Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Barack Obama and The Experience Factor


"The Experience Factor." The words resonate wherever pols and pundits congregate, sipping and opining at watering holes along the campaign trail.

"The Experience Factor." It comes up right after someone mentions "The Obama Phenomenon" _ and it sets the wise heads to nodding, figuring that concerns about his lack of experience will doom what many think is a premature run for the presidency by this talented man who has only been a U.S. senator for two years.

But before joining the Wise Nodding Bobble-Heads, we need to take a hard look at The Experience Factor. After all, searching for presidential experience ought to be a bit like candling an egg, because before passing judgment and then discarding it, it is good to figure out what is really inside.

We begin in October 2002. Congress was deliberating what to do about Saddam Hussein, who was refusing to cooperate with U.N. inspectors of weapons of mass destruction. In the club that is the Senate, smart liberals _ including Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., now the Armed Services Committee chairman _ were fashioning alternative resolutions that would authorize President Bush to invade Iraq, but with important caveats, and so on.

Of all the words legislators spoke in that crucial month, none proved more prescient than these, uttered on Oct. 26, 2002:

"I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al Qaeda. ...

"So for those of us who seek a more just and secure world for our children, let us send a clear message to the president today. ... Let's finish the fight with bin Laden and al Qaeda, through effective, coordinated intelligence, and a shutting down of the financial networks that support terrorism, and a homeland security program that involves more than color-coded warnings."

Those words were spoken not in the U.S. Senate, but at an anti-war rally in Chicago. The speaker was not a U.S. senator, but Illinois state Sen. Obama. He began by boldly attacking the notion of being anti-war.

"Let me begin by saying that although this has been billed as an anti-war rally, I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances," Obama said.

He spoke eloquently of the importance of the Civil War, World War II ("My grandfather signed up for a war the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, fought in Patton's army.") and the War on Terror.

"After September 11th, after witnessing the carnage and destruction, the dust and the tears, I supported this administration's pledge to hunt down and root out those who would slaughter innocents in the name of intolerance, and I would willingly take up arms myself to prevent such tragedy from happening again," Obama said.

"I don't oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war."

What made Obama's speech rather remarkable wasn't just that his warnings proved true. It was that this was a state legislator who had developed a conceptual framework of how world issues are intrinsically linked _ that actions in one place can have far-reaching consequences.

So Obama urged Bush to fight terror by vigorously fighting for nonproliferation and the safeguarding of poorly secured weapons in the former Soviet Union (the Nunn-Lugar program, named for former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who would become Obama's mentor and partner in policy initiatives). He warned about nuclear war between India and Pakistan, and urged us to press Middle East allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to ease repressive practices that turn citizens into "ready recruits of terrorist cells."

On that day, Obama ended his uncommon anti-war-rally speech not with a fist-shaking warning but with a heart-tugging reminder about who would pay the ultimate price for a federal folly. After warning us not to "travel down that hellish path blindly" by invading Iraq without global consensus, he added: "Nor should we allow those who would march off and pay the ultimate sacrifice, who would prove the full measure of devotion with their blood, to make such an awful sacrifice in vain."

Those who were in Chicago's Federal Plaza on that 2002 day heard a voice of experience that was neither heard nor heeded in a nation's capital hell-bent on fighting the wrong war.

How might a troop-level increase in Iraq affect U.S. military operations elsewhere?

Don't Panic... Your War Questions Answered


With President Bush calling for a troop-level "surge" in Iraq and Iraq's insurgents no doubt stocking up on surge protectors, politicians and talking heads are busy debating the effect a troop buildup might have on the outcome of the war. Will the escalation be an unmitigated disaster, they wonder? Or will it merely be a dismal and tragic failure?

The discussion about how the surge will affect Iraq is an important one, but it's obscuring another equally important discussion. How will the troop buildup in Iraq affect U.S. military operations outside of Iraq? The U.S. military has important commitments all over the globe. It conducts operations on every continent, including Antarctica. Just because penguins are cute doesn't mean we don't need to be vigilant.

Of the military's 39 active combat brigades, 15 are already in Iraq. If the Bush Push happens, that number will increase to 20. Numerous reports, from both inside and outside the Pentagon, have warned for a few years that the war in Iraq has dangerously overstretched the U.S. military. If 15 of 39 brigades in Iraq is overstretched, what's 20? Circus contortionist? Yoga instructor?

The problem that this troop escalation will create is that the more soldiers the Bush administration sends to Iraq, the fewer there are available for other vital missions.

Nowhere is the shortage of U.S. military manpower more apparent than in Afghanistan.

Baltimore Sun reporter David Wood recently reported that the Pentagon is redeploying U.S. soldiers from Afghanistan to Iraq at the same time that U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are begging the Pentagon to send more.

Taliban forces made a dramatic comeback in Afghanistan last year. According to Wood, their attacks on U.S., NATO and Afghan government forces tripled last year. It's not just guerilla attacks, either. Taliban fighters are mounting frontal attacks against U.S. and NATO forces, a sign that they're confident in their ability to win battles.

The United States' unwillingness to commit the military resources necessary to stabilize Afghanistan and the economic resources necessary to rebuild it has helped drive a wedge between Afghanistan's government and its people. Instead of rebuilding Afghanistan, like it promised to, the U.S. turned its attention to Iraq and allowed Afghanistan to collapse into the same pit of chaos and warlordism that helped incubate the Taliban the first time around. In the words of a report by the International Crisis Group published in November, "The desire for a quick, cheap war followed by a quick, cheap peace is what has brought Afghanistan to the present, increasingly dangerous situation."

U.S. commanders expect Taliban forces to mount a spring offensive aimed at severing the road link between Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, and its second-largest city and the Taliban's spiritual hometown, Kandahar.

The Bush Push into Iraq also cannibalizes the military's ability to protect U.S. homeland security because of the workload it has placed on state National Guard units.

The National Guard is a branch of the Army comprised overwhelmingly of part-time soldiers. Unlike the full-time, active-duty military, they are intended as a reserve force to be used in the event of emergencies. In peacetime, they are commanded by their state governors and are often among the first responders to local emergencies and disasters that are too big for police, fire and rescue workers to handle on their own. In a time of war, however, the president has the authority to commandeer the state National Guards and send them overseas. National Guard soldiers make up about one-third of the U.S. force in Iraq.

The National Governors Association complained to the Bush administration last year that the Iraq war has significantly hampered the National Guard's domestic readiness. In addition to taking up vital personnel, the war has also used up vital National Guard equipment. The Louisiana National Guard's slow response to the flooding of New Orleans that followed Hurricane Katrina was in part due to the fact that more than one-quarter of the state's National Guard personnel, and most of the state's best National Guard vehicles, were in Iraq.

On the day after Bush announced his troop-level increase plan to the nation, the Pentagon announced that it was abandoning its limit on the time National Guard and Reserve soldiers can be required to serve on active duty. That means more Guard units and more Guard equipment in Iraq, and less of it here.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

What are the details of North Korea's nuclear deal with the United States?

Don't Panic ... your war questions answered


North Korea's dictator Kim Jong-il just had what the hipsters at VH1 might dub the "Best Week Ever."

Last week, the Dear Leader celebrated his 65th birthday with an over-the-top, nationwide, multiday celebration that makes me wonder if Kim hired Martha Stewart, Dr. Evil and Henry Kissinger to head his planning committee.

Among the highlights, last week saw the debut performance of a symphony titled "Glory To Kim Jong-il." I checked: iTunes doesn't have it yet.

Last Friday, a group described by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency as a "dancing party of youth and students" performed several dance numbers for the Dear Leader, including "May the Leader Receive Blessings from the People," "The Korean Nation Is Best" and "Our General Is Best."

Hundreds of thousands of people, from all over the world apparently, visited the festival of Kimjongilia, a flower named for the Dear Leader. Quoth the KCNA, "The military attache of the Egyptian embassy here said that there are many flowers in the world but none of them is as beautiful as Kimjongilia." If Egypt's military attache to North Korea likes it, it must be lovely.

Kim's biggest birthday gift came from the unlikeliest of givers, President Bush.

On Feb. 13, the United States, along with China, South Korea and Russia, agreed to give Kim fuel and food aid worth about $400 million. In exchange, Kim's government has agreed to shut down its main nuclear reactor and open North Korea to international nuclear inspectors.

You may recall reading or hearing about a similar agreement in September 2005. So similar, in fact, that, when asked, the White House described last week's agreement as "the first step toward implementing" the 2005 agreement. In essence, this agreement agrees to reagree on what they've already agreed.

Implementation will proceed in stages. The more North Korea gives, the more fuel and food aid they'll get.

I describe the deal as a gift to Kim because, if implemented, the deal is effectively an admission by the Bush administration that its policy toward North Korea since January 2001 has been a failure. Since 2001, Bush's policy toward North Korea has been all stick and no carrot. The Bush policy was an explicit rebuke of Clinton's willingness to negotiate with North Korea, which the Bushies to this day criticize as all carrot and no stick.

The Bush administration's mistake all this time was to overestimate U.S. ability to simply scare Kim into doing what we wanted, while at the same time underestimating his ability to dangerously thumb his nose at us.

In 1994, when North Korea threatened to convert fuel from its nuclear power reactor into fuel for nuclear weapons, Clinton threatened North Korea by ordering a military buildup around the country, but he also offered negotiations. The result was the Agreed Framework of Oct. 21, 1994, in which North Korea agreed to halt its nuclear-weapons fuel program in exchange for fuel aid and two nuclear power plants that could not be used for weapons fuel.

Both sides failed to do what they promised (North Korea cheated and the United States didn't deliver the power plants), but the agreement nevertheless delayed North Korea's nuclear-weapons program by nearly a decade.

When Bush took office, he explicitly rejected the idea of negotiating with North Korea. He called Kim Jong-il a pygmy and called his country part of an "axis of evil," which North Korea interpreted as a threat of invasion.

When, in late 2002, North Korea threatened to once again convert fuel from its nuclear power plant into nuclear-weapons fuel, the Bush administration refused to negotiate seriously. North Korea kicked out international inspectors and proceeded full steam ahead on its nuclear program. North Korea now has somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 nuclear weapons. Last October, it tested one.

Former Bush administration hardliners, such as John Bolton, are furious about the deal. They criticize the new Bush deal as a repeat of the 1994 Clinton agreement that they spent six years mocking. They're only half right. Giving aid in exchange for North Korea verifiably shutting down its nuclear-weapons fuel operation is exactly what Clinton gave Kim in 1994. The difference between then and now is that six years of phony tough talk and refusal to negotiate gave North Korea the time and the motivation to build a small nuclear-weapons stockpile that it's not likely to give up any time soon.