Posted tagged ‘chuck hagel’

The Case For Afghanistan

November 24, 2014

President Obama has announced the complete withdrawal of US combat troops from Afghanistan by 2016. Unfortunately it appears that one of the phased withdrawal steps due by January 2015 will not be met. The President has agreed to allow US troops to conduct further operations in coordination with Afghan forces. Hmmm.

The decision to withdraw completely almost assuredly will set up an analogous situation in Afghan as we have just seen in Iraq. The Taliban will gain ground and continually threaten major Afghan cities. If the US has withdrawn, its capability to confront Taliban forces will severely strained.

A bigger risk, however, will not be on the battle field but at home in the political world of the 2016 Presidential election. Once again, the GOP will label Democrats as soft on defense and ineffective as leaders. Hmmm.

Afghanistan represents a difficult piece of culture and geography. From the days of Alexander the Great, each successive invader has had difficulty deciding when to leave.  What’s in it for the US to remain?

One advantage, some say, if the US keeps a sustainable Afghan force, is this presence would require an overall military size helpful in responding to flare ups other places in the world. The support infrastructure to maintain an Army in Afghanistan could also support a more rapid deployment of US troops to other locations in Asia or the Middle East, for example. And with a growing Chinese presence and a rejuvenated Russia, maintaining US military strength is a strong argument.

We must be careful, however, if any of our political or military leaders suggests that staying in Afghanistan is necessary to complete the Afghan transition to democracy. While Afghanistan does not present the Middle East “Sunni-Shiite conflict”, Afghanistan presents its own set of obstacles.

Afghanistan is a relatively recent State which has been cobbled together from dozens of ethnically different groups. The idea that modern Afghanistan can be anything other than a loose confederation of tribes for the foreseeable future is just dreaming. Poverty, corruption, and tribal jealousies will rule the day. The reason to remain in Afghanistan does not include helping to birth a democracy.

The rub in the “being ready for other contingencies” argument is an statement the US cannot make publicly.  More to the point, it will not sell well on the Sunday talk shows.

Another damaging aspect will be the budgetary considerations. How can the US support a continued war while cutting domestic spending?

Former President Johnson once said he would not be the first US President to lose a war when referring to a Vietnam withdrawal. President Obama may see that same writing on his history wall.  While leaving Afghanistan is inevitable since connecting it to US national interests any longer is too much of a stretch, President Obama may be thinking, “not on my watch”.

The case for Afghanistan is for the Afghanis to decide. We went there in hot pursuit of al Qaeda and removed the Taliban government because they tolerated al Qaeda presence. It is not our position to tell the Afghan people what type of leaders they should have. If religious conservatives like the Taliban, so be it.

The risk, of course, will remain that ISIS or al Qaeda or some other look alike will return. But frankly, a residual force of 14,000 will not be much of a deterrent anyways.

What say Chuck Hagel?

Bluff Called?

February 25, 2014

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced yesterday deep cuts to the Army.  The cuts were characterized as reducing the size of the Army to 440,000 or pre-WWII size.  Hagel said that the Country could not afford to maintain its technological edge, and still keep so many Americans under arms.  I guess he was saying its guns and butter again.

There are several logical arguments to support Hagel’s recommendations.  New technology can do a lot more but it also costs a lot.  While no one can be sure of the next war, the last two (Afghanistan and Iraq) were wasteful uses of traditionally supported ground troops.  Special Operations, on the other hand, have demonstrated much usefulness as an adjunct to diplomacy.

Exactly how our future military should be structured, such as numbers of ships and types, planes, or tanks, is a matter for our Joint Chiefs.  Entering wasteful wars like Iraq and Afghanistan is the providence of Congress, and ultimately the American voters.  So, here comes the bluff.

The GOP has been on a one handed deficit death march by cutting only government spending.  Economists can debate whether the deficit needs to be zero or just some small number, but running at current levels north of $500 billion is unacceptable and dangerous.

The danger arises because the deficit is not the result of a deliberative process, that is a conscious decision to spend in excess of tax revenues.  The deficit represents a dysfunctional governance process.

In the best of light, Congress is divided over whether to balance the budget by reforming entitlements (like Medicare and Medicaid), or to cut all spending while increasing tax revenues.  In the poorest of light, Congress is divided by which tactics will benefit which party at the next election and has nothing to due with true deficit reduction.

Defense spending is a cornucopia for all Congress members.  A little or a lot (of government dollars) goes to each district.  The mere idea of reigning in Defense spending sends chills down the backs of our blustery Congress members.  How can they remain tough on spending and still find ways to puff up the military?

The next few weeks should be a treat if your fancy is political double speak.  We will hear more about unnamed enemies and geopolitical threats.  And, once again, Republican Chuck Hagel will be castigated by his former colleagues.  How could Hagel be so irresponsible?

Using only Medicare and Medicaid cuts to reduce government spending has been a bluff in hopes of maybe getting cuts or at the least, a “grand bargain” which includes large reforms and a few new taxes.  This bluff comes off the tracks if Hagel’s recommendations are shot down.  In the process of advocating no military cuts, those “bluffers” will be exposed for what they are.


Negotiating With The Enemy?

March 11, 2013

Over the weekend, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, publicly accused the US of meeting daily with the Taliban and negotiating about the future of Afghanistan.  Negotiating with the enemy?  Well, I for one, would hope so.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s unannounced trip to Afghanistan this weekend has not made his post confirmation hearing days feel any easier.  The “yes you did, no we didn’t” childish level of political discourse is unlikely what Hagel had in mind when he accepted President Obama’s offer.  So, what is the Afghan end game?

The end game is said to be leaving 20,000 or so troops in Afghanistan.  One must be delusional to think these 20,000 could provide training or advice to a tribal society that frankly does not want it.  “Training” will be the billboard signage the US flies.

I am sure attempts will be made to train.  The reality is how can you train poor, mostly uneducated people who simply just want to get on with life.  Why does anyone think that in a land where there is scant measurable GDP, that any tribal official will gladly stand by while other tribal leaders corner what ever money exists?

But assume for a moment, training is the purpose.  What is the end game?  When will enough training be done?  What characteristics would we look for to believe the Afghans can govern themselves?

Consider for a moment the Afghan opium trade.  Various estimates put the value at $7-10 billion per year with about 5% of this value actually going in Afghan farmer’s pockets.  It would seem a relatively straight forward problem to stamp out poppy cultivation, or stop its conversion to opium.  So far, all efforts, including direct payments to farmers, have been unsuccessful.  If the US cannot eliminate the opium trade with 100,000 troops, why would anyone think we can do better with 20,000?

The very best face we can put on the “residual” force is that they are there as an outpost (eyes and ears), and a home for drones.  The issue is not Afghanistan but rather Iran and Pakistan.  But, worst of all, this strategy is a hope, not a high probability plan.

In the months ahead, we will learn whether the fears the military cheerleaders like Lindsay Graham and John McCain were correct in their Chuck Hagel opposition.  If Hagel convinces the President to get out completely, the Senate opposition will have been proven correct.

America, however, will have been better served.

Making Sense of Chuck Hagel

February 15, 2013

A new word may be emerging from the Senate halls.  The word, a noun, is “Hagel-ling”.  It describes a process where a minority party recklessly exercises a historic Senate privilege and blocks a Presidential nomination with no job performance grounds.

“Hagel-ling” continues a practice which gained momentum beginning in 2009 called “No-ing”.  This practice calls for the President’s opposition to simply say “No” to anything and everything the President proposes.

Both practices gain character when the invokers wear an American Flag lapel pin.  Looking a television camera straight on, the “No” sayer says, “the American people don’t want this, they want …. whatever.”

Who said English was a dead language?

To put “Hagel-ling” and “No-ing” is a fuller context, one should try to answer the following four questions:

  • Which Country spends more (twice as much as most) other countries on health care, does not include everyone in health care coverage, and accepts a system that delivers mediocre health care outcomes?
  • Which Country spends more per student on K-12 education than any other country (except Switzerland), and produces students whose standardized test scores are mediocre?
  • Which Country spends more money on Defense than any other country, almost as much as all other countries combined?
  • Which Country imprisons more citizens than any other country with little or no impact upon crime rates?

The answer to all four question is the United States of America.

The US finds itself in a peculiar spot.

  • The Federal budget is chronically unbalanced.
  • Most experts point to a shortage of educated and skilled workers to fill current and future jobs.
  • Defense spending bares little resemblance to imminent threats and a lot more commonality to Congressional districts.
  • Prison populations keep rising as well as the budgets to house more prisoners per capita than any place in the world.  Why is the US so law un-abiding?

Frankly, I am not sure of why “No-ing” and “Hagel-ling” have come into existence.  Their practice solves nothing and does not advance greater understanding of any issues.

I am pretty sure, however, that the “why” answer lies close to the answer to why our nation is not up in arms over these four questions.  How can America sit by and waste so much money on health care, education, defense, and prisons, and then lament the nation’s Federal budget deficit?

Just maybe, if we try to make sense of the Chuck Hagel situation, we can stumble on the much larger set of problems, fully in our control, which continue to drift along with or without Chuck Hagel.  We elected the members of Congress!

The continued rejection of looking at data, comparing worldwide, and then making decisions in the nation’s best interest is hard to understand.  Maybe Chuck can help us find the way.

The “So What” Issues

February 7, 2013

Every so often there appears a convergence of news media stories that can only be described as “so what issues”.  The question of why they made the news in the first place is swamped by the irrelevance of the overall story… Here are three.

Chuck Hagel’s confirmation vote delayed a week.  Senate Republicans asked Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, for a week’s delay on any vote.  The Republicans wanted more information on Hagel’s finances.  Hmmm.

After 8 hours of testimony in which Republicans asked nothing relevant to current world conditions (that is, conditions Hagel will have to deal with), the GOP now has questions about where Hagel earned his money over the past 5 years.  While this is a legitimate question, if it were so important why wasn’t it front and center during the testimony?

But the “so what” label comes from someplace else.  If for any reasons Hagel is not confirmed, does anyone think President Obama will nominate someone like Lindsay Graham, Ted Cruz, or John McCain?   Does anyone think that the President’s next pick would not conform to the President’s policies?

Boy Scouts Delay Decision on Gay/Lesbian Members.  A few realists in the national Boy Scout movement had mustered enough common sense to propose (actually run a trial balloon) on changing “national” by-laws to allow for gay and lesbian members.  The trial ballon did not require any local troops to follow but if local troops did, there would be no national blow back.  Hmmm.

American opinion on gays and lesbians is changing so fast one can almost feel the winds.  The longer any private group waits to find accommodations will only make the embarrassment greater when consequences of today’s delay are fully seen.  For Boy Scouts, enrollment will certainly continue to decline and their cherished image of helping old ladies cross the street will turn dark.

Immigration Reform.  There appears to be growing support (outside the Latino community) for immigration reform.  The only question is whether the reform will include a path to citizenship.  Opposition ranges from “ship them all back” to “give them documents but not documents that could lead to citizenship”.  Hmmm.

Opponents of immigration reform seem ignorant of the national demographics as well as the inherently un-enforceable aspects of the boarder with Mexico.  One can understand GOP opposition to citizenship thinking that it only means more votes for Democrats.  The problem is without comprehensive immigration reform how will the GOP get any Latinos already citizens to vote for them?  With Unions and the business community now behind immigration reform, opponents should be looking for a soft landing spot.

Hagel, gays in the Boy Scouts, and immigration reform may not succeed soon.  That is the nature of political debates.  What will not change is that the current basis for opposition will forever be seen as short sighted and wrong headed.   Smart players know when to fold them.

When The Small Get Smaller

February 1, 2013

Yesterday, a Senate subcommittee held hearing on President Obama’s nomination for the next Secretary of Defense.  If the Country (or the world) needed a new and lower standard for Senate behavior, the hearings were a success.

Chuck Hagel, himself a former Republican Senator from Nebraska, was the nominee.  Center stage for the “anti Hagel” crowd were Senators Lindsay Graham, John McCain, and Ted Cruz.  Behind this stage,  and filling the airways was anonymous Super Pac money.  Hmmm.

Let’s be clear these hearings were not about whether Hagel is qualified to be in charge of an over $600 billion a year budget.  Nor was it whether Hagel would work well with the rest of the President’s staff and with Congress.  Rather these hearings were to provide an opportunity for certain Republicans to trash the President (via repudiation of his nominee) and pander to certain influential constituents.

Hagel was grilled on a number of statements he made in the past.  “The Jewish lobby” which more accurately should have been called “the Pro-Israel lobby” was an anti-Hagel favorite.  Lindsay Graham had the audacity to look down at Hagel and ask him to name one Senator who had been “intimidated” by these lobbies, or one action the Senate took because of these lobby’s influence.  Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of Washington knows AIPAC would not spend the money it does if it did not feel its influence was being felt.

John McCain might have been the saddest example.  Clinging to his misguided (but well intended) support of the Iraq War and in particular, the Surge, pounded Hagel with “was the surge successful or not, yes or no”.  Hagel said he would let history decide but there were greater issues involved.  According to Hagel, the US lost over 1000 soldiers during the surge and the gains must be viewed in that context too.  History surprisingly also contains the fact that coincident with the extra 20,000 troops, the military began paying certain militias not to make trouble.  Many now believe these payments were more important than pure feet on the ground.

Ted Cruz is the new Senator from Texas.  Cruz brought forward 2009 interviews with Al Jazeera.  On two occasions, provocative questions were asked (had Israel committed war crimes and has the US acted like a bully) and to both questions Hagel did not respond (either endorsing or denouncing).  This Cruz said was not actions of someone who should be Secretary of Defense.  In an insightful way, Cruz might just have it backwards.

Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and current Secretary Leon Panetta were both successful leaders as best we can judge.  Both got along with Congress and both seemed to work well with other White House staff.  Neither of them, however, would give President Bush (aka Cheney) a free pass on Iraq.  Neither would avoid expressing frustrations with Israel although neither would be likely to do it in public.

Foreign policy and defense policy which is derived from it are the policies the President selects.  Chuck Hagel certainly will input to policy development as will the Joint Chiefs.  At the end of the day, the Policy will be the President’s.

Hagel brings a special knowledge about what it is like to be a soldier.  Hagel volunteered for duty in the Vietnam War as an enlisted man, a grunt.  When wars are fought, it is the common person who dies the most often. 

War should be the last resort and not a tactical ploy which supports some dubious foreign policy.  Hagel’s past comments signal someone who does not parrot the standard neoconservative line.

Strangely, Hagel’s views are legitimate points where persons of good faith could differ.  Denigrating Hagel, however, makes the denigrators appear even smaller than they were. 



Making Sense In A Dysfunctional Region

January 28, 2013

Civil War continues in Syria.  Egypt is under marshall law.  Libya is unsafe at any speed.  And, Iran quietly continues to prepare for building and deploying nuclear weapons.  But that’s not enough.

Syrian refugees are chocking Jordan’s ability to meet its own residents’ needs.  Israel, who is busily building settlements on the West Bank, has had to stop its rhetoric over Iran’s nuclear ambitions because of a greater fear.  Syria may lose control of its gas warfare weapons and these weapons may end up in the hands of Hezbollah and Hamas.  Hmmm, what a mess.

What should US Middle East foreign policy look like?  Should we invade, arm the insurgents, or just sit on the side lines?

There are many “would have, should have, could have” statements that come to mind.  Like “tell me again why we invaded and occupied Iran” or “why we have allowed the Israelis to stonewall negotiations with the Palestinians” or “why did we allow Egyptian election when it was clear the Muslim brotherhood, if elected, would end the fledgling democracy?  

As time passes, it is becoming clearer that while Russia, China, and the US have different self interests, none of these countries can obtain their goals at the expense of the others.  In other words, peace and stability in the Middle East can not be achieved where Russia gains some advantage over the US or China.  The same is true for China and the US.  

What is also becoming clearer is that the Middle East unrest is about wealth, who has it and who doesn’t.  The banner of Islam is a sham.  Religion and the hatred of Israel are simply tools various regional leaders use to maneuver the masses in the direction they see as most advantageous to accumulating wealth and power.

Israel represents a special situation (even though Israeli lives are no more valuable than Arab lives).  For Israel the US could define clear boundaries, for example any attack on Israel within the borders defined by the “green line” (or where territorial swaps have been agreed to), will be considered an attack on US interests and dealt with accordingly.  For all other Middle East areas, internal disruptions (like Syria, Egypt, or Libya) are matters for the residents to resolve.  In other pun-like words, the US will no longer throw gasoline on the fire.

Such policy as I have just proposed will never become US policy.  There are too many special interests who still see advantageous to be gained.  Others, like those who pray to god for a Notre Dame victory over Boston College, naively think there are magic bullets (divine intercessions) which will turn the Middle East into a picnic area.

President Obama’s Middle East policy, although nuanced, has come the closest to what makes sense to me.  Maybe that’s the best we can expect now.

Maybe that’s why unidentified big money is mounting attack ads against Department of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel.