It's incredibly discouraging to see former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney vituperatively reopen disputes from George W. Bush's administration. His scorched-earth excoriation of critics makes little distinction between those who would recklessly endanger America and those who also had the country's -- and the president's -- best interests as their motivation. This cannot assist the conservative cause; in fact, it serves to remind us how much the vice president's actions have impeded acceptance of the very policies he advocates.
By his own testimony, Cheney supported, and continues to support, all the policies that most incensed the administration's critics and even some of its supporters: "enhanced interrogation techniques," the Guantánamo prison, politicization of intelligence, assertion of executive authority, sharp-edged uses of military might, and support for Iraqi expatriates as a government-in-waiting after the 2003 invasion. He denigrated both the policies (diplomatic engagement, working through international institutions) and the people (Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice) that argued his approach was unduly driving up the cost of achieving the president's aims.
Give Cheney his due: Many of these policies were and are essential to protect Americans from terrorist attacks. The proof of which is Barack Obama himself -- a candidate who ran for president on opposition to those policies, but then adopted nearly all of them once in office, including indefinite detention and trial by military tribunal.
But if Cheney deserves credit for staunchly advocating necessary policies, he also deserves considerable blame for crafting and enacting those policies in ways that increased the cost to the president for adopting them, and made them more difficult to sustain.
The most damaging example was Cheney's vociferous support for reclaiming executive authority instead of working with congressional leaders to pass legislation that would demonstrate broad political support and establish the basis for judicial review. It freighted terrorism policies with the added requirement of subordinating the other branches of government. As Ben Wittes (whose blog Lawfare is essential reading on these issues) has often argued, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, there was a bipartisan consensus in Congress -- as the authorizations for the use of military force showed -- and much that needed to be achieved could have been achieved with skillful engagement of the machinery of American democracy.
Executive privilege had consequences beyond setting solid foundations for sustaining the policies, too. As Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor powerfully argued at West Point in 2005, it left the U.S. military in the unfair position of being both "our combatants and our conscience," because the executive and legislative branches of government failed to provide them the proper framework for their actions.
But Cheney displays a contempt for Congress and those who don't agree with him to an extent that is unhealthy in a free society. The former vice president is now a private citizen. Conservatives who are public citizens, engaged in running for office and crafting policies, would do well to remember how much Cheney's approach hurt both the president he served and the causes he sought to advance. Having the right answer isn't good enough. The president and his cabinet must also engage the levers of democracy to build a broad base of support, especially when the policies have few good alternatives. His legacy has made it more difficult for conservatives to support and enact the very policies he advocated.
Pity poor Lebanon. Earlier this month, the murderous regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad imposed a government in Beirut dominated by the terrorist group, Hezbollah -- which, as it happens, we were reminded just this morning, likely carried out the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. Before our very eyes, the Lebanon of not-so-distant memory -- pluralist, free-wheeling, open to the West and the values of liberalism -- is being snuffed out by U.S. enemies. And by all appearances, no one can really be bothered, including, sadly enough, the Obama administration.
Six months ago, the pro-Western Saad Hariri (Rafiq's son) walked into an Oval Office meeting with President Obama as Lebanon's prime minister. He walked out a mere caretaker. Syria and Hezbollah chose precisely that moment to collapse his government. The immediate cause was Hariri's refusal to comply with the demand that he terminate his government's support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) -- whose first indictments, handed down today, finger Hezbollah for carrying out the horrific bombing that killed his legendary father.
But the gambit to take down Saad was also widely understood to have a more strategic purpose, a humiliating slap at Obama and the United States. The message could not have been clearer: Such will be the fate of the United States' friends who dare defy the ascendant Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis. Obama, and Washington, can do nothing to protect you.
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This week, Lebanon served up a reminder for the United States and the partisans of the Arab uprisings: don't count your democracies before they've hatched. Having thrown off the yoke of Syrian occupation in 2005 after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon once again finds itself under the control of Iran and Syria. Allies of these two countries, including Hezbollah, control the majority of the posts in the new Lebanese cabinet announced on Monday.
This development is a blow to freedom and sovereignty in Lebanon, and a setback for U.S. interests in the region. It holds, however, two lessons which, if taken to heart, can help Arab democrats and U.S. policymakers successfully entrench democracy in places like Egypt and Tunisia.
The first of these lessons is that extremists are capable of exploiting democratic institutions to undermine democracy itself. Lebanon's Cedar Revolution and the departure of Syrian forces were negative developments for Hezbollah and Lebanese allies of Damascus. Their patrons had departed or faded into the shadows, many of their compatriots were jailed for crimes committed under Syrian rule, and their longtime foes were politically ascendant.
But rather than hang their heads, Hezbollah and its allies changed tactics. Hezbollah had three powerful advantages. First, it enjoyed a not-insignificant degree of popularity amongst Lebanon's Shia community. It bolstered this popularity by erecting a patronage network fueled by Iranian financial support, and using intimidation and violence to silence Shia rivals. Second, Lebanon's explicitly sectarian political system allotted to the Shia -- and thus to Hezbollah or its proxies, given its domination of the Shia political landscape -- a sizable role in the country's political institutions. Thirdly and most importantly, unlike other Lebanese militias, it had not disarmed following the Lebanese civil war, but instead used the pretext of "resistance" against Israel (despite Israeli forces' withdrawal from Lebanon) not only to retain its weapons, but to build an arsenal surpassing that of many national armies. Hezbollah also erected a formidable command and control and logistical network, putting airports, telecommunications, and other infrastructure at its disposal.
ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images
Reading through the various detailed accounts, and keeping in mind that we are still learning new things and unlearning things we thought we knew barely a day ago, I am struck by the following aspects of the affair:
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
A word about Lebanon. Given everything else happening in the Middle East, it's easy to lose track of that country's plight. The last time most Americans tuned in back in January, Hezbollah -- backed by Syria and Iran -- had successfully engineered a bloodless coup, using threats of violence and intimidation to collapse the democratically-elected government of Saad Hariri and nominate its own candidate for prime minister. The fact that they chose to do so at precisely the moment that the pro-Western Hariri was being hosted in the Oval Office by President Obama only underscored the extent to which the maneuver was not simply an assault on Lebanon's democracy and independence, but a calculated effort to undermine U.S. interests and power in the Levant. For many, it looked to be the final nail in the coffin of Lebanon's Cedar Revolution, the popular uprising in 2005 that ended three decades of Syrian military occupation and brought Hariri's March 14th coalition to power. Lebanon, it appeared, had truly gone dark.
But not so fast. Bloodied and bruised, March 14th is not yet cowed. In mid-February, on the sixth anniversary of the bombing that killed his legendary father, Hariri strongly denounced Hezbollah's coup and declared that March 14th would re-constitute itself as a full-fledged opposition to the Iranian/Syrian/Hezbollah project in Lebanon. He vowed to fight their effort to derail the international tribunal investigating his father's murder, which is widely expected to unveil indictments in the near future fingering Hezbollah's central role in the conspiracy. Even more daringly, Hariri recently doubled down when he announced that the disarmament of Hezbollah would be resurrected as the centerpiece of March 14th's political program to save Lebanon's democracy, sovereignty, and independence. True to his word, March 14th yesterday released "Independence 2011," a new political manifesto aimed at securing Lebanon's freedom by bringing Hezbollah's arms under state control and bringing Hariri-père's killers to justice.
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As the world's attention remains rapt with the surge of "people power" in North Africa and the Middle East toppling and threatening to topple unpopular dictators, the Brookings Institution this week hosted a panel discussion on ways the United States could better co-operate with the five-decade-old Castro dictatorship in Cuba.
Talk about a monumental case of bad timing.
Keynoting the session was former New Mexico governor and self-styled diplomatic troubleshooter Bill Richardson, who was in Cuba as recently as last August leading a trade mission of businessmen looking to cut deals with the Castro regime. (Agricultural products are exempt from the embargo.)
Apparently oblivious to the irony of advocating normalizing relations with the Castro dictatorship even as thousands are risking their lives to oppose tyrannies elsewhere, Governor Richardson forged ahead with ways the Obama administration could improve relations with the Castro regime by lessening current U.S. sanctions.
Among them, removing Cuba from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. According to Richardson, "My view is that this terrorism list is not very consistent. It's an emotional issue." In other words, Cuba's listing lacks merit or substance.
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According to reports, Congresswoman Jane Harman is resigning from her seat in the House of Representatives.
As I indicated earlier, the "thoughtful on national security" wing of the Democratic caucus suffered heavy losses in the midterm election. I worried that with a smaller group of moderate Democrats with which to partner, bipartisanship on national security policy would be that much harder to forge.
It just got a little harder with the departure of Jane Harman. Apparently, her new post will be head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars where she will retain her prominent voice on national policy. But she will be speaking from the outside rather than from the inside.
The reports do not say why she is leaving, but it is no secret that she was on the outs with former Speaker now-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. It is possible that that situation was bearable while Democrats held the majority and became unbearable in the new era. Whatever the reason, it is a loss for the Democratic Party and, I believe, for the country more generally. I wish her every success in her new venture, and I also hope that new voices emerge in the Democratic caucus with her foreign policy sensibility. I just wish I was as confident of the latter as I am of the former.
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For an administration that claims there is no conflict between our interests and our values, the Obama administration has sure seemed to have a difficult time balancing U.S. interests in a stable Egypt with the U.S. values of a democratic Egypt.
The administration is in a legitimately tough position deciding how much support to continue giving an authoritarian government that has proved useful to us. But as the protests have worn on, the president, like Secretary Clinton, hit a better balance, calling on the Mubarak government to set in motion a transition to free elections. Vice President Biden was characteristically maladroit, claiming Mubarak was not a dictator and explaining that all the Egyptian protesters were seeking was "a little more opportunity." The Pentagon was characteristically calm and forward leaning, reaching out to the Egyptian defense establishment -- which is indistinguishable from the Egyptian government at its highest levels -- to urge professionalism and restraint.
The Egyptian military has already delivered on the only important near-term military request the United States is likely to make: not using force against the protesters. How might democratization in Egypt affect U.S.-Egyptian military cooperation? Short of an Iranian-style Islamic government overtly hostile to the United States, Mubarak's departure is unlikely to affect military cooperation with the United States. The United States does not actually rely on the Egyptian military for much militarily, and most of that which the United States does is very much in their interests to continue. But it could affect Egyptian-Israeli cooperation, with enormous consequences for the United States.
For military purposes, the United States relies on the Egyptian government in three main ways: 1) acting as a transit for U.S. military forces, 2) preventing Egypt from becoming a base for terrorist activity that would affect the United States, and 3) protecting Israel.
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Signals from the White House indicate that President Obama's State of the Union (SOTU) address tomorrow night will focus heavily on domestic and economic policy. Understandably so, as domestic and economic issues spurred the GOP's massive Congressional gains, and remain the nation's predominant concerns. The SOTU is President Obama's best platform to regain the political initiative and point the country towards his preferred course over the next two years.
Yet the president should not neglect national security policy in the SOTU, for two reasons. First, while the American people are his primary audience, we are not his only audience. Foreign leaders -- friends, foes, and fence-sitters alike -- will be watching keenly for signs from Obama about strategic priorities and U.S. resolve. Second, while domestic and economic policy has thus far defined this presidency, the future by its nature will surprise, and national security could reemerge as a defining concern.
Here are three issues President Obama should address tomorrow night:
Afghanistan. The administration continues to send conflicting and conflicted signals about the Afghanistan war and the meaning of July 2011 as a "drawdown" date. As Peter Feaver has argued, the White House's rhetorical neglect of Afghanistan threatens to erode tenuous public support. Meanwhile, key actors -- ranging from our NATO allies, India, and the Afghan people and government to Pakistan and the Taliban -- all remain uncertain about the United States' commitment to success in the Afghan mission. And all will in their own ways hedge accordingly. The Congressional audience tomorrow night will be essential for supporting and continuing to fund the war effort -- and needs to know it is a priority for the president. Most important, U.S. forces currently deployed in theater need to hear from their commander-in-chief that he is resolved to see their efforts through.
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Some quick thoughts on the bombing in Stockholm last weekend that injured two and killed the suicide bomber:
First, this attack, like so many that have occurred over the past two years, shows the interconnectedness of the Salafi jihadist groups. The Stockholm bomber, Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, was radicalized in Britain; almost certainly travelled to Iraq and Jordan for jihad training; explicitly carried out his attack in the name of the Islamic State (of Iraq); and was encouraged to do so by a Swedish jihadist in Somalia.
Second, the radicalization of Abdaly confirms that Britain's reputation for creating extremists is well-deserved. Before 2001, al-Abdaly had led the normal life of a Swedish young man -- his friends commented on his Israeli girlfriend, his beer-drinking, and his partying while in high school. All this changed once he arrived in Luton, Britain, which has become infamous as a center for radical Islam. Abdaly was transformed into an extremist over the course of the next few years, perhaps by the preaching of al-Muhajiroun, a radical group whose former leader, Anjem Choudary, has said that the suicide bombing should be seen as a "severe warning" and "should not come as a surprise."
Third, arguments that involvement in the Iraq war or the fighting in Afghanistan is what truly angers the extremists no longer ring true. In his martyrdom statement sent to Swedish law enforcement and media, Abdaly accused the Swedes of failing to sufficiently condemn the drawings of Lars Vilks and of having any presence at all in Afghanistan (however peaceful their participation). If ordinary Swedes can be singled out as worthy of death for these policies, then no one is safe from suicide bombing.
Finally, Iraqi officials have just warned that more attacks are on the way: Abdaly's attempt, captured insurgents have said, is just the first of many more plots planned for the Christmas season in both Europe and the United States.
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This is the third in a series of posts responding to Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars and to the administration's Afghanistan policy. A major theme of the book is the civilian-military divide over Afghanistan policy. The administration felt that the military was too forthright in advocating for the deployment of 40,000 more troops for a full counterinsurgency campaign. The president and his advisors felt the Pentagon had settled on one course of action and was refusing to provide him with a full range of options.
First, that doesn't seem to be an accurate reflection of events. The military did in fact provide the administration with several options, according to Woodward: the 40,000 option; an 85,000 fully-resourced counterinsurgency campaign; and, after the administration's pushback, the deployment of 20,000 troops for a scaled-down mission. The president, and apparently everyone else, simply disregarded the 85,000 option as "unrealistic." But it was an actual option that the military presented and was only perceived as unrealistic because the administration simply wouldn't consider it (even though no one seemed to dispute that the 85,000 would have the best chance of defeating the Taliban).
Second, and more importantly, it seems the administration was trying to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to the military. The president asked the military for its options but then disliked what it recommended. The president reportedly wanted "choices that would limit U.S. involvement and provide a way out," according to Woodward, while still protecting U.S. security interests in the region. The military responded (rightly, in my view) that the goals of limiting U.S. involvement, on the one hand, and protecting U.S. interests, on the other, were at odds with each other. The president's frustration is understandable, but it is not the military's fault. He can't ask the military for its best advice, and then ask it to give different advice when he doesn't like what they give him. That comes close to politicizing the military. The military brass was right to try to find creative solutions to meet the president's goals while not compromising their professional judgment.
I suspect this is what Col. John Tien, the senior director for Afghanistan and Pakistan (with whom I worked for almost two years), meant when he reportedly told the president, "I don't see how you can defy your military chain here… because if you tell McChrystal 'I got your assessment, got your resource constructs, but I've chosen to do something else,' you're going to probably have to replace him." He was saying, as tactfully as a colonel can say to the commander-in-chief, that the president has the authority to disregard the military's advice, but if he simply wants to hear different advice, he needs different people.
The military may have overstepped its bounds at times (like McChrystal's speech in London while the strategy review was ongoing). But by pushing back so hard on the military's professional advice, the president may have short-changed and distorted the discussion. He communicated that his priority was not maximizing the chances of victory, but getting out of Afghanistan quickly. He communicated that he did not want the best professional advice: He wanted the best option within extremely restrictive and artificial conditions on time and resources. When the commander-in-chief communicates that, mental light bulbs start to go out all over the bureaucracy and the military. The prevailing thought is "If the president is not vested in this mission, why should we be?" The president will only get the best advice if he is willing to listen to it.
What has thwarted the president's goal is not the military, but the Taliban. Obama wants to get out of Afghanistan relatively quickly but without risking U.S. interests in the region. The Taliban simply won't let us do that. In war, the enemy gets a vote too.
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
The New America Foundation convened a conference this week to showcase the work of Robert Pape, in the hopes that his policy prescriptions will be picked up as an alternative to our current strategy in Afghanistan. This would be a terrible idea.
Pape's research shows that the majority of suicide bomb attacks occur in places
occupied by U.S. military forces; from this he concludes that we should adopt a
strategy of "offshore balancing." By which he means to remove U.S.
forces and rely on military strikes into the countries, along with more
effective political and economic engagement. Neither the research nor the
prescriptions are sound bases for policy.
To say that attacks occur where U.S. forces are deployed is to say no more than Willy Sutton, who robbed banks because "that's where the money is." Pape's approach ignores the context in which deployment and stationing of U.S. forces occurs. We send troops to advance our interests, protect our allies, and contest the political and geographic space that groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban are operating in. Of course the attacks will stop if we cede those political objectives. But the troops are not the point, the political objectives are the point.
The second important context Pape glosses over is that suicide attacks do not occur wherever in the world U.S. troops are deployed. Troops stationed in Germany, Japan, or South Korea are not at risk of suicide attacks from the people of those countries. This is not just about U.S. troops, but also about the societies we are operating in. It is about a radical and violent interpretation of Islam that we are using military force to contest.
The policy prescriptions Pape advances are also problematic. An offshore balancing approach means that we will not be engaged with military forces on the ground, and yet what we have learned in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan is that we achieve our objectives most fully when indigenous forces are partnered with us and made able to take over the work of U.S. forces in the fight. They have greater legitimacy, local knowledge, and make the outcome most durable. That was the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq, and it is the purported approach of the Obama administration in Afghanistan. Pape's policies have no way to achieve that improvement in the capacity of partner forces.
An offshore balancing approach is also inherently retaliatory and has been shown to increase the resistance of affected populations to supporting our objectives. We threaten to use force from the safe confines of distance; that use of force may have pinpoint accuracy but will often be less precise and cause more civilian casualties than forces on the ground, which will again feed into public attitudes about whether to support U.S. goals. Instead of working with the people most affected and helping build their capacity to protect themselves, offshore balancing does little to change the problem in positive ways.
Except for the "improved" political and economic activity. How that will be undertaken in a deteriorating security environment is mysterious. Moreover, if we could do any better at the provision of political and economic engagement, we'd already be doing that.
Convincing allies the U.S. will commit itself to fight unless we have troops stationed where we expect the fight to occur has always been difficult. The history of the Cold War is replete with transatlantic discussion of extended deterrence: would the United States really send the boys back over if Germany were attacked? Would the United States really use nuclear weapons when our own homeland would be at risk of retaliation? It seems unlikely those concerns would be attenuated in societies we are less politically and culturally similar to than we are to Europeans.
In short, Robert Pape's "offshore balancing" approach would reduce violence by giving our enemies what they want: our disengagement, the ability to terrorize with impunity the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other places where the battle of ideas about Muslim modernity is engaged.
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A series of bomb scares and plots in Europe -- combined with a stepped-up campaign against jihadists in Pakistan -- reminds us once again of the threat posed by al Qaeda and the groups that support its ideology.
Let's start with Europe where France, perhaps because of its vote to ban the Islamic veil in public, has become a special target for the extremists. The bomb scares began on Sept. 14, when a Metro station and the Eiffel Tower were evacuated, and have continued since then with three further evacuations of both Metro stations and the Eiffel Tower, the last of which occurred just yesterday. France's security threat warning was raised to "reinforced red," the second highest possible level, and French officials announced that they were searching for a female suicide bomber who might attempt to attack public transportation. Counterterrorism officials in France linked the threats to al Qaeda's branch in North Africa (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghab, or AQIM) as well as to sleeper cells in France that were activated by extremists arriving from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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The 9/11 anniversary is a traditional time for taking stock of the war on terror, and the conventional wisdom has issued its verdict: the United States "over-reacted." The evidence the pundits offer includes the following: (a) the United States spent a great deal of money; (b) thousands of U.S. soldiers lost their lives; (c) the anti-terror bureaucracy is much larger than it was before; (d) policy favored the national security end of the long-standing continuum running from unfettered civil-liberties to absolute national security; and (e) al Qaeda has not launched another successful 9/11 sized attack on U.S. soil. Indeed, Osama Bin Laden is on the run and has become a marginalized figure.
The conventional wisdom would be more persuasive if the pundits engaged systematically and critically with the hypothesis that (a) plus (b) plus (c) plus (d) contributed to (e). As far as I can tell, they simply ignore that possibility.
However, the conventional wisdom does get one thing right: With a national security challenge of the magnitude posed by the 9/11 attacks, it is likely that U.S. strategists got some things wrong (and some things right... that part seems to have eluded the pundits). Strategy has an unavoidable trial-and-error element to it, and anniversaries are good moments for stock-taking.
I won't pretend to offer a complete list, but here are two I would flag in each column.
Two things we got wrong in the weeks immediately following 9/11:
Two things we got right in the weeks immediately following 9/11:
In sum, the record is mixed, but hardly as negative as the conventional wisdom paints.
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Al Qaeda has returned to the front pages with a deadly attack by an affiliate (al-Shabab) in Uganda that killed over seventy people, and the arrest on July 8 of a jihadist cell in Norway connected to al Qaeda. I'll write more later about the Uganda attacks, but the arrests are also important, and provide a significant glimpse into where we are at in the Long War.
The Norwegian plot aimed to attack that country's parliament, and consisted of at least three individuals who had been under surveillance for a year. This was apparently just the tip of a big iceberg, however, since the arrests were almost immediately connected to two other jihadist plots, in Britain and the United States, by law enforcement officials. The British jihadist group had been arrested first, in April 2009, and had allegedly been within days of carrying out a suicide bombing of shopping centers in Manchester. The U.S. plot was led by Najibullah Zazi, who pled guilty early this year to planning to bomb the New York City subway system in the fall of 2009. Government officials in all three countries tied the planned attacks to al Qaeda's central leadership, and not to the affiliates that have recently attempted attacks in the Untied States (such as the would-be Christmas day bomber).
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Now that administration officials have announced that the Pakistani Taliban (the TTP) were behind the recent attempted bombing of Times Square, we can turn to the question of why there have been so many threatened and actual attacks on the United States inspired by, or actually emanating from, places where the United States is not involved in an active war. A look at arrests in the United States from May 2009 to the present shows dozens of such cases -- many involving multiple suspects -- linked to places like Somalia, Yemen, and of course Pakistan. Four of the plotters (Abulhakim Mujahid Muhammad (Yemen), Nidal Malik Hasan (Yemen), Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (Yemen), and Faisal Shahzad (Pakistan) managed to carry out attacks, although only two were "successful."
One can see how exceptional this is by looking at previous years. In 2008 there was only one such case -- Bryant Neal Vinas -- and he was caught before he could carry out his planned attack. The previous year saw about two dozen cases, but many can be traced back to Iraq or Afghanistan and, as in 2008, none led to actual attacks. The questions are: Why has there been such a spike in cases this past year, and why were four of them able to advance beyond planning to attacks? This second question might be beyond the scope of anyone outside the government, but it is worth asking, in any case. The first question, however, does have some public data points that might help to answer it.
The New York Times believes that targeting Taliban figures led directly to the attacks on the United States, as anger over the deaths of Pakistani jihadist leaders like Baytullah Mehsud have spilled over into the United States. While there seems to be something to this assertion, there must be other factors at play as well. This was, after all, the strategy followed by the Bush administration, but only now has it led to a spike in plots against the American homeland from not only the Pakistani Taliban, but other jihadist groups worldwide.
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I have been struck by how the various sides in the war on terror debate have all found justification for their prior positions in the unfolding drama of the Times Square terrorist. Advocates of treating terrorism primarily as a law enforcement problem praise the rapid forensics that caught the suspect (albeit, just barely). Critics point to the near-misses and other troubling details and renew their complaints about the Obama-Holder approach to terrorism.
So far, everyone seems pretty sure that their prior convictions were sound. Alas, I am no exception. It seems to me that the following four points, all of which I already believed, are supported by this case:
It is possible that these and other similar points are merely evidence that I am a victim of confirmation bias, seeing in a new case only those things that confirm what I already believed. If so, I am probably in very good company. At least I am willing to ask: what in this case disproves these four points?
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In a stunning development, a leading member of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which unifies Pakistani Taliban groups under the authority of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Ladin, has claimed responsibility for the attempted attack on Times Square. The failed car bomb is yet another reminder that our enemies have not gone away, and the rush to take credit for it shows that they still want to kill as many Americans as possible. The lethality of the attempt should not be underestimated. Authorities on the scene described the propane canisters and gasoline tanks in the car, and experts have said that a successful detonation of the bomb would have created a fireball that might have killed dozens of pedestrians. But if this bomb was like the one recovered in 2007 from Piccadilly Circus, and comparisons are already being made with that earlier failed attempt, the car might also have contained nails and other metal objects intended to kill even more people in an explosion.
This attempted attack is also a reminder that the administration's conviction that "solving" the Israel-Palestine conflict will end the terrorist threat to the United States is mistaken. We cannot negotiate away or mollify the desire by al Qaeda, the Taliban, or other Salafi-jihadis to kill us, because the men who subscribe this ideology do not want a just peace between Israel and Palestine with two states living side by side: they want the destruction of Israel. They also do not have reasonable demands for the United States, e.g., a desire that the U.S. stop "meddling" in the affairs of the Muslim-majority world: they want the United States destroyed.
One other important point: we have now been lucky twice in just a few months -- the "underwear bomber" only failed to bring down the flight into Detroit because he did not correctly detonate his bomb. In much the same way, hundreds were spared in Times Square solely because the car bomb failed to explode. Lucky can only take you so far, however, and we need to be more than "lucky" if another attempt is going to be stopped.
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The Obama administration is talking tough on Iran. Despite allowing the Iranian government to escape sanction for a year of not accepting sugar-coated Western deadlines to abandon their nuclear program, and doing nothing about discovery of another nuclear plant at Qom, Team Obama is suddenly making an awful lot of noise.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's memo requesting White House guidance to further defense planning leaks, characterized as a wake up call for identifying military activity that could be taken against Iran. The national security advisor rebuts the characterization as a routine part of their 15 months of activity "successfully building a coalition of nations to isolate Iran and pressure it to live up to its obligations." Secretary Gates personally reinforces that view. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes (i.e., Presidential speechwriter -- since when did they become commentators of record on military options?) gets sent out to mop up any misunderstandings the hapless Jim Jones might have left. Admiral Mullen's Chairman's Guidance is revealed to task planning for "limited results" strikes on Iran. A prominent scientist who defected is publicly identified (picture in the newspaper) as an intelligence coup. The director of national intelligence publicly explains the national intelligence estimate on Iran has been delayed these six months because we suddenly have enormous streams on intelligence coming to us from disgruntled Iranian "technocrats." When the undersecretary of defense for policy tells a conference in Singapore military options are "not on the table in the near term," the secretary of defense personally refutes her statement. A senior administration official states the United States will not allow Iran to even acquire a "weapons capability," much less a weapon. Secretary Gates publicly questions whether it is possible to verify the difference between capability and weapon, suggesting the administration's threshold for action is actually more restrictive than Iran crossing the nuclear threshold.
And yet it is patently clear that destroying the Iranian nuclear program is not on the table for the Obama administration. All the hubbub has the feel of an orchestrated attempt to look like Washington is doing something when Washington is doing nothing -- they are covering their retreat into a policy of containing a nuclear-armed Iran. I hope I'm wrong, but it would appear the Obama administration wants very much to look like the pincers of their strategy are closing in on Iran precisely because they have taken military force off the table, can't get the "crippling sanctions" Secretary Clinton trumpeted, and just held a summit meeting on nuclear proliferation that said nothing about Iran or North Korea's nuclear programs.
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Karl Rove is back in the news with his memoirs
doing something that he claims the Bush administration did not do
vigorously enough: re-litigating the past. I will have more to say when
I finish reading the book, but for now I want to talk about one of the
highlights flagged in several interviews:
Rove's claim that if the administration had known the true extent of
Iraq's WMD stockpile and programs it would not have pushed the use of
force resolution in October 2002 and invaded in 2003.
This claim leapt out at me because I remember President Bush giving a somewhat different answer a few years ago. For instance, in December 2005 Bush was asked more or less this exact same question and he gave this response:
HUME: Can you say today that if you had known then what you know now about the weapons, that you would have made the same decision.
BUSH: I said it today, and I said it at the last speech I gave. And I've said it throughout the campaign to the American people. I said I made the right decision. Knowing what I know today, I would have still made that decision.
HUME: Now if you had this -- if the weapons had been out of the equation, because the intelligence did not conclude that he had them, it was still the right call?
In a valedictory interview, he was asked this question again and his answer was less dogmatic:
GIBSON: You've always said there's no do-overs as President. If you had one?
BUSH: I don't know -- the biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq. A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein. It wasn't just people in my administration; a lot of members in Congress, prior to my arrival in Washington D.C., during the debate on Iraq, a lot of leaders of nations around the world were all looking at the same intelligence. And, you know, that's not a do-over, but I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess.
GIBSON: If the intelligence had been right, would there have been an Iraq war?
BUSH: Yes, because Saddam Hussein was unwilling to let the inspectors go in to determine whether or not the U.N. resolutions were being upheld. In other words, if he had had weapons of mass destruction, would there have been a war? Absolutely.
GIBSON: No, if you had known he didn't.
BUSH: Oh, I see what you're saying. You know, that's an interesting question. That is a do-over that I can't do. It's hard for me to speculate.
At some level, of course, this is an impossible hypothetical counter-factual and so there is nothing sinister in the fact that one of Bush's key advisors would give a different answer from the president nor even in the fact that the President would give a different answer at different times. Bush is at work on his own memoirs and so doubtless he is wrestling with this very issue himself and so his views may evolve still further.
And we should not exaggerate the contradictions in these various answers. Both Bush and Rove say that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein and both would say that if Iraq continues on the basically positive trajectory it has been on since the surge decision the war will have been "worth it."
I think Rove's point is important and basically right. There were good
reasons to promote regime change in Iraq and good reasons to oppose it.
But the strongest case for the urgency of dealing decisively with Iraq
in 2002 hinged on Iraq's WMD arsenal and its pursuit of capabilities to
expand that arsenal. Had the true condition of that arsenal (limited)
and the true status of the pursuit (ongoing but slower than suspected
and put on a somewhat slower track deliberately pending the final
collapse of the sanctions regime) been known by the Bush
administration, the president's national security team would have
pursued other more urgent priorities in the war on terror. And had it
been known more widely in Congress, there would not have been such
strong bipartisan support for the use of force resolution; all of the
major Democratic senators in 2002 with ambitions for the 2004
presidential run supported the use of force resolution because they
agreed with the consensus view that Iraq had a formidable WMD arsenal
and was seeking to expand it still further. And had it been known more
widely in the international community, the argument with our allies
would have been over the existence of an Iraqi threat rather than over
the best strategy for dealing with it.
There were a few iconoclasts who guessed more accurately the truth about the Iraqi WMD program in 2002, but they were outliers -- not unlike the outliers today who claim that Iran has no nuclear weapons ambitions whatsoever. Then, as now, it would seem quite a gamble to base an entire security strategy on an iconoclastic view that, if wrong, would be disastrously wrong. And, of course, we only know these truths because the Duelfer report provided the intrusive fact-finding that was impossible while Hussein was in power. The situation in mid-2002 was one of a non-existent inspection regime and a collapsing sanctions regime; those and other dots pointed to the consensus that formed the basis of the Bush policy.
Rove's point is important in one further respect -- it rebuts a core tenet of the most fervent Bush-haters, those who believe that Bush wanted war in Iraq for any number of reasons, none of them having to do with the threat Bush claimed Iraqi WMD posed to the national interest of the United States. Those who think the Iraq war was about some Freudian impulse to best the father, or about seizing Iraqi oil, or about boosting Halliburton's profits, or what-have-you must believe that Rove is wrong -- that Bush would have figured out some other way to generate a war. These canards live on and, in some circles, may even enjoy the status of conventional wisdom. Given those circumstances, Rove is right to litigate the matter again.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
On the eve of Groundhog Day, it is worth asking whether President Obama's terrorism policy is facing six more weeks of bitter chill. Obama has been forced to backtrack on several signature initiatives -- the commitment to close Guantanamo by Jan. 19, 2010, the commitment to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court in lower Manhattan, and the hounding of Department of Justice lawyers from the Bush era over interrogation-related rulings -- and it has gotten so bad that over at Politico.com they are asking whether Obama's entire terrorism policy is unraveling. It does appear that the triangulation at the heart of Obama's terrorism policy is in trouble, but it is not yet clear what will replace it.
Since the earliest days of his administration, Obama has attempted a deft triangulation: he has rhetorically framed his terrorism policy as a bold departure from the Bush era, but he has kept the lion's share of the terrorism policy infrastructure that was operative under the second-term Bush administration. The "change" was dramatized with high-profile moves drenched in symbolism -- the promise to close Guantanamo, the promise to investigate "abuses" from the Bush era, the release of inflammatory material over the objections of his CIA director, or the insistence on talking about terrorism with the language of law enforcement rather than war. The "continuity" was played down with quiet steps, like using Bush era arguments against habeas corpus or defending military commissions, and less quiet steps like a robust Predator drone strike campaign.
The triangulation worked as long as the media played along, letting Obama's caricature of Bush era policies go unchallenged, rebutting the occasional critique from conservatives like Vice President Cheney by listing areas of continuity, and crediting the symbolic changes with all sorts of positive results like the improvement in global polling on America's reputation.
This triangulation survived the nicks of a number of self-inflicted wounds, most notably the early recognition that the Guantanamo promise had been naïve. But it does not look like it will survive the harsh klieg light attention paid to Obama's terrorism policy in the wake of the Underwear Bomber.
The triangulation depended on Obama having found the Goldilocks strategy -- keeping all the good parts of Bush policies and making changes that only improve, without undermining, those policies. Obama, in reversing course on so many issues, is now implicitly conceding that the counter-terrorism porridge he had been serving was most definitely not "just right." Indeed, the evidence suggests the contrary -- that the promulgation of "treat terrorism as a law enforcement rather than a war problem" produced the very problems Cheney and others worried about.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden documents several vital errors. First, the rush to Mirandize the Underwear Bomber, and the decision to do so without any input from responsible authorities, deprived officials of the chance to do a meaningful interrogation of the captured terrorist. Valuable and time-sensitive intelligence was lost, and is likely unrecoverable. Second, the Obama administration had failed to stand up the new interrogation unit it claimed was needed to replace the "flawed" Bush approach, and the Obama team had not even anticipated that the unit might be needed to interrogate terrorists caught on U.S. soil.
More remarkably, current NCTC Director Michael Leiter revealed in congressional testimony another vital error: in the days prior to the terrorist attack, the analysis units responsible for "connecting the dots" were distracted by the need to implement a 20 percent reduction-in-force -- cuts so deep that they would disrupt the effectiveness of any bureaucratic organization, at least temporarily. The Obama administration has quietly rescinded those cuts and is instead beefing up the analytic capability, but not before the damage to triangulation politics has been done.
To my ear, the most telling indication of the collapse of the triangulation comes from the changed tone from congressional "moderates," centrist Democrats and Republicans who form the base for this Goldilocks approach. On the Democratic side, Senator Feinstein has been subtly but insistently messaging a wake-up call in the form of a warning that more terrorist attacks are in the offing. On the Republican side, Senator Collins issued a blistering attack on Obama's terrorism policy.
If Obama has lost Feinstein and Collins, he has lost the political props of triangulation. But the overall political damage to the president is not fatal for the simple reason that the national security damage done by the policies is not yet irreversible. The administration has taken some good remedial steps, such as coming clean on the botched interrogation effort, rescinding the NCTC cuts, and changing the venue for the KSM trial.
Moreover, there is reason to hope that the Obama administration is now more focused on uncovering and preventing the next attack than in scoring partisan points with its witch hunts into Bush administration "missteps."
In this hopeful scenario, the Underwear Bomber is a "bing" moment enabling Obama to avoid the other Groundhog Day curse: repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
I am coming late to the debate over whether it is inappropriate for President Obama to continue his vacation despite the Christmas day terrorist incident. But the issue apparently still resonates, and the vigor of the White House counter-attack on critics shows that it remains hyper-sensitive to the charge (or “hyper-vigilant” as the reporter euphemistically put it).
Defenders of the administration complain that President Bush did not interrupt his vacation in December 2001 to offer comment on the “shoe bomber” so it is unfair to criticize the Obama administration for its initially laidback (“the system worked”) response. Critics of the administration complain that for years the Democrats made political sport out of juxtaposing images of President Bush on vacation with images of national security problems around the globe so it is time for some partisan chickens to come home to roost.
My own view is sympathetic to the administration (though not to the administration’s defenders). I find aspects of the Obama response troubling, but I don’t think the focus of criticism should be on how often the president plays golf, or on what is happening at the precise moment he is on the golf course, or on what he said right before or right after a golf shot. I understand the optics problem, as would any White House staffer, and Obama’s handlers probably can be faulted for some sketchy stage-craft. And I understand the desire of Republicans to finally dish out some of the guff they have taken for 8 years from blowhards. The towering hypocrisy of Bush critics who pretend that a vacationing Bush was a sign the president was fecklessly AWOL while a vacationing Obama is a sign the president is masterfully calm in a crisis would be breathtaking if it were not so depressingly predictable.
Let’s bash away at hypocritical pundits, but let’s not bash away at the White House -- not for taking a vacation, anyway. The Obama team has struck me as tired and in acute need of a vacation for months now. Being president is an exceptionally tiring job, and staffing the president is no day at the beach either. The pace of a normal White House is fatiguing in the extreme, and this team has prided itself in attempting to do more than any other White House attempted. Every seasoned Washington hand I know has made more or less the same observation: the Obama team has tried to do too much and it is starting to show.
We should keep in focus the human element of being president (and there is good political science, much of it from my Duke colleague Ole Holsti, to help us keep that focus). A tired president , a stressed-out staff, a clogged in-box -- this is all recipe for missteps. The missteps may be relatively trivial: clumsy spin, shoddy stage-craft, or cranky outbursts. Or they could be more significant: diplomatic gaffes, failure to connect intelligence dots, or other fundamental miscalculations.
We still do not have a clear enough picture into the back-story to the abortive Christmas Day attack to know precisely what went wrong, so it would be premature to suggest that fatigue was a factor. But it is not premature to suggest that a tired White House is less capable of dealing effectively with the aftermath than a rested White House would be.
President Obama and his team need R&R more than anyone who has commented on their performance thus far, including me. Unless there is credible evidence that they are shirking the national security portfolio while on vacation -- and so far, I have not seen much evidence of that -- I say let them play golf.
Our ongoing war with terrorists inspired by a militant
islamist ideology is the story of the decade. They were at war with us as
the decade opened (and arguably for much of the previous decade), but the United States was not really at war with them until after the 9/11 attacks. The Bush administration's response was a dramatic escalation from the approach that had characterized U.S. efforts in the previous decade: pin-prick retaliatory strikes and a law-enforcement-first approach to taking down the network. Instead, the Bush administration expanded the toolbox in an effort to use all elements of national power -- military, economic, diplomatic, law enforcement, and intelligence, as well as myriad soft-power assets like a counter-narrative to address the appeal of militant Islam. The decade's closing with al Qaeda's near-successful Christmas Day attack on yet another U.S. airplane, dramatizes that the war continues. As with previous long wars like the Cold War, our success depends in part on the ability of each new administration to sustain the effort. The story of the next decade may well turn on whether the Obama administration can build on what worked and learn from what did not.
The 9/11 attacks -- and the fact that they only happened once. The defining impact of September 11th needs little elaboration. But perhaps as noteworthy is that, against all fears and expectations at the time, the United States has not (yet) been hit again with a large scale terrorist attack. President Bush deserves much credit for this, which in time should be judged by history as one of his most significant accomplishments. Last week’s attempted airline bombing on Christmas day is only the latest sobering reminder that the threat is persistent and real. Here is hoping that by the end of President Obama’s tenure in office, preventing another attack will stand as one of his signature achievements as well.
The emergence of non-state actors, particularly through terrorism. The decade opened, of course, with the 9/11 attacks. Many of the most challenging foreign policy problems since have revolved around the unconventional nature of this conflict. Who is a prisoner of war when the other side doesn't wear uniforms? Who is responsible when terrorist leaders hide out in the mountains? What counts as victory, or does this go on indefinitely? As much as I would have liked to argue for an economic story, this did more to reshape the global scene.
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. There is simply no way to understand the evolution of American national security policy over the past decade outside the context of the 9/11 attacks. Al Qaeda’s strike on the United States, launched on a clear, cool Tuesday morning, fundamentally redefined American national security policy and is transforming the U.S. military. The struggle against violent Islamist extremism defined the presidency of George W. Bush, but did not end with the inauguration of Barack Obama. Indeed, as the Obama administration has hopefully discovered in its awkward handling of the Christmas airline bombing plot, Islamist terrorism cannot be ignored or wished away.
The surge that worked. Many analysts, myself included, doubted that whatever Dave Petraeus might do would not be enough to prevent the Iraqi civil war from continuing to wreck that country. Capitalizing on, and stoking, the Sunni revival, working with tribes, arguing for the surge and then reorienting his forces to a counterinsurgency posture, Petraeus turned the tide of the Iraq War, and saved the United States from an ignominious withdrawal.
Craig Allen/Getty Images
By Peter Feaver
President Obama's announcement that, in his view, there was a "systemic failure" that almost enabled al Qaeda to make its long-sought and long-denied follow-up strike on U.S. soil has got me reconsidering my view that it is premature to fire Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano.
statement, fueled by fresh revelations of how warnings went unheeded, is an
abrupt reversal from the administration's original stance which peddled the
view that the abortive terrorist attack was an indication that the system had
worked well. Coupled with Obama's vague warning that there would be "accountability
at every level" it now looks increasingly likely that the administration's
missteps amount to firing offenses for at least some. But for whom and when?
Pending fresh revelations, I will stick to my view that we don't know enough yet to determine the level and degree of administration failure and thus the proper type of accountability. We need the oversight hearings first. We do know enough, however, to know that the hearings must be an absolute top and urgent priority. We should demand that the Obama administration cooperate with those hearings and not stone-wall, as some have claimed they are doing. And we do know a bit more about lines of inquiry for those hearings.
Beyond my initial suggestion that the hearings focus on the impact, if any, of the Obama's administration's effort to replace the "war" mind-set with a "law enforcement" mind-set throughout the counter-terrorism bureaucracy, I would add one more: are the failures and missteps that almost led to catastrophe on Christmas day partially a result of the intense feuding between the CIA and the Director of National Intelligence that has characterized the Obama tenure from the start? That charge is leveled in the Post story and it is not wildly implausible. Certainly experienced insiders have been warning of just such a possibility: that the cumulative effect of the numerous steps Obama has taken and not taken -- for instance, the decision to pursue what Vice President Cheney has called a politically motivated investigation of CIA counter-terror activities during the early Bush years, or the failure to resolve turf fights between the Director of the CIA and the Director of National Intelligence -- would yield excessive caution and breakdowns in interagency coordination on operational matters. Cheney's warning looks prescient in light of recent reporting.
But let's acknowledge that the picture is still unclear and the reporting still based on fragmentary evidence and anonymous quotes from insiders who may have their own self-protection incentives to distort the picture. All the more reason to get key administration officials to testify on the record and under oath. What they have to say may simply underscore the difficulty of providing adequate security in an age of globalization and transnational terrorist networks, or it may very well amount to a strong repudiation of some key aspects of Obama's approach to the terrorist threat. If it is the latter, then President Obama should acknowledge this forthrightly and take whatever steps are necessary, changing policy and perhaps personnel.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
The almost-successful terrorist
attack on Christmas day has led some to demand that heads roll in the Homeland Security Department, beginning with
the top head, Janet Napolitano.
To be sure, Napolitano wins the award for dumbest spin of the year when she claimed that "the system worked." But I think it is premature to fire Napolitano, and not simply because she has changed her spin.
It is premature because it takes time to figure out exactly what went wrong and thus who should be held accountable and in what fashion. The naval standard of accountability -- the ship ran aground so the commander is automatically relieved -- might result in her immediate dismissal. But for bureaucracies devoted to strategy against a cunning adversary, such a standard can lead to a zero-defect mentality.
Rather, the incident calls for a thorough congressional investigation - one that asks the tough questions and obliges members of the administration, including Napolitano, to answer those tough questions. There are all sorts of questions about who knew what, when, and what they did about it. But I am most interested in what the investigation will reveal about the bureaucratic mindset, and here I am not talking about a zero-defect mentality but a potentially more pernicious mindset. One of the more important revelations of the 9/11 Commission investigation was the pervasiveness of what Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called the "pre-9/11 mindset." The mindset led the Clinton administration to view al Qaeda as merely a law-enforcement problem and, as a consequence, to limit themselves on what they might do to counter the threat. The Obama administration has likewise made a big point of seeking to reinstate the law enforcement mindset throughout the counterterrorism enterprise. Congressional investigators should pursue the leads to determine whether this mindset has taken hold and led to the security lapses that almost resulted in the decade ending with another devastating terrorist strike on American soil.
Bottom line: the "law enforcement mindset" may not be appropriate for fighting terrorists but it is appropriate for overseeing the national security bureaucracy. It may well be that there were lapses of judgment and oversight that rise to firing offenses. But let's investigate the alleged crime before we execute the sentence.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
By Peter Feaver
It is not every day that one gets a chance to rattle the cage of the boss, so when I read the contribution from ForeignPolicy.com czarina Susan Glasser to the Washington Post's compilation of "worst ideas of the decade" I knew I had to respond -- even if it means I can kiss my year-end bonus good-bye.
Glasser's argument is the conventional wisdom, painstakingly assembled over
years of partisan arm-chair generalship: if only the United States had deployed
more ground troops into Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, we may have killed or
captured the al Qaeda leadership at Tora Bora. Grumbling about the Tora
Bora mission could be heard within hours of the battle, but got much louder
during the 2004 campaign when Senator Kerry made it a standard attack line.
The failure to tamp down violence in Iraq after the fall of Saddam served
to further fan the flames of this critique -- too-light-a-footprint caused us
troubles in Iraq and that "proves" we had too light a footprint in Afghanistan.
This fall, the critique got revived when Senator Kerry's committee
published a report which purports to validate the argument.
My problem with the Tora Bora critique -- both its generalized form and the particular form advanced by Glasser -- is that it conveniently forgets that the reason bin Laden was "trapped" in Tora Bora in the first place is that Secretary Rumsfeld and General Franks and CIA Director George Tenet defied both the conventional war plans and the conventional wisdom to mount the very light-footprint campaign that Glasser et al. are complaining about. If Rumsfeld and Franks and Tenet had used the conventional warplan that involved a heavy U.S. ground presence instead of the rapidly deployable light-footprint that Glasser denounces, the invasion of Afghanistan would have happened some time in 2002, if then. If Rumsfeld and Franks and Tenet had listened to the conventional wisdom during the early weeks when the light-footprint approach appeared to be faltering, they would have abandoned the Afghan effort long before the battle in Tora Bora.
The Rumsfeld/Franks/Tenet approach was an innovative gamble that performed much better than anyone, especially bin Laden, expected. For this reason, and for this reason alone, there was a chance to capture/kill bin Laden at Tora Bora.
Pushed to its logical conclusion, the Tora Bora critique reduces to the claim made by Monday morning quarterbacks everywhere. The Tora Bora critics assure us in hindsight that they would have approved every pass that was successful and all the aspects of the game plan that worked, but they also would have known not to throw the pass that got blocked and they would have changed the game plan at exactly the right moment.
It is unfortunate that bin Laden escaped. It may even be the case that redeploying the U.S. Rangers that were on the ground in a different fashion might have produced a different result. And I am certainly not going to defend every decision made by Rumsfeld or every scintilla of spin advanced by the Pentagon press shop. But before I am going to take seriously the conspiracy theory that we "allowed Osama to escape" just to prove a light-footprint theory of warfare, I want to hear the critics acknowledge that we had bin Laden within reach at Tora Bora precisely because we were willing to try the very light-footprint approach they denounce.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Sunday was another tragic day in Iraq, more than 150 people were killed and another 500 injured in attacks on the Ministries of Justice and Interior in Baghdad. The devastation was another sad reminder of how fragile are the gains bought so dearly by Iraqis and Americans -- military and civilian -- working every day in that country to consolidate progress toward a secure and representative Iraq.
Those who believe Iraq was "the wrong war," or that violence and authoritarianism are endemic in a country with such deep sectarian divisions, or those who practice the soft bigotry of low expectations (as President Bush so nicely phrased it in a different context), and believe Muslims incapable of democracy will likely see these attacks as justification for accelerating our disengagement from Iraq. Such a conclusion is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the domestic politics of Iraq in the run up to their January provincial elections.
War is the extension of politics by other means, as Clausewitz teaches, and domestic politics is what these attacks were about. Iraqi security forces are struggling to prevent such attacks. Prime Minister Maliki's confidence in their ability has always run ahead of their actual performance (as early as 2005 he advocated a security hand over) and he has been party to politicizing their ranks.
But Maliki is running on a platform of providing security and negotiating the U.S. withdrawal. Anything that calls security into question or precipitates a return by American military forces into Iraq's cities (from which we had withdrawn on June 30 in accordance with the Strategic Framework Agreement) hurts Maliki's claim. And it doesn't just hurt Maliki, it hurts other incumbent politicians, like the Mayor of Baghdad, who also argued for removing blast walls to facilitate movement and commerce and a return to normalcy in the capital.
After the last spectacular attack, against the Foreign Ministry on Aug. 19, Prime Minister Maliki responded in a stridently partisan fashion, blaming Sunni and al Qaeda as one, conducting arrests and crackdowns that have a suspicious political tilt against his political opponents. While the U.S. military spokesman tried to put a good face on the Iraqi government's reaction, comparing it to the crasser political manipulation of the Aug. 19 bombings, Maliki's statement in the aftermath speaks for itself:
The cowardly acts of terrorism which occurred today must not weaken the resolution of Iraqis to continue their journey and to fight the followers of the fallen regime, the Baathists and al-Qaeda."
This, before the government had any reasonable idea of who conducted the attacks. There are numerous political factions that could benefit from delegitimizing the Maliki government's record, not least rival Shi'ia who excluded him from being their standard bearer in the election.
But the good news is that political pluralism has taken root in Iraqi politics. Maliki couldn't win the support of a Shi'ia-only slate organizing for the January elections, so he opted to build a cross-sectarian slate. He's not trying very hard, mind you, as his statement blaming Sunni for Sunday's bombing shows. But his effort to appeal across sectarian lines was his Hail Mary (so to speak) and shows he believed voters would reward the choice. Vice President Tariq al Hashimi, a Sunni, is likewise tacking beyond sectarianism to broaden his prospective political base.
This is a hugely important development, seldom seen in fragile societies. Usually, as with the Balkan elections of the early 1990s, politicians prey on voters' mistrust and trend toward extremes which is why elections in factional societies are so often polarizing and foster an upward spiral of violence.
In the last provincial elections, nearly all incumbents were voted out of office, a strong signal that average Iraqis believed they weren't doing their jobs. And voters weren't just "simplifying the map," moving to the sectarian extreme out of fear: Shi'ia voted out Shi'ia, Sunni voted out Sunni, Kurd voted out Kurd. What Iraqi political elites took from that election is the fundamental commandment of democracy everywhere: Thou Shalt Respect the Voters.
Talking to Iraqi politicians (as I did the past couple of weeks around their country), what is most striking is the extent to which they sound like small-city politicians in our own country. They worry about power outages and sewer systems and the quality of education for youngsters. They're mad at the central government for not funding activity they consider its responsibility. They rail against corruption -- even as many of them practice it -- and fear exposure by the free media that is burgeoning. Accountability has come to Iraqi politics, and the politicians know it.
A representative government is struggling to emerge in Iraq. It may not succeed in bridging the sectarian tensions, corruption, and long shadow of decades of authoritarianism that inhibits initiative. In Iraq, strong cultural undercurrents cut against the kinds of behavior that make successful democracies successful. But Iraqis want it, and political elites are responding. This is good news for Iraq and for the advancement of our values in the world.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
By Peter Feaver
Professor Andy Bacevich, a prolific critic of American foreign policy, has proposed an intriguing grand strategy for the conflict formerly called the war on terror: let's approach the war on terror as if it were another Cold War. Since Andy knows first-hand the personal tragedy of these wars -- his son died while serving in the Army in Iraq -- his powerful voice of moral authority garners a respectful audience every time he speaks on the subject.
I am sympathetic to the Cold War frame and offered it as a useful way for thinking about the problem of terrorism almost exactly 8 years ago, as did other commentators -- notably, Eliot Cohen. We thought that the framework was a useful antidote to the pre-9/11 mindset which viewed terrorism narrowly through the lens of law enforcement and thus limited policymakers only to a very restricted set of law enforcement tools. The broader Cold War frame incorporated all of the law enforcement tools, plus additional ones. I don't remember Andy (whom I consider to be a friend and long-time debating partner) being persuaded by our reasoning then; I rather recall him thinking it would lead to what he calls American "militarism." But evidently he has come around to our point of view now.
In so doing, he joins President Bush, who used that frame in his 2006 National Security Strategy and his follow-on National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. The three pillars Andy highlights would all produce emphatic head-nodding from any Bush administration alum. Pursue decapitation, meaning tracking and killing the terrorist leaders? Of course, and the Bush administration dramatically ramped up these efforts. Pursue containment, meaning improving law enforcement, tracking vigorously international financial transactions and weapons transfers? Absolutely, and the Bush administration was very innovative in these areas. Compete with the jihadis on both a material and an ideological terrain? Again, this was a centerpiece of the Bush administration effort.
Even Andy's eloquent peroration -- "The upshot is that by modifying the way we live -- attending to pressing issues of poverty, injustice, exploitation of women and the global environmental crisis -- we might through our example induce the people of the Islamic world to consider modifying the way they live." -- reads like one of President Bush's speeches. If a Bush speechwriter were penning it, he might throw in a reference or two touting No Child Left Behind, the President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, the Malaria Initiative, the efforts in women's education, and the increased funding for renewable energy, all of which (and more) were viewed in much the same way Andy is suggesting here: part of an all-elements-of-national-power comprehensive approach to combating terrorism at both the material and ideological levels.
Now I recognize that many people, chief among them the current administration, would all argue that the Bush administration should have done even more on all of those dimensions. But the strategic pillars Andy recommends did comprise important parts of the Bush strategy and, on each of these dimensions, the Obama team has been trying to do the same thing, only harder, faster, and better.
Where he departs from what might be considered Bush/Obama orthodoxy is when Andy suggests that we can accomplish all of this even better if only we would abandon the fight in Afghanistan and also in Iraq (the Iraq point is implicit in his most recent articulation, but explicit elsewhere in Andy's writings). That is the novel bit of his proposal: the notion that the Cold War frame works better if only we would get out of Afghanistan (and Iraq). That was not President Bush's view and, so far at least with respect to Afghanistan, that is not what President Obama has embraced.
Nor does it follow inexorably from the Cold War frame. One can view the larger conflict as a Cold War, and still believe it is essential to prevail in theater combat in Afghanistan. One can even argue, as McChrystal, Petraeus, Bush, and Obama have, that prevailing in Afghanistan is an important -- Obama used to call it a necessary -- step in prevailing in that larger contest. Andy's new spin on grand strategy is in promising that we have a better shot at winning the larger contest if only we embrace the inevitability of defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the sooner the better.
It is a very enticing vision, but it rests on some hazy premises. Yes, we would prefer to be able to whack the terrorists from afar and do so in a fashion in which no civilians die. But who will give us the pin-point intelligence (and so much more of it than we are getting now), after we have abandoned our erstwhile allies in Afghanistan and Iraq? How often will the terrorist leaders we are hunting show up within range of assault helicopters away from civilian population centers, thus allowing us to do the Delta Force strikes Andy favors rather than the Predator strikes we have increasingly relied upon? How can we be sure that our departure will encourage the Muslim world to see the terrorists as offering only a "retrograde version of Islam" and not, in fact, as the "stronger horse" that has defeated its second great superpower?
As long as one elides over these tough questions, one can stay focused on this promise that we can have it all and for less sacrifice, more gain for less pain, more security for less security operations. Such a vision is far more enticing than McChrystal's somber and stark catalogue of the costs entailed in pursuing success, or the similarly painstaking evaluation of the alternatives that leaves Steve Biddle endorsing a surge in Afghanistan.
Indeed, Andy's message is so enticing, I would be surprised if we don't hear this chorus growing. The question is: Will President Obama join it?
By Kori Schake
Skepticism grows in President Obama's party about his presumed endorsement of General Stanley McChrystal's assessment of the strategy and resources required to succeed in Afghanistan. Senate Armed Services Chair Carl Levin has expressed skepticism about sending more forces until the Afghans contribute more themselves. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doubts there will be public support. Lynn Woolsey, Chairman of the Progressive Caucus, is threatening to lead opposition to funding the President's wars.
I believe Obama will not continue on the trajectory he set out for redoubling our efforts to win the "good war" in Afghanistan. He and his advisors lacked -- and continue to lack -- understanding of the importance of succeeding in Iraq, or why the surge strategy and additional forces changed the political dynamic in that country. His priorities are domestic, and he even encouraged trade-offs between international security and domestic policy by suggesting that his health care plan was affordable because (by his accounting) it would cost less than the wars we are fighting.
So I suspect that over the course of the next 9 months, the administration will conclude that: (a) the sticker price for achieving its aims in Afghanistan is too high; (b) international partners are exhausted with this effort; and (c) Afghans aren't providing the indigenous partnership that our strategy relies on to be successful. I don't share these views, but reasonable people who mean our country well could conclude them.
The only wrong choice -- both morally and strategically -- would be for the President to continue sending our country's sons and daughters to war if he is unwilling to commit the resources and effort to win it. That would be the true and tragic Vietnam parallel.
American power is pervasive and diverse enough to protect our interests without winning all our wars, as Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia demonstrate. But if the President winds down our effort to construct an Afghanistan that will not be a breeding ground for terrorist attacks, what are the policy alternatives for keeping Americans safe from terrorism?
The first is better defense: pushing out the perimeter of our defense against attack and building in layers of defense (inspecting cargo at ports of embarkation, checking flight manifests before planes come into U.S. airspace, tracing money from suspect organizations and individuals, cross-referencing databases in local/state/federal law enforcement and other sources). Much of this is already routine.
The second is relinquishing the concept of holding states accountable for actions occurring in their territory, and either gaining their tacit cooperation or violating their sovereignty to kill or capture people we feel threatened by. This was the approach to terrorism before 9/11. It accepts the world is dangerous and manages consequences rather than causes. However, clandestine operations are the key component of this approach, and the Attorney General's belief that even outside legal opinion does not protect agents could prevent this from being executable.
The third is ceding Afghanistan to squalor but redoubling our partnership with Pakistan. Many in the so-called Muslim world are surprised at our effort in Afghanistan, a society they consider at the far margin of affecting Muslim attitudes. Pakistan is understandably skeptical of American enthusiasm now, given our support for the mujaheddin, use of their intelligence community's relationships, and sanctimonious intrusiveness in their country's affairs. The Obama administration is off to a good start in relations with Pakistan, and could channel assistance for public education programs and other tools to shape a positive future in Pakistan along with our encouragement and assistance in their fight against extremism. A failed Afghanistan could be a containment problem if we had a successful Pakistan.
The fourth is cordoning off places we consider suspect: restricting travel and immigration, considering people suspect by passport rather than action. Of course, this categorical denial diminishes our ability to foster moderation in those societies by closing them off to education, relatives, and experiences that show them a different America than terrorists paint. Moreover, it redoubles the punishment of people unfortunate enough to be born in a society riven by terrorists in their midst.
The fifth, and I believe least damaging, alternative would be for the administration to broaden its scope of cooperation with Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, even Iran and other countries that might be willing to adopt common cause with us for the long and arduous work of building an Afghanistan that would not be a threat to its own people and ours. This would require acknowledging to the Russians our culpability in their failed occupation of Afghanistan, working with them and the Chinese on border control measures they use repressively with their own publics but would help separate the problems of Afghanistan from those of surrounding countries, addressing corruption when it inevitably occurs, and numerous other unpalatable compromises.
But that is the work of coalition warfare. The only difference between that and what we are doing now is that we'd be making the compromises with countries that share fewer of our values and more of our interests in Afghanistan.
By Kori Schake
Assistant to the President John Brennan gave a speech yesterday, ostensibly a landmark address. He assured listeners that "the fight against terrorists and violent extremists has been returned to its right and proper place: no longer defining -- indeed, distorting-our entire national security and foreign policy, but rather serving as a vital part of those larger policies."
It is tempting to lampoon Brennan's remarks for the risible and solipsistic rhetoric (e.g., "like the world itself, [Obama's] views are nuanced, not simplistic; practical, not ideological.") -- or to once again express my concern that the administration might actually believe the refrain that the president "rejects the false choice between ensuring our national security and upholding civil liberties." This seems to be mistaking slogans for solutions, as Edward R. Murrow cautioned against.
But the standard for measuring Brennan's remarks is what they contain that is new policy. With the exception of Guantanamo, which the president has declared he'll close but six months later has not yet provided a program to achieve, the program sounds remarkably like Bush administration practices. Defeat al Qaeda, check. Hold Afghanistan, check. Partnership with Pakistan, check. Sharing intelligence and training militaries in East Africa, check. Going after terrorist financing, check. Disrupting terrorist operations, check. Prevent terrorists from getting nuclear weapons, check. Ensure our military has the troops and the tools it needs, check. Strengthen the intelligence community, check. Defend the homeland, check.
Even in the areas Brennan was claiming radical departures from Bush policies there is striking continuity. Brennan showcased "ending the war in Iraq" as an administration achievement. He somehow forgot to mention the glide path was set by the Bush administration in signing the Statue of Forces Agreement before President Obama was even elected. All Team Obama did was not carry out the president's campaign promise of a faster drawdown.
And in the doubling down on troops in Afghanistan without a political or economic or justice or drug strategy to bring a "whole of government approach" to the problem actually out-Bushes the Bush administration. Former Vice President Cheney would have much more damagingly rebuked Obama's approach to national security by pointing out it is no different from Bush's.
The only actual variance with Bush administration practice I found is rejecting the name "war on terror." There is considerable merit in this approach. Referring to a "war on terror" gives our enemies a validation we should be smart enough to deny them. It offends many who want to support us. Our preoccupation is not shared by other countries that are not the target of al Qaeda.
But it is unfair to the Bush administration to suggest they were not engaged with the Muslim world on issues of importance to those countries and societies. The Bush administration rightly understood the crisis in the so-called "Muslim world" about tolerance and modernity. Brennan says this challenge is "ultimately not a military operation but a political, economic, and social campaign to meet the basic needs and legitimate grievances of ordinary people." Absolutely right. Which is why the Bush administration put so much effort into issues like democracy promotion, poverty alleviation, free trade, security assistance, and disease eradication.
Brennan was not disavowing that we are fighting a war, nor that the enemy has a virulent religious ideology and uses the killing of civilians as a tactic. In fact, he reaffirmed it, quoting President Obama saying "our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred." Brennan himself continues, "and to win this war against al Qaeda, the administration continues to be unrelenting, using every tool in our toolbox and every arrow in our quiver."
So the objective is no different, the full range of tools will continue to be used ... only the name will be different. The fun will start when administration begins looking for some shorthand way to describe what is not the "global war on terror." The best entry into the acronym contest so far comes (not surprisingly) from a witty soldier I know in the military's Special Operations Command: the Joint Interagency Homeland Active Defense, or JIHAD.
Let us hope the Obama administration really is changing so little in their approach to fighting the terrorist threats our country faces, and that they don't believe their own rhetoric about there being no trade-offs between our values and our security. A change in the "war on terror" language is beneficial. But they should not misunderstand that good people are daily making decisions in which they have to make trade-offs between our values and the risks to our society. The Obama administration's own language creates serious problems for these people as they protect the rest of us. As no less an expert on terror than Leon Trotsky tells us, "you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you."
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.