Mistaking symptoms for causes

Obama administration counterterrorism official John Brennan was out on the hustings yesterday trying to once again get the administration credit for what they're not doing. In this case, it was to foster the illusion that the administration is actively exploring options for intervening in Syria's civil war. "Various options that are being talked about ... are things that the United States government has been looking at very carefully, trying to understand the implications, trying to understand the advantages and disadvantages of this." This is little enough seventeen months into a popular uprising against one of the world's worst governments. Italians gave us the concept of festina lente, to hurry up slowly; the Obama administration wants to laurel itself for boldly acting cautiously.

But Brennan's comments are also illustrative for how they characterize the problem in Syria. While at pains to pretend the Obama administration is considering no-fly zones to prevent the Syrian military from killing civilians in refugee camps -- although the administration seems comfortable enough with the Syrian military killing civilians in their homes -- Brennan attested that the administration is "quite busy making sure that we're able to do everything possible that's going to advance the interests of peace in Syria and not, again, do anything that's going to contribute to more violence." That's incredibly revealing: the administration believes that violence is the problem, not the injustice and repression the regime of Bashir al-Assad is imposing on its long-suffering population.

The Obama administration seems not to understand that violence has political causes, and that "preventing violence" only reinforces the grip of those in power. They are diagnosing symptoms, not diseases. As no less a source than Elie Wiesel said, "we must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." The Obama administration applauds itself for "new pragmatism." That should be called what it is: a studied neutrality to the claims of a people against their government, an even-handedness between repressors and repressed.


Shadow Government

Confront, conceal, and concede

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.