Posts Tagged ‘Tom Ricks’

The Hillary-Gates Axis in Action

Friday, April 1st, 2011


I thought that this interaction between Bob Gates and Hillary on Meet the Press this week was particularly interesting. Gates has been a reluctant warrior on Libya and he gave an honest answer to David Gregory on whether he thought that what happened in Libya was in our vital interest. Gates said that he didn’t believe that it was, but that it was in our allies interest.

David Gregory highlighted that comment, and Hillary, understanding that this was going to be the headline of the interview interjected:

Well, but, but, but then it wouldn’t be fair as to what Bob just said.  I mean, did Libya attack us?  No.  They did not attack us.  Do they have a very critical role in this region and do they neighbor two countries–you just mentioned one, Egypt, the other Tunisia–that are going through these extraordinary transformations and cannot afford to be destabilized by conflict on their borders?  Yes.  Do they have a major influence on what goes on in Europe because of everything from oil to immigration?

And, you know, David, that raises a, a very important point.  Because you showed on the map just a minute ago Afghanistan.  You know, we asked our allies, our NATO allies, to go into Afghanistan with us 10 years ago.  They have been there, and a lot of them have been there despite the fact they were not attacked.  The attack came on us as we all tragically remember.  They stuck with us.

When it comes to Libya, we started hearing from the UK, France, Italy, other of our NATO allies.  This was in their vital national interest.  The UK and France were the ones who went to the Security Council and said, “We have to act because otherwise we’re seeing a really violent upheaval with a man who has a history of unpredictable violent acts right on our doorstep.” So, you know, let, let’s be fair here.  They didn’t attack us, but what they were doing and Gadhafi’s history and the potential for the disruption and instability was very much in our interests, as Bob said, and seen by our European friends and our Arab partners as very vital to their interests.

Bob Gates and Hillary’s alliance has been well documented and watching the video made me think that this policy is was no doubt significantly effected by the push and pull of these two key advisers. In fact, it might not be a stretch to say that the policy is a mix of Gates’  (George HW Bush style) political realism and focus on coalition building and the Hillary/Samantha Power/Susan Rice cohort (shaped by the Clinton Administration’s failure to intervene in Rwanda, and later, by its successful intervention in Bosnia).

The Obama Administration has tried to emulate George HW Bush’s political realism and focus on coalition building throughout their Administration, but as the New York Times reported, Clinton and Gates found themselves on opposite sides of this issue during internal deliberations. Hillary’s side won the day, but (perhaps in a nod to Gates and other advisors’ reticence),

The president had a caveat…The American involvement in military action in Libya should be limited — no ground troops — and finite. “Days, not weeks,” a senior White House official recalled him saying.

Tom Ricks seemed to take those reports at face value. Later on Meet the Press, Bob Woodward mentioned that there was a possibility that military advisers at some future juncture might argue for a much larger land war. Ricks said

I was really struck by what you had with the secretary of Defense and the secretary of State and their comments again and again saying limited war, limited interest.  There is a leash on here on the U.S. military that if they get any general getting a whiff of mission creep, they’re going to yank on that leash so hard his head’s going to come snapping all the way back to Washington.

At least at this point, it looks like Ricks was right. On Capitol Hill today, Gates basically said that he would rather resign than put US military boots on the ground in Libya and that we shouldn’t be involved in training the rebel military, arguing that there are many other countries that could do that.

Taking a Position On the Libya Engagement

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

I’ve been riveted to the events in Libya, and while I’m not convinced of Andrew Sullivan’s view that bloggers have to take a position, I certainly feel some self imposed obligation to do so.

So, while I admit that this is a tough call for me and I’m not at all sure that my position will be vindicated, I’m inclined to support the president’s actions so far.

That being said, this is a tough call in general and deserves a full analysis:

On the con side, there is the obvious: this would be the third war in the Muslim world that we are engaged in; there’s not a clear, immediate, vital national interest in Libya; we know very little about the rebel forces, and there’s a good argument to be made that, in a time of fiscal crisis, we probably shouldn’t be spending money on more foreign entanglements. But there is such a thing as moral credibility and and it makes sense for us to not let Qaddafi set the precedent that overwhelming force is the best way to put down the “Arab spring” movements. Given that we were slow to respond in Egypt and we’re giving the Saudi and Bahraini monarchies a pass for geopolitical reasons, we would certainly have lost all credibility with the nascent democracy movements in the region (not to mention the rest of the world) if we were to stand by while Qaddafi’s troops overwhelmed Benghazi and meted out a very public revenge on the rebels.

The French and the British were clearly out front on this intervention, and given that, I think the Obama’s Administration’s approach was pretty solid. They made it clear that (a) they wouldn’t act without a request from either the Arab League or the African Union (b) they wanted to get UN approval for their action (c) Arab or African forces would have to be involved the operations, and (d) the U.S. would not take the lead throughout the campaign. The last condition was particularly interesting, given that we have almost always have taken the lead in Western interventions for the past 60 years. In effect, Obama said to the French and British: if you want to do this, we will take the lead in the first few weeks, but then you guys are taking over.

When I initially heard all of these conditions, I thought that they were just roadblocks that the Administration put up in order to kill the idea of intervention. But surprisingly, all of these conditions were met. In an unprecedented step, the Arab League requested Western intervention in the Middle East; China and Russia agreed not to veto a relatively broad resolution authorizing the use of force “to protect civilians”; Qatar and the United Arab Emirates agreed to contribute a token number of fighters to enforce the no-fly zone, and the French and British agreed to take the lead on enforcement after an initial bombardment by US forces.

As President Obama said in his weekly address today:

The progress we’ve made over the past seven days demonstrates how the international community should work, with many nations, not just the United States, bearing the responsibility and cost of upholding international law.

As usual, US led military forces performed brilliantly and the initial operations have worked to level the playing field between the rebels and Qaddafi’s forces, even allowing the rebels to roll back some of Qaddafi’s gains in the past two days.  

Now with the initial air strikes out of the way, the coalition faces the tougher issues, many of which are rooted in the compromises that had to be made in order to get the international community to buy in. For instance, while everyone knows that the real objective is to force Qaddafi from power, the UN resolution only calls for the “protection of civilians.” While the air strikes have stopped Qaddafi’s military from advancing on the rebels, almost everyone agrees that this mostly untrained band of rebels will need outside help to take Tripoli, and while the UN has imposed an arms embargo on Libya, it’s clear that the rebels will need additional armaments and training in order to prevail against Qaddafi. In addition, the French have said that ”The destruction of Qaddafi’s military capacity is a matter of days or weeks, certainly not months”–but without a capitulation by Qaddafi or mass defection of his forces (not out of the question, but dangerous to base a war plan on)–they’re fooling themselves if they think that the rebels can capture Tripoli in a number of weeks.

Ideally, we should rely on our allies to arm and equip the rebels. While there was some initial debate about whether this would violate the UN arms embargo on Libya, there have been recent reports that coalition members are actively pursuing this option.  The French have some experience operating in Qaddafi’s Libya and the Egyptians are already reported to be supplying the rebels with small arms. At the same time, coalition air power can provide a safe haven in rebel controlled territory for the training of troops (either by allied special forces, or by mercenaries) so that the rebels will eventually be able to march to Tripoli and take on Qaddafi’s forces. Clearly this violates the spirit of the UN resolution, but it is hard to believe that anyone thought that the endgame the coalition would be pursuing in Libya would be anything but regime change.

To be clear, this course is fraught with peril and plenty of things could go wrong along the way: evening the playing field could lead to a prolonged standoff between Qaddafi and rebels. A rebel victory could produce a weak central government, setting off a civil war. In the event of either outcome, Libya could become a breeding ground for terrorism. Alternately, a rebel government itself could easily be hijacked by Islamist forces (which are already a part of the governing council and the military). Our allies could tire of the mission, leaving the United States holding the bag, or an excessive focus on Libya could lead us to lose focus(ala Bush in 2003) on the more pressing issues throughout the Middle East (from Egypt to Yemen).

But failure to support the rebels also has its downsides. If the past few months have taught us anything, it’s that the the future of the Middle East (for better or worse) will be shaped by democracy. It may take decades to unfold, or it may happen over the next few years, but if we don’t support it where we can, we significantly increase the chances that whatever type of democracy emerges will view the United States not as the beacon of freedom that we see ourselves for, but as the imperialist power that chose political stability over democratic values when the fate of their countries hung in the balance.

Tom Ricks: Beyond the No-Fly Zone

Friday, March 18th, 2011

Well it’s official: in what may be the strongest example of Obama Administration multilateralism to date, the UN Security Council approved the use of force in Libya this afternoon. Here’s Tom Ricks on military options we should be pursuing in Libya and why a no-fly zone itself was a half-measure which sounded easier and more effective than it actually would be. 

Keep in mind that this was written over a week ago and that Qaddafi’s forces have made significant progress in that short time, but I still think the recommendations (and analysis) are solid.

Petreaus to the Rescue (Again)

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

Some belated comments on the McCrystal/Petreaus/Obama High Drama this week.

Tom Ricks made a good point the day before the firing of McCrystal about the differences in opinion that he was hearing from people that have experience with the military and those who don’t. Specifically, most military types agreed that McCrystal had to go based on his actions because of the type of signal this kind of insubordination sends to the rest of the troops. Admiral Mullen expressed this sentiment even more strongly in his statements after the firing. From a similar standpoint, political columnist Mike Barnicle said on Morning Joe on June 25 that Obama had no choice but to fire McCrystal because “weakness is contagious.” If Obama allowed his military commanders to second guess him in public, it would have a cascading effect that would affect his presidency on multiple levels.

From this standpoint, the decision to fire McCrystal and replace him with Petreaus was absolutely the correct one. You can imagine that if McCrystal was left on, people from all sides would be questioning Obama’s toughness and the military brass would be emboldened to push him even harder for an open-ended commitment in Afghanistan. Alternately, if he had fired McCrystal and replaced him with someone of a lower stature, the news stories the next day would be about whether this commander was the right man to carry out the strategy that McCrystal was the architect of and whether a thin skinned Obama had cut off his nose to spite his face.

From the political perspective, Petreaus’ appointment was perfect. Petraeus is one of the most impressive men in American public life today. He brought back our efforts in Iraq from disaster and literally wrote the book on modern day counter-insurgency. He did this by gaining a much clearer insight into the way that Iraqi society operated and making strategic shifts to turn that to America’s advantage. Throughout the process, he consistently put people around him that would challenge the traditional view of the conflict. As Ricks details extensively in The Gamble (and less extensively in today’s Washington Post)

Petraeus took a much more humble stance, in which Iraqis were not told what to do and how and when to do it, but were asked their advice about what to do, and the best way to do it. It was notable that three of the most important advisers around Petraeus as he took command were foreigners — Kilcullen; a pacifistic British political adviser named Emma Sky who had been against the war; and Sadi Othman, a Palestinian American who became Petraeus’s personal envoy to the Iraqi government. A sharp contrast to the frat-boy atmosphere around McChrystal depicted in a Rolling Stone profile that led to his dismissal. 

The support for Petraeus’ appointment was swift and bipartisan. The neo-con trio of McCain, Graham and Lieberman stated strong support for the change, while also taking shots at the administration’s conditions-based withdrawal schedule and questioning some of the civilian leadership assigned to Afghanistan.

David Ignatius suggested that the appointment of Petraeus represents a doubling down on Afghanistan by Obama. Certainly, the appointment pushes the Afghanistan effort back to the front of the newspapers and puts a very credible and respected face on the effort. Whether this increases the length of our deployment remains to be seen.  The July 2011 withdrawal date has always been a vauge deadline that can be seen from different viewpoints to mean different things. What’s clear is that, in a year and a half from now, the troop levels will no longer be 3x what they were during the Bush Administration. What’s less clear is how big the remaining force will be, how much longer we will be there and how much blood and treasue Obama is willing to spend on a mission that has gone on significantly longer than the American people expected and whose outcome seems to be increasingly in doubt.

All indications are that this is a decision that Obama has yet to make. But the deadline should provide the same reminder to General Petreaus as it does for the Afghans: both of them need to show some real progress towards a credible endgame in the next year if this commitment is going to last much longer.