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Fear Itself…

     Obama’s response to the attacks also raises a more political question: Why hasn’t a man known for his rhetorical gifts done more to address the fear the attacks instill in ordinary Americans? – Greg Jaffe, The Washington Post


It is difficult, perhaps even impossible, in a harsh world of partisanship and amidst the instant Twitter feed, to answer emotion and fear with facts. Barack Obama, never particularly good at the soft arts of politics, including the basic political skill of clearly and patiently explaining his policies, learned that lesson anew this week.

Senator Cliche

Senator Ted Cruz, (R) Cliche

It must gall Obama, a smart and careful man, even if his legion of opponents and distractors never admit it, to have to confront a smart, calculating and cynical man like Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz taunted Obama in the wake of the Paris terror attacks and the mad rush to denounce Syrian refuges to debate him on the issues and “insult me to my face.”

One almost wishes Obama would simply say: “Ted, you’re just not that important. We are talking about bigger things than your ego or campaign.” But that type of putdown is just not the Obama way and you cannot belittle unless you first explain. Obama’s presidency-long inability – or unwillingness – to effectively and consistently confront his critics and explain himself is among his major shortcomings as a leader.

Obama has an off putting tendency when challenged to either adopt the persona of a law school lecturer and make a legal case, or simply embrace, as he did this week, a dismissive tone with his critics. Perhaps an effective strategy when the issues are trivial, but not when the stakes are as high as they are in our post-Paris moment. Obama often seems to float above the circus, aloof and detached and when he does engage, as he did recently on the refugee issue, his dismissive, lecturing tone is counterproductive.

Even with Republicans offering little but recycled talking points – the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank correctly says Republican plans to deal with the so called Islamic State involves “killing them with clichés.” – the Paris attack and the resulting climate of fear call for more from a president who can, if he puts his mind to it, be a supremely effective communicator.

The World Needs…

“The world needs American leadership,” said Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the new House Speaker. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California opined that “we want our homeland to be secure,” while Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana spoke of the need to “go and root out and take on ISIS.” Clichés for sure, but language that speaks to the need to offer leadership, reassurance and perspective.

The latest outrage from the continuing frontrunner Donald Trump, a call for closing mosques and creating a national database of Muslims, once would have been a disqualifying comment in national politics, but Trump will probably ride it higher in the polls. Such are the days of our lives and such is the ability of a demagogue to stir up fear and hatred.

For his part Cruz says “we are at war with ISIS,” but short of calling for greater use of American air power he offers precious little beyond what the Obama Administration is currently doing. Cruz and the others hoping to draft in the wake of Trump’s openly racist appeal to Americans who disdain immigrants (and now refugees) have succeeded, at least temporarily, in shifting the national debate from defeating a radical ideology to closing the borders to the victims of that ideology.

It is craven, cynical and fundamentally un-American, but in the hands of a modern day Joseph McCarthy like Cruz or a political P.T. Barnum like Trump it sells with the voters both need to crawl to the top of the GOP heap. It also resonates with many Americans who are just frightened and confused and seek candid reassurance and common sense. Lindsay Graham, the one true hawk in the Republican field, is so far behind he can speak the truth about the pandering of those higher in the polls.

Senator Lindsey Graham

Senator Lindsey Graham

“Are you willing to do what it takes to destroy ISIL?” Graham said recently referring to Cruz and others who are long on cliché, but short on ideas. “Are you willing to commit American ground forces in support of a regional army to destroy the caliphate? If you’re not, then you’re not ready to be the Commander-in-Chief, in my view, and you’re really no different than Obama.”

This is the crux of the real debate the Congress and the nation needs. What do we do to destroy these violent remnants from the 13th Century? I’m waiting for a Congressional committee to actually have a hearing and call some real experts to testify about real options. That’s old fashioned, I know, but used to be what the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did.

Ground troops? Will the American public accept that? What will greater air strikes accomplish? If Syria’s Assad is deposed, which is American policy, who and what replaces him? We thought Iraq was tidied up when Saddam toppled and that didn’t work out so well. Would Syria be different and why? Do we risk a joint effort with Putin to fight ISIS and to what end? If we arm some additional group or groups in Syria are we just doubling down on the less-than-successful Iraq policy that saw us leave millions of dollars worth of military hardware behind in the desert, hardware that in some cases the radicals now use? Are there other options? Let’s hear them.

Explain the Policy….Please 

Obama’s Syrian policy and approach to ISIS have been called “feckless” and his recent comment that the movement was “contained” may well rank with George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” as the silliest thing either man said during his tenure. It is also true that the President fumbled for too long while Syria burned and the refugee crisis has occurred during his watch and will be part of his legacy. Still, unlike his fire-breathing detractors on the right, I am willing to concede that Obama has a real policy for the region, a policy largely informed by what has not worked in the recent past. What has been missing is his patient, repeated articulation of that policy.

By failing to fully take the American people into his confidence and carefully explain the stakes and the real options, Obama contributes to what is truly feckless – the domestic debate about ISIS and Syrian refugees, how to ensure U.S. and European security, and the proper and effective U.S. military and diplomatic response to the mess in the Middle East.

It is a moment that demands calm, reasoned, candid national leadership that only a president can provide. We are waiting.

A Lesson From History…

Churchill: "If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

Churchill: “If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

I am reminded of what leadership in a moment of crisis sounds like re-reading Winston Churchill’s remarkable speech in the wake of the abject British defeat at Dunkirk in the summer of 1940. It was one of the worst moments of World War II and had events or political rhetoric turned even a bit differently we might be living in a very different world.

Thousands upon thousands of British troops had remarkably been evacuated from the French port of Dunkirk following the collapse of the French Army west of Paris. The British troops hauled back across the English Channel escaped with their lives, but not much else. A vast amount of precious material and equipment was left behind in the interest of saving the British Army so that it might fight again. Everyone knew at the time, especially Churchill, that Dunkirk was a military disaster that ironically is now often remembered as a spectacular success.

Churchill, newly the prime minister, had to explain the disaster to the House of Commons where criticism of the government was building amid calls for an investigation of the debacle in France. The moment demanded explanation, painful candor and hope. He confronted the situation directly and brilliantly:

“We have to think of the future and not of the past,” Churchill said. “This also applies in a small way to our own affairs at home. There are many who would hold an inquest in the House of Commons on the conduct of the Governments – and of Parliaments, for they are in it, too – during the years which led up to this catastrophe. They seek to indict those who were responsible for the guidance of our affairs. This also would be a foolish and pernicious process. There are too many in it. Let each man search his conscience and search his speeches. I frequently search mine.

“Of this I am quite sure, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

There are too many in it…let each man search his speeches…we shall find we have lost the future. One yearns for such talk at moments of national confusion, trial and fear.

…None Whatever for Panic and Despair…

At the end of his Dunkirk speech, Churchill uttered his famous “finest hour” phrase that is the most remembered part of the speech, but a line he spoke earlier seems particularly appropriate for the current moment.

“Therefore, in casting up this dread balance sheet and contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye, I see great reason for intense vigilance and exertion, but none whatever for panic or despair.”

Cheers broke out in the House of Commons.

The rhetoric from the current campaign trail regarding the Middle East is nothing if not panic and despair. It is not a time for a lecture on the law or peevish scolding, but it is time for something more from Barack Obama. He might start by repackaging Franklin Roosevelt because the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. A weary and wary nation longing for strength and hope needs to hear that from the top.

Just Say No…

By all accounts Barack Obama has his work cut out for him convincing Congressional Republicans – and some Democrats – that his proposed obama0404nuclear weapons control agreement with Iran is better than having no deal at all.

Republican skepticism about an Obama initiative certainly isn’t surprising, since the president has seen something approaching universal disdain for virtually anything he has proposed since 2009. That Republicans are inclined to oppose a deal with Iran shouldn’t be much of a surprise either. In the post-World War II era, conservative Republicans in Congress have rarely embraced any major deal- particularly including nuclear agreements – which any president has negotiated with a foreign government.

Republicans Have Long Said “No” to Foreign Deals…

Before they were the party of NO on all things Obama, the GOP was the party of NO on international agreements – everything from the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I to the Panama Canal Treaties during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Even when Ronald Reagan Mikhail-Gorbachev-Ronald-Reaganattempted a truly unprecedented deal in 1986 with Mikhail Gorbachev to actually eliminate vast numbers of nuclear weapons – the famous Reykjavik Summit – most conservative Republicans gave the idea thumbs down and were happy when it fell apart.

And, near the end of his presidency when Reagan pushed for a treaty limiting intermediate nuclear weapons, conservatives like North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, Wyoming’s Malcolm Wallop and Idaho’s Jim McClure thought that Reagan, then and now the great hero of the conservative right, was plum crazy.

Much of the criticism of Reagan from the hard right in the late 1980’s sounds eerily like the current critique of Obama, which basically boils down to a belief that the administration is so eager for a deal with Iran it is willing to imperil U.S. and Israeli security. As Idaho’s McClure, among the most conservative GOP senators of his day, warned about the Reagan’s deal with Gorbachev in 1988, ”We’ve had leaders who got into a personal relationship and have gotten soft – I’m thinking of Roosevelt and Stalin,” but McClure was really thinking about Reagan and Gorbachev.

Howard Phillips, the hard right blowhard who chaired the Conservative Caucus at the time, charged that Reagan was ”fronting as a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” Helms actually said Reagan’s jesse-helms-reagan_685352cnegotiations with Gorbachev put U.S. allies in harms way, just as Mario Rubio, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker say today Obama is putting Israel at risk. ”We’re talking about, perhaps, the survival of Europe,” Helms declared in 1988.

Walker, who was 20 years old when Helms’ was preaching apocalypse, told a radio interviewer last week that the Iranian deal “leaves not only problems for Israel, because they want to annihilate Israel, it leaves the problems in the sense that the Saudis, the Jordanians and others are gonna want to have access to their own nuclear weapons…” Never mind that the whole point of the Iranian effort is to prevent a nuclear arms race across the Middle East.

Date the GOP No Response to FDR and Yalta…

Historically, you can date the conservative Republican opposition to almost all presidential deal making to Franklin Roosevelt’s meeting with Stalin at Yalta in 1945 where FDR’s critics, mostly Republicans, contended he sold out eastern Europe to the Reds. “The Yalta agreement may not have been the Roosevelt administration’s strongest possible bargain,” Jonathan Chait wrote recently in New York Magazine, “but the only real alternative would have entailed continuing the war against the Soviets after defeating Germany.”

By the time of the Yalta summit, Red Army troops had “liberated” or were in place to occupy Poland and much of central Europe, which Roosevelt knew the United States and Great Britain could do little to stop. The alternative to accommodation with Stalin at Yalta, as Chait says, was making war on Stalin’s army. Roosevelt’s true objective at Yalta was to keep Stalin in the fold to ensure Soviet cooperation with the establishment of the United Nations, but the “facts on the ground” in Europe provided a great storyline for generations of conservatives to lament the “sellout” to Uncle Joe.

That conservative narrative served to propel Joe McCarthy’s hunt for Communists in the U.S. State Department and cemented the GOP as the party always skeptical of any effort to negotiate with the Soviet Union (or anyone else). Many conservatives contended that “negotiations” equaled “appeasement” and would inevitably lead American presidents to mimic Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938. Illinois Senator Mark Kirk dusted off that old chestnut last week when he said, “Neville Chamberlain got a better deal from Adolf Hitler,” than Obama did from the Iranians. The Iranian deal is certainly not perfect, but worse than a pact with Hitler?

Conservatives became so concerned about “executive action” on Brickerforeign policy in the early 1950’s that Ohio Republican Senator John Bricker proposed a constitutional amendment – the Bricker Amendment – that said in part: “Congress shall have power to regulate all executive and other agreements with any foreign power or international organization.” Dwight Eisenhower opposed Bricker’s effort certain that his control over foreign policy, and that of subsequent presidents, would be fatally compromised. When Bricker, who had been the Republican candidate for vice president in 1948 and was a pillar of Midwestern Republicanism, first proposed his amendment forty-five of forty-eight Senate Republicans supported the idea. Eisenhower had to use every trick in the presidential playbook, including working closely with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, to eventually defeat Bricker and other conservatives in his own party.

A logical extension of McCarthy’s position in the early 1950’s was Barry Goldwater’s opposition in the early 1960’s to President John Kennedy’s ultimately successful efforts to put in place a nuclear test ban treaty outlawing atmospheric or underwater nuclear tests.

A test ban treaty was, Goldwater said, “the opening wedge to goldwaterdisastrous negotiations with the enemy, which could result in our losing the war or becoming part of their [the Soviets] system.” In Senate debate Goldwater demanded proof of the Soviet’s “good faith” and argued, directly counter to Kennedy’s assertions, that a treaty would make the world more rather than less dangerous. The treaty was approved overwhelmingly and has remained a cornerstone of the entire idea of arms control.

Later in the 1960’s, and over the profound objections of conservatives, the U.S. approved the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) designed to prevent the expansion of nuclear weapons. Ironically, as Jonathan Chait notes, the NPT today provides “the legal basis for the international effort to prevent Iran from obtaining nukes.” But the idea was denounced at the time with William Buckley’s National Review saying it was “immoral, foolish…and impractical,” a “nuclear Yalta” that threatened our friends and helped our enemies.

When Richard Nixon negotiated the SALT I agreement, interestingly an “executive agreement” and not a treaty, conservatives worried that the United States was being out foxed by the Kremlin and that Nixon’s focus on “détente” with the Soviet Union was simply playing into naïve Communist propaganda. Congressional neo-cons in both parties, including influential Washington state Democrat Henry Jackson, insisted that any future arms control deal with the Soviets be presented to the Senate for ratification.

Republican opposition to international agreements is deeply embedded in the party’s DNA, going back at least to the successful Republican efforts to derail Senate ratification of the agreement Woodrow Wilson negotiated in Paris in 1919 to involve the United States in the League of Nations, end the Great War and make the world “safe for democracy.”

The GOP’s DNA Dates to Woodrow Wilson…

The most effective and eloquent opponent of that agreement was BorahIdaho Republican Senator William E. Borah who, it was said, brought tears to the eyes of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge when he spoke against Wilson’s ideas on the floor of the United States Senate on November 19, 1919.

Addressing treaty supporters, but really talking to Wilson, Borah said, “Your treaty does not mean peace – far, very far, from it. If we are to judge the future by the past it means war.” About that much the Idahoan was correct.

Without U.S. participation and moral leadership the League of Nations was little more than a toothless tiger in the two decades before the world was again at war, the League unable to prevent the aggression that ultimately lead to World War II. It is one of history’s great “what ifs” to ponder what American leadership in a League of Nations in the 1920’s and 1930’s might have meant to the prevention of the war that William Borah correctly predicted, but arguably for the wrong reason.

Jaw, Jaw Better Than War, War…

Many Congressional Republicans have spent months – or even years – chastising Obama for failing to provide American leadership on the world stage, and for sure the president deserves a good deal of criticism for what at times has been a timid and uncertain foreign policy. But now that Obama has brought the United States, Britain, France, Germany, the European Union and Russia to the brink of a potentially historic deal with Iran, the conservative critique has turned back to a well-worn line: a naïve president is so eager to get a deal he’ll sell out the country’s and the world’s best interests to get it. Ted Cruz and other Republican critics may not know it, but they are dusting off their party’s very old attack lines. Barry Goldwater seems to be more the father of this kind of contemporary GOP thinking than the sainted Ronald Reagan.

No deal is perfect, and doubtless some down through the ages have been less than they might have been, but the history of the last 75 years shows that presidents of both parties have, an overwhelming percentage of the time, made careful, prudent deals with foreign adversaries that have stood the test of time. In that sweep of recent American history it has not been presidents – Republicans or Democrats – who have been wrong to pursue international agreements, but rather it is the political far right that has regularly ignored the wisdom of Winston Churchill’s famous admonition that “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”


Just the Beginning

332a64f4195b32b9555da335785b58d4It must have been about 1965 when my World War II veteran father had his gall bladder surgery.  As kid I wasn’t aware of many of the details, but I do remember that having the old man in the hospital for several days was a very big deal, particularly since we had to drive 100 miles or so round trip to visit him while he was recovering.

Gall bladder surgery in the 1960’s was a far different operation than it has become more recently and often resulted in several days in the hospital and then a good deal more rest at home.

We joked that Dad had the good sense not to show off his incision as Lyndon Johnson had done when he had the same surgery at about the same time. That classic LBJ moment still ranks as one of the most offbeat presidential photo ops.

Johnson, a Navy veteran of the war, had his surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington. My Dad checked into the Veterans Administration hospital in Hot Springs, South Dakota. We had no health insurance. If we needed to see a doctor we paid cash or, as when Mom had some major surgery, we pulled the family belt a little tighter and went on the payment plan. My parents spent years paying off Mom’s surgery and hospital bills, but the VA was free. The country owed it to Staff Sergeant R.E. Johnson and his grateful nation took care of his gall bladder. It may have been one of the few things my old man had in common with Lyndon Johnson.

The VA has been much in the news lately and the commendable retired Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who took the fall for the obvious shortcomings of the big, sprawling federal bureaucracy, will doubtless go down in history as the general fired for speaking truth to the Bush Administration about the cost and duration of a war of choice in Iraq and then ended up walking the plank due to the failures of his agency to properly take care of many of the veterans of that war. Numerous commentators have made the obvious observation that firing Shinseki will do about as much to right the wrongs of the VA as firing him before the Iraq war did to bring sanity to that misbegotten policy. His tombstone might well read “fall guy.”

Amid all the posturing by political people over the mess at the Phoenix VA hospital, and apparently other VA hospitals, should hover a palpable sense of “you should have known better.” It’s pretty clear that the more than $150 billion we spend annually on the Veterans Administration isn’t nearly enough money to do the right job for the men and women who served their country and now often need very expensive and long-term care.

Yet, when Congress had a chance earlier this year to provide more resources for an agency that is chronically short of resources, for example, primary care physicians who spend all day seeing patients the legislation died during a Senate filibuster. There was hardly a ripple of regret for letting our veterans down.“I don’t know how anyone who voted ‘no’ today can look a veteran in the eye and justify that vote,” said Daniel M. Dellinger, national commander of the American Legion. “Our veterans deserve more than what they got today.”

Next time you see a member of Congress ask them how they voted on that one. It’s a pretty good measure of who really is “supporting the troops.”

Now given a fresh “political scandal,” – and this was certainly true before Gen. Shinseki made his inevitable exit – everyone wants to get aboard the bash the VA bandwagon.

As the old story goes the most dangerous place in Washington, D.C. is the space between a soundbite spouting politician, in this case outraged by the VA’s mismanagement, and a waiting television camera. There has been a genuine stampede to present the VA’s problems as the most recent thing that comes near be “worse than Benghazi…”

But, as noted, this was all readily foreseen and, in fact, rather widely forecast as recently as when the Iraq fiasco was still unfolding. Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz actually produced a study that predicted the long-term cost of the Iraq adventure would be $3 trillion – yes, “T” as in trillion dollars. Stilglitz was derided as a liberal alarmist whose analysis was wildly off the mark, but in 2010 he actually went back and re-ran the numbers and concluded that his huge number likely underestimated the true cost of the ten year war, in part, because he underestimated the health care costs of veterans that will only keep increasing for 30, 40 or 50 more years.

“About 25 percent of post-9/11 veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,” according one recent report, “and 7 percent have traumatic brain injury, according to Congressional Budget Office analyses of VA data. The average cost to treat them is about four to six times greater than those without these injuries, CBO reported. And polytrauma patients cost an additional 10 times more than that.”

I remember this much about my Dad’s long ago medical care from the Veterans Administration: he had a gall bladder attack and in short order he was in the hospital for surgery. Maybe a few days at most passed from the attack to the cure and this was a VA dealing at the time with vets, like my Dad, who served during World War II. My favorite veteran died when he was 62 having never again set foot in a VA facility.

The young men and women who fought for us in Iraq and Afghanistan will likely live longer  – much longer we can hope – than the World War II generation, even with the many and varied traumatic injuries our soldiers bring home from the battlefield. We’re just starting to feel the impact of that sober reality on the VA and the rest of American society. This truly is just the beginning. Properly resourcing the VA and de-politicizing the process of fixing its shortcomings should be every bit as much a national priority as sending young people to war and keeping them there year-after-year.

“If there is any cause that should be bipartisan, it’s care for our veterans,” writes E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post. “But too often, what passes for bipartisanship is the cheap and easy stuff. It tells you how political this process has been so far that so many of the Democrats who joined Republicans in asking for Shinseki to go are in tough election races this fall.”

This much I know: the VA was there when my Dad needed the medical help that he would have been hard pressed to access and pay for any other way. It was literally a life saver. Now, having pounded our military with endless deployments in the open ended wars that are now apparently a fixture of America in the 21st Century, the bill for those shattered and scared is coming due. Brace yourselves. The cost is going to be far greater than anyone engaged in the current debate lets on and we have no choice but to dig deep and pay it.

Maybe Congress should fume and fuss as much about how our military is used as they do when the health care system, created by Congress by the way, falls short of serving all of our veterans.


High Popalorum, Low Popahirum

HueyLongHuey Long, the one-time Governor and Senator from Louisiana, was one of the great and colorful demagogues in American political history. Huey rarely said anything that wasn’t over the top, critical of Washington politicians of both parties, politically incorrect even in the 1930’s, and often very funny. A typical Long performance – unlike so much of today’s political rhetoric – came in the form of a folksy, witty story that made a larger political point.

One of my Long favorites: “The Democratic Party and the Republican Party were just like the old patent medicine drummer that used to come around our country,” Long once said. “He had two bottles of medicine.

“He’d play a banjo and he’d sell two bottles of medicine. One of those bottles of medicine was called High Popalorum and another one of those bottles of medicine was called Low Popahirum.

“Finally somebody around there said is there any difference in these bottles of medicines? ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘considerable. They’re both good but they’re different,’ he said.

“‘That High Popalorum is made from the bark off the tree that we take from the top down. And that Low Popahirum is made from the bark that we take from the root up.’

“And the only difference that I have found between the Democratic leadership and the Republican leadership was that one of ’em was skinning you from the ankle up and the other from the ear down — when I got to Congress.”

Other great political phrase makers, Winston Churchill for instance, have the ability to slice with humor. Churchill once said of political rival and Labour Party Prime Minister Ramsey Macdonald that he “has the gift of compressing the largest amount of words into the smallest amount of thoughts.” Great line.

Or how about Ronald Reagan’s mix of humor and politics, including this searing putdown of his opponent in the 1980 presidential campaign. “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his,” Reagan said.

Such use of clever and clear political language has all but disappeared from our political discourse as members of both modern political parties become guilty of outrageous, uninspired and borderline crazy political speech hardly any of which is as funny or as precise as Long, Churchill or Reagan. Consider some recent examples.

The Washington Establishment Response:

Liz Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president, has launched a Republican primary challenge against incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming. Not surprisingly, many of Enzi’s colleagues – Arizona’s John McCain, included – have endorsed his re-election. What does Liz Cheney do? She falls back, of course, on the lame, tired and limp response of, no doubt, a political consultant. “Liberal Republican Senators like John McCain…have endorsed my opponent.” Liberal Republicans? Like John “I ran against Obama in 2008” McCain?

“The Washington Establishment is doing all it can to try to stop us,” the unimaginative Ms. Cheney says. “Even with the mess in Washington today, the Establishment is fighting hard to protect incumbents. You and I know that protecting incumbents won’t protect our freedom.”

The challenger is guilty of a political attack that fails to pass the smell test and, even worse, of being boring. If you can’t do better than that maybe you should stay in Casper.

The Invoke The Bible Response:

The always reliably kookie Rep. Michele Bachmann said recently that President Obama’s decision to provide arms to certain of the Syrian rebels was proof of, well let her explain.

“This happened, and as of today, the United States is willingly, knowingly, intentionally sending arms to terrorists,” Bachmann said on a Christian radio show, “Now what this says to me, I’m a believer in Jesus Christ, as I look at the End Times scripture, this says to me that the leaf is on the fig tree and we are to understand the signs of the times, which is your ministry, we are to understand where we are in God’s end time history.”

The end times? The end times of her term in Congress maybe.

Invoke the Nazis:

A state representative in Arizona, Brenda Barton of Payson, took to Facebook during the recent government shutdown to complain about National Park closures and in the process, you guessed it, she made the Nazi comparison.

“Someone is paying the National Park Service thugs overtime for their efforts to carry out the order of De Fuhrer… where are our Constitutional Sheriffs who can revoke the Park Service Rangers authority to arrest??? Do we have any Sheriffs with a pair?” she wrote.

When called on whether the Nazi angle to the government shutdown was really appropriate Rep. Barton doubled down. “You better read your history,” she said. “Germany started with national health care and gun control before any of that other stuff happened. And Hitler was elected by a majority of people.”

Actually, reading the real history, tells us that the German social welfare system began to come together under Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck in the 1870’s and evolved over time, much as Social Security, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act have in the United States.

As the National Institutes of Health says about German health care: “Rather than being solely a lesson about leftist politics and the power of trade unions, health care in Germany is above all a story of conservative forces in society. These forces include public and private employers, churches, and faith-based and secular social welfare organizations. They remain committed to the preservation of equitable access to quality medical services, and they form crucial pillars for the delivery of medical services and nursing care.” It is less complicated, I know, to just make up “your history” and blame the Nazis.

The Texas flaming meteorite Sen. Ted Cruz had his own “invoke the Nazis” moment recently when he said failing to defund Obamacare was analogous to “appeasement” of Hitler’s Germany in “the 1940’s.”

“If you go to the 1940s, Nazi Germany,” Cruz said. “Look, we saw in Britain, Neville Chamberlain, who told the British people, ‘Accept the Nazis. Yes, they’ll dominate the continent of Europe but that’s not our problem. Let’s appease them. Why? Because it can’t be done. We can’t possibly stand against them.'”

Ted, Ted. First, the lessons of Munich are still much debated by thoughtful people, including imminent historians, who continue to sift through the nuances of whether Hitler and the Nazis might have been stopped short of world war. And, for what it’s worth, the Yale education senator got his decade wrong. Britain was at war with Germany in September 1939. But here’s the real point – the “appeaser” label is one of the cheapest and sleaziest charges any politician can level at another, as that “liberal” John McCain made clear to the boy senator from Texas.

As a general rule you know a politician is standing on swampy ground when he invokes, in relation to a contemporary issue, the appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930’s. There are many lessons for America today from the period immediately before World War II and one important lesson is don’t make sweeping generalizations about someone’s patriotism based on a charge of “appeasement.”

The Ripped from the Pages of History Approach:

Here is another old, old chestnut of political rhetoric. Take a chapter of American history, typically completely out of context, and use that example to support a highly controversial position of the moment.

Rep. Morgan Griffith, a Virginia Republican, employed this bit of rhetorical malpractice recently when he argued that it would be OK to shut down the government and even default on the nation’s debts, because the Founders – its always the Founders – did damage to the economy to save it in 1776.

“I will remind you that this group of renegades that decided that they wanted to break from the crown in 1776 did great damage to the economy of the colonies,” Griffith said. “They created the greatest nation and the best form of government, but they did damage to the economy in the short run.”

Actually, Mr. Griffith, those “renegades” launched a revolution against the British crown with many of them – Washington, Jefferson, Adams, for example – putting their personal fortunes and freedom at risk. The damage done was really to the British economy, but never mind.

And then there is Rep. Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat, who had his campaign send out a solicitation that compared the Tea Party faction of the GOP to the Ku Klux Klan, complete with burning cross symbolism.

“[T]here is overwhelming evidence that the Tea Party is the home of bigotry and discrimination in America today, just as the KKK was for an earlier generation,” Grayson said. “If the shoe fits, wear it.” Actually, that shoe pinches. In its hay day the KKK was more than a political force, it mounted a reign of terror – lynchings, murders, beatings and more – primarily against blacks, but also against other minorities. Invoking the Klan to characterize your opponents on the right today is just as offensive as invoking the Nazi to smear your opponents on the left or, in Sen. Cruz’s case, smear members of your own party.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. Political discourse over important and controversial issues is cheapened and weakened when public official lack the imagination or historical grounding to make an argument on the merits or, at least, an argument that enlightens with a smile.

It is asking entirely too much, I know, for today’s political class to have anything approaching the class of a career politician like Winston Churchill, but perhaps they could make an effort to use the language as well as he did. After he became British Prime Minister in 1940, Churchill formed a unity government that included Labour Party leader Clement Atlee, a long-time political opponent, as deputy prime minister. The two men were hardly friends, but did win a war together and maintained a grudging respect for each other; the type of wary respect of one ambitious man keeping a close eye on another ambitious man. Churchill could still cut his opponents down to size with a sharp one liner.

Churchill once referred to Atlee as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing” and on another occasion as “a modest man, who has much to be modest about.” One of Winston’s best lines reflected in one sentence just what he thought of Atlee’s ability and intellect. “An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street,” Churchill said, “and when the door was opened, Atlee got out.” Brilliant. How do you respond to that?

I love politics. I just want to listen to better debate from people smart enough to make better arguments. In other words, a bit more High Popalorum.


Graveyard of Empires

“All along the north and northwest frontiers of India lie the Himalayas, the greatest disturbance of the earth’s surface that the convulsions of chaotic periods have produced.” That’s how Winston Churchill began his still highly readable 1897 book The Story of the Malakand Field Force.

Young Winston wrote from the British cavalry barracks in Bangalore where he was stationed as part of his deployment to the part of the world the Brits more than once tried to subdue. It worked, as Churchill’s book makes clear, about as well for them as it has for us.

 New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has now limped home from his first surprise trip to Afghanistan reduced to admitting the obvious – “it’s complicated.” Hagel, a decorated Vietnam vet and, I suspect like many from his generation who served and fought he is a reluctant warrior. Hagel was dissed by the increasingly detestable Hamid Karzai who actually said during the secretary’s visit that Taliban acts of violence in Afghanistan proved a level of collusion with the United States. Karzai then cancelled a joint press conference with Hagel just to make his contempt for the fighting and dying done by American’s perfectly clear.

It should tell us something that Hagel – and all high level visiting Americans – need to make “surprise” visits to Afghanistan since the security situation is so tenuous. It’s clear some the attacks during the Hagel visit were meant to send a message. Is anyone listening?

Former New York Times columnist and Council on Foreign Relations chairman Leslie Gelb says, in a piece titled “To Hell With Karzai,” that it’s time for the Obama Administration “to stop letting these Karzai guys play us for suckers and speed up our exit, and stop wasting American lives and dollars.”

We’re finding – and, of course, this was completely predictable – that getting into Afghanistan was a whole lot easier than getting out. Like Vietnam and Iraq before, we have met the limits of our ability to project force to change politics and history on the ground, this time in the shadow of the Himalayas.

It was a fool’s errand to try in the first place, but makes even less sense to prolong the effort. We will eventually leave Afghanistan and the departure will signal a return of the tribal wars and turmoil that have been a fixture of the place for hundreds of years. It’s difficult, almost impossible, for a superpower to admits its limits, to admit that we cannot always be the positive, democratic role model we so desperately believe to be our destiny, but doing so – admitting the limits of western power in an ancient tribal culture – is the beginning of realism and maybe, just maybe, the beginning of a better approach.

“Except at times of sowing and of harvest, a continual state of feud and strife prevails throughout the land,” Churchill wrote of Afghanistan (and Pakistan) more than 115 years ago. “The people of some valley fight with those of the next. To the quarrels of communities are added the combats of individuals. Khan assails khan, each supported by his retainers. Every tribesman has a blood feud with his neighbor. Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger.”

And we are the strangers. As of this morning 2,050 Americans have died and more than 18,000 have been wounded in this place where strife prevailed before we arrived and will prevail after we are gone.


War and Congress

Burton K. Wheeler was a Democrat who served as United States Senator from Montana from 1922-1946. His career, as he acknowledged in his memoir, was full of controversy. Among other things, Wheeler was indicted on corruption charges and fought with powerful interests ranging from the mining companies in his adopted state to Franklin Roosevelt, a man he had once enthusiastically endorsed for president.

The FBI followed him, particularly after he criticized Roosevelt’s foreign policy prior to American entry into World War II. His patriotism was assaulted. He was deemed a Nazi sympathizer by some. He helped stop Roosevelt’s Supreme Court power play in 1937 and championed important legislation impacting utility companies and Native Americans. If you are defined in politics by your enemies, Wheeler had many. His friends included Charles Lindbergh, William E. Borah, Joe Kennedy, Huey Long and Harry Truman. He was considered a serious presidential contender in 1940. FDR put an end to that with his third term.

Wheeler’s kind of senator really doesn’t exist anymore. Senators of his generation were, of course, from their respective states, but they represented more than local interests. Wheeler and Borah and Robert Wagner and Pat Harrison, who I wrote about recently, were national legislators and the Senate was their stage. Wheeler walked that stage most prominently in 1941 when Americans were profoundly divided over how far the nation should go to provide aid to Great Britain during some of the darkest days in the history of western civilization. Wheeler battled, as he called them, “the warmongers” who he thought were altogether too eager to get the country involved in another European war.

Wheeler lost this “great debate,” the U.S. did come to the aid of the battered Brits, Japan attacked in Hawaii and the Montana senator eventually lost his seat in the Senate. This is a story I’ve tried to tell in the most recent issue of Montana – the Magazine of Western History, the respected history journal published by the Montana Historical Society.

At first blush Wheeler’s fight for non-intervention in 1941 seems like ancient history. Americans fought the good and necessary war to stop fascism and the Greatest Generation is justly celebrated. But, like so much of our history, the fight over American foreign policy prior to Pearl Harbor has a relevance that echoes down to us more than 70 years later as the morning headlines tell of President Obama’s parley in the Oval Office with Hamid Karzai.

We are apparently at the end of the beginning of our longest war. Americans have been fighting and dying in the mountains and deserts and streets of Afghanistan for nearly a dozen years. As we prepare to leave that “graveyard of empires” (leave more or less) the question is begged – have we accomplished what we intended?  And when we are gone will we leave behind such a corrupt, incompetent government that the Taliban and assorted other bad guys will again quickly take charge?

Before 1941, when Montana’s Wheeler and others raised their objection to an interventionist foreign policy, the United States was comfortable with a modest role in the world. The county was stunned by the violence and by what seemed at the time to be the ultimate futility of the Great War. During the 1920’s and 1930’s Americans embraced their traditional attitude of remaining aloof from European disputes, gladly eschewed any ambition to supplant the British as the world’s policeman and the country happily retreated behind two deep oceans. After 1941, hardened by the trials of another world war and the threat of Communist expansionism, Americans embraced a national security state and we have never really looked back.

Today, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders points out, the United States spends more on its military than the rest of the world’s nations combined and we’ve tripled defense spending since the mid-1990’s. Despite the sobering experience of Vietnam, we rather casually, at least by 1941 standards, deploy our troops around the world with certain belief that such power can impact all events. Americans have been camped in Europe since 1945 – 80,000 are still deployed – protecting our NATO allies who increasing reduce their own military outlays.

After a nine year war in Iraq, a dozen years in Afghanistan, with deployments and bases from Australia to Turkey, and given the need to confront a national fiscal crisis one might think that America’s aggressively interventionist foreign policy would be at the center of Washington’s debates, but no. Once the U.S. Senate had such debates; debates that engaged the American public and where Congress asserted its Constitutional responsibility to actually declare war. But even after September 11 the national foreign policy “debate’ has more often been about the need to expand and deploy American power, rather than how to make it more effective. The current shaky state of the nation’s budget would seem reason enough to really have a foreign and defense policy debate again, but even more importantly Americans and their leaders should, with cold and calculating focus, assess our role in the world.

George W. Bush once famously advocated a “humble” foreign policy and disowned “nation building.” Bush’s rhetoric, of course, hardly matched his policy and a dozen years later, with little debate and perhaps even less sober reflection, we wind down a war that likely will again offer new proof of the limits of American power.

Montana’s Wheeler lost his seat in the U.S. Senate in 1946 largely because he was deemed out of touch with the post-war world. His old-fashioned attitudes about expressing American power were out of fashion. But were they? At least he forced a debate; a debate similar to the one that we need again today.


Obama the Warrior

No More Soft on National Security

One of the great strategies in politics is to take your opponent’s greatest strength and turn that advantage  into a liability. It’s not easy to do, but when it’s done well it can be brutally effective.

The “swiftboating” of Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic candidate for president, is perhaps the best example in recent memory of how effective attacking the strength of an opponent can be. 

In Kerry’s case, a legitimate war hero – the guy was awarded the Silver and Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts for service in Vietnam – became, thanks to attacks on that military record, a questionable patriot, a liar and, in some minds, a fraud. “Swiftboating” has now entered the political lexicon as a verb meaning – to smear effectively.

You may remember that when Kerry accepted the presidential nomination in 2004 he stepped to the podium and saluted, military style. That was the beginning of the end. While it was obvious to most independent observers that Kerry didn’t deserve the swiftboat attacks and was obviously caught off guard by charges that turned the truth on its head, it’s also true that he  and his campaign did a horrible job responding. Still, the well-bankrolled truth turning – an early glimpse of what we’ll see this fall from Super PAC’s – worked remarkably well and George W. Bush, the guy who actually had avoided Vietnam service, got re-elected.

[I’ll offer the not terribly original prediction that the “swiftboating” of John Kerry will be studied years from now by political analysts as a classic example of a big smear that was improperly handled by the candidate-victim.]

The 2004 attacks on Kerry also worked, in part, because they seemed to confirm a narrative, dating back to George McGovern in 1972, that Democrats just aren’t as truthworthy when it comes to the nation’s security as Republicans. Ironically, McGovern, a decorated World War II bomber pilot who opposed the Vietnam War, also did not – or chose not – to make a virtue of his distinguished military record. Not until Stephen Ambrose’s 2001 book – The Wild Blue – that featured McGovern’s story did many Americans know that the South Dakota senator and presidential candidate was a genuine, if deeply conflicted, hero of the Greatest Generation.

Now comes Barack Obama and the anniversary of the Navy Seal mission to – use the President’s term – “take out” Osama bin Laden. As TIME’s Jon Meacham has written, Republicans are “shocked, shocked” that the Obama team is taking credit, politicizing if you will, the bringing to justice of the world’s foremost terrorist.

“Here, however, is the issue,” Meacham writes. “Since at least 1968, Democrats have traditionally been more circumspect than their Republican foes in presidential politics. The lesson of the Clinton years and of Obama’s win of both the nomination and the general election in 2008 is that Democrats need to be as tough as JFK was (tough was a favorite Kennedy term). Is the bin Laden ad fair to Romney? No, not really. But politics is not for the faint of heart.”

Here’s my take: Obama has so far been successful in taking away from Republicans one of the historically sharpest arrows in their quiver. Try as they might, Republicans and their presidential candidate can’t pull a Kerry or McGovern on Obama. The GOP and some commentators charge that Obama has overplayed the bin Laden events of a year ago and maybe so, but here’s the issue in that regard: any day Mitt Romney is talking about foreign policy, and he’s been talking about it for days, is a bad day for his campaign.

Obama owns these issues in a way that no Democrat has favorably owned a set of foreign policy issues since Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House. Count on Obama to make the case as the campaign goes forward that he inherited two wars, shut one down in the face of critics who said he was wrong to do so, and then gave the order to take out the guy who made the other war, Afghanistan, necessary.

Frankly, Republicans and Romney, in particular, are committing political malpractice by attempting to compete with the president on these issues. Rather than going to a New York City firehouse yesterday to remember 9-11, Romney should have gone to a military hospital and quietly met with a few soldiers after issuing a statement congratulating the Navy Seals for getting bin Laden. He looks weak and guilty of “me, too” when he says he’d have given the order to go after the Al Quada leader, particularly since he suggested during the last campaign that he wouldn’t.

Romney’s campaign will succeed or fail on the basis of whether he presents a coherent economic message backed by a strategy for growing jobs and economic security for Americans. The Obama campaign has rope-a-doped their opponent into punching below his weight on foreign policy, certainly not the issues Romney wants to run on, and every day that happens, Romney loses.

 As for the charge that Obama is overplaying the bin Laden success, give that great political analyst Jon Stewart the last word. After all, George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier and proclaimed Mission Accomplished in Iraq, or as Stewart said, “he spiked the ball before the game began.” Stewart’s point: Bush, like Obama, would have ridden the issue of being the good guy who got the bad guy as far as possible. In a very basic sense, Obama is again capitalizing on statements from Romney’s past that today look less than, well, astute.

Obama may be overplaying the events of a year ago, but as the baseball great Dizzy Dean once said, “it ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.”



Ten Years On…

Amid the tenth anniversary reflections over the terror attacks on New York and Washington there is much to ponder, remember and regret, including our response and its effectiveness.

Bill Keller, just stepped down as the top editor at The New York Times, used the tenth anniversary to revisit his own cheerleading for the Iraq war. Keller concludes “I think Operation Iraqi Freedom was a monumental blunder.”

No such reflection or any second thoughts from former Vice President Dick Cheney who told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “I think we made exactly the right decision (regarding the invasion of Iraq.)”

The weekend’s commemoration of September 11, 2001 was remarkably free of politics, but 9-11 and the war on terror, as Politico points out, continues to infuse our politics.

“Even as voters grow weary of the nation’s wartime footing,” Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman write at Politico, “Democrats and Republicans continue to seek out opportunities to wield the memory of 9/11 for electoral gain — whether that means using the Guantanamo Bay detention center as a wedge issue, courting the support of firefighters and police or attacking a proposed Islamic center near ground zero.”

So much was lost ten years ago and it is altogether fitting and proper that we regret and mourn that loss. We will do so for as long as people are alive who remember that day. But, we might do well to also reflect on the fleeting nature of the profound desire that existed in the days immediately after September 11 to come together as a country, share both grief and sacrifice and get our national response correctly calibrated. The Spirit of September 12, needless to say, did not last long.

Historian Julian Zelizer writes that our passion for partisanship couldn’t be overcome even by the tragedy of 9/11.

“Could the promise of September 12 ever be fulfilled,” Zelizer asks. “Certainly today there are enormous areas of consensus between the parties, such as over most counterterrorism policies, over the need for strong homeland security programs and even for strong military vigilance with countries such as North Korea and Pakistan.

“Nonetheless, the partisan forces that play out on the campaign trail are simply too great to overcome. If 9/11 taught us anything, it’s how deeply rooted partisanship is in our modern political culture. Even a tragedy of its magnitude could barely contain the forces that perpetually rip apart members of the two parties.

“Ten years ago, the parties came together. But they came together just for a brief spell. In the long span of history, it was as if the moment ended before either side could even blink.”

More serious than even the partisanship of our politics is the general failure of real reflection and analysis in the wake of that terrible day ten years back. A Dick Cheney can’t even hint that he has had a moment of pause considering all that has happened in a decade, including wars costing thousands of lives and perhaps $4 billion in treasure.

But reflect we must and not just on the horrible losses of a decade ago. Fareed Zakaria and others ask are we safer, was our response to 9/11 truly effective, have we improperly compromised our civil liberties and the American reputation for respecting the “rule of law,” has the re-ogranization of our intelligence system worked, and are we fated to wage an endless “war on terror?”

It is worth remembering, as Zakaria does, that “on the day before 9/11 the U.S. was at peace, had a large budget surplus, and oil was $28 a barrel. Today the U.S. is engaged in military operations across the globe, has a deficit of 1.5 trillion dollars and oil is $115 a barrel.”

A new Rasmussen survey says 66% of Americans think the country has “changed for the worst” since 9/11 and fewer than 50% think we’re winning our war on terror. To believe such surveys is to believe that the American people know that we haven’t gotten it right. As the past weekend illustrates, we remember well enough, but do we accumulate much knowledge along with the memory?

Bin Laden is dead and by most accounts his vastly diminished terror network is on the run, but it’s impossible to think – ten years on – that we are anywhere close to the end of the era that began on that spectacular September day a decade ago. Where do we go now? How will we know without more real reflection, without more effort at taking stock and admitting that maybe – just maybe – we have more learning to do?

A question for us – a question that really honors those who perished on 9/11 and in the wars that followed – is whether we will be smart enough to really assess the effectiveness of our response to the tragedy, and adjust as necessary, so that 20 or 50 years on the children of the victims of 9/11 will live in country that not only remembers their loss, but has learned from it as well.


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.

Firing Generals

McClellanmcarthurTruman Did It, So Did Lincoln…

When I first heard about and then read Gen. Stanley McCrystal’s comments about President Obama and some of his top advisers, I thought of another general – brilliant, but also cocky – who dissed his commander-in-chief, and, no, it was Douglas MacArthur.

The guy I thought of was George Brinton McClellan – Little Mac – the general who confounded Abraham Lincoln and, I would suggest, bears more than a passing resemblance to the sacked McCrystal. There is a famous story from 1862 about McClellan showing a supreme amount of disrespect for his Commander-in-Chief. Lincoln called one evening on his commanding general at his home in Washington, D.C. Told that McClellan was out, Lincoln, with a couple of companions in tow, told the general’s household staff that he would wait for his return in the parlor. Before too long McClellan came home and was told the President of the United States was waiting to speak to him. Rather than immediately present himself, McClellan sprinted up the stairs and went to bed.

Lincoln’s aides were outraged. What a snub of the president whom McClellan was known to call “an idiot” and “the gorilla.” Lincoln, one wonders why, shrugged off the snub. Time after time during the early days of the Civil War, Lincoln gave McClellan his head and time after time McClellan disappointed. Finally, after McClellan failed to follow up on his on significant defeat of Robert E. Lee’s army at the bloody battle of Antietam, Lincoln sacked the arrogant and ineffective general. McClellan, never lacking in self-confidence, eventually ran against Lincoln for president in1864. Lincoln had the pleasure of dispatching him a second time, but he probably put up with more than he should have and for much longer.

Obama acted more decisively and appropriately with McCrystal. And, when the president summoned his general from Afghanistan, at least McCrystal showed up to face the public hanging.

Lincoln had another general – Joe Hooker – who talked openly about the country’s need for “a dictator” to effectively end the Civil War. Lincoln, again displaying real patience, heard about Hooker’s lose talk and wrote the general one of the greatest letters any C-of-C ever wrote a battlefield commander.

Only generals who create victories, Lincoln told Hooker, could hope to create dictators. You bring the victories, Lincoln said, and “I’ll risk the dictator.” Lincoln finally had to fire Hooker, too.

Here’s the point: had McCrystal’s strategy in Afghanistan been working in a way that all of us could see, he might have survived. As it is, McCrystal is a good deal more like McClellan and Hooker than he is like MacArthur. MacArthur had engineered the audacious amphibious landing at Inchon in Korea, for example, and had a long record of accomplishment before Truman tied the can to him for his open contempt for the president. One of the best analysts of the American military, Thomas Ricks, makes the point that we ought to have even less hesitation about relieving a general. He’s right.

With all respect to McCrystal, he hasn’t won a thing. For that matter, neither has the newly designated commander Gen. David Petraeus. Petraeus is given credit for devising and implementing the Iraq strategy, yet despite all the praise for the general, what happens after American troops further disengage in Iraq is still an open question.

The verdict is also very much out regarding the Afghanistan strategy. Obama may look back on this moment and come to regret that he didn’t seize upon McCrystal’s, and his staff’s, Bud Lite Lime infused indiscretions with a Rolling Stone reporter to reassess the entire strategy in Afghanistan. There is plenty of reason to wonder if any commander can make it work.

Lincoln – and Truman – learned that a president only gets to fire a general every once in a while. Doing so reasserts, in an essential way, the American tradition of civilian control of the military. But, considering how rare and high profile such a move is, a president better make the most of it to change strategy, too.