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23 July 2008 Blog Home : July 2008 : Permalink

The Obama Reality Distortion Field

All over the blogosphere, not to mention in rightish media, writers have remarked how certain segments of the MSM seem to fawn over Obama in ways that make a mockery of their supposed ideals of neutrality. Today's WaPo has a great example in the column by Harold Meyerson (who he?) who compares Obama to the German Frederick the Great! This column is so weird that I'm forced to give it a righteous fisking:

Obama's Strategic Vision

We can start off with the title. I am forced to assume that this is a vision similar to that of people who have visions of the Virgin Mary or St Paul on his way to Damascus. It isn't clear whether it was the Blessed Obama coming down in a shining light in front of Mr Meyerson or a famous general (Greek: strategos/στρατηγός) appearing to St Obama on his way to Damascus. Still either way it's good to know that politicians and journalists believe in supernatural visitations because it clear doesn't refer to Mr Obama's grasp of military strategy.

Maybe the symbolism of Barack Obama giving a major speech this week at Berlin's Victory Column -- a 19th-century monument to Prussia's military triumphs -- isn't as incongruous at it might seem. After all, it was Frederick the Great -- the 18th-century Prussian monarch who transformed his kingdom into the dominant German state -- who once advised his generals, "He who would defend everything ends up defending nothing."

So a column to commemorating 19th century Prussian imperialism reminds our columnist of a monarch from the previous century who was, hmm, the sort of imperialist that people claim a certain GW Bush is. That would be like claiming that a politician in 2008 was like one in 1870. Frederick the Great may well have said "He who would defend everything ends up defending nothing" but he was also keen on waging war through flimsy pretexts (the First Silesian war) and pre-emptive strikes (the invasion of Saxony that kicked off the Seven Years' War). Neither of these actions are the sorts of things that liberals praise under normal circumstances.

You can't deploy everywhere in strength, Frederick was saying, and that's a lesson Obama seems to understand a lot better than John McCain does. At a news conference in Jordan yesterday, Obama reiterated his belief that Afghanistan, not Iraq, is "the central front in the war against terrorism" and that confronting that reality requires drawing down the number of U.S. forces stationed in Iraq.

This is laughable. Afghanistan is the central front in the war against terrorism because all the (surviving) terrorists have decided that fighting in Iraq is pointless suicide. In other words we're winning in Iraq and those enemies who can are getting out to save their skin. Obama has been talking about pulling out of Iraq for years, even in late 2006 when Iraq almost certainly was the central front in the war against terrorism and we were (arguably) losing the war there.

Obama has been making this case for many months. But it was not until last week that McCain acknowledged that our war in Afghanistan was not going well and would require additional forces. Unlike Obama, however, McCain does not favor reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq by any timetable and has yet to stipulate where our overcommitted military will find the forces to send to Afghanistan.

Good thing McCain wasn't one of Frederick's generals. He would have been cashiered.

See note above. Obama has been making this 'case' not for many months but for years. Even when it was a bad idea. And you have to enjoy the rhetorical sleight of hand that makes a lack of fixed timetable for troop withdrawal equivalent to not withdrawing any troops. McCain has in fact talked about withdrawing some trooops from Iraq but has declared that it is wiser to let the folks on the ground (i.e. Gen Petraeus & co) decide how many troops to remove and when to do so. In fact McCain clearly intends to switch troops from Iraq to Afghanistan but not to do it at the cost of suffering a reverse in Iraq. In other words McCain is in fact following the Frederick the Great dictum, just combining it with the unoriginal idea that you don't stop one hard fought campaign shortly before victory to try and get a victory somewhere else. One suspects that Frederick the Great would actually be cashiering a General Obama for his proposed strategy.

McCain's campaign has been knocked off stride -- not that it was ever entirely on stride -- by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's endorsement of Obama's withdrawal timetable. Campaigning in Maine on Monday, the Arizona senator tried the kitchen sink approach in attacking his rival, saying that Obama had been "completely wrong" about Iraq and the surge, that the disposition of U.S. forces in Iraq couldn't be set by a timetable but had to comport to conditions on the ground, and, for good measure, that Obama had "no military experience whatsoever."

Maliki's endorsement was of a withdrawal based upon actual conditions not a rigid timetable. It just so happens that at present al-Maliki believes (or claims for his own internal Iraqi political reasons to believe) that conditions for US withdrawal will be similar to the rigid timetable Obama proposes to implement from January 2009. It is entirely possible that by January 2009 he will have changed his mind because conditions on the ground have changed.

The McCain campaign's accusation that Obama has been completely wrong about the surge appears to be 100% correct. Obama opposed the surge and tried to claim it wasn't working until it became obvious that it had in fact worked. Likewise it is in fact the case that Obama has no military experience whatsoever. In the context of the war in Iraq this lack of military experience seems to be key because Obama has retained a rigid timetable as "strategy" despite radical changes in conditions.

But in his insistence that conditions on the ground should determine the rate of withdrawal of U.S. forces, McCain omits one key condition: the willingness of the Iraqi people and their government to keep those forces in their country. If Iraqis' elected leaders say it's time for us to go, and the U.S. generals there disagree, whose counsel do we heed?

Good question. But one that doesn't seem to be relevant since, at least as far as I cna tell, the two groups agree.

Appearing at the Council on Foreign Relations in 2004, McCain was asked this very question -- what we should do if a sovereign Iraqi government asked us to leave, even if Iraq was not yet secure. "I don't see how we could stay," he answered then, "when our whole emphasis and policy has been based on turning the Iraqi government over to the Iraqi people."

Now that the Iraqi government has expressed its clear preference for a departure of U.S. forces along the timeline suggested by Obama, however, McCain argues that the decisive judgment should not be theirs but our field generals'. The person who should determine the course and duration of our mission is Gen. David Petraeus.

So much for the sovereignty thing. So much for rehabilitating post-Bush America in the eyes of the world.

I'm still not seeing a problem here. No successful military can allow itself to obey orders from foreign politicians, nor should Presidents of the USA commit themselves to meekly doing what another country's politicians insist on. And that of course ignore the fact that other Iraqi politicians (as the Wapo itself reports) explicitly DON'T WANT US troops withdrawn too fast.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has a history of tailoring his public statements for political purposes, made headlines by saying he would support a withdrawal of American forces by 2010. But an Iraqi government statement made clear that Mr. Maliki's timetable would extend at least seven months beyond Mr. Obama's. More significant, it would be "a timetable which Iraqis set" -- not the Washington-imposed schedule that Mr. Obama has in mind. [...] Other Iraqi leaders were more directly critical. As Mr. Obama acknowledged, Sunni leaders in Anbar province told him that American troops are essential to maintaining the peace among Iraq's rival sects and said they were worried about a rapid drawdown.

Furthermore, as the quote above makes clear, politicians frequently make public statements that contradict private statements made behind closed doors ( as a certain presidential hopeful did WRT Canada and NAFTA). It is entirely plausible, indeed likely, that Iraqi politicians for political reasons will publicly ask the US to withdraw faster than they actually want. Finally if the US were to withdraw too fast and Iraq collapsed into a civil war then that would not in fact rehabilitate post-Bush America in the eyes of the world, rather it would strengthen the Bin Laden viewpoint that the US never sticks things out and can therefore always be defeated

And what of McCain's assertion that Obama "has no military experience whatsoever"? It's incontestably true, of course. What's more germane, and clearer with each passing day, however, is that Obama's capacities as a national strategist -- the most important qualification for a commander in chief -- far outshine McCain's. Victory, in McCain's view, is the result of will and fortitude -- an understandable belief for anyone who survived half a decade as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Had we been more steadfast in Vietnam, he believes, we could have won. Likewise in Iraq, even though the rifts in that nation are not ultimately susceptible to foreign military might.

Nice of you to admit that Obama doesn't actually have any military experience. It would be nice of you could provide an example of how Obama's capacity as a 'national strategist' far outshine McCain's. This couldbe tricky because Obama doesn't seem to have done anything strategic ever apart from coming up with a strategy to become US president. It may hurt Mr Meyerson but in fact the McCain view of Vietnam does seem to be correct. When US troops left the Viet Cong were militarily defeated as was N Vietnam. Unfortunately for the S Vietnamese their Northern neighbours were able to rearm courtesy of the Soviet Union while the US declined to assist the Southern Vietnamese in the same way. Hence, unsurprisingly, they lost. A bit more steadfastness and sticking up for ones alleged allies by the US might have done wonders.

As for national rifts. Firstly it seems clear that Sunnis and Shia both do have a concept of Iraq as a nation (the Kurds not so much but also to some extent). What foreign military might can do is stop those who wish to widen the rifts through violence and therefore allow the nation to develop without a civil war. Secondly, it is also worth noting that Afghanistan is at least as split in to sectarian/ethnic groups as Iraq so if foreign military might can't fix the rifts in Araq, why should we assume theat it can in Afghanistan?

But fortitude and will are only part of the formula for success. A good president has to know which battles to fight militarily and which diplomatically, which battles are primary and which secondary. By these measures, Obama -- who always viewed the Iraq fight as a distraction from hunting down al-Qaeda and who understands that peace in Iraq depends on a political accommodation among Iraqi groups -- is clearly the better strategist.

So the diplomatic campaign against Sadam which lasted from the ceasefire at the end of GWI in 1991 until 2003 and which resulted in a multi-billion dollar bribery scam was a success? That's like saying Al Gore's movie is the gospel truth. As for political accomodation in Iraq. Said accomodation is always going to be more likely if the politicians don't fear that they (or those they represent) are going to be the targets of bombs, death squads etc. Retaining a presence in Iraq until the politicians have actually come to their accomodation and had that essentially accepted by the people seems like a far wiser strategy to me.

Military experience isn't an infallible guide to who might make the better commander. Jefferson Davis, after all, graduated from West Point, served with distinction (and with the rank of colonel) in the Mexican War and was secretary of war in the Franklin Pierce administration. Abraham Lincoln served roughly three months in a volunteer militia during the Black Hawk War and never saw action, and he was a vocal congressional opponent of the Mexican War. But Davis had no aptitude for national strategy during the Civil War, while Lincoln emerged as the North's master strategist. That's not to say that Obama is a budding Lincoln and McCain a second Jeff Davis. But by the Frederick the Great standard, Obama already looks to be the smarter commander.

It's very nice of you to admit that you shouldn't draw too many parallels between Obama and Lincoln/ McCain and Davis even though you clearly use that disclaimer in a way similar to the damning with faint praise technique, however I don't think in fact you have proved that Obama would be prefered to McCain by someone like Frederick the Great. In other words all you have actually done in this entire article is show that some journalists swoon after Obama in the way that makes the rest of us wonder just what koolaid they have drunk. Congratulations.