Tuesday, October 7, 2014

News from the Stupid Shit Caucus

From the title page of Sebastian Brant's Narrenschiff, 1549. Via Wikipedia.
It's been a staple of abuse of Obama by conservative intellectuals such as Sarah Palin and John McCain (hope you saw what I did there) for some months now that the president is to blame for the ongoing catastrophe in northern Iraq and eastern Syria because he implemented the agreement negotiated between the Iraq and US governments in the last weeks of the Bush administration in December 2008, which was very feckless of him:

If the U.S. still had troops there, would Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have become the sectarian strongman he has, would ISIS have established the stronghold it has, etc.? This is a complicated question, and one should never be too confident in counterfactuals. But there’s a compelling case articulated by a range of people that a U.S. presence there could have made today’s situation less likely, and certainly allowed us to have more options to respond today. (Patrick Brennan at NRO in June)
I'm not too clear how the residual US force was supposed to persuade Maliki to integrate Sunnis into the military and civil services—were they going to hold him at gunpoint? Because he certainly hadn't done it or shown any interest in doing it in the two years he'd been prime minister so far, even though there were tons of US troops in the country. And all the talking the US could do with Maliki wasn't sufficient to get him to sign an agreement to allow the US forces to even stay there beyond 2011, even though he reportedly wanted them to. How they would go on to convince him to do something he was plainly determined not to do (i.e., treat Sunnis and Kurds as human beings) is hard to figure.

Certainly the 2006 bipartisan Iraq Study Group insisted that the US should be ready to move out all troops whether the Iraqi government did what the US wanted or not:
Recommendation 41: The United States must make it clear to the Iraqi government that the United States could carry out its plans, including planned redeployments, even if Iraq does not implement its planned changes. America's other security needs and the future of our military cannot be made hostage to the actions or inactions of the Iraqi government. (Wikipedia)
Remember the 2006 bipartisan Iraq Study Group? One of its Democratic members was President Clinton's old chief of staff, the ex-congressman from California, Mr. Leon Panetta.

And oddly enough, here's Mr. Leon Panetta, President Obama's old Director of Central Intelligence and Secretary of Defense, echoing the National Review in his celebrity memoir (Worthy Fights meant to snuggle on a shelf with Hillary Clinton's Hard Choices) in suggesting that no, the United States' security needs and the future of our military should have totally made themselves hostage to the actions or inactions of the Iraqi government:
Panetta writes that a small U.S. troop presence "could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with al-Qaeda's resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country." (Gopal Ratnam in Foreign Policy)
Advised them effectively? More effectively than the 200 US military advisors who did remain in Iraq after the 2011 withdrawal? Is there some kind of critical mass of advisement to which a mere 200 advisors inevitably fall short?

Thus Panetta joins ex-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and ex-ambassador Christoper Hill in a startling explosion of irredentist neoliberal reproach to the president for the current feck shortage.

That would be the same Mr. Panetta who erupted, during his first trip to Iraq as Obama's Secretary of Defense (in July 2011), into a full-throated anti-Obama defense of the Bush administration war policy from which his handlers had to rescue him:
“The reason you guys are here is because on 9/11 the United States got attacked,” he told troops at Camp Victory, the largest U.S. military outpost in Baghdad. “And 3,000 Americans — 3,000 not just Americans, 3,000 human beings, innocent human beings — got killed because of al-Qaeda. And we’ve been fighting as a result of that....”

Pressed by reporters to elaborate, Panetta said: “I wasn’t saying, you know, the invasion — or going into the issues or the justification of that. It was more the fact that we really had to deal with al-Qaeda here; they developed a presence here and that tied in.” His aides then intervened and shooed the press corps away. (Wapo)
I think I have a pretty good sense of why Obama didn't fire him after that, if only because the secretary had only been in office for 11 days at the time, but I don't see why I should pay him any attention,

Panetta is a founding member of the Stupid Shit Caucus in the Obama administration, the cabal representing the view that it's always better to do something stupid than to do nothing at all. So are Clinton and Hill. The Foreign Policy article makes clear what they are really about in this question of the residual troop presence in Iraq was not the question of whether it would have been possible to persuade Maliki to sign an adequate Status of Forces Agreement (and it wasn't, whatever they tell you now), but good old-fashioned bureaucratic turf:
Hill writes that he bid farewell to Clinton after [her 2009 visit to Baghdad] "with the expectation she would be back soon." Except that she never returned, Hill writes. That's because Vice President Joe Biden took over the Iraq portfolio, he writes, and the focus drifted....
"it was increasingly clear that Iraq remained the military's problem, not the State Department's," Hill writes. Allowing the Pentagon to take the upper hand meant Iraq became a "matter of keeping faith with our troops rather than seeing Iraq as a strategic issue," Hill writes.
As Panetta makes clear, the military didn't get its way on Iraq either. That, in part, reflects the power of the president's inner circle, who appeared capable of effectively overruling top cabinet members. Panetta, like Gates, aims his ire at former White House National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, then-counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, and then deputy national security advisor Denis McDonough. 
Biden got the Iraq portfolio for a number of reasons, not least that he knew a lot more about Iraq than either secretary, but also because neither State nor Defense could rise above their purely parochial views and Biden could. What Panetta and Clinton are really saying is that they're jealous of Biden (and Donilon and poor old Father Brennan) and his influence on the president. They're the tough-decisions crowd, the Stupid Shit Caucus.

(And laugh at me if you want, but I'm betting that history will show old Father Brennan, like Biden, to have been a critical figure in the Non-Stupid Caucus...)


I'd forgotten the reason I wanted to write about Panetta, which was that I heard him on NPR this morning hawking his book. He was insisting that although he "personally opposed" the Bush administration "enhanced interrogation techniques" he did think they probably did some good. He's a swine. (H/t commenter martinmc at Political Animal, who reminded me.)

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