What follows may irritate some, so let me confess up-front that the following is written by a political independent who has worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations, served Nixon on one of his presidential commissions, worked full-time for Carter's National Security Council, and was a naval officer during WW II.
IRAQ. First, a personal note. I was one who initially supported the attack on the basis of lies about weapons of mass destruction aimed at the United States plus links to al-Qaeda, not to mention National Security Advisor Rice’s scary fantasy of a mushroom cloud. It was probably the last time I trusted political evaluation of intelligence. And I deeply resented the shabby treatment of Secretary of State retired four-star general Colin Powell after he warned President Bush of post-invasion chaos, citing the Pottery Barn motto (“You break it, you own it”). Powell’s concerns were supported by other retired generals who know war. For his pains he was isolated, humiliated at the UN, and effectively dumped. As the Bush administration botched the post-invasion task, disillusionment was complete.
Painful as it is to look back, we should learn from Iraq war enthusiasts Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, President George W. Bush, and Vice President Dick Cheney. They sold the longest and costliest modern war to the American people as a “cakewalk”, with intelligence about WMD that was a “slamdunk", and cost us, not $80 billion dollars, but close to one trillion, over 4,000 US lives, and thousands of maimed US troops ,along with a huge number of dead and wounded Iraqi civilians. We were further deceived when the war costs were kept off budget. It should be noted that none of the four ever experienced combat in war.
WHEN TO LEAVE IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN. Some critics fear that “premature” withdrawal will endanger our objectives of leaving behind a democratic society in Iraq and a secure one in Afghanistan. They may be right that a new surge might give those goals a better chance. But the evidence, both historical and contemporary, suggests that a delay of three years, five years, or even ten may not make much difference. Whenever the US pulls out, the odds in Iraq are what you might expect for a society where Shia were always reviled by Sunnis and, with our invasion, vice versa. The three Ottoman provinces made into “Iraq” in London in 1921 are as likely to have a dictator again holding the country together as an entirely new model of governance imposed from the outside. The odds in Afghanistan, whenever the US withdraws, seem to me to favor recurrence of tribal conflict between Pashtuns and Northerners, along with resurgent Taliban extremism and a weak and corrupt central government. We hope that US efforts at transformative change in both countries will take hold. But they could also vanish like footprint s in the sand. The US military has done its best in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The rest, as always, is up to the natives.
IRAN. Iran is not North Korea, which no American really understands. Rather than being a hermetically sealed dictatorship, Iran has a majority younger generation that is facile with social networks and well aware of the Arab Awakening. The mullahs rule with an uneven fist, but a direct attack on Iran is likely to unite the people. If Iran commits suicide by blocking the Strait of Hormuz, the US is certain to forcibly reopen it. But the paramount basis for policy is that Iran probably has a secret nuclear weapons program, according to the International UN Atomic Energy Agency. Republican contenders Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum have engaged in competitive machismo about who would most unflinchingly go to war with Iran if it did not discontinue its suspected nuclear weapons program. Like the four most influential Iraq war promoters cited earlier, these three don’t appear to have experienced anything that might be called military combat. Big trouble lies ahead if a serious war plan on Iran develops in 2012 before all diplomatic and other non-war options have been thoroughly explored.
Considering the costs, a smart US administration will double down on efforts to reach, inform, persuade, bribe, sabotage, and subvert the program, up to and including covert Special Forces and drone operations. Extreme persuasion worked earlier to end Libya’s weapons program; imagine the situation today if we had not persuaded Quaddaffi to give up his nuclear program. If Iran proceeds to build a weapon, or is only a screwdriver turn away, Israel is likely to ignore US cautions and try to blast Iran’s nuclear facilities the way it did with Saddam’s Osirak reactor in 1982, but on a far larger scale. If the worst can be averted, think of an “Islamic Awakening” in Iran that begins to rescue that lovely country.
GOVERNANCE. President Barack Obama wasted the one year available to presidents for real change by giving primacy to a controversial universal health care plan that overshadowed efforts to deal with inherited crises of rising unemployment and financial meltdown. In his first term his promised efforts to compromise with Congress proved futile, first against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s injunction to give primacy to making Obama a one-term president (how’s that for responsible leadership and patriotism at a time of overwhelming national problems begging for solution). After 2010 Tea Party-dominated House Republicans brought to major issues a Taliban-like non-negotiable agenda that allowed for none of the give and take at the heart of the democratic process. The result was serial paralysis.
The US system intentionally makes governance hard. The (unwritten) British constitution is aimed at making it possible to govern, while the US constitution is aimed at keeping King George III from coming back. The Tea Partiers who knowingly kept the United States government from functioning were once a legitimate protest movement. But they failed to comprehend their responsibility to govern, bringing to life a saying by Brazilian revolutionary Francisco Juliano: “To agitate is beautiful; to organize is difficult.” If these 80 or so Tea-Partiers are re-elected, we can look forward to the continued dysfunction of the federal government as a global laughingstock. But a strongly recovering economy may find the Tea Party a historical footnote.
Maybe President Obama doesn’t deserve re-election, assuming a believable opponent. But I find him a moral, intelligent, and patriotic guy. The right-wing extremists who savagely slimed and defamed his personal character and beliefs should have their mouths washed out with soap.
SERIOUS EDUCATION. Several candidates in the Republican primary debates have demonstrated ignorance of some facts they should have mastered in grade school. (I should correct that; Mrs. Bachmann's endless recital of non-facts as well as Herman Cain’s and Rick Perry's empty memory cards bring to mind the Josh Billings saying that “the trouble with people is not that they don’t know, but that they know so much that ain’t so.”) But the blame should also fall on the American educational system, which seems to be producing, along with the bright achievers, an inordinate number of uneducated people. Those who brag about the US being Number One are right when it comes to military power -- and to the country's still inhrent promise -- but wrong about where we now stand educationally and overall in relation to fast-rising competitors like China, India, and Brazil. (For some figures, see my blog posting entitled "Is the US in Decline?"). If we don’t finally get serious about this in 2012we can forget about maintaining a long-term competitive economy.
INESCAPABLY, CHINA. Efforts to manage competitive but peaceful relations with China are crucial to our national security and well-being. I think President Obama and his team get high grades for managing this tricky relationship as well as that with equally unpredictable Moscow. It is vital that whoever wins in November continue these efforts while, as always, keeping our powder dry.
And a Happy New Year to all.