State of the Union

Keeping Our Infantry Alive

The headline of the September 23 Washington Post read, “Less Peril for Civilians, but More for Troops.” The theme of the article was that restrictions General Stanley McChrystal has imposed on the use of supporting arms in Afghanistan, with the objective of reducing Afghan civilian casualties, have increased American casualties. The Post reported that since General McChrystal issued his directive on July 2, the number of Afghan civilians killed by coalition forces dropped to 19, from 151 for the same period last year. At the same time, U.S. troop deaths rose from 42 to 96. Not surprisingly, Congress is interested: the Post quotes Senator Susan Collins of Maine as saying, “I am troubled if we are putting our troops at greater risk in order to go to such extremes to avoid Afghan casualties.”

Congress is unlikely to understand what General McChrystal knows very well, namely that firepower-intensive American tactics, especially heavy use of artillery and airstrikes, will lose us the war. For state armed forces, Fourth Generation wars are easy to win tactically and lose strategically. That is, in fact, their normal course.

But what about the question the Post and Congress have raised: are the new restrictions on fire support causing more American casualties in Afghanistan? In a word, yes. But that does not have to be the case.

The problem is that virtually all American infantry are trained in Second Generation tactics. The Second Generation reduces all tactics to one tactic: bump into the enemy and call for fire. The French, who invented the Second Generation, summarize it as, “Firepower conquers, the infantry occupies.” The supporting firepower, originally artillery, now most often airstrikes, must be massive. If it is not – as is now the case in Afghanistan, under General McChrystal’s directive – the infantry is in trouble. Everything it has been taught depends on fire support it no longer has. Inevitably, its casualties will rise, and it will often lose engagements. Read More…

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Ron Paul on the Daily Show

I missed Jon Stewart interviewing Ron Paul last night. But, here, in case anybody hasn’t seen it:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Ron Paul
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Ron Paul Interview

What a great man.

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The Rookie vs. The General

I saw Pat Buchanan on MSNBC’s Chris Matthews the other night, laughing off Bill Clinton’s latest invocation of the “vast right wing conspiracy.” Mr. Buchanan claimed Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Karl Rove, et al, couldn’t organize a softball game, much less hatch the kind of sturm und drang necessary to upend a presidential career. What he did not acknowledge is that while the blogosphere had yet to find its legs, so to speak, when the Clintons were whining about the VRWC in 1998, it is now a heat-seeking political weapon. In conjunction with You Tube, the blogosphere has arguably seen to the demise of more than a few politicians big and small — and not just to the advantage of the Right Wing.  Sen. George Allen might have something to say about whether he would have survived his nascent presidential bid if his “macaca moment” had been off-camera.

The blogosphere has also been used in a more insidious way to develop a trope and turn it into a narrative that sticks. Take the newest by the warhawks on the Right Wing: “Obama isn’t listening to his commanders on the ground.”

It doesn’t matter that there is not one shred of evidence that the President has not “listened to his commanders.” It does not matter that this is a republic, not a military dictatorship, and the people elected a President, not a general, to lead the country through the next four years. It does not matter that it was probably someone inside the military establishment who broke protocol, who leaked Gen. McChrystal’s Afghanistan assessment in order to force the administration’s hand on the issue of increased troop deployments.

What matters is the end-game — that tens of thousands more Americans are pumped into Central Asia to prove a point.  Sen. John “the maverick” McCain lobbed the opening salvo on behalf of the warhawk elite when he told an audience at the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative last week that Obama needed to heed Gen. McChrystal’s (still undisclosed) recommendation for more troops.

“Apparently the administration does not want Gen. McCrystal’s recommendations on troop strengths,” McCain charged, adding he “has never seen a disconnect like this” between the White House and military brass before. “If you don’t have a recommendation on the troop levels that will be necessary to implement a strategy, then how do you decide on the strategy?”

The trope was cast. A day later, neoconservative Iraq War booster Eliot Cohen used a counterinsurgency conference to criticize Obama for not engaging in daily teleconferencing with his generals. Meanwhile, other senators like Mitch McConnell and James Inofe, weighed in on Obama’s lack of listening skills. Suddenly, there are calls for Gens. Petraeus and McChrystal to come to Washington to testify (read: intimidate) on behalf of Surge II.

But the real bumper sticker moment came in an interview with McChrystal aired by 60 Minutes over the weekend. As News Hounds points out, “rather than discuss the war in Afghanistan, rather than discuss General Stanley McChrystal’s rather damning assessment of how Bush prosecuted the war,” Right Wing talkers and bloggers have already fixated on this exchange:

DAVID MARTIN, “60 MINUTES” CORRESPONDENT: How often do you talk to the president?

GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, U.S. COMMANDER OF NATO FORCES IN AFGHANISTAN: I’ve talked to the president since I’ve been here once on a VTC (video teleconference).

MARTIN: You talked to him once in 70 days?

MCCHRYSTAL: That’s correct.

Those brief words have unleashed a torrent of whining that by Monday reached a crescendo throughout the blogosphere, peaking somewhere in “jilted girlfriend” territory: why doesn’t he call? why doesn’t he listen? doesn’t he know what’s best for him? Read More…

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Bartlett vs The Paulistas

Bruce Bartlett seems annoyed, and understandably so. His blogged objections to the HR1207 ‘Audit the Fed’ bill have transformed him into a hate-figure among the disciples of Ron Paul. His initial post on the subject, about which Dan wrote yesterday, prompted abuse in its comments section … and presumably elsewhere.

Bartlett writes,

Apparently, the Ron Paul cult has discovered that I am not a supporter of their leader’s prime legislative initiative, auditing and then abolishing the Federal Reserve. For this sin I have been added to their enemy’s list.

To counter the fringier Paulistas, Bartlett, who once worked for Ron Paul, reproduces on his blog a rather pro-Paul article he wrote for the New York Times in the build-up to the 2008 presidential elections.

Bartlett is possibly being a touch dramatic in describing himself as “an enemy” of “the Ron Paul cult.” But the predictably hostile and fulminating response to his critique of HR1207 is depressing. He may have started the name-calling by describing the bill as “a crackpot idea.” He shouldn’t, however, be written off as “liar” or worse — read the comments here — just because he doesn’t support a piece of Ron Paul legislation. There truly is a whiff of cultism there.

Paul’s critics like nothing better than to dismiss the Texan Congressman’s followers as madmen. It’s sad when the Ron Paul movement seems bent on proving them right.

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Golfers Swing Right

It is well known that, more than other sportsmen, golfers tend to hold conservative views. Of course, that is because golfers are often outrageously boring, management-speak babbling, corporate wonks who never tire of issuing trite comparisons between the game of golf and the game of making money. “The key to success in golf is like the key to success in life …” and all that mystic-capitalist tosh.

Golfers particularly resent taxes — even more, perhaps, than the rest of us. Take this clip of Spanish golfer Gonzalo Fernández-Castaño berating his Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero for planning to raise the fiscal burden for Spain’s rich at this month’s Vivendi Trophy in France:

Translation: “Message to Zapatero; you are stripping us all naked.” (Like a banana, geddit?)

One wants to endorse Castaño’s admirable anti-statist spirit. Yet, as the Guardian blogger Lawrence Donegan nicely notes, Zapatero’s new taxes are probably aimed at, among others, those “who get paid at least €50,000 for pitching up to play pressure-free golf at a beautiful spot in France for four days.”

Not that there is anything wrong with making large sums of money from playing the world’s most challenging game. We all would if we could. But it does seem a bit, well, rich to make such a statement on television as one strolls down the fairway of the 14th casually consuming a banana.

Still, what do I know? Castaño’s off-hand remark appears to have a struck a chord. This clip has gone viral, having been viewed over 60, 000 times in one day. Maybe the message will get through to Mr Zapatero.

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The Epitome of Hegemony

I disagree with Michael Lind about many things, but in his new Salon essay he provides the best short description I’ve seen of how the makers of U.S. foreign policy think:

The Pax Americana strategy requires its supporters to exaggerate the power and malevolence of the designated enemies of the Pax Americana: Russia, China and Iran. The exaggeration of threats is accomplished in two ways. First, defensive military measures that these nations undertake to deter U.S. attack — Russia’s attempt to intimidate Georgia, China’s development of “anti-access” capabilities to reduce the ability of the U.S. to defeat it in a war over Taiwan, and Iran’s not-so-disguised attempt to obtain nuclear weapons to deter conventional U.S. or Israeli attacks — are portrayed by American policymakers and pundits as aggressive. According to this Orwellian double standard, U.S./NATO encirclement of post-Soviet Russia on its borders is alleged to be “defensive,” while feeble protest gestures like Russian military flights to Cuba or the bullying of Ukraine are defined as “aggressive” actions that threaten a new Cold War. The knight with the best sword naturally wants to ban the use of shields and armor.

In addition to defining the defensive reactions of Russia, China and Iran to U.S. provocations in their own neighborhoods as diabolical schemes for regional or global conquest, some champions of the Pax Americana have pretended to identify a new global ideological struggle against an “axis of autocracy” or “authoritarian capitalism.” In reality, of course, three countries could hardly be less similar to one another than Russia, China and Iran, which seek to benefit from the existing world system on their own terms rather than overthrow it.

In my experience, most members of the U.S. foreign policy elite sincerely believe that the alternative to perpetual U.S. world domination is chaos and war. The benefit to members of the elite is not so much economic as psychic — it’s nice to be a top dog in the top-dog pack. But even though our leaders tend to be persuaded that American hegemony averts the twin spirals of great-power conflict and trade war, they find it challenging to explain the strategy to the public. Consider the following imaginary dialogue about U.S. national security:

Citizen: “Why did our young men and women have to die in Iraq?”

Statesman: “Saddam’s Iraq was not a threat to the U.S. itself, but it threatened U.S. hegemony in the Persian Gulf, which makes possible the American provision of energy security to Japan and Germany, which absent that American security guarantee might rearm and trigger regional and global arms races that could lead to World War III.”

Citizen: “Huh?”

By all means, read the whole essay.

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Containment for Iran

That Iran is building a secret underground facility near the holy city of Qom, under custody of the Revolutionary Guard — too small to be a production center for nuclear fuel, but just right for the enrichment of uranium to weapons grade — is grounds for concern, but not panic.

Heretofore, all of Iran’s nuclear facilities, even the enrichment plant at Natanz — kept secret before exiles blew the whistle in 2002 — have been consistent with a peaceful nuclear program.

Iran has also been on solid ground in claiming that, as signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, she has a right to enrich uranium and operate nuclear plants, as long as she complies with treaty obligations.

Under the Safeguard Agreement to the NPT, these include notification, six months before a nuclear facility goes operational.

According to U.S. officials, construction of this site began in 2006 and is only months from completion. And Tehran did not report it to the International Atomic Energy Agency until a week ago, when they were tipped the Americans were onto it and about to go public. Read More…

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Not Another Cold War

Andrew Bacevich has a piece up at the Washington Post arguing that the U.S. should approach the war on terror like the Cold War; specifically we need a new doctrine of containment, which for Bacevich means everything from decapitation strikes (though not ones that kill civilians — as if any decapitation can be clean) to “well-funded government agencies securing borders, controlling access to airports and seaports” and “comprehensive export controls.” In each of these examples, Bacevich draws exactly the wrong lesson: decapitation attempts achieved little (think of Castro’s exploding cigars) and contributed to some awful blowback during the Cold War; the Soviet Union collapsed less because the Soviets had noisy submarines (thanks to those export controls) than because everybody in the Eastern bloc knew that life was sweeter in the West; and we had a pretty darn well-funded panoply of intelligence agencies and airport-security professional on 9/11, all of which failed to detect and prevent a low-tech attack by a handful of terrorists. Tightening border security makes sense, but throwing more money at already bloated agencies that aren’t fulfilling their missions effectively is only going to be counterproductive. And decapitations are precisely the kind of comic-book antics that detract from serious intelligence gathering and analysis — Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes establishes that point as anyone could ask.

Bacevich’s American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy remains the best account of what U.S. foreign policy has been all about during the past half-century and more. None of Bacevich 2009’s suggestions for neo-containment address the fundamental defects Bacevich 2001 identified in that book. “Containment” is not a bad metaphor for what may be needed, but it’s the ambitions of the U.S. policy elite, as much as those of militant Islam, that need to be contained. William Lind has written some important essays on the idea of insulating the U.S. from centers of disorder — that’s a far more promising approach than pouring money into government agencies and attempting to control foreign states and other entities. Most of the active measures the U.S. took during the Cold War — the Vietnam War, CIA-orchestrated killings and coups, the still ongoing embargo of Cuba — failed dismally.

Bacevich concludes his piece with an interesting, but also quite mistaken, perspective on the moral-spiritual struggled involve in the terror war:

The competitive challenge facing the West is not to prove that Islamic fundamentalism won’t satisfy the aspirations of humanity, but to demonstrate that democratic capitalism can, even for committed believers. In short, the key to winning the current competition is to live up to the ideals that we profess rather than compromising them in the name of national security.

The upshot is that by modifying the way we live — attending to pressing issues of poverty, injustice, exploitation of women and the global environmental crisis — we might through our example induce the people of the Islamic world to consider modifying the way they live. Here lies the best chance of easing the differences that divide us.

The evidence just doesn’t support any of these contentions. Europe has gone farther than the U.S. toward “attending to … poverty,” but generous European welfare states do not seem to have dissuaded Muslims in those countries from becoming radicalized. And Muslim radicals in the developing world hold such compassionate welfare states in absolute contempt. On the other hand, Bacevich is mistaken about the appeal of Muslim radicalism on its own terms: Afghans were coming to hate the Taliban by mid-2001, and we’ve seen in the unrest in Iran this year that young people find something less-than-satisfying about the social system of the Islamic Republic. It’s a shocking idea, but the best way to discredit radical Islam to let it have its own states, so that the everyone can see — as everyone saw in the Communist states during the Cold War — just how miserable life is under such regimes. Only by such comparisons can welfare-state liberal democracy be made to look good.

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Congress vs. the Fed

Freddy, fears about what Congress might do to the money supply if the Fed is audited are understandable but misplaced. Contra Bartlett, you’re more likely to get Zimbabwe-style hyperinflation under the Fed than with Congress dictating the money supply — politicians, for all they are in bed with Wall Street, are still more vulnerable to public discontent than the Federal Reserve is. I don’t see the public clamoring for Congress to inflate the currency. Indeed, there would be a backlash if inflation occurred under congressional oversight, the kind of backlash that throws a Jerry Ford or Jimmy Carter out of office. The difference is, Congress rather than the executive would feel the brunt of the backlash, and would have a more direct means than the president for taming inflation if Congress chose to do so. Congressmen can’t be trusted to do the right thing, but they can usually be trusted to do what’s in their own interests. Political survival being their paramount interest.

Debate over monetary policy, like debate over foreign policy and abortion, properly belongs in the legislature. That’s the design of the Republic, and it’s in the legislature where you do have a panoply of voices, some of whom are anti-war, some of whom are anti-inflation. The foreign-policy elite, by contrast, includes no one who is antiwar, while the banking elite, which includes the Fed, includes hardly any voices skeptical of inflation and the expansion of monetary base. The bankers have shown pretty well conclusively over the past few years just how irresponsible — how literally bankrupt — they are. There needs to be at least some awareness raised about what’s going on in our financial institutions, even if the opponents of money-pumping don’t win. Taking the whole fight out of the shadows of the Fed and into the (relative) daylight of Congress is the first step. Then we’ll see if there’s any elected constituency for sound money, and if not whether there’s any popular demand for sound money that’s willing to shake up the legislature.

I put a great deal more confidence in the political system devised by the Framers, however debauched it may now be, than in the banking system devised by Rockefeller, Morgan, and Woodrow Wilson.

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The ‘Audit the Fed’ Debate

Ron Paul’s HR 1207 “Audit the Fed” bill, about which the House Financial Services Committee held a hearing last week, is being widely dismissed on the Right as a dangerous exercise in kookiness. Bruce Bartlett, the reformed Reagan-era supply-sider, says it is “abundantly clear that this is a crackpot idea.”

Whatever one thinks of the Fed’s policies in recent years–and there certainly are grounds for criticism–there is no reason whatsoever to believe that undermining its independence and putting the Congress in control of monetary policy–Ron Paul’s goal–would improve matters at all.

Or as Barry Ritholz, a longtime Fed critic, puts it,

If the Fed is Wall Street’s bitch, then Congress is the Street’s whore.

This seems like a good point. Yet Tom Woods, who spoke to the Senate committee on Friday, rebuked the argument that, under the terms of the legislation, Congress would be able to “influence or even dictate monetary policy” as a “red herring.”

The bill is not designed to empower politicians to increase
the money supply, choose interest-rate targets, or adopt any of the rest of the Fed’s
central planning apparatus, all of which is better left to the free market than to the Fed or
Congress. It seeks nothing more than to open the Fed’s books to public scrutiny.
Congress has a moral and legal obligation to oversee institutions it brings into existence.
The convoluted scenarios by which merely opening the books will lead to an inflationary
catastrophe at the hands of Congress are difficult to take seriously.
At the same time, as we hear this objection repeated time and again, we might
wonder just how independent the Fed really is, what with its chairman up for
reappointment by the president every four years. Have these critics never heard of the
political business cycle? Fed chairmen have been known to ingratiate themselves into the
president’s favor close to election time by means of loose monetary policy and the false
(and temporary) prosperity it brings about. Let us not insult Americans’ intelligence by
pretending this phenomenon does not exist.

Woods is surely right to say that the bill is not “designed to empower politicians to increase
the money supply, choose interest-rate targets, or adopt any of the rest of the Fed’s
central planning apparatus.” But design, or intention, is not always enough. It might in fact be helpful if the Bill’s supporters were to make Woods’ point more often and with greater clarity, and perhaps explain what steps can be taken to ensure that congressional auditing of the Fed does not mutate into congressional direction of monetary policy. Otherwise these “better the devil we don’t know” objections to HR1207 seem to make sense. Worse, if the bill somehow were to pass without a clear understanding of its limited intended function, we might indeed end up with a monetary system even more destructive than the current one. If that’s possible …

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