Entries from August 2010

Learning the Wrong Lessons from Iraq

August 31st, 2010 at 11:32 pm 27 Comments

President Obama tonight declared that U.S. combat operations in Iraq are over. I wish we could say the same about shoddy thinking and slippery language.

Thus, the president reiterated his pledge to bring all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of next year; and he again promised that in Aug. 2011 U.S. troops “will begin [to] transition” out of Afghanistan. After all, he explained, “open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.”

But of course, no one is talking about “open-ended war.” That’s a red herring and a straw man of the president’s own making. What some of Obama’s critics are talking about is keeping U.S. ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. This, they reason, is the best way to ensure that our commitment to both countries is real, effective and enduring.

Obama insists that he wants that. He insists that America will remain committed to helping our Iraqi and Afghan allies for the long-term. Yet he asserts that this commitment can be sustained without U.S. ground forces.  Obama seems not to understand what American troops there are doing and why.  “Ending this war is not only in Iraq’s interest,” he declared; “it is in our own.

The United States has paid a huge price to put the future of Iraq in the hands of its people… We have met our responsibility. Now it is time to turn the page.

Obama makes it sound as if war is something that we and our allies (be they Iraqi or Afghan) can turn on or off — start, continue or end — at will. But that’s simply not true. The enemy gets a vote.

In truth, what the president didn’t say, but which needs to be said, is this: Wars can only be ended by winning or losing them; and the United States intends to win.

And I’m sorry, but no: the United States cannot simply “turn the page” on history, because history never ends. History presents us with challenges that, like it or not, we must forthrightly address and confront.

Indeed, the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan and the broader Middle East is comprised of a series of difficult challenges which cry out for American leadership. And military involvement and commitment — including the deployment of U.S. ground troops — is an integral part of American leadership.

Obama, then, got it exactly backwards. He said that:

One of the lessons of our effort in Iraq is that American influence around the world is not a function of military force alone. We must use all elements of our power, including our diplomacy, our economic strength, and the power of America’s example to secure our interests and to stand by our allies…

To the contrary: one of the lessons of our effort in Iraq (and Afghanistan) is that American influence around the world depends in large measure upon the exercise of U.S. military power and the presence of U.S. ground troops. A related lesson is that the U.S. military — and in particular, our Army and Marine Corps — must be geared and equipped to fight unconventional and irregular conflicts in populated areas filled with noncombatants.

Yet, Obama canceled the Army’s premier modernization program, Future Combat Systems, while cutting and delaying other crucial ground-force modernization initiatives. The reason: budgetary constraints. The Defense Department, virtually alone amongst government agencies, has been asked to make “hard choices”; and so, weapon systems modernization has suffered the budget ax.

Nonetheless, the president said, with a straight face, that because of “a trillion dollars” spent on war over the past decade, we’ve shortchanged American prosperity. As tennis great John McEnroe used to say, “You cannot be serious!”

In truth, defense spending amounts to little more than four or five percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and is projected to decline to three percent of GDP by the middle of a second Obama term as president — an historic low at a time of war.

As for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they account for little more than one percent of the GDP, according to defense analyst Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute.

Obama is right that middle-class families are hurting. But they’re hurting because of the recession and the tax threat from swelling entitlement spending, not because of the costs of national defense.  You could buy a lot of defense for the cost of the failed stimulus alone.

To his credit, Obama is not reckless. Instead, he is cautious, at least when it comes to defense and foreign policy. Thus, the New York Times reports that, on his first full day as president, Obama told his advisers: “Guys, before you start, there’s one thing I want to say to you, and that is: I do not want to screw this [Iraq] up.”

His admirable caution, pragmatism and prudence have served Obama well, especially when it comes to defense and foreign policy. It’s kept him from doing anything rash like precipitously withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. But it has not given him any insight into the nature of the (foreign policy) challenges and (military) threats that confront the United States in this, the early 21st Century. And here, Obama’s caution, pragmatism and prudence fail him.


You can follow John Guardiano on Twitter: @JohnRGuardiano

Obama’s Unfinished Iraq Address

David Frum August 31st, 2010 at 11:04 pm 22 Comments

Obama’s Iraq speech messages:

1) Attention liberals: I ended the Iraq war, as promised!

2) Attention conservatives: I did not cut and run.

3) Attention soldiers: More benefits for you.

4) Attention region: I’m staying the course in Afghanistan.

5) Attention swing voters: My priority is the economy.

Too many messages, too many audiences. Too many hostages to fortune. The president promises both the end of the combat mission – and a commitment to securing Iraq’s future. What happens if those commitments conflict? He promises that all troops will leave Iraq by the end of 2011. That pledge may depend on what the meaning of “troops” is.


Questions left behind:

Will liberals accept these results as anything like what they voted for in 2008?

Will Iraq’s reality cooperate with the president’s plans to draw down in that theater as he revs up in Afghanistan?

Can leaders motivate troops to fight a successful war in Afghanistan when the leaders themselves express little confidence in success?

Will Iran notice that the speech did not guarantee Iraq against aggression by Iraq’s neighbors?

Wasn’t that an awfully thin compliment to President Bush? Really, if that’s all you will say – better not to say anything.

Obama on Iraq War: “Time to Turn the Page”

August 31st, 2010 at 8:22 pm 3 Comments

The New York Times reports on President Obama’s Oval Office address announcing the end of combat operations in Iraq.

President Obama formally declared an end to the combat mission in Iraq Tuesday night, telling the nation that that, after seven years of war that claimed more than 4,400 American lives, it is ‘’time to turn the page’’ toward another war, Afghanistan, and toward pressing problems at home.

In an address from the Oval Office – only his second as president – Mr. Obama reminded Americans that, in giving responsibility for Iraqi security to the Iraqis, he was fulfilling a promise he made while running for office. He conceded that Americans are ‘’understandably asking tough questions’’ about Afghanistan, but urged the nation to stick with him on that war.

“We must never lose sight of what’s at stake,’’ Mr. Obama said. Sounding much like his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, he warned, “As we speak, al Qaeda continues to plot against us.’’

But it was clear that, at a time when Americans are anxious about the economy, Mr. Obama also wanted to use the address to pivot toward problems at home. As he praised the courage and resolve of the American troops, he reminded the nation of the blood and treasure that had been spilled during the Iraq war, and said it is time for him to focus on his “central responsibility’’ as president: restoring the economic health of the nation.

“At this moment, as we wind down the war in Iraq, we must tackle those challenges at home with as much energy, and grit, and sense of common purpose as our men and women in uniform who have served abroad,’’ Mr. Obama said. “They have met every test that they faced. Now, it is our turn. Now, it is our responsibility to honor them by coming together, all of us, and working to secure the dream that so many generations have fought for – the dream that a better life awaits anyone who is willing to work for it and reach for it.’’

Earlier in the day, he had said that there is a “tough slog” ahead in the war in Afghanistan, as he told troops in Fort Bliss, Texas, on Tuesday.

Speaking just hours before he delivered the Oval Office address, he addressed the situation in Iraq, where some 50,000 troops will remain until next year in a mainly advisory and training role, Mr. Obama warned that the American mission was not yet accomplished. Mr. Obama told the troops that his address was “not going to be a victory lap; it’s not going to be self-congratulatory. There’s still a lot of work.”

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McConnell: Bush Needs Credit for Iraq

August 31st, 2010 at 5:59 pm 11 Comments

Politico reports:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stopped just sort of calling President Barack Obama a hypocrite on Iraq and says Obama should be giving credit to former President George W. Bush for the war’s successes.

Obama — a vocal critic in the Senate and on the campaign trail of the Iraq troop surge — plans to highlight its success in his second speech from the Oval Office. But McConnell, in a speech in Lexington, Ky., planned to say that credit should be given to “another president,” George W. Bush, who had the “determination and will to carry out the plan that made [this] announcement possible.”

“It sure makes things easier when you reject your own campaign rhetoric about how the surge — the Petraeus plan — shouldn’t happen and wouldn’t work,” McConnell said at the Commerce Lexington Public Policy Luncheon. “[And] it makes it easier to talk about fulfilling a campaign promise to wind down our operations in Iraq when the previous administration signs the security agreement with Iraq to end our overall presence there.”

“You might recall that the surge wasn’t very popular when it was announced. You might also recall that one of its biggest critics was the current president.”

With his remarks Tuesday, McConnell joined other leading Republicans, including 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain and House Minority Leader John Boehner, in praising Bush while calling into question Obama’s foreign policy vision.

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Gunman Kills Four Israelis in West Bank

August 31st, 2010 at 5:42 pm Comments Off

The AP reports:

The Israeli military says a Palestinian gunman has killed four Israelis in an attack in the West Bank.

The shooting comes just a day ahead of a White House summit relaunching Mideast peace talks.

Police say the gunman opened fire at a vehicle near Hebron — a volatile city that has experienced heavy violence in the past.

There has been no claim of responsibility. But Israeli authorities are concerned that militants might try to sabotage the U.S.-led peace efforts with violence.

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Amsterdam Flight Terror Suspects May Not Be Charged

August 31st, 2010 at 5:31 pm 4 Comments

The Detroit Free Press reports:

Fears that two men with metro Detroit ties were making a terrorist dry run before being arrested off a flight in Amsterdam are slowly easing.

A senior Yemeni official told the Free Press today that the two men arrested Monday in connection with suspicious items in the luggage of one of the men are not terrorists.

Meanwhile, a Department of Homeland Security statement today appeared to downplay earlier federal assertions that it may have been linked to terrorism.

“I do not think they had any intentions” of committing terrorism, Yemen’s consul general in Detroit, Abdul-Hakim Al-Sadah, told the Free Press today.

The U.S. does not expect to charge Ahmed Moihamed Nasser al Soofi, 48, a Yemeni who has permanent resident status in the U.S., and Hezem Abdullah Thabi al Murisi, 37, a Yemeni who traveled to the U.S. on a visitor’s visa, a U.S. official has told the Associated Press.

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India’s Economy Booms

August 31st, 2010 at 5:30 pm Comments Off

The BBC reports:

India’s economy grew at its fastest rate for more than two years in the last quarter, according to official data.

In the three months to June, GDP was up 8.8% compared with the same period last year.

Although only the 11th biggest economy in the world, India is the second fastest-growing, behind China.

Strong industrial and mining output helped boost the growth rate, India’s statistics agency said.

Industrial output rose more than 12%, while mining and quarrying jumped nearly 9%.

Services including hotels and banking also did well, with output up nearly 10%.

Services account for 55% of India’s economy, while industry makes up around 25% of output.

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Obama Calls Bush Before Iraq Speech

August 31st, 2010 at 5:25 pm 1 Comment

The Hill reports:

President Obama phoned former President George W. Bush on Tuesday morning aboard Air Force One, hours before he is scheduled to deliver a major address on the end of combat operations in Iraq.

White House spokesman Bill Burton told reporters that the conversation lasted a few minutes, but said the call was private and details will not be made public.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday that the call would likely happen — Obama also spoke to Bush before his speech announcing his withdrawal timeline in February 2009.

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Schmidt: Gay Marriage Now a Conservative Cause

August 31st, 2010 at 3:28 pm 77 Comments

Former McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt tells Sam Stein of the Huffington Post why gay marriage is now a conservative cause:

“There is a strong conservative case to be made in favor of gay marriage,” former McCain campaign manager and fellow same-sex marriage fundraiser Steve Schmidt told the Huffington Post on Tuesday. “Marriage is an institution that strengthens and stabilizes society. It is an institution that has the capacity to bring profound joy and happiness to people and it is a matter of equality and keeping faith of one of the charters of the nation, the right to live your life.

“More and more conservatives are saying that opposition to gay marriage would not be a litmus test for membership in the GOP,” Schmidt added. “And more conservatives are making the case that no more do you want big government conservatives in the bedroom than big government liberals telling you how to live your life.”

To be sure, the Mehlman fundraiser is not entirely a Republican-driven affair. Some of the big names on the ticket are Democrats, including former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta.

But reading through the list of attendees, it’s remarkable to see how many prominent conservatives are not just comfortable associating with the gay-rights cause but are eager to fundraise for it. Pair that with rumblings from elsewhere in the party (most notably from Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels) that conservatives should have a “truce” on social issues for the time being and the frictions within the GOP tent become even more apparent.

If anything, the hostility between the social conservative element of the party and those less adherent to that doctrine is already palpable. As one prominent Republican who supports gay rights put it:

“I think there is a growing mass of people in Republican politics who are fundamentally sick and tired about being lectured to about morality and how to live your life by a bunch of people who have been married three or four times and are more likely to be seen outside a brothel on a Thursday night than being at home with their kids… There is a fundamental indecency to the vitriol and the hatred directed against decent people because of their sexuality. People have reached a critical mass with this.”

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Why Obama’s Iraq Speech Won’t Win Over the Left

David Frum August 31st, 2010 at 2:43 pm 75 Comments

David Corn asks a good question: Why is the president speaking tonight?

[P]olitically there’s little or no payoff for an Iraq war address. Obama can’t brag, “Mission accomplished.” (In fact, on Monday, press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama would not be using those words.) He can’t declare victory. He can only declare a murky end to a murky war.

Just guessing, but here’s why:

The president’s biggest political problem is the disillusionment of his liberal voters. Contra Fox News, they do not see a liberal president doing liberal things. They see a consensus president rescuing Wall Street. The job situation remains dismal, the administration is deporting illegal immigrants, and where are the gays in the military?

What Obama needs to do between now and November is pound home the message: I have kept faith with my voters on their big concerns, healthcare and the Iraq war. Now those voters must keep faith with me.

Ronald Reagan could count on a cadre of conservatives to defend his actions against any and all critics. A friend once teased Bill Rusher, then publisher of National Review: “Whenever Reagan does something awful, you defend it on one of two grounds: either that Reagan had no choice, or that the full wisdom of his action will be disclosed to lesser mortals in God’s good time.” According to legend, Rusher answered, “May I point out that the two positions are not necessarily incompatible?”

Nobody seems willing to do for Obama what Rusher did for Reagan. So Obama must do the job himself. Tonight’s speech is part of that job. Message: I ended George Bush’s war. Vote Democratic.

The trouble is: This message seems unlikely to work in the way Democrats need. Obama’s speech is much more likely to alienate marginal voters than to galvanize alienated liberals, and for this reason:

Obama’s liberal voters will not abide any whiff of triumphalism in the president’s speech. For them, Iraq was at best a disaster, at worst a colonialist war crime. (Elsewhere on the Politics Daily site, David Corn’s colleague Jill Lawrence specifies what she’d like to hear the president say: “Never again.”)

But most Americans want and expect triumphs. “Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser.” So said George Patton on the eve of D-Day, and he was right. And if President Obama declines to declare himself a winner, guess what alternative remains? Exactly.