Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Risk I'm Willing to Take...For You

While GOP frontrunner Rudy Giuliani's handpicked foreign policy guru, Norman Podhoretz, waxes ever hopeful about the prospect of triggering the rest of a series of US-led wars in the Middle East, reality intrudes to dispel some of the fantastical thinking that has enchanted Rudy. From Joseph Galloway at McClatchy:

The Army reportedly has a shortage of 3,000 captains and majors this year, and recently began offering them bonuses of up to $35,000 if they'd agree to remain on duty for another three years. The shortage was forecast to rise to 6,000 by 2010 as the Army tries to grow by 65,000.

Even with the offer of the cash bonus or free graduate school or their choice of assignments, the exodus of young officers continues to grow at a pace that worries commanders. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point was founded to educate career officers for the Army, and upon graduation each officer owes Uncle Sam five years on active duty. The hope is that most will remain for a full career, and historically just 28.8 percent have opted out after five years.

A total of 35 percent of the West Point Class of 2000 left the Army in 2005; 46 percent of the Class of 2001 left in 2006, and a staggering 58 percent of the Class of 2002 left active duty when their obligation expired this year.

Those figures are mirrored among officers who are commissioned through university ROTC programs, with attrition rates now at a 30-year high. The Army Reserve reports that the situation is even worse for critical ranks and specialties: The Reserve has only 58 percent of the sergeants first class it needs, 53 percent of the needed captains and 74 percent of needed majors.

Patricia Kushlis delves into a similar phenomenon that is hampering the State Department's efforts to fill up to 50 of its vacant posts at the behemoth-like Baghdad embassy. Despite the attempted turn toward neo-imperialism undertaken by the Bush administration, as ably described by John Judis, the American people don't seem to have been inspired by the same nostalgia for days of conquest gone by.

The Army, in order to try to make up for lagging recruitment levels, has taken to lowering standards for incoming GI's (from waivers for behavioral issues and past criminal conduct, to dramatically lower aptitude test requirements). While this attempted fix might keep up appearances in terms of the meeting of recruitment goals, the same band aids are not available when attempting to retain West Point and ROTC grads (the ranks of which are not being thinned out, preemptively or otherwise, by the imposition of such standards).

Regardless, the measures employed to buoy those recruitment levels are taking a toll on the readiness, morale and effectiveness of the armed forces in total and, as Galloway points out, making the lives of our serving officers that much more difficult:

[The lowering of standards has] only made more trouble for those captains Adm. Mullen talked to this week. One complained to Mullen that he was forced to spend 80 percent of his time dealing with the 13 “problem children” in his 100-man company.

Mullen told the junior officers that his service dates back to the Vietnam War, and he remembers vividly how our military was broken at the end of that war, and how hard it was to repair the damage. He said he doesn’t want to see the current wars break the force again.

The grinding down of the officer class - largely resulting from the sustained burden of extended deployments in Iraq and, to a lesser degree, Afghanistan on too small a contingent of officers - could portend more grievous consequences should a crisis arise in the near future. Despite this vulnerability, the visible signs of fraying, and regardless of General McCaffrey's (and others') warning about an imminent "meltdown" of certain service branches, the GOP candidates, as typified by Giuliani, are in various states of urgency regarding the need to voluntarily and without casus belli create just such a crisis.

This time, the crisis of choice will come in the form of the opening of a third front in Iran to go along with the two currently raging. More worrisome than the GOP fields' mongering, though, is that certain powerful factions in the White House seem to share that zeal.

The way that those that favor military confrontation with Iran attempt to reconcile the current predicament involving our armed forces with the increased strain that would result from the opening of a third front is to promise, again, a quick and easy war. This time, the best case scenario is supposed to play out something like this: We unleash a massive campaign of airstrikes against Iranian targets and Iran (despite its significant retaliatory capacity) does not respond in any way that would require an escalation and use of ground forces on our part.

This wishful thinking is premised on the notion that Iran will either be so helplessly crippled by our display of air power or sufficiently chastened such that it will reluctantly go along with our carefully laid out, and delicate, plans. This makes little sense though. For one, recall how we dismantled Iraq's military structures, and yet Iraqis have continued to find myriad ways to exact a toll on our forces. Iran, right next door and with numerous connections, resources, contacts and allies in neighboring Iraq, could easily participate in such a role. Further, the same war proponents that assure us that Iran won't respond are busy trying to convince us that Iran's leadership is consumed by the single-minded purpose of interfering with, and frustrating, our designs in the region and beyond. But if we attack them through targeted airstrikes alone, they will suddenly play nice?

In recent years, Iraq war supporters have taken to lecturing those that have criticized the disconnect between rosy war plans and actual execution by frequently turning to the military truism that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. Yet many of those same Iraq war defenders would have us plunge headlong into another potentially devastating conflict under the assumption that our war plan will survive in near pristine condition after the fighting starts - and throughout.

I'd call this magical thinking, but "magical" has too pleasant a connotation. This is lunacy. But as Galloway points out, the risks involved are deemed acceptable by far too many of us:

Just over half a percent of our 300 million citizens carry the entire burden and make all the sacrifices in an inexcusably unfinished war of necessity in Afghanistan and a costly war of choice in Iraq.


Monday, October 29, 2007


When I read this Jonathan Turley Op-Ed on Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey, I found myself nodding along with Turley's assessment of Mukasey's views on waterboarding, and what they said about his qualifications as a nominee.

At first, [Mukasey] repeatedly stated that he does not support torture, which violates the U.S. Constitution. This is precisely the answer given so often by President Bush like a mantra. The problem is that Bush defines torture to exclude things like water-boarding...

The senators pushed Mukasey to go beyond the Bush administration mantra. He refused and then said something that made many of us who were listening gasp: "I don't know what is involved in the technique," he said.

There are only two explanations for this answer, either of which should compel the senators to vote against confirmation. The first is that Mukasey is the most ill-informed nominee in the history of this republic...To say he is unfamiliar with the technique is perhaps the single greatest claim of ignorance since Clarence Thomas testified at his confirmation that he really had not thought enough about abortion to have an opinion on the subject.

The second possibility is, unfortunately, the more likely explanation: Mukasey is lying.

Fair enough. If even I had at least a basic understanding of waterboarding, Mukasey should be in a position to give an informed response right then and there. Here's what I recently discovered after reading Malcolm Nance though: I didn't really know what was involved in the technique. Nance is a former Master Instructor and Chief of Training at the US Navy Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School (SERE) where he "personally led, witnessed and supervised waterboarding of hundreds of people" as part of that organization's torture resistance training (a clue as to how the US Navy categorizes waterboarding).

SERE was designed to show how an evil totalitarian, enemy would use torture at the slightest whim. If this is the case, then waterboarding is unquestionably being used as torture technique.

But that much, I knew. These details, however, I was unaware of:

Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.

Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions shouted into the victim’s face) and the obstinacy of the subject. A team doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to the final death spiral.

Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration – usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right it is controlled death. Its lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threaten with its use again and again. [emphasis added throughout]

I readily confess to my ignorance of the fact that the lungs are actually filled with water during the procedure. From the media reports that I've perused, I was under the impression that no water actually enters the mouth of the prisoner. Rather, that it was a simulation using some type of cover over the mouth combined with the pouring of water in order to trigger an irrational - if palpable - fear.

The description of the technique as it is actually practiced is far more disturbing than imagined. Nance's unequivocal conclusion is appropriate: "Waterboarding is torture…period." Any person who would be Attorney General should be able and willing to give the same, clear answer.

(via Duss)

Nuclear Weapons Program-Related Activity

Like Matt, I was struck by the subtle shift in rhetoric from President Bush regarding potential red lines associated with Iranian nukes that, if crossed, would require a military response from the United States. Pay attention to the trigger here [my emphasis throughout]:

I believe [the Iranians] want to have the capacity, the knowledge, in order to make a nuclear weapon...

So I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.
The shift in the casus belli goal posts was evident again in a recent appearance by Bush, as quoted by Michael Hirsh:

In a speech Tuesday at National Defense University, Bush declared that "the need for missile defense in Europe … is urgent" because "Iran is pursuing the technology that could be used to produce nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles."
The appearance of these new markers is not likely the result of mere happenstance. The major obstacle to Iran's, or any other state's, ambition for nuclear weapons is less the lack of "knowledge" and more the lack of raw materials. Most credible assessments of Iran's progress in terms of the acquisition or production of those fissile raw materials (those elusive centrifuges) puts the red line many years down the road. That line is moved even further back if we're talking about Iran developing technology to convert that nuclear arsenal into a credible threat against the United States.

Thus, the harsh demands of empirical evidence weakens Iran war advocates' claims that Bush must strike during the remaining months of his presidency. On the other hand, under the "knowledge" rubric for justifying (or selling) war with Iran (and other similarly attenuated standards like possession of technology that could be used to produce nuclear weapons), the timeline is likely accelerated to...well, today.

I suppose one could argue that the Bush administration has learned something from the debacle in Iraq. Rather than over-selling the evidentiary case a priori, and then trying to move the goal posts after the fact with clumsy constructs like, "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities," they seem to have opted to just start out with easy to reach goals that even this gang can hit.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

More Distinctions and Differences

Matt responds to my earlier campaign-related post here. While I think Matt has a point that paying attention to a candidates' campaign can be instructive in determining how that candidate will govern, it all comes down to how much weight to put on certain aspects of that campaign process. Even then, Matt concedes, that "...these kind[s] of things can change as somebody governs." Which is true (if understated), with George Bush's humble foreign policy platform (as well as compassionate conservatism) being only the most recent examples. Radical reversals are not all that common (though, as mentioned above, not unheard of either). But some degree of variation is inevitable, and occurs in every election cycle without fail.

I would further quibble with the examples that Matt cites (i.e., that if Edwards campaigns on a platform of economic populism, he'll likely govern that way), and in general, referencing a candidate's "platform." First, this post was not addressing larger policy proposals that would comprise "platform" planks such as major philosophical leanings (economic populism) or detailed policy proposals (health care plans). By all means, if health care is an important issue to you, and you prefer one candidate's plan to another's, that's a good reason to favor one over the other. Personally, I think Hillary did a fine job in this regard as well.

What this post meant to focus on were minor rhetorical differences in some of the speeches/responses given by the candidates - rhetorical differences that were born out of campaign expediency and, as such, should not be viewed as overly determinative of how those candidates would actually govern. Especially when considering that their actual policy proposals tend to be less distinguishable.

That being said, I think that Matt is absolutely correct that is vital to pressure the leading candidates into adopting the sanest policies possible - both in terms of rhetorical attachment and actual detailed proposals. In this, Yglesias has been doing as fine a job as any, and I don't mean to suggest that he should stop (nor do I presume that he would listen if I did). Although a bit more slack on the rope might be in order considering that Hillary is clearly trying to push toward the middle in order to build as broad a base of support for the general election as possible (and insuring that a Democrat wins the White House should be all of our overriding goals). At least, stick to the actual policy differences when tugging on that rope, rather than exaggerating minor political maneuvering or giving preferred candidates the benefit of the doubt while seeing through a jaundiced eye with almost every move Hillary makes.

Perhaps Obama or Edwards would be better than Clinton (on certain issues I agree, and others not), but we certainly don't want to undermine her such that should she win the nomination (likely) there would be an audible groan from the more progressive wing, and a repeat of Gore-like voter rejection/apathy. Speaking of which, I tend to think that Gore would have governed in a much smarter, more progressive way than his 2000 campaign might have let on - especially if you listened to the Coke/Pepsi faux choice that many Democrats and Naderites claimed was available.

Just sayin.

On Distinctions and Differences

Matt Yglesias links to an interview of Hillary Clinton conducted by Michael Tomasky in which Hillary offers up a refreshingly intelligent response to a question regarding terrorist motivations and the lack of a monolithic purposes (even Matt, no fan of Hillary's, concedes that hers is the "right answer"). But then - after briefly noting the benefit of having someone, like Hillary, with a substantive understanding of important issues in the Oval Office - Yglesias complains that she is still overly cautious in her response, and not quick enough to push for a wholesale reframing of issues relating to terrorism:

Obama and Edwards have both shown far more inclination to do this than has Clinton (in part, obviously, because the exigencies of the campaign have forced them to) which is an important consideration in their favor.

This is a curious statement. On the one hand, Matt states that Edwards and Obama have been better on this front ("far" better is an overstatement - even with the recent points of separation, they have been more similar than different). And yet, Yglesias acknowledges that Edwards and Obama have been pushing the discussion in the desired direction in order to try to gain some momentum vis-a-vis Hillary in the Democratic primaries. He's right about that, but his conclusion doesn't fit with the premises.

Yglesias suggests that the rhetorical posturing of Edwards and Obama - which, again, is largely born out of campaign exigencies - should be "an important consideration in their favor." Why? Shouldn't their acknowledged motivations signal the opposite: that their main purpose for making such noises are political, and thus such speechifying does not necessarily represent a significant difference in the respective candidates' views?

In fairness to Edwards and Obama, it is likely that the attempt to re-define the rhetorical parameters of the terrorism debate is consistent with their actual beliefs (and that they would go even further if they believed it politically viable, let alone beneficial). By the same token, though, there is every reason to believe that Hillary's own views coincide with the type of rhetorical framing hinted at by Edwards and Obama. It's all about the gamesmanship that Yglesias recognizes - but perhaps does not fully account for in his final judgment.

Hillary, unlike her two Democratic opponents, does not need to better position herself in the Democratic field due to her commanding lead in the polls. Thus, as she has been doing all along, she is gearing up for the general election and tacking toward the middle. Remember, she is still viewed (or at least stigmatized) as overly liberal by most of the GOP and a compliant (at times vindictive) mainstream media. Thus, the caution that Matt decries is actually a manifestation of shrewd political tactics. Evidence of actual political acumen should come as no surprise, nor should its presence beguile us. She has the sharpest political mind in Democratic politics as her closest advisor - and spouse.

This type of Hillary-based cynicism is part of a larger pattern in much of the liberal blogosphere, unfortunately. For far too many, Hillary is viewed as some form of neocon light. In fact, a caricature of her anticipated foreign policy (war with Iran, torture, Bush-style authoritarianism) has emerged that would place her many ticks to the right of her husband's administration - a possibility that I find highly unlikely for obvious reasons. In this regard, she is consistently denied the benefit of the doubt when she makes what should be obvious pandering speeches to certain constituencies - speeches that are more readily identified as such and explained away when they are made by her primary opponents.

In the present example, Matt seems to recognize all of the underlying political machinations, and the way these are motivating the various messages from the candidates, yet still proclaims that, regardless, these rather minor, politically motivated shifts in language should be an important consideration for potential voters. Perhaps Hillary deserves a bit more credit, and a fair shake when assessing the way each campaign is strategizing - for the primaries and general election, respectively. Remember, she is trying to win an election, not sound the most pleasing notes to the progressive community (would that those two goals not be mutually exclusive).

This doesn't mean she'll be Bush III, however. At the risk of stating the obvious, candidates almost always say things in elections to make them sound more moderate then they really are - especially candidates that are fighting off extremist labels. Doesn't anyone remember compassionate conservatism as championed by the great uniter?

I'm not saying that Hillary necessarily has an ideal set of policies - foreign or domestic. But if you're looking for significant differentiation, Edwards and Obama aren't really offering it.

Potent Portables

Matt Yglesias is right that Chris Matthews really does a fine job of pressing Iran war advocate Joshua Muravchik on the urgency (and ultimate wisdom) of going to war with Iran in the next year. In particular, Matthews raises a point that I have not seen get the coverage it deserves regarding the possibility - and likelihood - of Iran passing on a nuclear weapon to terrorists: In order for such a transfer to be truly effective against the United States, Iran would not only need to develop a crude nuclear weapon, but would need to create a highly sophistacated device that could be easily portable, such that terrorists could deliver and detonate it in the United States.

A suitcase bomb type apparatus if you will. But when you factor in the difficulty and expertise necessary to perfect such a delivery system, that would tack on several more years to the Iranian bomb timeline. On the other hand, a terrorist group pressing for such a device would be better served by scouring the former Soviet Union (where such portable nukes are believed to reside) for a potential weak link in the chain of scientists/security officials in charge of their safe keeping. Of note: the Bush administration (and the legion of Iraq war mongers) have shown far less interest in securing loose nuclear materials, and bolstering nuclear security measures in Russia and the ex-Soviet Republics.

Of course, even that discussion elides some of the larger conceptual flaws in the presumption that Iran would transfer a nuclear weapon to terrorists in order to strike at the United States. For one, Iran would be doing so with the knowledge that there would be a very good chance that the return address on the nuke would eventually be traced back to Tehran. If those dots were connected, the ruling regime (and Iran in general) would cease to exist. That's an awfully big risk, no?

And then there's the question of why a country like Iran would spend so many billions, dedicate so many decades and withstand the hardships of sanctions and the like in order to finally attain a nuclear weapon...only to give it a way at the first opportunity. To a group like al-Qaeda, whose allegiance to the Shiite-dominated Iran is near non-existent (also a point made in the Matthews video by MIT's Jim Walsh).

After all, even many of the Iran war boosters like Muravchik concede that Iran's main purposes for acquiring the nuke in the first place would be to press for regional hegemony and brandish the prestige that comes with entry into the nuclear club (augmented by the prospect of becoming a leading light of Muslim resistance to the United States). Those advantages would disappear if Iran gave away their weapon. Even if they developed many (a possibility that, again, pushes the timeline back several years) and thus were capable of parting with one or two, what good would regional hegemony be if the United States responded to an Iran-enabled terrorist nuclear strike with the utter obliteration of Iran?

Kind of a fleeting victory, no?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

One Night in Bangkok (actually, more)...

In a bid to burn through what's left of my allotment of vacation days (can't carry them over ya know), I'm off on a slightly extended voyage to Asia (Thailand and Korea). I'm leaving early tomorrow, and will be back around the 29th.

See you then, and don't let Bush start any more wars while I'm away.

Blowing the Horn

As we near the one year anniversary of the US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia (with Ethiopia acting in tandem with the the Somali TFG forces), I figured it would be a good time to reacquaint our policymakers with what a successful counterinsurgency effort looks like. As predicted by so many right-wing pundits, the Ethiopians were going to teach us how to win such a conflct through their potent mixture of unrestrained brutality, disregard for human rights and control of the media - all buttressed by a dearth of back-stabbing Ethiopian/Somali peaceniks. So, with almost a year gone, one would assume that Ethiopia has this insurgency all but mopped up:

[Last night saw] some of the heaviest fighting in weeks in the capital. Overnight, at least eight civilians and one policeman died during a battle between Islamic insurgents and policemen, said residents and the police on Wednesday.

The civilians killed during the late Tuesday battle died when mortars crashed into their houses during fighting that began when 100 insurgents blasted a police station in the south of Mogadishu with heavy machine-guns and rocket propelled grenades, residents said.

"Buildings shuddered and weapons exchanged by the two sides illuminated the sky of the city," said Abdullahi Hussein Mohamud, who also said some mortars landed near his home that is some distance away from where the battle took place.

Abdi Haji Nur, a businessman, said that the insurgents captured the station, forcing about 30 policemen based there to flee.

Not exactly last throes, huh. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that the Somali faction that the Bush administration tagged as our ambassadors is acting in a manner that reflects well on the US:

The head of U.N. food agency operations in the violence-wracked Somali capital was taken away Wednesday by 50 to 60 heavily armed government security officers who had stormed the U.N. compound in Mogadishu, the agency said. [...]

The World Food Program suspended aid distribution in Mogadishu in response to the detention of the official, Irdris Osman. [...]

Osman was being held in a cell at the National Security Service headquarters and the WFP has not received any explanation for the action, the agency said, adding his detention violated international law.

Well, surely our Somali allies had a good reason to conduct such a raid:

Interior Minister Mohamed Mohamoud Guled...added that the WFP last month distributed food aid without consulting the government, a reason that the government has in recent months used to block distributions to areas perceived to be against the government.

Oh, they're just trying to block food from reaching certain impoverished areas. Must be another facet of that exemplary counterinsurgency strategy I keep hearing so much about. Still, we might have to concede that we misjudged the Somalis that we endorsed. Our Ethiopian allies would never engage in such practices though:

The Ethiopian government is starving and killing its own people in the remote eastern Ogaden region, according to refugees, who describe a terrifying four-month crackdown in which security forces have sealed off villages, torched homes and businesses, commandeered food and water sources, and beaten, raped or executed anyone who resists.

Hundreds of civilians already may have been killed in the crackdown on a separatist movement known as the Ogaden National Liberation Front, according to interviews with dozens of Ogadenis who've gathered in a steadily growing refugee camp in this steamy port city 300 miles from the Ethiopian border.

"They strangled my wife with a rope," said Ahmed Mohammed Abdi, a 35-year-old farmer from Degehabur province, who came home one day this month to see his wife's body lying by the door, his 1-month-old son still suckling at her breast. That night, he fled into the bush and began a seven-day trek to the relative safety of northern Somalia.

"If you come and try to identify the dead body, the soldiers will beat you also," said the wiry, wide-eyed Abdi. "I was afraid to be killed, so I ran away."

A top aide to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi rejected the allegations. The government has barred reporters and international relief groups from most of the region, a vast desert that stretches from the central Ethiopian highlands to the border with Somalia.

Since June, soldiers have confiscated food and medicine from shops, stolen camels and livestock and blocked people from using water wells, refugees said. Few commercial trucks have been allowed in, and relief workers say that food and humanitarian aid also has been stopped for most of the summer.

Perfect. Anyone want to take a guess at what that's doing to our image in the region?

Monday, October 15, 2007

One Man's Crisis...

I have written before about the fact that, contrary to the prevailing narrative that 9/11 represented a paradigm-shifting pivot for the White House, the Bush administration opportunistically used the events of 9/11 to advance several pre-existing agendas. From that earlier post:

Though marketed to the public as a post-9/11 exigency through the hyped, exaggerated and fabricated evidence of a nexus between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, invading Iraq had long been on the wish list of the Bush administration's foreign policy braintrust....As Ron Suskind notes in The One Percent Doctrine:

...the first National Security Council meeting [held for the newly inaugurated Bush presidency] in January 2001 dealt with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. And so did the second. It was a matter of how, not whether.

While the Iraq war is perhaps the most obvious and impactful policy, there was another excerpt from Suskind's work that is particularly relevant in light of recent revelations concerning the Bush administration's push to expand domestic surveillance powers:

On Friday, September 14, [2001] when the President of the United States wanted a grant of special powers from Congress, his team arrived on Capitol Hill well prepared.

It so happened that administration lawyers had for months been incubating theories about how to expand presidential power. The ideas were originally seeded by the Vice President, a believer, since the harrowing days in the death throes of the Nixon administration, that executive power had been dangerously diminished. [emphasis added]

As the Washington Post reported over the weekend, the Bush administration was pushing to expand its domestic spying capacity well before the attacks of 9/11 - attacks which have been used as a faux justification since, as well as a cudgel to silence critics of a power grab that predated those events (a familiar pattern):

[Former QWest CEO Joseph] Nacchio's account, which places the NSA proposal at a meeting on Feb. 27, 2001, suggests that the Bush administration was seeking to enlist telecommunications firms in programs without court oversight before the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. The Sept. 11 attacks have been cited by the government as the main impetus for its warrantless surveillance efforts.

As this Wired piece indicates, QWest may not have been alone (via Kagro X):

[I]n May 2006, a lawsuit filed against Verizon for allegedly turning over call records to the NSA alleged that AT&T began building a spying facility for the NSA just days after President Bush was inaugurated. That lawsuit is one of 50 that were consolidated and moved to a San Francisco federal district court, where the suits sit in limbo waiting for the 9th Circuit Appeals court to decide whether the suits can proceed without endangering national security.

But Mayer and Nacchio may not even be the only two arguing that the NSA started a program of collecting Americans' phone records before 9/11.

In a January 2006 Slate article that came out before the USA Today totally blew open the call records story in May 2006, Tim Naftali and THREAT LEVEL pal Shane Harris reported:

A former telecom executive told us that efforts to obtain call details go back to early 2001, predating the 9/11 attacks and the president's now celebrated secret executive order. The source, who asked not to be identified so as not to out his former company, reports that the NSA approached U.S. carriers and asked for their cooperation in a "data-mining" operation, which might eventually cull "millions" of individual calls and emails.

You know, I don't really need to re-write the conclusion from my earlier piece. It only seems more pertinent now:

The Bush administration, led by Cheney and his ideological brethren manning key legal posts, hasn't looked back since. Using a careful blend of fear and nationalism, the champions of a "unitary executive" have attempted to shroud their long anticipated moves in the cloak of 9/11. But in reality, they were laying the groundwork for this push well before those attacks ever took place. Instead of having to attempt incremental implementation, however, 9/11 gave them the casus belli needed to launch a broad war on civil liberties and the separation of powers doctrine that have each helped to maintain relatively stable political systems in this nation for over two hundred years. Like no other time in this nation's history, these principles are under a constant, direct and potent assualt from a reckless executive branch, a compliant Congress and a befuddled media.

In that sense, 9/11 did change everything.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Goodbye Blue Skies

More of Petraeus' vaunted counterinsurgency expertise on display in Iraq (via Swopa):

The U.S. military, meanwhile, said it was working with local Iraqi officials and tribal officials to investigate the killings of 15 civilians — six women and nine children — as well as 19 suspected insurgents Thursday in a U.S. ground and air assault targeting al-Qaida in Iraq northwest of Baghdad. [emphasis added]

As mentioned on this site last week, there are good reasons to doubt that a successful counterinsurgency operation was ever possible in Iraq due to large concentrations of people in urban settings, considerable cultural and linguistic barriers, as well as a myriad of other factors. At this juncture, that possibility is even more remote due to the fact that the attitudes of the population (hearts and minds) have already hardened against us, we're not only battling an insurgency (but rather a roiling, multifaceted conflict waged against a failing, lawless state) and we still lack those vital cultural/linguistic skills.

But if success is, or ever was, possible, it would require the utilization of the near-optimal blend of counterinsurgency best practices. Letting a bunch of mercenaries operate with near-impunity is on the other side of optimal. Relying on air power to supplement small-scale engagements (targeting a dozen or so combatants) is also massively counterproductive.

Petraeus knows this quite well, or he should if he is anything like the counterinsurgency virtuoso that his reputation would suggest. And yet, the policies show little sign of substantive adjustment.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Road Trip?

For those TIA-ers that want to check out some NewsHoggers posts that I penned on the ever-evolving intra-Shiite intrigue in Iraq, you can find them here and here.

For those that don't, I completley understand your staunch loyalty to TIA and TIA alone. The Praetorian TIA-ers.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Still Special?

Kevin Drum on the recent Israeli/Syrian kerfuffle:

The New York Times has a bit of further reporting on that Israeli airstrike in northern Syria last month. It turns out that even the White House isn't sure whether the Syrian target was a nuclear weapons development site:

The debate has fractured along now-familiar fault lines, with Vice President Dick Cheney and conservative hawks in the administration portraying the Israeli intelligence as credible and arguing that it should cause the United States to reconsider its diplomatic overtures to Syria and North Korea.

By contrast, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her allies within the administration have said they do not believe that the intelligence presented so far merits any change in the American diplomatic approach.

....Besides Ms. Rice, officials said that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was cautious about fully endorsing Israeli warnings that Syria was on a path that could lead to a nuclear weapon. Others in the Bush administration remain unconvinced that a nascent Syrian nuclear program could pose an immediate threat.

This is really the damnedest thing. But one thing is sure: the Israeli evidence must have been pretty far from a smoking gun if there's this much confusion even among the top mucky mucks. Very peculiar.

Peculiar? Confusion?

Kevin is being unduly deferential here. While under normal circumstances, an open-minded and equanimous approach to differing interpretations of intelligence is the proper posture to assume, the past 6+ years have been anything but "normal." There are compelling reasons to side with one faction's interpretation in the current debate, and the horse to back should be obvious.

If you recall in the run-up to the Iraq War, the State Department's intelligence bureau, the INR, was consistently the most skeptical about Iraq's WMD capacity (as well as other dubious propositions like Saddam's links to al-Qaeda). In other words, the INR was closer to the truth than any other intelligence agency on a broad range of findings used to justify the invasion (one can imagine that if INR's take was the predominant one, war would have been very difficult to sell).

In particular, and most importantly in terms of the only WMD that should have mattered (nuclear weapons), INR wouldn't even speculate that Iraq had a nuclear program, let alone actual nuclear weapons. From the 2002 NIE, for example:

"The activities we have detected do not, however, add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what INR would consider to be an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons." [...]

[T]he claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are, in INR’s assessment, highly dubious.” [...]

Iraq’s efforts to acquire aluminum tubes is central to the argument that Baghdad is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, but INR is not persuaded that the tubes in question are intended for use as centrifuge rotors . . . The very large quantities being sought, the way the tubes were tested by the Iraqis, and the atypical lack of attention to operational security in the procurement efforts are among the factors, in addition to the DOE assessment, that lead INR to conclude that the tubes are not intended for use in Iraq’s nuclear weapon program.”

On the other side of the coin, were the cherry-picking, intel-manipulating boys operating under Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney - Dougals Feith and the others in and around the Office of Special Plans. This faction not only circumvented the normal intelligence collection/vetting process in order to create the most alarmist (and wildly inaccurate) intelligence products regarding Iraq's WMD and al-Qaeda connections, but this group also pressured other traditional intelligence venues to hew to a pre-ordained (and, again, grossly inaccurate) party line. In the face of the INR's warnings, Dick Cheney famously stated about Saddam:

"[W]e believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons" [March 2003]

Not a "program," but actual "weapons"! Rumsfeld was equally unequivocal - openly lying about the existence of a rather serious debate amongst the various intelligence shops:

"We said they had a nuclear program. That was never any debate." [July 13, 2003]

This is probably a well worn path for many readers, so I won't dwell on it too long. It's just that after witnessing the vastly divergent results generated by the Cheney faction and the State Department in the run-up to the Iraq war, and the fact that the Cheney operation hasn't improved on its record or taken responsibility for its grievous errors since, why would anyone view their competing claims with an evenhand and open mind now that the target has shifted from Iraq to North Korea, Iran and Syria?

Deja vu all over again in the worst way. We are lucky enough to have the benefit of hindsight now, though - informed by the comparative track records, as well as more knowledge about competing agendas and awareness as to a general propensity to deceive and use intelligence mendaciously. After factoring in those variables, the State Department and Robert Gates deserve the overwhelming benefit of the doubt, absent compelling countervailing evidence. That would be true even if straight-shooters like Dr. Jeffrey Lewis weren't backing up State's take.

If this is unfair to Cheney et al, they only have themselves to blame. Credibility is a contingent attribute.

Friday, October 05, 2007

No Soup for You

Honestly, I don't know if successful counterinsurgency operations are possible in a densely populated urban setting. I have serious doubts, but I'm sure some of the more enthusiastic scholars in the field would be able to present at least a mildly compelling case.

Either way, whatever reservations I have concerning COIN operations in urban areas generally speaking, our current entanglement in Iraq presents an exceptionally problematic case for at least three reasons (there are many more of course):

1) We began applying COIN doctrine fairly late in the game, which has allowed attitudes ("hearts and minds" if you will) to harden - calcifying around a general hostility and suspicion, when not bitterly oppositional. If COIN could ever succeed in such a challenging environment (more on that below), capturing the momentum and trust of the people from the onset of the conflict is imperative.

2) We are not simply fighting an insurgency, but rather a complex mosaic of civil wars, insurgencies, lawlessness and vigilantism, all against the backdrop of a failed/failing state. This makes it exceedingly difficult to distinguish actual insurgents, or even "adversaries" in the loose sense, from potential allies/neutral parties that have taken up arms in the vacuum created by the state's collapse. While COIN doctrine might be a useful guide for approaching such an intricate matrix of conflicts, it is less effective the more diffuse the parameters of the conflict become.

3) Even now we are not applying COIN best practices. Aside from the fact that our language skills, and knowledge of local customs, norms, tribal affiliations and other cultural nuances, is below what are considered necessary levels, our military tactics have been wanting. Despite the supposed virtuosity of Petraeus and his counterinsurgency gurus, we have been over-reliant on the use of airpower, and prone to employ collective punishment as a tactic (here and here, ie). We continue to approach entire neighborhoods (Sadr city) with heavy-handed belligerence. See, also: 30,000-50,000 armed mercenaries operating outside the chain of command, and with de facto, if not de jure, immunity.

Another day, another example. Another group of Iraqi hearts and minds lost forever. Another dozen families whose extended networks will fight against our presence with fervor:

U.S. forces backed by attack aircraft killed at least 25 Shiite militia fighters north of Baghdad Friday in an operation targeting a cell accused of smuggling weapons from Iran, the military said.

An Iraqi army official claimed civilians, including seven children, were among those killed in the raid, which the U.S. said targeted the commander of a rogue militia group believed to be associated with the Quds Force, an elite branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Gunmen opened fire on the soldiers in Khalis, a Shiite enclave about 50 miles north of Baghdad, with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and at least one man was carrying what appeared to be an anti-aircraft weapon, the military said. Ground forces called for air support when the fighters kept coming, the military said. Two buildings were destroyed in airstrikes, it said.

The Iraqi army official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, said U.S. aircraft bombed the neighborhood repeatedly and he claimed civilians, including seven children, were among those killed and three children were among the 28 wounded.

He said the civilians were killed when families rushed out to help those hurt in the initial bombing.

The town's mayor said U.S. forces targeted areas built up by locals to protect their Shiite neighborhood against attacks by al-Qaida gunmen. The guards were armed and worked around the clock, he said.

"These places came under attack by American airstrikes," said Khalis Mayor Odai al-Khadran. "Locals were protecting themselves by guarding their village. They are not militias killing people."

Just imagine if that was your kid. Regardless of who the targets were, would you care? There is no question that if our military remains in Iraq, similar missions - and collateral damage - will result. Cutting down on the use of air-power would help, but doing so would also leave our own soldiers more vulnerable. How do you justify that to American families?

There is a reason fighting counterinsurgency is analogized to eating soup with a knife. It's nearly impossible to thread such a needle in even ideal circumstances - and we are several steps removed from anything resembling an ideal situation. You know what the alternative to fumbling with the knife and soup is: put the bowl down and leave the restaurant.

(photograph courtesy of Ali Yussef / AFP - Getty Images)

You Just Can't Believe, the Joy I Did Receive

A few days ago, I received the best news that I've had in ages: One of my closest friends, C----, is coming back early from his second tour in Iraq. Words cannot express the thrill and relief his missive brought. At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, C---- has actually made a guest appearance in my dreams each night since I heard of his imminent arrival. I know, I'm a sappy bastard.

God willing, he will be boarding a plane today and heading back to the US. He'll have to spend about a week at Fort Bliss to "out process" so I won't get a chance to see him right away, but next weekend promises to be unabashedly debaucherous. And last time I checked, Fort Bliss was a hell of a lot safer than Baghdad (or Philadelphia), so just getting him Stateside is enough for the time being.

I don't know if C---- has heard about Rush Limbaugh's despicable slander of those of our soldiers that have misgivings about the Iraq mission, but it won't likely sit well with him. C---- himself is not what Rush would call a "phony soldier," but he has had his bouts with inauthenticity, and even now is probably only slightly more real than fake. At the very least, he knows many soldiers that have different opinions, and respects them all.

In his words, when he's over there, he adopts a "prison mentality" such that he blocks out the outside world to focus on his tasks and his men. My guess is, the "outside world" also includes debates about the ultimate wisdom of the mission. I don't fault him for any coping mechanisms he adopts. He knows far better than me (or Rush) what works.

Some soldiers prefer to partake in such discourse while in country, though. Like this Band of Phonies. Be sure to scroll down to the last photo taken. Rush freakin' Limbaugh ladies and gentlemen, a frequent host of our Vice President.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

When the Nearsighted Play Chess

Some interesting Blackwater-related legislative moves:

The House passed a bill Thursday that would make all private contractors working in Iraq and other combat zones subject to prosecution by U.S. courts. It was the first major legislation of its kind to pass since a deadly shootout last month involving Blackwater employees.

Democrats called the 389-30 vote an indictment in connection with a shooting incident there that left 11 Iraqis dead. Senate Democratic leaders said they planned to follow suit with similar legislation and send a bill to President Bush as soon as possible.

“There is simply no excuse for the de facto legal immunity for tens of thousands of individuals working in countries” on behalf of the United States, said Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas.

Bush, as expected, has threatened to veto the bill. That should not be a reason for the Democrats to abandon the effort though. Make him veto it. It would be an unpopular move, and for good reason. There is little justification for holding our soldiers to a certain legal standard, while leaving mercenaries under the protective shroud of absolute sweeping immunity. Surely the more "efficient" mercenary forces can operate effectively within the same parameters as the US Army and the Marines. Unless someone wants to argue the other side?

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, the story wends down a similar path:

The official Iraqi investigation into the Blackwater shooting last month recommends that the security guards face trial in Iraqi courts and that the company compensate the victims, an Iraqi government minister told The Associated Press on Thursday.

The three-member panel, led by Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi, determined that Blackwater guards sprayed western Baghdad's Nisoor Square with gunfire Sept. 16 without provocation, Minister of State for National Security Sherwan al-Waili told AP.

The panel also found that 13 Iraqis were killed, not 11 as earlier disclosed, according to al-Waili told AP.

A parallel but unofficial investigation by seven members of the Interior Ministry found that 17 Iraqis were killed and 24 wounded, a member of the Interior Ministry panel said on condition that he not be identified because the findings were not public. He said its recommendations were nearly identical to those issued by the al-Obeidi investigative team.

After such findings, Bush's eventual veto won't leave Maliki very much room in terms of satisfying the mounting domestic calls to take action. Under normal conditions, such a crisis faced by a putative ally in an already precarious position might prompt a US president to take note of the delicacy of the situation and acquiesce by signing the legislation (of course, a sensible US president would probably recognize the wisdom of the proposed legislation in the first place). Under the present circumstances, though, I fully expect Bush to leave Maliki out to dry.

Which will play right into the hands of Moqtada al-Sadr and those factions that are most intent on forcing the expulsion of American troops from Iraq. A propaganda gift of considerable potency. It really is amazing that this hapless foreign policy team cannot manage to think two moves in advance on nearly any issue - pathologically unable to take stock of how certain actions, even if personally gratifying or ideologically appealing, can invoke the opposite of the intended outcome.

[UPDATE: Via Kevin Drum, US Military forces on the scene corroborate the Iraqi account contra Blackwater's version of events:

U.S. military reports from the scene of the Sept. 16 shooting incident involving the security firm Blackwater USA indicate that its guards opened fire without provocation and used excessive force against Iraqi civilians, according to a senior U.S. military official.

....The U.S. military reports appear to corroborate the Iraqi government's contention that Blackwater was at fault in the shooting incident in Nisoor Square, in which hospital records say at least 14 people were killed and 18 were wounded.

"It was obviously excessive, it was obviously wrong," said the U.S. military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the incident remains the subject of several investigations. "The civilians that were fired upon, they didn't have any weapons to fire back at them. And none of the IP or any of the local security forces fired back at them," he added, using a military abbreviation for the Iraqi police. The Blackwater guards appeared to have fired grenade launchers in addition to machine guns, the official said.

Grenade launchers? Nice touch. Wonder how that fits into counterinsurgency best practices? I'm no expert, but I'll hazard a guess: Not. Good.]

Women Shouldn't Have the Right to Vote!!!

So says Ann Coulter.

Question: Will the Democrats actually make Republicans pay for the outrageous and contemptible rhetoric issuing forth from the GOP's leading pundits? Wait, don't answer that.

And before someone tries to tell me how Coulter is a fringe character that nobody takes seriously, allow me to point out that the woman (who thinks she shouldn't be allowed to vote) is invited on countless news shows, sells millions of books to a dedicated Republican readership, is published in syndicated columns and is a featured guest at the biggest conservative/Republican Party events year after year.

This should end though.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

What Would You Do For Me Lately?

Kevin Drum quotes a portion of a Barack Obama speech today:

There is a choice that has emerged in this campaign, one that the American people need to understand. They should ask themselves: who got the single most important foreign policy decision since the end of the Cold War right, and who got it wrong. This is not just a matter of debating the past. It's about who has the best judgment to make the critical decisions of the future.
To which Drums responds, in light of the polling data indicating little progress made by Obama vis-a-vis Hillary Clinton:

...[T]here's no evidence that this is getting him anywhere. Maybe it's unfair, but being "right" five years ago just doesn't seem to be a winning pitch. In a way, that doesn't surprise me. Most people react negatively to blowhards who are always reminding their friends about how smart they were on some previous occasion, and maybe that's how this sounds to a lot of people. Especially people who themselves might have supported the war back in 2002 and don't really appreciate being reminded about it.

I don't know. I'm just guessing here. But bragging about your good judgment might be a very different thing than bragging about a concrete achievement. On this score, Hillary Clinton's decision to cosponsor legislation preventing military operations against Iran without congressional approval seems pretty smart.
While Drum is right that a record of achievement might be weightier than a record of good judgment, and that "I told ya so" isn't an overly ingratiating slogan, he is leaving out a major part of the equation: although Obama may have been right about Iraq, and Clinton wrong, their respective prescriptions for dealing with the situation, going forward, are remarkably similar. Obama's harkening back to his pre-war judgment amounts to cold comfort when the majority of Americans are looking for a bold and decisive plan to get out of Iraq, and he and Clinton are both contemplating several years of "residual forces" and other exorbitantly costly entanglements.

Maybe if Obama adopted Bill Richardson's position, his good judgment on the question of invasion would form a mutually reinforcing loop with his current policy proposals, rather than offer a mere "what if" hypothetical of little value in today's dollars.

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