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December 17, 2009
Business as UsualBy Greyhawk
Is Joe Biden following in the footsteps of Sarah Palin and "going rogue"? Watch before reading:
A quick generic observation on this: it's a great reminder that experience doesn't automatically mean competence; the stuttering performance and confusion between Afghanistan and Pakistan is perhaps excusable for the average Joe but not for the Vice President of the United States - especially one the media is desperately trying to promote as Team Obama's foreign policy expert and go-to guy. ("No one knows more about [Afghanistan] than you do," Mike Barnicle told the veep during the interview.) Unfortunately for the Obama administration it's true - he is the experienced hand.
First some quick background. Shortly after "Obama's new strategy" for Afghanistan was announced earlier this month, the New York Times published a lengthy White House press release disguised as a "leak"-based news account* detailing the painstaking process of developing that strategy. As decision time approached...
The president went around the room asking for opinions. Mr. Biden again expressed skepticism, even at this late hour when the tide had turned against him in terms of the troop number. But he had succeeded in narrowing the scope of the mission to protect population centers and setting the date to begin withdrawal. Others around the table concurred with the plan. Mr. Obama spoke last, but still somewhat elliptically. Some advisers said they walked out into the night after 10 p.m., uncertain whether the president had actually endorsed the Max Leverage option or was just testing for reaction.
But then, "on the following Sunday, Nov. 29, he summoned his national security team to the Oval Office" - and the drama knob was turned to 11. He had made his decision...
So - everyone's on board with the plan. (The Washington Post's version of the story explains what the president would have done if someone had disagreed: "If they didn't support the decision, he was going to issue another decision" until there was unanimity, a senior administration official said.) "Unfortunately, part of the decision was to publicly announce a plan to begin a troop drawdown in the summer of 2011. As far as pressuring the Government of Afghanistan goes, warnings aren't a bad idea. But the purpose of a public declaration of that intent isn't designed to pressure the Afghan (or Pakistan) governments - it's to shore up support among a majority of American Democrats, whose once loudly proclaimed support for "Obama's war" in Afghanistan plunged even faster than their support for "Bush's war" in Iraq.
The deadline question rapidly became a hot topic, the DoD effort to undo some of the damage was immediate, though efforts to both use and hide the key word "begin" continued, and rose rapidly to levels of absurdity. But the effort failed; Democrats weren't buying it, and those of any political stripe with any knowledge of military strategy were deeply concerned (at the least) with the wisdom of the proclamation. Almost immediately additional White House press releases (disguised as "leak"-based news accounts*) followed, announcing the deadline was actually the military's idea.
Meanwhile, General McChrystal returned to the United States and testified to the Senate on the topic.
How do we convince the locals we are committed long-term given ambiguous withdrawal/drawdown in the plan? McChrystal: "They will judge us by our actions. The question to us [when we return to a village] is always 'are you going to stay this time?' What they [Afghans] are really judging is not our rhetoric. What we need to stress is not the increase in forces but the long term partnership. We should contest enemy propaganda about timelines and stress that we will help them in long term partnership.
The DoD attempted to undo some of the damage caused by that "enemy propaganda" with their coverage of President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize trip, headlined "Obama Promises Conditions-based Afghanistan Transition". But Obama's resolute tough guy/American leader first Nobel Prize speech - perhaps even more so than his West Point speech - flopped heavily among Democrats. (Sarah Palin liked it; enough said.)
Which brings us to the real purpose of Joe Biden's TeeVee appearance - desperately shove the pendulum back the other way. A bit of firm resolve might have done the trick - what we got was a man with Jello in his spine. Pressed by Scarborough to explain why it seemed we were escalating what many see as a hopeless mission, Biden combined blame-shifting and agreement into his response.
"Let me tell you what I'm happy with... You're going to see [troop numbers] coming down as rapidly over the next two years. The President made it absolutely clear - I sat with him when he looked at each of the generals, and he said "Gentlemen, here's the deal. I'm going to allow you to surge, and I want you to do it quicker than you'd planned, these additional 30,000 troops, but here's the deal. December of next year we're going to assess whether this proof-of-concept has worked. We are not going to be discussing whether we add a single more troop, the only issue will be how rapidly we begin to draw down these troops in July of 2011."
And with that, General McChrystal's testimony to the Senate was flushed down the toilet. Biden's mission here is clearly to shore up support among Democrats. On one hand, he quickly used the key weasel word: "the only issue will be how rapidly we begin...". On the other, he also promised you're going to see them come down as rapidly as they went up - and that's the message he wants Democrats to hear.
Two, note the part where Biden makes clear that the whole thing was the military's idea; he depicts the president as reluctantly telling the generals that he's going to let them have their surge, but it's their last chance to get it right. This comes close to refuting the earlier White House "leak" that the drawdown was actually the military's idea, too; but again, Obama's number two man is directing a message to people he perceives as nervous Democrats - no matter what you thought you heard in Oslo, the president is a reluctant "warrior" at best.
Not content to stop there, the vice president moves into the realm of undermining the actual strategy. I don't think you need to understand counterinsurgency in order to understand that Biden's assurance that we aren't using a counterinsurgency strategy to counter the insurgency in Afghanistan is not a confidence-booster. General McChrystal has repeatedly emphasized the counter-insurgency aspect of the mission there - and most emphatically when briefing ISAF troops on the mission after the president's West Point speech. Counterinsurgency strategy here means McChrystal's population first approach - the very strategy we are obviously (in spite of the veep's claims to the contrary) employing in Afghanistan. In simple terms, if you convince the people we're on their side and committed to the effort they'll side with us over the Taliban. That's a tall order, extremely difficult, and Biden's flippant closing line - "lots of luck in your senior year; we are not going to be staying there" - sends a clear message, and flushes McChrystal's message to his troops and the Afghan people down the same previously-mentioned vice-presidential toilet.
Most Democrats aren't going to buy into any of this - they aren't quite as stupid or gullible as the White House believes, and they want the troops home (and free health care) now. Elsewhere the jury is still out, in Afghanistan and Pakistan al Qaeda and the Taliban are using all this to great effect - and now they've got a fresh batch of Joe Biden quotes to generate "enemy propaganda".
Here's how all that plays out on the ground with "the locals" - in the words of a young Marine sergeant in Afghanistan: "They don't want to trust us because they don't think we're going to be here for the long haul."
Good luck kid - you'll need it.
But all that brings us to the original question: is Biden "going rogue"? Of course not. He's merely re-emphasizing what's actually been Obama's public Afghanistan strategy since its first public unveiling in March. "The United States must overcome the 'trust deficit' it faces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where many believe that we are not a reliable long-term partner" read the plan for the administration's "new strategy" at the time; but "the United States must look for a way out of the war in Afghanistan... there's got to be an exit strategy," said the president on its release.
Both Biden and McChrystal seem to agree that the Obama approach to Afghanistan has been clarified after months of useful White House debate. For those still confused, the White House strategy can now be summed up in broad terms as simply as this: convince Americans that what we say matters. The military strategy is to convince Afghans that what we say doesn't matter. And for any young American troops on the ground, the more specific mission is to convince Afghans with their actions that the words of the Vice President of the United States (who "knows more about Afghanistan than anyone") don't mean jack shit.
*Footnote: Most White House press release disguised as "leak"-based news accounts ("based on dozens of interviews with participants as well as a review of notes some of them took during Mr. Obama's 10 meetings with his national security team. Most of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations") now include disclaimers similar to this one from the Times: "Mr. Obama, who campaigned as an apostle of transparency and had been announcing each Situation Room meeting publicly and even releasing pictures, was livid that details of the discussions were leaking out. "'What I'm not going to tolerate is you talking to the press outside of this room,' he scolded his advisers. 'It's a disservice to the process, to the country and to the men and women of the military.'" (The story is topped with an extra-large photo of the president wandering thoughtfully among the tombstones at Arlington for good measure.)
Posted by Greyhawk / December 17, 2009 3:43 PM | Permalink
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November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
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Contact: greyhawk at mudvillegazette dot com