Obama’s Wars

Illusions of Omnipotence

There is a remarkably telling scene 350 pages into Bob Woodward’s detailed and depressing new book about Barack Obama’s decision last year to send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. The story tells us all we need to know about the triple bank shot strategy we are following in Afghanistan and how likely it is to fail.

In May of this year, as Woodward tells it, months after the President’s national security team had coalesced around the current Afghanistan strategy, Obama was briefed in the White House Situation Room about the political and military status of the geographic center of the American effort – the Afghan city of Kandahar.

The then-American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, “presented a map of Kandahar and its suburbs that attempted to lay out the tribal dynamics,” Woodward writes. “It was a crazy quilt of overlapping colors that resembled a piece of modern art.”

Woodward recounts in Obama’s Wars, his new bestseller, that the details of the 20 tribes represented at the heart of the Taliban insurgency “would almost require a Ph.D. in Afghan culture for an American to comprehend.” During that same briefing, McChrystal also presented to the President slides identifying more than three dozen political power brokers in Kandahar. The general was attempting to show who in the Taliban hierarchy was jockeying for influence and authority. The slides and photos illustrated a hugely complex set of rivalries, loyalties, crime, corruption, family relationships and ambitions.

After studying the slides for some time, Obama said, “This reminds me of Chicago politics…you’re asking me to understand the interrelationships and interconnections between ward bosses and district chiefs and the tribes of Chicago like the tribes of Kandahar. And I’ve got to tell you, I’ve lived in Chicago for a long time, and I don’t understand that.”

McChrystal, Woodward writes, quipped amid much laughter,”If we are going to do Chicago, we’re going to need more troops.” A funny line, but chilling in what it says about the reality of impacting a place and people with which we have such a limited understanding. If understanding Chicago politics is tough, Kandahar must be next to impossible.

With the nation and the media completely preoccupied with the looming mid-term elections, it’s worth noting that a full on review of U.S. and NATO progress in Afghanistan is scheduled, as part of Obama’s strategy, for the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. One suspects the review will not bring much holiday cheer.

While American and NATO officials have recently reported the deaths of hundreds of Taliban leaders, the Associated Press also reports that many Taliban attacks continue, including the killing of the deputy mayor of Kandahar and numerous police officials. And, while the Taliban may be in the process of being “degraded,” that’s the word Obama settled on to explain the current objective regarding the insurgents, it may be just as true that the Taliban, still able to move with relative ease back and forth across the Pakistani frontier, is merely standing down in anticipation of regrouping and refitting during the Afghan winter.

Meanwhile, a critical pillar of Obama’s strategy – improvement in the operations and honesty of the Afghan government – remains in serious doubt. As Woodward’s almost day-by-day account of the development of the Afghan strategy points out, getting the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai to behave and perform better is absolutely essential to the goals of disrupting the Taliban, quickly turning the fight over to the Afghans and drawing down American troops. As further proof of how difficult it is going to be to create a stable, unifying government in Afghanistan, the recent flurry of coverage suggesting that secret reconciliation talks between Karzai’s government and the Taliban have been held has been forcefully denied by Taliban leaders.

Reading Woodward’s book is a bit like watching a well known old motion picture, one you have seen so many times that you can mouth the lines right along with the actors. There is an unmistakable feeling that we’ve seen this movie before and the ending never changes.

In his recent Washington Post review of Obama’s Wars, Neil Sheehan, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of one of the definitive books on the American experience in Vietnam, notes that Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan – pressed by his national security advisers – is based on a large dollop of hope and a 21st Century updating of Richard Nixon’s last ditch strategy of “Vietnamization.” But hope is an attitude, not a strategy, and turning that earlier war over to an incompetent government that couldn’t command broad support didn’t work.

“The Taliban obviously cannot defeat the U.S. Army in set-piece battles,” Sheehan writes, “but it does not have to do that to win a war. It can bleed us of men and treasure, year after year, until the American people have had enough.” The old movie plays on.

In a brilliant synthesis of the last 100 years of American foreign policy, presidential historian Robert Dallek recently described what he called “the tyranny of metaphor” – three enduring illusions that have shaped every president’s reaction to world events since Woodrow Wilson.

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Dallek says one of the enduring myths of our foreign policy is “the surefire effectiveness of military strength in containing opponents.” Dallek, one of the historians Obama has consulted since moving into the White House, says the President has a nuanced and realistic view of what military power can accomplish and Woodward makes it clear that Obama has pressed his military advisers hard and constantly to justify their recommendations with regard to troop numbers and strategy. Nonetheless, when his exhaustive Afghanistan review was finished a year ago, Obama essentially accepted a “split the difference” option between what Gen. David Petraeus wanted for Afghanistan and what much more skeptical advisers were urging on the President.

One can’t help but think that while it is encouraging that Obama has displayed, to invoke the old phrase, a minimum high regard for the omnipotence of our brave and overworked military, he has also embraced a path in Afghanistan based more on hope than reason; more on what we’d like to happen than what history tells us is likely to happen.

Near the end of the Woodward book, Obama is quoted as telling his generals, “Be careful we don’t start something for which we don’t have resources to enable completion.” He then adds, “keep thinking about how we’ll know if we are succeeding and when we’ll know.”

Woodward’s book brilliantly captures the division over Afghanistan that exists among civilian and military advisers to the President, not to mention the competing views inside the military, even while Obama attempts to find a plausible path that might address the enormously difficult, perhaps impossible, task of working our will on corrupt governments whose fundamental objectives are rarely in sync with our own.

It is gratifying to see Obama and his advisers struggling mightily to get their arms around this ten year war, but at the same time tragic to see yet another administration tossed on the rocks of American illusions of omnipotence.

Come Christmas, the expected outcomes of the Congressional mid-terms and the election’s impact on the next two years of Obama’s presidency may be among the least of the Commander in Chief’s problems. Lyndon Johnson came to regard Vietnam as the “bitch of a war” that wrecked his presidency. Afghanistan, on top of a broken economy and a fractured political system at home, is really threatening to become the same for Obama.

Senators Worth Remembering

smootReed Smoot – Utah

The Third in a Series…

If Reed Smoot, the Utah Republican who represented the Beehive State in the U.S. Senate for 30 years, is remembered much today it is for his role in passing what is now widely regarded as the disastrous Smoot-Hawley Tariff.

The tariff legislation, passed in 1930, put in place historically high import duties in the interest of protecting American farmers. Many historians now say that Smoot-Hawley contributed to prolonging the Great Depression.

Smoot was chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee in 1930 and generally supported protectionist measures. He never really admitted that the tariff that has carried his name into history might have been a contributor to prolonging the world-wide economic collapse.

Beyond tariff legislation, Smoot is a senator worth remembering for at least two other significant reasons. He sponsored the legislation in the Senate that created the National Park Service and he championed legislation to create two of the great National Parks – Zion and Bryce. He also suffered through one of the most protracted and nasty episodes in Senate history when his first election to the Senate was contested on the basis of his religion.

Smoot came to the Senate in 1903, elected by the Utah Legislature, not long after being named to one of the most senior positions in the leadership of the LDS Church. Smoot was an apostle of the Mormon Church and, as a result, some of his fellow Senators – Idaho’s Fred DuBois one of the most prominent – held him responsible for the fact that polygamy was still practiced by many of the faithful, including some church leaders. Even though the church had formally repudiated plural marriage in 1890, the practice was still widespread in the early years of the 20th Century and, while clearly not a practitioner himself, Smoot was, in some eyes, guilty by association with his church.

Unbelievably, the celebrated Smoot hearings went on for four years with the investigating committee eventually voting in favor of expelling the Utah Senator. Cooler heads prevailed when Smoot’s fate was finally considered by the full Senate and his opponents failed to muster the necessary two-thirds vote to expel him.

In her excellent 2004 book, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle, historian Kathleen Flake examines the issues that Smoot confronted during his long Senate ordeal and concludes, persuasively I think, that “a broad coalition of American Protestant churches,” acting through their leaders, sought to expel Smoot from the Senate for his religious views. The professed concerns about polygamy provided a convenient pretext. Flake also argues that the ordeal actually served to strengthen the LDS Church in the United States and in Europe.

One of Smoot’s defenders was Sen. Boies Penrose, a Republican of Pennsylvania, who made fun of several of his Senate colleagues that he suspected of being less than straight arrows in observing their own marriage vows.

Penrose, in defending Smoot, said, “As for me, I would rather have seated beside me in this chamber a polygamist who doesn’t polyg than a monogamist who doesn’t monag.”

Smoot lost his Senate seat to Democrat Elbert Thomas in the Roosevelt landslide of 1932. He returned to Salt Lake City where he continued as a top leader of the LDS Church. He was third in line for the presidency of the church when he died in 1941. Utah historian Milton R. Merrill has written the definitive biography of the church leader and politician, appropriately entitled Reed Smoot – Apostle in Politics.

Reed Smoot of Utah was another United States Senator worth remembering.

Other’s in this series, include Sen. Bronson Cutting of New Mexico and Sen. Edward Costigan of Colorado.


Juan Williams

juan williamsBoth Right and Wrong

I confess that I’m not at all sure how I feel about the sacking by National Public Radio (NPR) of long-time analyst and historian of the Civil Rights era Juan Williams.

At first blush, I’m inclined to think NPR played the dismissal badly and is getting all the negative push back as a result of a less than clear explanation of why it acted as it did. At the same time, in these days of super heated, ideologically driven ranting on talk radio and cable, NPR’s leadership – awkwardly, at best – seemed to be trying to hold or establish an important principle about how journalists should behave in public. As with most things on Fox News or in the Twitter-sphere, any nuance and much of the substance vanished almost as fast as the focus on Williams’ words about being nervous when he sees people “in Muslim garb” getting on an airplane.

I’m old enough to remember when real analysts did real analysis on network television. I’m dating myself, but there was a time when informed analysis – say Eric Severeid or James J. Kilpatrick – actually offered insight and perspective into what was going on. Now days whether its Sean Hannity blowing hot on the right or Keith Olbermann (he should stick to baseball) babbling on the left, real insight is washed away by soundbite punditry; long on opinions and short of insight.

I’ve read some of the thousands of stories, blogs, columns and Tweets generated by the NPR firing of Williams, who instantly got a $2 million deal from Fox, and I think some of the best insight, ironically, comes from NPR’s own ombudsman, Alicia Shepard.

Shepard has written that the Williams affair isn’t about race or free speech or political correctness, but is about journalism, values and, not insignificantly, how Muslims are increasingly portrayed in the media.

“This latest incident with Williams centers around a collision of values,” the ombudsman wrote, “NPR’s values emphasizing fact-based, objective journalism versus the tendency in some parts of the news media, notably Fox News, to promote only one side of the ideological spectrum.”

She goes on to note, “I can only imagine how Williams, who has chronicled and championed the Civil Rights movement, would have reacted if another prominent journalist had said: ‘But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see an African American male in Dashiki with a big Afro, I get worried. I get nervous.'”

So, with the benefit of perfect Friday morning quarterbacking, NPR might have been much better served to slow down, publicly issue a reprimand to Williams, as perhaps also should have been done when he said on Fox of First Lady Michelle Obama, “you know, she’s got this Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress thing going…” and explain the standards it is trying to establish and maintain.

Instead, as with so much of what passes for journalism these days, Williams’ firing became an instant media frenzy and an instant cause for the right that demanded the end of public support for those “liberals” over at NPR. The always predictable Newt Gingrich called for a Congressional investigation.

Frankly – personal opinion here – I don’t care what Juan Williams thinks, or what the late-Dan Schorr thought. I could give a rip for Hannity’s or Olbermann’s and O’Reilly’s opinions. What might be valuable from that crowd and from all the other “pundits” is not opinion or personal experience, but insight based upon real reporting, research, historical perspective, dare I say it, even facts.

I’m reminded of a line from an old journalism school prof. He said that journalism had no right to refer to itself as “a profession.” Professionals – doctors, lawyers, plumbers – have established codes of conduct and certain standards. Journalism, the old prof said, was “a craft,” no standards, not even widely accepted ethical requirements.

NPR is in for a bashing, some of which is self-inflicted, and it won’t help that liberal rich guy George Soros dumped a pile of cash on NPR just as Williams was getting the can tied to him. NPR could have helped itself, in both cases, by explaining in more detail its approach to the craft of journalism and why trying to establish and maintain some standards still matters. Even NPR fans will have to wonder about just how the Soros’ cash will be handled and whether NPR brass acted too hastily.

Ironically, of all the words written and spoken about Juan Williams’ fifteen seconds of fame, the most balanced, complete and least sensational coverage was on, yup, NPR. Go figure.

Clint Stennett

stennettA Nice Guy and Pretty Fair Legislator

I long ago began to apply a simple test to any Idaho Democrat who aspired to statewide office. Could the wanabee candidate walk into the VFW Hall in an Idaho rural community and “work the room” effectively or could they campaign at the Bear Lake County Fair and not look out of place? If you could be authentic and comfortable in those kinds of settings, you might have a future in Idaho politics.

Clint Stennett, who died last week at age 54, was nothing if not authentic. He passed with flying colors the VFW – Bear Lake County Fair test. He wore his cowboy boots naturally and under this Stetson was a sharp mind, a good sense of humor and the rare ability, particularly in today’s political world, to find and keep friends across the aisle.

Stennett was dealt a very, very tough hand when he was diagnosed with cancer early in 2008, but by all accounts he bore the personal and health burdens with grace and determination. His partner in life and politics, Michelle, carried on for him in the State Senate and she now seeks the seat he occupied so well for so long.

I was touched, as many will be I suspect, to read this letter from former Idaho House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, a Republican, endorsing Michelle Stennett. It speaks volumes about Mr. Speaker Newcomb, but also the Stennetts. This, my friends, is decency and substance trumping party and partisanship. We could use a good deal more of that.

Clint Stennett’s passing is a big loss for the Idaho Senate, his central Idaho constituents, his friends, family and, of course, for beleaguered Idaho Democrats, but it is also a cold, hard reminder that life is very short and full of only the sureness of uncertainty.

Stennett toyed more than once with those inevitable statewide ambitions that tend to swirl around a person with smarts, style and charisma. Too bad he didn’t take the plunge and sad for all of us that now we won’t know just how good he might have been on a statewide stage. I suspect very good.

It is too true, the good do die young.

Shelby’s Folly

Jack Dempsey Tommy GibbonsThe Crowd Went Wild…and Banks Failed

One of the most fascinating stories in the history of boxing was hatched over a several month period in the spring and summer of 1923 in the tiny hamlet of Shelby, Montana.

Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight champion of the world and one of the greatest personalities of that era (that’s him in the white trunks), came to Montana in that long ago summer to defend his title against a tough Irishman named Tommy Gibbons. Shelby barely survived.

The story of Shelby’s brief brush with international sports celebrity is ably told in a new book – Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown by Jason Kelly. The book was published by the University of Nebraska Press. Kelly’s book is both rich 1920’s American history and a cautionary tale about what can happen when a gaggle of slick promoters, a few local Chamber of Commerce-types and a big-time sporting event converge in a town, well, way out in the sticks.

In 1923, Shelby was a wind swept spot on the Montana map not far south from Glacier National Park. The young town was trying to make a go of it as a center of oil and agricultural production, but Shelby was hardly on the way to anywhere. A wealthy local businessman and his big thinking son thought Shelby had the potential to be “the Tulsa of the Northwest” and they hatched the idea to stage a heavyweight title fight in Shelby in order to put the town on the map. It worked, although not the way they intended.

The Montana hotshots found willing players in Dempsey and his flamboyant manager Doc Kearns. Kearns always sported a wild wardrobe, including dark blue shirts and yellow ties, and he and his celebrity fighter were eager to go anywhere, even Shelby, for a guaranteed $300,000 pay day.

After much haggling the big fight was set for July 4, 1923. Local promoters imported, at great expense, thousands of board of feet of lumber to build a massive, 40,000 seat outdoor arena and arranged for a nationwide ticket sale effort. The idea was that special trains would carry fight fans, willing to pay a King’s Ransom of $50 for a ticket, from as far away as Los Angeles and Chicago.

Tommy Gibbons moved his wife and family to Shelby and set up a training camp. His only compensation – a little cash to offset training expenses and a shot at the champion’s title. Dempsey, after doing a little fly fishing on the Missouri River, set up his camp in Great Falls about 50 miles away.

Meanwhile, the financial plans of Shelby’s fight promoters went seriously south and the locals were having trouble coming up with Dempsey’s upfront fee as ticket sales lagged. At one point Kearns was offered 50,000 head of sheep in lieu of the cash he’d been guaranteed. He replied, “Now just what the hell would I do with 50,000 sheep in a New York apartment?”

Eventually, with Kearns holding the bout for ransom, the fight did come off, with most of the 40,000 seats empty and many fans sneaking in without paying anything. Dempsey, on a brutally hot afternoon, went the 15 round distance with Gibbons who had become a favorite of the local press and public. There is some great film of the bout that gives a sense of the arena and the crowd in Shelby, as well as the brawling style of the two fighters.

When he returned years later to help celebrate the 35th anniversary of the big fight, Gibbons was treated as though he had won the Shelby showdown. “I always get a kick out of those people,” Gibbons said. “To them, I won the heavyweight championship.”

Dempsey remembered years later that the Montana folks hadn’t liked him quite so much.

“For the first and only time, I was more worried about getting hurt by the crowd than by the guy I was fighting,” Dempsey said. “I got a pretty good blast when introduced. The crowd was hollering and raising hell. I looked around for my bodyguard, a colorful New York character named Wild Bill Lyons, who packed two pearl-handled pistols and used to talk a lot about his days in the West. Wild Bill was under the ring, hiding.”

Dempsey retained the world heavyweight title until 1926. He was a sports celebrity to rival Babe Ruth or Red Grange in the sports mad 1920’s and 1930’s and he lived out a long and profitable life as a former champ until his death at 88 in 1983.

Gibbons, like Dempsey a member of the Boxing Hall of Fame, never won the big title, but did go on after his impressive ring career to serve four terms as the Sheriff of Hennepin County, Minnesota where, by all accounts, he was enormously popular and effective.

Shelby didn’t fare so well. As Kelly writes, “For years afterward, people would say to Kearns, ‘You and Dempsey broke three banks with one fight.’ He considered that a misinformed slur. ‘We broke four,’ Kearns would respond, correcting the record.”

The chief local promoter lost thousands of dollars and the merchants who were hoping to make a killing on the big crowd didn’t.

The colorful villain in Kelly’s fine little book is Dempsey’s manager Doc Kearns who the great Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray eulogized in 1963 as the last of his kind of boxing shysters.

“There must be a no-limit crap game going on in the Great Beyond today,” Murray wrote upon Kearns’ death, “Or a high-stake poker game with a marked deck. Or some kind of graft. Otherwise, Doc Kearns would never have left here.”

Then, obviously with Shelby, Montana in 1923 in mind, Murray added, “Maybe there’s a nice little town that should be bilked. Or a nice little guy whose pockets are leaking money and he trusts people.”

The Automatic 3%

governors raceFive Vie for Idaho Governor

All the attention two weeks before the November 2nd gubernatorial election in Idaho has been focused on the two major party candidates, incumbent Republican C.L. “Butch” Otter and independent-turned-Democrat Keith Allred.

Not surprisingly, considering the voting habits of Idahoans for the last 16 years, Otter has consistently been ahead in the public polls. But, there is at least one wild card in this political deck this year – three other candidates are on the ballot.

The recent Mason-Dixon poll in the governor’s race, conducted over a month ago, had Otter ahead 45% to Allred’s 29% with 20% undecided. The three minor party candidates were taking a total of 6%. The Rasmussen Poll has consistently had Otter over 50% and Rasmussen’s latest numbers (early September) show the minor candidates getting 7% with a much smaller number of undecideds – 5%.

Historically, an independent or third party candidate for Idaho governor (and there have be a lot of them) has taken about 3% of the total vote. In 1986, an independent candidate named James A. Miller pulled just over 1% of the total vote cast for governor. Miller’s total vote was 4,203. Democrat Cecil D. Andrus won that close 1986 election defeating then-Lt. Governor David Leroy by only 3,635 votes out of more than 387,000 total votes cast. It’s hard to say whether Miller really impacted the outcome or explain why 4,200 Idahoans voted for a guy who never really campaigned, but merely put his name on the ballot. Still, had the lion’s share of Miller’s vote total gone to Leroy, history might have been very different.

Idaho gubernatorial elections in 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006 were not nearly as close as that 1986 race, but each of these later races featured a minor candidate who, in all but one election, got at least 3% of the total.

I think the argument can be made that in the 1994, 2002 and 2006 races, the independent candidates where, generally speaking, positioned to the right of the Republican standard bearer. Anti-tax gadfly Ron Rankin, for example, who as a Republican had been a Kootenai County Commissioner, garnered close to 16,000 votes, or close to 4% of the total, in 1994. While it’s all conjecture, one assumes that most of Rankin’s votes came from among his anti-tax followers around the state and at the expense of the successful GOP candidate Phil Batt who won with just over 51% of the vote.

So, what about 2010?

Of the three minor candidates on the Idaho ballot, only former GOP legislator Jana Kemp has put on much of a campaign. She handled herself well in a recent three-way debate and, while hampered by a lack of money, Kemp has managed to get mentioned in much of the press coverage of the campaign. Under normal circumstances, and given Idaho’s election history, Kemp’s independent effort should almost automatically be good for 3% of the votes. Just by showing up and having her name on the ballot, she should takes that number of votes from the established party contenders. But what of the other two candidates?

Libertarian Ted Dunlap is on the ballot again this year and he pulled 1.6% in a four-way race in 2006, as did Pro-Life candidate Marvin Richardson who has now officially changed his name to Pro-Life. Neither candidate has really mounted a campaign this time around, but the same level of effort four years ago still ensured that together they pulled the nearly automatic 3%.

Do the three minor candidates split the magic three percent this year? Or, do the weird Tea Party dynamics of 2010 mean that there are more “protest votes” up for grabs than is normally the case in Idaho gubernatorial elections? Will more Idahoans be interested in a self-proclaimed Libertarian? Will an articulate, independent woman draw votes from a Republican or a Democrat or both? With the economy dominating the issues, will a single-issue, pro-life candidate register? What if Kemp, Dunlap and Pro-Life collectively pull seven or eight of even more percent? At whose expense will those votes come? And in which parts of the state?

If this gubernatorial election turns out to a close one, it will be interesting to see the election night totals in the handful of counties where Otter ran neck-in-neck with his hard right GOP primary opponent Rex Rammell. Rammell actually beat Otter in the GOP primary in Benewah and Idaho Counties and came within a few hundred votes of the governor in Twin Falls and Cassia Counties. All told, nearly 45% of all Republican voters in the May primary voted for someone other than Butch Otter.

On November 2nd will these folks “come home” to the GOP candidate? They usually do. Will they decide in some numbers simply not to vote, or might they decide, in the spirit of “none of the above” with regard to the major candidates, to cast their lot with one of the three minor candidates on the ballot?

If Kemp, Dunlap and Pro-Life start to collectively accumulate votes above the historic threshold for minor party candidates in Idaho, and if there is a sizable undecided group that breaks in the next week to Allred or to the minor candidates, election night could be long and interesting. Under this scenario, Allred would need every vote Democrat Jerry Brady got against Otter in 2006 and three or four percentage points more to make it interesting. Brady polled just over 44% four years ago.

Twice in modern times – 1966 and 1986 – a winning candidate for governor of Idaho polled less than 50% of the vote. Both elections involved Andrus who won one and lost one. Could it happen again?

The only obvious path to a win for Allred is to keep Otter close to that 45% number in the recent Mason-Dixon survey and hope that the minor candidates do succeed in grabbing substantially more than their historic fair share of the total vote. Call it the less than 50% solution for Allred.

Then again with a major national tidal wave building for the GOP and with a tradition of Republican-leaning voters returning to their political roots on election day, Otter should be in the catbird seat.

We’ll have to wait and read the Tea Party tea leaves on November 3rd and see if the top spot on the Idaho ballot has been impacted by the automatic 3% or maybe even more.