Monday, October 26, 2009

A Double Cross to Bear

Earlier, I linked to Dick Cheney's very excellent October 21 speech to the Center for Security Policy. Portions of this speech centered on the Obama administration's "dithering" on the question of how best to implement Gen. McCrystal's counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy for Afghanistan (mainly re: how many troops to send and how soon to send them). Embedded in the subsequent back-and-forth on that speech is an example of the sort of chicanery which is merely the latest in a series of deal-breakers for any vestige of a benefit of a doubt I may once have been inclined to give this POTUS' administration.

As summarized by this post by Stephen Hayes from the Weekly Standard, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs' peevish prevarication went something like this:
"What Vice President Cheney calls 'dithering,' President Obama calls his solemn responsibility to the men and women in uniform and to the American public," said Gibbs. "I think we've all seen what happens when somebody doesn't take that responsibility seriously." Gibbs went on, calling Cheney's comments "curious" and claiming that a request for troops from General David McKiernan during the final year of the Bush administration "sat on desks in this White House, including the vice president's, for more than eight months."
Gibbs is saying here that the Bush Administration --which, presumably, did not take the "solemn responsibility" to the troops as seriously as his successor is currently running out precious clock cycles to do-- let requests for more troops sit idly by, lacking a clear strategy for the mission of those troops. Pretty serious stuff. Too bad the charge bears not the slightest resemblance to what actually transpired, as cited by Hayes:

"The idea that we just sat on our f--ing asses--it's really a slander," says one senior Bush administration official. "It's just not credible that we didn't take this seriously."
In fact, the Bush administration did ask those questions. From mid-September to mid-November 2008, a National Security Council team, under the direction of General Doug Lute, conducted an exhaustive review of Afghanistan policy. The interagency group included high-ranking officials from the State Department, the National Security Council, the CIA, the office of the director of national intelligence, the office of the vice president, the Pentagon, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Its objective was to assess U.S. -policy on Afghanistan, integrating a simultaneous military review being conducted by CENTCOM, so as to present President Bush with a series of recommendations on how best to turn around the deteriorating situation there. The Lute group met often--sometimes twice daily--in a secure conference room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. (The group used the room so frequently that other national security working groups that had been meeting there were required to find other space including, occasionally, the White House Situation Room.)
The Lute review asked many questions and provided exhaustive answers not only to President Bush, but also to the Obama transition team before the inauguration. "General Jones was briefed on the results of the Lute review, and that review answered many of the questions that Rahm Emanuel says were never asked," says Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley. Jones and Hadley discussed the review, and Lute gave Jones a detailed PowerPoint presentation on his findings. Among the recommendations: a civilian surge of diplomats and other non-military personnel to the country, expedited training for the Afghan National Army, a strong emphasis on governance and credible elections, and, most important, a fully resourced counterinsurgency strategy.
Jones asked Hadley not to release the results of the Lute review so that his boss would have more flexibility when it came time to provide direction for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Bush officials reasoned that Obama was more likely to heed their advice if he could simply adopt their recommendations without having to acknowledge that they came from the Bush White House. So Hadley agreed. (emph. added)
 Got that? An exhaustive, comprehensively interdepartmental review was conducted, comprising myriad meetings, and arriving at recommendations which bear a striking resemblance to those at which Obama's own review arrived. Further, those findings were offered to the incoming administration sub rosa, with the full expectation that  Obama's team could claim credit for them, and implement them seamlessly, and without the political complications of accepting (and having his flexibility constrained by) his predecessor's policy recommendations. See also this quote, via Power Line, from Kristopher Harrison, who served as Chief of Staff to the Counselor of the Secretary of State during the Bush administration, and was intimately involved in the review process for the strategy in Afghanistan:
It is also true that Obama's transition team asked us to hold the Afghanistan review findings, a request to which President Bush acquiesced because (as it was relayed to me) he did not want to box the new president into a narrow set of options. In March, when Obama announced his new Afghanistan strategy, I did not notice a single change from the new plan that we had given him...only Obama did not resource it with enough troops.

And how does this Great Uniter repay this professionalism and graciousness? Why, of course, by taking endless swipes at his predecessor's policies, and accusing him of squandering the chance to turn the Af-Pak theater around while "wasting" time wresting victory from the jaws of defeat (and landing some vicious body-blows on al Qaeda) in Iraq.

Whatever. Politics is politics, and class is optional. Obama plainly still believes that he can score political points by trashing the Bush administration, and he is probably right...up to a point. That point begins where the interests of the United States, of its troops and its allies become endangered by political maneuvering at the expense of substantive action on vital issues. On that frontier, Obama is demonstrably floundering.

The stated (and endlessly re-stated) rationale for Obama's sitting on the decision to deploy more troops to Afghanistan lies with the results of that country's demonstrably tainted national elections. Makes a certain kind of sense, since one of the goals of COIN is the fortification of a host nation's confidence in its government by providing security and stability and civil affairs support. If that government is viewed as illegitimate, then there are hard limits on the amount of good which COIN operators can bring about in the field. Therein lies a not altogether incoherent argument for waiting till the the run-off election, and coordinating operations with the hopefully more well-regarded government which emerges from it.

And if we were talking about just about any place besides Afghanistan, that would be a convincing argument. But we're not, and if there is one thing about Afghanistan which has held true for decades, it is that any central government is going to be viewed with suspicion and/or hostility by the denizens of the largely unpaved hinterlands which make up the majority of the country's territory. "Legitimate government" is practically an oxymoron in the average Afghan's eyes, so the niceties of electoral politics in Kabul amount to less than a hill of rotted poppies. 

The task is not so much to shore up a government which is generally viewed as legitimate, as it is to establish pockets of security and the concrete promise of prosperity, by crushing the Taliban and its al Qaeda proteges, denying them re-entry into the communities from which we chase them, and training locals to shoulder the burdens of picking up where we, in due course, leave off. It is from those deeds that the legitimacy of the government which partners with us will arise, rather than descend from some abstraction of a polity, far away in an alien city, whose words the villagers and tribal elders of the primordial hills and steppes are somehow supposed to take on faith, pending the delivery on the promises of foreigners.

Naturally, however, this concept is apt to be just as foreign to an inveterate statist like Obama.

It is, however, worse than even such naivete. As per Mr. Hengists's superb and destined to be oft-cited post on the "pretext of principles," this whole matter of waiting on Afghanistan's elections does not bear scrutiny as anything but a smoke-screen, a cover story for what is more properly viewed as a political matter for internal consumption. Obama is struggling with the question of how to create political cover for the implementation (or  parsing) of a policy which both his hand-picked general and his predecessor's team have determined to have the lowest probability of failure in "The Necessary War."  As the Left wrings its hands about troop deployments, and the Right continues to be embarrassingly supportive of  the policy which Obama articulated back in March, the President feels his hands to be tied...and he is loath to take responsibility to cut the knot.

And so he plays the blame game, shifting responsibility hither and yon, while even NATO grows restive at the delay in declaring a clear course of action.

If there is one thing at which the Bush Administration displayed a singular talent (probably to a fault), it was absorbing the vicious and mendacious attacks of its foes. The Obama team's crass and dishonest attempt to shift its indecision onto its predecessors is hardly the worst political stunt in the history of the Republic, and it is a double-cross which --for all of Cheney's characteristic piss and vinegar in response-- the Bush team is uniquely well-prepared to bear. But it is the brave and long-suffering service-people in Afghanistan (to say nothing of the Afghans themselves!) who stand to be counted as collateral damage in this beltway boogie.

And that is simply inexcusable.

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