Still Fighting

By Dan Froomkin
3:05 PM ET, 06/25/2009

It says a lot about this presidency that there is so much else going on that the public has almost forgotten that our troops are still fighting two wars.

And yet, there is big trouble on both fronts. In Iraq, where our troops are at least in the process of withdrawing, a recent spate of bloody attacks indicates things may be about to take an ugly turn. Even more disturbingly, in Afghanistan, where Obama has decided to escalate rather than extricate, there is still not even the glimmer of an exit strategy.

Tomorrow will be White House Watch's last day at The Washington Post. One of my many regrets is that I didn't get around to writing more about Obama's Afghanistan policy, its extraordinarily bloody ramifications, how it threatens to sink the nation in a Vietnam-like quagmire -- and, most significantly, how the president has never really made the case for his decision to increase rather than decrease our troop presence there.

There are plenty of authoritative arguments being publicly made by knowledgeable people that Obama is going about things the wrong way. This is way more the case, say, than before former president George W. Bush took the nation to war in Iraq. And yet Obama has never acknowledged or addressed those arguments -- and the press has not forced him to.

Before a president sends troops (or more troops) into harm's way, it seems to me he should be forced not only to explain why he thinks he's right, but why he thinks his critics are wrong. As I thought we'd learned in Iraq, giving the president a pass on this sort of thing is a very bad idea.

Consider just a few of the arguments being made by Obama's critics.

Back in March, consummate Washington insider Leslie H. Gelb wrote in a New York Times op-ed:

We can't defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, as the last seven years have shown. Numbers are part of the problem: most Taliban are members of Afghanistan's majority tribe, the Pashtuns. More confounding, the Taliban and their Qaeda allies have found in northwestern Pakistan a refuge that has proved almost impregnable. These factors make overcoming the enemy in Afghanistan infinitely harder than it was in Iraq.

What we can do is effectively reduce the risk of terrorist attacks from Afghanistan against its neighbors, the United States and its allies. We can do this in a way that would allow for the withdrawal of American forces, though economic and military aid would continue.

Gelb concludes:

President Obama and Congress owe it to both Afghans and Americans to explore a strategy of power extrication before they make another major decision to expand the war.

Here's Middle East expert Juan Cole in Salon in March:

The U.S. is not, contrary to what the president said, mainly fighting "al-Qaida" in Afghanistan. In blaming everything on al-Qaida, Obama broke with his pledge of straight talk to the public and fell back on Bush-style boogeymen and implausible conspiracy theories....

Obama described the same sort of domino effect that Washington elites used to ascribe to international communism. In the updated, al-Qaida version, the Taliban might take Kunar Province, and then all of Afghanistan, and might again host al-Qaida, and might then threaten the shores of the United States....

This latter-day domino theory of al-Qaida takeovers in South Asia is just as implausible as its earlier iteration in Southeast Asia (ask Thailand or the Philippines). Most of the allegations are not true or are vastly exaggerated. There are very few al-Qaida fighters based in Afghanistan proper. What is being called the "Taliban" is mostly not Taliban at all (in the sense of seminary graduates loyal to Mullah Omar). The groups being branded "Taliban" only have substantial influence in 8 to 10 percent of Afghanistan, and only 4 percent of Afghans say they support them. Some 58 percent of Afghans say that a return of the Taliban is the biggest threat to their country, but almost no one expects it to happen. Moreover, with regard to Pakistan, there is no danger of militants based in the remote Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) taking over that country or "killing" it.

Cole concludes:

When a policymaker gets the rationale for action wrong, he is at particular risk of falling into mission creep and stubborn commitment to a doomed and unnecessary enterprise.

Political scientist John Mueller wrote in Foreign Affairs in April:

George W. Bush led the United States into war in Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein might give his country's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. Now, Bush's successor is perpetuating the war in Afghanistan with comparably dubious arguments about the danger posed by the Taliban and al Qaeda.

President Barack Obama insists that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is about "making sure that al Qaeda cannot attack the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests and our allies" or "project violence against" American citizens. The reasoning is that if the Taliban win in Afghanistan, al Qaeda will once again be able to set up shop there to carry out its dirty work. As the president puts it, Afghanistan would "again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can." This argument is constantly repeated but rarely examined; given the costs and risks associated with the Obama administration's plans for the region, it is time such statements be given the scrutiny they deserve.

Oh, and did you know that Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, recently said that al Qaeda was no longer operating in Afghanistan -- at all?

Author Tom Engelhardt recently noted that despite all the positive media attention lavished on Obama's new commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, that appointment was actually evidence that Obama is going for broke in a region where the application of force has failed for years -- potentially locking himself into an escalation without end.

And here's a warning sign if I ever saw one. As Dick Polman blogged for the Philadelphia Inquirer a while back:

[T]he highest praise for Obama's Afghanistan announcement is being voiced by the likes of William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Max Boot - all prominent neoconservatives. Kagan, for instance, lauded what he called Obama's "gutsy and correct decision." Boot believes that Obama's ... address "was pretty much all that supporters of the war effort could have asked for, and probably pretty similar to what a President McCain would have decided on." On the substance of policy, Boot says, "Obama is solid."

I could go on, and on, and on.

Meanwhile, in the run-up to a June 30 deadline for U.S. combat troops to leave Iraqi cities, there have been a slew of major attacks there, killing 150 people in the last week.

Robert Burns and Lolita C. Baldor write for the Associated Press that "some private analysts worry that the administration may be underestimating the possibility that continuing violence and political turmoil could lead to an unraveling of the security situation." Muhanad Mohammed writes for Reuters: "A string of attacks has cast doubt on the ability of Iraqi forces to keep the lid on a stubborn insurgency after U.S. combat troops pull back from towns and cities by June 30." And Rod Nordland writes in the New York Times that "there are signs that Falluja could again plunge into violence."

I'm not arguing that any of this means we should stay longer, mind you, just that withdrawal was never going to be easy, and deserves some attention.

If nothing else, it's crucial that we not forget the toll war takes on the warriors -- and their families. And as it happens, Gregg Zoroya has just such a reminder in USA Today this morning:

After seven years of war, most children of combat troops are showing more fear, anxiety and behavioral problems, according to the Pentagon's most sweeping survey of the effects of war on military children.

Six out of 10 U.S. military parents told researchers their children have increased levels of fear and anxiety when a parent is sent to war, according to a survey of more than 13,000 military spouses of active-duty servicemembers....

Troubled children add to a growing list of war strain issues that the military, and particularly the Army, struggle with, including increases in suicide, mental health problems, alcohol abuse and divorce.

A more recent study this year by UCLA of nearly 200 families of active-duty Army and Marine Corps personnel shows problems for children may not go away. A year after parents returned from combat, 30% of the children exhibited clinical levels of anxiety — levels requiring possible treatment. The children's average age was 8.

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
11:14 AM ET, 06/25/2009

Colum Lynch writes in The Washington Post: "The United Nations' top human rights advocate, Navanethem Pillay, on Wednesday appealed to the Obama administration to release Guantanamo Bay inmates or try them in a court of law, and said officials who authorized the use of 'torture' must be held accountable."

From her statement: "As [the Convention Against Torture] makes clear, people who order or inflict torture cannot be exonerated, and the roles of certain lawyers, as well as doctors who have attended torture sessions, should also be scrutinized.... Equally importantly, victims of torture must be helped to recover from one of the worst ordeals that a human being can face.... Victims of torture must be compensated and cared for – for as long as it takes to enable them once again to lead a relatively normal life."

Mother Jones writer Bruce Falconer interviews Spanish attorney Gonzalo Boyé, who "has turned his attention to six former Bush administration figures accused of putting forth specious legal arguments to justify clear violations of the United Nations Convention Against Torture." Says Boyé: "The lawyers who created the legal framework for Guantanamo are the basis for all that happened there. Without the lawyers, the crime would never have been committed, or at least not in that form and with such a degree of impunity."

Jake Tapper and Karen Travers write for ABC News about the ABC town hall on health care at the White House last night: "President Obama struggled to explain today whether his health care reform proposals would force normal Americans to make sacrifices that wealthier, more powerful people -- like the president himself -- wouldn't face.... Dr. Orrin Devinsky, a neurologist and researcher at the New York University Langone Medical Center, .... asked the president pointedly if he would be willing to promise that he wouldn't seek such extraordinary help for his wife or daughters if they became sick and the public plan he's proposing limited the tests or treatment they can get. The president refused to make such a pledge, though he allowed that if 'it's my family member, if it's my wife, if it's my children, if it's my grandmother, I always want them to get the very best care.'"

Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times that Obama suggested "that one way to shave medical costs is to stop expensive and ultimately futile procedures performed on people who are about to die and don't stand to gain from the extra care."

Joe Conason writes in his syndicated column: "If Congress fails to enact health care reform this year — or if it enacts a sham reform designed to bail out corporate medicine while excluding the 'public option' — then the public will rightly blame Democrats, who have no excuse for failure except their own cowardice and corruption."

Steven Mufson and Jennifer Agiesta write in The Washington Post: "Three-quarters of Americans think the federal government should regulate the release into the atmosphere of greenhouse gases from power plants, cars and factories to reduce global warming, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, with substantial majority support from Democrats, Republicans and independents. But fewer Americans -- 52 percent -- support a cap-and-trade approach to limiting greenhouse gas emissions similar to the one the House may vote on as early as tomorrow. That is slightly less support than cap and trade enjoyed in a late July 2008 poll. Forty-two percent of those surveyed this month oppose such a program."

Ginger Thompson and David M. Herszenhorn write in the New York Times: "President Obama is expected to meet with Congressional leaders of both parties on Thursday to begin laying the political groundwork for sweeping immigration legislation, even though its passage this year is considered very unlikely. With lawmakers already immersed in health care, financial regulation and energy policy, and with the Senate set to hold hearings soon on Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court, administration officials and many in Congress say it is improbable that they will be able to add anything as challenging as an immigration overhaul."

Nazila Fathi and Alan Cowell write in the New York Times: "As Iran's embattled opposition leader renewed a call for protests against the disputed presidential elections, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assailed President Obama on Thursday, telling him to stop interfering in Iran's affairs and accusing him of striking the same hostile tone as his predecessor, George W. Bush."

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "The White House announced yesterday that it had withdrawn invitations to Iranian diplomats to attend Fourth of July festivities at U.S. embassies around the world. The move is the first tangible penalty the United States has imposed against the Iranian government in the wake of the brutal crackdown of demonstrations over the disputed presidential elections."

Peter Maier writes for CBS News: Presidential Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said he has 'no apologies' for what many White House reporters saw as the planting of a questioner who was called on by President Obama at [Tuesday]'s news conference. Gibbs said the White House decision to invite The Huffington Post's Nico Pitney was the best way to convey information from an Iranian who had communicated with the liberal Web site. Defending the White House action, Gibbs said, 'I think it was important and the president thought it was important to take a question using the very same methods, again, that many of you all are using to report information on the ground. I don't have any -- I won't make any apologies for that.'"

Kate Phillips writes for the New York Times that "the criticism is that [Pitney] was cherry-picked, with a call-upon hours and hours beforehand, and handed a status that no one among the so-called elite of the press corps receives on any given day. While that may indeed be a thorn in the feet of the corps who toil daily, the perception of a favored one who got exceptionally advance notice may send signals — far and wide — as to what lengths the administration will go to stage and control the message the president wants to send.... It's not about Mr. Pitney's work or for that matter, the question he asked. It's about how the administration finagled the position in which he became an actor for the president's agenda."

But the White House didn't know what question Pitney would ask ahead of time -- and the question turned out to be a tough one, that Obama ducked. And Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent writes: "Just for kicks, lets compare The Times's reaction above with its worshipful 2003 coverage of another well-known exercise in presidential stagecraft." That would be George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" announcement.

Lois Romano writes in The Washington Post: "For weeks, Michelle Obama had been telling her staff and closest confidantes that she wasn't having the impact she wanted. She is a woman of substance, with a background in law, public policy and management, who found herself relegated to role model in chief. The West Wing of the White House -- the fulcrum of power and policy -- had not fully integrated her into its agenda. She wanted more. So, earlier this month, she changed her chief of staff, and now she's changing her role. Her new chief of staff, Susan Sher, 61, is a close friend and former boss who the first lady thinks will be more forceful about getting her and her team on the West Wing's radar screen. The first thing Sher said she told senior adviser David Axelrod, whom she has known for years: When I call, 'you need to get back to me right away.'"

The Associated Press reports: "A White House spokesman says President Barack Obama and Pope Benedict XVI will talk about their shared belief in the dignity of all people at their meeting next month."

Nelson Hernandez writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama's name would grace a new Prince George's County elementary school a few miles from the White House under a proposal scheduled for a vote tonight, barely five months after he took office.... The school would not be the first in the country named after Obama.... [S]everal other school boards nationwide have taken steps to name new schools or rename old ones after the president."

The Washington Post Style section is asking readers to write the first paragraph of former vice president Dick Cheney's upcoming memoir.

Late Night Humor

By Dan Froomkin
9:40 AM ET, 06/25/2009

Jon Stewart shows a clip of Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer criticizing Obama for his restrained response to the Iranian crackdown. Stewart's response: "You can't believe Obama puts our national security in front of moral outrage?.. You know what I can't believe? That this bothers you -- Charles Krauthammer -- given your views on torture."

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Hard Corps
Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:36 AM ET, 06/25/2009

Rob Rogers on Obama's timidity, Eric Allie on Obama's slow response to Iran, Tim Eagan on how Obama should have handled Iran, Pat Oliphant, Stuart Carlson, Matt Wuerker and Dave Granlund on the health-care debate, Joel Pett on Obama's bad habit, Russell Hodin on Predator drones, and Jimmy Margulies on Cheney's book-signing party.

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