Dumbest Headline of the Day, as the Afghanistan Speech Looms



Obama Faces Risk of Wartime Presidency” — so reads the headline on a CNN commentary by Princeton professor Julian Zelizer.  I have no quarrel with most of it — the professor provides a useful and balanced review of how “war sucks the political oxygen out of almost any presidency,” citing LBJ and the Great Society, Truman’s long-forgotten domestic agenda, et cetera.  But the headline…

Authors (except for bloggers!) normally don’t get to write their own headlines, and I was inclined to cut the good professor some slack, but a variation of the jaw-dropping headline is in his text as well.  With his anticipated decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, Zelizer writes, “Obama inches closer to becoming a wartime president.”

Gracious.  At the risk of belaboring the gob-smackingly obvious, Mr. Obama became a wartime president on January 20.  If you don’t want to be a wartime president, don’t run for the office while America is prosecuting an Iraq WAR, an Afghanistan WAR, and a broader Global WAR on Terrorism (although they seem to have redefined that one out of existence).

The true risk, and the reason some of us favored John McCain for the role of Commander-in-Chief, is that Obama and many Democrats seem intent on convincing us that America is NOT at war.  This is why the indefensible decision to treat Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as a criminal, rather than as an enemy, is so appalling.

I’ll necessarily be away from the television tonight when the president lays out his plan for Afghanistan, but I’m setting the DVR to record, and I suspect I’ll watch it before my head hits the pillow tonight.  Earlier in his term, President Obama showed at least an occasional ability to put pragmatism ahead of partisanship when it comes to foreign policy.  I’m clinging to the hope that he will begin to do so again tonight, regarding the conflict he rightly called “a war of necessity.”

I’m not so much worried about the number of troops.  If Obama authorizes 30,000 instead of the 40,000 that his hand-picked general requested, I don’t see that as a half measure — it’s quite a bit more than half.  What I’m looking for tonight is a sense of commitment to victory.

Step up tonight, Mr. President.  The troops are counting on you.  America is counting on you.


Support the War, Mr. President — It’s Personal

Harry on his way to the Nimitz from my back yard in New Jersey.  He subsequently got his third green stripe.

Harry on his way to the Nimitz from my back yard in New Jersey. He subsequently got his third green stripe.

Update: Welcome, readers from Navy For Moms (in the comments),  Maplewood Patch and Maplewoodian.  (I love the Internets!)

Updated update: Welcome, New York Times readers! It’s a Maplewood BlogolopolisTM trifecta!

Candidate Obama called Afghanistan “the war we need to win.”  Just last week, President Obama vowed to “finish the job.”  In a prime-time speech on Tuesday evening, he intends to announce his plans for prosecuting the war, including whether he will supply the 40,000 additional troops requested by his hand-picked general, Stanley McChrystal.

Prominent conservatives, pundits, and even a key foreign ally have all accused Obama of “dithering” over his decision, and thereby weakening troop morale and public support for the war.  I share these frustrations to some degree, but I think it is still possible to turn the situation around with decisive leadership.  The big question is whether such leadership will occur.

I’ve been a continuous supporter of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from the beginning, and now I’ve got a personal reason. Last month, my son Harry reported for duty on the USS Nimitz (CVN 68), currently somewhere in the Indian Ocean in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.  (Obviously, Harry is not responsible for his father’s opinions about his commander in chief.)

The Nimitz, the oldest of America’s 10 Nimitz-class nuclear powered aircraft carriers, has been in service since 1968, making it about 20 years older than Harry.  With a complement of more than 4,000, it’s a small floating city — the carrier’s welcome brochure notes that the Nimitz features a dental facility with five dentists (which seems like a lot, given the population).  When he gets off duty, Harry usually goes to the gym or the library, where he can send emails from his military account.


Aviation Boatswain's Mate insignia

Harry, currently an E-3 Airman, is working toward promotion to petty officer as an Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) — the folks who operate and maintain the catapults, arresting gear and other mission-critical equipment, enabling the aircraft to take off and land successfully.  He works long hours, but likes the work and the people around him.

He’s already suffered his first “war wound” — two stitches on the top of his head for a gash caused when he stood up too quickly while he was, I kid you not, swabbing the deck.  Joking aside, there are real dangers involved in tending the powerful launching and recovery equipment, but I’m grateful that I don’t have to worry much about an enemy attack.

President Obama, the brave men and women of the United States armed forces are looking to see if you are committed to victory in Afghanistan.  On Tuesday evening, I hope you’ll start showing them that you are.

Harry, be safe, and thank you for your service.



Old Europe, an Unearned Nobel Prize, and a War of Necessity

250px-EuropeDonald Rumsfeld clung to his failed Iraq strategy for years longer than his boss should have allowed, but Rumsfeld didn’t get everything wrong.  He was on to something when he spoke dismissively of “Old Europe.”

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger discusses the mindset that just awarded a Nobel Peace Prize to a freshman president:

The unanswered question at the center of this odd Nobel is whether Barack Obama admires Old Europe for the same reasons it admires him.

When it was a vibrant garden of ideas, Europe gave the world more good things than one can count. Then it discovered the pleasures of the welfare state.

Old Europe now lives in a world of unpayable public pension obligations, weak job creation for its youngest workers, below-replacement birth rates, fat agricultural subsidies for farms dating to the Middle Ages, high taxes to pay for the public high-life, and history’s most crucial proof of decay—the inability to finance one’s armies. Only five of the 28 nations in NATO (the U.K., France, Turkey, Greece and Spain) achieve the minimum defense-spending benchmark of 2% of GDP.

Old Europe has come to resent the world’s only superpower “merely because it possesses the resources to do something Europe can no longer do, for good or ill” — i.e., protect its citizens.

Al Qaeda and its Islamofascistic fellow travelers have unequivocally demonstrated (Madrid 3/11/04, London 7/7/05) that their enemy is not just America, but Western Civilization itself.  Now that a basic (if tenuous) level of stability has been achieved in Iraq, the front lines of the war have shifted to the Afghanistan theater.

Our European allies clearly have no stomach for the fight.  As America considers sending up to 40,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, even the (relatively) stalwart UK today announced plans to send… um… 500.  As in Iraq, it will fall to the United States to achieve any victory (or even stability) in Afghanistan.  It remains to be seen whether President Obama has the fortitude to wage a war that Candidate Obama opportunistically (albeit correctly) described as “urgent.”

(Map of tiny Europe from Wikipedia)

Time for Obama to Step Up in Afghanistan

McChrystalIn today’s Washington Post, Bob Woodward reports on a long-awaited request from Obama’s hand-picked general in Afghanistan, requesting more troops for the war that candidate Obama claimed he wanted to win.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal says emphatically: “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

His assessment was sent to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Aug. 30 and is now being reviewed by President Obama and his national security team.

McChrystal concludes the document’s five-page Commander’s Summary on a note of muted optimism: “While the situation is serious, success is still achievable.”

Now parts of the President’s party, desperately seeking a war to lose after being thwarted in Iraq, will turn up the pressure for surrender and retreat. I continue to be hopeful that Obama, who retained Bush’s Defense Secretary and Iraq strategy, will not want to be known to history as the president who lost in Afghanistan.

Obama Pays for Gates-gate in the Rasmussen Poll

obama_index_july_26_2009President Obama has slipped to the worst rating of his young presidency in the daily Rasmussen Presidential Tracking Poll, weighing in at -11 points.  That’s based on likely voters with strong opinions.  He fares better when you look at total approvers vs. total disapprovers — although for the first time, or at least the first time I’ve noticed, he’s in slightly negative territory there as well, with 49% at least somewhat approving of his performance and 50% disapproving.

As soon as I saw that strong uptick in the red strongly-disapprove line above, I knew it had to be a result of Gates-gate, and Rasmussen confirms that.  It’s unfortunate that Obama chose to squander some of his post-racial cred by meddling in an ambiguous incident in a town with a black police commissioner and a black mayor, in a state with a black governor, in a country with a black president.

BTW, I would not show up on Rasmussen’s tracking poll, because I would tell the pollster that I “somewhat disapprove.”  Foreign policy is key for me in evaluating a president, and I give Obama positive marks for continuing President Bush’s policies on Iraq and Afghanistan. (Iran, not so much, although he eventually decided which side to back.) But I’m opposed to pretty much everything he’s trying to do domestically.

The Perilous Implications of Bush’s Third Term

Obama 6-23-09 news conf
While much of Barack Obama’s national security policy has, thankfully, looked like a continuation of the Bush administration, his rhetorical response to the crisis in Iran thus far contrasts sharply with what we would have expected from his predecessor.

Bush turned the heat up under Iran by naming the regime to his “Axis of Evil.”  Obama, who painted himself as the anti-Bush during the campaign by pledging to negotiate with Iran “without preconditions,” initially responded to globally televised evidence of the regime’s  evil by voicing “deep concern” while maintaining neutrality between the regime and the demonstrators.

It took several days for him to express support for the demonstrators, and only yesterday did he forthrightly denounce the regime’s crackdown, using the words “appalled,” “outraged,” “condemn” and “deplore.”  Well put.  (I was rooting for “evil,” the word behind this blog’s name, but I guess that’s too much to expect.)

But even yesterday, the Washington Post reports,

the president and his aides made it clear that the extraordinary events in Iran have not caused the administration to rethink its desire to engage with the Iranian government in order to achieve a deal that would resolve international concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Which leads us to a troubling similarity between Bush and Obama — an apparent penchant for clinging to a policy long after overwhelming evidence shows the folly of that policy.

In Bush’s case, the folly I’m talking about is not the decision to overthrow Saddam Husein.  Like roughly a third of all Americans, I continue to believe Bush was right to go to war in Iraq.  Rather, I’m talking about Bush’s stubbornly prolonged support for Donald Rumsfeld’s “light footprint” approach, in which we sent enough troops to depose Saddam but not enough to pacify the country.  The uncontrolled looting in the spring of 2003 made the shortfall clear, but it took until the 2006 election for Bush to replace Rumsfeld, and months more to launch the “surge” that now seems to have been decisive.

I just hope it doesn’t take Obama three years to understand the perils of engagement with the Iranian regime.

(Photo: New York Times)

Iran Looms Large in Bush’s Third Term


Risking police violence in Tehran (Photo: mousavi1388)

I’ve said that regarding foreign affairs, Obama has been serving Bush’s third term.  It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek perhaps, but there’s plenty of substance behind the label.  So I find myself wondering how the Obama Administration’s response to the turmoil in Iran will compare with what Bush might have done in a third term.

Michael J. Totten calls out Obama:

Obama Administration officials still hope they can talk Khamenei out of developing nuclear weapons and supporting Hamas and Hezbollah. This is delusion on stilts. Khamenei can’t even compromise with his own regime or his hand-picked presidential candidates. He placed them under house arrest, along with a Grand Ayatollah, and deployed thousands of violent enforcers into the streets. Not only does he confront the world, he is at war with his very own country. …

Military action against Iran should be the very last option and used only if everything short of it fails. Dialogue, though, is only the first option, one that has been failing for three decades. And there is a vast range of options between war and discussion.

I think Totten is right about the nature of the Khamenei regime, but I have two issues with his analysis.  I love the stilts metaphor, but I’m willing to give Obama some benefit of the doubt about whether he will change course in the face of changing reality.  He certainly changed course sharply in Iraq, which gives me hope that he’ll consider doing so in Iran.

And I by no means am advocating a hasty war in Iran, but I have an immediate strong reaction every time I hear words to the effect that war should be a last resort, only if all else fails.  There are always other options besides war.  There may be no good options, but passivity, appeasement and surrender, for example, are always options.  “Last resort” therefore becomes a euphemism for “never.”  Totten is on stronger ground when he says “there is a vast range of options between war and discussion,” and I hope to see Obama pursue some of those options for putting pressure on Iran.

The administration hasn’t taken a strong stand yet on the Iranian elections, although Vice President Biden has questioned the legitimacy of the results.  As Gordon Robison writes:

The Obama administration appears concerned mainly with not painting itself into any rhetorical corners. In a situation where events are fluid, and it is unclear even who all of the key players are, that seems, at least for now, like a good policy.

Bill Kristol issues a clarion call to Republicans who might be tempted to engage in Obama bashing:

Presuming ahead of time that Obama will fail to exercise leadership, and cataloguing this episode pre-emptively as another in a list of Obama failures, would be a mistake. The U.S. has a huge stake in the possible transformation, or at least reformation, of the Iranian regime. If there’s some chance of that happening, and some chance of U.S. policy contributing to that outcome, we should hope Obama does the right thing, and urge and pressure him to do so–because then the United States will be doing the right thing, and the United States, and the world, will benefit.

It’s still far too early to grade Obama’s performance on Iran.  I’m cautiously hopeful.  Hat tip for the Kristol and Robison quotes to Andrew Sullivan, who continues to be all over the developments in Iran.

American Ideals in Bush’s Third Term

obama_in_cairoPresident Obama sometimes sounds a lot like President Bush — and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

Barack Hussein Obama, Cairo University, June 4, 2009:

But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things:  the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.  These are not just American ideas; they are human rights.  And that is why we will support them everywhere.

George Walker Bush, second inaugural address, January 20, 2005:

America’s belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty…. Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery. Liberty will come to those who love it.

If the passages were swapped one for the other, neither president would miss a beat.

I’ll second Rich Lowry’s assessment at The Corner:

I don’t want to make exalted claims for the speech. It was a mixed bag and there are limits to the effect any one speech can have. But I think some in the conservative blogosphere are pronouncing it a scandal because they leave out all the good things. Consider: He extolled America as “one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known”; pledged we will “relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our country”; condemned Holocaust denial as “baseless, ignorant, and hateful”; said “it is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus”; insisted that “the Arab-Israel conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems”; and called for more democracy, religious freedom, and women’s rights in the Muslim world. And he got a standing ovation.

Photo: White House

Obama’s National Security Policy Looks Like Bush’s Third Term. Thank Goodness.

George W. Obama at the National Archives yesterday (AP)

George W. Obama at the National Archives yesterday (AP)

Krauthammer today:

The genius of democracy is that the rotation of power forces the opposition to come to its senses when it takes over. When the new guys, brought to power by popular will, then adopt the policies of the old guys, a national consensus is forged and a new legitimacy established.

Exactly right.  I fear that Obama is busily making a mess of the economy — or rather, more of a mess.  But on national security, it becomes clearer every day that despite Obama’s persistent sniping at his predecessor, we’ve essentially re-elected George Bush, and I for one am grateful.

After starting by retaining Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Obama has begun a surge in Afghanistan, adopted Bush’s timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, authorized repeated Predator drone strikes on al Qaeda targets in Pakistan, affirmed the use of military commissions, and yesterday acknowledged that some terrorists will have to be held indefinitely even though it will not be possible to prosecute them successfully.


President Obama and former Vice President Cheney weren’t so much a study in contrast today as a portrait of harmony. Both men agree that the Bush administration’s anti-terrorist policies were largely correct. Cheney signaled his acceptance of this view by vigorously defending those policies. Obama signaled it by largely adopting those same policies and emitting a fog of words to cover up the fact. (See this defense of Obama for a run-down of all the continuities.)

Obama’s fellow Democrats are helping to save him from his ill-advised promise to close Guantanamo within a year — the Senate vote eliminating funding for the closure was 90-6.  On the torture issue, Obama is trying to reclaim the moral high ground for America, and as long as he continues aggressively prosecuting the war, I largely wish him well.  It will give him a means of staking out a genuine policy difference, it may gain us some goodwill abroad, and if a time comes when we once again have a Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in custody smirking that “soon you will know” about imminent terror attacks, I strongly suspect that somebody will find a technique and a justification for doing what needs to be done.

I caught snatches of Obama’s speech yesterday on the radio, and I remember thinking that if I closed my eyes, I could imagine these words coming out of Bush’s mouth:

In the midst of all these challenges, however, my single most important responsibility as President is to keep the American people safe. That is the first thing that I think about when I wake up in the morning. It is the last thing that I think about when I go to sleep at night.

This responsibility is only magnified in an era when an extremist ideology threatens our people, and technology gives a handful of terrorists the potential to do us great harm. We are less than eight years removed from the deadliest attack on American soil in our history. We know that al Qaeda is actively planning to attack us again. We know that this threat will be with us for a long time, and that we must use all elements of our power to defeat it.

Of course he quickly slipped back into campaign mode and blamed every problem on the Bush Administration.  But that will get old quickly, even among his supporters.  Meanwhile, look to his deeds, not just his words.

Mr. Obama’s War: I Told You So

President Bush salutes in front of General David Petraeus
and Admiral William Fallon, September 2007, in Iraq

President Obama today announced an Iraq withdrawal plan that George Bush would be proud to call his own. Actually, it IS Bush’s own.

Don’t be fooled by the lawyerly language in his pledge to complete “the responsible removal of our combat brigades from Iraq” by August 2010. He’s leaving up to 50,000 troops in place until the end of 2011, and I guarantee that they’ll have weapons and the capability of responding with more than battalion strength. I’m not sure how he’s defining “combat brigades,” but he must be dancing close to an outright lie — a brigade is only 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers, it looks to me like he’s leaving three divisions in place.

Thank God.

Fully seven months ago, in July, I wrote the following:

If it’s going to become Mr. Obama’s war, I can take some comfort in the fact that at least he’s showing signs of an ability to think independently of the extreme pacifist wing of his party.

Candidate Obama already was tacking to the right on the war — his clarion call for surrender lost its usefulness as a wedge issue once Hillary Clinton withdrew from the race. The previously hapless George Bush had finally found the right general and the right strategy. Well before the election, even Obama had to acknowledge that the surge had “succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”

After winning in November, Obama co-opted Hillary and her one-time support for the war by naming her Secretary of State. But the clearest indication that the grown-ups would be in charge of the war came when Obama announced that he was retaining Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, who oversaw the turnaround in Iraq. I feel much better about the Obama Presidency now than I did on Election Day.

The Bush Administration won the war in Iraq just in time, making it too late for the Democrats to surrender. The real test will come with the war Obama says he wants to fight, in Afghanistan. I wish him every success.

(Photo: Associated Press)