Too Few Cooks In The War Room?

In an account “based on interviews with more than 30 current and former U.S. government officials”, David Rohde and Warren Strobel depict the Obama administration’s national security decision-making as an overly centralized affair, with the White House and the president’s inner circle taking control of decisions normally delegated to the Pentagon or the State Department:

In some ways, Obama’s closer control and the frequent marginalization of the State and Defense departments continues a trend begun under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But under Obama, the centralization has gone further. It was the White House, not the Pentagon, that decided to send two additional Special Operations troops to Yemen. The White House, not the State Department, now oversees many details of U.S. embassy security—a reaction to Republican attacks over the lethal 2012 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. A decision to extend $10 million in non-lethal aid to Ukraine also required White House vetting and approval.

On weightier issues, major decisions sometimes catch senior Cabinet officers unawares. One former senior U.S. official said Obama’s 2011 decision to abandon difficult troop negotiations with Baghdad and remove the last U.S. soldiers from Iraq surprised the Pentagon and was known only by the president and a small circle of aides.

A Pragmatism Too Far?

It’s extremely hard to reconcile the events of the past month or so with the rationale of the Obama presidency. And that’s what makes this capitulation to hysteria so profoundly depressing. I can see the simple pragmatism behind it: the president under-estimated the strength and tenacity of these maniacs, and feared they could make further gains, plunging the region into a new turmoil. The media and the elites all jumped into full metal panic mode and created a powerful momentum for action. In fact, the elite consensus in favor of attacking ISIS was, until last night, at least, eerily reminiscent of the elite consensus in favor of going to war in Iraq in 2003 – without the year or so of debate. If US-ATTACKS-9/11-ANNIVERSARY-OBAMAyou’re Obama, you do not believe you can really solve this problem, but you need to do something, both to stave off possible disaster, to guard against potential ISIS expansion, and to try and rescue the Iraqi “state” one more time. So you rely on air-power, you corral the Saudis to help train and fund Sunni opposition to ISIS, you funnel some arms to the “moderate” Syrian rebels … and hope for the best.

What this misses in its flexibility is that it comes at the cost of profound incoherence. Presidencies need a grand narrative if they are to succeed. Obama’s was a simple one: to slowly rescue the US from the economic and foreign policy nadir that Bush-Cheney bequeathed us. We would slowly climb back out of the hole of fiscal recklessness and financial corruption into a saner, calmer period of slow but steady growth. We would slowly de-leverage from counter-productive over-reach in the war on Islamist terrorism. We would end two wars. We would begin nation-building at home – in the form of universal health insurance and badly needed infrastructure improvement. Above all, we would not be jerked back and forth by Islamist fanatics abroad, seeking to chart a course of steady strategic retrenchment.

Now, of course, this was never going to be a linear path. I feared back in 2009 that withdrawing from Iraq might look a lot like withdrawal from Vietnam. That it took place without a bloodbath or national humiliation was a triumph of optics and luck and bribery. But I was never under any illusion that the “surge” had succeeded in its own terms. We had no guarantee that Iraq would not return almost instantly to the sectarian distrust, hatred and violence that have been integral to its existence for decades. Kurdistan could work – but the rest remains ungovernable, except by tyranny and terror. And so yet another spasm of Shi’a-Sunni violence seemed inevitable to me. But at least, we would no longer be sitting in the middle.

I don’t buy for a second the lame idea that if the US had kept a residual force there – despite Baghdad’s express wishes – we would have avoided the current turmoil. We couldn’t control or end it with a hundred thousand of the best-trained troops in the world. What chance would 10,000 advisers have to counter the weight of history and the cycle of revenge? So there would come a point at which Iraq would implode again and the US might be tempted to intervene. I naïvely thought no sane American, after the Iraq War, would ever support that. I foolishly believed we would not be able to instantly erase – like an Etch-A-Sketch – all that we so painfully learned in that catastrophe.

What I under-estimated was the media’s ability to generate mass panic and hysteria and the Beltway elite’s instant recourse to the language of war. I believed that Obama was stronger than this, that he could actually resist this kind of emotional spasm and speak to us like grown-ups about what we can and cannot do about a long, religious war in the Middle East, that doesn’t threaten us directly. But he spoke to us like children last night, assuming the mantle of the protective daddy we had sought in Bush and Cheney, evoking the rhetoric he was elected to dispel.

What the president doesn’t seem to understand is that this dramatic U-turn isn’t just foolish on its own national security terms; it is devastating to him politically. He is now playing on Cheney’s turf, not his own. His core supporters, like yours truly, regarded our evolution from that Cheney mindset one of Obama’s key achievements – and he tossed it away last night almost casually. He committed himself and us to a victory we cannot achieve in two countries we cannot control with the aid of allies we cannot trust. And, worse, he has done so by evading the key Constitutional requirement that a declaration of war be made by the Congress. He is actually relying on the post-9/11 authorization of military force against al Qaeda in Afghanistan to wage war in Syria (in violation of international law) and in Iraq.

This is not just a betrayal of a core principle of his presidency – a restoration of normality – it is a rebuke to his own statements. This is what the president said last year:

We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war — through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.

His speech last night was an argument for doing exactly what he said we should not do a year ago. He has made no attempt to explain why he has completely changed his mind – except to react emotionally to a vile off-shoot of another Sunni insurgency in Iraq. This does not only mean his administration no longer has a coherent narrative, it also means he is utterly hostage to forces abroad he cannot control. His refusal to go to Congress for a prolonged open-ended campaign in Syria is also utterly inconsistent with his decision a year ago to go to Congress before even considering punitive air-strikes in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

If he believed he needed to go to Congress for that limited engagement, how on earth can he argue with a straight face that he does not need to now? It makes no sense – and no one in the administration has been able to make a persuasive case for this walking contradiction.

That seems to me to leave us with a small chance to nip this in the bud. I believe that the administration needs to get direct authorization from the Congress to re-enter the Iraqi theater and enter the Syrian one by October 7 – 60 days since the first air-strike. Again, this is completely consistent with Obama’s previous positions. We have to break the war machine’s ability to do what it will without any constitutional checks upon it. We need to demand a full debate and a serious declaration of war. We are, after all, planning at least a three-year campaign in Syria, without the Syrian government’s approval, and in violation of international law. How can we do that without direct Congressional authority – especially when the administration has declared that ISIS is not a threat to the homeland?

Maybe there are enough Democratic and Republican skeptics in the Senate to force a vote. Even if they lose, such a vote would at least force these cowards to own a war they are acquiescing in, to share the full responsibility and face the voters, and to be subsequently accountable for its failures or modest success. And if an open-ended war against an entity that has not attacked the US or plans to do so is not something that the Congress should approve, then we really are an empire, and not a republic.  We are an empire with an executive branch that controls war and peace, that launches covert and overt wars, that keeps the US on permanent offense across the globe, creating as much terror as it prevents, and entangling us in one more sectarian vortex of fickle friends and mortal foes.

I refuse to cave into depressed acquiescence to this machine, even as it has now captured the one president who promised to restrain it. The only way to do this is to build a strong campaign – not least among Obama supporters – that no war be continued past October 7 without full Congressional debate and formal authorization.

Are we able to prevent the US from entering another nightmarish engagement in a part of the world that rewards no one?

Repeat after me: Yes. We. Can.

(Photo: US President Barack Obama stands at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, September 11, 2014, for a moment of silence marking the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. By Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.)

We Tortured. It Was Wrong. Never Mind.

I’ve wondered for quite a while what Barack Obama thinks about torture. We now know a little more:

Even before I came into office I was very clear that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we did some things that were wrong.  We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks.  We did some things that were contrary to our values.

torturefoia_page3_full.gifI understand why it happened.  I think it’s important when we look back to recall how afraid people were after the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen, and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent, and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this.  And it’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had.  And a lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots.

But having said all that, we did some things that were wrong.  And that’s what that report reflects.  And that’s the reason why, after I took office, one of the first things I did was to ban some of the extraordinary interrogation techniques that are the subject of that report.

And my hope is, is that this report reminds us once again that the character of our country has to be measured in part not by what we do when things are easy, but what we do when things are hard.  And when we engaged in some of these enhanced interrogation techniques, techniques that I believe and I think any fair-minded person would believe were torture, we crossed a line.  And that needs to be — that needs to be understood and accepted.  And we have to, as a country, take responsibility for that so that, hopefully, we don’t do it again in the future.

What to make of this?

I don’t think it’s that big a deal that he used the English language to describe what was done, in any fair-minded person’s judgment. He’s said that before now. And his general position hasn’t changed. Let me paraphrase: We tortured. It was wrong. Never mind. So he tells the most basic version of the truth – that the US government authorized and conducted war crimes – and hedges it with an important caveat: We must understand the terribly fearful circumstances in which this evil was authorized. But equally, he argues that the caveat does not excuse the crime: “the character of our country has to be measured in part not by what we do when things are easy, but what we do when things are hard.”

This latter point is integral to the laws against torture – but completely guts his first point. As I noted with the UN Convention, the prohibition is absolute:

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

Cheney, Bush, Tenet, and Rumsfeld all knew this from the get-go. That’s why they got their supine OLC to provide specious justifications for the legally prohibited. That’s why they won’t use the word “torture,” instead inventing an Orwellian euphemism. And, of course, the president’s excuse for them – that “in the immediate aftermath of 9/11,” we did wrong things – is deeply misleading. This went on for years abughraibleash.jpgacross every theater of combat. What about what Abu Ghraib revealed about the scope of torture in the battlefield much later on? What about 2005 when they secretly re-booted the torture program? This was a carefully orchestrated criminal conspiracy at the heart of the government by people who knew full well they were breaking the law. It cannot be legally or morally excused by any contingency. It cannot be treated as if all we require is an apology they will never provide.

Yet that’s what the president’s acts – as opposed to his words – imply. And that’s what unsettles me. It is not as if the entire country has come to the conclusion that these war crimes must never happen again. The GOP ran a pro-torture candidate in 2012; they may well run a pro-torture candidate in 2016. This evil – which destroys the truth as surely as it destroys the human soul – is still with us. And all Obama recommends for trying to prevent it happening again is a wistful aspiration: “hopefully, we don’t do it again in the future.” Hopefully?

Then there’s the not-so-small matter of the rule of law.

Call me crazy but I do not believe that the executive branch can simply allow heinous crimes to go unpunished just because they were committed … by the executive branch. It seems to me, to paraphrase the president on agabuse.jpgFriday, that the rule of law “has to be measured in part not by what we do when things are easy, but what we do when things are hard.” How many times does the United States government preach about international law and Western values? On what conceivable grounds can we do so when our own government can commit torture on a grand and brutal scale for years on end – and get away with it completely?

Either the rule of law applies to the CIA or it doesn’t. And it’s now absolutely clear that it doesn’t. The agency can lie to the public; it can spy on the Senate; it can destroy the evidence of its war crimes; it can lie to its superiors about its torture techniques; it can lie about the results of those techniques. No one will ever be held to account. It is inconceivable that the United States would take this permissive position on torture with any other country or regime. Inconceivable. And so the giant and massive hypocrisy of this country on core human rights is now exposed for good and all. The Bush administration set the precedent for the authorization of torture. The Obama administration has set the precedent for its complete impunity.

America has killed the Geneva Conventions just as surely as America made them.

(Photo: a page on enhanced interrogation techniques via a FOIA request.)

About That Iraqi Democracy: Forget About It

One might be forgiven for thinking that the catastrophic war in Iraq was designed to bring democracy and sovereignty to that nation after a brutal, foul dictatorship. That, after all, was what we were told from the get-go, along with the alleged threat of non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Many service-members died to bring that democracy about; almost 200,000 Iraqis died in the bloody transition. And they elected a prime minister; and re-elected him in fair elections. And yet now, courtesy of the CIA’s unofficial spokesman, David Ignatius, we hear that Maliki is nonetheless going to be deposed by the US:

President Obama sensibly appears to be leaning toward an alternative policy that would replace Maliki with a less sectarian and polarizing prime minister — and then begin using U.S. military power on behalf of this more broadly based government. The White House is already mulling a list of alternative prime ministers.

So the whole pretext of Iraqi democracy was a sham, and we now know this without a shadow of a doubt. The next leader of Iraq will be IRAQ-UNREST-VOLUNTEERSpicked in Washington, and not by the people of that country. And the right of an elected government to choose its own policies and direct its own governance – for good or ill – has been effectively rendered null and void. There’s never any welfare reform with imperial welfare. They are to be dependents for ever. And, of course, the CIA’s previous regime changes in the Middle East – Iran, anyone? – do not even merit a mention. Just because they have screwed it up every single time doesn’t mean they don’t have the absolute right to screw it up again. Because the residue of their own disasters can be used to justify yet more ones. Just ask Fred Hiatt.

As with most imperial projects – and what other word can be used to describe the embedded assumptions in Ignatius’s column? –  Washington will use local power-brokers to implement its designs. Ignatius is perfectly candid about the rawness of the imperialism involved:

The people who will pull the plug on Maliki are Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and other Iraqi kingmakers. The United States should push them to signal unmistakably that Maliki is finished. And they must do so in coordination with Iran, which will effectively have a veto on the next Iraqi prime minister, whether we like it or not.

Notice the lack of any subjunctive. The Kurdish leader will do what he is told; the Sunni tribes must cooperate with Iran. This is the mindset of the CIA, a beyond-the-rule-of-law organization that has done more damage to this country’s interests and values than any other organ of state. The contempt of these imperialists (who brought torture into the American bloodstream) for the autonomy of any other country is a striking as their contempt for American values.

So Ignatius admits that this illegal intervention needs “political cover”from other interested parties in the region (all of whom have ulterior motives and almost all of whom have contributed to this burgeoning sectarian warfare). And the goal now is to intervene simultaneously in Syria’s civil war, to the tune of training up to 10,000 “Syrian moderates” (try not to laugh out loud or burst simultaneously into tears).

And the entire point of this exercise is to get another war up and running – and soon – in Syria and Iraq:

Targeting ISIS perhaps could begin with its safe havens and infiltration routes along the Syria-Iraq border, where there’s less chance of hitting Sunni tribesmen. “We know where their base camps and training camps are, which is where we can start — and it’s important to start,” says U.S. Central Command adviser Derek Harvey.

Yes, “it’s important to start”. Sure, we don’t know where any of this could lead – but the one thing we have learned this past decade and a half is to launch a war first and figure out those questions later. Intervening in two sectarian countries just adds to the challenge, I guess. It’s so good to know someone advising Central Command has absorbed the lessons of the past so well.

I’m distressed by the news out of DC and alarmed by Obama’s presser, but I haven’t given up on the president yet.

Ignatius is voicing the CIA’s agenda, as usual, not necessarily the president’s. In his presser today,

Mr. Obama insisted that the United States would not press for Mr. Maliki’s replacement by a new leader. “It’s not our job to choose Iraq’s leaders,” he said. But he added, “Right now, there’s too much suspicion, there’s too much mistrust.”

And yet 300 military “advisers” and the possibility of air-strikes is how wars start. And the president has been woefully supine when it comes to confronting the lawless incompetence of the CIA for the past six years; and once military strikes begin, we’re back to square one, trying to control a country we do not understand and cannot master, taking the bait of all sorts of interested parties, who will use us as they have used us in the past to promote their own agendas. The president also signaled he is leery of Ignatius’ utopian notion of 10,000 “Syrian moderates”:

He cited the difficulties in deciding whether to arm members of the opposition. “If you have former farmers or teachers or pharmacists who now are taking up opposition against a battle-hardened regime,” he said, “how quickly can you get them trained?”

And how do you know that after they’ve been trained and equipped, they won’t turn around on a dime like the Iraqi army just did? This is the Arab Middle East. There is no trust there. And there are no reliable allies.

In my view, this is not a conflict in which you can half-intervene. By some miracle, we extricated ourselves at great loss. And yet the breezy tone in Ignatius’s column and the decision by Obama to send Special Forces advisers to Iraq suggest something more ominous still. So let me reiterate something: in my view, the one thing Obama pledged never to do he must never do. For me, re-entering the Iraq war – which is what US-targeted airstrikes with Special Forces on the ground against ISIS would do – is a deal-breaker. In one move, it could obliterate Obama’s entire foreign policy legacy of deleveraging the empire and effectively treat the American people as irrelevant. It would also instantly make the United States a prime target for these religious fanatics.

So this is truly a test of the president’s mettle. Will he stand up for the American people and follow his own instincts or cave to the CIA and the hyperventilating Beltway? His presser today both reassured but also worried me. I worry because I have learned the hard way that the elites in Washington like to treat the world as a garden to tend, they have never seen a crisis they don’t think they can solve, and they love to imagine themselves in the vanguard of the good and the true, even if all their recent interventions have led to mass murder and lies. This goes for Democrats as well as Republicans. And when the imperial complex sees a new opportunity to enlarge its power and money and relevance, they tend to have their way. Because they always have their way, and until we elect someone with the spine to rescue us from this eternal, corrosive, imperial quicksand, they always will.


UPDATE: A couple of sentences in Ignatius’ piece have been changed. Details here.