Polk: Waiting for the Obama We Elected: AfPak Wars, Permanent Detainees, and Dennis Ross

William R. Polk writes in a guest editorial for IC:

Probably like most of you, I am engaged in a daily attempt to make up my mind about President Obama. I was an early supporter. And as a former Washington “player,” I am aware how difficult is his position. I began to worry when he failed to grasp what I have seen to be the early window of opportunity for a new administration — the first three months — when the government is relatively fluid. As the months have flown by, I have seen that there are many positive things, mainly in his eloquent addresses on world problems, notably his speech at the University of Cairo on world pluralism, but also quite a few negative things. With sadness and alarm I find that my list of the negatives keeps on growing. Among them are the following:

(1) the commitment to the war in “Af-Pak” which (I believe) will cost America upwards of $6 trillion but perhaps only a few hundred casualties since we are relying increasingly on drone bombing. Just the money costs could derail almost everything Obama’s supporters hoped and thought his administration would do. That amount of money is roughly half the total yearly income (the GNP) of America. Of course, it will cost Afghanistan far more. Less dramatic perhaps but more crucial will be the further breakdown Afghan society, leaving behind when we ultimately get out an even more demoralized, fractured society and will probably lead to a coup d’etat in Pakistan, further enhancing the danger of war between the South Asian countries. The nominal leaders of Afghanistan (Hamid Karzai) and Pakistan (Asif Ali Zardari) whom we practically appointed and with whom we have chosen to work are hated by their people and are human monuments to the potential of government corruption. (Drugs, traffic in American arms even to insurgents, shakedowns of citizens, sale of public offices, outright stealing, kidnap for ransom…the list is long and as an old hand, it certainly reminds me of South Vietnam.) We now have a window of opportunity to get out of this looming disaster, but it seems that the President is determined to “stay the course.” Fundamental to my worry is that I do not hear anyone around the President or he himself saying things that indicate that they know anything about Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir or India, much less “Pashtunistan” aka The Northwest Frontier. Ignorance is rarely a very rewarding guide.

(Parenthetically, I have recently read the British “how to do it” manual on “Tribal fighting on the Northwest Frontier” by General Sir Andrew Skeen. Skeen spent his life fighting the Pathans. He warned British soldiers back in the 1920s that the Pathans were “the finest individual fighters in the east, really formidable enemies, to despise whom means sure trouble.” My copy is the only one I could find on the internet. it survived in a British officers’ mess library. I doubt that Messrs Petraeus, McChrystal et al have ever heard of it. It makes more sense than Patraeus’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual.)

(2) the choice of personnel is (to me) baffling:

In the military he has chosen to keep on Bush’s Secretary of Defense (who signed if not wrote the latest version of the neoconservative-inspired US National Defense Doctrine calling for, among other things, the “right” of first striking almost anyone we choose if we don’t like them), General David Petraeus whom I regard as a con man for breathing life into the Vietnam counterinsurgency program (which has never worked anywhere in the world in the last two centuries when tried by the British, the Russians, the French, the Germans or us) and General Stanley McChrystal who makes statements that sound terrifyingly like the SS. His main claim to fame appears to have come out of running the prison system in Afghanistan where, apparently, some of the worst cases of torture happened. Sy Hersh who just met with him came out of the meeting appalled. These men, allegedly, have told Obama that he could win the war in Afghanistan “on the cheap.” So when his then principal military adviser gave a more sober assessment — nearly half a million men — Obama fired him and listened to Petraeus’ siren song. Again, as an old hand, I cannot help remembering Vietnam where we went from 1,700 to half a million soldiers and still lost.

The Pentagon budget is not only enormous but contains a number of potential scandals. . . Our overseas bases now cost us over $100 billion yearly. Since the DOD sops up over half of the disposable resources of the government, Obama must get control of it. His task will be difficult because the DOD and what President Eisenhower called the “military industrial complex” have cleverly portioned out the work and procurement on the program to virtually every congressional district. Congress will opt for the program even if it bankrupts America. Congress will be Obama’s enemy if he tries any reforms. Even to try, he will need able advisers and staff. He should certainly know better than to appoint the foxes to guard the henhouse.

In the State Department activities, the most attractive person is Senator Mitchell but he does not seem to have any significant power. I hope I am wrong but he reminds me of my dear friend Governor Chester Bowles after JFK fired him and used him only for window dressing. The others have their own agendas. To be generous, one has to say that Hillary has not yet shown enough to judge, but some of her statements would be hard to worsen. I assume that she has begun to run for the presidency in 2012. She reminds me of the wise saying that when a president assembles his cabinet, he has all his enemies in one room. Dick Holbrooke has a bully’s approach to diplomacy in one of the touchiest spots in the world. His browbeating, hectoring, shouting “Balkan” tactics are ill-suited to Central Asia.

In the White House, I think it would be hard to find a worse choice than the new Special Assistant to the President, Dennis Ross. Three examples of his skill: a) in the early negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, when he was supposedly the honest broker, he took a more disruptive position than even the Israelis, apparently shocking even them; b) in the build-up to the Iranian elections he sponsored and organized a program to “electronically invade” Iran with destabilizing messages trying, more subtly to be sure than the 1953 CIA-MI6 coup, to “regime change” it. Whatever else could be said about the “Iran-Syria Operations Group” , it played right into the hands of Ahmadinejad and the rightwing of the ulama and the military, giving them a proof text for American interference in the elections and thus may have backfired since no issue in Iranian politics is as sensitive as the fear of foreign espionage; (c) just before his appointment to be the chief honcho on all the Middle East, Ross published a book whose message was essentially ‘let’s try a bit of diplomacy for a short time. Of course it won’t work, but it will justify our attacking.’ That is, his approach to peace-seeking is consistent and negative. Since he is now Obama’s point man, we are in for deeper trouble.

The Vice President, as you know, just reversed the final position of the Bush administration, where Bush told the Israelis that America would not approve an attack on Iran: Joe Biden essentially authorized it, saying what they decided to do was their business, not ours. But those of you who have read my occasional essays could tick off the list of potential disasters for America and the Western world such an attack would bring on. It is patently absurd to suggest that an Israeli attack (made with our weapons and implicit approval) is not our business; indeed, regardless of our weapons and our approval, the long-term consequences for our economy, our position in the world, and our exposure to terrorism would be almost impossible to exaggerate.

On the CIA I confess I am not a big admirer. It has taken on 3 tasks: gathering information, evaluating it and performing dirty tricks. It is usually agreed that over 80%, perhaps more like 95%, of the information it accumulates comes from sources that you and I can access if we have the time, energy and interest. Most of the rest comes from technology (intercepts and code breaking which appear to be valuable for counter-terrorism but, at least in my experience, are of near zero value in ‘strategy’; on satellite and overflight imagery much the same can be said.) The second task, evaluation or “appreciation” is very difficult at best, but the record, at least during the Bush administration, is pretty poor. It was far better done then and during the Vietnam war in the tiny Bureau of Intelligence and Research of the State Department. The third task often leads to disasters and violates all that America should stand for. There are scores of examples to back up this statement, but one that has now come back to haunt us is the 1953 coup d’etat that destroyed an elected and popular Iranian government that, had it survived, might have avoided the 1979 Iranian revolution and relieved us of our current worries there. We should get out of the business of espionage, kidnap, torture and murder. Period. The current leadership of the CIA does not seem to have addressed these issues and President Obama has gone out of his way to grant a sort of blanket pardon in advance lest anyone fear that what he did was illegal or, more accurately, knowing that it was illegal might be called to court.

Back to the President: From my experience with life at the “brink,” during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I think that the President’s initiatives on cutting back nuclear weapons is perhaps the best thing he has done so far. True, it is a very modest step, leaving thousands of “devices” in place on both the Russian and American sides, only urging Israel which has hundreds of bombs to join the NPT, actually encouraging India to forge ahead with its nuclear program and so probably moving inexorably toward at least doubling the number of nuclear-weapon-armed countries rather than (as I have strenuously advocated) moving from Russo-American cutbacks to nuclear free areas and ultimately toward worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons. But, at least it is a step in the right direction.

That’s for foreign affairs.

On domestic affairs, I am really not qualified, but the only senior man to whom I would give high marks is former Federal Reserve Bank chairman Paul Volker. I predict that sooner or later, however, several of the men appointed to handle the financial problems will prove to be major political embarrassments to Obama. The phrase “no banker left behind” may prove a potent slogan.

Healthcare is the really tough but literally vital issue. I doubt that many Americans realize that it takes up about $1 in each $6 in our economy but that still 50 million Americans are uninsured. A June 2009 poll showed that 85% of the American public said the system either must be fundamentally changed or totally rebuilt. I think Obama is right that this is probably the make or break issue of his presidency. But I do not find a strategy to match his rhetoric. For some reason, on this issue as on some others, he does not seem to grasp the potential advocacy — and educational — powers of presidency. Too bad he could not learn from Lyndon Johnson.

On the environment, I see no significant concrete steps. Perhaps on this issue is the real test of a presidency’s fundamental role in a democracy: educating the public so that it can understand and cope with the present and the future. I certainly pretend to no particular wit on the environment, but it doesn’t take much wit to see what is happening. Never-mind what the scientists say, one would have to be blind not to see what the photographs show us of climate change. And where does this lead? I think there can be no other answer than a cutback, either voluntarily or enforced, in our material culture. It is going to come as a great shock to Americans who have grown up with SUVs, cheap gasoline, uninsulated houses, and rampant consumerism. We had better begin to prepare ourselves and for this, the President must be our shepherd. Arguably, it is much too early in his presidency for him even to consider this role, but as we look back it was taking on a comparable role that marked the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.

There are, of course, for President Obama as for all previous presidents, myriads of issues, but one that I believe will haunt him for his own term and beyond is moral and constitutional: What are we doing — and what will we be seen to be doing — to the vast but unknown number of prisoners — terrorists, freedom fighters, accidents — we are holding indefinitely, without charges, without recourse to the courts or that fundamental right in our heritage from the struggle against tyranny, habeas corpus. What we are doing at Guantanamo, Bagram and an unknown number of other “secret” prisons is, as the courts have rightly, if belatedly and guardedly, held, a violation of our legal system. We don’t need the courts to tell us that it certainly a violation of our moral code. Obama began by urging transparency on this sordid issue, but he backed off . His Justice Department is now appealing a US District Court order that the Supreme Court decision on habeas corpus rights for Guantanamo also applied to a set of prisoners at Bagram who apparently arrived there by rendition or who, at least, are non Afghans. Of course, the most sordid issue is the evidence of sodomy, rape and torture captured in the photograph collection that Obama first wanted to release and then changed his mind. Those who profess to know say that what these pictures show is truly horrible. Some have compared them to the vivid record the Nazis kept of their sadism. Even pragmatically, since they are known — indeed known worldwide — it is questionable to say the least that hiding them will protect our reputation. For what little it is worth, my opinion is that making a clean breast of the evil and making an apology — as we have repeatedly urged other countries to do in comparable cases — would be or could be the beginning of the resurrection of America.

So it is that I read with further dismay . . . [a recent] article in The Washington Post [entitled] . . . “U.S. Rebuffs U.N. Requests for Guantanamo Visits, Data on CIA Prisons. . . “

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I am waiting for the Obama we elected to show up. I hope this drama does not follow Samuel Beckett’s script.

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William R. Polk was the member of the Policy Planning Council responsible for North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia from 1961 to 1965 and then professor of history at the University of Chicago where he founded the Middle Eastern Studies Center. He was also president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. His most recent book is Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism & Guerrilla Warfare from the American Revolution to Iraq (New York: HarperCollins, paper edn. 2008).

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