Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Things that make you go, "Huh?" UPDATED

Some days the news is exceptionally weird. Today, we've got the neoconservative theologian Michael Novak saying that Joseph Ratzinger, aka, Pope Benedict XVI, is a leftwinger. Ratzinger a leftwinger. We're into Bizarro World with that one. (See Benedict vs. the War Party by Justin Raimondo, 04/11/07, and, no, I'm still not comfortable with the way Raimondo uses "War Party".)

Then we have a Page 1 story by Robert Fisk,
Divide and rule - America's plan for Baghdad Independent 04/11/07, reporting that the Pentagon has a spiffy new plan for the new strategy (The Surge, aka, the McCain escalation). They're going to wall off several section of Baghdad and not let anyone in without proper ID. Hey, building that wall in the West Bank has brought permanent peace between Israel and the Palestinians, hasn't it? It's bound to work in Baghdad. And, as a special bonus benefit of this grand idea, that will free up 40,000 troops to be stationed near the Iranian border to be positioned "in the event of a US or Israeli military strike against its nuclear facilities later this year". Well, all rightie, then! Victory is just around the corner, no doubt.

Wierdest of all, Peter Baker and Tom Ricks report that three four-star generals have turned down a position that apparently still exists only somewhere in a dark recess of Dick Cheney's brain, "a high-powered czar to oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with authority to issue directions to the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies" (
3 Generals Spurn the Position of War 'Czar' Washington Post 04/11/07)). Presumably this new General Czar of War would only be directing the State Department on matters related to those two wars. But who knows? There are several possible ways to understand this story. If I were to use a political-science version of Occam's Razor - the least malign explaination that accounts for the known facts is probably the best - I would guess that this would be a position formally reporting to the President but really to Dick Cheney, and which would let Cheney basically run all of Middle East policy directly.

What in the name of Pallas Athena are these people thinking?

Not surprisingly, a number of bloggers have been commenting on this War Czar report. Josh Marshall at TPM 04/11/07 compares it to a previous Onion spoof, illustrating once again how hard it is to actually make satire about an administration as off the tracks of this one. He takes it as a sign that Bush is feeling overwhelmed, and says it shows "why the Republic is genuinely in peril as long as this pitiful goof remains in office".

Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly sees it as an attempt to fix problems by juggling boxes on an org chart, though he also says, "the fact that Bush apparently thinks that a bit of org chart shuffling will make a significant difference in Iraq is just one more sign of how deeply out of touch with reality he is." (
Out of Gas 04/11/07)

Tim Grieve at Salon's War Room focuses on the Post's quote from Gen. Jack Sheehan, one of those who turned down the job emphasizing Cheney's stranglehold over foreign policy. Grieve quips about the War Czar position, "The catch? Dick Cheney already has the job, and he's not letting go." (
Cheney in charge 04/11/07)

Steve Soto at The Left Coaster writes, "Yet as the story indicates, a czar won’t do any good if the fundamental policy is wrong and is being pushed by a delusional VP with too much power." (
Bush Has No Takers For "War Czar" 04/10/07).

Robert Farley at TAPPED thinks it's another sign of Republican incompetence at government and asks, "Right; we don't have one guy, we just have several guys, including the commander of CENTCOM and the Secretary of Defense, who should have this kind of authority" to coordinate the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.

Matt Iglesias comments on the fact that nobody will so far take the job, "The Bush family's one-way understanding of loyalty also has to make this a relatively unappealing post."

The Armchair Generalist says (
Failure of Leadership 04/11/07):

What the hell is wrong with these people? Maybe I'm naive, but I thought there was a guy in charge of coordinating the execution of national strategy in the region. He's called a National Security Advisor, but then again, if Condi set the bar, maybe that's not working. And of course, there's always the SecDef, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the CENTCOM combatant commander who have responsibilities there. I think all those retired generals understand that implicitly and really don't want the headache of playing butt-boy between the White House, State, DOD, and CENTCOM. As the article suggests, the obstacle here is more that there is already a civilian micromanaging the details of the wars - that would be Vice President Dick Cheney.
The most substantial blog comment on this I've seen is from Marcy (emptywheel) at The Next Hurrah (A Failure of Management 04/11/07):

We taxpayers pay a National Security Advisor to make sure that someone mediates the opinions and agendas of the many strong-willed people running our foreign policy. We pay that person to make sure that our foreign policy is managed well. But once again, the person in the position is not up to the task.

At some point, we need to face the overriding management issue. Is the problem that Condi and Hadley are incompetent (yes, partly)? But this constant shuffling, this search to find someone who can put unity to our foreign policy approach, suggests another problem. It's not just that Condi and Hadley are incompetent. It's that Bush himself can't see the issue with the requisite clarity to empower his National Security Advisor to do the job well.
Marcy is right in seeing this, as she explains in her post, as a continuation of management flubs on both wars.

But management flubs are a given in this administration, especially on the most critical foreign policy issues. I'm concerned that there's more to this, and that it's disturbing beyond the desperation and confusion it seems to show.

Marcy and the Armchair Generalist both remind us that the National Security Adviser, currently Stephen Hadley, is supposed to provide management and information coordination for overall foreign policy. But the NSA is a statutory position, and it was set up for good reasons as a formal position.

This War Czar as described in the Post article sounds like an Executive Branch creation that could be given the authority, or in practice exercise the authority, to overrule both the Secretaries of Defense and State on matters relating to the two wars.

But I'm wondering what the statutory position of a position like that would be. And since Dick Cheney apparently never does anything without thinking how it might provide an excuse to keep even more of the public's business secret from the public, Congress should start asking questions sooner rather than later. Is this a way to make an end-run around legal restraints of some kind?

One possibility relates to the covert operations that Rummy had started running out of the Pentagon. That gave him and Cheney the ability to do secret operations not subject to the requirements for authorization and reporting that are mandated for the CIA. Rummy's replacement Robert Gates has been reported to want to give the black-ops portfolio completely back to the CIA. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that the War Czar idea is a play to keep a secret-war capability in Dick Cheney's hands, one not subject to the CIA's reporting requirements.

At a minimum, I hope that Congress will look more into this. The press, too, if our "press corps" can tear themselves away from montoring the fashion statements they think the Democratic candidates are making with their attire and from defending their good buddy Don Imus.

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