National Security

The Iraq Study Group's recommendations leak out

So, 9 months of meetings and what are the bold recommendations from the ISG about our great struggle in Iraq?  Regional talks and a phased pullout.  That's it.  Something as obvious as the sky is blue.  And, of course, even as innocuous as the recommendations are, Bush immediately tossed cold water on them. 

As I've been writing these last few weeks, events in the Middle East seems to have made the framework of this whole debate seem less relevant.  From the Times story today a telling quote: “I think we’ve played a constructive role,” one person involved in the committee’s deliberations said, “but from the beginning, we’ve worried that this entire agenda could be swept away by events.”

Unless the final report due out next week offers some guidance on how to deal with Iran's regional ambitions, rising regional Sunni-Shiite tensions, the viability of a Shiite-led Arab state in the heart of the Middle East, what to do about the growing Al-Qaeda presence in Western Iraq, the rise of Hezbollah and the growing instability of Lebanon, how this all impacts Israel and Palestine, and whether it is possible, or advisable, for the UN or other international body to help facilitate a regional peace process I worry that these 9 months of the ISG will be yet another missed opportunity of the Bush era. 

But perhaps that's all we can really expect now, and for the next two years. 2006 brought a major era of American politics, one we call the era of conservative ascendency, to a dramatic close.  The conservative movement has been intellectually discredited, the Republicans have suffered their greatest political defeat in two generations and Bush has been personally repudiated by the American people.  There is no blueprint for their government any more, no sign posts, no easy path forward. We should expect the Administration and the Republican Congress, still shellshocked by their defeat, to remain in a defensive crouch while their Presidentials and thinktanks work to reinvent their politics.  In essence we have to realize as a nation that our government, and its party, have no idea what to do about the major problems facing the nation today.

Of course this gives progressives an extraordinary opportunity over the next two years to imagine, define and fight for a new agenda that helps our great country tackle the great challenges of our day. 

TNR's "Iraq: What's Next? " series

The New Republic's new "Iraq: What's Next? series is worth checking out.  You can find it at

And what's up with the  Bush-Maliki dinner getting cancelled tonight? Have the wheels really come off the Bushies to that degree?

If you haven't read the Hadley memo on Iraq, you can find it here

And for what amounted to a Saudi threat to turn the Sunni-Shiite struggle in Iraq into a regional war if America leaves, read this remarkable Washington Post op-ed from this morning by a Saudi advisor. 

Afghanistan, not Vietnam

As I wrote the other day, the Soviet experience in Afghanistan is more instructive to those trying to find a way forward in Iraq than the American experience in Vietnam. The failure of the Soviets in Afghanistan hastened the decline of their empire, fueled global jihadism and gave radical Islamic elements a base to export chaos throughout the world. Consider the latest from Iraq, courtesy of the Washington Post:

"The U.S. military is no longer able to defeat a bloody insurgency in western Iraq or counter al-Qaeda's rising popularity there, according to newly disclosed details from a classified Marine Corps intelligence report that set off debate in recent months about the military's mission in Anbar province...

The Marines' August memo, a copy of which was shared with The Washington Post, is far more bleak than some officials suggested when they described it in late summer. The report describes Iraq's Sunni minority as "embroiled in a daily fight for survival," fearful of "pogroms" by the Shiite majority and increasingly dependent on al-Qaeda in Iraq as its only hope against growing Iranian dominance across the capital.

True or not, the memo says, "from the Sunni perspective, their greatest fears have been realized: Iran controls Baghdad and Anbaris have been marginalized." Moreover, most Sunnis now believe it would be unwise to count on or help U.S. forces because they are seen as likely to leave the country before imposing stability.

Between al-Qaeda's violence, Iran's influence and an expected U.S. drawdown, "the social and political situation has deteriorated to a point" that U.S. and Iraqi troops "are no longer capable of militarily defeating the insurgency in al-Anbar," the assessment found. In Anbar province alone, at least 90 U.S. troops have died since Sept. 1."

And this one:

"The Iraq Study Group began two days of intensive behind-closed-doors deliberations yesterday as the White House conceded that Iraq has moved into a dangerous new phase of warfare requiring changes in strategy. In a sign of the growing global concern about Iraq's fate, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan appealed for immediate steps to prevent the country from crumbling into all-out civil war.

"Given the developments on the ground, unless something is done drastically and urgently to arrest the deteriorating situation, we could be there. In fact, we are almost there," Annan said when a reporter asked about the prospects of civil war in Iraq."

Our troops can no longer quell the violence, and as we were reminded this morning, the Iraqi military cannot be counted on to stop what is becoming a Sunni-Shiite conflict. So what is the Iraq Study Group now floating as the big idea for how to deal with all this? Engage Syria and Iran in a series of regional talks. While this is something I have long favored, it seems that policy makers in Washington and their ideas have been overtaken by events in the region; and I no longer see how it is possible for this Administration, this President and even this magical Iraq Study Group to put Iraq and the region back together again.

Whether others can or will step in and help prevent Iraq and the region from sliding into further choas remains to be seen. But without the involvement of the global community, it is hard to see now how Iraq doesn't become a failed state that exports jihadism ala post-Soviet Afghanistan; and for good measure, may fuel a regional Sunni-Shiite conflict to boot.

Update: Tuesday's Times reports,not suprisingly, that Iran and its ally Hezbollah, have been training Shiite militias, and supplying them with weapons:

"WASHINGTON, Nov. 27 — A senior American intelligence official said Monday that the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah had been training members of the Mahdi Army, the Iraqi Shiite militia led by Moktada al-Sadr.

The official said that 1,000 to 2,000 fighters from the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias had been trained by Hezbollah in Lebanon. A small number of Hezbollah operatives have also visited Iraq to help with training, the official said.

Iran has facilitated the link between Hezbollah and the Shiite militias in Iraq, the official said. Syrian officials have also cooperated, though there is debate about whether it has the blessing of the senior leaders in Syria."

Is Washington in touch with what is happening in the Middle East?

In reading the papers this morning you get the sense that the complexity of our challenge in the Middle East is not well understood by the political dialogue in Washington these days.  So much of the emphasis is on getting our troops out of Iraq, rather than looking at what is the best course for a region that seems to be growing more unstable by the day.  I offered some thoughts yesterday, but as Bush prepares to meet with the Iraqi Prime Minister here are some additional things to chew on:

1. Getting the Iraqis to take more responsibility for their own security.  You hear this phrase said every day.  But what does it mean?  Who are the "Iraqis" we are refering too? The militias, the government? The Sunnis, the Shiites, the Kurds? As a story in the Post today relates this admirable goal seems both politically and operationally unachievable in the short term. 

2.  The Jordanian King yesterday said he believes the Middle East is on the verge of three different, interelated and very dangerous civil wars.  Israeli-Palestinian, Lebanese and Iraqi.   

3.  There has not been enough attention paid to the regional hegemonic aspirations of Iran, and the difficult Sunni-Shiite, Arab-Persian conflicts which undergird a great deal of what is happening in Iraq today.  The American invasion of Iraq created the first Shiite-led Arab state in the modern era, something that was never going to sit well with the Sunni dominated Arab states of the Middle East.  Did we understand what we were doing here? Or what we are proposing as a reasonable long-term governing structure in Iraq?

Don't know about you but I am worried that the Iraq Study Groups recommendations may have already been overtaken by events and the complexity of the Middle East.  For those of you who are Graham Greene fans all of this has a sad and familiar ring to it. 

Finding new words to talk about what is happening in the world

With control of Congress comes the opportunity for Democrats to not just set the nation's agenda but also to find new and better ways to describe the challenges America faces today.  A lot of work will need to be done to liberate America from the simplistic "truthiness" of the Bush era, but I offer three suggestions on areas that need an immediate effort to find new words to help us better understand our world:

1. Our "War in Iraq" should be renamed our "occupation of Iraq," or most accurately, our "failed occupation of Iraq."  To describe what is happening in Iraq, and what our troops are being tasked to do as a "war" is simply not an accurate description of what is our greatest foreign policy challenge.  

2. The "war on terror" and "battle against global jihadism" as the central organizing principle of our foreign policy.  Increasingly, events of great import simply don't fit into this very narrow frame.  Think of a nuclear North Korea, the worsening of our relations with Latin America, the slipping of Russia into a totalitarian police state,global pandemics like AIDS and bird flu. migration and immigration challenges, the rise of China, global climate change, our dependence on foreign energy sources, globalization itself and most importantly the current struggle between the Sunnis and Shias in Iraq, and the related rise of Iran as a regional hegemon. None of these fit neatly into the "war on terror" frame.  

I've always felt that "winning the war on terror" and "defeating jihadism" are really more tactical than strategic goals.  Given the collapse of our foreign policy and our global credibility, America is due for a debate about the strategic goals of our foreign policy in a new century.  The best articulation I'm aware of is one of the most standard- that we should be moving the world towards democracy, liberty, free markets and the rule of law.  Winning the "war on terror" is a tactic to help us achieve these more strategic foreign policy goals.  For as we learned after WWI, we can militarily defeat an enemy but not secure a lasting peace if our defeated enemy do not become successful democracies. 

3.  Afghanistan, not Vietnam.  I believe the most accurate historically analogy for what is happening in Iraq today is not America's experience in Vietnam but the Soviet experience in Afghanistan.  As the President's recent trip showed while America may have lost the battle for Vietnam, the West won the war for Vietnam and against communism.  With Vietnam now on the verge of joining the WTO the Vietnam saga has a happy ending.  It is now neat and clean.  The bad guys may have won but in the end were defeated. 

The Soviet experience in Afghanistan doesn't have such a happy ending.  The Soviet defeat weakened them so that it helped bring down their own empire.  The jihadis came out of Afghanistan battled hardened, and ready to take their fight to the global stage.  The failed state of Afghanistan itself became a base for global jihadism, and exported chaos throughout the world.  It is a story that is still ongoing, and as of today, does not have a happy ending. 

In fact the Soviet abandonment of Afghanistan and what happened next there should be a dramatic lesson for those looking to find a new and better way in Iraq.  Pulling our troops out and leaving Iraq to a bloody regional sectarian war, and leaving Al-Qaeda with a beachhead in western Iraq - as they had in Afghanistan - seems to be a very real and very unappealing potential outcome of all the potential outcomes in Iraq. 

Anybody want to work for the Bush administration...anybody at all?

Massive electoral defeat and record low poll numbers aren't the only signposts of how far the Bush Administration has fallen.  Things have gotten so bad that Secretary of Rice can't convince anyone to take the prestigious position of Deputy Secretary of State, the number two post in the State Department previously held by Robert Zoellick, who left to work for Goldman Sachs.  It's hard to blame the people who have turned Rice down already.  Would you want to sit through a Senate confirmation hearing and provide explanations for the failed Bush foreign policy?  The Washington Wire reports:

Among those who have said no are Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt and Gen. James Jones, former Marine Corps commander and now head the United States European Command.

There is now talk that Rice is reaching out to Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, with some suggesting that the offer has been sweetened with a promise to give Negroponte the top job should Rice leave the State Department before the end of the administration.

Keep Jane Harman at Intelligence

I'm with the LA Times, the New Republic and many others in believing Speaker Pelosi should keep Rep. Jane Harman as Intelligence Committee Chair. 

Governing America after the Bush/Hastert/DeLay era is not going to be easy for Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.  These unfortunate years have left a series of big messes, and left many other important challenges unmet.  No area will be tougher, or more important to the country, then putting American foreign policy back on track and re-establishing the credibility of our intelligence services.  To do so, the new Speaker and Majority Leader are going to need the very best team on the field.  Jane Harman should be a leader of this new team. 

There is little question that Jane Harman is one our most respected and thoughtful foreign policy leaders.  While there are difficult internal caucus issues with keeping Rep. Harman at Intelligence, reasonable people can arrive at a solution that works for all involved and keeps Rep. Harman in a position that allows her to make her greatest contribution to finding a better path for the nation.  

Given all the daunting governing challenges in front of her, I have a feeling that in future years Speaker Pelosi will view this decision as one of the simplest things she had to deal with in her early days, and for the good of the nation, hope it gets resolved quickly, and decisvely, and wisely,

To learn more about Rep. Harman, watch her thoughtful remarks at a recent NDN forum in Washington. 

The Saddam verdict shows how little we have to show for our time in Iraq

As I wrote yesterday, if this is cause for celebration in Washington then it shows how little we have to show for the lives lost, money spent, roads not taken and prestige squandered in Iraq these past four years.

There is a quiet desperation emanating from the White House these days.

Conservatives, military in open rebellion over "stay the course"

We begin this final weekend with two new, remarkable stories that show what is at stake in Tuesday's elections.  A new Vanity Fair piece has two of the War's neocon architects opening up on Bush and the "failure" in Iraq; and on Monday, four leading military newspapers will publish a joint editorial calling for Rumsfeld to step down. 

Driving this unexpected criticism is the growing sense of how out of control and dangerous Iraq has become for our security interests.  As the now famous NIE from earlier this year reported Iraq is now fueling the spread of global jihadism, not containing it, meaning, to paraphrase Bush, our time in Iraq is making it more likely we will be fighting them here than over there. 

The "blowback" now inevitable from Iraq is why the historical analogy America needs to be focusing on is not Vietnam, but the Soviet experience in Afghanistan.  In that lost war the global Soviet brand was significantly damaged, a new generation of jihadists including Bin Laden where born, and the Soviet pull out left behind a nation that became the global breeding ground for jihadism which is still a virulent force in the world today. 

My own sense is that the charade of the Saddam verdict tomorrow will only help to reinforce what a farce our occupation of Iraq has become, and why so many seem in open rebellion against the majority party these days.  What is the positive spin from the Saddam verdict? That we got him again, and we were right to go into Iraq? We all know the guy was a bad guy, and essentially he had been tried and convicted in our minds along time ago.  But that is not the issue now, and trumpeting his demise again will only reinforce how little we have to show for the money, the lives, the time and prestige we've lost in our time in Iraq.

Baghdad (and Moktada al-Sadr) Calling

Something earth shattering happened in Baghdad yesterday, the US Army took orders from Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki and moved all US troops out of East and Central Baghdad, giving up on the search for a kidnapped American soldier.  Those troops had been holding radical Shiite Cleric Moktada al-Sadr's militia under siege in Sadr City, while conducting manhunts. 

The flow of events could not be clearer.  An American soldier was kidnapped by al-Sadr's anti-American insurgent militia; US troops did the right thing and sealed off his powerbase to apply pressure on al-Sadr; al-Sadr declared a general strike and pressured PM Maliki; with only token US consultation Maliki ordered US troops to abandon their positions, and US commanders followed those orders.

That means that the third attempt this year to secure Baghdad has ended in failure and it has been met with silence from the White House.  President Bush won't even stand up to the Iraqi Prime Minister, and his weakness and lack of a plan is putting American troops at risk.  But don't take my word for it, read Andrew Sullivan's take on this historic failure of leadership. 

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