Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Reality Obama Can't Face

I am a man of the Left, not a liberal, because liberals hold on too tight to their illusions. They think the problem with U.S. power is that the wrong people are wielding it. After Vietnam, after David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, they still think that.

I have more in common with a humane conservative like Andrew Bacevich. He writes in the Boston Globe, "But however much Obama may differ from Bush on particulars, he appears intent on sustaining the essentials on which the Bush policies were grounded...the Sacred Trinity of global power projection, global military presence, and global activism." It is far too late for that. Read Bacevich to find out why.

Monday, April 20, 2009


I am not surprised that Obama is not going to prosecute the people who told George W. Bush what he wanted to hear: that it was legal to strip people naked and leave them in freezing cold interrogation rooms, or pour water down their throats until they nearly died from drowning. The right thing to do would be to prosecute Bush, Cheney, the Office of Legal Counsel who advised them, and the CIA and military people who carried out the torture, for conspiracy to violate human rights. It will not happen. I am not surprised, but I am dismayed, disheartened, and a bit more afraid of this government even than before. Tell me again that they are there to protect us.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Ghost Wars, conclusion: The Limits of Hard Power

The U.S. does not have the power to defend itself against terrorist attacks, and it is not doing the things it would take to build that power. That's the most important lesson I derive from reading Steve Coll's Ghost Wars : The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.

I want to make it clear: Steve Coll doesn't say that. He probably wouldn't agree. A lot of his book points out how the U.S. missed chances to stop al-Qaeda in its tracks by misunderstanding what was going on, or not sharing the information available in different branches of government. Some of the time, he even makes it sound like better use of futuristic technology would have let the CIA assassinate bin Laden and prevent the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in 2001.

Coll's own book argues against those conclusions, however. He is too good a journalist not to report that the U.S. could not know for sure where bin Laden was at any given moment--and that the consequences of missing him, and killing innocent people, would have been dire. We have also many, many reasons to believe that killing one man would not have stopped this movement--even if it were moral to do so.

The thing is: where are we today? The U.S. military is wounded from Iraq. Even if it were at full strength, it could not fight a successful counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan--no foreign power in history has been able to do that. The CIA still has very few spies who speak Dari or Pashto or any of the languages most common in Afghanistan, and almost none who could pass for Afghanis themselves. Secret war will not be any more successful than overt war.

This is not a counsel of despair, however. The U.S. has relied single-mindedly on hard power, when what is needed is soft power. According to the inventor of the term, Joseph Nye, soft power means
the ability to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than using the carrots and sticks of payment or coercion. As I describe in my new book The Powers to Lead, in individuals soft power rests on the skills of emotional intelligence, vision, and communication that Obama possesses in abundance. In nations, it rests upon culture (where it is attractive to others), values (when they are applied without hypocrisy), and policies (when they are inclusive and seen as legitimate in the eyes of others.)
I agree with Nye when he says, "American soft power has declined quite dramatically in much of the world over the past eight years." Just by being elected, Obama has halted the decline. He has not gained ground, however, and he will not make America a more attractive model to the world by sending more troops to Afghanistan or sending more prisoners to Bagram, the Iraqi Guantanamo. He will not gain a reputation for wisdom by pretending that the Karzai government in Kabul, the Maliki government in Baghdad, or the Zardari government in Islamabad is a reliable friend. The Bush administration has left us very little time to come to grips with reality. It is time to retrench and rebuild.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Yes, Mr. President, There is a Habeas Corpus

You can't call someone a terror suspect, lock him up, and throw away the key, whether the prison is in Guantanamo, Cuba or Bagram, Afghanistan.


It's alarming that the Obama administration agreed with the Bush administration "that the Bagram prisoners were not entitled to question their detention in civil courts," according to an article in today's Boston Globe. Didn't Obama say we should elect him because of his good judgment? What kind of judgment does it demonstrate when he asserts the same kind of dictatorial powers that we have fought against for the last eight years?

A Life Sentence for Vets

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, was blunt about psychological and family problems of vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan--including high rates of homelessness.

"This is not a 10-year problem. It is a 50- or 60- or 70-year problem."

Think about that. The decision to go to war means condemning a certain number of the men and women in uniform to a lifetime of suffering. We call them heroes, but we punish them with a life sentence--them, their spouses, their children, and everyone who loves them and is forced to watch them struggle with horrors most of us will never see.

Think about it again, hard, whenever you imagine the U.S. using military force again. President Obama, think about that when you calculate your troop increases in Afghanistan. Know that when we go to war, we make our own soldiers the enemy. What is there in the world that could justify doing that to our friends, neighbors, and countrymen and women? How dare we?