The Rise of Soft Power

The Thinker by Rodin

When I first read this story in the Washington Post this week, I felt the need to check my glasses. Surely, I needed a new prescription because I read that our Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates was promoting soft power. Poor Donald Rumseld must have had a heart tremor when he read this story. Surely, Gates’ speech this week at Kansas State University, was one of those “unknown known” threats that Rumsfeld had rambled about when he was Secretary of Defense. Gates’ words must have risen the hair on his head and the heads of everyone in the Pentagon’s E corridor. Say it ain’t so, Mr. Secretary!

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called yesterday for a “dramatic increase” in the U.S. budget for diplomacy and foreign aid, arguing that al-Qaeda does a better job than Washington of communicating its message overseas and that U.S. deployment of civilians abroad has been “ad hoc and on the fly.”

In a speech that emphasized the importance of “soft power” to prevent and end conflicts, Gates suggested beefing up the State Department’s foreign affairs budget of $36 billion, even as he acknowledged that Pentagon observers might consider it “blasphemy” for a sitting defense secretary to make such an appeal for another agency.

What is shocking is that in the insular world of the Pentagon, where the mantra has always been that all national security problems can be won if necessary by wielding the Pentagon’s vast military and intelligence machine, its top man was saying this was no longer true.

“One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win,” said Gates, delivering the annual Landon Lecture at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. The wars of the future, he said, are likely to be “fundamentally political in nature” and will not be solved by military means alone.

I think inside the Pentagon, on Monday a paradigm shifted without a clutch. For many of the rest of us though, this is hardly news.

Yes, of course future wars cannot be solved by military means. I mean, duh! We did not need to invade Iraq to find this out. It is just now, 65 years after the Voice of America was created that the Pentagon has finally acknowledged the obvious. Wars are political conflicts. In today’s world, using military might to achieve political results is by far the least effective way of getting the results you want. It is also the most expensive way, if it can be done at all. War as we practice it today is the manifestation of the late Isaac Asimov’s belief, embodied in his character Hari Seldon that “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

When the dogma no longer fits the real world, we need better dogma. Soft power should be our new dogma. Soft power, typically exercised through diplomacy does not always work. Rarely do all parties in a dispute come out victorious when conflicts are resolved diplomatically. However, diplomacy does have some advantages. First, diplomacy does not kill anyone. Second, it costs pennies on the dollar (if that) compared to warfare. Third, since wars are the military manifestation of political conflicts, until the political issues are resolved the war does not really end. It may have the appearance of ending but instead it will eventually return. Adolph Hitler understood this. That is why he instigated genocide as his “final solution” to the perceived problem of the Jews and others. It is why the Huns and the Mongrels left no survivors when they pillaged Europe. They may have been bloodthirsty, but they were not stupid.

Now of course the world is much more populous and multiethnic. The atomic bomb was a neat trick but really, you could use it to win a war just once. To win conflicts in today’s world, you have to win hearts and minds. You do not do it by bombing people back into the Stone Age. It is good that our brave troops in Iraq have stemmed a lot of violence there, but do not mistake a lessening of violence with success. The political quagmire in Iraq is as confounding as even, with few signs that it will be resolved any time soon. Our invasion of Iraq merely allowed the centuries old animosities to resume. It is highly unlikely that anything that this country can do can resolve these political conflicts, although we should try.

The new reality, as I mentioned in an earlier entry, is that the United States alone cannot dictate the order of the world. It is folly for us to try. We squander more than half a trillion dollars a year annually on a defense budget in an attempt to ask the military to do for us what it cannot. Essentially, the military can blow up stuff and kill people. At great expense, it can hold land and the skies. It is most effective in a defensive role, such as keeping incoming missiles from hitting the United States. Our power will be based on our willingness to join up with other states and organizations of like mind. We will win through collaboration and negotiation. However, winning will not mean surrendering our goals. Instead, it will mean understanding that partial winning is okay because mutual accommodation in win-win, and win-win fosters a long term collaborative climate. At best, victory will be getting 80% of what we want. We will never get 100% again.

Secretary Gates is right. We need to become adept at exercising soft power again. It is a skill we lost sometime in the early Reagan years, but it is one that we can acquire again. We saw its manifestation after World War II in the Marshall Plan and in alliances that kept the Cold War from exploding into a real war. Frankly, in our new reality we need only a fraction of our armed forces. Much of our armed forces are engaged in futile work: preparing as best they can to win types of wars we are unlikely to win again. Instead, money should be redirected to keep small problems from exploding into larger problems. We could use some of our defense money to stem the tide of AIDS in Africa and improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians. To the extent we can win, we will win through a strategy of prevention and international cooperation.

The United States will never again win a conventional war. However, we will “win” through preventing wars from occurring in the first place. Robert Gates understands this. If only our other leaders would too.

MoveOn.org is betraying the progressive cause

The Thinker by Rodin

Back in July 2004, I took MoveOn.org to task for what I thought was a serious lapse in judgment: pressing the Federal Trade Commission to go after Fox News for promoting itself as “fair and balanced”.

I agreed with MoveOn that Fox News was neither fair nor balanced. What disturbed me was the group’s attempt to use the power of the government against Fox News. Frankly, its attempt gave me the willies and was very Big Brother-ish. Had they succeeded what ghoulish precedent would this have set? Would some future FTC go after the New York Times for, in its judgment, not serving all the news that it thought was fit to print? Would the government assume it was now permitted to decide whether any media outlet was covered by freedom of the press? I thought MoveOn “got” liberal values. We liberals welcome a diversity of opinions and perspectives, even when they do not agree with us. The last thing we want is the government mucking up our freedom to hear different points of view.

Somehow, Eli Pariser, the current executive director for MoveOn, read my little blog entry and left this pithy little comment:

Liberals like to think that ABC, NBC, etc. are in fact ‘fair and balanced’ while citing Fox as the source of distortions. Emphasis on one bit of information while ignoring other salient bits is the hallmark of the liberal media and something you are obviously unable to admit. Pundit my ass!

More recently, MoveOn published its now infamous “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” ad in the New York Times. The good news is that the ad succeeding in garnering a lot of attention. The bad news is that the ad was very counterproductive. It was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. No less than the Senate of the United States, when it could have been doing things like ending the war in Iraq, instead overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning the advertisement. Rather than helping to facilitate an end to the war, it caused Republicans to circle the wagons. It also gave moderate Democrats a reason to be very wary of embracing change.

It did not have to be this way. The ad could have been just as effective without being inflammatory. For example, it would have shown President Bush next to General Petraeus and asked, “President Bush: Why are you making this patriot a scapegoat for your failed policy?” The ad was factually correct. Unfortunately, it pinned the tail on the wrong donkey. MoveOn does not appear to have anyone in charge with sufficient political shrewdness to know when they it has stepped over the bounds of good taste and decency. In doing so, it undercuts both our desire to end the war and gives pause to moderates who might be leaning toward progressive causes.

Has anyone on the MoveOn staff actually served in the military? I have not, but I have spent nine years in the Pentagon working with soldiers from airmen to four star generals. One thing I know without a doubt: while the military is overall a conservative group of folks, they faithfully and slavishly follow orders. As much as MoveOn would like to paint him as such, General Petraeus is not a politician. He is a military officer. He was directed by his chain of command to implement a policy. His job is to salute and do the very best he can to make the policy work. One can quarrel with his methods, but not his patriotism. Policymakers should be taking the rap for a failed policy. Generals can and should be held accountable for failing to properly execute their mission. They should not be tarred for the policy itself. Failure for the policy belongs squarely on President Bush, not General Petraeus.

At the time, I said:

This campaign with the FTC is just mean spirited harassment and worthy of Bill O’Reilly at his worst. MoveOn.org in this case should just shut up. In fact, it should do more than that. It should admit this campaign was a mistake and a serious lapse in its judgment. And then it should, well, move on.

MoveOn did not take me up on my suggestion. This latest ad three years later shows they have learned nothing in the intervening years.

Since I wrote that first blog entry, I have given an additional $350 to MoveOn and its political action committee on the hope that cooler heads were prevailing. No more. If MoveOn is still not savvy enough to know when certain lines should not be transgressed they deserve neither my money nor my support.

Instead, I will give my money to organizations that, in my judgment, have the maturity of vision to know how to promote solid progressive candidates and causes and know how to persuade people rather than inflame or antagonize them. If I have any spare cash left over, I will be giving it to organizations like Progressive Majority and Emily’s List rather than MoveOn. Perhaps some day saner heads will prevail at MoveOn and I can give money to them again. Right now, that day appears to be far off.

How the political game on Iraq will play out

The Thinker by Rodin

If you want a likely playbook of what will follow, possibly as soon as next year, think of the diaspora that occurred when Great Britain decided to turn greater India into India, and East and West Pakistan. Where there are pluralistic communities inside Iraq, expect them to become single ethnicity. Shi’ites are mostly already where they already need to be. Sunnis living in predominantly Shi’ite territories will beat a hasty retreat toward predominantly Sunni areas.

Occam’s Razor, How Iraq Will Dissemble, August 10, 2005

Having recently offered up my strategy for Iraq, I thought it might be more relevant to explain how our presence in Iraq is likely to play out over the next few years. Of course, my strategy will garner no attention from the Bush White House, the Joint Chiefs or Congress. After all, I am just a blogger and consequently irrelevant in this policy debate.

First it is important to understand why the current Iraq debate is being framed the way it is. Liberal Democrats are particularly incensed that the Congressional Democratic leadership will not take real action to end our involvement in Iraq. Instead, Congressional Democrats seem to be surrendering on the issue. For example, recently Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested he was willing to work with Senate Republicans to fashion some sort of compromise strategy on Iraq. The same dynamic is occurring in the House of Representatives. Finding a way out of Iraq has devolved into maybe finding enough votes to require the president to begin putting together a report on how our forces could be withdrawn.

The Senate is burdened by a rule that requires 60 senators to vote to end a filibuster. Clearly, there are not 60 Senate Democrats. This means that unless there is consensus among 60 senators a bill cannot advance to a vote. Any bill sent to the president can of course be vetoed, requiring 67 Senate votes to override.

In the House while most Democrats want to end the war, Democrats are fractured on how to end it. While it is easier to vote on legislation in the House, it suffers from the same problem as in the Senate. Both need a two third vote to override a presidential veto. Consequently, the power to end the war actually rests in the approximately one sixth of Congress that is needed to override a presidential veto but which is currently inclined to support the President. The bulk of these members are Republican. Until they are persuaded to vote against the President, the political dynamics on Capitol Hill are unlikely to change much.

The political dynamics could change depending on events in Iraq. If the situation worsens in Iraq, it becomes easier to find Republicans who will buck the President’s strategy. As next year’s election nears, barring some major successes in Iraq, it also becomes riskier for Republicans to keep backing the President. Despite relatively modest success from the surge, the polls have not budged much. Today’s ABC News-Washington Post poll bears this out.

However, Democrats do control the agenda. They could refuse to bring an Iraqi war supplemental bill to come to a vote, effectively cutting off funds for the war. Unfortunately, the Iraq war debate has been effective framed by the Republicans as “if you do not fund the troops in their mission then you are not supporting the troops”. What “support the troops” means is very wishy-washy. If cutting off funding were interpreted by the public as endangering our soldiers’ lives, the fear in Congress is that the American people would subsequently vote the Democrats out of power. Above all else, Congressional Democrats want to avoid losing power in Congress in the 2008 elections. So however odious it is to keep funding the war, they will find that it will be a necessity to do so. Hence, there is no serious talk of cutting off funding for the war, and guarded talk about a bipartisan limp-wristed compromise instead.

At the White House, the fear is that things will markedly worsen in Iraq. If that happens the political dynamics become malleable again. In that event, moderate Republicans are likely to bolt. Thus, it becomes essential to the White House to keep enough of their base on their side to ensure that a presidential veto cannot be overridden. Hence the political necessity of trumping the virtues of the surge while downplaying or ignoring lack of success elsewhere. Hence also the need to keep the maximum number of troops in Iraq to mitigate the risk of events worsening.

The result is that the marginal progress in Iraq will be enough to keep Republicans in line with the President. There may be a symbolic troop withdrawal later this year to suggest that real long-term progress is being achieved. Since the surge cannot continue without further extending already overstretched troop deployments, most analysts think that by April of 2008 some force pullback must take place. I am not so sure. Recently the Army met its recruiting goals in part by giving a $20,000 enlistment bonus to new recruits who will join the Army immediately. This might have the effect of allowing force levels to be maintained, or to be drawn down less than expected. In addition, having extended troop deployments a number of times already, there is no reason the Secretary of Defense could not do so again.

In short, during 2008 expect the war to continue at its currently obscene funding levels and expect that any troop withdrawals that do occur will be very modest. The Bush Administration already knows that Iraq will be a failure. They want to run out the clock so the next president will be tarred with its failure. Democrats on the other hand are leery that if they cut off funding now, then when Iraq fails they will be tarred with the failure. Both sides thus find it politically expedient to drag their feet and see how the voters will sort it out next November. The obscene effect of these political dynamics of course is that more American soldiers will end up dead or maimed because neither party wants to be tarred for Iraq’s eventual failure, which all sides tacitly agree is going to happen.

Whatever Democrat wins the White House next November (and I am convinced it will be a Democrat) do not expect that the troops will suddenly be ordered home. First, unless we want to leave massive amount of equipment in control of forces in Iraq, such a withdrawal would be wasteful and counterproductive. Just to execute an orderly withdraw would probably require at least a year. Of course, Iraq is hardly orderly. Our withdrawal would give fresh energy to insurgents over there to increase attacks against us. It will take direct presidential leadership to accomplish our withdrawal in a timely manner. He or she will have to take significant heat however it is executed.

I would be amazed if any next president could get our troops out by 2010. In any event, the next president will have to accommodate the political realities in the region. This means that sizeable number of our troops will be in the area for a long time. I hope that they will at least move away from the cities and toward the borders. I also hope that their mission will become more humanitarian than military. Even as Iraq ceases to be a country, the consequences of our involvement and the necessity to do something (even in a limited fashion) will become inescapable.

Whether we want it or not, Iraq will continue to entangle us militarily and diplomatically for many years to come.

The best way to honor our fallen soldiers this Memorial Day

The Thinker by Rodin

Freedom, we are often told, is not free. Today is Memorial Day: the official day we set aside to remember those who gave their lives for our country. It is not, contrary to modern custom, a day set aside for shopping or to head home from the beach. However, if you did do these things, I hope you took time to contemplate those who died to secure our freedoms.

I am thinking hard today about the meaning of the millions of our soldiers who have died for our country. I am also thinking hard about when we should use military force and when we should not.

Politicians, American Legion members and many old-fashioned patriots still visit cemeteries on Memorial Day. They honor our fallen soldiers by placing wreaths, flowers or American flags on their graves. I confess I have yet to visit a military cemetery on Memorial Day. This is doubly shameful because Arlington National Cemetery is only twenty miles from my house. For me honoring our fallen soldiers amounts to putting out our American flag on our porch.

Memorial Day originally commemorated those who died on both sides of the Civil War. It was meant not just to honor the fallen but also to help with our national healing. Our Civil War was a great national travesty. Memorial Day was meant in part for us to keep this travesty always fresh in our minds, so that our country would never endure a civil war again. Now the holiday embraces all soldiers who died in service to our country.

I am sure I am not the only one that finds it ironic that, in order to be free, we need citizens who will defend our country by killing and maiming other people if necessary. We all hope for the day when the occupation of soldier becomes as obsolete as tinkers and milkmen. Until that day comes (and the liberal in me wants to think it is possible), we need soldiers to do bestial things to other human beings when directed by our Commander in Chief. Granted, killing is not all the military does. More often these days their role is to maintain peace rather than inflict violence. In addition to over a hundred thousand soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is worth noting that we also have troops in places like Kosovo. These soldiers ensure that ethnic Serbs, Croatians and Albanians do not resume slaughtering each other. This too is a supremely noble purpose for a soldier.

Soldiers are a painful necessity because we still live in a world full of regional, religious, ethnic and nationalistic clans. Not all will necessarily agree to behave in a civilized way if they do not get there way. Therefore, in some sense our need for soldiers represents both a failure of our human potential and the political process.

I am certainly grateful for my freedom. When I turned 18, I was fortunate not to have the dilemma that many of my slightly older peers faced. By 1975, the Vietnam War was over. While the draft was gone, I still had to register with the Selective Service System. I remember the chill I felt during the Iranian hostage crisis. There was talk in Congress about reinstating the draft. I was out of college and my life was settling down. The last thing I wanted to do was fight in a foreign war. Fortunately, the draft was not reinstated.

Today no one’s arms are twisted to fill our military: only volunteers do our nation’s dirty work. Frankly, I am humbled that so many Americans choose to serve, particularly today when the risk death or permanent disability is more than theoretical. Today, as we honor soldiers who gave their lives for our country, I am also grateful and enormously sympathetic to the families that carried the burden of their loved one’s death. It is certainly honorable to honor our fallen soldiers today. Perhaps the best way to show that we really care is to support the families of our fallen soldiers. For it is they who must somehow carry on despite enormous grief, anguish and loss.

Politicians can honor the fallen too. They can do so not just by placing wreaths and making solemn speeches as our president did today. They can do everything possible to avoid having to send our soldiers into war in the first place. In my mind, even before we invaded, our war in Iraq was wholly unnecessary. It is now clear that the war was a tragic error in judgment of gargantuan proportions. Our politicians and our president failed our soldiers on March 21st, 2003, the day we invaded Iraq. Our president failed to ask the necessary questions and check the quality of the intelligence. Our politicians did not perform their role of properly checking the Executive Branch before sending our soldiers to war. Yet by implication, we cannot escape culpability either. For we voted these people into office. So far, we have not held them accountable for their lapse in judgment. As a result, thousands of our soldiers have died in Iraq, seemingly unnecessarily.

If the War in Iraq continues to devolve, as it seems certain to, then perhaps we best honor those who gave their lives in Iraq by ensuring this kind of tragedy never happens again. We can do it this November by removing from office those who voted for this war, and putting into office those sober enough to fully exercise due diligence. For as much as President Bush might want it otherwise, Congress is a coequal branch of government. It has the sole responsibility to declare war and, by implication, the power to prevent it. I thought we had learned our lesson after Vietnam. It is sad and shameful that on this Memorial Day we honor over two thousand of our soldiers who bravely and heroically served their country, paid the ultimate price, but apparently did so in vain. They were called and they dutifully and honorably served. However, we failed them by sending them to an unnecessary war.

This Memorial Day let us do something meaningful for a change. First, let us support the families of the fallen, as many of us are already doing. Second, let us bring our troops home from Iraq in a gradual but systematic way. But most importantly, let us as a nation take this solemn vow: to never send our soldiers into a needless war again.

The Disingenuous Call to Support Our Troops

The Thinker by Rodin

No doubt you have seen the ubiquitous “Support Our Troops” yellow ribbons on the backs of our cars, trucks and SUVs. I figure I must be an amoral, atheist, wife swapping pervert or something. Actually I am none of these things. But I question just how far those of us who place these stickers on our vehicles are actually willing to go to support our troops.

Support Our Troops Ribbon

Certainly I sympathize with their concerns. The way we treated our troops returning home from Vietnam was clearly shameful. For the most part they were doing what they were ordered to do. Most of them were drafted. They did not start the Vietnam conflict. Rather as the war ground to an unsatisfactory conclusion they were our ready targets. We projected our shameful feelings on them. Our actions were wrong. Perhaps to make amends for those events thirty years ago we are buying “Support Our Troops” stickers and pasting them on the back windows of our cars. If our soldiers ever make it home they will likely find a changed attitude from the Vietnam generation. And that is all for the better.

Now there are certainly ways we can support our troops. OperationDearAbby.net allows you to send a message to any soldier out there. You can thank them for their difficult work. Our U.S. Military has put together a web site with lots of creative ways that you can support our troops without breaking much sweat. You can send care packages. You can donate frequent flier miles. You can buy prepaid phone cards and send them to our troops. You can support armed forces entertainment. You can give to foundations that help rehabilitate wounded soldiers. So if you do have one or more of these stickers but haven’t been to either of these sites by all means go to them. You can do something tangible to support our troops.

But I’ve had quite a few anecdotal conversations with people who are both pro and antiwar. They suggest to me that people who are even incidentally supporting the troops are few and far between. Those most likely to be supporting the troops are those who actually have spouses, children, relatives or close friends serving in these conflicts. For example there is a woman I know at work whose son is serving outside Baghdad. She is sending him regular care packages. When her son can get online she makes the time for extended IM conversations. I am sure she talks to him by phone when she can and also sends him regular mail. But for the record she calls her commander in chief “a snake” and believes the whole war was illegal and unjustified. And she comes from a military family! She knows the value and the price of serving the military. She was a soldier herself once too. And it was a good experience. Her professionalism carries over to her excellent managerial skills in her civilian life.

Her son, by the way, isn’t getting that Internet service in Baghdad for free. Heavens no! He’s just a grunt private. But for those times when he has some leisure and can actually get on the Internet he has to pay. She told me the going rate is about $50 a month. To make it affordable most soldiers share a connection with another soldier. I don’t know who provides the service although somehow I suspect that Halliburton is making a profit off of it somewhere. I guess I should be glad that our soldiers have Internet access at all, but it strikes me as obscene to make them pay for the privilege. Fortunately there are foundations like this one that are trying to make it easier for our soldiers, sailors and airmen to phone home for free. If you have some spare cash consider giving to this worthwhile charity.

So if you are not doing some of these things already please consider doing them. These are the least that you can do if you claim to support our troops.

But to really support our troops we need to give them a break. We have soldiers in Iraq already on their third tour of duty there. Rumors suggest that some will go back for a fourth tour of duty. It is increasingly difficult for our soldiers there to really escape the conflict. What we need are fresh troops to replace them. And this means that if you support our troops and you have children of military age you need to encourage them to enlist. And if you have never joined the military, it is not necessarily too late. Yes, as recruiting woes continue our armed forces are getting less picky. You can now be up to 34 years old and enlist in the Regular Army. The Army Reserves will take you up to age 39.

Now I don’t want to frighten you or anything. But what we are seeing in Iraq and Afghanistan is increasingly looking like the intractable conflict I predicted before we went to war. The likelihood for long-term success seems increasingly remote. The 150,000 troops we have on the ground in Iraq apparently are not enough to maintain order. We cannot even keep a small stretch of road between Baghdad and its international airport secure. But the good news is that if you ever fly in and out of Baghdad you will get the airplane ride of your life. You will take off or land using crazy corkscrew maneuvers that hopefully will keep your aircraft from getting shot down. To get to and from your place of deployment you will probably have to use helicopters. It appears that in many places it is unsafe to be on the street. With luck you will be issued flack jackets that actually work and will be placed in transport vehicles that can survive mines buried in the road.

Somehow I suspect few of you reading this will take me up on my suggestion for this personal level of commitment. After all we were told that this would be a war quickly and professionally won by an all-volunteer army. Just prior to our last election Congress went on the record that they would not resume a military draft. And when push comes to shove most of us parents realize in our hearts that these elected wars are probably unwinnable. We don’t want our precious sons and daughters to go there and end up dead or maimed. Even a career working retail at Target sounds better than letting our children join the military.

How times have changed. At the start of World War II enlistees were lined up outside recruiting offices. But in our hearts I think we realize that this war on terrorism is not quite the threat to our national security it was made out to be. After all Bush implied it was a no sacrifice war. We get to keep enjoying all the comforts of home and our current lifestyle. The notions of war taxes and buying Liberty Bonds like we did in the past seem silly and outdated. We are much more comfortable putting this war on our national charge card. Instead we will let our grandchildren worry about paying the bill.

So truly supporting our troops in my opinion comes down to a few things. If you can give or donate to support our troops, please do. If you or some member of your family can enlist then they can demonstrate the courage of their convictions and will certainly earn my respect, if not my outright awe. But if this war is truly unwinnable then you can support our troops by encouraging the President and the Congress to bring them home.

Hello G.I. Jane!

The Thinker by Rodin

From yesterday’s Washington Post:

Day after day, Guay has faced situations that would test the steel of any soldier. And female soldiers like her — as well as Army officers who support them — are seizing opportunities amid Iraq’s indiscriminate violence to push back the barriers against women in combat. As American women in uniform patrol bomb-ridden highways, stand duty at checkpoints shouldering M-16s and raid houses in insurgent-contested towns, many have come to believe this 360-degree war has rendered obsolete a decade-old Pentagon policy barring them from serving with ground combat battalions.

“The Army has to understand the regulation that says women can’t be placed in direct fire situations is archaic and not attainable,” said Lt. Col. Cheri Provancha, commander of a Stryker Brigade support battalion in Mosul, who decided to bend Army rules and allow Guay to serve as a medic for an infantry company of the 82nd Airborne. Under a 1994 policy, women are excluded from units at the level of battalion and below that engage in direct ground combat.

“This war has proven that we need to revisit the policy, because they are out there doing it,” Provancha, a 21-year Army veteran from San Diego, said from her base in what soldiers call Mosul’s “mortar alley.” “We are embedded with the enemy.”

Dozens of soldiers interviewed across Iraq — male and female, from lower enlisted ranks to senior officers — voiced frustration over restrictions on women mandated in Washington that they say make no sense in the war they are fighting. All said the policy should be changed to allow, at a minimum, mixed-sex support units to be assigned to combat battalions. Many favored a far more radical step: letting qualified women join the infantry.

Necessity is often the mother of invention. Women are generally prohibited from serving in positions that place them in danger. In Iraq though the distinction is growing very thin:

Although the Army is barred from assigning women to ground combat battalions, in Iraq it skirts the ban with a twist in terminology. Instead of being “assigned,” women are “attached in direct support of” the battalions, according to Army officers familiar with the policy. As a result, the Army avoids having to seek Pentagon and congressional approval to change the policy, officers said.

“What has changed? Nothing,” said Lt. Col. Bob Roth of the 3rd Infantry Division. “You just want someone to feel better by saying we don’t allow women in dangerous situations.”

My prediction is that we will continue to see more women in the military and that more of them will be tapped to fill combat positions. Why? Because we need a lot more soldiers. We especially need more front line soldiers.

Our current situation in Iraq has become untenable and our exit strategy is a joke. We have National Guard members and reservists already on their third tour of duty in Iraq. Armed forces recruiting are seriously lagging. And prior to last year’s election Congress went on record saying they would not reinstate the draft.

So where will we find the armed forces that we need to accomplish the missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere? Short of doing something pragmatic like declaring victory and leaving we will choose the easiest course. With the draft allegedly out and our forces overextended we will become pragmatic. I expect that these archaic and artificial distinctions between what women may do in the military will gradually disappear. At some point it will becoming so threadbare that there will be no real distinction. Perhaps Congress will simply change the law. Indeed we may see female only combat battalions.

Such a change will be a mixed blessing. Our forces will become fully sexually integrated at all levels. As they do now, women will serve with pride and distinction. But they will also demonstrate that they have the right stuff to handle combat level stress. We will see women as a critical part of our force structure and kick ourselves for having kept them from serving in the front lines for so long.

But I cannot say that I welcome it. My motives are entirely selfish. I have a 15-year-old daughter who may soon garner the attention of military recruiters. I doubt the military would be a career that she would choose, particularly since she is gay friendly and it is not. But I am far more concerned about the less likely event of a draft. I don’t want to see her placed in the armed forces against her will and to fight in a conflict that she already feels in morally wrong.

Yet I can feel it. Push is coming to shove. Something will have to give, and give soon. Hello G.I. Jane!

The Iraq War: A One-Year Postmortem

The Thinker by Rodin

So how are we doing on the War on Terrorism? Has our preemptive war against Iraq helped or hindered the situation? As my friend Frank Pierce pointed out the final answer will be left to history. But a year should be enough time to make at least a preliminary assessment. I know it is hard to appraise this last year with true Machiavellian detachment. In my case I was opposed to the war and still wish it hadn’t happened. But nonetheless I shall try my best to give an evenhanded assessment.

Let’s start with what went right. Our conventional military war against Saddam and his armies went very well. There were hiccups as there always will be some in any war. For example, we didn’t expect our army to be stuck enroot to Baghdad for a couple days while sandstorms howled. But though I knew Saddam’s army was more bluster than reality even I was surprised by how quickly we won the military war. For the most part the opposition was scattershot. The soldiers in the Iraqi army were no fools: they knew we had them outgunned in every conceivable way and our victory was inevitable. Their question was how long it would take for their command and control structure to collapse so they could safely desert.

Another thing that went pretty well has been our casualty count. About 3200 of our soldiers have been wounded, and 575 have been killed. While every casualty is a personal tragedy for the victim, friends and family by historical standards these numbers are quite low. While our troops don’t have quite all the vehicles and body armor they need, they have a lot of it. Under the circumstances they are fairly well protected. More recently many of our troops simply have withdrawn to their garrisons and refused to engage in routine patrols. That’s one way to keep the casualty numbers down. On the Iraqi side it’s hard to know the casualty count. But credible reports that I’ve read suggest at least 10,000 Iraqi deaths can be attributed to the war and its aftermath.

We are also fortunate to have such a well-trained and professional military working in and near Iraq. In retrospect it would have been better had they received more training in urban warfare, military policing and Arabic. Perhaps they needed less training in winning conventional wars. One lesson from this war should be that we need to shift military priorities. I strongly suspect that conventional war is something the United States will never engage in again. The United States can win pretty much any conventional war, as long as they don’t come too close together. Our armed forces are without peer although China’s forces pose a potential future threat. It is hard to imagine us fighting a land war with China though.

We also did a good job in capturing Saddam’s henchmen. Saddam himself took much longer but we eventually got the man. The “deck of cards” is nearly complete. It is strange that with the top leadership in custody we aren’t in better control of Iraq. Apparently there is more to removing evil than removing the leaders from power.

Perhaps my Machiavellian detachment is leaving me but I can’t think of too many things (at least at the macro level) that worked well. I know we are building roads, schools, libraries and the trying to restore Iraq’s basic infrastructure. Their infrastructure is in many ways worse than it was before the war. There may be marginally more electricity overall in Baghdad. But the blackouts are longer than they were before the war, as Riverbend frequently notes in her blog. Numerous checkpoints throughout Baghdad and indeed much of Iraq slow down commerce and make life much more frustrating for the average Iraqi than it was during Saddam’s reign.

Our postwar planning was a fiasco. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say there was plenty of postwar planning, but the top leadership embraced none of it. The leadership’s planning, such as it was, assumed the rosiest possible scenario: our soldiers would be greeted as liberators and any counterinsurgency would be minimal. As bizarre as this seems in hindsight, our leadership gave no thought to the likelihood that our troops would be a police force in the country for many months. We have put in place a new Iraqi police force but it is working poorly at best. Its officers are frequent targets for those who would prefer to target our soldiers, but find the police much more accessible.

We have found none of the weapons of mass destruction that Bush called an urgent threat to our national security. Even Administration spokesmen have stopped parroting the line that they will be found eventually. The whole pretext for our war with Iraq proved to be bogus. In trying to assess where the failure lies, it is reasonably clear that it was not so much an intelligence failure (our intelligence agencies’ reports were full of disclaimers) as it was a failure of our leadership to look at the situation impartially. An early warning should have been Rumsfeld’s Office of Special Plans, set up for the specific purpose of finding the “evidence” that Rumsfeld believed our own intelligence agencies were neither finding nor forwarding.

Clearly the Iraqi people have more freedom now than they did under Saddam Hussein. Clearly his torture and death factories have been abolished. If Saddam were still in power likely these same sort of abuses would be continuing to this present day and perhaps would have been passed on to his sons after he died. We can all be glad that those days are gone.

But what is Iraq’s future? I would like to be hopeful but I personally suspect the odds of civil war hover at about 40%. Iraq has had civil war before. Arguably the war never completely ended, it just moved from a military war to a war waged through counterinsurgency. Terrorists, absent before the war, appear to number in the hundreds now. An effort to put in place a constitutional government is clearly underway; I have to credit Bush with a good effort here. But whether it will be more than words remains to be seen. I can’t imagine it happening at all without sustained United States support lasting a decade or more. And yet for our forces to remain there not only endangers them but inflames anti-American sentiments shared by likely a majority of Iraqis. I for one firmly believe our involvement spawned more terrorists to hate and kill us than prevented future acts of terrorism.

So the central question is whether the United States’ national security is safer as a result of this war. The war was justified on the basis that Iraq was an urgent threat to the national security of the United States. That we must leave to history too. But weapons of mass destruction in Iraq apparently existed only in the minds of our leadership. Meanwhile, we have 100,000 troops stationed indefinitely in Iraq, effectively unable to be used elsewhere in the war on terrorism. While it is good to have Saddam gone and for the Iraqi people to be freed from his tyranny, if he posed no threat how can 100,000 of our troops effectively taken out of the War on Terror improve our national security?

A year from now I hope to revisit this entry again. But here is what I see for the year ahead in Iraq: I see a lot more of the same. I see an earnest attempt at constitutional government and elections, but I see voting accompanied by massive intimidation and violence. I see civil war a distinct likelihood. A year from now there may be a government in place but it will be largely impotent, hobbled by start up costs, terrorism, counterinsurgency and sectarian violence. The United States will be the real power in charge, if we can call what we are doing now truly controlling the country. Really, it is more like anarchy. Sadly, I predict something resembling real peace in Iraq is at least five years away.

A few concerns about Wesley Clark

The Thinker by Rodin

So Wes Clark is finally in the presidential race. He’s been playing coy with the American public for months now about running for president, which is probably a smart political move since it puts him in the public limelight without the expense of having to run a campaign. He sure has sounded like a candidate for the last few months. And I can understand why his running for president would excite a lot of people and perhaps pull in some wavering Republicans big on national security but disgusted with Bush’s foreign policy. Every vote against Bush is needed.

I’m trying to figure out what it is about him that is giving me second thoughts. It is hard for me to articulate. Maybe it’s a gut political instinct. Maybe I’ve invested too much of my hard earned time and money in Howard Dean. Or maybe it’s because I’m leery of focusing on ex-Generals as a way to solve our national problems.

I’ve read a number of articles that are not the least bit complementary about him. He has pissed off a large number of subordinates and people in the military. This isn’t that unusual; really strong and motivated people tend to do this by default. And in my opinion the DoD could use more officers willing to take some chances.

But depending on whom you read, his work as commander of our air war in Kosovo and Serbia was either brilliant or he was dangerously arrogant. Some say he threatened a new world war by forbidding the Russians from landing any more troops at an airfield in that area. One general under his command actually refused his direct orders on the subject. Russia was supposed to be helping out in the war but, of course, it had long existing ties with Serbia. Clark also got permission to use depleted uranium weapons on the battlefield. Such weapons were also used in Iraq, in both of our latest wars there, and are allegedly causes of a lot of problems including polluted water supplies and increased cancers in the region. It’s not easy to clean up after these weapons either.

His military career also went down on a sour note when he was essentially fired as NATO commander three months early.

On the other hand he is a decorated Vietnam era veteran, was awarded the Purple Heart, and has distinguished himself on virtually every assignment he ever had. People who consider him haughty and arrogant will, at the same time, also admit he is about the most brilliant, creative and resourceful man they have ever met. Clark, like Dean was an early and frequent critic of President Bush’s inadvisable war with Iraq. I have to like him for such a bold stand that flew in the face of conventional wisdom.

But he has zero domestic credentials. He has never held elective office. The last time he ran for anything it was for president of his homeroom class, and he lost. One cannot succeed in the military without mastering politics, but he has no credentials as a politician. He has never voted for anything. He himself admits he has a steep learning curve ahead of him as he tries to stake out his positions on domestic policies. Dean has walked this walk as two terms of a governor of a state, and has balanced budgets and made hard decisions. But of course Dean lacks in foreign policy experience what Clark lacks in domestic experience. Perhaps those things even the two out.

Perhaps what worries me the most about him is that if he is elected president he may become yet another arrogant person in the Oval Office convinced of his own infallibility. This could lead the country again down dangerous directions. I don’t get that feeling from Dean, although he certainly can be passionate about those things he believes in. I am also very suspicious of military people as president in general. I don’t agree that success in the military arena translates into success in the political arena.

So I see no reason to rush out and embrace the guy. I do heartily subscribe to the ABB (Anyone But Bush) philosophy. I will even hold my nose and vote for Liebermann if I have to. Bush is a disaster as a president any anyone of our candidates would be an improvement over him.

To the average voter positions don’t matter as much as personality. Gore had no personality that anyone could relate to. Bush didn’t have much but he seemed firm about his convictions and that was enough to win him an election. Clark and Dean are people with large personalities and ego, and they are both articulate and convincing in front of a microphone. None of the other candidates have any stage presence.

I’ll pretend I am from the show me state and try to not let my biases get in the way of independently assessing Wesley Clark. But for now I see no reason to stop devoting my time and energy to electing Howard Dean as our next president.

An Open Letter to George W. Bush

The Thinker by Rodin

Dear Mr. President,

I hope it’s okay if I can be informal and call you George. I promise not to call you, for today at least, some of those less flattering names that many have openly called you.

I have for you today, sir, one heaping serving of humble pie for your immediate consumption. It is time for you to come to the table. I know you don’t want to but I know you are heading that direction, however unwillingly, because I read this today online, from Reuters:

With American soldiers dying nearly every day in Iraq the Bush administration decided to negotiate with the United Nations Security Council on a multinational force under U.S. command that would encourage more countries to contribute troops and money.

All I can say is good luck George. You’re going to need a lot of it. You’re not just a day late and a dollar short. You are six months late and at least $50B short. And I fear even after eating this large dish of humble pie, it won’t be enough. You’ve so thoroughly upset our traditional allies that they want to have nothing to do with you or your ideas now. No one will blame Germany and France now if they say “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.”

How could this have happened George? You knew that our invasion of Iraq would be a cakewalk. And that was largely true. The invasion went fine. We rolled over Saddam and his army without too much work. This is, after all, a nation that had suffered over a decade of sanctions. It is a country where outside of Baghdad much of the population lives in mud huts. With the largest and best equipped army in history winning the war was a given under these circumstances. I’m sure you felt a great deal of pride at your sterling leadership when you walked out of that fighter jet and onto the desk of the carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln back in May. You said major combat operations were over. But golly, it seems we’ve lost more soldiers in Iraq since that day than prior to it. This must be very puzzling to you George.

In retrospect are your mistakes clear yet? Probably not, but let me lay them out for you:

  • Even the largest military in the free world has its limits. We apparently can occupy but not actually control one country the size of California with the bulk of our Army, which is about 150,000 men and women. Better put those dreams of an American empire on hold.
  • The United Nations may be a disagreeable organization to you and what you perceive to be our national interests, but it is not irrelevant. In fact it is the only organization on the planet that can speak for the world. Because it can, it has legitimacy the United States does not. When the UN speaks, people and other countries listen.
  • You don’t launch wars based on what you believe the truth to be. Decisions of this magnitude are based on actual facts and credible intelligence. You discounted your own intelligence community because it wasn’t telling you what you wanted to hear, and you gave credence to known Iraqi expatriate flakes with known criminal backgrounds like Ahmad Chalabi.
  • They are not either with us or against us. They are with us when it meets their selfish needs, and against us when it doesn’t. Actually most of the time “they” don’t give a damn. The fact that terrorists attacked us on 9/11 is our problem, not the government of Botswana’s.
  • If you tell terrorists and insurgents to “bring ’em on” they are likely to rise to the challenge.
  • For some reasons countries behave a lot like people. Perhaps that is because countries consist of people, and their leaders have feelings just like you do. So telling France and Germany effectively to piss off does not build good will; it makes these countries react in more extreme ways than they would otherwise.
  • As I told you before diplomacy does not mean “we get things our way or we leave”. It means coming together in good faith and without bad feelings and making necessary compromises so that all parties can find a “win-win” solution. It means going in to negotiations with a genuine willingness to listen and to take the positions of other parties seriously. The United Nations is not irrelevant, George. Rather than proving it irrelevant, you have proved it is needed now more than ever.
  • Wars can’t be won on the cheap, and are much harder to win when large and ill advised tax cuts are bleeding the treasury of the money it needs to run the government. Tell us taxpayers again how, in a bad economy, it is more important to rebuild Iraq instead of restoring the cuts to fully fund your “No Child Left Behind” law.
  • Maybe contracting out essential services on the battlefield is a terrible idea. Your contracting out nonsense means that our soldiers cannot get spare parts they need to keep their Bradley vehicles running. Haliburton employees apparently aren’t going to risk their lives to get spare to our forces when our army isn’t sufficient to ensure their safety. They are contractors, not soldiers. They cannot be compelled to put their personal safety at risk.
  • Maybe it’s not a good idea to open up a second front while the first front is still engaged in heavy action. Maybe we should have demonstrated we could find and kill bin Laden, destroy the Taliban and al Qaeda and bring democracy to Afghanistan BEFORE we rushed into Iraq to topple a despot who was no threat to us.
  • In fact, maybe to run a war on terrorism, we should concentrate on those terrorists who are an actual threat to OUR citizens. There is no doubt Saddam terrorized and killed his own people, but he was NO threat to our citizens. Al Qaeda is a demonstrated threat to our national security. Hezbollah is not. Let Israel deal with Hezbollah and if we ever destroy Al Qaeda then let’s then think about those lesser known terrorist organizations with other axes to grind.
  • Maybe it’s a good idea to listen seriously to divergent opinions before starting a major war. We were out there holding peace rallies and marching on the Mall. You were in Camp David isolated with your parroting advisors. We were wasting our breath protesting. You had made up your mind months earlier to invade Iraq and wouldn’t let some “misguided” fellow citizens deter you from your own pompous convictions.

George, one would think we have learned these lessons before, such as in Vietnam, and would have learned from them. It’s a shame you couldn’t be bothered to read about the causes of our involvement in that war before you launched this one. Some would contend you were strung out on cocaine at the time, or drunk. I don’t know if that’s true but it’s clear you avoided Vietnam like the plague and your service in the Texas Air National Guard was scattershot at best.

It was my opinion even before this war started that not only would it turn out badly, but it would be your undoing, be bad for your party and put a Democrat in the White House in 2005, if not overturn the Congress. George, when history is written about the decline and fall of the modern Republican Party, you will be its poster child.

I hope you enjoy clearing brush in Crawford, Texas in 2005. You’ll have plenty of time for it.

Sincerely,

Mark