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There is something almost touching in the American tendency towards naiveté in looking at the larger world. Almost, but not quite. We often believe that our adversaries, particularly in the Muslim and Third worlds, are not really our adversaries–or perhaps they might yet be brought to see the benign logic in our positions. Yet this credulity often has very baleful consequences in blood and treasure, as we will see here.
Sometimes this parochialism is illustrated on a very personal level. Take the case of Saif al-Islam, the “good” son of (now former) Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Sporting elegant suits and a PhD from the London School of Economics, bowling over fawning European capitals like so many nine-pins, Saif’s endless talk about the need for “democracy” in Libya and in the Arab world made him a world media star. America’s academic avatars of Harvardian prognostication counted themselves acolytes: Robert Putnam, Michael Porter, and famed “soft-power” guru Joseph Nye all lined up to give the hip, young Qaddafi laurel wreaths. His LSE professors sang his praises, too, though their praise might have been amplified on account of Saif’s donation of 1.5 million pounds to his British former school. In 2004 Newsweek called him “Our man in Libya,” after Saif took credit for shipping off his father’s nuke program to the USA. The dictator had become “afraid” (his word) of George W. Bush in the wake of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2007, the New York Times helpfully dubbed him the “Un-Qaddafi.”
This isn’t simply the usual relief accorded a prince-in-waiting who wanted to break with his father’s 40 years of theft, murder and international aggression. The liberal love affair with Saif (which included Tony Blair as well) was blind, as all love is blind. It wasn’t that Saif disbelieved any of his pontifications about democracy and freedom, or that he was never sincere in wanting to bring Libya out of its dark-age kleptocracy. He probably did believe his speeches and his Western encomiums. But the American foreign policy establishment was only too happy to ignore the far deeper Middle Eastern realities of Arab tribal loyalty, power politics, and naked gangsterism. Now, promising to “fight to the last man, until the last woman, until the last bullet” against the Libyan people, Saif is in hiding with his father, paying African mercenaries from stolen coffers to fight the Transitional National Council. When a reporter told him that he had just been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, Saif, now sporting an iman-style beard, snapped, “To hell with the ICC.” Even if he wanted to, there was no way Saif would actually transcend the circumstances of his birth and his family of gangsters. There is no tragedy in that, only pathos — the pathos of predictability and the pathos of Western naiveté about a wolf inb sheep’s clothing.
For Western liberals looked at Saif the way they went weak at the knees for Syrian President for Life Bashar al-Assad, the suave, London ophthalmologist who was called home to reform Syria when his father died, and who is now blowing the City of Hama to bits just the way his father did. There is a famous chapter (no. 4) in NYT columnist Thomas Friedman’s book, From Beirut to Jerusalem called “Hama Rules.” This chapter described the senior Assad, Hafez, and his approach in dealing with those minions who dared to speak out against his regime: mass extermination of the civilian population, Muslim Brotherhood or no. But Hama Rules are still are in force and effect, only now the younger, educated, Assad with the stunning Londoner wife is applying them.
The American Left has always embraced international naiveté in a special, more emotional way than the so-called “realist school” school of American foreign policy. Yet the realists like Brent Scowcroft and his mentor, Henry Kissinger (while Kissinger was in power, as opposed to the later Kissinger of letters) have also been prone to the infection of naiveté as well — albeit a different strain of the virus, as we will see in the next installment of this series.
Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul, a man of the libertarian right, seems a man, when it comes to foreign policy, ensconced in between 1) The traditionally liberal view that America’s enemies are made, not born, by our own bullying militarism of their innocent countries, and 2) The Samuel Huntington/Andrew Bacevich view that the denizens of the Third World are basically irredeemable: Any attempt to win wars on their turf is doomed to a costly and predictable failure.
In the recent Presidential primary debate, Rep. Paul applied his vaunted consistency to the subject of Iran’s “Mullocracy” seeking nuclear bombs to put atop missiles. Hey, the USSR had thousands of warheads, pointed at us no less, and did we invade or bomb them? “Seeeeeeee,” went the frisson of self-congratulation amongst his fanatical supporters. (Actually, “we” did, in 1919, with the British, but that was 30 years before the Bolsheviks stole the Bomb, which really is the point after all. You don’t want to invade countries with nukes if you can help it. Saddam was six months away from his own nukes before the Gulf War in 1991. Now Iran is, more or less.)
Even more recently, Rep. Paul, to another debate audience, basically blamed the 9-11 conspiracy and al-Qaeda’s war on America on “our” actions, particularly in occupying the Muslim “holy places.” After all, he explained, Osama bin Laden made this argument himself in 1998 (among many other rambling, free-association justifications for killing Americans, strangely not recalled by Rep. Paul). Nobody pointed out that maybe Osama’s word is not necessarily to be held as…sincere. Rep. Paul’s own voice cracked with utter sincerity in the debate, taking the mass murderer simply at his word—from 1998. None of the other candidates pointed out, either through lack of time or because they actually didn’t know, that no American troops have been stationed in Saudi Arabia for nearly a decade, but Osama was still sending people to Times Square as late as last year. Last time I checked, Australian troops were never stationed in Saudi Arabia, but that didn’t stop al-Qaeda chief operating officer Khalid Sheik Mohammed from cutting out a $100,000 check to his Indonesian affiliate, headed by Hambali, and telling him to “Go do something big.” That “big” was of course the Bali explosion, which blew apart a hundred Aussies for doing…..what again? Not being in Saudi Arabia?
It would be almost trifling to attack Rep. Paul, unlikely as he is to win the Republican nomination, except that his almost-touchingly naïve view of the benighted world is shared by a large majority of the Democratic Party, and the current President of the United States.
President Obama has never spoken about “winning” the war in Afghanistan, and neither he nor his vicars have ever seemed to believe that a truly successful counterinsurgency there would ever be possible. Defeating the Taliban, that noxious metastasis of extremism that served as the supporting sheath of al-Qaeda, seems to be permanently off the policy table, both in Washington and in Kabul. President Hamid Karzai (and President Obama) is insistent on negotiations with the mythical “good” Taliban, and somehow these negotiations (wildly unpopular with ordinary Afghans) inevitably involve reducing the tempo of NATO operations in “civilian” areas for fear of casualties. Somehow, these negotiations almost always also lead to keeping the Americans out of prized Taliban strongholds, and they seem particularly useful for stopping American airstrikes in Taliban sanctuaries. One must always show “good faith” in negotiations with your sworn enemy, even apparently when the good faith inevitably seems to improve the bargaining position of your “negotiating” partner.
Last week, Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Mohammed Omar admitted in a statement that the Taliban were in negotiations with Karzai and NATO, but that, not to worry… these only involved “prisoner exchanges.” But what would NATO, hypothetically, need to offer the good terrorist Mullah in order to interest him in “prisoner exchanges?” The Taliban doesn’t take NATO prisoners. It’s obvious to everyone except Presidents Karzai and Obama what Omar is doing: he’s stalling, making peace noises about a future of Afghan harmony, in exchange for…..getting his terrorists back from NATO to fight another day, and NATO not bombing certain areas, and Karzai criticizing NATO errant bombing raids that kill small numbers of “civilians.” The infection of naiveté goes to the very top of both countries.
Pressed into the limited Afghan surge by Gen. David Petraeus, who argued that twice the troops eventually granted him by the President would be minimally necessary to protect the whole population from Taliban incursion and atrocity, Mr. Obama this summer announced his rapid unwinding of his piddling 30,000 troop mini-surge. This meant that 10,000 of the 30,000 would be out by the end of this year, and the other 20,000 would be evacuated by summer 2012—all less than one year away, and all independent of any battlefield realities on the ground.
He and his courtiers have embraced a French-style futility in winning the war started in 2001 by Osama bin Laden’s merger with Mullah Omar. But the President hasn’t been interested enough to look at the maps: Gen. Petraeus’ mini-surge, as parlous as Obama could make it, was still enough to rout all resistance out of Kandahar and Helmand Provinces (regions our intelligence services thought were the stereotypical “graveyard of empires” and thus hopeless). Indeed, they were not hopeless to Gen. Petraeus. It was naïve to think that they were.
With 70,000 troops remaining after the mini-surge, the American Remnant will be expected to attack the infamous, dug-in Haqqani Network in the East, but also somehow ensure the safety of the provinces already pacified by Gen. Petraeus. Yet our troops are spread so thin, there won’t be enough boots to ensure anything. America will have to rely on luck, and the mistakes of our enemies, to have any chance of a final victory.
The President’s rejection of the original, 2009 requests made by both Gen. McCrystal and Gen. Petraeus for more troops to stop the Afghan bleed-out was not based on even the pretense of a military necessity to win, which of course Mr. Obama always thought was impossible anyway. It was instead a way to pacify domestic critics and immunize himself from being called the Man who Lost Afghanistan. It was a half-measure that despite all expectations, actually worked in the two toughest provinces in the country—the only provinces where it was tried. “I’m not doing nation-building,” said Mr. Obama to his staff. “I’m not doing ten years.” Translation: No matter how long it takes, I’m not doing it, because I lack the patience for it and it is hopeless anyway.
Kings of Wishful Thinking
Few presidents have entered the White House less prepared, on paper at least, to fight a war than Barack Obama. He had no military experience and his sole exposure to national affairs was a lackluster, truncated Senate term. His primary foreign campaign pledge was to get out of Iraq, but this was a feat already on a glide path when Bush left office. Nothing in the Woodward book suggests that the President has made up for, or even attempted to make up for (as George W. Bush did, egged on by Karl Rove) his general lack of historical or military knowledge by hard reading in the classical and contemporary writers on strategy.
The President portrayed in the pages of Obama’s Wars is a bright, quick-thinking man with profound gaps in his knowledge about Central Asian affairs, and an equally profound lack of humility about this deficit. It is not all the President’s fault. In his first two years, he appeared to have surrounded himself in the White House by a rogue’s gallery of poor judgment, which helped confirm him in his defeatist, Beltway prejudices. The Gallery might be classified in one of five types:
A. Fanatical acolytes like David Axelrod, his chief strategist, Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, and Mark Lippert, the NSC chief of staff. These men encouraged Obama to rely upon his own unaided intelligence, which they believed was superior to all others, as he made wartime decisions. They had no real insights of their own to offer, but simply served to fortify the President in his own ill-informed instincts and prejudices about Central Asia.
B. Clinical megalomaniacs like Rahm Emmanuel, chief of staff (and current Chicago mayor) and the late Richard Holbroke, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mr. Emmanuel in particular served primarily to degrade the President’s confidence in his military chiefs’ recommendations about how to actually win the war. His method was to besmirch the motivations of those opposed to defeat. Emmanuel always practiced the ad hominem argument: if you can’t attack the evidence, attack the person presenting it instead, preferably behind his back—it’s easier.
C. An important third class of advisers might be called Bidenites: the Vice President himself, together with his own national security adviser, Antony J. Blinken, had a particularly lamentable combination of arrogance and ignorance. As we shall see, the Veep’s double-handicap led him to openly advocate defeat in Afghanistan, alienate the tempermental Karzai government by repeated verbal insults, and generally lambaste others who didn’t share his ingrained a-historical assumptions about the region.
D. The “silent class” of political advisers represented in the Woodward book might be said to have done the most damage to the United States, because these advisors, usually former generals like the national security advisor, James Jones, had the knowledge and credentials to which weight should normally be given. Their silence or acquiescence in the face of bad recommendations by the political hacks helped confirm the President in his own worst and defeatist instincts about NATO’s Afghan war. The secretary of defense, Robert Gates, was a highly knowledgeable former CIA head appointed to be the replacement of the polarizing Don Rumsfeld by President Bush. Obama kept him on, rightly prizing the man’s vast experience in foreign affairs. Gates turned out to be an intensely political animal, always remaining quiet and reserved in policy meetings, waiting to see which way the wind was blowing, and then following it. Only the waning days of his tenure as SecDef did Mr. Gates give a series of speeches on what he really believed all along, but by then, of course, no one was listening to a man on the way out—for they didn’t have to.
E. There were also two kinds of military advisers, all inherited from the previous administration, that played important roles in Obama’s decisions on Afghanistan and the War on Terror generally. The first group of generals were of high quality and realistic thinking: Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. David Petraeus, head of CentCom until the President pulled him from Tampa to salvage the Afghanistan effort (as Petraeus had saved Iraq when all thought it was doomed) and Gen. Stanley McCrystal, Petraeus’s predecessor in charge of the Afghan War until he was fired by Obama for openly questioning the Administration’s strategy of slow defeat by starving the American mission of its troops in the country.
These experienced warfighters were all unified in the conviction that the way to win the war in Afghanistan was by properly resourcing it, and that meant a bare minimum surge of 40,000 additional American troops to protect the population and train the recruits, until the Afghan National Army (ANA) could stand up on its own, to the tune of at least 400,000 trained and supplied fighters. This plan was consistent with what Petraeus had accomplished in Iraq, and was called “counterinsurgency.”
These military chiefs believed that what had been patiently accomplished in the North of the country, which was a large scale pacification of the Panjishir Valley and its environs, could be accomplished in the South, say in Helmand, with the proper resources to protect the population. The British Army had been fighting in Helmand with customary bravery for years, but their presence was too light to actually pacify the region. The population must believe, as the Sunni tribes came to believe in Iraq when Petraeus’ Surge plans unfolded, that the Americans were here to stay—that we were the strongest tribe, the strongest horse, in bin Laden’s phrase. Once they believe that, intel comes flowing to the Coalition like a living river, and the Taliban can no longer hide in the population, the theory went.
The second kind of military adviser was congenitally averse to anything resembling counterinsurgency because it smacked of nation-building, which they assumed was not in the Marine playbook, for example. This type was exemplified by the Ambassador to Afghanistan, retired general Karl Eikenberry, Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the President’s White House “coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” and Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who did end-runs around Chairman Mullen to carry the water for Vice President Biden’s “counterterrorism-plus” plan, which explicitly gave up on trying to defeat the Taliban to focus on Pakistan’s al-Qaeda presence instead.
The President, even before he took office, took the problem of Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation seriously and held many talks to help him decide what to do about it. Before Inauguration Day, he dispatched Vice President-elect Biden and John McCain’s man Sen. Lindsay Graham to Kabul to meet with President Hamid Karzai. This meeting is important because it illustrates with cringe-inducing clarity the baleful combination of ignorance and arrogance so present in the Bidenite faction.
The CIA’s infamous analysis section (by infamous I mean their near-universal failure to predict any event at all) had reported that Karzai suffered from bipolar disorder, and took medication to help his wild mood swings, which was only partially successful. Sometimes he went off his meds. He was proud and sensitive to all slights, even by Central Asian standards.
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