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Thursday, December 31, 2009

# Posted 1:23 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

EVEN THE LIBERAL NEW REPUBLIC... (PART II): The cover of the current issue of the New Republic blares, The Battle for Tora Bora: The Untold Story. It's a good article, but it's actually an old story. Some of the details are new, but I think it's been at least five years since we've known that Bin Laden was cornered in the caves of Tora Bora in December of 2001, but the chain of command rejected a request to send in US ground forces. Instead we sent in some Afghan militia and Bin Laden got away.

The individual clearly responsible for this bad decision was Gen. Tommy Franks, the US commander of all forces in the region. Yet Peter Bergen, the story's author, seems less concerned with explaining Franks' flawed decision than with tantalizing hints that perhaps Bush and Rumsfeld's early interest in Iraq somehow led Franks' astray.

The twist, however, is that exposing GOP hawks' incompetence in the past serves the purpose of scoring points against liberal doves in the present. Bergen writes,
Bin Laden was clearly at Tora Bora, and sending so few troops was indeed a major failure. It’s a lesson that bears remembering today as the United States continues to pursue Islamist militants in both Afghanistan and Pakistan: In the hunt for members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, there is simply no substitute for boots on the ground. Afghan proxies, Pakistani soldiers, drones--these are not unimportant tools in the war on terrorism. But they are not effective substitutes for U.S. troops. If we want to kill bin Laden and Zawahiri--and other top Al Qaeda leaders--we are probably going to have to do it ourselves.
So, next time a lefty protests' Obama's decision to escalate in Afghanistan, I will say, "Even the liberal New Republic..."

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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# Posted 1:19 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

EVEN THE LIBERAL NEW REPUBLIC...publishes enough cliche polemics to justify the adjective "liberal". Now, it is certainly true that TNR generates enough heresy to justify its reputation as much more than a liberal meat grinder. That's why I have a subscription. But TNR also provides enough simplistic GOP-bashing to fortify the perpetually indignant, self-satisfied liberal intellectualism to which so many of its readers subscribe.

Case in point: The Rise of Republican Nihilism by Jonathan Chait. Here's a sample paragraph:
One observer dismissed DeMint’s [stimulus] plan thusly: “It is not innovative or particularly clever. In fact, it’s only eleven pages.” Oddly enough, this observer was DeMint himself, talking up his proposal in a speech at the Heritage Foundation. On the contemporary right, it is a mark of intellectual integrity that even a massive economic cataclysm would not prompt any revising of one’s economic prescription.
Clearly, DeMint was trying to score points by comparing his 11-page plan to the dictionary-length democratic alternative. Yet for Chait, DeMint's self-denigration suddenly becomes evidence of catastrophic intellectual rigidity.

Here's another example:
The quintessential moment in the health care debate came when Senator Lamar Alexander objected to Democratic attempts to weed out Medicare waste: “If you’re going to find some savings in waste, fraud, and abuse in Grandma’s Medicare,” he proclaimed, “spend it on Grandma.” Consider this as an ethical proposition: Alexander is saying that every dollar of Medicare is sacrosanct, that even those dollars he concedes provide zero public benefit must stay in the program. We live in a country where the occasional appearance of a roving charitable medical clinic will prompt thousands of desperate people to line up in parking lots for hours on end, to help mitigate their suffering. And yet, Republicans will not countenance the shift of even indisputably wasted resources to help them.
Impressively, Chait elevates Sen. Alexander's anodyne talking point into conclusive evidence of the GOP's cold-hearted intellectual rigor mortis. This kind of logic is one of the perils of being so smart. Sometimes, you fall into the trap of believing that being smarter means being right.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

# Posted 6:17 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

POLANSKI'S ART: Over the long Thanksgiving weekend, I finally had the chance to watch Roman Polanski's Oscar-winning film, The Pianist. It isn't the story of Polanski's own survival, although it seems natural to conclude that Polanski was able to evoke the Holocaust so effectively because he lived through it himself. He lost his mother to Auschwitz and survived in hiding with a Polish family.

Before Polanski's arrest, I didn't know much about his conviction for sex with a minor. For some reason, I thought he was tried for a consensual statutory violation. Nor did I realize he was convicted.

Knowing this much about the director forcibly changed my perception of the film. The suffering is so intense that you get lost in the film, only to wake up suddenly and wonder how a man who knows suffering so intimately could perpetrate such cruelty on a 13-year-old girl.

The answer to that question is found partly in the film. Victims of the Holocaust are often portrayed as noble and stoic. Yet Polanski also shows how the Nazis' brutality dehumanized and debased their victims, so that many of them committed acts as disgusting as those of their oppressors.

Yet Polanski understood that, too.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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# Posted 6:15 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

DEATH THREATS FOR OBAMA: Four times as many as death threats for Bush? More? For his most passionate supporters, it is only natural to think of this young, charismatic and inspirational leader as another potential JFK, RFK or MLK Jr. (Although I doubt we'll ever call him BHO.)

Yet it was Kevin Drum of all people who noted that according to Secret Service chief Mark Sullivan that the number of threats against the president is "at the same level" as it was during the previous two administrations. The day after Kevin's post, the NY Times published a long story about threats against the president, which according to unnamed sources, includes a "big increase in threats against Mr. Obama took place in the first four months of his presidency," but have leveled off since.

Some pundits are still playing catch-up, though. On Sunday morning, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, asserted that "I think we have to be worried about egregious security lapses. This president, I believe, has received a record number of death threats."

Let's hope the threats stay down or go even lower.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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# Posted 6:13 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHERE WAS BARACK OBAMA ON SUNDAY MORNING? The White House sent Bob Gates and Hillary Clinton out on Sunday morning to do a set of joint interviews on Meet the Press, Face the Nation and This Week. (Fox had to settle for Gen. Petraeus. CNN got Jim Jones.)

After his address to the nation on healthcare reform, Obama himself made the rounds on Sunday morning. I'm inclined to think that the President didn't want to face the music this time, since there are so many contradictions in his policy and public statements for the interviewers to exploit. Better to let cabinet officials take the heat. On NBC, David Gregory reminded both Gates and Clinton about their own opposition to a date certain for withdrawal from Iraq, because it would only encourage the insurgents. So what's different about Afghanistan? Clinton responded:
Because we're not talking about an exit strategy or a drop-dead deadline. What we're talking about is an assessment that in January 2011 we can begin a transition
So July 2011 is a date certain for an assessment of a potential transition?

You have to give Clinton and Gates credit for trying. They were the human shields protecting Obama's policy from journalists' arrow-like questions. Perhaps it's time for POTUS to step out front?

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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# Posted 6:11 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHAT WAS OBAMA DOING FOR THREE MONTHS? If you don't read Shadow Government, you should. It's a blog written by a lot of very smart people who held significant positions in the Bush administration. (No, that isn't a contradiction, wiseguy.) Shadow Gov's recent posts focus (naturally) on Afghanistan. One very interesting question comes from Peter Feaver -- Did Obama's speech give us any sense of why it took him three months to come up with any Afghanistan policy that was barely different from the one he announced back in March ? What Obama really announced was a very simple compromise: Hawks get 30,000 more troops, doves get a (very flexible) deadline for withdrawal. Peter notes:
It did not take [Obama] 3 months of painstaking review to find that compromise. It was available to him all along.
The speed of deployment was accelerated a bit, but it's hard to imagine the White House was debating for three months about deployment schedules.

Peter's somewhat cynical answer to his own question is that Obama wanted time to pass healthcare reform before he antagonized his base by escalating the war. I can see that as one factor, but my instincts are telling me something else (which is also somewhat cynical):

Obama was hunting for a reason not to send the troops. Part of that hunt was political. He didn't want to antagonize his base. He didn't want to break the momentum of his reform agenda. But Obama needed a very strong argument to make if he was going to turn around 180 degrees and ignore two years of his own rhetoric about the "necessary war" in Afghanistan.

For moral and intellectual reasons, Obama also wanted a reason not to send more troops. Things are looking grim in Afghanistan. Why go deeper into the quicksand? Why sacrifice anymore lives? Wasn't Iraq enough? Those questions seem to reflect Obama's instincts. They were suppressed when politics made it necessary and convenient to attack Bush as weak on Afghanistan. But that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

Anyhow, there's plenty more worth reading at Shadow Gov, including posts by Dan Twining, Kori Schake, and Will Inboden.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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# Posted 6:08 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

AFGHANISTAN: A GOP TWOFER? David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee has introduced a war tax bill.
“As presidential historian Robert Dallek reminds us, ‘war kills off great reform movements’,” Obey said, noting that World War I ended the Progressive Era, Korea ended Harry Truman’s Fair Deal and Vietnam ended Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
Now, I know that's supposed to be an argument against sending more troops to Afghanistan, but if you're a Republican, isn't it a pretty good argument for supporting the surge?

Surely some nefarious Republican operatives thought of this while the party was planning its response to Obama's speech at West Point. The GOP's reputation as the party of ideas isn't all that bright at the moment, but any good Democrat can tell you that the GOP is still the master of skullduggery.

Actually, I haven't any Republicans make the Obey argument. Of course, I may not be plugged-in to the nefarious side of the party. All I hear is security this and terrorism that.

On a related note, Obey's comment about war being the enemy of reform tells you something about his war tax. His primary concern isn't paying for the war. It's stopping the war so that his domestic agenda can move forward.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

# Posted 8:47 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

OBAMA SPEECH WRAP-UP: The President was crystal clear about why we are sending more troops to Afghanistan. We were attacked on 9/11. If the Taliban take back Afghanistan, Al Qaeda will come back with them. America's security is directly at stake. Right now, we only have enough troops for a stalemate, not for success.

How will our military strategy change in Afghanistan? What will the mission be of our 30,000 additional troops? The President offered a couple of nods to "securing the population", the core concept of counterinsurgency theory. He also mentioned training Afghan forces. But this issue deserves much more detailed discussion, because the deployment of additional troops is the key commitment we are now making.

Finally, the exit strategy. There was a clear date for when it will begin. Must certain conditions be achieved before the exit begins? What will be the indications of success we should monitor? What if the Afghan government does not improve its performance? What if the new Afghan forces take longer to train? Are we committed to success, because our "vital national interests" are at stake? Or will those interests be reconsidered if they aren't met by July 2011? That is the great unknown. Or more precisely, the great unsaid.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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# Posted 5:47 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHY BOTHER LISTENING TO OBAMA'S SPEECH? The front page of the Washington Post has already announced that 34,000 new troops will deploy to Afghanistan. The front page of the NY Times says "about 30,000".

So tonight's speech isn't about the decision Obama has made. It's about how he will justify it to his own party and to the American people. Here are five things to listen for:

1. "A war of necessity" Obama made those words famous. Will we hear them again tonight? If it is a war of necessity, failure is not an option.

2. "Counterinsurgency": Will Obama give his strategy its proper name? Or will he present his approach as a compromise that reflects the input of skeptics?

3. "Victory": Will Obama say that he wants to achieve "victory" or even "success"? What is our mission? What must we achieve before we even think about an exit strategy? If winning isn't essential, why should we sacrifice American lives?

4. "Exit strategy": Obama has the thankless task of explaining how escalation actually means he wants to end the war sooner. Which phrase will Obama use? Will there be any specifics? Will Obama tell us how, 6 or 12 or 18 months from now, we will be able to distinguish success from failure?

5. "9/11": Will Obama justify this escalation as the continuation of what started on 9/11? That may infuriate the skeptics in his own party. But if he doesn't invoke 9/11, how will he explain why success is worth the loss of more American lives?

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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