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“Obama’s Weakness, Or Ours?”: Swagger And Invasion Are Overrated As Foreign Policy Instruments

The odds are that you think President Obama’s foreign policy is a failure.

That’s the scathing consensus forming, with just 36 percent of Americans approving of Obama’s foreign policy in a New York Times/CBS News poll released this week. Foreign policy used to be a source of strength for the president, and now it’s dragging him down — and probably other Democrats with him.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, warns that Obama “has weakened the national security posture of the United States.” Trent Franks, a Republican member of the House from Arizona, cites foreign policy to suggest that Obama is “the most inept president we have ever had.”

Obama is no Messiah, but this emerging narrative about a failed foreign policy is absurdly harsh. Look at three issues where Republicans have been unfairly jabbing him with pitchforks:

Trading five Taliban prisoners for Bowe Bergdahl was unpopular with the public, and the Obama administration may have made the trade in the incorrect belief that Bergdahl was near death. Then again, here’s an American soldier who spent five years in Taliban custody, some of that reportedly in a cage after trying to escape. If we make heroic efforts to bring back American corpses, how can we begrudge efforts to bring back a soldier who is still alive?

Sure, there are risks. But the five Taliban prisoners have probably aged out of field combat, and, if they return to Afghanistan after their year in Qatar, they would likely have trouble finding American targets because, by then, the United States will no longer be engaged in combat.

More broadly, there’s nothing wrong with negotiating with the Taliban. The blunt truth is that the only way to end the fighting in Afghanistan is a negotiated peace deal involving the Taliban, and maybe this deal can be a step along that journey.

Russian aggression in Ukraine was infuriating, but it’s petty Washington politics to see it as emanating from Obama weakness. After all, President George W. Bush was the most trigger-happy of recent presidents, and he couldn’t prevent Russia from invading Georgia in 2008 and helping carve off two breakaway republics.

Obama diplomacy appears to have worked better than military force would have. Contrary to early expectations, Russia did not seize southeastern Ukraine along with Crimea, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia this week called on Parliament to rescind permission to invade Ukraine. Be wary, but let’s hope the Bear is backing down.

The debacle in Iraq is a political and humanitarian catastrophe, but it’s a little rich for neocons to blame Obama after they created the mess in the first place. Obama was unengaged on Iraq and Syria, but it’s not clear that even if he had been engaged the outcome would have been different.

Suppose Obama had kept 10,000 troops in Iraq as his critics wish. Some would have been killed; others injured. We would have spent another $50 billion or so in the Iraqi sands (that’s more than 25 times what Obama requested to start universal prekindergarten, but Congress balks at the expense). And Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki might have felt even less need to keep Sunni tribes on his side. Would all this really have been the best use of American lives and treasure?

Yes, Obama has made his share of mistakes, especially in Syria, where he doesn’t seem to have much of a policy at all. Partly balancing that, he helped to defuse the Syrian chemical weapons threat.

Look, the world is a minefield. President Clinton was very successful internationally, yet he bungled an inherited operation in Somalia, delayed too long on Bosnia, missed the Rwanda genocide and muffed the beginning of the Asian financial crisis — and all that happened during a particularly skillful administration.

As for former Vice President Dick Cheney complaining about Obama’s foreign policy, that’s a bit like the old definition of chutzpah: killing your parents and then pleading for mercy because you’re an orphan. In the Bush/Cheney years, we lost thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, we became mired in Afghanistan, Iran vastly expanded the number of centrifuges in its nuclear program, and North Korea expanded its arsenal of nuclear weapons. And much of the world came to despise us.

Blowing things up is often satisfying, and Obama’s penchant for muddling along instead, with restraint, is hurting him politically. But that’s our weakness more than his. Obama’s foreign policy is far more deft — and less dangerous — than the public thinks, and he doesn’t deserve the harsh assessments. If there’s one thing we should have learned in the Bush/Cheney years, it’s that swagger and invasion are overrated as foreign policy instruments.

 

By: Nicholas Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, June 26, 2014

June 27, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, National Security, Neo-Cons | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Very Troubled Man”: Time For Right To Let Go Of Bowe Bergdahl Political Controversy

Today, the Post published excerpts of Bowe Bergdahl’s journal, along with emails and other writings, giving us the most intimate, complex, and in many ways sad view we’ve yet had of the young man who had been held prisoner by the Taliban for five years.

What the journal ultimately shows suggests that as a partisan political issue, Bergdahl’s release is likely to fade before long. The right has gotten about as much as they can out of it, and now that we know how troubled Bergdahl was before he wandered off his base, they may just let it go.

The idea that Bergdahl wasn’t sufficiently deserving of rescue has been central to the conservative criticism of the deal to obtain his release. Even as they wildly exaggerate the danger of the five former Taliban we released (to hear Fox News tell it, you’d almost think the five not only planned and executed the September 11 attacks, they also have super-powers that will enable them to reduce our nation to ashes any day now), many on the right attacked Bergdahl and his family relentlessly, accusing him of being not just a deserter but an outright traitor. Some even mobilized a PR campaign to promote soldiers who would go in the media to criticize Bergdahl.

But his writings, which were shared with the Post by a close friend, tell a story that doesn’t fit into the kind of box that can be easily used for partisan purposes. Among other things, we now know that Bergdahl joined the Coast Guard in 2006 and was quickly discharged for psychological reasons, though he claimed to friends that he had faked mental illness in order to get released (a claim about which they were skeptical). But it’s Bergdahl’s own words that are the most revealing:

The 2006 discharge and a trove of Bergdahl’s writing — his handwritten journal along with essays, stories and e-mails provided to The Washington Post — paint a portrait of a deeply complicated and fragile young man who was by his own account struggling to maintain his mental stability from the start of basic training until the moment he walked off his post in eastern Afghanistan in 2009.

“I’m worried,” he wrote in one journal entry before he deployed. “The closer I get to ship day, the calmer the voices are. I’m reverting. I’m getting colder. My feelings are being flushed with the frozen logic and the training, all the unfeeling cold judgment of the darkness.”

A few pages later, he wrote: “I will not lose this mind, this world I have deep inside. I will not lose this passion of beauty.”

At another point, using his often un­or­tho­dox spelling, he wrote: “Trying to keep my self togeather. I’m so tired of the blackness, but what will happen to me without it. Bloody hell why do I keep thinking of this over and over.”

At another point Bergdahl writes: “I want to change so much and all the time, but then my mind just locks down, as if there was some one else in my mind shutting the door in my face. . . . I want to pull my mind out and drop kick it into a deep gorge.” And then: “In a file dated a few days later, repetitions of the phrase ‘velcro or zipper/velcro or zipper/velcro or zipper’ cover nearly two pages.”

We shouldn’t be too quick to make a conclusive psychiatric diagnosis based on these words. But if you’re someone committed to painting Bergdahl as a traitor who didn’t deserve to be released — or at least, didn’t deserve to have much given up in exchange for him — what do you think when you see that? And let’s recall that until the deal for Bergdahl was actually made, many on the right were attacking the Obama administration for not getting him out sooner; for some, he’s never been anything more than a cudgel with which to beat the administration.

So maybe now they’ll decide that all the personal attacks on Bergdahl have outlived their usefulness. The administration’s opponents have every right to argue, if they choose, that those five Taliban are history’s most terrifying super-villains, and we shouldn’t have made the deal even to get back Audie Murphy. But now that we’re getting a fuller picture of what a troubled soul Bergdahl was, conservatives may decide that there isn’t much margin left in attacking him, lest they end up looking (for the umpteenth time) like they’ve overplayed their political hand and been blinded to everything, even human compassion, by their hatred of this president.

 

By: Paul Waldman, The Plum Line, The Washington Post, June 12, 2014

June 13, 2014 Posted by | Bowe Bergdahl, Conservatives | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Rank Hypocrisy”: We Should Negotiate With Terrorists, We Always Have

I’m sure by now you have heard someone on TV say, of the five Taliban returnees, that we were going to have to give them back anyway, on cessation of hostilities. What you may not have heard said quite so often is why that is the case. But the reason is crucially important, because it brings to the fore one of the great hypocrisies under which the United States is forced to—or has chosen to—labor, and one we should do away with posthaste: this ridiculous idea that “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

With respect to the release of the hirsute quintet, here’s the deal. We declared war on the Taliban in 2001. “We,” the Bush administration, did this, although I confess I supported that war (never Iraq, though). Once we declared war on them and invaded their country, the rules of war applied. That means prisoners taken aren’t hostages. They are prisoners of war. And prisoners of war are accorded certain rights, some of which we violated but never mind that, and they are returned, usually at war’s end but sometimes before, through a process of… well, negotiation. It’s been this way since warfare began. And aside from prisoner exchanges, there is of course the matter of ending hostilities in the first place. That also must be negotiated.

“We” also—that is, President George W. Bush, by executive order—declared the Taliban a terrorist organization in 2002.  The group is not on the State Department list, but a presidential declaration has the same legal standing and force.

And so, the conundrum of illogic that these two declarations created: The Taliban are both an enemy combatant with which we absolutely must negotiate, and a terrorist group with which we absolutely must not negotiate.

Obviously, those two realities exist in tension. How do we resolve it? You might say “by not declaring war on them,” and it has to be said, in retrospect, that sounds like a damn good idea. It should never, ever, ever be forgotten, while these Republicans bang on at President Obama for everything he does, that he was put in this position only because we started fighting this 14-year war—the longest in our history; we defeated Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo in less than one-third the time—with fewer than 2,000 soldiers on the ground.  And we—excuse me, “we”—did that because our brilliant leaders knew at that point that they wanted to save the bigger numbers for taking out Saddam Hussein. So yes, in hindsight, no war in Afghanistan, at least as it was waged by the geniuses who created this world-historic catastrophe, sounds a good thought.

But at least in warfare, there are certain rules that go back millennia. The United States’ fight against terrorism is only about 40 years old, and it largely coincides with the years of right-wing backlash. And so, just as we had to start getting “tough on crime” domestically in the late 1970s with a series of policies that are in fact bankrupting states and municipalities and are plainly racist, as even America’s greatest conservative (and evangelical Christian!) criminologist acknowledged before his premature death,  we also had to be “tough on terrorism” abroad.

It’s hard to place exactly when “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” entered the political lexicon. It’s pretty clear that it was Ronald Reagan who first said it, maybe during the 1980 campaign, maybe later. What matters is that it was rank hypocrisy from the moment it flew out of his mouth. His transition team negotiated the Iranian hostages’ release behind Jimmy Carter’s back. That was certainly negotiating with terrorists. And what was the Iran-Contra affair? The overture was made to Iran (a terrorist state in American eyes, then and now) in the first instance in an effort to free some American hostages being held in Lebanon. The president who didn’t negotiate with terrorists negotiated a deal that gave the terrorism-sponsoring state more than 2,000 anti-tank missiles, maintaining in his mind the fiction that he hadn’t negotiated with terrorists through the belief that his people were dealing only with Iranian “moderates.” What these “moderates” were going to do with 2,000 anti-tank missiles except give them to the non-moderate, terrorism-sponsoring regime then engaged in a war with Iraq is one of the puzzles of the Reagan mind, but let’s press on.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, June 6, 2014

June 10, 2014 Posted by | POW's, Terrorism, Terrorists | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“McCain Just Can’t Seem To Help Himself”: One Of These Days, The Beltway Will Stop Looking To McCain As An Expert

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) ran into a little trouble last week. The Republican senator, a little too eager to condemn the Obama White House, complained about the prisoner swap that freed an American POW despite having already endorsed the exact same plan a few months prior. After getting caught, McCain falsely accused his critics of “lying.”

Making matters slightly worse, the Arizona lawmaker, himself a former POW, complained to the media that he hadn’t learned anything from a classified briefing on Bowe Bergdahl’s release, neglecting to mention that he’d left in the middle of it.

Despite – or perhaps, because of – these embarrassments, McCain scored another Sunday-show invitation, where he somehow managed to add insult to injury.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Sunday called the five Guantanamo detainees released in a prisoner swap for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl “hardcore military jihadists who are responsible for 9/11” and said he expects them to return to fighting against the U.S.

In context, looking at the full transcript, it’s hard to say whether McCain believes these five detainees were “responsible for 9/11” or whether he believes all of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay were “responsible for 9/11,” but either way, the senator is plainly wrong.

McCain added, in reference to the Bergdahl prisoner-swap, “I wouldn’t release these men, not these men. They were evaluated and judged as too great a risk to release.”

That’s wrong, too. In fact, the former chief military prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay told msnbc’s Alex Witt over the weekend that at first he didn’t even recognize these detainees’ names. “To trade five of them for a U.S. service member, in my estimation, and I’m often critical of President [Barack] Obama, I think they struck a pretty good deal,” retired Air Force Col. Morris Davis said.

What’s more, just a few months ago, McCain personally endorsed the plan to transfer these exact same Taliban prisoners. When he says he wouldn’t have completed the swap for “these men,” he’s neglecting to mention that he’d already expressed public support for swapping “these men.”

And all of this led to the creme de la crème:

“I believe that there are other prisoners, some of whom we have already released, that we could have released that – in exchange,” McCain argued.

If someone could explain what this means, I’d appreciate it. Putting aside the fact that McCain already endorsed the plan to swap these exact same prisoners before he changed his mind and denied changing his mind, it’s not at all clear how U.S. officials could have swapped prisoners “whom we have already released.”

It’s tempting to think that, one of these days, the Beltway will stop looking to McCain as an expert on matters related to national security and the military, but I’ve been waiting for that day for quite a while. It never seems to arrive.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, June 9, 2014

June 10, 2014 Posted by | John McCain, National Security, POW/MIA | , , , , | 1 Comment

“What Exactly Is Going On Here?”: An Interview, Arranged By Republican Strategists

President Obama made clear this morning that when it comes to rescuing American POWs, the nation’s commitment is unconditional. “Regardless of the circumstances,” he said, in reference to a question about Bowe Bergdahl, “whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop.”

Those comments, however, have not stopped questions about how Bergdahl was captured and whether he deserted his post. The New York Times reports this morning on an account from “a former senior military officer briefed on the investigation into the private’s disappearance,” who claims Bergdahl “had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life.”

The furious search for Sergeant Bergdahl, his critics say, led to the deaths of at least two soldiers and possibly six others in the area. Pentagon officials say those charges are unsubstantiated and are not supported by a review of a database of casualties in the Afghan war.

“Yes, I’m angry,” Joshua Cornelison, a former medic in Sergeant Bergdahl’s platoon, said in an interview on Monday arranged by Republican strategists.

Though we don’t yet have all the details, and some of the allegations may be “unsubstantiated,” the emotional reaction from servicemembers is easy to understand. But it was those other eight words that also raised eyebrows: “an interview on Monday arranged by Republican strategists”?

What exactly is going on here? The release of an American POW from his Taliban captors in Afghanistan has become a political operation in which Republican strategists direct reporters to specific sources?

BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray and Kate Nocera reported this morning on the behind-the-scenes effort.

A former Bush Administration official hired, then resigned, as Mitt Romney’s foreign policy spokesman played a key role in publicizing critics of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the released prisoner of war.

The involvement of Richard Grenell, who once served as a key aide to Bush-era U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton and later worked for Romney’s 2012 campaign, comes as the Bergdahl release has turned into an increasingly vicious partisan issue.

The piece added that similar interviews were arranged with a variety of conservative media outlets, including The Weekly Standard, the Daily Mail, the Wall Street Journal, and Fox News.

One of Grenell’s partner at Capitol Media Partners told BuzzFeed the firm is not being paid for these efforts.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Madow Blog, June 3, 2014

June 5, 2014 Posted by | Bowe Bergdahl, GOP, Republicans | , , , , , | Leave a comment

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