Monday, January 13, 2014

Clinton & Obama admit 2007 Iraq war policy positions were influenced by politics. So was President Bush 2004 Iraq war policy. One is worse.

"Politics has no place in war policy." That's a good one!

A war-time memoir from a former Secretary of Defense  is nothing new.  It is unusual, perhaps unique, for the number two man in the United States military chain of command to publish a memoir while his Commander in Chief is still in office and the war is still going on. I plan to read  Bob Gate's new book "Duty" when available to the general public later this week.  Part of my interest in the book stems from hearing Bob Gates speak at the MPSF Speaker Series last year.

Like most, I've had to be satisfied with observing other's observations of the memoir as excerpts are revealed in the press and political talk show circuit.   Rather than comment on the commentary (there are plenty of pundits filling that role), I'll wait until I've had a chance to read it myself.  However, there is one excerpt getting a lot of attention that deserves a second look.

Some suggest that the most explosive allegation in Gate's memoir was recounting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama casually admitting that their opposition to the 2007 surge in Iraq was shaped by politics. Specifically the political positioning of their primary campaign against each other.

This is how Chris Cilliza of The Fix covered it:
In a new memoir of his time as secretary of defense in the Obama administration, Gates writes: “Hillary told the president that her opposition to the [2007] surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary. . . . The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.” Oomph. Just to jog your memory, Clinton announced that she opposed the Iraq surge being pushed by President George W. Bush in the days leading up to the announcement of her presidential bid... At one level, Gates's allegation is not at all surprising. Politicians factor in politics when making decisions? Gasp! And they occasionally adjust their policy positions based on the changing winds of public opinion? Double gasp!
Unsurprisingly, right wing pundits jumped on this revelation with both feet.  Charles Krauthammer pointed to "...the utter ruthlessness and soullessness of a politician who would either approve or deny or object to a surge of the troops in a war that was in real difficulty purely as a reason to advance one's political career". The headline from John Sexton's column screams  "Obama, Hillary Admitted Opposition to the Iraq Surge Was Political". Neil Munro of the Daily Caller quotes extensively from right wing PAC's: "Secretary Gates confirms what so many American have already known,” said statement from Stop Hillary PAC... “Hillary Clinton is disingenuous and deceitful. She will do anything, including mislead the country by putting her political ambitions ahead of the safety of Americans at home and abroad.” William Jacobsen at Legal Insurrection claims the anecdote "reinforces an accurate meme about Hillary Clinton: She has no core, and will say anything to win."   Jim Inhofe thinks  "... the admission that both Hillary and Obama were playing a political game [in Iraq] with the lives of Americans and our allies is something that should be a huge wake-up call to the American people.”  So it goes.

What did you say?
What did we really learn from this revelation? We learned that Hillary Clinton (Valedictorian of the Dick Morris/ Bill Clinton School of "political triangulation") and Barack Obama (Whose political instincts were formed while passing through the bowels of the Chicago Democratic political machine) are political animals. We learned that political calculation informs every policy they formulate, every decision they make, and every public utterance that comes out of their mouth. Cue Louis Renault in Casablanca (I am Shocked! Shocked!).  Does this epiphany, this blinding revelatory flash of the completely obvious become any more informative or important because Bob Gates noticed it?  I don't see how, but apparently others do.

Regardless how one feels about Clinton and Obama playing politics with the Iraq War to gain electoral advantage, there is a problem for Republicans trying to exploit the revelation.  The problem is that the George W. Bush administration also played politics with the Iraq War to gain electoral advantage.  The problem for Republicans seeking to exploit this revelation is the battle for Fallujah in 2004.

The first battle of Fallujah took place early in 2004.  Iraq was under the control of the Coalition Provisional Authority led by Paul Bremer. 2004 was also a presidential election year, with President Bush running against John Kerry.   In the spring of 2004 insurrectionists loyal to Muqtada Al Sadr took control of the city of Fallujah, and Coalition forces withdrew from the city. This is how Paul Bremer explained the decision to withdraw in an NPR Frontline interview:
BREMER: "Well, we had resistance from the American military and some pushback as well from the Department of Defense. We were unable to move in August. In October, Moqtada's forces killed some American soldiers in Najaf and in Karbala, the other holy city. I again encouraged us to allow the Iraqis to exercise the arrest warrant; I was unable to. This happened again in March. It happened again in April. It was a constant battle. And of course every time we did not move against Moqtada, he was able to use the time to collect money, because he was controlling some of the collections at the mosques and using the money to hire more and more people into his Mahdi Army, as he called it, so that he grew from a force of probably fewer than 200 in the summer of 2003 to several thousand by the spring of 2004."

Q: And you had specific conversations with Secretary Rumsfeld about al-Sadr?

BREMER: "I had conversations with Secretary Rumsfeld and with the commanders on the ground and with the commanders at CENTCOM and so forth. And my colleagues had conversations. It wasn't just me."
And this is how the Washington Times reported why our military believed we lost control of Fallujah 
"A secret intelligence assessment of the first battle of Fallujah shows that the U.S. military thinks that it lost control over information about what was happening in the town, leading to "political pressure" that ended its April 2004 offensive with control being handed to Sunni insurgents... During the negotiations that followed, top Bush administration officials demanded a solution that would not require the Marines to retake the town, according to the assessment."
And an LA Times article a month before the election:
October 11, 2004|Mark Mazzetti | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration plans to delay major assaults on rebel-held cities in Iraq until after U.S. elections in November, say administration officials, mindful that large-scale military offensives could affect the U.S. presidential race. Although American commanders in Iraq have been buoyed by recent successes in insurgent-held towns such as Samarra and Tall Afar, administration and Pentagon officials say they will not try to retake cities such as Fallouja and Ramadi -- where the insurgents' grip is strongest and U.S. military casualties could be the highest -- until after Americans vote in what is likely to be an extremely close election.
On November 4, 2004 George W. Bush was re-elected President of the United States.  On November 7, 2004 U.S. marines launched an assault against the refortified, better armed, booby-trapped and far more strongly entrenched insurgents.

Wikipedia on second battle of Fallujah:
The Second Battle of Fallujah — code-named Operation Phantom Fury — was a joint American, Iraqi, and British offensive in November and December 2004, considered the highest point of conflict in Fallujah during the Iraq War. It was led by the U.S. Marine Corps against the Iraqi insurgency stronghold in the city of Fallujah and was authorized by the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Interim Government. The U.S. military called it "some of the heaviest urban combat U.S. Marines have been involved in since the Battle of Huế City in Vietnam in 1968."... This operation was the second major operation in Fallujah. Earlier, in April 2004, coalition forces fought the First Battle of Fallujah in order to capture or kill insurgent elements considered responsible for the deaths of a Blackwater Security team. When coalition forces (mostly U.S. Marines) fought into the center of the city, the Iraqi government requested that the city's control be transferred to an Iraqi-run local security force, which then began stockpiling weapons and building complex defenses across the city through mid-2004. The second battle was the bloodiest battle of the entire Iraq War, and is notable for being the first major engagement of the Iraq War fought solely against insurgents rather than the forces of the former Ba'athist Iraqi government, which was deposed in 2003."
95 US soldiers were killed and 560 were wounded re-taking Fallujah after the election. It is hard to come to any other conclusion but that many of those casualties were a direct result of the Bush administration political decision to delay the assault on Fallujah until after the election.

Newsweek Cover - December 2006Another consequence of  Bush administration politics shaping military policy was the rise of Moqtada al-Sadr. Paul Bremer revealed in the NPR interview how political decisions permitted this relatively minor Iraqi cleric that led a small militia in 2003 to become the face and de-facto leader of the Iraqi insurrection.  As his "Mahdi Army" grew stronger, many more Iraqi, American and coalition lives were lost battling the insurrection.  I noted the Bush administration culpability for the rise of Sadr on this blog in 2008. Since then, Sadr has continued to wield outsize influence in Iraqi politics. Apparently he is even succeeding at making the improbable  transition from an extremist Islamic militant murderer to peace loving political statesman. Ironically this all takes place as Fallujah again falls under the control of Islamic extremists.

Perhaps this is just an exercise in Comparative Political Demonolgy (H/T Tully). But I find the histrionic over-reaction to relatively innocuous comments from Clinton and Obama as recounted by Gates in his memoir to be far out of proportion to the actual consequences.  Gates said as much in an interview this morning on the Today Show:
"Gate said his claim should not hurt Clinton should she decide to make another run for the White House. "I think there’s a difference when you’re in the Senate and you're campaigning for office, and when you have the responsibility of office. And when she had the responsibility of office, as I say, I never heard her bring domestic politics into the issue.”
And in his NPR Interview:
 "... maybe there's a difference between, you know, a senator who's running for political office and somebody who actually has responsibility, but I just — I never heard Secretary Clinton once bring domestic politics into the discussion as a factor during the 2 1/2 years we served together and when she was secretary of state."
Exactly. Clinton and Obama were just Senators casting losing votes with the intent of gaining a few more votes in a Democratic primary. There was no consequence to their votes, except as a reflection on their own character. George W. Bush was commander in Chief. When the Bush administration played politics with the Iraq War and Fallujah, Americans died.

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