Two stories that cropped up today call attention to the fact that -- for nearly eight years -- Muslims have been praying on "sacred ground" a few steps away from where American Airlines Flight 77 slammed a giant hole in the Pentagon on September 11th.
Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Mormons and Episcopalians regularly hold services in the multifaith chapel that was dedicated in November 2002 after reconstruction of the section of the Pentagon hit by Islamist hijackers on September 11, 2001.
"I've been here four years next month and the chapel and its function and role have never been an issue," George Wright, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, said on Thursday.
Petula Dvorak in today's Washington Post Metro section explains "In this Pentagon chapel, Muslims can unroll their prayer mats once a day and give praise to Allah. On Fridays, they bring in an imam to conduct a service."
She wonders, where's the outrage?
"Nope, never heard a word about it," folks in the Pentagon chaplain's office told me Thursday after we visited the crash site memorial and the chapel next to it. "No one has had a problem with it."
As we were talking about the 3,500 Muslim service members, one of the chaplains
told me that there are plenty of U.S. military facilities across the globe that have spaces dedicated to Muslim services, not just interfaith chapels. "On bases in Iraq and so forth, we have mosques," he said. "No one has ever raised any concern about that."
Dvorak concludes with a statement framed as a question: "Why should anyone?"
I agree with those sentiments, but wonder about the more basic question: "Why hasn't anyone noticed the Muslims praying in the Pentagon?"
It could be that the leading voices opposing the construction of a Muslim cultural center in Lower Manhattan simply didn't know about daily prayers and Korans in the Pentagon. The story surrounding Cordoba House began as a neighborhood zoning question, debated at a public hearing; the military generally doesn't have such things. It was only after a few politicians and the cable news networks picked up on the local story that it gained national attention. Indeed, the stories regarding the Pentagon appear to have been prompted by an offhand comment by a cable news show talking head. If that is the case, renewed scrutiny of Muslims in the military might simply launch another round in a debate that has already revealed the limits of tolerance in American society today.
As the Cordoba House story has played out, I have tried to discern the opponents' end game. Is it to bar just this mosque because of its proximity to Ground Zero? If so, is any location in lower Manhattan off limits? How about Times Square? Or any place in Mid Town? Or the Upper West Side? If the entire island is too close, how about Brooklyn? Or Hoboken? Or Connecticut?
Or does this debate (if it can be called that) really transcend whether a mosque will be built on the site of a Burlington Coat Factory and is it really about whether a mosque will be built anywhere in the United States? I suspect the latter. To judge from the tenor of the debate, the dispute is over the character of Islam, as a religion, and of all Muslims, not merely of this particular construction project.
If that is the case, I genuinely fear where this entire discussion will take us as a nation. Religion being what it is (i.e. a matter of faith), the potential for varying intepretations of the Prophet's teachings to be misconstrued by non-believers is enormous. Much of that has been playing out since 9/11, with anti-Muslim web sites and blogs attracting a very wide audience. Meanwhile, national security arguments being what they are (i.e. notoriously prone to misperception and threat inflation) arguments based on Constitutional grounds (things like freedom to practice one's religion, and to assemble peaceably) are likely to be discarded by those whose immediate reaction to any such claims is that "the Constitution is not a suicide pact."
Afghanistan has become Barack Obama’s war. More Americans have died there over the last year as died during the roughly seven years of conflict under George W. Bush. As of today:
the United States has suffered more combat deaths in Afghanistan under President Barack Obama than it did during the two-term presidency of George W. Bush. The latest casualty figures show 577 American soldiers have died in the war from January 20, 2009, the date of Obama’s inauguration, until now. The U.S. suffered 575 deaths from October 2001 to January 19, 2009, according to figures computed by Robert Naiman, of Just Foreign Policy from figures provided by icasualties.org.
Of course, it isn’t just Americans who are dying. So are military personnel from allied nations. And Afghans. Civilian deaths are up dramatically this year. Reports the Daily Mail:
Despite massive efforts by Nato-led forces to reduce casualties, more than 1,200 civilians were killed and another 1,997 injured, the United Nations said—the worst figures since the Taliban was driven out following the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
The Taliban are responsible for most of these killings, but hundreds of civilians still die from mistaken allied strikes. And it is the war that leads to the other deaths. However humanitarian Washington’s ends, there are few humanitarian results.
For what are people dying in Afghanistan?
America’s original mission was obvious: capture or kill al Qaeda operatives and punish the Taliban regime for hosting the terrorists who struck America. Those ends were rapidly achieved. Today al Qaeda is largely absent from Afghanistan. Moreover, the Taliban, as well as other governments around the world, know that the U.S. will oust regimes that back anti-American terrorists.
Would al Qaeda return to a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan? Not if Mullah Omar and his colleagues don’t want to be defenestrated a second time. Anyway, terrorists are not dependent on whether Hamid Karzai, the Taliban, or someone else ends up ascendant in Kabul. They have proved to be fully capable of operating elsewhere.
Unfortunately, U.S. policy has shifted to nation-building. Obviously, it would be nice to create a stable, competent, liberal, and pro-Western national government in Kabul. On my recent trip to Afghanistan I met a number of activists who hope to establish just such a political order.
But the belief that Washington can do so—at least at reasonable cost in reasonable time—appears to be the tragic triumph of hope over experience. The point is not that Afghans are incapable of living together peacefully: they did so for many years under the king. But decades of war and international interference have wrecked Afghan society. Humpty Dumpty isn’t going to be put back together anytime soon, and certainly not by what passes for a government in Kabul. It is hard to find anyone, at least not on an official payroll, with a positive word to say about the regime.
Even if the U.S. and its allies have developed an improved military strategy, the Afghans have no political solution. And Western aid often is more hindrance than help. Indeed, much financial assistance seems to disappear into the gaudily decorated “poppy palaces” that fill Afghanistan’s capital rather than reach the many people in desperate need on the streets beyond.
There’s little practical difference between the neoconservative war-initiators under George W. Bush and the liberal war-expanders under Barack Obama. Which is why the American death toll in Afghanistan will continue to climb.
President Obama, like many of his predecessors, is a victim of hubris. He appears to genuinely believe in social engineering abroad. Unfortunately, we will all pay the price of his folly in Afghanistan. Having made the Afghan war his own, it now will be his responsibility if more Americans die in vain.
From Politico's "Morning Defense" newsletter comes this troubling tidbit:
PUTTING THE BAND BACK TOGETHER - It's Iraq all over again. Petraeus is surrounding himself with some of the same civilian and military advisors upon whom he relied when he was in Iraq: Kim and Fred Kagan have been on an extended stay in Kabul, returning Friday, and Jack Keane is on his way at the end of the month. Stan McChrystal invited the Kagans, along with Max Boot and Stephen Biddle, to assess the effort and provide him feedback; Morning Defense is told that Petraeus renewed the invitation when he took over. “They're essentially looking at all aspects of the current campaign and offering advice to Petraeus on areas to tweak and/or change,” a senior official tells us. P4 also keeps Tal Afar master H.R. McMaster close by.
This news might warm the hearts of some in the Beltway establishment, but it should send a shiver up the spine of anyone who recalls the position taken by a number of these people concerning the war in Iraq, or really of anyone who can work Google to search before 2007, i.e. before the "success" of the surge turned them all into brilliant strategists, and rendered moot their views on the war going back to 2002 and 2003.
Max Boot, in particular, would like us all to remember his defense of the surge, he the heroic pundit swimming against the tide of defeatism who turned the war effort around. Today he holds forth as a wise and far-sighted strategist who can predict what horrible fates would befall the nation if we were to reduce military spending to, say, pre-9/11 levels. In a recent op ed, he explained that similar cuts in the 1990s had left the "Army desperately overstretched by its subsequent deployments. Part of the reason too few troops were sent to stabilize Iraq in 2003 was that senior officials thought there simply weren't enough to go round."
That is not what he was saying in 2003, when he claimed that securing victory in Iraq would not require many troops:
Formal empire is passe, and Americans have little enthusiasm for it. Promoting liberal democracies with U.S. security guarantees is more our style. In Iraq, that means purging the Baathists, providing humanitarian relief, starting to rebuild, and then setting up a process to produce a representative
This means using American troops to secure all of Iraq. It will be insufficient to set up a peacekeeping force whose authority extends only to the capital. It will be unacceptable to say that peacekeeping is not a job for the U.S. military. Since the United States is committed to a “unitary” Iraq, it will have to commit sufficient force to make this a reality. This probably will not require the 200,000 troops suggested by Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki, but it will require a long-term commitment of at least 60,000 to 75,000 soldiers, the number estimated by Joint Staff planners. (emphasis added)
As Justin Logan asked when Boot was first holding forth as the sage of the surge, "Why should anyone be listening to him now?"
A more substantive critique could focus exclusively on the surge itself. News reports from Iraq are hardly encouraging, the government remains in limbo, violence is on the rise, and Iran's influence continues to grow. This combination of unhappy news has spurred a rising chorus of voices calling for a continuation of our mission in Iraq (as Ted noted here on Monday). This emerging conventional wisdom holds that we should renogotiate (or simply reneg on) our pledge to remove all troops from the country by the end of next year, and plan on a long term presence in the country along the lines of our 60-plus year commitment in Korea.
But how can this be? If the purpose of the surge was to create a space for political reconciliation and a reduction in sectarian violence, which would in turn lead to the creation of a strong and stable government in Iraq that was capable of balancing against Iran and otherwise serve as a bulwark in the region, and if neither of these things have happened, then how can we call the surge a success? And if the surge is not the great success that the advocates of the surge would have you believe, then how much confidence should we have in their advice as it pertains to Afghanistan?
Answer: Not much.
If you decide, in winter, to cut your cable bill by $30 to help defray a $50 increase in your monthly heating bill, have you cut household expenses? No, you have shifted expenses around. You can accurately say that you cut spending on cable or even that you are spending more efficiently, but not that you cut household spending.
That logic escaped much of the national media late last week after the Secretary of Defense announced a plan to close the Joint Forces Command, hire less contractors in the Pentagon, and cut down on the number of generals and civilians it employs. The proposals are part of a larger plan to shift spending from administrative overhead to force structure. The Secretary is clear about that and his hope that overall defense spending continues to rise, as it has every year since 1997. The Secretary even says that he hopes that these proposals will deflect political pressure for real defense budget cuts. But headline after headline refers to the changes as spending cuts.
Here are some prominent examples:
Boston Globe: Gates Announces Major Cuts in Military Spending
New York Times: Pentagon Plans Steps to Reduce Budget
The Hill: Va. lawmakers blast Defense cuts
To be fair, once you get past the inaccurate headlines, these articles all point out, albeit sometimes vaguely, that what’s going on here is cost shifting, not cost saving.
The Post kindly published a letter I wrote asking them to stop confusing reforms explicitly intended to prevent spending cuts with actual spending cuts. Ironically, however, the title that they gave my letter—both online (“Will the defense cuts do what Robert Gates says they will?”) and in the actual newspaper (“Scrutinizing Mr. Gates's Defense Budget Cuts”)—repeated the error I was complaining about.
Then you have the Washington Independent’s Annie Lowrey, who wrote two articles last week claiming not only that the reforms announced last week would cut Pentagon spending, but that they would cut it by $100 billion over five years. However, as the Wall Street Journal article Lowrey cites a source for this figure (which is the Pentagon’s estimate) notes, the reforms announced last week will not trim administrative spending by anything approaching $100 billion. They are part of a larger plan intended to do so.
I know that my instructions for the media on how to cover defense are about as effective as my instructions to the Red Sox on choosing next year’s fifth starter. But it makes me feel better. So I will add that reporters ought to ask experts how much money Gates’s initiatives are really likely to save. They might find that fiscal austerity and world domination are incompatible.
In his speech on August 2, President Obama affirmed that all U.S. troops would be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. That is a welcome stance, given that he has been under increasing pressure to keep American forces in Iraq to maintain order after that deadline. Last week, Lieutenant General Babaker Zebari of the Iraqi army suggested the United States must remain until 2020.
Ironically, some of the same people who argue that a continued U.S. military presence is essential also contend that the United States “won” in Iraq, and especially that the Bush administration’s surge strategy succeeded.
Those who make that argument apparently haven’t looked at Iraq recently. According to the Iraqi government’s own calculations, July was the bloodiest month in that country in more than two years, with over 530 people perishing in political violence. To put that figure into perspective, a comparable monthly toll in the United States, given the difference in the size of the two populations, would be some 7,000 dead. If that carnage were occurring here, I doubt many people would be proclaiming success. The Iraq toll looks good only compared to the even worse bloodletting of a few years ago.
Iraq is also plagued by disunity and a dysfunctional political system. As much as U.S. officials want to preserve the fiction that Iraq is still one country, it is just a fiction. In every way that matters, Iraqi Kurdistan is a de facto independent state. In rump Iraq, Sunni-Shiite tensions and other societal fissures are widening. The squabbling is so bad that five months after national elections, it has not yet been possible to form a new government. Basic services, such as electric power, are significantly worse than they were under Saddam Hussein.
And there are regional worries. Iraq is so weak that its hostile neighbors face irresistible temptations to meddle, and Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are giving in to those temptations.
Other than those minor problems, matters are going splendidly. And this wonderful “victory” has cost the United States a mere $800 billion in direct expenditures, plus hundreds of billions more in indirect costs. Some 4,400 young Americans have died in this crusade, along with another 10,000 or so who have been maimed. And there is the matter of at least 100,000 Iraqis who have been killed since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
The verdict rendered by the ancient Greek General Pyrrhus of Epirus that "another such victory and we are undone" should be the epitaph for the American mission in Iraq.
Thom Shanker has a story in Friday's New York Times about how the roles and duties of a U.S. military officer have changed given the missions bestowed on them in recent years by policymakers. Shanker writes:
Generals and other top officers are now expected to be city managers, cultural ambassadors, public relations whizzes and politicians as they deal with multiple missions and constituencies in the war zone, in allied capitals — and at home.
The most interesting part of that passage is the last three words: "and at home." Historically, the mission of the uniformed military has not been to influence the policy debate at home. As military officers—who have agreed to die rather than face mission failure—have come to realize that one of the gravest threats to their missions can come from exhaustion at home, they have become increasingly involved in domestic political discussions regarding U.S. foreign policy. Gen. David Barno, now a COIN promoter at the Center for a New American Security, reports learning that he had to not just lead his troops, but also influence a range of actors including "allies, Capitol Hill, the media."
Inevitably in these discussions the politicians are presented as crabbed, impatient, almost infantile whiners that bleat like sheep for relief. The military officers are consistently presented as patriotic, stoic, and restrained. Perhaps these images are inevitable. But some of us wonder whether the influence of military officers has grown beyond its healthy limits. It is interesting that Shanker, despite having scored an interview with Petraeus, didn't appear to broach that topic with him or Barno, skimming over the subject by noting drily that
senior officers admit it is much harder to figure out how to prepare their most senior commanders for managing relationships with civilian masters in Washington, especially if popular support is waning for both the strategy, and the wars themselves.
For those interested, at the upcoming American Political Science Association annual meeting in Washington Gen. Petraeus, who holds a Princeton PhD, will receive the Hubert H. Humphrey Award in recognition of notable public service by a political scientist. We will cover the APSA meeting in as much detail as possible here at The Skeptics.
Americans should think about security as involving three components: offense, defense, and prevention, and the U.S. government should better align the resources allocated to each of these missions by creating a Unified Security Budget (USB) that encompasses the Departments of Defense, State (and USAID). So says a report just released by the Task Force on a Unified Security Budget.
The report has been issued annually since 2004, and I have benefited from the USB's findings over the years, especially those portions of the report that document unnecessary or wasteful weapon systems. This year's report is the first one to list me as a member of the task force, though I'm a bit embarassed to take any credit given that my contribution was extremely limited. As with the other task force members, I don't endorse all of the report's conclusions -- more on that in a minute. But I credit the principal authors, Miriam Pemberton of the Institute for Policy Studies, and Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, for their tenacity in pushing an idea that is deserving of serious consideration by policymakers.
Judging from the statements of key policymakers, it might be an idea whose time has come. I would like to believe that that is the case. On the other hand, as the report notes, the same Robert Gates who has professed great interest in reducing the funding imbalance between the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom, has pushed through a series of increases in the DoD budget during his tenure, and speaks of fiscal discipline merely to make people believe that he is serious about cutting spending. He has fooled a number of people who should know better.
The Defense Secretary's contradictory words and actions reveal, in the report's creative formulation, an "Aspirational Secretary Gates" at odds with the "Operational Secretary Gates":
The Aspirational Secretary came to a Navy League conference...and asked, “Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one?...As we learned last year, you don’t necessarily need a billion-dollar guided missile destroyer to chase down and deal with a bunch of teenage pirates wielding AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.”
But it was the Operational Secretary who responded to a question about these statements a few days later: “I may want to change things,” he said, “but I’m not crazy. I’m not going to cut a carrier, OK?”
Moving beyond Gates, the report delivers a well-deserved broadside against the Obama administration's national security policies, as articulated in the National Security Strategy and the Quadrennial Defense Review. These two documents, the USB notes:
talk of hard choices, but largely forego them. While changing some emphases in military strategy, neither seriously examines the military’s roles and missions, to evaluate, in this era of constrained choices, which missions the United States can safely forego and what kinds and level of risk are acceptable.
In short, there are ample grounds for criticizing the Washington foreign policy establishment's crabbed conception of national security and international engagement, and the USB is a worthy contribution to this end.
I am less optimistic than other members of the task force that state-sponsored foreign aid and other development assistance will do much to prevent conflict (and I doubt they'll do much to improve economic conditions, either). I find the discussion of climate change to be an unnecessary distraction, and it is oddly linked to a comment on our supposed "need for Saudi Arabian oil," which, though brief, manages to roll in all of the misconceptions about energy usage that have distorted our policies in the Middle East for over a generation. (For a contrary point of view on these issues, see here, here, and here, respectively.)
But here is not the place for an extended discussion on any of these points. I encourage people to read the USB report. I ask them to pay particular attention to the sections on our bloated military budget, and to consider with an open mind the proposals that would allow us to cut at least $75 billion from the FY 2011 budget without harming U.S. security in any way. And if readers make it that far, they can then dwell on why the United States has increasingly defined its security narrowly in military terms, and on our ability to wage war, and not often enough on the many other instruments of power that once defined this great nation, and could do so again.
Controversy and Afghan President Hamid Karzai continue to cross paths. Today there is news that high-level officals in Kabul and Karzai's relatives may be involved in an illicit money-transfer business. Ted Galen Carpenter and I argue today in the Los Angeles Times that Washington's support for Karzai reveals a troubling pattern in U.S. policy:
Amid growing debate about whether the United States should stay in Afghanistan, one issue of agreement is that Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, is both the central figure in the war and its weakest link.
Recent embarrassing controversies between Karzai and Washington — including a move this month by the Afghan leader to hinder U.S.-backed anti-corruption investigations in Kabul — reveal a troubling pattern in U.S. foreign policy. U.S. leaders have a tendency to hail flawed foreign leaders as the saviors of their countries, only to publicly disparage them later for not meeting America's lofty expectations.
In dealing with the erratic and unreliable Karzai, Washington is replicating the pattern of exaltation and subsequent blame-shifting it followed five decades ago with South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem. That episode produced famously disastrous results.
You can read the entire op-ed here.
North Korea continues to disrupt the peace of Northeast Asia. The latest incidents include the seizure of a South Korean fishing boat and firing artillery rounds into North Korean water near its border with the South (on August 8 and 9, respectively). These provocations follow the blatant act of aggression in late March when a North Korean torpedo sank the South Korean naval vessel, Cheonan. Once again, Washington confronts rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
But that begs the question of why this should be primarily a U.S. problem. The same question could be asked concerning the persistent atmosphere of crisis surrounding North Korea’s nuclear program. In a normal international system, the nations that would be most concerned about a regime’s rogue behavior would be the nations in the immediate neighborhood, because they would be the most at risk. But in Northeast Asia, the United States is the designated point man. South Korea and Japan—and to a large extent China and Russia as well—look to Washington to maintain peace and resolve crises.
That’s the price of being the hegemon in the region. And it is becoming an increasingly dangerous and thankless task. The United States needs to develop a strategy to off-load those security responsibilities to the countries in East Asia who have the most at stake. In particular, Washington should stop encouraging the culture of dependency on the part of leaders in Tokyo and Seoul who are all too comfortable free-riding on America’s military power and security commitments. It’s time to let the North Korean headache be their headache instead of ours.
Public support in Mexico for President Felipe Calderon’s aggressive war on drugs is declining rapidly. That’s not surprising. Violence, especially in northern Mexico, has soared since December 2006 when he ordered the military to attack the drug cartels. More than 28,000 people have perished in the resulting turmoil.
Now, members of Mexico’s political elite—even leaders in his own National Action Party—are turning against Calderon’s strategy. The latest defector is former president Vicente Fox, Calderon’s immediate predecessor. Writing on his blog on August 8, Fox called for legalization of drugs. That move stunned both Mexican and U.S. political leaders who had long considered him an adamant drug warrior. Bush administration officials had repeatedly praised Fox’s cooperation with Washington’s anti-drug efforts as significantly better than those of his predecessors. Fox now broke sharply with his previous positions. “We should consider legalizing the production, distribution, and sale of drugs,” he wrote. Then he added a succinct, damning indictment of both Calderon’s drug policies and those of his own administration: “Radical prohibition strategies have never worked.” His reason for abandoning prohibition was based on a realistic assessment of economic realities. People should look at legalization, Fox argued, “as a strategy to strike at and break the economic structure that allows gangs to generate huge profits in their trade, which feeds corruption and increases their areas of power.”
If those comments were not enough to signal Fox’s complete break with his successor, the former president also called for a rapid withdrawal of the military from internal security missions. And in a final barb directed at Calderon, Fox asserted that the rampant violence was damaging the country’s reputation internationally and undermining the government’s legitimacy domestically. He stressed that “the first responsibility of a government is to provide security for the people and their possessions.” But “today, we find that, unfortunately, the Mexican government is not complying with that responsibility.”
The growing debate in Mexico about the drug war has important implications for the United States. Washington has enthusiastically backed Calderon’s confrontational strategy from the outset, most notably with the $1.6 billion Merida Initiative—of which $1.3 billion is allocated to Mexico. But that policy is failing, and there are even fears that Mexico is lurching toward failed state status. Now, Mexico’s own political elite may be poised to repudiate the current strategy. Washington needs to recognize an increasingly evident policy disaster and try a new approach. Vicente Fox is right. Radical prohibitionist policies have never worked.