Conservative Winter Soldiers and the Last Man

Unable to figure out why the President “is” sending troops to Afghanistan, Charles Krauthammer concludes a column about his quandary by reaching across the aisle… for a melodramatic cheap shot:

Sen. Kerry, now chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, asked many years ago: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Perhaps Kerry should ask that of Obama.

“He is out of Afghanistan psychologically,” says [Bob] Woodward of Obama. Well, he may be out, but the soldiers he ordered to Afghanistan are in.

Some will not come home.

The shape of our current discussion – including the opening for political attack like the above from the right – was obvious by the end of last year, long before Woodward’s new book exposed the degree of the President’s frustration with his generals, his defense secretary, and the Afghans.  Assuming Woodward’s assessment is accurate, Obama’s strategy was in part a compromise, a last chance for someone to change his mind –  the chief alternatives having been a blank check, or an abrupt reversal and retreat amidst all-obliterating political and civilian-military confrontation.

If, as Woodward’s Obama seems to have  believed all along, the Afghanistan war effort cannot achieve its furthest objectives at an acceptable cost, then the fundamental “mistake” wasn’t his, but the responsibility for reversing it is.  In this pessimistic context, the controlling rationale remains the same “Surge to the Exits”/”framework for withdrawal” option implicit in Obama’s escalation with timetable.  It was never likely to be very satisfying, since acknowledging the impossibility or unlikelihood of clear-cut victory is never satisfying.  Yet it may cost many fewer lives and pose less risk to the full range of vital American interests than the apparently open-ended escalation in search of undefined ends favored by  professionally “horrified” conservatives.

This latter group sees nothing but cowardly duplicity in the President’s conduct. “It is not only unwise; it is contemptible,” says Peter Wehner, agreeing with Jennifer Rubin’s agreement with Krauthammer – all of them so consumed with admiration for each other and antipathy for Obama that they have forgotten their own share in the country’s and that future “last man”‘s predicaments.  So Krauthammer’s perplexing identification with the young war protester and future presidential nominee starts to make sense:  Today’s hawks seems just as prepared as John Kerry once was to exploit the dead for political purposes.

No one “asks” a soldier “to die.”  Soldiers are ordered, in a strong sense by all of us, to do what we deem necessary – not given requests to be assessed in light of their opinions on strategy, their sense of the commander-in-chief’s mindset, or concern for their own safety. What the last man serves and what consecrates his sacrifice is not the quality of a war plan or any particular objective.  It’s precisely what Kerry long ago was defiling, and self-styled conservatives like Krauthammer, Rubin, and Wehner today are conspicuously, unwisely and contemptibly, preparing to defile:  The nation itself.

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37 comments on “Conservative Winter Soldiers and the Last Man

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  1. These flashbacks to socialism, are skewing your perspective, Colin, Kerry, believed the war was essentially immoral, a crime, Krauthammer, Rubin and Wehner, understand it is necessary, the nonchalance that
    the President shows in the conduct of the war, raises questions, although I do agree with you, it is poor sport to chicken out

  2. @ miguel cervantes:
    No – K, R, and W want to have their Kerryian cake and eat it, too. They are implicitly adopting the same false, emotionalist perspective on war – the kind of perspective that, when aimed at their preferred policies by the left, they would violently reject: The depiction of the soldier as pathetic victim, for instance, is what war protesters live and beathe.

    In both cases, there is a war policy that fails to meet some absolute moral standard – as if there has ever been one that could – and whose compromises are said to make the “some” who “will not come home” strictly the other side’s moral responsibility. In other words, any approach that does not conform absolutely to the neocon ideal, in concept as well as result, is treated as an abomination. But the concept may not conform to reality, and the result may therefore be a fantasy. Reasonable minds can disagree. It is the lowest form of demagogy to “wave the bloody shirt” against the commander in chief over such a disagreement.

    How much further can K, R, or W go within the bounds of a civil political discourse? When are they going to acknowledge their own share of responsibility and their own imperfections? What is “conservative” about the line they’ve adopted?

  3. @ CK MacLeod:
    “When are they going to acknowledge their own share of responsibility and their own imperfections? “

    Why should a columnist waste bandwidth to discuss himself? He is not the proper topic of his discourse. The war, the president, and his policies are.

    “What is ‘conservative’ about the line they’ve adopted?”

    Their adopted line is based on the assumption that the purpose of a war strategy ought to be victory – and not domestic politics. This assumption is shared by some non-conservatives – but it is, to some extent, a conservative principle, because many liberals tend to avoid thinking in stark terms of victory vs. defeat – tend to avoid moral clarity – tend to be ambivalent or worse in war situations.

    Some things BHO has been doing in Afghanistan do conform to the above principle – but not others. In particular, announcing the date of withdrawal affects the war effort adversely – and it has apparently been done just for political reasons – to placate his left base. The president is being criticized for sacrificing GIs and jeopardizing victory merely out of reluctance to “lose the whole Democratic Party”. “This admission is the most crushing of all,” writes Krauthammer. He is right.

  4. contra wrote:

    Why should a columnist waste bandwidth to discuss himself?

    “Their share of responsibility” is partly the share that belongs to every citizen of the United States of America, but the more relevant share is the one that belongs to every public advocate, in Wehner’s case in particular a share of official responsibility as well, for seeking to advance and defend the very policies that have put the country, and its soldiers, and their C-in-C, in this predicament. Assigning blame in this way can be a divisive and unseemly enterprise, but that’s exactly what’s being pushed by this neocon group. Once such a process begins, they may not like very much where it ends.

    I don’t believe the relevant passages for the statement that you and Dr. Krauthammer find so crushing appear in the excerpts of Obama’s Wars published by the WaPo. The larger context was, however, summarized by the NYT as follows:

    Mr. Obama’s top White House adviser on Afghanistan and his special envoy for the region are described as believing the strategy will not work.

    The president concluded from the start that “I have two years with the public on this” and pressed advisers for ways to avoid a big escalation, the book says. “I want an exit strategy,” he implored at one meeting. Privately, he told Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to push his alternative strategy opposing a big troop buildup in meetings, and while Mr. Obama ultimately rejected it, he set a withdrawal timetable because, “I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”

    The specific context for the statement (or supposed statement) was summarized separately, along with a fuller version:

    Mr. Obama’s struggle with the decision comes through in a conversation with Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who asked if his deadline to begin withdrawal in July 2011 was firm. “I have to say that,” Mr. Obama replied. “I can’t let this be a war without end, and I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”

    So, while Dr. Krauthammer and you presume to stand in judgment, you don’t seem to have assembled your evidence completely. The context doesn’t appear to be Obama’s explanation for making the decision. The context was his reported reasoning for standing firm on it – specifically in relation to his own rejection of a “war without end.” If you want more on the actual process of decision I suggest you either read the book or at least the on-line excerpts. It’s a rather more complex story than “throw in a date to make Nancy Pelosi happy.”

    We can’t judge inflections or emphases, and we are dealing with hearsay, but, taking the statement simply as reported, and for that matter in the narrow way that you and Krauthammer have interpreted it, what precisely is unrealistic or immoral about it? What war president has not had to work to hold his coalition together, has not in fact insisted upon particular policies, even particular operations, for political reasons? Politics in a democracy – and even in an absolute monarchy – is as relevant to real war-fighting as logistics, training, orders of battle, bomb damage assessment, and everything else.

    Let’s just assume that Obama’s assessment of the state of his own coalition is accurate, and let’s assume further that Woodward’s depiction of his reticence about the options given him by the generals and Gates is also accurate. What you and Dr. Krauthammer seem to demand of Obama is that he should have committed to an open-ended warfighting strategy that he believed was wrong, while destroying his own political coalition and therefore his presidency. Even if he was more sympathetic to the blank check approach, since there are many things going on in the world in addition to the fraught enterprise in Afghanistan, such a commitment would still be irresponsible of him, and, worst of all, it probably wouldn’t even save the war policy that you and Dr. Krauthammer are insisting on.

    Sure, it’s easier (at least at first) to rally a public and an army around a simplistic, one might even say primitive, concept of “victory.” But, if a president or any other war leader concludes that such a victory cannot be achieved at a justifiable cost, if at all, then it would be the definition of irresponsibility – or madness – to pursue it bis zum bitteren Ende. In such circumstances, there is nothing dishonorable, either for the commander or for the “last man,” in ordering or executing a fighting retreat, which, on the strategic level, equates with the “framework for withdrawal” that Max Hastings described (see the “shape of the discussion” post for link), and that somewhat coincides with other suggestions from thoughtful Afghanistan war skeptics like George Friedman.

  5. @ CK MacLeod:
    “What you and Dr. Krauthammer seem to demand of Obama is that he should have committed to an open-ended warfighting strategy that he believed was wrong”

    Not really! Merely that the commander-in-chief should avoid undercutting the war effort. The surge strategy might work in a short time – as it did in Iraq. It need not be open-ended. But it must be given a chance to work… Everything hinges on which side the locals bet on: the insurgents or our allies. And that depends on whether the locals, who might cooperate with either side, or both, or neither, believe our troops will leave them prematurely, to face the music. To announce a fixed withdrawal date in advance is disastrous. So why do it? The political explanation is the only plausible one – would be even if Woodward’s revelations did not exist.

    As to what Obama should have announced instead – the winning model exists: Bush. Obama is now taking credit for Bush’s victory in Iraq. Fine – that’s politics. At least he knows now that it is a victory.
    Will the same approach work in Afghanistan? That is unknown. BHO may or may not personally believe it will. The point is that he is giving it a try – he has committed himself by action. He has been imitating Bush in the main: in authorizing the surge itself, in relying on Gates, on McChrystal, on the Petraeus general counterinsurgency methodology, on Petraeus himself. A wider use of drones is a difference. There are reasons for that. But there is another, utterly unjustified difference: announcing a fixed withdrawal date. It has no strategic excuses – it is clearly harmful. It was done, obviously, for political reasons.

  6. It really boils down to the fact, that his project is the ‘fundamental transformation of America,” and operations in Afghanistan, interfere
    with that, he was ignorant about the Cold War, as his Sundial article
    shows, and he hasn’t learned anything new in the last 27 years. His coalition, is not antiwar, ‘they are just on ‘the other side’

  7. contra wrote:

    To announce a fixed withdrawal date in advance is disastrous.

    No, that’s an unproven assumption. Look, I criticized the withdrawal date the moment it was announced on much the same basis that you and the neocons are criticizing it. From the perspective of Woodward’s Obama, who does not share your analysis of the Afghanistan surge’s prospects, the disaster is already baked in: It’s a choice among disasters. In his view, a unified and bipartisan political coalition in support of a less-than-pure strategy is better than a high risk/low odds/politically unsustainable strategy that may amount to tilting after a strategic-tactical windmill. Among the high risks, incidentally, is precisely the appearance of a blank check on an Asian land war. The withdrawal date is Obama’s refusal of the blank check.

    It’s true that in establishing the “begin withdrawal date” Obama indicated that “winning is the only thing” was not his operational calculation. It’s true that that’s a less than ideal way to fight a war. But the situation and the war and the enemy are already far worse than ideal. Furthermore, if you are excluding political calculations, then you are not thinking strategically: You are imagining a war fought in fantasy or a Petri dish. Whatever the strategic/tactical impact of the July 2011 “begin withdrawal” signpost, it would have to be balanced, in the view of Woodward’s Obama, against the strategic/tactical impact of political meltdown in the U.S.

    Go ahead and criticize the strategy and tactics on their own terms. What’s “unwise and contemptible” on the part of Krauthhammer et al is turning a legitimate difference of opinion into a matter of moral judgment and phony posturing. It’s why they end up sounding like Kos Kids.

  8. contra wrote:

    As to what Obama should have announced instead – the winning model exists: Bush. Obama is now taking credit for Bush’s victory in Iraq. Fine – that’s politics. At least he knows now that it is a victory.

    It’s a criticizeable presumption that the Iraq model translates to a sufficient degree. And you might want to “stay tuned” on Iraq anyway. Rightly or wrongly, the view that Iraq resulted in a victory worth having is – or was last I checked – a minority view. What Obama really sees as “victory” – perhaps: reducing our commitment without taking immediate ownership of a total/expanding catastrophe – may not be the same thing that others want to celebrate.

  9. still waiting to hear somebody explain what the “fixed withdrawal date” is.
    the US military doesn’t believe there is one.

    Indeed, in interviews given to the press over the weekend, Petraeus said he did not come to Afghanistan to engineer a “graceful exit” and may recommend against any drawdown of troops next summer.
    Lost in some of the initial reporting on Obama’s July “deadline” was that he only promised to begin drawing down force levels. That could mean bringing home tens of thousands of the current 140,000 foreign forces – or just a few thousand.

    some of the people who report on the military don’t believe that there is one.

    Obama announced a date — July 2011 — when U.S. forces in Afghanistan will begin handing over security responsibilities to Afghan soldiers and policemen currently under American and allied tutelage, a step toward what he described as a long-term political and economic relationship with Pakistan and Afghanistan after U.S. troops ultimately depart.
    That date, Obama emphasized, heralds only the beginning of the end of the war: the pace of the handover and its ultimate conclusion will be determined not by a fixed timetable but “conditions on the ground,” according to the president, and it is unclear when or how rapidly substantial withdrawals of U.S. troops will occur after July 2011.

  10. @ fuster:
    That’s one reason I refer to “Woodward’s Obama” – who is depicted as chiefly wanting to get us out of Afghanistan without blasting apart the US government and military. The real Obama, if taken on his own terms, or on the basis of his public pronouncements and actions, may be someone or -thing different.

    What’s clear is that the “withdrawal date” is a signpost, a date for re-assessment as removed from the election calendar as you can get. As it draws near, unless something has greatly changed between now and then, different forces will presumably enter the struggle over defining it, and on determining the shape of our further commitment.

  11. The enemy, Taliban, AQ, certainly knows there is one, they know there’s a lot of nervous nellies even in the GOP, who are willing to bail
    out, at the first sign of turbulence, ironically this may make more involvement rather than less, more likely

  12. @ miguel cervantes:miggy, I’m also waiting for someone who can explain exactly what it is that we stand to gain in Afghanistan.
    Far as I can tell, we’ve got no reason to be there outside of insuring that it’s not again used as a base from which to launch attacks against us.

  13. Actually, you’re both right. Unfortunately, it’s unattainable. All you can ever achieve is some greater or lesser probability of it being used to launch attacks, and lowering the probability doesn’t do you much good if the attempt to achieve it tends to increase the probability of some other place being used to launch similar attacks, and also happens to cause greater harm than any such attacks themselves.

  14. @ CK MacLeod:
    It’s true that that’s a less than ideal way to fight a war. But the situation and the war and the enemy are already far worse than ideal. Furthermore, if you are excluding political calculations, then you are not thinking strategically

    I agree with the above! But not all political calculations are equally excusable. Consider the “Nixon went to China” paradigm. Kissinger and Nixon calculated that, given the political situation at home, their administration could afford to do something for the country that another, with a different political coloration, could not: could split the enemy camp decisively, and change the whole equation of the Cold War in America’s favor. (I am not interested for the moment in any other interpretation of that story: I am using it as a parable.)
    The Obama administration, having major credentials at the opposite side of the spectrum, did put them to similar use in some cases – though not like Nixon, to change the direction of foreign and defense policy – but at least to continue the policies of his predecessor – those innovative policies that had, against all odds, preserved the country from some vastly greater version of 9/11, for so long. Under cover of changed rhetoric, the Bush Doctrine is very much in force; we are fighting preventive wars (I’ve always considered “preemptive” a euphemism); we are expanding our military presence in the Greater Middle East; Gitmo is still open; there is more forcible interrogation of terrorists (through rendition); electronic surveillance is expanded, too; the CIA is assassinating enemy leaders in greater numbers than ever – ignoring collateral civilian damage. I could go on and on. McCain, were he elected, could not get away with all this – not to such extent. In such things, this administration has made politics serve policy – not the other way.

    What we had been discussing before is an opposite case.

    Whatever the strategic/tactical impact of the July 2011 “begin withdrawal” signpost, it would have to be balanced, in the view of Woodward’s Obama, against the strategic/tactical impact of political meltdown in the U.S.

    This self-justiification – though probably sincere – does not hold water. This is how the inner voice of selfishness and cowardice always speaks – “should I pay a political price, it would be a political disaster for the nation – because I am indispensable”. A meltdown because his left base would be pissed with him? But where would they go? Besides, this man has an indestructible core of loyal support within the Dem constituency: the blacks. Also, were he willing to move to the center on domestic issues, he would find an alternative support base. But he is in a perpetual deathly fear of losing that constituency with which he had been bonded through his political career…

  15. contra wrote:

    A meltdown because his left base would be pissed with him?

    I don’t know that an Obama supporter would accept your rendition of his record, but it’s at least arguable that maintaining the space to do all of those things of which you approve required some give and take, including but not limited to Afghanistan.

    In any event, the Woodward material suggests it was a much more complex situation than care and feeding of the far left. If O had thought that the Petraeus/McChrystal/Mullen first draft was terrific, and his only problem was keeping his “left base” bubbling over with glee, then it would be a weak excuse. But he apparently thought the 1st draft was terrible – a plan which six years later would have the U.S. at about the same position we were in pre-escalation. He’s depicted as insisting on a plan that his entire team, including the generals, could support and commit to supporting.

    If the policy was really worthy of moral condemnation of the sort coming from Krauthammer et al, what would that say about McChrystal, Mullen, Petraeus? Speaking of them, there’s also a subtext of O being determined to maintain control over the policy, and to be sure his generals knew it, alongside a rather unflattering portrait of Petraeus’s arrogance, or at least of one or two comments that read as dangerously arrogant, but I don’t like building too much on this material, because Woodward’s method sometimes seems like gossip and possibly re-contextualized loose talk turned into a second draft of history. Still, if you don’t like Obama and are opposed to his policies, and have a high opinion of the good intentions and trustworthiness of his other opponents, it’s easier for you to minimize the idea of his stature being diminished, of his coalition fragmenting, of his having to construct a new base, and, by the way, of his program being impaired if not destroyed. Consider how close he came to not being able to pass Obamacare, and how much that whole effort cost him and his party. It’s a bit much to expect him and his supporters to be as nonchalant about such matters.

  16. @ CK MacLeod:
    “the view that Iraq resulted in a victory worth having is – or was last I checked – a minority view”

    The president, however, has subscribed to this view by taking credit for this outcome… More importantly (since actions speak louder than words), he has subscribed to this view by employing in Afghanistan the same approach, the same means – and the same man – that had brought about that controversial outcome. Evidently, BHO does believe it to be worth having! And that is what is relevant in the context of the current thread.

    Undoubtedly, the president would be very happy to get the situation in Afghanistan (where he is compelled to send more troops in) to resemble that in Iraq (where he feels free to bring most of the troops out). He would, I expect, consider that a victory worth having.

    In abstract, the question of whether the Iraq victory was worth having at the price is – I agree – debatable. Infinitely debatable. because the answer hinges on where else those material and human resources would have otherwise been employed – and what blunders would have been committed in pursuing that hypothetical other goal. Since there is an infinity of alternative timelines, this question is inexhaustible…

  17. Mullen, never believed in the surge, along with Fallon, who was trying
    to short circuit Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy until the Esquire
    profile undid him, had he had his drothers, AQ would have an emirate
    on the Euphrates now. We see n ow Obama was just stalling for time,
    sacking McKiernan, who’s primary failing was being too honest of what was required. In this he is much like Lyndon Johnson, in not believing
    in the war, he was prosecuting

  18. @ miguel cervantes:
    “AQ would have an emirate” is an assumption. No one knows precisely what would have happened without the Surge, and it’s too early to say that the Surge was more than a temporary political success for the U.S. – a serviceable framework for withdrawal and “decent interval.”

    What’s your evidence for the notion that McKiernan was fired for “too much honesty”? If his primary failing was too much honesty, then you’re calling those who replaced him dishonest. What do you believe he advocated that all of the others dishonestly rejected? What’s your reason for believing it?

    Avoiding LBJ’s fate is more what the Obami are about. It’s one thing to be stuck with a war – or a strategy – that you don’t believe in. It’s another thing to let it consume and destroy your presidency.

    @ contra:
    The statements from the Administration regarding Iraq do not amount to a validation of the Iraqi enterprise as a whole. The President in particular has made it clear that he stands by his early opposition to the war. The situation of ’09-’10 looks like a relative victory compared to ’05-’06, but that’s far different from saying, “Boy, Iraq was great, let’s do something like that again and sooner rather than later.”

    Specifically, the Iraq Surge provided some degree of political cover for our drawdown. How much was actually accomplished on the ground by the Surge per se is also debatable, though I don’t want to underrate the unique value of putting a stamp on a development – having a narrative that may or may not truly explain what took place, but seems to.

    Utilizing and backing Petraeus hardly equates with a full endorsement of the heroic neocon narrative of Iraq. It could be that all O reasonably hopes for from Petraeus, in the best of circumstances, is an Afghanistan inhospitable to AQ (or whatever’s left of it), an acceptable framework for withdrawal, and shared responsibility for the aftermath. St. Petraeus + conservatives “on the other side” is a much more difficult political proposition than having Petraeus on his own side, or, at worst facing a Petraeus down the line whose halo has been tarnished by reality.

    When you call the Iraq decision “infinitely debatable,” that’s like calling it “not debatable,” which is closer to my position. We discussed Iraq in some detail subsequent to the President’s address early last month. Beginning here:

    Also extensively in the comment thread (amidst lots of cross-discussion) here:

  19. @ CK MacLeod:
    “I don’t know that an Obama supporter would accept your rendition of his record,”

    If an Obama supporter accepted anything I say, I would realize at once that I’d made a mistake… :-)

    “but it’s at least arguable that maintaining the space to do all of those things of which you approve required some give and take”

    I’ve listed these things as examples of O. continuing and, in some respects, expanding past policies. It may have sounded as if I approve of them all… But I disapprove of “rendition”, except of exceptional cases. It seems to me cruel, unreliable, and a hypocritical evasion of responsibility. To avoid (say) dripping water on a stubborn terrorist, we deliver him to some friendly oriental power to (say) drip nitric acid on him – so that we can wash our hands of it – while using the information obtained. Such information, that is, as is passed on to us by the friendly oriental… It stinks.

  20. He fired McKiernan, although he asked for roughly the same number of troops as McChrystal, then waited months before deciding to back the
    surge, reluctantly. Yes, Biden was his tutor as to which questions to
    ask Petraeus back in 2007, the man who thought that partition of Iraq
    was a good idea, (note to self, partition is never a good idea). Of course, the hands off approach has encouraged the most intransigent
    elements in the Sunni/Shia divide, The Likwan sent their best fighters
    into the Flytrap, another unacknowledged benefit of the war

  21. miguel cervantes wrote:

    He fired McKiernan, although he asked for roughly the same number of troops as McChrystal,

    The reporting is that McKiernan was fired because he was a “languid” “old school” type, without much political support, who had spent too much time fighting the Bush-mandated holding action, making do without, while an “A-team” was in the wings, including McChrystal, who was supposed to be the very model of the modern American general.

    None of which has anything to do with the phony, melodramatic charge that you initially made, that McKiernan was fired for being “honest.” I think that the excitable Ralph Peters may have made an argument along those lines, attempting to cast McKiernan as a Shinseki type, in a way that served Peters’ explication of his own extremely skeptical and pessimistic views on the Afghan Surge.

    Now, McKiernan himself may have spoken further on this subject, and filled in the difference between what he thought was doable with 30,000 additional troops and what the Petraeus/McChrystal plan attempts to do with them. That’s why I asked what you were basing your criticisms on. You still haven’t said.

  22. The reporting was that everyone … Mullen, Gates and Petraeus wanted McKiernan out and the decision was made by Mullen and Gates because above and beyond McK being an advocate of fixed positions, he was also largely ignorant of many things that he should have known and unable to answer many of the questions posed by Mullen.

  23. We’re going back to the point that Mullen, is the most conventional of thinkers in the Military ranks, Obama has shown he’s not really engaged
    in the Afghan question, the Woodward book also shows he was alerted
    to the danger posed by AQAP, almost a year before Ft. Hood

  24. miguel cervantes wrote:

    Obama has shown he’s not really engaged
    in the Afghan question

    What you talking? That’s just silly stuff, miggy. Obama is very much engaged in all the stuff in the ME and Central Asia and was engaged with it from the beginning of 2008 and on.
    Try taking a look at his campaign speeches, campaign staff and transition team before you attempt that one.

    Maybe you’re just confused and confusing a fight against the terrorists with a strategy that’s overcommitted to rather peripheral interests in Afghanistan.
    But even then, he had a policy about staying in Afghanistan and rebuilding long-term. Turns out that the policy was not much damn good because the balance of forces there was pretty damn poor, but he was good and engaged.

  25. fuster wrote:

    but he was good and engaged.

    The Woodward portrayal comes across to me, anyway, as “very engaged.” Which means there’s no need to argue this point, since the next round of criticism will be that he was over-engaged, micro-managing even. Should have just left the war to the professionals and focused on something he understands like socialite Alinskyism.

  26. He has been engaged in the ‘fundamental transformation’ in Holder’s
    ‘courageous dialogue on race’ in everything except what is his constitutional duty, something the Economist doesn’t understand either

  27. @ CK MacLeod:

    “I agree that what you describe stinks, but I’m not sure that what you describe is what’s occurring.”
    Perhaps not in detail: there is not enough evidence. Evidence exists – but it is necessarily scanty – because this procedure aims at concealment. If it worked perfectly, there would be no evidence at all. But there is some: e.g. Target Of Obama-Era Rendition Alleges Torture .

    However, one need not rely on such evidence to consider the question: why rendition? Why would a superpower like ours outsource sensitive interrogations, affecting national security, to foreign, backward, unfree Middle-Eastern countries (where torture is normal practice)? The disadvantages and dangers of it are obvious – what are the advantages? What resources do their investigators possess that ours do not? The only plausible answer seems to be: they have freedom from legal restraint, freedom from public scrutiny, and a well-developed torture culture.

    Without torture, the whole practice of rendition would be pointless…

  28. Well you reminded me, of one of my qualms, Obama denounced Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, in earshot of the Citadel and other locations in Egypt
    where they do torture. One of the more tragic examples in the Bush administration was the Aher case, where the Mukharabat floated the tip, in order to get at the brother of a Shams Islamiya (Syrian Brotherhood member)

  29. @ contra:
    I don’t claim to have followed the issue of rendition (or “extraordinary rendition”) very closely, but I do know that within days of being inaugurated O signed an Executive Order intended to put an end to “rendition for torture” and other practices he and others had long criticized. Whatever the Azar case is, it’s not sending off a guy to an Egyptian dungeon to be dealt with by sadists. So, lots of things could be happening, or a few things, or one or two things. We don’t know, but the evidence is that O Administration policy is anti-torture, by us or anyone, and that if anything tangible emerged to contradict this position substantively, then they’d pay a heavy price.

    As for the uses of rendition otherwise, there are many circumstances in which states will want their citizens back, or we’ll want to send them back. It occurs between states of the United States.

    But my disagreement with your rendition of Obama’s supposed continuity of Bush era policies didn’t rest on detainee treatment.

    those innovative policies that had, against all odds, preserved the country from some vastly greater version of 9/11, for so long.

    I’ve seen no evidence that AQ had the odds in its favor on the goal of accomplishing some vastly greater version of 9/11.

    Under cover of changed rhetoric, the Bush Doctrine is very much in force; we are fighting preventive wars (I’ve always considered “preemptive” a euphemism);

    We’re discussing attempts to wind the Bush wars down somehow, and O is criticized from the Neocon right for his reluctance to bomb Iran. What other preventive wars are out there for us to fight?

    The beginning point of this whole discussion is the supposedly scandalous conduct of O sending troops to a theater from which he hopes to withdraw. Any problems in Iraq will be attributed by neocon critics to his insistence on timely withdrawal.

    we are expanding our military presence in the Greater Middle East;

    On balance? Including Iraq reductions? I wonder if that’s so. Depending on how you define GME, our presence is already so substantial, it’s hard to get an overview.

    Gitmo is still open;

    Much to O’s chagrin. I always saw this issue as overblown anyway.

    there is more forcible interrogation of terrorists (through rendition);

    Evidence for that? I believe the opposite is the case.

    Electronic surveillance is expanded, too;

    How so?

    the CIA is assassinating enemy leaders in greater numbers than ever – ignoring collateral civilian damage.

    Drone strikes have certainly gone up, especially lately, though I’m not sure that that quite equates with “assassinating enemy leaders in greater numbers.” And “ignoring collateral… damage” is an exaggeration. I believe it would take around a century or two of drone strikes at their current high rate to get near the collateral damage of Operation Iraqi Freedom alone.

    I could go on and on. McCain, were he elected, could not get away with all this – not to such extent.

    McCain would have been elected (by a different country than we actually were, apparently) with the expectation of a more “muscular” foreign policy, though on detainee treatment issues I don’t think there was much daylight between him and O, and he might very well have made it even more of a personal mission to reverse certain Bush Era policies, against opposition within his own political coalition.

  30. No, McCain and I assume Graham would likely have pursued much the same policy on interrogations as Obama, as they seemed to have swallowed the Levick group and DenBeaux’s propaganda whole. Gitmo was a stupid promise, Bush shouldn’t have let any of these folks go,
    frankly that was appeasing an unappeasable faction. (re the Ghailani
    trial, if the example wasn’t clear enough)

  31. CK MacLeod wrote:

    We’re discussing attempts to wind the Bush wars down somehow, and O is criticized from the Neocon right for his reluctance to bomb Iran. What other preventive wars are out there for us to fight?

    This is not how I see the situation. We are currently fighting four preventive wars; three of them have been escalated under Obama; one (in Iraq) is being de-escalated – but according to a previous Bush plan. Two of the four wars, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, require ground troops; the third one, in Pakistan, is also a shooting war with human casualties; the fourth one – the war of electronic sabotage against Iran – is bloodless, but it is nevertheless a war of destruction. Only a small tip of it is visible – but it has already produced outstanding results (though one cannot tell what part of the credit goes to our allies); the prospect of a nuclear Iran is perpetually receding.

    I do not see either the escalation of three wars, or the de-escalation of one, as shifts in policy under Obama. Rather, they represent a logical, natural, inexorable unfolding of previous policies. We are doing what we have to do, under the circumstances. In Iraq, the 115 thousand troops that are being withdrawn are not needed there any more; and they are needed elsewhere. But that does not mean we are extricating outselves from that “Bush war”! It is merely being shifted to a back burner (provided all goes reasonably well) – but we can’t leave altogether. Troubles (big or small) will continue in Iraq. The Iraqis will continue to need our assistance, and our presence as a necessary guarantee – against each other, against Iran, even against Turkey; they will keep asking us to stay – indefinitely – and we can hardly refuse. We have, then, come there to stay.
    The same is true elsewhere. Those other wars will also de-escalate, at some point. But we have come to the Greater Middle East to stay, as we had come to Europe in the nineteen forties. We had no real option to withdraw then, being stuck with consequences of previous choices – and the same is true now.

    Bush had a choice after 9/11; it was a cusp in history. His successors are stuck with his choices, willingly or reluctantly: ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt

  32. Afghan/Pakistan is the same theatre of operations, Iraq/Syria would be the same, certainly the Baathists that condoned the jihadist ratline back through Al Quaim, thought so. The abandonment of the Green Revolution, you condone now, infavor of the Stuixnet, now what is clear is the war against Israel, that is going full bore.

  33. At a certain point the definition of “war” becomes the issue, like the definition of empire. When people speak of “preventive war” or “Bush’s wars,” they’re speaking conventionally. I agree that we’re “trapped” in the GME, but we were already “trapped” long before Operation Iraqi Freedom, which, as I’ve frequently argued, can be viewed as the deferred continuation/completion of Operation Desert Storm. OIF played out very much on the basis of violation of the terms that ended or suspended ODS, and according to the concept of the “turn to Baghdad” envisioned and rejected in 1991 by Bush 41: Fraying of coalition under exceeded mandate, difficult and expensive occupation, etc. We’ve been trapped in the GME ever since we replaced the Brits at the crossroads of civilization, and as Guardians of the Sacred Fount of Easily Accessible Fossil Fuels.

    So, in that sense, Bush had relatively little choice on a strategic level. Invading Iraq was for him and us a path of least resistance to cope with a geopolitical imperative. We might imagine some other means for dealing with it, some other stratagem more supportive of a transnational consensus, but there would have been no guarantee that it would have been more effective or in the end less violent, and, anyway, it’s not where the U.S. is or was historically. In this phase of world history, we seem to be a reactionary and defensive power, not yet ready to give up national ownership of a transnational project whose terms we at the same time are unwilling to accept fully.

    Obama represents a compensation toward a transnationalist resolution of the national-transnational contradiction. As we can see – as we saw with Bush in reverse – as soon as one side begins to receive greater emphasis, the forces on the other rise up with renewed vigor and apocalyptic desperation. Bush was seen as a mortal threat to progressivism-transnationalism. Now Obama is seen as a mortal threat to conservatism-nationalism. What’s true is that Americanism faces a mortal threat, but the name of that mortal threat is Americanism.

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Noted & Quoted

TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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