Monday, July 26, 2010

Is WikiLeaks' Release of the War Logs Afghanistan's Cronkite Moment?

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

In light of this week's bombshell revelations about the course of the war in Afghanistan, I read an interesting commentary that grabbed my attention:

"To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."

The thing is, as persuasive as this commentary may be, it isn't about Afghanistan. Rather, those words marked the conclusion of Walter Cronkite's CBS Evening News on February 27, 1968, and Cronkite was talking about Vietnam. The trusted newsman's assessment of the war is often credited as the turning point for American public opinion, moving opposition to the U.S.'s involvement in Vietnam into the mainstream. Reportedly, upon hearing this commentary, President Lyndon Johnson said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."

I can't help wonder if the release of the Afghan War Logs by WikiLeaks is our Cronkite moment for Afghanistan. In fact, when I consider the totality of the recent news on our efforts in Afghanistan, I can't reach any other conclusion than that if Cronkite was still alive, he would say we have.

I have not reached this pessimistic point easily. After the 9/11 attacks, I was a supporter of President Bush's military response in Afghanistan. And when Bush turned his focus to Iraq, even before we knew of his administration's efforts to manipulate intelligence and the non-existence of weapons of mass destruction, I was troubled that he had chosen to move our focus from a country that harbored the men who planned 9/11 to one that had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks on our country. And when President Obama made fixing this Bush blunder a center of his foreign policy proposals during the campaign, I agreed with his assessment of the situation and proposal to intensify American efforts there.

But there comes a time when you have to recognize when something isn't working (a skill that Obama has demonstrated from time to time, and one the last president did not possess at all). A time when our leaders have to demonstrate the courage and sound judgment to do what is right, regardless of how political opponents will shamelessly and disgracefully spin the decision into something that is cowardly and risky. And that time, I fear, is now.

What has brought me to this conclusion? It's not just the War Logs, but how they crystallize lessons we have been learning over the last year.

Afghanistan has a history of being unconquerable by foreign forces, something we witnessed first-hand when we helped the mujahideen repel the Soviet Union after its 1979 invasion. What was supposed to make our military action in Afghanistan different was that rather than impose our will on the country, we were there to support the wishes of the Afghan people through democratic elections. A worthy goal (especially in light of the Taliban's role in harboring Osama bin Laden), but, it turns out, maybe not one that can be accomplished (especially after years of Bush neglect).

President Obama undertook a careful analysis of what to do in Afghanistan (something the Republicans shamefully portrayed as dithering), settling on the current counterinsurgency strategy that relies on building trust in government institutions as a way of winning the loyalty of the Afghan people (at the expense of the Taliban).

It was certainly worth a try. But, when the plan was put into practice, we ran into some roadblocks, many of which are highlighted in the War Logs. Generally, we can only do so much in Afghanistan if we don't have a partner to work with, and if we don't have the support of Pakistan.

It all starts with Hamid Karzai. His 2009 election was dogged by allegations of fraud. His government has been accused of being corrupt. He cozied up to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He even threatened to join the Taliban. It's hard to argue that it is worth risking American lives (more than 1,000 so far) and treasure (more than $300 billion) to prop up Karzai.

Similarly, the War Logs illustrate what we have long been told: The Afghan police, army and local government officials are unwilling and/or unable to provide the kind of services the Afghan people need. James Traub, in a compelling piece in the New York Times Magazine on June 15, did a great job of demonstrating the problems U.S. commanders face in trying to support Afghan institutions, from the power of tribal leaders to the ability of the Taliban to intimidate locals.

The War Logs also reveal the civilian casualties caused by U.S. military and intelligence operations. In what is emerging as a Catch-22 situation, the longer we are there, the less we are wanted there by local Afghans, and the harder it is to convince citizens that they will be safe from the Taliban if they throw in their lots with the Americans and the Karzai government.

But the most problematic obstacle raised in the War Logs just may be the evidence that Pakistani intelligence is aiding the Taliban. President Obama has frequently noted that there is no solution to the Afghan question without also addressing Pakistan, a country that receives billions of dollars in American aid. If the Pakistani government is aiding the Taliban, it seems that we have bigger problems than just trying to prop up the Karzai government until it can take over governing the country without us.

So while the mission in Afghanistan began as a necessary operation (remove the Taliban government that supported and harbored the 9/11 perpetrators), was botched by the Bush administration (who shifted resources to Iraq) and was reassessed and refocused by President Obama, our moment may have already passed. We have a corrupt and ineffectual government in Afghanistan (including the police and military), and we have an ally in Pakistan that is aiding the enemy. And the result is an Afghan population that just doesn't have an incentive to choose the government over the Taliban.

Afghanistan just may be the living embodiment of a no-win situation.

We were told if we let the Communists take over Vietnam, the repercussions would be severe. But history found those warnings to be unfounded. So it seems to me we can protect our interests in the region without surrendering American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars to prop up an odious government. After more than eight years in Afghanistan (and missed opportunities after early successes), a military solution may no longer be possible.

Which is why it is time to heed Cronkite's 42-year-old words of advice to "negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."

Time will tell if WikiLeaks' release of the War Logs turns out to be a Cronkite-like turning point, the moment that the American people stop supporting the war in Afghanistan. It seems to me it should be.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Financial Regulation Vote Shows that While Americans Should Be Angry, the GOP Is not the Solution

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

As the partisan cable networks breathlessly discuss what will happen in the midterm elections in November, there is much talk about how Americans are angry and, as a result, the Republicans are set for major gains in Congress. But the connection between these two assertions--Americans' dissatisfaction and GOP success--strikes me as incredibly lazy, both by the media and the voters.

Nowhere is this disconnect more clear than in the financial regulation battle, which finally concluded with a bill passing the Senate yesterday.

Americans have every right to be angry. Oil has been spewing into the Gulf of Mexico for nearly three months (hopefully, it's finally been contained). Islamic extremists seek to kill Americans. We have a muddy immigration situation, which, no matter on which side of the ideological fence you sit (pun intended), you can't be happy with the way things currently operate.

But the main point of anger is the economy. The official unemployment rate is hovering around 10 percent (with millions more not counted because they've given up on looking for a job). People are concerned about their ability to pay their bills and see an unfair system that rewards Wall Street's reckless risks while punishing middle class workers.

But if Americans want to assess blame for these woes, and if they want to choose who should help get us out of these messes, they have an obligation in a democracy to make an effort to really look at the issues before making a decision. And the media, likewise, has an obligation to sort through these complicated issues more carefully.

If the Republican campaign message for 2010 was something like, "Yes, we know that we caused all these problems in the Bush years, but we've learned our lesson, and now we are offering these new ideas to fix things in the future," I would understand (if not agree with) the equating of the problems with Republican gains. But that's not what the Republicans are offering. Rather, the GOP campaign message for 2010 is essentially the same message as the Bush years, only more militant (and more wacky, thanks to the Angle-Paul tea party influence). Their pitch is built around deregulation, lower taxes for the rich, and less government, the very things that got us into this mess in the first place.

The Republican congressional record for the Obama years consists of opposing any initiative the president offered (in an effort to make him look ineffectual), even if he proposed something the GOP itself had supported earlier, and to offer as solutions the same tired policies from the Bush years (tax cuts, even if they add to the deficit, as Sen. Jon Kyl suggested). That shouldn't be a winning election argument. But with incendiary rhetoric and right-wing-propaganda-machine-fueled lies taking center stage, the focus for the midterms hasn't been on the facts (how we got here and what the two parties have offered since).

In fact, the Republicans have been at the heart of the causes of these problems, and they have offered little other than the same policies as solutions.

Which brings us back to financial regulation, an issue directly tied to the current economic problems. We did not magically morph from prosperity to recession. Rather, the current recession and massive job loss began with the near collapse of the financial system in 2008. Wall Street played a win-lose game (they won no matter what, but we all lost) with risky financial instruments. The housing market collapsed under the weight of subprime mortgages. So the deregulation trumpeted by Republicans caused this mess, and yet the party still touts deregulation.

Certainly, Americans should be angry. And it would seem obvious that action was needed. Nevertheless, all but three Republicans in the Senate didn't think so. Given a choice of standing with the banks or the American people, the Republicans announced their allegiance loud and clear: It is the party of the financial institutions.

So what is the Republican solution to our economic woes? Based on the actions of their leaders, it seems to be to blame the victims, cut taxes and protect the banks. Not only have Republicans opposed extending unemployment benefits, they have tried to blame the unemployed for their plight, particularly cruel since it was their policies that put them out of work in the first place. Arthur Delaney pointed out two examples in HuffPo last week: Sen. John Kyl said unemployment benefits provide a disincentive for the unemployed to seek work, and Sen. Judd Gregg claimed that unemployment insurance encourages the unemployed to stay out of work. (Again, Kyl won't support adding to the deficit for unemployment insurance, but he is fine with doing so for tax cuts for the wealthy.)

Republicans have used increasing government debt as a pro-GOP argument. Generally, it is, of course, better for the government not to run large deficits. But the Republican argument ignores history and is overly simplistic. After all, Bill Clinton handed a surplus to George W. Bush, who proceeded to leave Obama with a gaping deficit. Republicans were happy to run up debt in the 2000s on tax cuts for the rich and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, none of which were paid for. But now that the tens of millions of Americans face unemployment, these same GOP leaders complain about the deficit and say we can't afford any programs to help. How is it that we could afford to spend when it was for tax cuts (and still can, according to Kyl), but not to help those hurt by the Republican-policy-induced recession?

Two polls released on Tuesday showed that Americans care more about unemployment than the deficit. Which party is more concerned with each of those issues? So why should the anger translate to GOP votes? It shouldn't.

In general, Republican policies precipitated the recession, and the party's solutions are to offer more of the same. And when it came to deciding who to stand up for, the Republicans attacked the unemployed and stood with the banks. Americans' anger is legitimate, but directing that anger by giving power back to the GOP is misplaced. The connection makes no sense.

(You could run the same arguments for the oil disaster, immigration and terrorism, showing the Republican culpability and the lack of new solutions offered by the GOP to address the problems.)

I harbor no illusions that Obama and the Democratic Congress are above critique. But I'm saddened that there seems to be no recognition that most of the messes we find ourselves in were created, by and large, by the policies instituted by Bush and his Republican allies in Congress, and that the Republicans are offering those very same policies as the solution in the current campaign. It seems to me handing the reins back to the people who created the problems in the first place (and, more importantly, are only offering more of the same) is a horrible way to respond to the challenges. I'm further saddened that GOP strategy of obstructing and lying, putting rhetoric in front of facts, seems to be working.

You would think that with an oil disaster ravaging his state's already hurting economy, Sen. David Vitter would have better things to do than vote against financial reform and endorse bogus "birther" lawsuits against the president. But this is the essence of the Republican party in 2010.