National Security Experts


Recent Responses

July 2, 2012 12:57 PM

The intricacies of commodity pricing on the international oil market has best be left to those who give the matter constant attention. So I offer only one comment. Based on what we learned from the crises of the 1970s (and 1980s) the characteristic inelasticty of demand in response to price changes, and the inelasticty of supply in response to short term price or demand fluctuations, those inelasticities are most apparent when there are severe changes in supply/demand ratios beyond what we are seeing now.

On to politics. Most important, it should be obvious by now that the Islamic Republic will not surrender or crumble because of the economic sanctions. This is true no matter how many quotes from the man in the Tehran street about economic distress are passed off by the MSM as the final word on the country's political future. This manufactured optimism is classic avoidance behavior - intellectually and in policy terms. We refuse to face up to the reality that we either attack and probably invade Iran or we deal with the leadership realistically on Realpolitik terms that a

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June 25, 2012 12:36 PM

With humility. Don’t just do something – think! Washington has been blinding itself to new realities. One, our ability to shape the political affairs of countries like Egypt has declined markedly. Two, we have limited understanding of the complex internal dynamics there and have no ability to predict outcomes (along with everybody else). Three, as far as regional politics is concerned, the old coalition of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the US, and Israel that had maintenance of the status quo cannot be restored. Each player’s policies increasingly are driven by powerful centripetal forces. Puffing up Shi’ite Iran as the common enemy will not suffice to hold them together.

American leaders are relentlessly holding onto a worldview that is out of synch with reality. We are not now (and, in truth, never have been) masters of the world – and, therefore, of our fate (which is the ulterior objective). Traipsing through remote places like Honduras, the Congo, Mauretania

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June 12, 2012 04:18 PM

There are moments in the life of a nation when its destiny can be glimpsed. The images in the crystal ball align themselves to prefigure what is in store for us. Usually the opportunity to foresee the future is lost in the clutter and clamor of current obsessions. Today we are experiencing one of those moments. Failure to discern what the emerging constellation means could well ensure the decline of the American republic as we have visualized it. The flare-up over “kill lists,” cyber war and the manipulation of information by our leaders has revealed deep seated flaws in our political culture and the mentality of our political class that are toxic to a healthy democracy.

Let’s put the headlines in context and then consider their full implications. The key elements are these. One, the United States government has been engaged in a massive, multifaceted violation of the laws and principles that have guided government behavior since the country’s founding. New Age electronic “wiretappin

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June 5, 2012 10:33 AM

The devil is in the details - so it is said. In this case, the devil is in the concept of national interest that leads us to presume that the United States has a significant interest in Yemen's interminable internecine conflicts. We don't. Since 9/11 we are in the habit of scanning the globe to see if anyone out there is a candidate to have the al-Qaeda terrorist label pinned on him. It's a replay of the old Cold War days when we assigned black hats and white hats on the most improbable characters. The number of badies in Yemen who have both the interest and the potential means to do us harm probably could be fitted into John Brennan's briefing room.

In ten years, one amateurish attempt at bringing down a plane originated in Yemen, with two other possibilities. Recently, Washington is all aflutter over reports by a Saudi penetration agent (not the CIA's) that some of the bunch may try again using a devilishly new device. Whether this alleged device is indeed harder to detect than its predecessor or is just a switch from Jockey to Fruit of the Loom we do not reliably know.

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May 7, 2012 12:00 PM

Pondering the impressive array of military capabilities that are at the center of the current defense budget debates, I am greatly reassured by the high degree of security they provide for me personally and for the USA – whatever the exact outcome. The aching worries that have made sleep an exercise in anxious futility have dissipated. Just think of the protection that we can look forward to.

1. A missile defense shield for the Atlantic coast. No need to fret about WMD tipped missiles with lethal payloads targeting Charleston, Rehoboth Beach, or Kennebunkport. Morocco, Mauretania, and places farther east are no longer even an existential long-term threat. Nor is there reason any longer to cast a troubled eye at all those Honduran banana boats, oil tankers, Carnival Line cruise ships, and phantom Viking long boats that ply the waters of the North Atlantic. Of course, these vessels could be equipped with cruise missiles. Not to worry. A picket line of anti-cruise missiles in the thousands surely will be deployed against them

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April 30, 2012 11:52 AM

The “war on terror’’ began as fraud; now it is farce. Conceived in deceit, warped at birth and raised behind a veil of duplicity – the ‘war’s” mature years are marked by actions of mindless reiteration. The penalty we - and the rest of the world – have paid for this feckless exercise in vengeance and grandiosity has been enormous. The payment has been in lives lost or crippled, in trillions of dollars, in prestige and authority dissipated, and in a latent menace to our well-being that the ‘war” supposedly aimed at eliminating. This endless crusade has achieved a state of perpetual motion generated by a confluence of dogmatic ideology, intellectual obstinacy, cynical political calculation and the self-serving exertions of powerful financial and professional interests. Today, the enterprise – or at least 90% of it – is divorced from reality.

The Threat.

Americans’ collective image of the threat that justifies the “war on terror” project is of hordes of fanatical Muslims scalin

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April 17, 2012 07:40 PM

I neglected to mention one other factor in the comparative equations: the personality of the leadership. Much ink has been spilt arguing that Iran is not a rational actor and therefore the logic of deterrence from any use, or threatened use of nuclear wepaons could not be expected to work. Yet, Ayatollah Khameini has abjured the use of nuclear weapons twice on ethical grounds. Moreover, he would not be making those decisions in isolation. By contrast, the current North Korean is the third in a line of autocratic hereditary rulers all of whom have manifested emotional instability and touches of paranoia. He also wields absolute power. Nonetheless, it is the Iranians who get people into a lather.

Illogical? Why?

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April 17, 2012 10:28 AM

In sequential weeks we have discussed Iran and North Korea. Yet little effort is made to compare the two cases (with the notable exception of Paul Pillar). I believe that it would instructive to undertake such a study. The comparisons can be expected to expose different risk assessments, strategies and diplomatic modes of address. That in term draws our attention to the question of what exactly the United States and other external parties want. There is neither space nor time for a complete analysis. So allow me simply to prime the discussion by posing a key and very puzzling question: why is there manifestly greater worry about the Iranians and far more draconian measures taken already or planned than is evident re. North Korea?

This is an anomaly. After all, North Korea has tested two atomic weapons. Iran does not even have a nuclear weapons program – according to American intelligence agencies. North Korea has made important strides in developing ballistic missiles, this past week’s fizz

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April 10, 2012 12:30 PM


Immaturity, as the alienists tell us, expresses itself in various psychological strategies to cope with a reality that challenges self-image – e.g. a recalcitrant Islamic Republic of Iran that threatens the ingrained belief of American leaders that they can coerce weaker states to bend to their will and thereby fulfill the United States’ self-defined needs. Such an ego defense mechanism becomes pathological when its persistent use leads to recurrent maladaptive behavior that impairs the ability to act rationally and to pursue realistic goals – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Mali. These ego defense mechanisms and strategies try to protect the exalted self from the acute anxiety of adjusting basic images of self identity and relation to others. They construct a refuge for a threatened ego.

What are thosestrategies? Denial that anything fundamental has changed – in oneself and out there. Denial entails unconscious attempts to find resolution of emotional conflict and reduction of a

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March 26, 2012 11:03 AM

As a necessary assist to consideration the strategic implications of N. Korea’s nuclear capabilities and Iran’s possible capabilities, it is worthwhile us to review the experience of the nuclear age as it has been analyzed by some very sharp minds since 1946. The acquired wisdom can be distilled into these propositions.

1.1. When we speak of an encounter between two nuclear armed states, the primary utility is to deter the other. The risk and consequences of nuclear war are so great as to outweigh any possible advantage in trying to use them.

2. This condition of Mutual Assured Destruction is stable when the following conditions are met: both side have the capacity to withstand a first strike while retaining the nuclear to deliver a nuclear riposte; and when there is the will to do so. No one has ever thought of testing the latter.

3. The absence of a second strike capability on one

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March 19, 2012 06:48 PM

This does not touch on the policy question but, rather, to the vexing question of "what led him to do it?"

I have spoken to a psychiatrist friend of mine whose specialty is psycho-pharmocology to see if he could shed some light on Bales. He has had no directly relevant military experience; he has, though. been following the Bales affair. Here is what he had to say in schematic form.

1. Bales did not 'snap' i.e. erupt into violence suddenly. (Forget the technical term for that). He probably was suffering from post-concussive syndrome due to an earlier head injury in Iraq - which likely was not fully/correctly treated. That condition can be progressive when the person is physically active and is submitted to further stress.

2. Latter manifests itself in depression, confusion and impetuosity.

3. It could have been aggravated by an anti-malarial medication, taken by all soldiers in Afghanistan, which added an element of paranoia. That could explain the violence targeted at the Afghans.

4. It could have been marginally aggravted

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March 15, 2012 12:30 PM

Two additional thoughts. Americans find it exceedingly difficult to admit failure. For to do so not only is to call into question our vaunted prowess, it also threatens our self-image as Destiny's child. So the next exercise in mental gymnastics will be to proclaim Afghanistan an actual success since we crushed al-Qaeda and ensured that the Taliban could not return to the status quo ante circa 2001. Coming soon to a think tank near you.

Second, in the meantime we will put everyone into motion so as to distract from the reality of what's happening. Motion being substituted for action. Don't just sit there thinking, do something! Mr. Panettam your turn! So he gets on a plane to fly halfway around the world to meet with Mr. Karzai, hear his complaints, respond that we should work on them together - and then gets back on the plane for the 14 hour return trip. Pro-active.

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March 13, 2012 11:35 AM

The latest Afghan atrocity, on the heels of the Koran book burnings, should be seen as a flare in the night signaling that the last act in this tragic drama is upon us. Recently we have been distracted from this slowly unfolding disaster because our attention has been fixed on the much greater disaster that awaits us in Iran. Relative disaster has become the standard measure of our foreign policy misadventures of the 9/11 decade.

Incidents similar to this happen in every war. American ground troops probably committed more atrocities in WW II than in Afghanistan. They received far less attention for two reasons: they were eclipsed by the magnitude of the war and its stakes; they had no bearing on its outcome. The second is key to understanding the significance of the current situation. Counter-insurgency depends on winning hearts and minds. At this point, we've pretty much lost them - to such a degree as to render unattainable our objectives even if a complete Taliban comeback is equally improbable.

That Afghanistan is failed projected has been obvious for some t

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March 7, 2012 02:55 PM

A few further thoughts on the dilemma of trying to break the stranglehold of the Israeli lobby on the Iran issue. In its essence, it's a matter of political psychology. If you spend three years demonstrating in the most vivid ways possible that you're a patsy, as Obama has, your authority and influence to change attitudes obviously is undercut. If the rest of the political class has done the same (at least), the task is doubly difficult. Still if you don't want to be frog-marched over the cliff, you have to try to shift the weights in the equation.

1. Strongly affirm that you are the president of the American people who has sworn a solemn oath to provide for their well-being as you see it to the best of your ability . You are not just one of the crowd trying to elbow your way to the rostrum to make your voice held. Plant that seed and cultivate it assiduously.

2. At the same time foster the notion that the duty of all Americans is to participate in that process of shaping and executing national policy with the United States as their overriding point of reference.

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March 6, 2012 01:24 PM

This set of exchanges is a vast improvement on the intellectually coarse quasi-propaganda that usually passes for policy discussion on the Iran issue(s). Here is an attempt to distill an answer to the oft-posed question: "so what would you do?" It is offered schematically in the form of a few propositions.

1. A nuclear capable Iran is something that the United States can live with. On this, I second Paul Pillar. That covers the acquisition of an actual weapon. It follows that any high risk military action to prevent that occurence should be excluded as a matter of principle.

2. Living with some Iranian nuclear 'capability' implies a serious diplomatic campaign at engaging the Iranian leadership as per their demarche of March/April 2003. Strategic reflection points to the conclusion that a modus vivendi would facilitate devising a coping policy in other places where our aggressiveness has proven counter-productive, e.g. Iraq and Afghanistan and pakistan.

3. As to Israel, we should undertake an active campaign to prevent them from takin

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March 5, 2012 09:50 AM

The United States is on the brink of war with Iran with no more understanding - or discussion - of why than we understand or discuss why we are fighting an all out war in Afghanistan. What has become a national habit of acting without public deliberation is a clear and present danger to the country’s well being – not to speak of others’ well being. President Obama’s remarks this past week in an interview in the Atlantic with Jeffrey Goldberg, together with his address to AIPAC, present a stark picture of this troubling state of affairs. Here are some thoughts on why both the substance of his views and the diplomatic modus operandi they represent should make us worried about our leadership in the White House.

Key premises unstated are now standard presidential fare in the absence of critical policy scrutiny and debate. The implicit, if unvoiced, preface to all comments is “as we all know.” No one holds the White House to account by pointedly asking: “but do we all know that?” So Mr. Obama’s leaves unexam

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February 27, 2012 09:45 AM

Syria is all about uncertainty – of interpretation, of policy choices, of expectations, of outcomes.

Almost all persons and societies are made uneasy by uncertainty. We depend on fixed reference points to orient ourselves; we depend on fixed ideas on how the world works to interpret what’s happening and what it means; we need fixed expectations so as plan ahead; we need fixed standards to assay and to assess individuals, events and actions. Much of the time, we filter our perceptions of reality so as to avoid the challenge posed by the new, the different, the strange.

American’s tolerance for uncertainty is especially low. After all, we are cocksure we know what’s right and wrong, what is normal and abnormal, how things are supposed to operate, what is godly and what is ungodly. Moreover, we are programmed to try and set matters straight when they deviate from the right/normal. By nature, we’re a pro-active and can-do people. ‘Don’t just stand there, do something!” neatly sums up that attitude. Little if anything is

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February 13, 2012 07:03 PM

More military capability equates to more security for the Unite States. This precept is so deeply embedded in our minds that there is no need to state it. Yet it may be false. Let’s consider the following. If we did not possess a mighty high-tech military, we may never have considered invading and occupying Iraq. Since the ramifications of that action clearly are negative for American security, then there is a negative correlation between capability and security. The same holds for our protracted occupation of Afghanistan and subsequent incursion into Pakistan. Then there the contemplated war against Iran – unimaginable if we lacked deep penetration bombs and assorted other state-of-the-art weaponry.

Now we are faced with an audacious plan to give the central role for advancing American interests (very broadly defined) to Special Operations Command under the aggressive leadership of Admiral William H. McRaven who directs our Special Forces. As outlined in today’s New York Times, he is in the final stages of mounting a detailed plan for using h

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February 6, 2012 06:04 PM

Once again we are focusing on means and modalities without specifying the ends. That’s been true for most of the past decade’s engagement in Afghanistan. Having expelled the al-Qaeda leadership and toppled the Taliban from their perch in Kabul, we made the fateful decision to stick around. Exactly why never has been clear. Was it to nation build and state build? To turn Afghanistan into a beacon of modern democracy in a backward region - a match to Iraq in the Middle East? Was an integral part of that project a desire to secure the rights of Afghan women? Was the purpose to extend the reach of American military bases deep into Central Asia so as better to deal with whomever or whatever might become hostile to the United States and its clients?

The only answer we received was that it was critical to American domestic security that we preclude even the remote possibility that another salafist regime might take power in Afghanistan which could once again accommodate Islamist terrorists bent on striking the United States. There was a certain logic to this

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February 1, 2012 10:22 AM

Here are a few thoughts.

First, there will be no reduction in the current defense budget. The cuts in question are in fact reductions in future expenditure as called for in the Pentagon’s spending plans. In nominal dollars, outlays in fact will rise somewhat. Whether they grow in constant dollars depends on the rate of inflation – now quite low.

Second, there is no responsible way to assess the implications of these projected figures without rooting them in a rigorous analysis of security needs. The various strategic reviews that have appeared, providing the supposed justifications for the moneys requested, are not that. They are superficial, lowest common denominator committee products. For the most part, they are little more than cut and stitch versions of former reviews with only marginal modifications. In all honesty, they could be done by a good Masters student in a quality International Relations program.

Three, perceived military needs will grow to match the money available. Put succinctly, work expands to spend what

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January 25, 2012 07:45 PM

I hate to carry this exchange any further - because it isn't an exchange. Facts are facts. Social Security and medicare do not draw on tax revenues - simple. When we use the Trust funds' moneys for other purposes, the Treasury places notes (IOUs) in the fund. One assumes that the Treasury will honor them; therefore, it ios the same as borrowing from China.

Those who do not accept this are saying that they do not expect or want the United States government to honor them. That, in everyday language, that's what we call theft

It is very sad that supposedly informed public debate in this country has sunk so low. I pledge that this is the last word that I'll contribute on this matter now or in later discussion

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January 24, 2012 11:32 PM

The gush of support for the Farnsworth plan is instructive. It reflects a powerful current in America today that is eager to sacrifice our most vulnerable in the name of patriotic duty married to a retrograde social doctrine. They are America’s old – America’s sick – America’s poor. They are implicitly labeled ‘losers’ who now are called upon to give their last measure of dignity for the cause. In the mind of Mr. Gingrich and his ilk, they should welcome the chance to redeem themselves in serving their country by placing the needs of the United States above their own.

What are the vital and urgent purposes that they thereby are to serve in helping spare the military=industrial-intelligence establishment from the budgetary pruning fork? To go to war against the diabolical Iranians? To gird our loins for the apocalyptic sea-air battle with the Chinese? To chase the ghosts of terrorism past into the remotest corners of the globe?

If one were to seek a formula to drive a stake through what remains of America’s standing

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January 24, 2012 01:30 PM

A virtue of this blog is that it encourages candid exchanges. In this spirit, i offer these comments on Eric farnsworth contribution to this week's discussion. Two points.

First,he asserts that "the defense budget is the one area that is a constant target of budget cutters during difficult economic times." This is factually untrue and has been untrue since 1950. The only dip, in the immediate wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, was short-lived and the gravy train already was on the tracks when 9/11 hit. We now spend more on defense than the rest of the world combined. More recently, the austerity craze in Washington already has gutted domestic programs across the board. Social Security and medicare are now targeted for similar cuts even though they don't draw on tax revenues. The envisaged cuts in defense over the next decade are minor by comparison.

Two, Mr. Farnsworth asserts that " cuts will of necessity be more draconian than they otherwise might have been, impacting core national interests, unless entitlement reform becomes a reality.."

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January 23, 2012 08:12 PM

Sorry, Mr. President, it’s not at all hard to argue that your rosy assessment is conjured out of thin air. What is hard to do is discerning the state of mind and psyche that leads an American president to portray the downward spiral in the United States' position in the world in other than dark colors. Spinning, of course, is the name of the game ever since electoral politics has become the White House's 24/7/preoccupation. That is nothing new. More troubling is the justified suspicion that Obama cannot distinguish between reality and some conveniently confected version of it. We are beyond lying; rather we are in the domain of narcissistic psychology where the ability to differentiate has gradually evaporated. He is cool and detached even when uttering the most egregious whoppers. This holds for domestic matters as well as foreign policy issues. Think of the comparison with Richard Nixon who was so aware of his lies that he telegraphed them with every open pore and nervous twitch. Today, Mr. Obama and other leading figures among our political class could, I believe, be

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January 17, 2012 01:24 PM

American foreign policy over the past 11 years has demonstyrated a perverse genius for placing the United States in lose/lose situations. Navigating without a strategic gyroscope, and with maladroit diplomacy, we repeatedly have painted ourselves into a corner from which there is no escape other than by taking risky and highly costly expedient actions. That's true of Afghanistan, Iraq (where Mr. Maliki rubs our noses in our failure by inflicting enhanced humiliation technics on us weekly, Bahrain/Saudi Arabia, Palestine and - most dangerous of all - Iran. Two successive administrations have presumed to set unrealizeable objectives and to reach them by fruitless methods by ignoring the fundamental givens of the situation.

One, Iran will never forego the option of developing a nuclear CAPABILITY that is crucial to their objective security needs. Two, therefore, sanctions and other means short of war will not work. Three, the undeclared 'war' by other means that we are conducting confirms the security imperative and solidifies a national consensus on the nuclear issue.

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January 9, 2012 06:49 PM

there is a widespread notion that the envisaged cuts in the military budget shift the odds heavily against the United States' launching military operations and intervening abroad. That conclusion is less than persuasive - for a number of reasons. The reduction in forces will only reduce capabilities marginally. That is one. Let us recall that at the height of our deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, little more than 1/3 of our troops were engaged. So our ability to undertake similar misadventures is, and will remain, pretty much intact. Short of a reborn Red Army menacing Europe or the Chinese rampaging through Southeast Asia, we have more than enough means for mischief-making. Witness our saber rattling vis a vis Iran. Then there is the unsettling truth that capability limitations rarely if ever in American history inhibited the United States from committing itself to war. That's two. I believe this holds for the Civil War, the two world wars, Korea, and Vietnam. If there is perceived need to fight, our leaders will presume that the nation's resources could be mibilized

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January 9, 2012 03:52 PM

Blog contributors have addressed these question, in varying circumstances, repeatedly in the past. The often instructive discussions, though, soon reach their limits for want of the policy/strategy/budget's candor in making explicit what purposes our armed forces are meant to serve. What are the security threats? What is their magnitude and probability of endangering vital American interests? What is the overall security environment out there and what would we like it to be? What are the reasonable means of achieving it - non-military and military?

These questions are never posed - much less rigorously considered. Implicit in these documents is the delusional goal of achieving a state of zero threat to the United States and its interests. That is the old Wolfowitz line going back to his 1991 report in the Pentagon for Bush the Elder. It's Gospel for the neo-conservatives who succeeded in having it adopted as the Defense establishment's sacred text. This philosophy also has dominated almost all discussion about national security and defense since 2001. It permeates th

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December 19, 2011 07:40 PM

Going forward, we should bear in mind the admonition of Carl von Calusewitz: "If a war lasts more than four years, consult your National Security Adviser immediately!"

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December 19, 2011 11:33 AM

Failure is hard for a country to swallow – especially so for the United States. For two reasons. One, Americans feel that our nation was born in a state of original virtue which, as Destiny’s child, always would be crowned with success. Two, the US has experienced tangible failure only rarely in its triumphant sweep across the continent and then in its rise to world supremacy. The last best hope of mankind’ motif pretty much sums up the collective self esteem. Militarily, the worst was the tie in Korea and the abandonment of Vietnam. Even the ugly blemish of slavery and racism did not impair the pervasive sense of exceptionalism and superiority. And it, too, was addressed with exceptional effort – however belatedly.

The deeply etched image in our collective mind and heart is that America is a winner. A winner due to two factors: the talents and acumen of its inventive people; and the just rewards for its moral fiber. They are interlaced. We accomplish what nobody else can because we are both better at doing things and better people. We expec

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December 5, 2011 10:48 AM

America’s reign as the world’s bastion of political liberties is over. We no longer conduct ourselves as a people and a polity dedicated to the legally protected rights ensconced in our Constitution. The rest of the world has seen this occurring over the past decade with particular reference to how the United States government treats others. We ourselves have permitted the abuse of freedom at home as it has spread and intensified since. It grows rather than abates the further removed in time we are from that stunning event. Surely, then, the sources of this regression lie deeper than the trauma itself. Passive acquiescence in this degradation of the liberties that have been the foundation of our civic religion tells us as much.

Case in point is the call for a pragmatic consideration of the Congressionally approved detainee provisions within the defense authorization bill, passed by the Senate last week, that would require mandatory military detention for some terrorism suspects. The one reason cited for a possible questioning of these draconian provisions is

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November 21, 2011 09:47 AM

Language is the first victim of muddled thinking. So it is with the Obama administration’s groping for shibboleths to lend gravitas to its floundering foreign policy. First there was “leading from behind;’ then fight, talk, build in Afghanistan. Now Hillary Clinton is ‘pivoting’ toward China and the Pacific. A fresh demonstration of what she has proclaimed since her confirmation hearings as “smart power” – in contradistinction to ‘stupid’ power like voting for the Iraq war resolution without having read the report supposedly justifying it?

A smart strategy would never have pivoted away from the rising power that is China and the rising region that is Asia. A smart strategy can keep its mind on China even when Uncle Sam up to his neck in the godforsaken wastes of Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia. Smart strategy does not skim along the surface of the world’s seas on a Cook’s tour of continents visited in turn. Smart strategy thinks integrally over multiple time frames; it sees the intersection o

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November 14, 2011 01:42 PM


Let’s face it. None of the Republican candidates is qualified to direct the country’s foreign relations – with the exception of Jon Huntington and, perhaps, Ron Paul. Their ignorance is matched only by their lack of logical thinking and incoherence. If these presentations were made at a respectable community college, they would get grades ranging from D- - F+ (grade inflation). Some of their weird notion, were they actually implemented, would produce disaster.

How did we sink into such a sump of irresponsibility? The answers are obvious to all of us – even if we remain reluctant to admit them. A self indulgent public isn’t paying attention, has never been schooled in these matters, and therefore does not know how to think about them. The media, whose job it is to help people become informed citizens, are more an obstruction than assist. They treat it all as an American Idol celebrity contest, present at face value whatever nonsense is uttered, and convey the impression that it all really doesn’t matter that much. As for Ameri

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November 7, 2011 12:27 PM

American foreign policy’s overriding need is a coherent strategy. We have been drifting with the impetus provided by the amorphous ‘war on terror’ while making tactical shifts as dictated by the convergence of electoral pressures and the exigencies of an unyielding external environment. The United States leaders know not where they are headed or why. The challenge for aspirants to the White House is to provide at least an outline of such a strategy. They like Barack Obama, however, are manifestly incapable of doing so. They possess neither the requisite aptitude, the experience nor the sense of urgency. Nor do their batteries of foreign affairs advisers serve as anything more than as a source of sound bites that will not make them look even less informed and concerned than they in fact are. So asking them to design a strategy is pointless.

Instead, we may consider asking them some questions about concrete matters that could perhaps grab their attention, and to responses which could perhaps give some small indication as to their leanings. Here are my ca

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October 17, 2011 05:46 PM

The question makes two presumptions. One is that the facts of this case are so well established as to sharpen the question of “what is to be done” re Iran. The second is that any meaningful action points toward confrontation.

As to the former, there are grounds to doubt the story being propagated by the White House. The media, in what has become their standard lazy passivity, have confused what various spokesmen say and what is in the documents – especially the Justice Department documents. The latter provide zero evidence of the Corpus Christi (Body of Christ – a calculated provocation? By whom?)car salesman or his mysterious interlocutor making any reference to violent action - much less an assassination. It is introduced by the FBI plant out of the blue. My own view is that this is another one of those fabricated FBI sting operations that keeps them busy and their budgets hefty. Moreover, David Petreaus’ CIA evidently had a major hand in this, pushing hard undisclosed ‘evidence’ that there was something real behind this op

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October 11, 2011 09:35 AM

“To think or not to think – is that the question?”

The bias of those trained to think rigorously about public affairs is the presumption that policy-makers are logical in thought and action. Their policies are taken to be rational – making logical connections between means and ends, being explicit in setting objectives, and being reasonably consistent in execution. But critical analysis is impossible unless there is a semblance of logic – however primitive, odd or changeable it may be. That is why we are stymied and frustrated in trying to make sense of what has been happening recently in Afghanistan - the world’s biggest, open-air puzzle palace. Let’s consider the following.

· A beleaguered Ahmed Karzai, rattled by the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani (his main man for enticing the Taliban into some sort of deal), blames it and myriad other troubles on Pakistan. He slams the Pakistani military for being both facilitator and instigator of attacks that have heighte

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October 3, 2011 06:36 AM

The Awlaki killing can only be interpreted and assayed meaningfully if placed in the context of the ‘War On Terror.’ For America today is not the same country that it was before 9/11. Our ethical standards, our sense of danger and vulnerability, our understanding of right and wrong, our readiness to place enormous discretionary power in the hands of our rulers – all have been qualitatively altered. The subtle balance between personal liberties and raison d’etat has markedly shifted in the latter direction. Moreover, we have yielded to our government leaders the right to define the ‘necessities’ that justify arbitrary actions that contravene tradition, principle and even law. The trauma of 9/11 made Americans scared, vengeful and desperately needy for protection – physical and emotional. Hence, a climate emerged that is favorable to the abuse of power. That same climate fed the imagining of enemies of mythic proportions. Osama bin-Laden (with reason) was evil incarnate – with a coterie of diabolical associates like Z

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September 26, 2011 10:32 PM

The United States’ strategic position in the greater Middle East is disintegrating. The repercussions of the Arab Spring have undercut the tacit alliance among Washington, Cairo, Riyadh, Amman and Jerusalem with auxiliary members in Yemen and Tunisia among other peripheral states. Mubarak is gone while his former military cohorts sap the revolution’s zeal through symbolic acts that include untying the bonds to Israel while cultivating an alliance with Turkey. Both pillars of the regional sub-system are animated by a deepening anti-American feeling that are spreading across the Islamic world. In Ankara, moreover, the Erdogan government now has its own calculated view of a diplomatic field that no longer has the United States as its hub. The House of Saud is so badly rattled that it is turning on Washington as the cause of its new-found sense of vulnerability. Iraq’s sectarian Shi’ite leadership spurns the idea of a special relationship with us while incrementally building structures of cooperation with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Tehran will not bend

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August 29, 2011 09:33 AM

The uprising of Libyans against their long time dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has succeeded in toppling him and his regime. Now the post mortems begin. What lessons are to be drawn from the affair?

It is important to address this question sooner rather than later, for predicting the past has become chancy. History is no longer written mainly by historians. The dominant understanding of past events for the public at large, and for the ‘informed’ political class as well, increasingly is crystallized by interpretations made during and immediately after their occurrence. Pictorial images reinforce them. The purveyors of these stories rarely are qualified by knowledge, acuity of analysis and/or good intentions to shape our view of reality. Exhibit 1: the fictional legend of the ‘surge’ in Iraq.

Here are the main points that I believe we should bear in mind as we ponder the last six months in Libya.

1. Foreign intervention in support of a popular movement can work to achieve desirable ends. The ho

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August 15, 2011 09:44 PM

Gordon Adams assessment is on the mark. So where does that leave us? A few points.

1. All American politcs has become a roulette. Anything is possible. That should be obvious from the surreal events beginning in 2008. No one is in control - even the Congressional leaders - on this, I diverge from Gordon's appraisal of things.

2. We have no political SYSTEM. Our politics lacks any coherence. Do we have parties with a modicum of structure? an identifiable program? On this last, yes the Teapartiers do. (What if anything does the Democratic Party represent? What does Obama represent?) Do we have a monitoring of what is said and done - by the press, by the Washington cognoscenti, by anyone in public life with a conscience or sense of the commonweal? (I can think off-hand only of Paul Volcker and Bernie Sanders). Do the media represent an independent check on government and politicians? Is the Supreme Court majority anything but a bunch of ideological dogmatists who make up constitutional law to suit their feelings and impulses?

Due to the above, our governm

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August 8, 2011 10:17 PM

Point 2, second sentence should read:

There is neither the talent, the will nor the sense of public interest within the nation's security establishment as currently populated (which includes the White House and OMB) to do this on an honest and rigorous basis. "

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August 8, 2011 06:47 PM

Caution should be our watchword in speculating about significant cuts in the defense budget anytime soon. History counsels against anticipating that the latest wave of austerity will breach the seawall that protects the Pentagon from bouts of intemperate political weather. There are 3 reasons for this.

1. The DOD is not just any Executive Branch department. It is the keystone of an Iron Triangle whose other vectors are the vested defense contractors and legislators whose districts and campaign chests both are kept well filled by Pentagon largesse.

2. Assessing tangible defense depends on a frank strategic appraisal of threats and response capability. Always difficult to do, it has become impossible in today's climate. There is neither the talent, the will nor the calculated interest within the nation's security establishment (which includes the White House and OMB) to do this on an honest and rigorous basis. Too many careers, bank accounts and pet ideas would be put at risk. As a consequence, there are no yardsticks for measuring what is needed to perform what

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July 25, 2011 06:20 AM

The impasse in the attempt to unseat Muammar Gaddafi after four months of NATO bombing in support of the insurgents is forcing an anguished reappraisal of method as well as objective. It has been a classic exercise in coercive diplomacy – more exactly, a classic case of how not to conduct it. The first lesson to draw is that in a game of intimidation the psychological factor is key. Actual use of military force is designed to undermine the morale and break the will of the targeted leadership. To succeed, it should be swift, concentrated and carry a credible threat of more to come unless they comply with the ultimatum. The West and their Arab partners have sent the diktat that they want Colonel Gaddafi to yield power to the opposition. To this end, they have sought to peel away his closest associates, military commanders and army units still arrayed at his side. Successes on this latter score were registered early in the confrontation but few defections have occurred more recently. Various elements enter into an explanation; one is that they visualized Gaddafi’s surviv

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July 18, 2011 07:21 PM

A few additional words on Iranian influence in Iraq. We do have something of a recent, post-2003, experience to rely on. Who was it who brokered the understanding between Maliki and Sadr in March-April 2008 that led to the latter’s standing down (after his militia had gotten the upper hand in Basra and neutralized the government forces in Baghdad before we jumped into the fray)? Who presided at the shotgun wedding of those two that permitted the formation of a government that sidelined our man Alawi (who represented a few secularists and many faute de meilleur Sunnis)? It wasn’t David Petraeus or Dick Holbrooke. There exists a considerable historical record available for anyone who has the inclination and honesty to consult it which validates this assessment.. Clearly, our masters in Washington are not among them – nor are 95% of the D.C. cognoscenti. Instead they trail the red herring (now three years old) of Iranian arms supplies being the cause of that tragic country’s continuing trials. And as an excuse for overstaying our leave. How sad; h

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July 18, 2011 01:59 PM

The Obama White House and the Pentagon are moving heaven and earth to keep a substantial military presence in Iraq. That includes four giant air bases, 20,000 or multi-capable troops, and a host of CIA operatives complemented by the usual assortment of hirelings. What is the strategic purpose? The administration has not leveled with us about their aims. Nonetheless, they are easily inferred.

1.To serve as part of the cordon encircling Iran able to support coercive diplomacy and possibly coercive force itself. They are not there to defend Iraq from Iran (the cover story) since the Iraqi leadership itself has no fear of an attack.

2. To serve as a component of the base network extending from the Gulf well into Central Asia. That conforms to the 'full spectrum dominance' concept that seeks to dominate militarily every global region. Mission? Anything and everything. Cost concerns? Austerity doesn't play when national security is at stake.

3. To serve as leverage to influence domestic Iraqi politics and policy. The Pentagon has been relentless is currying favo

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June 27, 2011 06:48 AM

Three questions should be asked in the wake of President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan last night. What does it means for the United States’ strategy there – and in Pakistan? Does it represent a qualitative change in official American thinking about its stakes in the region and how figures in the wider ‘war on terror?’ What influences shaped the approach Obama outlined?

Here is a preliminary, and sketchy, attempt to answer them. First, Washington’s goals remain the same. That means a vigorous campaign against the al-Qaeda remnants on both sides of the Durand Line, an unrelenting war of attrition against the Taliban (its leadership above all), a campaign of bolstering anti-Taliban political forces to ensure that they will be minor players in the country’s future, and to secure from a straying Mr. Karzai agreement to accept large American military bases for the foreseeable future. Whatever the odds on achieving these ambitious objectives may have been, they are somewhat lowered by a withdrawal schedule mildly more accelerated than

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June 20, 2011 05:52 PM

A few propositions intended to advance the discussion.

1. Of course we are engaged in hostilities and therefore our action does fall within the purview of the Act as understood by Congress. Obama is just playing clever word games, as is his habit, to avoid addressing the country on a matter of consequence. (Remember: "it depends on what you mean by IS" - this is in the same category)

2. I believe that our intervention in Libya is justified on strategic as well as humanitarian grounds. We went through this issue a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, the White House has not explained why.

3. The Libyan operation has been the most disorganized and inept since the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. Obama's 'hit and run' approach that placed effectiveness second to domestic political convenience invited failure. We should have stayed with it until we were sure of reaching the desired outcome - which would not have been too difficult.

3. No President has accepted the constraints on his action stipulated by the War Powers Act. Most have voluntarily s

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June 15, 2011 01:00 AM

I offered assessments and interpretations of current Euro--American relations in the form of a set of terse propositions. They are presented as a DESCRIPTION of this multifacted reality. I said nothing explicit as to what sort of relationship I'd prefer or why. My conception of a healthy relationship that effectively meets the interest of most parties (as the wider world community as well) is based on a qualified form of multilateralism such as already exists in the realm of commercial relations. The US would remain primus inte paris as regards hard security matters, but: 1) we would forego many of our presumptions to define problems and dictate a course of action as we now do with minima if any true consultation with allies. We should not 'burden sharing' in the sense of our expecting an uncritical, open-ended commitment to doing our bidding when and how we ask for it. (We spurned their post-9/11 offer to render assistance and instead chose unilateralism in setting in motion the counter-productive war on terror). Testing our judgment and policy preferences against the judgm

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June 13, 2011 06:33 AM

European leaders have no political will. European leaders’ deference to, and dependence on the United States for strategy, direction and diplomacy over the past 65 years has denatured them. American leaders prefer that their European counterparts defer to them while refraining from exercising their authority to decide and to act autonomously.

Europe collectively lacks unity. This is a convenient justification for passive acceptance of the condition noted above.

Washington views the Europeans as auxiliaries who are expected to properly equip themselves for errands that the United States directs them to perform. The latter’s hesitancy for reasons of timidity, prudence or domestic politics irritates American leaders mightily.

This state of affairs will not change. Overall, it satisfies the United States. Overall, it satisfies the Europeans. The psychological dimension of this warped relationship is more important than the structural. The dynamics of a classic dominant/subordinate relationship is too deeply rooted in the attitudes, mentality and fe

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June 6, 2011 11:57 AM

As for Mr. Saleh, his contribution to the nation’s security has been to give permission for the surreptitious launching of cruise missiles that were aimed at and missed Mr. Awlaki. He also permits a handful of CIA operatives and Special Forces to prowl the Yemen outback in undefined missions against AQAP. AQAP is a regional outfit that has the House of Saud and related regimes in their sights. Yemeni security forces collaborate in their own way on an irregular basis as convenient. These activities are but one segment of the intricate pattern of Yemeni politics woven by dozens of tribal, sectarian and doctrinal actors. Mr. Saleh, in exchange for his services, receives abundant amounts of financial assistance – some small portion of which reaches his subjects. In his long and checkered past, he had similar arrangements during the Cold War with the Soviet Union and then with us. At the moment, Mr. Saleh is on the point of being toppled by forces unconnected to AQAP.

Now that he is on the way out, Washington worries that the ensuing instable conditions m

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May 31, 2011 12:12 PM

Assessing the regional security implications of events in Syria is as difficult as understanding how its internal dynamics will resolve themselves. The revolutionary wave sweeping the Middle East has torn apart the old political order. Consequently, the strategic plans of the main parties are in disarray. That is certainly true of the United States. Washington is evidently unable to think beyond the reconstitution of some semblance of its rickety pre-reform diplomatic assemblage.

In this intellectual vacuum, it is inescapable that the United States’ attitude toward Syria should be inchoate. The administration from President Obama on down are at sea. They have experienced all the change that they can handle – or, more accurately, mishandle. Syria may not be the last straw, but it is adding to the unbearable overload of Washington’s intellectual and diplomatic systems. Every party in the region is on the horns of a dilemma. Continuation of the discredited Assad regime in place is intolerable and probably impossible. Its disintegration, though, promises s

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May 23, 2011 01:19 PM

Public declarations of statesman can convey belief and intention. Often, one must strain to discern them as they are hedged by qualifications and contingent references. At other times, the overriding purpose is obfuscation. That becomes the goal when a leader temporizes, is indecisive and disinclined to make decisions on matters that entail risks and costs - be they diplomatic or domestic. Such was the nature of Barack Obama's address on the Middle East Thursday.

Trying to discern in his remarks the contours of a coherent foreign policy is futile. For the elucidation of a strategic design was not the purpose. Nor was the purpose to stake out firm positions that would be the pivot for future actions re. Palestine, reform movements in those countries where they are being repressed, or Iran. The aim was political – in two senses. The first, primary consideration was to create favorable impressions among the American public - especially the political class – of Obama’s stewardship and the country’s exalted standing in the world. Among Israel

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May 16, 2011 12:30 PM


\It is generally assumed that everything on this earth has its natural limits. That holds for human endeavors individual and collective. Obtuse American foreign policy in the greater Middle East seems to defy that norm of nature. It has been said that the Bourbon ruling houses forgot nothing and learned nothing. We forget everything and learn nothing. I guess that's progress.

The past five months has seen events of historic importance: the upheavals of the Arab Spring whose repercussions continue to register; the Hamas-Fatah political reconciliation; and the Osama bin-Laden affair. All of American strategy is challenged thereby, its premises undermined, its aims misaligned with new realities, its tactics losing viability, America's standing losing credibility. Yet nothing in Washington's mentality changes. Indeed, it fantasizes that in important respects these developments will enable us to plunge further into the dead-ends that entrap us. Let us look at the principal elements of our 'grand strategy' in turn.


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May 9, 2011 10:30 AM


Osama bin-Laden’s death is a deeply emotional experience for Americans. It is unclear what that means, though, for American thinking about the ‘war on terror’ and the dubious actions taken in its name. The speculative political implications of the event add to the uncertainty as to what might change in Washington’s foreign policy. Let us begin to sort this out by looking at how it is registering on the mood among government elites and the populous at large.

Those reactions are threefold. Above all, an instinctive sense of vengeance executed and justice done – not necessarily in that order. Second, a triumphal pride in the feat that the United States has accomplished, restoring faith in national prowess. Finally, relief that the national agony of 9/11 has been assuaged if not entirely healed. Most feel a medley of these emotions. Which is most intense among whom will have a bearing on the course the country will take. Revenge satisfied can lead to a sense of closure – as can the convict

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May 2, 2011 06:42 AM

The redeployment of senior players in Obama’s national security team will have no consequential effect on American foreign policy or on defense spending. Why?

1. Shifts in strategic perspective can only be provided by the introduction of new minds with fresh ideas. The incumbents are too wedded to failed ideas and failed policies to admit error by their abandonment. These moves just shuffle the portfolios.

2. Without a thorough revision of the current strategic perspective there can be no basis for serious reappraisal of military requirements. So inertia will carry the day.

3. Panetta has a reputation for being a tough manager. Yet, at the CIA he changed nothing. Panetta has a reputation as a budget cutter based on his tenure as head of OMB in an earlier incarnation. But he now holds a different job with a different mandate and a different, very powerful, set of constituencies.

Petraeus’ appointment continues, and extends a disturbing trend i

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April 25, 2011 08:55 AM

The United States and Pakistan have divergent interests in Afghanistan. Therefore, their views as to desirable/acceptable outcomes are different. The United States and Washington have different conceptions as to what constitutes a satisfactory relationship. Therefore, there is no easy diplomatic mechanism for reconciling interests in a shared strategy. Today's heightened tensions as reflected in the hostile tone of public remarks stem directly from those disagreements.

Cumulative grievances have created such strain that each side is fed up with the other. That untenable state of affairs is the natural outgrowth of Washington's relentless pursuit of unreachable war aims and Islamabad's implacable resistance to being America's client.

The initial purpose of the American operation in Afghanistan was to eliminate any further al-Qaidi threat. That meant not just neutralizing al-Qaidi as an organization able to mount attacks on the United States. It came to mean something more ambitious: ensuring that no group like al-Qaidi would be able to do so in the future. As

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April 18, 2011 06:40 AM

This week’s question and last week’s merge. Robert Gate’s anticipated departure from the Pentagon coincides with the latest fillip of debate about some modest cuts in the defense budget. President Obama has proposed cumulative cuts of $400 billion over the next eleven years. Discounting for inflation, that amounts for just a few percent of current outlays. Indeed, when all the ancillary and follow-on costs of maintaining our military establishment are included, the prospective cuts come to just about two percent. The passion engendered is disproportionate to the sum. It is fueled by the current feud between a runaway Republican House and a White House dedicated to appeasement while still seeming to exercise a modicum of responsibility for the country’s welfare.

Serious reduction of our outsized Pentagon budget is not even broached. Understandably so. For a critical scrutiny of how and where we spend these vast sums would require a probing look at ‘why’ – in other words, strategic ends and purposes. Almost no one in Washington is

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April 12, 2011 05:20 PM

We owe Larry Korb a debt of gratitude for offering some perpective on the premature beatification of Robert Gates. He properly highlights a distressing lack of congruity between public aura and actual behavior that borders on the habitually dishonest. A bit more candor on the measures we use for evaluating public performance in general is in order. Gates has been a justifier, promoter or apologist for every one of the serial failures that mark American misadventures in the Greater Middle East during the 9/11 decade. If you believe that those policies, most of which continue to register painful costs, constitute a success, then Gates indeed deserves encomia. If you believe that the record is uniformly one of fiasco and tragic failure, as I do, then he gets low grades.

On this, I part company from Larry Korb in assessing the Iraq outcome as satisfactory. In an earlier post, I offered my own summary of thatunmitigated disaster. Perhaps Gates last gift will be using his visit to Irbil last week to pave the way for the Kurdish province to invite the United States to hang

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April 11, 2011 06:45 AM

The 2003 Iraq alumni association is studded with stars. Its reunion would be a cheerful occasion for mutual congratulations. Donald Rumsfeld is promoting his self serving memoir on the talk show circuit where he is received as a respected elder statesman. Condoleezza Rice of Stanford University has just composed an endearing, skillfully mendacious account of her noble service to the Republic. General Stanley McChrystal, who set up the network of torture facilities in Iraq and then laid the cornerstone of its Begram counterpart, teaches Modern Leadership at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Paul Wolfowitz, spiritual leader of the neo-con pack, is avidly sought by network anchors for sage advice on Egypt, Libya, Bahrain et al. His brother in arms at the Pentagon, Douglas Feith, is Professor and Distinguished Practitioner in National Security Policy at Georgetown; evidently without a reference letter from General Franks who judged him to be “the f…..g dumbest guy on the face of the planet.” (Quote from Woodward, 2005). Meghan O&rsqu

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March 28, 2011 05:49 PM

A summary of President Obama's remarks on Libya has reached me seredipitously. Here are the main points.

1. I’ve been on top of this from Day 1 and I've orchestrated the world-wide response.

2. Our principal objective has been reached: we have saved the citizens from Benghazi from a massacre. And we've given the opposition a chance to fight on a level playing field field.

3. Our military objective of establishing s 'free fly zone' was achieved in a less than a week thanks to the skill and devotion.....

4. I want to make one thing clear: this is not an American action, not a unilateral intervention. We are working together with 'X' countries to promote democracy and bring peace to the region. NATO allies, Qatar, AU...

5.Americans rightly wonder about how long this action will continue; is there a danger of a long-term involvement? I want to assure you that American involvement is self-limiting. By transferring command authority to NATO yesterday we already are exiting the first phase of the operation. We now will rely progressi

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March 28, 2011 02:15 PM


“The Middle East never will be the same again” is the declaration of every observer’s lips. True – but in itself that tells us very little as to consequences and implications for the United States from the political cataclysm shaking the region and reshaping its politics. Restraint in predicting what those implications will be is praiseworthy. Anyone who boldly claims to know the specific and concrete effects is talking through his turban. Yet it is imperative that we begin to think rigorously about what the future holds. So let’s begin with a rough taxonomy.

1. Those countries that have experienced political turbulence can be placed in three categories. A) Popular action has toppled both the existing autocratic and his regime. B) Popular action has toppled the autocratic but important elements of his regime remain in place - at least for now

C. Popular action has been repressed with no structural political concessions.

2. How

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March 18, 2011 11:50 AM

It should be obvious that acceptance of Gadhaffi's ceasefire in place is out of the question. Sadly, nothing is impossible as the United States (and others) stagger from crisis to crisis, day by day, in the absence of a coherent interpretaion of what has been ocurring in the Middle East. Our credibility - or, more accurately, what is left of it - hangs by a fragile thread through the Middle East and the wider world. That is underscored by the green light that we have given to the violent crackdowns on democracy demonstrators that we have given in Bahrain and Yemen. Indeed, the clumsy volte-face in the Oval Office obviously was due to a belated. 11th hour realization that we had to compensate for our bad publicity in those other places. This is classic Obama: petty, self-centered political games even at times of major crisis. What is to be feared is that those instincts will lead to a readiness for 'dialogue' with Gadhaffi. After all, this is a President who still touts 'bipartisanship' as his compelling interest.

We should deliver some decisive blows to Gadhaffi's fo

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March 15, 2011 12:04 PM

Washington's tergiversations these past several days over the Arab popular revolutions have unveiled the core American attitudes toward the Middle East. Unwittingly, we have let the veils drop one by one as we perform an artless improvised dance around the serial crises. Here is how I sum it up.

1. The United States has been a patron power of the status quo - as Wayne White has explained. In the current setting, we are transformed into a reactionary power. All and sundry from the Arab 'street' to the Arab divan see that. The American political class doesn't. They still believe that the ramshackle structure of local despots, Israeli ultras, and anyone who avows fear or terrorists and/or a Shi'ite surge is seismic resistant.

2. The underlying reason is our three obsessions: Terrorism, Iran and Israel - as alluded to in an earlier post. Nothing that is happening has forced the slightest qualification in that mindset. Hence, we quietly bless Mr. Saleh and the Bahraini royal family as we did Mr. Suleiman and the fading memory of the dying Mr. Mubarak. Mr. Gates d

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March 14, 2011 08:24 AM

In the midst of the epochal changes reshaping the Middle East, an assessment of their meanings for the United States should keep in mind a few truths about who we are as a country, where we are as a world power, and where we may reasonably wish to be down the road.

1. American idealism always has been central to our self esteem, and to our standing in the minds of other peoples, even as we have acted pragmatically (wisely or otherwise) in pursuit of our national interests. That idealist side of our split national personality has been badly eroded at both home and abroad with the deleterious consequences strikingly evident in both spheres. We may sublimate awareness of what we have become; most others don’t.

2. In an evolving world where our relative power is destined to diminish markedly, the intangibles of status and image grow in importance as assets to be used constructively to help shape a responsible multilateral management of world affairs. That also conforms to what we need to restore self-confidence and self-respect domestically.

3. Our crass co

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March 8, 2011 06:10 PM

This discussion is shadowed by our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is manifest in several respects. One, the country is weary of fruitless, costly and pointless engagements in distant places. It wants them over and done with - as the trauma and aftershocks of 9/11 have faded. Hence, the domestic political dangers for a President who makes a fresh military commitment are compounded. Two, the dishonesty-that has been the hallmark of our 'war on terror' rampages has eroded the respect and deference that Americans naturally have for their Chief Executive cum Commander and Chief. Three, the possible adverse political effects on Muslim opinion of another American military engagement in the Middle East are far greater because of our recent misconduct in the islamic world. Fourth, we have lost all conception of military action that is not protracted, massive and pricey. As a result of the last, we greatly exaggerate the requirements for decisively shifting the military/political balance in Libya in favor of the insurgents. The Pentagon has its own parochial reasons fo

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March 7, 2011 06:30 AM

Sidney poses two questions. First, does the United States have a compelling interest in the removal of Qaddafi? Second, if we do, what are the most appropriate means? I believe that the answer as to interests is ‘yes.’ The public statements of President Obama, repeated daily by Secretary Clinton, that Qaddafi ‘must go’ have staked America’s credibility on the opposition’s success – a credibility made fragile by our letting expedient considerations trump our supposed commitment to democracy in the past. Great powers don’t have the privilege of declaring a situation intolerable and then doing nothing to rectify it when they in fact have the power to do so. In addition, if our failure to act were to lead to a resurgent Qaddafi exacting a heavy toll in blood, it would send a chilling message to peoples across the region who are putting themselves at risk for the sake of dignity and a measure of freedom. Already, the Bahrain opposition has expressed its bitterness about Washington’s siding with the Khalifa monarchy for the sake

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February 22, 2011 08:12 AM

Turmoil among America’s client states in the Middle East is fracturing the foundation of our strategic position in the region. As of now, Washington policymakers are refraining from dashing about in public crying; “the sky is falling.” That is a good thing. Rather, they seem to be flapping their wings excitedly within the confines of the coop. There are no signs yet of rigorous and deliberate efforts to rethink the fundamentals of American policy. That is a bad thing. Were our leaders inclined to do so, it would be sensible to start with some indisputable givens.

One, Washington does not bear direct responsibility for either the popular challenge to autocracy or the attempts at its brutal suppression. We must finally acknowledge that there are forces at work beyond our control or even influence. Two, we are stuck though with allies in the Gulf who have shown their true colors as thuggish, corrupt regimes. They have draw a line of blood between themselves and their people that will endure. Which side are you on becomes the overriding question for all. T

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February 7, 2011 02:14 PM

While the situation on the ground remain in flux, the thinking of the Obama administration is starkly clear. that became evident yesterday when Hillary Clinton put the administration's seal of approval on the blunt remarks of James Wisner at Munich. The United States will do all in its power to keep in place the old regime as long as conceivably possible. It even is dedicated to keeping the despised Hosni Mubarak as president despite the fact that doing so diminishes the chances of ensuring that the rest of the old guard continues to call the shots on Egyptian foreign policy. That means blockading Gaza, suppressing Islamist political forces in the region, making available its detention and torture facilities on a lease basis, and blustering about Iran.

The Obama White House lives in dread of change. Democracy by its very nature means uncertainty and change. We cannot abide it because we are locked firmly into a set of attitudes and rigid definitions of self interest that do not allow for adaptation or reorientation. We fear all Islamist tinged movements, we fear

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February 2, 2011 02:09 PM


Washington is suffering severe heartburn over events in the Arab world. The anguished hand-wringing is almost palpable. Understandably so. For the series of setbacks that the Obama administration has experienced these past few weeks, and the dread of worse to come – especially in Egypt, makes the future look dire for the United States - IF we accept the existing premises as to American interests in the greater Middle East. There is quite another perspective available from which current developments look far less menacing.

Those core premises are five in number: (1) containing the threat of terrorism to the United States depends on the allegiance of regional governments to the idea that Islamic tinged political forces by their very nature constitute a danger that is to be suppressed; (2) conditions that open the slightest possibility of those forces acquiring political influence are themselves a danger; (3)Iran is dedicated to expanding its influence everywhere by means fair or foul, that Hamas and Hezbollah are it

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January 31, 2011 08:02 AM

Washington is suffering severe heartburn over events in the Arab world. The anguished hand-wringing is almost palpable. Understandably so. For the series of setbacks that the Obama administration has experienced these past few weeks, and the dread of worse to come – especially in Egypt, makes the future look dire for the United States - IF we accept the existing premises as to American interests in the greater Middle East. There is quite another perspective available from which current developments look far less menacing.

Those core premises are four in number: (1) containing the threat of terrorism to the United States depends on the allegiance of regional governments to the idea that Islamic tinged political forces by their very nature constitute a danger that is to be suppressed; (2)Iran is dedicated to expanding its influence everywhere by means fair or foul, that Hamas and Hezbollah are its pliant tools, that Tehran's nuclear ambitions are intolerable, therefore the mullahs' regime must be suppressed one way or another, and, certainly, serious talks that

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January 24, 2011 07:48 AM

To make sense of the Guantanamo embarrassment, we should keep in the forefront of our minds the now evident truth that Barack Obama has no felt concern for remedying the Bush era abuses beyond the few cosmetic touches needed to placate his erstwhile supporters while pursuing the same old policies. A year and a half ago, this blog addressed questions of torture, Guantanamo, etc. Attorney General Eric Holder was making public promises of a thorough review of past practices and the possible culpability of individuals. Nothing at all has happened. Disappeared into the black hole that devours White House pledges by the bucketful. Even Obama’s first ballyhooed announcement that Guantanamo would close, that torture would end, that military commission Star Chamber ‘trials’ would cease was shot full of holes. It made no reference to Bagram. It left unremarked rendition to friendly countries that need not observe his strictures. And Obama has aggressively used the State Secrets claim to justify the blocking of any judicial proceedings where ultra secrets about the defe

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January 10, 2011 10:01 AM

It is impossible to think seriously about defense budgets and Pentagon resource allocations without a clear idea of what we expect our military to do – and why. In other words, the place to begin is with interests, needs and means. We don’t do that. The production of strategic statements has become an art form for obfuscating half-baked ideas and flawed logic. Its main reference points, beyond an extrapolation of the status quo, are domestic politics and intra-governmental turf battles. This holds for budgetary plans as well.

To be honest, we’re navigating without a strategic gyroscope and only the most primitive of compasses. There is no strategic design – certainly not an explicit one that is coherently articulated. Instead, there is an arithmetic tabulation of threats. There’s the Islamic terrorists. There’s China. There’s defending Latvia from the Russians. Then there’s oil from the Persian Gulf. Then there’s the Western Hemisphere with Hugo Chavez and drug cartels. Then, then…. Implicit in this iterative

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January 3, 2011 01:14 PM

The adage "actions speaks louder than words' can be amended to "thoughts count more than words" when it comes to serious diplomacy. Frankly, whatever is written into the Communique or a Declaration of Principles means little in itself. It is the understandings between the two leaders that is of the utmost importance. That is to say, agreed understandings as to how they view the shape and structure of world affairs, where their interests clash or converge, and how to meet the dual challenge of 1) handling those points of friction, and 2) working together to perform 'system maintenance' functions in both the economic and security realms.

i have no confident comprehension of Chinese perceptions on these matters. As to our own, Washington does not seem prepared to engage in this exercise. It's world view is still that framed by post-Cold War triumphalism. Our mind has been fixed on the policies for maintaining or extending American dominance. That is why we have committed ourselves to a military security doctrine of dominance at all levels in all regions.

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December 13, 2010 02:08 PM

Nations deserve the heroes they get. A hero usually is one part the actuality of person and performance; three parts need of the observer for confirmation, reassurance, hope. Heroes are made more by the yearnings of others than by their own features and feats. Where the intensity of those needs stunts critical faculties, the powers of illusion and self-delusion grow. That holds for the object of hero worship as well - for the emotional currents flow both ways.

Heroes are enemies of truth. For they evoke powerful feelings that give distorted meanings to inchoate emotions. They provide the personified symbols of legendary dimension that inspire unjustified confidence and offer the comfort of a cult. Thoughtless loyalty follows.

Contemporary America’s craving is exceptional. It is diffuse yet at the same time self centered. Each one of us badly wishes to have the mythology of our collective identity and meaning restored. Abstract yet omnipresent, few can cope without it. The personal resources of our fabled individualism quickly run dry without the steady su

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November 29, 2010 12:56 PM

Speculation about the prospects of peace talks with the Taliban is only productive when placed in the context of current policies, objectives and expectations. On this, the Obama dministration looks as opaque as the Taliban. They have yet to make clear what a successful outcome is. All that we have heard is that "we'll know it when we see it." Will we also know failure when we see it? On the notorious July 1, 2011 withdrawal date, it's "Don't ask; don't tell."

Nonetheless, we can infer from actions taken what the President, Secretary Gates, General Petraeus and supporting cast have in mind. Above all, an acceptable outcome is one whereby the risk of attacks on American territory or assets is close to zero. That has been the goal of the "war on terror" from the outset and it never has been called into question or qualified. The hyping of every incident at home confirms that. As a consequence, the nation’s political leaders are preoccupied with only two things: being seen as doing more to root our terrorism than their predecess

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November 15, 2010 08:35 AM

Assessing how the changing political climate in Washington may affect the Pentagon’s budget is uncomplicated. The Republican austerity hawks will be offset by the national security hawks. With both potential agents of change neutralized, we shall continue indefinitely along the course of regular annual real increases in defense spending. The same for the national intelligence budget.

American strategy (or, more accurately strategies) also will show little if any deviation from the current flight plan. Inertia is at work on this plane as well – albeit of quite a different kind. For the greater part of a decade, the United States has been pursuing two audacious projects that intersect and mutually reinforce each other. The one is a global campaign to destroy or neutralize anyone who may seek to attack the United States and its citizens by unconventional means and methods. The conjectured persons and groups are broadly defined as all those with an inferred intent to execute a terrorist act, to organize one, to plan one or even to imagine one. This constitutes t

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November 8, 2010 10:21 AM

Our editors deserve thanks for encouraging us to reflect on how the major trends in world affairs may shape the future pattern of international relations and the implication for American foreign policy. An expanded view of what counts and will count is long overdue in the foreign affairs community – not to speak of the present administration. A piecemeal approach bound to the here and now is imposing a heavy price in terms of both mortgaging the nation’s future to current exigencies and distorting the significance of those issues of the moment.

The theme of East &/or West is so broad is to defy systematic exploration in a short essay. Moreover, it soon becomes evident that following that analytical thread open up even wider vistas that encompass the entire world system. So here are just a few guideposts that may help intellectual navigation. They are offered in didactic form with no examination of their intersections.

1. Juxtaposing ‘aged’ Europe to a vibrant, young Asia is a shorthand formulation that conce

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November 1, 2010 08:34 AM

A novice observer of American politics might see no discernible meaning for foreign policy in the election since international relations have been shunned by nearly all candidates. The mood was encapsulated by the remark of one oddball politician, solon to be Ron Paul, that “I don’t do Afghanistan.” That is just the most extreme and blunt declaration in a campaign marked by cultivated ignorance and displays of raw emotion disconnected from reality. It’s a narcissistic playground. Ideas and real issues are as unwelcome as is adult supervision.

Yet, the phenomenon itself has foreign policy implications – as does the probable outcome wherein exultant Republicans hold at least one House of Congress and a timorous White House says and does as little as possible to avoid making them even more hostile than they are. The resulting paralysis of will in the Obama administration is dangerous. That is not because one particularly wants major new initiatives from a team that has shown itself almost as misguided as its reckless predecessor. Unfortunately

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October 25, 2010 08:43 AM

Britain’s value to Washington as a security partner is modest. Its political value has been greater. The latter should be the main focus in assessing the transformation launched by the Cameron-Clegg government.

On the military level it was some help to have a British armored division flanking the main American thrust in Kuwait in 1991. It was helpful to have the British deployed in Bosnia as ‘peacekeepers’, along with several other European countries, while the United States took four years to figure out what if anything it was worth doing in regard to the wars of the ex-Yugoslavia. And it was helpful to have experienced British units in Iraq to supplement an undermanned American occupation force. None of these deployments were crucial, though, to what Washington did or did not do. Nor did it give the British much of a voice – for better or for worse – as to how these operations were designed and conducted.

At the diplomatic level, British engagement has been more consequential. As a dependable auxiliary who can be counted on never to

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October 12, 2010 07:34 AM

The essential job of the National Security Advisor is to act as custodian of the policy process - to ensure its procedural integrity. Responsible decisions depend on coherent deliberations that are intellectually honest. Honesty in a careful vetting of information, in making explicit premises and assumptions, in laying out all reasonable alternatives along with their benefit/cost/risks. To do this formidable job effectively, the NSA ideally should combine intelligence, knowledgeable understanding of foreign policy issues and also a measure of dispassion. For advancing his own views can jeopardize his main function. The other key is a good working relationship with the president whom he serves. The president must see the need to have a custodian, and then must pick some one he trusts. Otherwise, who holds the post is of secondary importance. The Bush the Elder/Scowcroft relationship stands as one model for an effective partnership.

Perhaps the NSA's most delicate assignment is protecting the president from himself. That means two things. First, to curb impulsiv

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September 27, 2010 03:05 PM

Some context. There exists a terrorism industry whose behavior largely conforms to that of other industries. It does have a number of distinctive features. It is a public/private partnership; therefore it deals in two currencies - political rewards and money. Its activities have deep and pervasive support among the populace at large and elites. It is impervious to criticism since its functions are deemed critical to the nation's basic security. Critics are either shrugged off or accused of not taking seriously grave threats. Its value to the country is impossible to measure since its success is defined in terms of negatives (things that haven't happened) rather than positives (things that did happen). While tangible value is immeasurable, there are millions of people whose livelihood, status, self-esteem and political future depend on perpetuation of the terrorism industry as it currently is structured and operates. A critique of assertions about the magnitude, nature and change in the level of threat we face must be understood against this backdrop. So, too, must an

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September 20, 2010 10:12 AM

The all-in mud wrestling that is now American politics makes forecasting impossible. It can yield anything – the bizarre is the new norm. Who or what will rise to the top after all this crazed flailing about is a matter of pure guesswork. For we have become an incoherent polity. Yet, in the midst of all this commotion, the directions of the nation’s foreign policy are readily discernible. There most certainly will be more of the same – ‘more’ in both senses. There are three reasons for this.

Most obviously, foreign policy is always the preserve of the Executive – especially whn it comes to security matters. Congress can make a racket when controlled by the opposition but it cannot dictate what a President does abroad. Second, this President has followed in the traces of his hardline, willful Republican predecessor. For all the fulminating by demagogues like Newt Gingrich and his ilk, they have little to disagree with. The open-ened global ‘war on terror,’ escalated prosecution of the war in Afghanistan, implacable ho

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September 7, 2010 09:47 AM

Long inconclusive wars – pseudo-wars & crypto-wars included – have the effect of draining away just about everything. Manpower, equipment, money, political support, diplomatic capital, ethical standards, patience - all start to run out. The one commodity sparingly used has been critical intelligence. That sad truth goes a long way toward explaining why we’re in such a quandary. Years ago, Charlie Schultz of OMB and Brookings renown cogently remarked that, in his considerable experience of government, most wasteful of time in policy deliberations was a failure to enunciate clearly at the outset what the ‘problem’ was and what was the purpose of actions being reviewed. Afghanistan and Iraq are testaments to that assertion’s accuracy.

Supposedly, the Obama administration has submitted Afghanistan to two systematic reviews. The latter three months long exercise is being promoted by Jonathon Alter as the most perfect text book policy exercise ever conducted. Nice compliment for an author cultivating inside sources but wholly fallaciou

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August 9, 2010 04:45 PM

The primal reality of the United States’ foreign relations is the epochal attempt to establish American domination/hegemony across Islamic Asia. The havoc and ruin that it has produced are obvious. More insidious, is what this ill-conceived project has done to the United States and to our ability to be a constructive force in the world. Two books by members of our fraternity grasp the significance of tragic story – probing analyses of the ‘whys’ and of the consequences.

One is David Bacevich’s The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. Its virtues are freedom from cant and an incisively rigorous critique of how we as a nation – not just one troop of policy-makers – have gone wrong. The other is Paul Starobin’s After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age which I’ve had the good fortune to discover in time to adopt for my Fall course. Paul, too, goes to the root of troubled state. He is exceptional in devoting most of the book to a sophisticated depiction of five ‘futures&rsquo

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August 11, 2010 08:40 PM

My direct experience of the Defense Department in all its manifestations is close to nil. Except for a couple of days 'consulting' back in the dark ages, I have entered its portals only to speak with people. I know its works, of course, but not its workings.

So, I'd be indebted to anyone who can describe to me how roughly 9,000 persons are actually employed in a command center. In addition, any clarification of how the 5,000+ consultants' 'work' was done prior to the era of privitization would be welcome. This is a genuine request on behalf of my students as well as myself. Is there an accessible study, report, memoir or whatever that can provide enlightenment?

Among the mysteries of how we deploy valuable pieces of manpower, I note the military's current spokesperson in Afghanistan holds the rank of Rear Admiral. A few years back, his counterpart in Baghdad also was a Rear Admiral. Could not one of the thousands of contractors we pay do the job as well as these seamen supposedly trained at great expense for other duties? How about an officer of lower ran

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August 6, 2010 10:35 AM

These comments collectively outline the terms of what should be a serious national debate. They also highlight its importance. Yet no such debate is occuring - in Congress, in the the Beltway's ambit, in the press. Do we still have a responsible political system or do we just have politics of a puerile kind?

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August 4, 2010 08:56 PM

Loot Social Security – The Answer?

Several commentators have properly stressed the dire financial implications of following either the QDR plan or its Hadley/Perry cousin. As someone or other said, “a trillion here, a trillion there and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

However, it is necessary to correct one assumption built into budgetary projections. Entitlement programs are not the culprit. Social Security especially has been the target of the most intense disinformation campaign in modern American history. The simple fact is that the Social Security Trust Fund is solvent until al least the year 2040 – according to every reasonable estimate. Its viability could be extended well beyond that date by the straightforward expediency of raising the income ceiling for withholdings. Today, it falls disproportionately on salaried workers alone – up to about the $110,000 threshold.

The harsh truth is that the Social Security Trust Fund has been systematically looted for more than 40 years. That is

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August 2, 2010 07:59 AM

Another sterile exercise in military planning is about the last thing our impoverished national security debate needs. This latest plea for yet larger forces has the effect of making the QDR seem reasonable by comparison. Hadley/Perry is a Team A' challenge to Team A. Yes, it makes the usual noises about paying for the proposed expansion by cutting out waste and inefficiencies. Good luck! This specious line of reasoning has fallen flat for 50 years.

There is no Team B in the ring. For good reason. A meaningful alternative approach would have to contest the core assumptions about American security that are taken as fixed by of these two exhaustive yet strategically vapid exercises. Almost nobody in the mainstream of the foreign affairs community is doing that, despite some recent frittering around the edges of the once universal consensus on the criticality of victory in Afghanistan. So what we get are variations on the overarching theme of how best to prepare the country’s military for an open ended commitment to global American hegemony. Open ended in both t

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July 26, 2010 02:13 PM

I know next to nothing about North Korea - like most everyone else.

I am aware, though, that a number of respected South Korean analysts believe that a potentially very significant factor is left out of standard assessments. They assert that Kim Jong-Il's belligerency has been driven in part by acute fear of N. Korea going the way of the ex-Soviet Union - with Washington ready to grease the skids. They cite what they claim is evidence in support of the contention that the nuclear program has TWO purposes: to serve as the ultimate deterrent; and to force the Americans to recognize his regime, 'talk' to him and somehow reach a deal that if left alone he'd refrain from being an all-purpose global mischief maker.

I have no way to judge the credibility of this line of interpretation. Should we see if there is perhaps some truth to it? Short of Obama's inviting him to the White house for a beer (an invitation that this pranoid would decline), are there other ways of testing it? How about sending back Bill Clinton to swap pizza recipes as Kim is an avid consumer of

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July 21, 2010 04:27 PM

We seem to have come to a dead end in our search for paths to a resolution in Afghanistan. It's time to think out of the box - as they say in D.C. My perusal of Afghan history these past few days reminded me that the one conqueror who was able to establish his sway was Alexander. His method was a series of dynastic marriages with the families of diverse potentates. I propose that President Obama consider a similar approach - taking as wives the kin of Karzai, Mullah Omar, Haqquani and Abdullah Abdullah (counts as one). Of course, now that Islamic custom prevails that would leave some powerful factions unattended to, e.g. Hazaras, Tajiks, Hekmatyar. I'm sure, though, that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would gladly volunteer to fill the breach.

If this marriage surge proves successful, perhaps in could be emulated in Iraq.

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July 19, 2010 05:27 PM

Failure and despair are the breeding ground for miracle-workers, prophets and the myths that their legendary feats spawn. Success and hope mute our craving for heroes and heroics. The myth of the Iraqi miraculous acts magically performed by David Petraeus stems from the the country's desperate need to be reassured of its prowess in the face of serial failures in the Greater Middle East. From Iraq through Palestine, Somalia, Lebanon , Iran, Afghanistan II to Pakistan our ill-advised interventions have left a trail of surreal expectations, lost causes, blasted schemes and havoc. Nowhere have we come close to meeting our objectives. We instead have sown doubts about the probity of American strategic judgment and sullied our historical reputation as an agent for good that observes standards of ethical international behavior.

The blows dealt American self-esteem and pride are hard to accept. So we clutch for straws. Recasting the story of our faults and failings under the sway of imagined deeds that never happened and achievements that never occurred is the straw. Dav

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July 12, 2010 07:46 AM

The “Comatose Sleeper Cell” mystery shows us that the ability of the country’s security services to waste resources is matched only by the media’s ability to dramatize trivial material. The only surprise is that the exchange did not take place at a Checkpoint Charlie scene set in the presence of Attorney General Holder intoning that the United States remains ever vigilant to safeguard us from enemies domestic and foreign. But mainly foreign types, such as Russians whose evil ways we recall from the last film. I suspect that “the redhead” is destined to reemerge as a centerfold pin-up in some gentlemen’s magazine - published in both English and Russian, of course.

Does this skepticism imply that all espionage is passé? I think not. Human intelligence is a necessary complement, if not antidote to excessive reliance on our omnivorous electronic and video surveillance. We supposedly learned that lesson from Iraq and Iran. I am not in a position to know what we have done to fill the void and how effective that has been. Still,

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July 6, 2010 09:04 PM

I shall Pat Lang's perspective on estimating the strategic cost/benefits of the United States' odd relationship with Israel. Netanyahu's linking of Palestine and Iran is specious in terms of American security interests in regard to both, but it does conform to an Israeli agenda. The Israeli government wants two things from Washington that are at the top of it's wish list: continued American backing for the current hard-line policies toward the Palestinians, and more aggressive action against Tehran. It's leaders want and expect a favorable response not because of any strategic linkage in terms of American interests; rather, it is simply that both are crucial elements in their warped view of what serves Israeli security interests.

The notion of trading one off against the other only makes sense in the context of the current perverse relationship whereby it is assumed that the United States has some sort of openended obligation to satisfy Israeli demands - whatever they are. The psychology is more that of a spoiled kid rushing to his indulgent grandfather to declare tha

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June 28, 2010 12:36 PM

The press’ performance in Iraq and Afghanistan has been appalling. They have continually failed to meet their responsibilities to American democracy. There are three paramount functions that it is supposed to serve: to inform accurately, completely and fairly; to observe critically the conduct of our government and to bring forth any dubious activities; and to sustain a public dialogue on policies of consequence. The media generally have fallen far short of this standard.

The bill of indictment is a comprehensive one. For years the press served as propagandist and cheerleader for everything that the Bush administration did. Even the august New York Times’ played this role – most notably in acting as a vehicle for transmitting the skein of lies that paved the way for the Iraq adventure (remember Linda Miller & Michael Gordon on WMDs).. Let us recall as well its decision to bury the story of illegal surveillance and wiretaps of Americans at home for a year because, as its Executive Director feebly said, the paper’s policy is not to dis

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June 22, 2010 10:07 PM

The passions generated by a Washington scandal like the McChrystal affair fix our attention so completely on personalities and their behavior that it is easy to overlook the insights that they may convey about the thinking of our leaders and how they approach momentous issues. So it is with this latest scandal. I offer a short list of things that we have learned or can infer from the McChrystal quotes in Rolling Stone and subsequent commentaries by persons who have observed the administration in action. Obama’s handling of Afghanistan is a prime case of how not to make and execute foreign policy – especially one that involves a large military commitment. It is undisciplined, it encourages personal rivalries, it leaves obscure lines of command and direction, and it never brings into sharp focus the core issues. It substitutes restless motion for action – mental as well as physical. In addition, there is no evidence of a monitoring mechanism. Let us recall the 50 measures that the White House was going to apply in order to assess p

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June 22, 2010 11:30 AM

The import of these events is great, yet there is no element of surprise. To my mind, this is just confirmation of what we already should have understood about the situation and the personalities.

1. Obama is a weakling who lacks political and intellectual courage. Audacity of ambition is not courage. He has no convictions about anything and he tacks to the political zephyrs.

2. Obama defers to any strong, willful establishment leader. He's been led by the nose by Petraeus who is the orchestrator of the so-called Afghan 'surge.'

3. McChrystal is little more than Petraeus' emanation. A warrior monk by temperament, he is unsuited for the job he has. He is not a hearts & minds leader, and he is a loner. We can suppose that he was still seen by Petraeus as the best instrument available.

4. McChrystal's behavior is apiece with what he did last Fall in leaking analyses supporting Petraeus' position and lobbying publicly for it. We've seen nothing like this since MacArthur.

5. Obama, his administration and the country are in utter d

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June 21, 2010 07:37 AM

Sydney poses questions of formidable complexity. It is opportune to consider them since they are implicit in the United States' progressive engagement across Islamic Asia. Yet, the broad strategic issues have not been enunciated - much less given serious answers. While it may not be quite accurate to say that we are trying to build a sphere of influence in a state of absentmindedness, a more reasonable depiction is that we have allowed ourselves to become party to the affairs of distant places of no obvious consequence for our core national interests. Our exposure is far greater than our influence or control. That risky state of affairs stems from a foreign policy of disjointed incrementalism that has no visible means of strategic or intellectual support. We find ourselves out on several shaky limbs due to the two driving passions animating American foreign policy for the past decade: the terrorism obsession, and the Iran obsession. Their lazy, highly dubious fusing into justification for a relentless campaign against demons actual or imagined has led us

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June 14, 2010 12:36 PM

Everybody talks about multilateralism but nobody does anything about it. That holds true for American presidents from John Kennedy to Barack Obama – with the exception of George Bush the Younger whose administration didn’t pretend it wanted the counsel of lesser states. Today the case for a cultivated set of diplomatic as well as military alliances is compelling. Cardinal features of the world environment point clearly in that direction: the nature of the problems (regional stability; global system maintenance); the growing self confidence and capacity of new actors (China, Brazil, India, Turkey); and the evident limits of America’s capacities for enlightened leadership in every respect – including intelligent strategy and skillful diplomacy.

Yet Washington shows no inclination to change its commanding ways. For understandable, if not persuasive, reasons. The United States was born with a sense of superiority as well as exceptionalism. Our belief in American virtue underpins a deeply ingrained conviction that we are destined to be trail guide to

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June 7, 2010 11:30 AM


I trust that this discussion will be straight from the shoulder. The stakes permit nothing less. The entire American position in the Greater Middle East, already shaky, risks lapsing into farce and failure. No amount of special pleading and spin can gainsay that harsh truth. Beyond that, our integrity as a nation and our ability to exercise the immense responsibilities that we carry abroad are endangered.

Obama’s behavior on the Gaza flotilla hardly deserves the label policy, much less strategy. It signals an utter lack of coherence – intellectual, diplomatic or ethical. Its fecklessness raises the question of whether our leaders have the seriousness to be stewards of the nation’s foreign relations. That sad state of affairs is suggested by the absence of a modicum of honesty about what was done and why. Indeed, it suggests that our leaders are not being honest with themselves. Are we to take seriously the declaration of Hillary Clinton that an Israeli inquiry (with or without international observers) meets the criterion of ‘impartiality&rsq

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June 1, 2010 09:40 AM

A gap always exists between the stated words of a strategy paper and the actions of the leaders who promulgate it. The disparities and discrepancies may be relatively minor or monumental. Minor gaps are to be expected. One reason is that the former enunciates principles and presents a mental picture in broad strokes whereas the particular is rooted in hard realities of a given time and circumstance. Sound policy-making nonetheless refers to the more encompassing, more abstract cognitive map for assessing the meaning of the particular, its linkages with other issues and how alternative courses of action relate to the larger design. When that does not occur, the strategy loses cogency and the aggregation of individual policies loses coherence. That is more often the case than not. For concerted behavior over time in accordance with a logically conceived design is prey to the vicissitudes and distractions of a democratic polity. – as well as the limitations of individuals.

A less innocent reason for the ‘gap’ is that it was not taken seriously from th

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May 26, 2010 04:09 PM

Sydney has point his finger on a cogent question: will the new DNI be located in the White House itself or the Old Executive Office Building or the New Executive Office Building?

A couple of other questions jump to mind. Will he share an office with John Brennan? Will he share a computer with John Brennan - and does that computer 'interface' with Panetta's computer?

I leave to others more versed in the mysterious ways of Washington to assess the full signifiance of being in close proximity to the President as opposed to close e-proximity to his Blackberry.


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May 24, 2010 09:30 AM

Without first hand knowledge of the ins-and-outs of the turf battles within the intelligence establishment, there is no way to interpret what the stakes were or to anticipate the practical implications of Admiral Blair's firing. So one must make do with impressions drawn from observed performance and public utterances. Here are a few.

1. The intelligence establishment lacks coherence - organizational or operational. Exhibit number one is the shadowy army of mercenaries that the CIA has mustered to conduct its own war in FETA and NWFP of Pakistan. Cobbled together by an unsavory character whose CIA past seemingly outweighs the official reproaches he has received, and Leon Panetta's promise months ago to disband it, they act without coordination with the Pentagon's various special force outfits or even the latter's knowledge of what mayhem they are up to. There is reason to doubt that anyone in the administration outside of McLean is 'in the loop' - even the White House. There are myriad other exhibits on record.

2. The so-called reforms that created th

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May 17, 2010 04:52 PM

It is logically impossible to discuss seriously whether talks with the Taliban are feasible/desirable until we clarify some basic terms. One, who are 'we?' Washington and Karzai, supposedly fated partners, have very different ideas as to what constitutes productive talks. And then there is Pakistan - at once, part of the 'we' and part of the 'they.' Equally, all three hold divergent notions of what an acceptable outcome is. Two, who are the "Taliban?' This proper noun has multiple antecedents. Are 'we' differentiating between 'bad' Taliban, 'very bad' Taliban and 'convenience' Taliban? Are 'we' certain where the political demarcation lines run between the Afghan 'Taliban" and the Pakistani 'Taliban?' How do any or all of them relate to al-Qaidi? Three, what are Washington or Karzai aiming to achieve? To put it another way, what is 'success' and what is 'failure?' What is an acceptable outcome and what isn't? Over what time frame? President Obama never has defined success - except that he'll recognize when he sees it. Will he also recognize failure when he se

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May 10, 2010 09:33 AM

The Times Square incident confirms more than it reveals. For it is in the mode of the underwear bomber incident and the Colorado/Queens incident. Together, they form a suggestive pattern from which we can draw a number of inferences.

1. The tangible terrorist threat to the United States, as opposed to the speculative one, is neither acute nor of great magnitude. Al-Qaidi, the original group that organized and executed 9/11, evidently lacks the capacity to deliver anything more than occasional pinpricks. This dog hasn’t barked because it can’t bark.

2. The same can be said of the loose coalition of radical Islamist organizations that go by various names: the Talban assemblage and the al-Qaidi franchises. If al-Qaidi itself is deficient, then the others are even less potent.

3. The volunteers who have undertaken recent missions are amateurs who received little training, lacked the skills to do much of anything, and were unknown to our intelligence agencies

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May 3, 2010 08:53 AM

Sun Tzu, the much quoted Chinese military strategist, stressed the value of knowing your enemy. A broader diplomatic formulation is: know your enemy, know your allies, know everyone in the field of action – including yourself. Washington, like most great powers, is incapable of the last. Our special defect is the strong tendency to think that we know the enemy when we discern its hostile intent. That intent, in turn, is totally disconnected - in our minds – from what we, for our part, do and say. Such is strikingly the case in the Middle East. There, the resulting distortions in our reading of reality are compounded by including Israel in the American “we.” Washington has come to identify so completely with the Israelis as to deny ourselves dispassionate understanding of their place in the complicated regional scheme of things. Hence, we operate with two sets of blinkers – little sense of how others’ behavior is affected by Israel as well as disregard for how it is influenced by their perceptions of us.

So it’

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April 26, 2010 02:52 PM

Strikes against al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan's FATA and in Iraq are said to have damaged severely its leadership ranks. There is talk in Washington of this being a turning-point in the campaign to cripple the organization. Caution about reaching premature conclusions is in order, though. An overall assessment of the state of al-Qaeda in the light of recent events is a low confidence exercise. For a number of reasons. Here’s why.

One, it is unclear exactly who or what we mean by al-Qaeda. It is not a unitary organization with a definite structure, lines of authority and accountability. Using a proper noun, our minds instinctively conjure the image of an entity of well defined contours and dimension – say, Goldman Sachs. The phenomenon we call al-Qaeda is amorphous, diffuse and in a continual state of flux. This is especially true after 9/11 and during its years of duress. The exact links between al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and “headquarters” in AfPak are obscure even to official Washington.

Two, therefore, there is no way to measure th

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April 14, 2010 08:07 PM

Paul's question as to the possible budgetary consequences of shifts in American strategic doctrine turns on the conjectured fungibility of nuclear and conventional arms - for compellance, for defense, for deterrence. Reference to history should be helpful in clarifying the issue.

Atomic weapons advent was marked by their use in a compellant mode to end the Pacific war. Since then they never have been employed. And since Eisenhower rejected Curtis LeMay's recommendation that they be used to relieve the French at Dienbenphu, no senior policy -maker has ever considered the possibility of doing so. As to use in defense, tactical nuclear weapons were a central feature of NATO doctrine for decades - as noted in an earlier contribution. That's the long and short of it as to nuclear arms' warfighting capability.

The conclusion is that their sole practical value is as deterrence. They are unique in that respect. There is a nuclear totem whose prospective violation scares the hell out of people. The historical record supports that judgment. No leader who had the pow

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April 12, 2010 12:51 PM

The nuclear issues that are the subject of this week’s conclave are numerous and complex. Assessing each is complicated since the gathering is more of a photo-op cum political happening than it is a serious diplomatic conference. Such is the now recognizable style of Mr. Obama on all matters. The questions in play are nonetheless consequential so let’s temporarily set aside the implications of style to examine substance.

A. Nuclear Disarmament & The Zero Option

This is the easiest question to handle. We never will achieve a nuclear free world. Getting very close to zero is highly dangerous for obvious reasons; and modest reductions in the arsenals of the United States and Russia are strategically meaningless. Yes, it is a talking point in the proliferation context since with have a legal obligation under the NPT to lower the number of warheads in the arsenals of n-weapons states. No would-be weapons state, though, cares a fig about those numbers in making the momentous decision whether or not to go nuclear.

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April 5, 2010 12:48 PM


The grand American project to remake the politics of the Greater Middle East is concluding its first decade. Successes are meager; failures frequent; the strategy disjointed; the objectives blurred. Yet the country presses onward - relentlessly and restlessly. Mr. Karzai's apostacy is but the most stunning in a string of dismaying departures from Washington's script. Indeed, the script has gone through so many rewrites that the plot line itself is hard to discern amidst the confused action on stage. The Afghan president's scathing denunciation of the United States' methods is notable less for the exact words than for the timing and the tone. He was rude. That is the prerogative of the sovereign, not the vassal.

The shock should be occasion for scrutiny of just what we're trying to accomplish by what means. For the problem is not the 'wayward, ungrateful' Karzai; it is America's misplaced expectations and confidence.

America's high risk gamble in Afghanistan turns on the chances of finding a native leader of rare virtue. M

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March 29, 2010 09:55 AM

Russia is both ‘good’ bear and ‘bad’ bear – as we might reasonably expect it to be. Moscow is acting according to its self-defined national interests- just as Washington does. The implicit consensus in American circles remains stuck in the ‘end of History’ era. That simplistic idea is showing a staying power well beyond its intellectual worth or worth as a guide to strategic thinking. The discomforting truth is that there are other governments who do not share the explicit assumption underlying official American thinking that we act in the enlightened world interest.

Admittedly, one can make the case that overall we do so more often than some other powers. But that is a relative truth – one that has something to do with our hegemonic position in the world.

Moreover, the respect, deference and benefit of doubt that we had earned over the 20th century has been severely undermined by our behavior since 2001. There are reasonable grounds to question the probity of what we have done in the ‘war on terror&rsquo

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March 22, 2010 12:19 PM

I infer four things of significance from Petraeus’ public testimony and private memo.

1. This is the first time that a senior American official has stated clearly that American interests and Israeli ones can and do diverge.

2. He is obviously correct in this assessment which is widely agreed.

3. Petraeus provides incentive, and political cover, for the US to toughen its stand on the Netanyahu government.

4.. This could have been orchestrated with the White House; But probably wasn’t. It would have been a deft move for Obama to generate pressure within the U.S. for a harder line and there is no place better than the Pentagon for doing that, especially when American lives are declared to be at risk. This interpretation is highly doubtful, though, for a number of reasons. Obama runs from fights. Over the weekend, the administration in effect declared the flap with Israel a closed matter. Obama, for all his energy and brainpower, is not a g

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March 15, 2010 09:45 AM

I offer the following questions as ‘AIDES TO REFLECTION” – as our reverent forebears used to say.

1. How does it happen that a political non-entity with no position elected or appointed is able to place on the public agenda an absurd proposition? Do all daughters of an ex-Vice-President have this privilege?

2. What do we know about the alleged ‘guilt’ of those who have been incarcerated at Guantanamo, Begram and assorted ‘black sites’ over the years? For exactly what ‘crimes?’

3. In how many past cases has that presumption been proven correct or incorrect? By what process, in what court?

4. What percentage of the incarcerated has been released because there were no grounds for having imprisoned them in the first place or are languishing in a state of limbo? 600+ at Guantanamo; tens of thousands in Iraq; number to be determined in Afghanistan since nearly all still have the stat

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March 9, 2010 03:26 PM

There is one element common to the outlook of those who bemoan the unwillingness of the Europeans to do more for American led projects. It is the unstated belief that the United States characteristically acts with probity and prudence.

Below is an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on Marja(h), Helmand province, Afghanistan.

You will see that it bears no resemblance to the place graphically depicted for us by the Pentagon, State Department and the White House. It conforms in no way with those military maps in all our media featuring arrows better suited to a portrayal of Operation Barbarossa or to the battle accounts that conjured visions of Stalingrad. (As to the media, we now know the true meaning of the term ‘in-bedded').

Perusing my dictionaries, I found no better words to describe the conduct of our leaders than ‘Lying” and “Blatant Dishonesty.” Let’s put ourselves in the boots of other heads of government. Would you place your citizens and well-being at risk by blindly following those so evidently lacking in basic in

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March 8, 2010 10:04 AM

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is touring Europe cajoling government leaders to do more for the team. Augmented European contributions are the means to the overriding end of prosecuting the multiform ‘war on terror.’

We know the litany by heart. America is Europe’s savior – three times in the 20th century. Europeans depend on us for securing their well-being. They need and want our leadership. They are rudderless and querulous if left on their own. Their governments never express full gratitude, though, for all that we do for them. Europeans have become free riders who let the United States pay in blood and dollars in undertaking onerous enterprises that serve their interests as much as ours. They refuse to hold up their end – not spending enough on the military and not sending enough troops to fight in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

We bend our ear to hear with satisfaction those farsighted European statesmen who courageously assure us that all this is true and shameful. Thus we welcome the voices of Lord George Robertson, of

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March 3, 2010 12:38 PM

My answer is conditional.

1. A reversion from the open-ended commitment to the current ill-conceived war In Afghanistan that would be based on a mature reassessment of the necessity (as well as the practical possibility) of trying to rid the region of forces that could threaten us (by today's absolute standard), would be the best case scenario,

2. An impulsive reversion based only on fatigue and failure would be the worst case scenarion. For that eventuality would have two deleterious consequences: a) open the way for a fatuous - and dangerous - debate over 'who lost Afghanistan;' and b) leave in place the deeply flawed assumptions that we must and can achieve abroad objectives that make the United States an impregnable fortress.

In other words, the return to reasonableness and proportion, or a spur to the mindless mood of anger, already roiling our public life, that may endanger our democracy.

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March 1, 2010 02:25 PM

The latest twist on our dubious 'wars on terror' is that we aren't killing enough civilains. This is the conclusion of analyses that find restrictions on military operations hobbling our mission. In this vein, the august New York Times published a solicited piece by 'Anonymous' last week making this case with brutal frankness.

In Vietnam, one tactic for dealing with the dilemma was to declare 'free fire zones.' These were large swaths of territory within which anything living was a presumed enemy. Saturation bombing and random shelling therefore were acceptable. Back in those days, the inhabitants were given fair warning. Leaflet drops informed them that they should alert relatives in neighboring districts to expect guests who would welcome hospitality for an indefinite future.

A more selective, maverick approach to garnering actionable intelligence was to take two Cong captives for a helicopter joy ride. After one of them had been kicked through the hatch at 500 feet, a gentle inquisition of the other began. At times, it was necessary to take

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February 25, 2010 04:31 PM

PLAYING GOD Who measures the value in the equation of the dead, the maimed, the orphaned, the distressed, the uprooted? Who measures the value of being free of Saddam's police? Who distributes the values among Shia, Sunnis, Kurds, Christains and Turkomen? Who decides on the relevant time frame? Who determines what constitutes sufficient evidence to support any of these judgments/ Who has the right, the authority, the legitimacy to do this? To do so before the event? To do so after the event in a post hoc justification of the actions that produced these effects? Who is prepared to reach a definitive judgment? Is it God? Or is it those who instigated and supported those actions? I place myself in neither category. What Follows Is A Perspective On The Election Per Se Waxing anxiety over the upcoming elections is understandable. Irregularites in the process exacerbate concerns that the outome may produce either paralysis or a more authoritarian sectarian government. Neither augers well for democracy - now the universal post hoc jus

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February 24, 2010 11:42 AM

Reflections prompted by the upcoming Iraqi elections favor the drawing of balance sheets. Contributions to this blog as well as commentary elsewhere incline in that direction. It is a quite reasonable approach. There is, though, something missing – something of paramount importance. That is the effects on Iraqis themselves. Not Iraqis in the abstract, not as figures in a numerical category of sects. Rather, as flesh and blood and feeling persons. Frankly, most of the discourse about Iraq from day one has had a disengaged quality to it. That is the norm for dominant powers on the world stage; for the seminar strategist. That was not always the norm by which Americans referenced war and violence abroad in the 20th century when we truly believed in our proclaimed ideals.

To illuminate the point, here are some readily slighted facts.100,000 Iraqis are dead as the consequence of our invasion and occupation. Iraqis of all ages and status. That is the conservative estimate. Untold thousands are maimed and orphaned. 2 million are refugees in ne

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February 22, 2010 10:08 AM

Operation New Dawn! How disarming it would be were this a sign that a bit of dry wit had penetrated the mental fastness that is the American defense establishment. Alas, the truth is that the Pentagon's public relations machine is still grinding away. This administration's dedication to continuing the tradition of dishonest public communication bequeathed it by the Bush bunch is of cardinal importance. For its implications for how we conduct the nation's affairs are deeper and more enduring than this ridiculous try at casting the mantle of success over our gory, corrupt and inept escapade in Iraq. First a few thoughts on the dimensions of our failure there.

The primary features of what Iraq is becoming are marked out by recent developments. Three stand out. The Maliki government used the military police to force the demission of elected officials in Ninevah province who were political opponents of the current regime. That is one. The shadowy Accountability and Justice Commission that vets candidates for the upcoming elections has succeeded in removing from the lis

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