling the conference: "In the name of God, the Almighty, happy New Year to all.
"From Rajee Shahr prison, I salute all freedom lovers of the world and cordially send my special regard to the great American nation, particularly all those who in the last three decades have never doubted in this principle that, at any rate, does not allow any sort of compromise with the reactionary sword-minded regime that holds no respect for the international community and has taken us Iranians as hostages.
"Hereby I thank all good hearted people who care about others and do their best to let freedom and democracy flourish all over our small planet. I thank all those who strongly believe that freedom is an indispensable right for us. For each and every human being living upon the good earth. I have a dream, I am sure that in the near future we Iranians share our everlasting freedom celebration with Americans. Yes, I have this dream. God bless you all and all those who truly sacrifice for a free Iran.
"God bless our small planet, God bless you all."
That statement was the entirety of Arzhang Davoodi's crime as an "enemy of God," for which he will pay with his life. Unless Secretary General Ban and the 51 national leaders personally intervene.
Amir Fakhravar is Secretary General of the Confederation of Iranian Students and a former political prisoner of the Iranian regime. He is presently a Research Fellow and Visiting Lecturer at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of international affairs in Washington, DC.
G. William Heiser is a former official in the Reagan National Security Council Staff and currently is an advisor to the Confederation of Iranian Students.
President Obama did something unusual yesterday: he sought to allay concerns that his war strategy was not working and answered questions about events in Afghanistan.
It was not unusual that there were concerns about the war strategy. It was unusual that Obama would acknowledge those concerns and speak to them. In fact, it is unusual for Obama to speak about the war at all.
Has there ever been a president who has invested the country so heavily in war who has spoken so little about that investment?
The avoidance of war talk and especially the avoidance of awkward questions about the war may be part of a larger campaign strategy to keep the president away from situations that the campaign does not tightly control. This is a president who has struggled with unscripted gaffes. He does fine when he is delivering prepared remarks with the aid of a teleprompter, but some of his most memorable and damaging comments have been when he was straying from scripted remarks or answering something other than a soft-ball question from the press. The campaign probably calculates that the risks of producing another "you didn't build that" or "the private sector is doing fine," outweigh any benefits and so restrict the access of even the largely sympathetic press corps.
That sympathetic press corps is starting to get fidgety, however. I have had multiple contacts from reporters in recent days, each thinking about writing some variant of the "why doesn't President Obama talk about the Afghanistan war" story?
My answer to that question is too complex to fit in a reporter's quote, alas.
Part of it may be that the president is not an especially effective communicator. Some of his set-piece speeches have gotten high marks, but he really does seem tied to the teleprompter. And, as he showed in the debate leading up to the passage of Obamacare, the president can talk about something without ceasing and still not persuade large majorities of the American public to embrace his policy. Scholars of presidential rhetoric say that this is a more general weakness -- that the bully pulpit is more limited than the popular imagination believes, especially when attempting to pass legislation.
Yet despite the limitations of the bully pulpit, most war presidents have recognized the need to communicate with the American public on a regular basis to explain the war, address the inevitable setbacks, and, not inconsequentially, reassure the troops that the president has not forgotten them and still has their back. Moreover, President Obama is willing to talk repeatedly about the Osama bin Laden strike -- even when such talk appears to have anything but the effect of reassuring the troops (or at least some of the troops).
Part of the answer is also that Obama's Afghanistan stance has evolved dramatically from where it was in 2008. When he was last running for president, Obama talked about Afghanistan as the necessary war. He talked like he was committed to winning it, not merely ending it. Now it seems clear that he does not think it is possible to achieve in Afghanistan anything like the definition of success that animated his war stance in 2008. The more he talks about Afghanistan, the more evident this contrast will be.
Part of the answer may also be that because Obama's war aims have shifted, his de facto policy actually might enjoy majority support. Most Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan and tell pollsters "the U.S. should not be involved in Afghanistan now." Moreover, they approve of the U.S. withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, which is the aspect of his war strategy that Obama emphasizes the most. Of course, Obama scores better with the public on foreign policy more generally than he does on the economy where the public has strongly negative evaluations. Although the question is not asked very often, he also has a slight advantage on Afghanistan. So perhaps the Obama administration believes they are doing as well as can be hoped with the public in this area.
And part of the answer is that Obama has thoroughly lost his base on Afghanistan. It is not clear that the left truly believed in the war in 2008, but it is absolutely clear they do not believe in the war now. The left has not yet mobilized against the Afghanistan war the way they mobilized against the Iraq war, and if Obama wins a second term perhaps they won't (if Romney wins, I expect anti-war factions to regain some of their 2006 mojo). The Obama campaign has put all of its 2012 electoral bets on a base mobilization strategy, and so the last thing the president wants to do is remind his base of anything he has done that they don't like.
For all these reasons, and perhaps others, President Obama has largely shirked the traditional commander in chief duty of mobilizing political and public support for the wars he is leading. In contrast with President Bush, who clearly believed in the wars he led and sought every opportunity to try to rally the public to the war cause, President Obama seems far more ambivalent about some of his war duties.
I wonder if Obama faces any pressure inside the White House on this matter. So far as I can tell, the Obama White House has not created a unit like the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), the Bush-era committee charged with explaining the war to the American people. The WHIG is infamous in Bush-hating circles as the "shadowy" organization that allegedly came up with the strategy to "mislead" the American public with "exaggerated" claims about Iraqi WMD. So I guess we should not be surprised that the Obama White House has not created the WHAG, the White House Afghanistan Group.
I was not in the White House during the period when the WHIG was doing the things that drive Bush-haters around the bend. The period I know best is after 2005, by which point the WHIG was focused on something that should seem more appealing to the Obama White House: making sure the American people and their political representatives understood the logic behind the war strategy and were equipped with the best information about the war that could be assembled.
And, crucially, the WHIG spent a fair bit of time thinking through how best to have the president lead in this effort. If the Obama White House is engaged in a similar activity, no reporter I have talked to has uncovered it.
The Obama White House has certainly devoted itself to trying to persuade the public to support the President, and perhaps some of that effort helps shore up support for the war. But so far as I can determine, the Obama White House has not devoted itself to trying to persuade the public to support the war itself -- and it doesn't appear that anyone in the White House has this as a priority item on his or her to do list.
A few months ago, the Obama campaign received some negative press for a poorly attended campaign rally. Instead of the overflow crowds expected, the president spoke to a cavernous hall filled with empty seats. I was reminded of this when I read this post over at the Weekly Standard blog, itself drawing on Politico's ebook on the Obama campaign infighting.
That's a lot of hyperlinking to make one further connection: when I first read the story it reminded me of another disastrous rally at Ohio State, this time in 1998, in the St. John's basketball arena (the Obama rally was in the Schottenstein Center, the basketball arena that replaced St. John's).
In 1998, the Clinton administration was engaged in an escalating war of words with Saddam Hussein over Iraq's failure to cooperate with international weapons inspectors. The Clinton administration claimed Hussein was hiding his WMD programs from the inspectors. The administration threatened to use military strikes to force compliance (people with shorter memories will think I am describing the Bush era 2002-2003 confrontation with Iraq, but in fact a very similar dynamic had unfolded some five years earlier, which helps explain why Bush got such strong bipartisan support for the 2002 congressional bill authorizing the use of force against Iraq). Indeed, by December 1998, the Clinton administration did order Operation Desert Fox, the largest set of airstrikes in between the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion. In the beginning of 1998, however, the Clinton administration was hoping to avoid those airstrikes by achieving its diplomatic goals through threats and coercive diplomacy.
The Clinton effort at coercive messaging was foundering, however, because the Beltway was consumed with the Lewinsky affair, which broke on Jan. 17, 1998 with the famous Drudge Report story based on leaks from a Newsweek investigation. Within days, the Lewinsky scandal was the only thing people would talk about, which was enormously frustrating for Clinton national security policymakers who argued, with good reason, that there were other pressing issues that deserved national attention -- like Iraq.
So the administration hit upon the bright idea of going out of the Capitol and into the heartland, away from the Lewinsky-obsessed press and to a community presumably more ready to discuss big issues not involving "that woman, Miss Lewinsky." The administration deployed the top three national security policymakers -- Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen, and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger -- to conduct a conversation on Iraqi WMD programs moderated by CNN host Judy Woodruff.
However, the OSU-Iraq event was botched, and Clinton insiders told the New York Times it was because perhaps because the A-team for spin did not plan the OSU event, presumably because they were in damage-control mode on Lewinsky. The administration advance people picked a venue far too big (sound familiar?) and then exercised inadequate control over who attended, allowing in members of the Spartacist League, a notorious group of rabble rousers. Rather than getting the civil conversation they expected, the Clinton cabinet officials were soon drowned out by hecklers and protestors. Instead of signaling resolve to Hussein, the event signaled administration chaos. Indeed, the Clinton administration itself seemed to come away from the event shaken and doubting the public's resolve in a confrontation with Iraq.
Of course, the Obama event was a snafu of a different sort, and, arguably, far less important. But the two events struck similar chords for me, and I thought the echoes worth noting.
At a minimum, they remind me, as a lowly former staffer, of the way that principals are at risk every time they trust staffers to do something for them. The May 2012 event was not the fault of Obama, nor was the February 1998 event the fault of Albright, Cohen, and Berger. Yet they, and to a certain extent their policies, paid the public price for what was most likely low-level staffing errors. Good staffing can make leaders look better than they deserve. Bad staffing can make them look worse than they deserve.
And perhaps some Democrats are wondering why they have been snake-bit by OSU twice. The next time a staffer has a bright idea of an event to show-case the administration, I am guessing OSU will not get the nod.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama campaign has levied more than its fair share of bogus critiques of Governor Romney and the Republicans. Already in 2011, one of their favorite critiques won the dubious distinction of being Politifact’s “lie of the year.” Alas, the lie of year in 2011 has a chance of defending the title in 2012 what with the extreme response to Paul Ryan. And 2012 has seen a steady parade of charges, each more absurd than the last: Governor Romney is guilty of a felony, Governor Romney never paid taxes, Governor Romney causes people to die from cancer, Governor Romney hates puppies.
Yet, for my money, the charge that takes the greatest chutzpah for an Obama supporter to offer with a straight face is the claim that Governor Romney has insufficient experience and qualifications to be Commander-in-Chief. I might listen respectfully to someone who argued that Senator Obama was unqualified in 2008 and now in 2012 wants to say Governor Romney is unqualified, too. Perhaps someone like that exists and, if so, perhaps a reader could direct me thither.
But it takes a special kind of blinkered partisan to have touted the national security qualifications of the junior senator from Illinois (not quite through his first term in office) and now to question the preparedness of the former Governor of Massachusetts. And yet such blinkered partisanship abounds today, and even makes occasional appearances at FP.com. Consider two recent examples.
Exhibit A: Wes Clark claims, “[Romney] doesn't bring any real national security experience to the issues at hand. He doesn't have any foreign-policy experience. He has less foreign policy experience than Senator Obama had when he ran.” This is the kind of nonsense one expects to hear from a reality TV host, not from a serious observer of the national security challenges we face today. Oh, wait a minute…
Exhibit B: Michael Cohen blogs that Romney’s pick of Ryan shows that he neither understands nor cares about foreign policy. Cohen neatly elides over the obvious comparison with a delicious hand-wave -- “say what you will about Obama’s foreign-policy expertise when he ran for president in 2007 and 2008…” Yes, what about that expertise that seemed unimportant in 2008 when Obama was running against a war hero who had made national security policy a life-long focus, but should now be uppermost when Obama is facing Romney? Cohen’s answer is that Obama was right to oppose the Iraq war, which makes him vastly superior to everyone who supported it (people like Obama’s choice for VP, for instance, who, according to Cohen, brought foreign policy credibility to the ticket).
It is fair to critique Romney’s foreign policy platform. It is fair to critique Romney’s campaign-related foreign travel.
It is even fair to say that after 3-plus years of on-the-job training President Obama now has more national security experience than Governor Romney has. But it is self-discrediting to turn that observation into a resume-based claim that a candidate with Romney’s extensive executive experience in global business and politics somehow flunks the commander-in-chief test. If Obama supporters want to be taken seriously on national security, they need to make serious arguments. Claiming that then-Senator Obama was qualified whereas Governor Romney is not, is fundamentally unserious.
The dominant story line of the Ryan pick is probably the correct one: This focuses the national election on the Big Issue of the parties' differing philosophies on how to fix America's troubled economy. I have been struck by the zeal with which both sides have embraced the Ryan pick, each believing that it presents a golden opportunity to present the contrast between the two parties. Each team fervently believes the contrast favors their side, since each team fervently believes the American public will embrace their view, if only the view is presented clearly enough.
But does the Ryan pick have any implications for foreign policy, the bailiwick of Shadow Government? To answer that, I reviewed the most consequential Ryan speech on foreign policy, an address to the Hamilton Society (full disclosure: I am the faculty advisor to Duke's chapter of the Hamilton Society and enthusiastically support its mission to provide informed debate on foreign-policy issues to college campuses).
The speech is well-worth listening to. Early on, Ryan offers a pithy summation that "our fiscal policy is on a collision course with our foreign policy." He fully embraces the Republican critique that the crash is avoidable -- that, because our political leaders keep kicking the fiscal can down the road, "we are choosing decline." Such decline is not inevitable, nor is it desirable.
The Obama campaign is going to great lengths to paint Ryan's political views as extreme. When it comes to foreign policy, I don't think they will be able to do that. The worldview Ryan presents in the speech may bother some FP colleagues, but it is not an extreme or radical worldview. Or, to put the matter more sharply: It is definitely not an un-American view. Indeed, it is squarely within the bipartisan mainstream of American foreign-policy practitioners.
It is a worldview that recognizes the benefits -- to the United States and to the world -- that has come from American global leadership.
It is a worldview that tempers American exceptionalism with a recognition of the universalism of American ideals -- that is, Ryan recognizes that America is expected to bear burdens that other states do not, and also recognizes that the American idea has an appeal that other national founding ideas do not.
With a little digging, one could find echoing quotes from almost every president since Lincoln.
It is not triumphalistic; Ryan acknowledges limits to American power (as every president has done). It recognizes the need for prudence: In a brief section on Saudi Arabia, Ryan carefully navigates the tricky shoals of how to work with a longtime partner that does not share our values.
Perhaps its greatest appeal is the way he twins pessimism and optimism. Ryan paints a very pessimistic (albeit realistic) picture of the trajectory the country is on. And Ryan paints a very optimistic (and hopefully realistic) picture of the trajectory the country could be on, if we got our fiscal house in order.
It is this optimism that may provide the greatest appeal, and the most important philosophical contribution. My friend and former colleague Ryan Streeter is one of the most articulate thinkers on the ingredients of upward mobility and improving opportunity for lower- and working-class Americans, and he has long identified Paul Ryan as the political leader who most embodies the aspirational nature of American society. Streeter quotes Paul Ryan in a recent interview laying out this vision -- including a robust social safety net that serves more as a spring upward rather than a dependency trap:
We want an upward mobility society. We don't want a safety net that turns into a hammock that lulls people into dependency in this country. We want people to get up on their feet and grab that higher rung of the economic ladder. We believe in upward mobility. We don't believe in class division. We believe in growth and prosperity, helping people when they are down on their luck get back on their feet, and pro-growth economic policies that put America in the lead, that make us competitive, that stop tearing people down in this zero-sum thinking.
That last sentence contains the most consequential implication of Romney's selection of Ryan for American foreign policy. The possibilities of upward mobility, innovation, and entrepreneurship are also the attributes that have long distinguished America's global competitiveness and leadership. Romney and Ryan both realize that the single most important quotient of American power is the prosperity and moral purpose of the American economy, to generate prosperity and to inspire those across the globe who aspire to better lives for themselves.
Of course, in a short (20 minute) speech, Ryan cannot and does not answer all questions. He will get those questions in the coming weeks. If his Hamilton speech is any guide, his answers will likely resonate well with American voters.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
A friend with a better memory than mine had an interesting reaction to my post about Secretary Clinton's opposition to an artificial timeline to end the Afghan surge. He said it reminded him of an earlier episode in 2007 involving timelines, the Iraq surge, and then-Senator Clinton.
Back then, Congressional Democrats were vigorously opposed to the Iraq surge, and were mounting a coordinated effort designed to block it, thwart it, or at the very least bring it to an early end. Politico called it a "slow bleed" strategy, because it involved trying to hobble the surge with all sorts of restrictions that might have a superficial appeal but that had knowable secondary effects that would undermine the surge.
One of those restrictions was getting the Bush administration to announce a timeline for ending the surge, which Congress could then use as a device to lock in an Iraqi withdrawal. The Bush administration did not want to establish such a public timeline in 2007, while the surge was still unfolding, and instead promised to unwind the surge at a pace based on conditions on the ground.
This promise was not good enough for Congressional Democrats, and one of them, Senator Hillary Clinton sent a letter to the Department of Defense demanding that it release internal analyses and plans that considered various alternative timelines. Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman wrote back:
"Premature and public discussion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq reinforces enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies in Iraq, much as we are perceived to have done in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia... Such talk understandably unnerves the very same Iraqi allies we are asking to assume enormous personal risks."
Senator Clinton angrily claimed that this response was "impugning the patriotism of any of us who raise serious questions" about the way the administration was running the Iraq war. Clinton's letter was remarkably ad hominem in its attacks on Edelman, alleging he had his "priorities backward" and calling his claim that withdrawal talk would embolden the enemy "outrageous and dangerous."
In the light of this 2007 episode, now-Secretary Clinton's views on the Afghan surge timeline are all the more remarkable and newsworthy. Here, according to David Sanger, are her views today:
"Clinton thought [the deadline to start pulling the surge troops back out] was a mistake and still does; an internal deadline would have been fine, she believed, but a public one simply telegraphed to the Taliban and the Pakistanis when the United States would be leaving. The Taliban read the newspapers too, she pointed out.
In the end her concern -- also voiced by Gates -- seems prescient. The effort to explore the possibility of 'reconciliation' talks with the Taliban sputtered along in low gear for years. It is impossible to know for certain how the pullout plan affected the Taliban's calculations, but interviews with Taliban taken prisoner by NATO suggested that the insurgents knew time was on their side, and they were simply waiting for the Americans to begin a significant withdrawal.
In other words, according to Sanger, Secretary Clinton opposed announcing the Afghan surge withdrawal timeline for the very same reasons that she denounced as "outrageous and dangerous" earlier as a Senator.
Secretary Clinton has been a comparative bright spot in the Obama administration, and so I bring up past performance with some reluctance lest it impugn future success. Comparing these two surge timeline debates probably says more about the quality of politics five years ago than it does about the quality of her contribution to Obama policymaking today.
And I cannot disprove the hypothesis that Clinton's simply views evolved in the interval. Perhaps she sincerely believed in the wisdom of public timelines in 2007 and changed her mind in ensuing years; perhaps she sincerely believed that raising concerns about those timelines was tantamount to questioning one's patriotism in 2007 and has a different view today. (I reject absolutely the notion that in raising doubts about the Afghan surge timeline she was seeking to impugn the patriotism of those in the Obama administration, most notably the president himself, who wanted it.)
Yet I think it is more likely that Senator Clinton was pursuing a partisan agenda in 2007, whereas Secretary Clinton today is motivated more by weightier concerns about the overall success of the Afghan mission.
If so, then wouldn't it be laudable if Secretary Clinton offered an apology to Edelman?
Even if no such gracious gesture is forthcoming, Republicans can benefit if they take to heart the central lesson of this little morality tale: positions that look appealing when one is sitting on the political opposition benches can look appalling when one is sitting in the Oval Office.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
Nick Kristof has an interesting column outlining his takeaways from the recent Aspen Strategy Group summer workshop. I was at the same workshop, and it seems he and I had a similar reaction: It was striking how many different experts believed that the United States was going to have to pursue a more interventionist American posture in Syria than the one the Obama administration currently is following.
The view was not unanimous, of course, and most supporters of American intervention seemed to arrive at the position reluctantly, without any illusions about how easy or cheap this would be. Moreover, most recommendations included explicit or implicit restrictions and caveats, such as "no U.S. ground troops" or "must get Arab League endorsement" -- some even would wait for explicit authorization in a new U.N. Security Council Resolution. Yet few thought the Obama administration's current strategy was working, and most did not think that the administration had yet articulated a coherent and plausible way forward.
The discussion on Iran was also lively, with a wide range of views, some quite hawkish and others quite dovish. Yet here again I was struck by how many strategists believed that the window for a diplomatic resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue was closing. And a sizable number of them believed that when the window closed, if push came to shove, the U.S. president, whoever he might be, would have to decide for war.
In short, I came away from the workshop thinking that the tide of war is rising, not receding. Whether the tide will reach all the way to a full American intervention involving substantial ground troops, I do not know. But I do know that the Obama administration has not prepared the ground politically, rhetorically, fiscally, or any other way for a new American military confrontation.
The timing is exceedingly awkward. Neither presidential campaign seems eager for an extensive public discussion on possible future military interventions (the Obama campaign seems happy to have extensive discussions about past interventions, especially the Bin Laden raid). President Obama, who rarely talked about Afghanistan despite authorizing a major escalation in the war there, seems more comfortable talking about ending interventions than launching them.
But events may force the conversation, and a growing number of people sympathetic to the president seem to be coming to that very conclusion.
When Nick Kristof starts accusing the president of being AWOL, the tide is turning. What will President Obama say in response?
Kris Connor/Getty Images
My August "beach" reading plans got waylaid when I picked up David Sanger's remarkable book, Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power.
This is one of the most gripping "first draft of history" kind of books I have read in quite some time. It reads like a Tom Clancy novel, perhaps too much like one since it offers dramatic revelations on some of the most sensitive operations of the U.S. government. Many of the revelations paint President Obama in the most favorable light possible, but the cumulative effect might ironically be damaging to the administration, precisely because the reporting on sensitive matters is so extensive.
Sanger is a gifted reporter, and he is also an honest one. While it is obvious that he views the Administration favorably and he goes to some lengths to highlight positive angles where he can, he also includes items that don't reflect so well on the administration.
One of those in the Afghanistan section really struck me. Sanger describes the internal debate over the Afghanistan surge and reports that both Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Clinton considered it a mistake to announce an artificial timeline for ending the surge at the same time that the president authorized the surge. I knew about Gates' position, but I didn't know about Clinton's.
Sanger goes on to say:
“Clinton thought [the deadline to start pulling the surge troops back out] was a mistake and still does; an internal deadline would have been fine, she believed, but a public one simply telegraphed to the Taliban and the Pakistanis when the United States would be leaving. The Taliban read the newspapers too, she pointed out.
In the end her concern -- also voiced by Gates -- seems prescient. The effort to explore the possibility of ‘reconciliation' talks with the Taliban sputtered along in low gear for years. It is impossible to know for certain how the pullout plan affected the Taliban's calculations, but interviews with Taliban taken prisoner by NATO suggested that the insurgents knew time was on their side, and they were simply waiting for the Americans to begin a significant withdrawal.
This is a remarkable bit of reporting and I am surprised it has not received more attention. It is, of course, not big news that the timeline was a blunder. Many people recognized that from the very start, and it has been a theme of many posts here on Shadow Government. It is also a standard talking point of the Romney campaign.
What is big news is that key players in the Obama administration knew it was a mistake from the beginning, and that one very important one is willing to admit that to David Sanger even today.
It may be too late to repair the damage of the strategic blunder, but Secretary Clinton's concession and candor on this issue is nonetheless refreshing.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.