Saturday, March 24, 2007

Maybe By 2038

The House Democrats were courageous to set even a feeble withdrawal date. They are at least looking in the right direction. But are they really looking closely enough?

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Communicating with My Senator

A while back I posted a letter I sent to John McCain taking him to task for insisting that questioning the war would discourage Americans serving In Iraq. My brother asked me to note if McCain responded. Last week, I received a letter dated 13 February from Senator McCain. Obviously, Congressional mail takes a while but his response did make its way to my mailbox.

The letter is basically a refrain of everything CheneyBush and McCain has been telling the country for the past five years,talking points with all the familiar words--Saddam, 9-11, victory, security, catastrophic, consequences, fail, troops--but not much else. And maybe he really believes it. As a war veteran, I am disappointed that a fellow veteran still believes in war. As a constituent, I do not believe that he well represents me or even a majority of Arizonans.

Needless to say, I do not plan to let St. John have the last word. I have prepared an annotated version of his letter and will further edit my comments for a response. Or maybe just let him have the whole thing. He said he appreciated learning my views on this important subject. Senator McCain's letter is in regular type. My response is in bold. (Hey, it's my blog. I can highlight my ideas if I want to.)

Thank you for contacting me regarding Iraq. I appreciate learning your views on this important issue.

This is a critical moment in Iraq's post-Saddam history. The war in Iraq has not gone as well as we have hoped, and we have made mistakes that cost us dearly. I continue to believe, however, that the President was right to bring Saddam's brutal and dangerous regime to an end.

No he was not. America’s authority for a pre-emptive attack was dubious from the start. Iraq was a problem, not a threat, in 2002-2003. Many reasonable alternatives could have been pursued before launching a war that, as you say “has cost America dearly”. The President’s ever changing justifications for the war are as much evidence of his complete failure to plan for the post-invasion as are the cascade of blunders he has orchestrated in Iraq since the invasion. The end of Saddam’s brutal regime has given way in four years to a failed state, riven with all too predictable ethnic and sectarian strife. Iraq was not a failed State under Saddam. Troublesome, yes (and I know from history that America contributed to the trouble) but Iraq was hardly the charnel house that it has become under American occupation.

America is enormously invested in the outcome of the conflict in Iraq. Our national security and the strength of our international partnerships depend on the outcome of this war. If we should withdraw precipitously from Iraq, we risk creating a failed state in the heart of the Middle East, a situation that would enable terrorists to train and plan attacks against the united states with impunity. We saw just such a situation develop in Afghanistan after international disengagement from that country, and it contributed to the events of 9/11. By turning over security to the as-yet unprepared Iraqi forces, we threaten to plunge that country into a full scale civil war that could destabilize the entire Middle East and invite intervention from Iraq regional neighbors. If we do not succeed in lraq, we would send our partners and our enemies the same message: America has neither the capability nor the will to sustain its operations through to victory.

You assume that the only form of engagement in Iraq is American occupation. I, for one, would prefer to see the kind of international engagement that may well have prevented Afghanistan from descending into chaos after the Soviets abandoned their occupation of that country and the world lost interest, the kind of engagement recommended by the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton commission. And remember, too, that Afghanistan gave Al-Qaeda haven to plan the 9-11 attacks, the President and his administration failed to recognize any number of warnings of an impending action.

A failed state in the Middle East won’t be the first the world has had to deal with. Nor is it likely to be the last. That kind of chaos allows terrorists and other brigands to organize, plan and finance hostile actions against all nations. You are correct that America and the world community need to respond to the threats created by failed states. However, our policy in Iraq since 2003 offers no model that I think any sane person would recommend. The never-large-to-begin-with and now-dwindling “Coalition of the Willing” clearly demonstrates that most nations believe they can deal with terrorism and the instability of failed states in other, less destructive ways.

I prefer that my country support a policy of constructive disengagement from military operations in Iraq in furtherance of regional and diplomatic initiatives to contain the damage from Iraq’s civil war. This is not precipitous withdrawal but simply changing what has been a horribly counterproductive policy. Instead of squandering more lives and treasure, the United States could use those resources far more effectively to protect itself from the real threats to our national security, such as America’s ability to compete and contribute in a globalized world.

Moreover, Iraq was not a failed state prior to our invasion. It was brutal but stable. Now Iraq is brutal and unstable because the President led America into a war that he did not understand, a war that the US military, for all its prowess, was ill-prepared to fight. Instead of the clear-cut, specific mission the President promised and once declared “accomplished”, American forces are caught in a civil war among indigenous forces, criminal gangs and foreign fighters who find Iraq a convenient battleground against America. Had you and the President told the American people that four years on the war you would still be uncertain of success, the war would have never started.

The danger of instability spreading across the Middle East is a risk that America, the United Nations and the nations of the region will have to deal with through diplomacy, frank exchange mutual security agreements that address conflicts and interests in ways that encourage cooperation and trade rather than conflict. As difficult as that may be, it is preferable to continued war and death.

Your language about lack of will and victory is as hollow now as it was 40 years ago when Lyndon Johnson escalated American involvement in Vietnam. That, too, was a crisis with “dire consequences if America failed to show the will to victory”. And yet the consequences, when this nation finally had enough after 15 years of war, were minimal. Dire consequences certainly for the Vietnamese and Americans who were killed, injured and tortured during and after the war but hardly the catastrophic national failure we were asked to fight and sacrifice for.

In light of the dire situation in Iraq, there is much agreement that a political solution is necessary. But we must also realize that it is simply impossible for meaningful political- and economic activity to take place in an environment riddled with violence as Baghdad today. Security is the precondition for political and economic progress.

Security may be a precondition for political and economic progress but when no party has the ability to ensure the needed security, political accommodation then becomes a precondition to security. Short of several hundreds of thousands of American troops, our forces will be unable to provide the security you advocate. Perhaps a much larger force—the 350 to 400 thousand recommended by General Shinseki in 2003--would have created the security needed for political and economic progress in the immediate post-invasion period but that window quickly closed when the all too predictable nationalist, sectarian and criminal elements were given great latitude by the inability of our occupation force to secure public facilities, weapons caches and vital infrastructure. The situation has long since passed beyond anything our military can control short of draconian measures that neither the American public, Iraqis or the world community would find acceptable.

Whether the troop levels prescribed in President Bush's new plan for Iraq will be sufficient to accomplish all that our leaders ask of our troops remains an open question in my mind. I cannot guarantee this new strategy will bring success. But I am certain that we will face potentially catastrophic consequences if we fail.

American military disengagement from Iraq will be no more catastrophic than the situation we already face. Nor will it be a failure or abdication of responsibility. Rather, disengagement will enable this nation to rebuild its military and allow the United States to pursue actual terrorist threats rather than sacrificing its sons and daughters in a cause that does nothing to meet the goals you claim to seek. No doubt more Iraqis will die and that is truly regrettable, a consequence of the forces so blindly unleashed by the President’s ill-advised policy of regime change. I often think that the only reason for continuing the occupation is to keep the war’s architects from having to acknowledge a grievous error that has wasted so much.

I make no apology for calling the American effort a waste. Nothing that has been or may be accomplished in the Iraq war and occupation could not have been achieved without the death and carnage my nation has inflicted on another, without the loss of so much life and limb. That to me is a waste.

It is no failure of America’s service men and women to call their sacrifice a waste. Soldiers sacrifice, you and I both know that. It’s up to leaders to give meaning and value to that sacrifice. President Bush and his administration have wasted that sacrifice. After four years of failure, the time has come to force the issue without more carnage and destruction. The Iraqi government is little more than a figurehead controlled by a militant majority with the avowed intent of disenfranchising and impoverishing a powerful a minority that does not accept that fate and has no good reason to stop fighting. And our sons and daughters are caught in the crossfire of contending factions with little incentive to reach the political accommodation that is necessary to begin rebuilding Iraqi society.

Like you, I know the face of war. Unlike you, I know war up close and personal. But I can’t imagine that killing from the air is any less traumatizing than close up. Different, but still not something a human being does naturally. Sometimes it may be necessary but I can’t imagine ever not regretting the knowledge that I killed another man. I served with the last Americans asked to die in Vietnam, to die for a mistake. I knew that going in but still could not and did not want to refuse my country. Knowing that I did it for no good reason deepens my regret. The US was getting out—troop levels and casualties dropped precipitously during the year I served—so there was little point to what I and my buddies did in the jungles and mountains of Long Kanh and Bin Thuy Provinces.

I think the problems posed by a timely American withdrawal from Iraq can be managed with good planning and with even some honor. The needless death and destruction in Iraq will, like Vietnam, remain a blot on America’s permanent record. The sooner we cauterize this self-inflicted wound, the better.

It is imperative congress provide our troops in lraq the resources required to carry out their vital mission. I have the utmost confidence in the ability of General David Petraeus, the new commander in Iraq, and I feel strongly that his appointment coupled with this change in strategy, gives us the best chance for success. But it wilt be very difficult.

Congress should make it clear to America that it does not want to continue the occupation, that it wants this country to aggressively pursue diplomacy and regional cooperation to find a workable solution to the problems of a failed Iraq. Iraqis, who have constructed and reconstructed political entities in a turbulent region, should have the wisdom and goodwill to broker an agreement that protects all and removes the incentive to fight within a year. They were supposed to have done this long ago. American troops cannot do this for the Iraqis, nor can they be asked to make an open-ended commitment to a political process that does not exist except at the point of our weapons.

Bringing down the violence in Iraq will give Prime Minister Maliki and others the stability they need to pursue reconciliation, but it is ultimately up to the Iraqis themselves to make these tough decisions. It is absolutely imperative that they seize this opportunity. It may well be their last.

What do you mean, It may well be their last? Will you then withdraw? What about all the dire consequences that you just told me will attend an American withdrawal? What’s your policy then? How does it differ from what I propose now? Why inflict that much more damage on our troops and Iraq if you aren’t going to pursue the war further? You aren’t thinking that, are you? Please tell me you will not further escalate the American occupation of Iraq? Where will you get the forces?

Or better yet, please tell me and the nation if that’s what you have in mind. I think we all should know.

Once again, thank you for contacting me. Be assured that I will continue to monitor the situation in Iraq very closely. The stakes in our mission there could not be higher.

John McCain
United States Senator

High stakes, I agree, for American troops and their families but for the nation not so much that we can’t pursue a regional solution, which I note, was recommended by the Baker-Hamilton Commission. War is the least effective form of intercourse among nations; it is nasty, brutal and far too unpredictable in any but the most extreme circumstances. More war when reasonable alternatives are available makes absolutely no sense to me. Nor is it right to ask of our troops. It is waste beyond measure.

Good for you to monitor the situation. I was disappointed to see that you missed voting on the Senate Iraq resolution.

I apologize for going on at such length. I'm trying to stop a war with words. Like bullets, sometimes you need a lot of 'em.

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Affairs of the House

House Democrats look to have the votes to fund another year of war in Iraq and some gratuitous pork. Like the long-time anti-war Democrats, I am conflicted about the bill. It does not really constrain CheneyBush and continues a pattern of Democratic support for an ill-advised policy that goes back at least five years.

But it does set a date to end combat. That's worth something. It's a statement that the House of Representatives wants the occupation to end in a given time. It could also mean that some members want their agricultural subsidies. Not the compelling statement of opposition I think is merited but at least a step in the right direction. Nonetheless, CheneyBush and his allies are afraid of even this small sign of opposition, so it has a symbolic value. Weak and feeble as the House bill is, it's not likely to survive the Senate, CheneyBush's veto or his willfull disregard for law.

Funding military operations in Iraq is not my main objection to the bill. Our military is there and should be able to protect itself and carry out its mission. What I object to is continuing the mission. I want to change the mission from active combat to withdrawal in favor of local and regional control and containment of potential external threats in a less destructive manner in cooperation with neighboring nations and our world partners. I believe Congress has every right and to insist that the executive change a failed policy. What this Congress is likely to produce will fall far short of meeting that responsibility.

Congress is not completely hopeless, though. The House yesterday passed the Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act which directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to develop and carry out a comprehensive program designed to reduce the incidence of suicide among veterans. Last week the House Armed Services Committee reported out the Wounded Warrior Act of 2007 to improve the management of medical care, personnel actions, and quality of life issues for members of the Armed Forces who are receiving medical care in an outpatient status. The bill is still awaiting action by the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

I'll take progress where I can find it. You legislate with the Congress you have, not the one you wish you had.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

An Odd Job Well Done

For much of my adult life I worked as a performance auditor, a job description that baffles most people. They recognize audit and think accountant--definitely not. They're not sure what to make of the performance part. I like to further confuse them with the not entirely inaccurate description that perfrmance audit is to audit as performance art is to art, if for no other reason than I like to hear my profession described terms of art.

Performance audit is pretty simple, actually. It's asking if a project or organization meets its goals. If yes, how did they do it, and, if not, what went wrong? The mechanics, methodologies and experience needed to define and measure performance can be complex and often require professional skills but the basic idea--measuring results against expectations--is something everyone does every day.

Some government performance auditors are inspectors general whose scope varies from a single department or a state government to individual programs. One right thing America has done in Iraq is to create the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. The Special IG just released a report that is what performance audit is all about:

The U.S. government was unprepared for the extensive nation-building required after it invaded Iraq, and at each juncture where it could have adjusted its efforts, it failed even to understand the problems it faced, according to the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.

In a stinging, wide-ranging assessment of U.S. reconstruction efforts, Stuart W. Bowen Jr. said that in the days after the invasion, the Defense Department had no strategy for restoring either government institutions or infrastructure. And in the years since, other agencies joined the effort without an overall plan and without a structure in place to organize and execute a task of such agnitude.

Looking at the other end of America's wars, the GovernmentAccountability Office has just released a report on care at the Veterans Home in northwest DC. More than 1,100 enlisted retirees live at the home. The GAO found problems.
The Government Accountability Office warned the Pentagon this week that residents of the home "may be at risk" in light of allegations of severe health-care problems. Residents have been admitted to Walter Reed Army Medical Center with "the most serious type of pressure sores" and, in one case, with maggots in a wound, according to a GAO letter sent to the Defense Department.

I would be proud to have participated in either review. I always liked projects that helped individuals or populations at risk. I also liked the opportunity to slam incompetence. In either case I enjoyed the opporutnity to make something positive occur. I still have some romantic idealism after all these years.

So maybe next time someone asks what I do, I should give them copies of the Iraq reconstruction or veterans home reports.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Anniversay of No Cheer

Yesterday the Coalition to End the War petitioned Arizona's two senators to end the American occupation of Iraq. A delegation of veterans and military families read a declaration of grievances against the CheneyBush administration. We demanded their support for legislation funding a prompt and orderly withdrawal from Iraq and funding to assist the men and women returning from war. And read the names of Arizona war dead. Jon Kyl left the job of receiving our petitions to a very clean cut Young Republican male receptionist. St. John McCain's deputy office manager listened to us.

We spent much of the penultimate winter day in the all-too-warm-for- his-time-of- year- but-MUCH-cooler-than-the-day-before Arizona sun making a racket about the occupation outside of both offices and the short march between the two. By late afternoon, about 400 were outside McCain's office to greet rush hour traffic. We had a couple or three wingnuts and I saw one or two negative gestures but I drew a lot of energy from the honks and waves of many, many passersby. What I find baffling is in a metro area of 3.5 million, why are not thousands out on the street?

But I was grateful for the ones who came and showed that Arizonans care passionately about ending a disastrous occupation. A retired Army recruiter whose son is serving in Iraq with my old company was there. So was a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Along with people of all ages. It's all theater and I have no illusions that either senator will change his mind but, in the past days I have come to realize that I turn out to support these good people in a worthy effort. Just like in the Army, I'm looking out for my buds.

We ended the evening with a candlelight vigil and ceremony at 10:00 pm, the moment the bombs began to fall in 2003. The numbers had dwindled by then but the spirit remained. has some good photos of our raucous band. To see a very effective statement on the war, go here.


Killed in Action

Specialist Justin Allan Rollins is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Rollins, an assistant machine gunner with the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, was the 318th service member killed in Iraq to be buried at Arlington. Five other soldiers were also killed in the blast.

Rollins joined the Army in February 2004. He had been assigned to recruitment duty in the United States but fought to be sent to Iraq, said Marjorie Hutchins, a close friend from high school.


When Rollins joined the military, something changed, friends said. He carried himself differently, stood a little straighter. He loved being a soldier and returned to Iraq after he was injured by a roadside bomb.

"He was still himself, still a funny guy, but he was so proud," Hutchins said. "He met some of his best friends over there. If he didn't die of old age, he wanted to die in combat, doing something he believed in."

Godspeed, Specialist Rollins.

Playing Smart

How a confluence of interests can be used to influence world events:

The New York Times leads with word that Russia has warned Iran that it will not provide nuclear fuel for its almost-completed power plant in Bushehr unless Iran agrees to U.N. Security Council demands to stop uranium enrichment. President Bush has frequently tried to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop cooperating on Iran's nuclear plant but has mostly failed because the project is quite profitable for Russia....

The true motive behind Russia's warning might be more financial than political as there have been some public disagreements over whether Iran has been paying its bills. Regardless, some see it as a sign that the United States and Russia can still cooperate on key issues and that officials in Moscow are growing tired of Iran's insistence that it has the right to enrich uranium. American officials have been busy trying to make sure that Russia can benefit economically if it chooses to support U.N. sanctions against Iran.
(emphasis added.)

This seems far preferable to starting a war when the threat is less than immediate.


Monday, March 19, 2007

Repression and Some Good Reporting

Anthony Shadid writes of political freedom and repression in Egypt with words that sound depressingly like CheneyBush's America:

The state has launched its most serious crackdown in a decade on the Muslim Brotherhood, arresting hundreds, sending 40 of its members to military courts, with no right of appeal, and freezing the assets of wealthy patrons. In Alexandria, the government sentenced a blogger, Abdel-Karim Nabil Suleiman, to four years in prison for, among other things, defaming the president.

For my money, Anthony Shadid is the best correspondent and writer reporting on the Middle East. He has the knowledge and language skills to understand all levels of that culture. He describes the feel of people's lives, thier hopes and fears in what is for most Americans, an alien world. The article on Egyptian repression is filled with observations from the people involved.
Any relationship with any foreign power, but especially the Americans, is the kiss of death," he said. "We don't need this kiss."


"The Arab spring is happening because of Bush's policies," Alaa Seif, a young blogger, said at the time, a cup of coffee next to his computer. "But it's not the way they think about it. It's the other way around. They did mobilize people, and they still are."


"On first class, they're not looking for suspects."

Shadid's book, Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War, is a highly informative, very readable account of Iraq in the first year of the occupation, a time when there was still hope but also much trepidation.

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