Topic: Reality-Based Woes
|Reality, Such As It Is|
The week starting with Monday, December 4, we all knew something was up. Rumsfeld was gone from Defense and that Monday John Bolton was gone from the UN, or going soon. Our ambassador, appointed while the Senate, which would not confirm him, was in recess, had to resign. There would be no "for real" confirmation. The votes weren't there, and it wasn't just the Democrats. Key Republicans decided the man who would tell them all up there they were no more than fools and crooks and scum, had to move on. That hadn't worked out, as predicted. This made the president angry, but it hardly mattered. There was the reality of the thing. The day the congress ends its term, Bolton's term ends, and that's that. Those are the rules. It's in the constitution.
The next day there were the committee hearings for Robert Gates, the man nominated to replace Rumsfeld at Defense. Gates had been (and is) characterized as someone completely unlike anyone else in the cabinet - a realist, not a wild-eyed idealist with dreams of changing the world. Gates had served for twenty-six years in the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council, and under the first President Bush as Director of Central Intelligence. He worked his way up and knows the nitty-gritty of how things really work. It's not like he was an alcoholic who had never succeeded at anything and suddenly, when he turned forty, found Jesus and stopped drinking, and then decided - even though uninterested in ideas and detail and foreign affairs in the slightest - to tell the world how things really should be, and that "realism" was overrated. He comes from the father's circle of key people - that world of compromise and realism and prudence. The son's circle is one unbending principle, intense idealism, and "bold moves" no one had dared before. It was an odd appointment, made, presumably, rather grudgingly. The unbending principle, intense idealism, and "bold moves" of the outgoing defense secretary hadn't worked out that well.
The committee voted unanimously to move the nomination to the full Senate and they voted, the following day, to confirm him. The vote was 95 to 2 and over in the blink of an eye. The president said the usual - "I am confident that his leadership and capabilities will help our country meet its current military challenges and prepare for emerging threats of the 21st century." You could sense the resentment.
The details - three senators didn't vote, the Democrats Joseph Biden and Evan Bayh, and the Republican Elizabeth Dole. The two who voted no were standing by the president against his father, Rick Santorum and Jim Bunning. Gates had said it was time to be realistic about the Iraq war. We weren't winning. We should work from that fact. And maybe we should at least talk with the folks in Iran. Santorum, about to leave office as the voters in Pennsylvania had decided he was quite mad, or at least too strange for their tastes, decided to mock the idea of "engaging dictators" and spoke for an hour on the floor of the Senate of the evils of "radical Islamic fascism." And when it came to reaching out to Iran to discuss the security of Iraq, Santorum said of Gates' thought - "I think he is in error."
Bunning, who was a pretty good pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles way back when but has since periodically gone off topic and worried people a bit, did his thing - "Gates has repeatedly criticized our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan without providing any viable solutions to the problems our troops currently face. We need a secretary of defense to think forward with solutions and not backward on history we cannot change." Make of that what you will.
But the folks who think that considering history and actual facts is often useful won the day. As a final irony, the White House said Gates would be sworn in December 18 - he had commitments he had to fulfill at Texas A&M University, where he is the president. Our president likes to mock folks with degrees and "book learnin'." His favorite line is something like "look at so and so with the PhD - I was a C-minus student and I'm president and they're not, so there." Now he's got a university president on his hands, talking reality of all things.
How extraordinary this all is was is summed up by Fred Kaplan in Enter the Grown-Up, concerning the committee hearings before the full vote. Here Kaplan says the "most eyebrow-raising moment - of many such moments" that day was when Senator Robert Byrd asked Gates if he favored attacking Iran. It has been widely reported that such an attack is in the works, and most in Gates' position would duck the question - avoiding "hypotheticals" and all that. And Gates just said no. That was it. This should make for some interesting planning meetings in the White House. Cheney may need a new pacemaker.
Actually it was more than no - "We have seen in Iraq that once war is unleashed, it becomes unpredictable." He went on with how the Iranians couldn't retaliate with a direct attack on the United States but they could close off the Persian Gulf to oil exports, send much more aid to anti-American insurgents in Iraq, and step up terrorist attacks worldwide. He suggested we look at this realistically.
Byrd asked if we should attack Syria, as is reported to also be in the works. "The Syrians' capacity to do harm to us is far more limited," but an attack on Syria "would give rise to a significantly greater anti-Americanism" and "increasingly complicate our relationship with every country in the region." You just don't want to do that.
So much for unbending principle, intense idealism, and "bold moves." What was this man doing there, getting nominated? When he was asked if invading Iraq was a good idea in retrospect, Kaplan notes he paused, then said, "That's a judgment the historians are going to have to make."
This is all very odd, as Kaplan notes -
And as for what the man says he's learned over the years, he offered this - all agencies have to work together to get anything done, and consulting with Congress is really important, as is treating people's views with respect, as is respecting the professionals - listening to military commanders when you're planning a war, for example. He practically said the administration had been stupidly goofy for six years, but he said it nicely.
Kaplan concludes -
That would be interesting. And something is up with this. It may be realism.
The Middle East scholar Juan Cole, looking back on the man's CIA history with Iran-Contra and all the rest, is generally pleased -
Damn, everyone likes to pick on Woodrow Wilson. But Wilson ran Princeton. Texas A&M is a different kettle of fish, of course. We'll see how the token realist from Texas, not the grim aesthete-theorist from New Jersey, works out in the "we make our own reality" administration.
Of course the Gates confirmation was overshadowed by the release, the same day, of the Iraq Study Group Report, "The Way Forward -A New Approach." This was a big deal, and Vintage simultaneously released the thing in paperback, should you want your very own copy. There was no hiding anything.
And it wasn't nice - the administration's war policies have failed in almost every way, it warned of diminishing chances to change course before "crisis turns to chaos" with "dire implications" for terrorism, war in the Middle East and higher oil prices around the world. In short, it was time to get real - there is no guarantee of success and the consequences of failure are just awful, and things are just bleak. In their own words - "Despite a massive effort, stability in Iraq remains elusive and the situation is deteriorating. The ability of the United States to shape outcomes is diminishing. Time is running out."
And have a nice day. And by the way, we really should begin a "diplomatic offensive" by the end of the month and engage even Iran and Syria in an effort "to quell sectarian violence and shore up the fragile Iraqi government." That would be in the next three weeks. The group's many recommendations did not endorse the current White House strategy of "staying the course" with no substantial changes in what we do in Iraq, and didn't call for a quick pullout or a firm timetable for withdrawal. But something had to be done, and soon - just not those two extremes.
The Iraq panel's leaders said in their press conference that they tried to avoid "politically charged language" such as "victory" on the one hand or "civil war" on the other. But things were clear - James Baker, the former secretary of state and Bush family adviser (fixer) who co-chaired the commission said it all - "We do not recommend a stay-the-course solution. In our opinion, that approach is no longer viable." The co-chair, Lee Hamilton, said the commission actually agreed with the administration's goal of a stable Iraq able to govern, protect and sustain itself but it was time for new approaches - "No course of action in Iraq is guaranteed to stop a slide toward chaos. Yet, in our view, not all options have been exhausted."
So they tossed some ideas over the transom and the president said something carefully vague - "It is a report that brings some really very interesting proposals, and we will take every proposal seriously and we will act in a timely fashion." Not that he'll do anything at all.
He does have seventy-nine recommendations on the table now - reduce political, military or economic support for Iraq if the government in Baghdad cannot make substantial progress and that sort of thing. The report said that Iraqi leaders have simply failed to deliver better security or any sort of political compromises on the ground. The four-month joint military campaign to reduce violence in Baghdad is basically hopeless - "Because none of the operations conducted by U.S. and Iraqi military forces are fundamentally changing the conditions encouraging the sectarian violence, U.S. forces seem to be caught in a mission that has no foreseeable end." So force something. But do nothing rash - no "precipitous pullback" or, on the other hand, no open-ended commitment to a large deployment. So what do you do? Talk to Iran an Syria, and while you're at it, end the sixty-year-long mess with the Israelis and the Palestinians, in your spare time. And stop combat operations as you phase in massive training and support for what neutral honest military and police you can find there, if any.
But the response was already obvious. The president called the report "a very tough assessment of the situation in Iraq" and said he would take the recommendations very seriously and act "in a timely fashion." But then he said that Congress wouldn't agree with every proposal, and neither would he. And White House spokesman Tony Snow said the president continues to insist that Iran verifiably suspend uranium enrichment before we engage in direct talks.
The about face may or may not happen, as is obvious. Baker was asked if he thought the president would accept any of this. His reply - "You know, I've worked for four presidents, and I never put presidents I worked for on the couch." In short, go ask a psychiatrist. That's what it has come down to.
And in a minor note the co-chair Lee Hamilton added a tidbit - "America's ability to resolve the crisis in Iraq "is narrowing" and the costs could rise to more than one trillion dollars. That's a big psychiatrist's bill. Returning to reality can be expensive.
But John Dickerson says that is what this is about, with his summary of what the report says. And the message is simple -
But as to the third point, Dickerson notes that bipartisanship, as the Bush-Rove-Cheney team understands it, means surrender by the Democrats - you agree with them in the end, or you get labeled as aiding and abetting the enemy. Baker called on former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta to answer a question about whether Bush would listen to the commission - "I think the president understands that he simply is not going to be able to proceed with whatever policy changes he wants to implement if we're divided." What did Johnson say about the triumph of hope over experience? This will go nowhere.
Maybe it was not supposed to go anywhere. Jonathan Steele explores that in The Guardian (UK), where he says Baker has other purposes -
That may be a bit cynical, but it rings true.
Fred Kaplan (again) suggests the group just chickened out - "James Baker, the canniest of operators, has now met his Waterloo." There are no solutions to this problem. The report's outline of a new "diplomatic offensive" is "so disjointed that even a willing president would be left puzzled by what precisely to do, and George W. Bush seems far from willing."
This is a close reading of the text. It’s a "scheme for a new military strategy contains so many loopholes that a president could cite its language to justify doing anything (or nothing)." And it is a depressing read.
The part on Iran and Syria is devastating -
And so it is. It's all for nothing. At least that's what James Joyner at Outside the Beltway says - "Both sides will use the Report to seek political cover for what they want to do but I suspect they will continue to bludgeon their opponents over the war."
And Dan Froomkin at the Washington Post says you have to consider the players in the game -
Christy Harden Smith carries that forward -
We will see about that. But it just does help anyone connect with reality when the data is bad -
That needs attention. Facts matters now, or are starting to matter now.
But then, this all may be beside the point, or so Senator Russ Feingold suggests -
But then, looking at it another way, Bill "The Book of Virtues" Bennett thinks no one should ever tell the president or his people what to do, not ever - "In all my time in Washington I've never seen such smugness, arrogance, or such insufferable moral superiority. Self-congratulatory. Full of itself. Horrible." Pot speaking to kettle, as they say.
But then, Bush could turn out to be French, as one if Andrew Sullivan's readers notes regarding Charles de Gaulle -
But then de Gaulle was a hero, eventually, even if those army officers tried to assassinate him. Sullivan notes the parallel to torture too. Heck, the Pentagon did screen The Battle of Algiers for everyone in the building more than three years ago (also discussed here). Fascinating.
Algeria 1957. Vietnam 1968. Take your pick -
Add too twenty-four American dead in the four days leading up to the report, including ten on the day of the report. It seems like old times. And we didn't get out of Vietnam until 1974.
And as for our guys on the ground, that's just sad, as we hear from Company C, 1st Battalion, 37th Armored Regiment, stationed in Ramadi. The group is, according to the article, "still reeling" from learning two months ago that its tour will be extended until February.
Their view -
Yep, old times.
But then, things can change - "The United States has offered a detailed package of economic and energy assistance in exchange for North Korea’s giving up nuclear weapons and technology, American officials said Tuesday."
Those last six years? Just kidding. Some reality can sometimes help.