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Barack Obama's presidency

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Careerists Pull Obama to Afghan Mess

By Melvin A. Goodman
September 8, 2009

Editor’s Note: The United States continues to suffer from a combined media and political crisis in which key participants from both spheres put their career interests  (the need to look “tough”) ahead of the lives of U.S. soldiers and the national interest.

This joint crisis is pushing the Obama administration toward a policy disaster in Afghanistan, as former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman notes in this guest essay:

President Barack Obama is currently facing the most two important decisions of his young presidency.

On Wednesday, we will learn whether he has the intestinal fortitude to fight for real change in reforming the nation’s health care system.

And later this month, we will learn whether he will commit more young men and women to a losing battle in Afghanistan, which is rapidly becoming President Obama’s briar patch. Meanwhile, nothing has changed at home, where the armchair warriors of the mainstream media are campaigning for more troops and a greater commitment to “winning.”

Sadly, nothing has changed in Afghanistan, where Afghan civilians are being killed in NATO bombing raids that continue to demonstrate a cavalier attitude toward protecting the innocent from U.S. fighter planes. And yesterday we learned that U.S. soldiers stormed through an Afghan hospital, searching for wounded Taliban fighters and tying up hospital staff and visitors.

We were led to believe several months ago that the change in U.S. commanders in Afghanistan was due primarily to making sure our military power was used more responsibly to avoid “collateral damage” in order to “win hearts and minds.”

The late Supreme Court justice Hugo Black believed that “paramount among the responsibilities of a free press was the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shots and shells.”

Seven years ago, however, many elements of the mainstream media helped build a consensus for war against Iraq based on falsified intelligence and devious claims about weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi links to terrorism.

The day after Secretary of State Colin Powell’s calumnious speech to the United Nations making the case for war, the editorial and op-ed writers of the Washington Post seconded the motion and called for immediate military action.

Even the most liberal Post writer, the late Mary McGrory, wrote an op-ed titled “I’m Persuaded,” which failed to analyze the dubious claims put forth by Powell’s speechwriters at the Central Intelligence Agency, led by CIA Director George Tenet and deputy director John McLaughlin.

Once again, the editorial and op-ed writers of the Post are making the case for an expansion of the war in Afghanistan. Armchair warriors such as Richard Cohen and Anne Applebaum in Tuesday’s Post as well as David Ignatius and Michael Gerson in recent weeks have made their pitches for war.

Cohen, who is neither a student of national security nor foreign policy and regularly beat the war drums for Iraq, makes the simplest and most simple-minded argument in an op-ed titled “Eight Years Later and Still No Revenge.”

His column used the word “revenge” six times and provides no other reason for an expanded military conflict that will cost great amounts of blood and treasure with no real chance for success.

Applebaum simplistically believes it is up to Obama to “cajole and convince, to produce plans and evidence, to show he has gathered the best people and the most resources possible — to campaign, in other words, and campaign hard.”

She presents no reasons for any of this and has reduced the difficult decisions of war vs. peace to ordinary politics and politicking.

Gerson, the former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, simply believes that we have “no choice but to try,” and Ignatius opts for the so-called “middle way,” which demands that we “bolster our friends and bloody our enemies enough that, somewhere down the road, we can cut a deal.”

Gerson and Ignatius provide platitudes and bromides without addressing the essential question of whether Afghanistan (impoverished, landlocked Afghanistan) is a vital U.S. national interest that demands more American lives.

They provide no discussion of the impossible logistics situation that we face; no discussion of the impossibility of nation building where there has never been a genuine “nation;” no discussion of the Pakistan sanctuary and Pakistan support for the Taliban.

(Post editorial writers would benefit greatly from reading the excellent reporting of their own staff writer in Southwest Asia, Rajiv Chandrasekaran before offering their chauvinistic opinions.)

But the Wall Street Journal, again like the run-up to the Iraq War, takes first place in making the case for an expanded war in Afghanistan.

Unlike the Post, the Wall Street Journal actually turns to op-ed writers Michael O’Hanlon and Bruce Riedel, who have wide experience in the national security arena. Reidel, in fact, chaired President Obama’s review of Afghan and Pakistani policy.

They base their case on six factors that make little sense and, in some cases, are counter-factual: the “Afghan people want success” (what does that mean?); “Afghans are still largely pro-American” (we are talking about one of the most xenophobic countries in the world); the “Afghan Army is reasonably effective” (pure fiction); the “Afghan police show some hope” (more fiction); the “economy is better” (we are talking about one of the most impoverished and tribalized countries in the world); and the “elections were not all bad” (numerous villages turned out unanimous “votes” for President Hamid Karzai in places where no one actually voted).

O’Hanlon and Reidel conclude that “our strategy is not perfect yet” but some quick fixes will find “results” in 12 to 18 months.

Unfortunately, President Obama has not “gathered the best people” to deal with this problem and certainly doesn’t have the “most resources possible.” His national security team has little experience in foreign policy decision-making, let alone the difficult geopolitical terrain of Southwest Asia.

His leading policy adviser (General James Jones) and his leading intelligence advisers (Admiral Dennis Blair and Leon Panetta) were never known for profound thinking on national security; his Secretary of State (Hillary Clinton) was chosen for domestic political reasons and has never demonstrated wisdom on tricky foreign policy matters; and his Secretary of Defense (Robert Gates) was also chosen for domestic political reasons and has already waffled on the question of more troops in Afghanistan (just as he did on the so-called troop surge in Iraq in the winter of 2006-2007).

The weakness of this team is one of the reasons why Obama has been slow to make serious policy initiatives on Russia, Iran, North Korea and the Middle East peace process, which beg for high-level U.S. intervention.

President Bush invaded Iraq six years ago when there was no connection whatsoever between that country and American national, let alone vital, interests and now President Obama is prepared to commit greater forces and resources to Afghanistan where there is no connection between that country and American vital interests.

Our only concern should be making sure that al Qaeda or some other international terrorist force does not gain a safe haven in Afghanistan; it does not require a large-scale troop presence to achieve that mission.
Sea-based air power and air bases in the Persian Gulf could contain any government in Afghanistan, even a Taliban one, and disrupt al Qaeda operations and facilities there.

It’s time to join the contrarian voices in asking the President not to draw the U.S. defense perimeter at the Hindu Kush.

Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University, spent 42 years with the CIA, the National War College, and the U.S. Army. His latest book is Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA. [This story originally appeared at The Public Record.]

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