Friday, June 22, 2007

While Petraeus was "waxing lyrical"....

I began this week by questioning whether Gen. David Petraeus can be entrusted to give us straight talk about the Surge, given his track record of toeing the Bush administration line on Iraq. In particular, I mentioned how he had sought to reassure Americans – on the eve of the ’04 election – that the U.S. program to equip the Iraqi army, and train Iraqis to defend themselves, was going just swimmingly. (I neglected to mention, by the way, that Petraeus was the supervisory officer of that program.)

I then received a number of emails from people who deemed it inappropriate to question the credibility of a man in uniform; they argued that a soldier of his stature was the perfect choice to tell us this autumn whether the Surge is working. Their actual language was unfit for a family blog, but you get the idea. Perhaps if I offered a fuller picture of Petraeus' training program, they might think differently.

It’s clear that the “progress” he touted back in 2004, with respect to the Iraqi training program, didn’t amount to a hill of beans. If the Iraqi troops had been effectively trained and equipped, chances are that the Bush war team wouldn’t have needed to launch its Surge. In other words (to borrow Bush’s terminology), if the Iraqi troops had indeed been able to stand up, we would be standing down – as opposed to ratcheting up.

So the big question is: What happened? Why did the Iraqi training program, supervised by Petraeus and touted in the press by Petreaus, turn out to be a flop?

The answers are available, to any American with an interest in factual reality. Pick up a copy of The Occupation of Iraq, authored by Ali Allawi, an Iraqi scholar and government insider. He lays out the details midway through his 544-page book:

In April 2004, Allawi writes, the U.S. decided to launch a program to train and expand the Iraqi army. The Iraqi Ministry of Defense was designated as the agency that would run the show, line up the weapons contractors, and disburse the money (primarily American money, naturally). Gen. Petraeus was brought in to supervise.

But here’s what was happening while Petraeus was (in Allawi’s words) “waxing lyrical” about the training program in the American press: The money earmarked for weapons procurement was disappearing. Or, as Allawi puts it, “the Ministry of Defense was being systematically looted.”

As a 2005 Iraqi investigation later discovered, the top Ministry of Defense officials – none of whom had any experience in procurement – awarded no-bid contracts to con men who never intended to provide quality equipment. Allawi writes that “in a series of astounding and brazen decisions that broke every contracting and procurement rule, the ministry started to award huge contracts without any bidding and with minimal documentation.”

For instance, Ziad Qattan, the head of the ministry’s procurement department, knew nothing about his new line of work. He later told the Los Angeles Times that weapons that before the war, “I sold water, flowers, shoes, cars – but not weapons.” At one point, he awarded $1 billion in contracts to a newly-formed company that had no background in the army equipment business.

Most of the American money for the program, as much as $2.3 billion, wound up in the foreign bank accounts of “unknown people,” writes Allawi. And, not surprisingly, the equipment supplied to Petraeus’ training program “was of poor quality, (worth) a fraction of the money that was paid out by the Ministry of Defense.”

Allawi writes about the helicopters, for instance. They were 30 years old, originally owned and operated by a nation that has ceased to exist, the Soviet Union. All told, “the litany of disastrous and outrageously overpriced equipment covered the entire spectrum of armaments, from machine guns that were copies of the ones actually contracted for, to armored vehicles that were so poorly armored that machine-gun bullets would easily pierce them.” Moreover, “the Iraqi army was saddled with vehicles equipped with right-hand drive steering,” which was a problem, because “Iraqis drove with left-hand steering.” Most of the culprits ultimately fled the country.

You might wonder, “Where was Petraeus while all this was happening?”

Allawi replies that Petraeus basically let it happen: “Petraeus was a firm believer in giving the new Iraqi government as wide a latitude as possible to make its own decisions, without intrusive involvement” from the Americans.

In the end, he writes, “the saga of the grand theft of the Ministry of Defense perfectly illustrated the huge gap between the harsh realities on the ground, and the Panglossian spin that permeated official pronouncements of the government, the U.S. embassy, and the Multinational Force. The optimistic assessments of Gen. Petreaus concerning the equipping and training of Iraqi forces clashed with the huge squandering of the MD’s resources and the abysmal and inappropriate equipment purchases for its rapid deployment forces….(Americans) simply watched, while the MD was being plundered in front of their very noses, hiding behind the excuse that the Iraqis were now responsible for their decisions.”

The obvious next step, for those who would prefer to deny this history, is to find a way to discredit the messenger, perhaps to impugn Allawi’s politics or to dismiss him as a terrorist, America-hater, whatever. But this is not easily done. Allawi spent his adult life in exile, as an opponent of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party regime. He returned only in 2003, after the U.S. toppled Saddam, and served as a senior government official in a variety of top jobs.

After witnessing the postwar era, he now writes: “Bush may well go down in history as presiding over one of America’s great strategic blunders. Thousands of servicemen have been the casualties of a failed policy…But it is Iraq and the Iraqis who have paid most for the failed policies of their erstwhile liberators.”

Did he say “erstwhile” liberators? General Petraeus would beg to differ; he just put Dick Cheney’s favorite word back in circulation. During an interview Wednesday with The Times of London, he said: “The interesting dynamic here is that we have been here long enough to become liberators again for certain sectors of the population.”

Still "waxing lyrical," after all these years.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

How Rudy went AWOL on Iraq

It’s odd that GOP presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani is constantly described, in mainstream media shorthand, as a tough-on-terrorists/national security candidate – given the fact that he has zero experience in national security policy; that his credentials, such as they are, derive largely from the experience of being the mayor of New York City on 9/11; and that he has never once set foot in Iraq, the place now known as “the central front in the war on terror,” thanks to President Bush’s invasion.

Indeed, for many months, Giuliani has been trying to run for president without even mentioning the I-word. That’s a fairly audacious strategy, considering the fact that most Americans are hungry to know whether he and his ’08 rivals have any bright ideas about how to mop up the Bush administration’s mess. Nevertheless, it has been Rudy’s policy to treat Iraq as if it was the crazy aunt in the closet, as an insoluble embarrassment best kept from public view.

I recall, for instance, his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, back in March 1, when he skated past the I-word, instead issuing a feel-good clarion call to fight the bad guys worldwide: “The reality is, it’s the general thrust of what we’re doing with terrorism that is enormously important, not the fact that every single thing hasn’t worked.” One of those “things,” of course is Iraq, and it would have been instructive if the so-called 9/11 mayor had offered some suggestions on how to better handle Iraq and thus fight the global war on terror more effectively. But he had nothing to say about that.

Then came his “12 commitments” agenda, released June 12. As I noted here last week, the I-word didn’t appear anywhere on his platform. When he was later asked to explain the glaring omission, he replied: “Iraq may get better, Iraq may get worse. We may be successful in Iraq, we may not be. I don’t know the answer to that. That’s in the hands of other people.”

And now it turns out, thanks to a Tuesday story broken by Newsday, that in 2006 Giuliani actually had a golden opportunity to work directly with some of those “other people” who were donating time and effort to chart a new American policy in Iraq. He had the chance to actually rack up some substantive credentials, and demonstrate that he had some real national security bona fides. He was, in fact, an original member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group – but, as we now learn, he never showed up for any of the ISG meetings; and after he was diplomatically urged to either show up or quit the group, he opted to quit the group.

In a May ’06 letter, he told the ISG that he was unable to give the project his “full and active participation.” But now we know why: he was focused on making money. That spring, he delivered series of speeches (on his "six principles of leadership"), for as much as $200,000 a pop, and he pocketed more than $1 million during a month when the rest of the ISG members were busy digging into the crucial details of Iraq policy.

His explanation, offered yesterday, is that he didn’t think it was a good idea for a prospective presidential candidate to be serving on an apolitical panel; in his words, it “didn’t seem that I would really be able to keep the thing focused on a bipartisan, nonpolitical resolution.”

I’ll attempt to translate: Giuliani is saying that he quit the ISG because he didn’t want to risk the temptation to skew the group’s work for his own political ends.

That all sounds very noble, but I don’t buy it.

For starters, Giuliani was merely one of 10 members, and the ISG’s strong-willed chairmen, Republican James Baker and Democrat Lee Hamilton, were hardly going to let any individual hijack the work and ride it as a political hobbyhorse. It’s presumptuous of Giuliani to now claim that he could have successfully done so. In other words, the rationale he is now offering does not ring true.

No, I suspect that he quit the ISG because – with the Republican primaries on the horizon – he didn’t want to risk being associated with any proposals that might not play well politically. He didn’t want to be in a position of having to put his signature on a document that might tick off the Bush loyalists in the GOP primary electorate, so he took the preventive step of severing his ties. And in the short term, it was probably a smart move, because the ISG has been urging a 2008 troop drawdown – a distasteful option to most GOP primary voters – and Giuliani would not have wanted to be locked into endorsing that.

But, from the perspective of a centrist independent voter – someone who wants a major change in war strategy, someone who is hungry for fresh ideas – Giuliani’s decision to quit the Iraq Study Group simply looks bad. If a Democratic candidate had ever served on the ISG and quit in the same fashion, you can bet that the GOP message mavens, with their traditional gift for the visceral, would be making hay, perhaps this way:

ANOTHER CUT AND RUN DEMOCRAT! Given the chance to serve his country, he surrendered to personal greed. Given the chance to show strength, he chose weakness. Can we trust our nation's security to a man with no credentials?

And maybe Giuliani outsmarted himself. Lately, there have been public hints that the Bush administration might wind up embracing some of the study groups’ ideas. And some Republican lawmakers, notably Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, have endorsed those ideas, including an ’08 drawdown. Giuliani might have been able to boast that he had been part of the vanguard for change. But he blew his chance.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Mike flirts, Hillary dodges

Let’s get real: What are the odds that the voters of America would choose, as their next president, a pint-sized, twice-divorced Jewish billionaire New Yorker who touts gay marriage and gun control, and who not only admits to having smoked weed, but says he liked it?

Paris Hilton would graduate from law school, magna cum laude, before that happens.

Michael Bloomberg, the newly-minted independent mayor of New York, is probably cognizant of these odds; nevertheless, right now, he loses nothing by distancing himself from both parties and leaving all options open. Today, in Manhattan, the ex-Republican and ex-Democrat played peekaboo again; referring to the White House race, he said, "The more people that run for office the better."

This is standard behavior during the season of the big tease.

The big tease is a cyclical thing. A year or two before every recent presidential election, as voters vent their requisite disgust with the partisan bickering of the two major parties, it seems like somebody is always out there flirting with an independent run. The roster of failed flirters includes such names as Bob Kerrey, Bill Bradley, Lowell Weicker, and Colin Powell (the latter said in 1995 that "the time may be at hand for a third major party to emerge from the sensible center of the American political spectrum").

What generally stops them, in the end, is the rational recognition that the financial and ballot obstacles to success are virtually insurmountable, and that Americans – cautious by nature – are ultimately most comfortable with the two established brands. Coke and Pepsi might not be very nutritious, but you know what you’re getting. Nobody really knows what they would be getting if an independent president had to do business with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Hence, Ross Perot spent $65 million during the ’92 campaign (a hefty sum at the time), and finished with zero electoral votes; his image as a borderline loony certainly didn’t help, but I think the branding issue was pivotal.

Theoretically, Bloomberg at least can tout his record as a successful mayor, he can further nurture his image as a sensible centrist (see the Time magazine cover this week), and he is theoretically prepared to dip into his own pocket for loose change – translation: half a billion dollars – and thus bankroll a national campaign. In other words, he would have the money (and the lawyers) to navigate the state ballot obstacles. In fact, he just took care of one potential hurdle, simply by re-registering as an independent; some states frown on independent candidates who are still registered as party members back home.

The beauty of this moment, for Bloomberg, is that he doesn’t have to decide anything. He can simply dip his toe in the water, and ponder at length whether there is a sufficient market niche for his goods. Right now, at least rhetorically, it would appear so. The polls report that most Americans are fed up with both parties – the Democratic Congress, as well as the Bush-burdened Republicans. The stalemate in Washington has yielded no progress on the issues that people care about most, everything from Iraq and health care to energy and immigration.

Hence, Bloomberg’s key remark the other day, while on the stump in California: “We do not have to settle for the same old politics. We do not have to accept the tired debate between the left and right, between Democrats and Republicans, between Congress and the White House.” Hence, his statement yesterday, about the advantages of being an independent: “Any successful elected executive knows that real results are more important than partisan battles, and that good ideas should take precedence over rigid adherence to any particular political ideology.”

He can run those lines for the rest of this year, and it’s a win-win. Potentially, he’ll boost his prospects as a would-be independent candidate; failing that, he’ll look like a national leader – as opposed to merely a lame-duck, term-limited New York mayor. And in the meantime, he’ll get all kinds of free publicity from the punditocracy, which can fill the slow periods with speculation about “who he would hurt, and who he would help” if indeed he took the plunge and made it a three-way race in autumn ’08.

I’m not going to bother; you can find those scenarios elsewhere (here, for example). I suspect that, 15 months from today, none of them will matter.


Did you catch Hillary Clinton’s dodge yesterday, when she refused to say whether she believed it was appropriate to pardon Scooter Libby?

During a labor forum yesterday for Democratic candidates, host Chris Matthews posed the question. She replied: “Oh, I think there would be enough to be said about that without me adding to it.”

Matthews protested (“That is such a political answer!”), but the pro-Hillary audience shouted him down, demanding that he ask “a real question,” and he let it go.

Well, excuse him for asking, but it seems to me that it would valuable to hear Hillary’s thoughts on whether a Bush lieutenant, convicted of lying under oath and obstruction of justice in a national security investigation, should be jailed or not. She’s running for president, and she was asked her thoughts about the rule of law. That sounds like a “real question” to me.

But we know, of course, why Hillary took a powder on that one. If she had declared “Free Scooter,” liberals would have screamed. If she had declared “Jail Scooter,” Hillary-haters would have demanded to know why Scooter shouldn’t get the same deal that Marc Rich received. Rich, as you may remember, is the fugitive financier (58 counts of tax fraud, illegal oil deals with Iran during the hostage crisis) who was pardoned by Bill Clinton in his final hours as president. It was widely suspected at the time (but never proven) that Rich’s socialite ex-wife had greased the pardon by donating $1 million to Democratic causes, $450,000 to the Clinton presidential library fund – and $70,000 to Hillary Clinton's first Senate campaign.

So her “non-answer” about Scooter yesterday, as Matthews correctly called it, is further evidence that the old Clinton baggage will on occasion weigh heavily – forcing her to play the inartful dodger.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The radio beast bites back

Trent Lott uttered a revealing remark the other day. The Republican senator from Mississippi was venting to reporters about the stalled immigration reform bill, which has been under relentless attack from rank-and-file conservatives. Lott and other members of the GOP establishment have been pushing hard for the bill, at President Bush’s behest, and they’re clearly unhappy about all the grief they’ve been getting from the grassroots.

On talk radio, the foot soldiers of the increasing fragile GOP coalition – egged on by the talk show hosts – have been relentlessly assailing their own leaders as border wimps who are soft on illegal aliens; as Rush Limbaugh declared earlier this month, “The White House has split the Republican party on this…If this bill is killed, they’re going to have to go back to the drawing board.”

Anyway, Lott is ticked about taking all that heat. Here's his beef: “Talk radio is running America. We have to deal with that problem.”

Oh, so now it’s a “problem?” Lott and the GOP establishment had no complaints about talk radio when Limbaugh and his minions were working to propel them into power.

As early as 1992, Limbaugh was invited to sit with Marilyn Quayle in the vice president’s box at the GOP national convention. And in 1994, at the dawn of the conservative revolution, talk radio was instrumental in stoking pro-Republican sentiment and spreading the word about Newt Gingrich’s Contract for America. The Republican National Committee lined up 300 radio talk show interviews for the politicians who signed the Contract. After the GOP captured the House, Republicans even held a ceremony in Limbaugh’s honor, naming him “an honorary member of Congress” and lauding him as “the majority maker.” Grateful GOP freshman cited polls showing that frequent talk-show listeners had voted Republican in ’94 by a margin of 3-1.

Back then, the Republicans had no problem with the notion that Limbaugh (joined later by Bill O’Reilly, Neal Boortz, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham, and many more) was “running America,” because, most of the time, they behaved like national precinct captains for the GOP, acting as liaisons between leadership and the masses.

Still, there were early signs that talk radio – what the radio consultants call “non-guested confrontation” - might be a double-edged sword for the GOP. Even as Newt was settling into his job in 1995, a Dallas host named David Gold warned publicly, “If they don’t perform, we’re likely to put the heat on them. There’ll be a lot of angry folks out there, and the talk-show hosts will be leading the charge.”

And, by 2002, it was clear that the talk radio titans were not content to simply function as Bush team cheerleaders. An instructive incident occurred in the spring of that year. The Bush administration suggested in a report to the United Nations that global warming might actually be a real man-made phenomenon – and Limbaugh jumped all over it.

Limbaugh said on his Monday show that “these predictions are basically apocalyptic doom and gloom based on raw emotion.” Then he charged that Bush had become “George W. Algore.” Sure enough, within 24 hours, Bush made it clear that his own administration had been wrong; as a news report stated, “President Bush appeared to distance himself yesterday from a report by his administration that says human activities are mostly to blame for recent trends in global warming…”

But that skirmish was tame, compared to what’s happening now. Now we have radio host Michael Savage assailing Bush as the “culprit” who is coddling illegal immigrants, which is why, in Savage’s words, it’s up to the grassroots to “derail this train of treason.”

It’s clear today, in the wake of talk radio anger about immigration reform, that the GOP leadership has failed to recognize a fundamental truth about their ostensible allies: First and foremost, the hosts and their followers are instinctively anti-establishment. Talk radio is a forum for the aggrieved; stoking emotions and firing darts at the establishment (regardless of whether it is liberal or conservative) is considered good radio.

The GOP leaders have belatedly discovered that talk radio is a beast that must be incessantly fed. And now that they’re being chewed up and spit out, now that they’re griping about how the beast is “running America” at their expense, I feel it's appropriate to paraphrase the Bible and simply observe that, in politics as in life, you reap what you sow.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Bush's messenger, then and now

Let us briefly return to Sept. 26, 2004; on that date, President Bush was trying to convince voters to give him a second term. The election was just six weeks away. His number-one priority was to persuade people that he was making measurable progress in Iraq. Accordingly, a guest column appeared that day in The Washington Post, with the upbeat author playing the role of Bush’s Pollyana. Key excerpts:

I see tangible progress. Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt from the ground up. The institutions that oversee them are being reestablished from the top down. And Iraqi leaders are stepping forward, leading their country and their security forces courageously…There are reasons for optimism…Training is on track and increasing in capacity. Infrastructure is being repaired…Progress has also been made in police training…Considerable progress is also being made in the reconstruction and refurbishing of infrastructure for Iraq’s security forces…Iraq’s security forces are developing steadily and they are in the fight. Momentum has gathered in recent months. With strong Iraqi leaders out front and with continued coalition – and now NATO – support, this trend will continue.

Pretty encouraging, right? Any swing voter who read that piece might well have concluded that it would be nuts to dump Bush and elect John Kerry, what with the Iraqis so poised to take responsibility for their own security. And since nobody could possibly question the author’s bona fides, it had to be true: the Iraqis were getting ready to stand up, thereby allowing our troops to stand down – just like the Decider had long promised us.

Well, as we now know, those reassurances turned out to be worthless; after all, there would be no need for a U. S. troop escalation today if Iraqi’s security forces had really stepped forward to secure their own country. And one would think that anyone who played Pollyana in 2004 would be automatically dismissed in 2007 as just another credibility-challenged Bush messenger.

But apparently not. The author of that ’04 column was an Army lieutenant general named David Petraeus – the same guy (now a full general) who is leading Bush’s Surge, and who has been entrusted with giving Americans a straight-talk assessment this September.

You see where I’m going with this. Given Petraeus’ rhetorical track record – and his apparent willingness, back in 2004, to inject himself into the middle of a domestic partisan campaign – why should we have confidence that in September he’ll say anything that would deviate from the White House line?

That ’04 column came to mind last week, while I was reading new remarks by Petraeus about some of the swell things that have been happening in the wake of the Surge. As proof of “normalcy,” he told USA Today about all the “professional soccer leagues with real grass field stadiums, several amusement parks – big ones, (and) markets that are very vibrant.” That’s nice about the soccer leagues. Maybe ESPN would be interested; on the other hand, ESPN might be more interested in the latest Pentagon report, which says that the endemic sectarian violence has not decreased since the Surge began in February; and that the last six months have been the deadliest for U.S. troops since the war began. Not to mention the fact that, despite the Surge and despite the supposed "tangible progress" among Iraq security forces, only 40 percent of Baghdad is currently considered secure - according to the U.S. military.

But the upbeat talking points are tough to give up. Yesterday, Petraeus made his first Sunday talk show appearance (on Fox News, naturally), and reaffirmed his praise for the Iraqi soccer leagues on real grass fields. Clearly, his September message will be: we’re making some tangible progress (soccer), but there are still tough challenges ahead, so therefore we need more time to make the Surge work, Americans should be patient, let’s look ahead to 2008 and beyond.

The key phase of the Fox interview began with this question by Chris Wallace: “There are reports that you…would like the Surge to continue until at least early 2008, that if it’s going to work, it needs to continue into early next year, is that true?”

Petraeus (bobbing and weaving like a seasoned pol): “We’ve got a number of different options that we have looked at, Chris, and it really is premature at this point in time to try to prejudge that. Again, I would suspect that late in the summer, early September, that we will provide some recommendations on the way ahead up our chain of command as well.”

Translation: “Yes.”

Wallace, to his credit, followed up: “But you surely don’t think the job would be done by the Surge by September, do you, sir?”

Petraeus (finally): “I do not, no. I think that we have a lot of heavy lifting to do.”

There it is: The troop hike continues, with Surge proponents in perpetual pursuit of “progress.” In Petraeus’ words, “counterinsurgency operations have gone at least nine or 10 years,” and perhaps this one should go longer, with “a long-term security arrangement over time,” like we have in South Korea (another idea being floated by Bush).

What’s noteworthy, however, is that Republicans on Capitol Hill aren’t buying any of this. While Petraeus was delivering the Bush line on Fox, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell was dissenting on CBS. McConnell, referring to his Republican colleagues, said: “I think everybody anticipates that there’s going to be a new strategy in the fall. I don’t think we’ll have the same level of troops, in all likelihood, that we have now. The Iraqis will have to step up, not only on the political side, but on the military side, to a greater extent. We’re not there forever.”

So there’s the disconnect: The GOP rank and file, anxious about the ’08 elections, wants a decisive September Surge report, and a drawdown of U.S. troops – while Bush and Petraeus want a Surge extension, with no drawdown. The key issue is whether McConnell and his colleagues, having already decided that Bush has no credibility on Iraq, are therefore prepared to question Petraeus’ credibility as well.

If they’re looking for ammo, they might want to start with his ’04 Pollyana pronouncements. Nothing that Petraeus said back then is as credible as what Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is saying now, in his attempt to explain why his Surge-supported government has failed to meet political benchmarks: “There are two mentalities in this region, conspiracy and mistrust.”