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The "Structure Dodge": Incompetence Dodge, Version 2.0?

| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 11:40 AM EST

Consider these comments from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on yesterday's Fox News morning show:

QUESTION: Do you — and this will be a tough one to get into a quick answer. Did Donald Rumsfeld mismanage the Iraq war in the beginning?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, I think the Iraq war, in the beginning, we did very well. I don't—
QUESTION: I'm talking about the occupation.
SECRETARY RICE: Look, I don't think we had the right structure. I'll be very, very blunt. We tried in Afghanistan to use a kind of UN structure with countries adopting ministries. We tried in Iraq to give it to a single department, the Department of Defense. That's why the President has now said that we need a Civilian Response Corps that can do those activities. But clearly, we didn't have the right structure.
QUESTION: And is that Donald Rumsfeld's responsibility?
SECRETARY RICE: No, I — look, I take responsibility for that, too. We just didn't have the right structure.

This is a new version of the "incompetence dodge". For years, when those on the right (and some on the left) wanted to defend preemptive war and aggressive uses of military force while simultaneously acknowledging that those things had turned out disastrously in Iraq, they would say that the idea behind the Iraq War wasn't a bad one, but the execution had been terrible. If the folks running the war at DOD or State had simply been more competent, Iraq would be a flowering garden today.

Rice's argument here is similar. She isn't saying that if the people in charge (that would be her) had been more competent, things would be better. But she is saying that if the execution of and preparation for the occupation had been handled differently, Iraq would be better off today.

Of course, I'm not going to deny that execution, preparation, personnel, and competence were all problems. But suggesting that these were the only factors that contributed to the quagmire in Iraq refuses to acknowledge that occupations in the modern world are not sustainable, even for the largest and best-equipped military in the world. Nor does it acknowledge that wars that are not launched because of truly exigent circumstances are fundamentally imperialist and, as the history of imperialism illustrates, fated to fail. The failure in Iraq was not created by incompetence or a faulty "structure." The failure in Iraq was the inevitable outcome of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

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Gates on Defense

| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 1:48 AM EST

GATES ON DEFENSE....In Foreign Affairs, once and future Defense Secretary Robert Gates writes about the need for a greater focus within the Pentagon on counterinsurgency and prosecution of small wars:

One of the enduring issues the military struggles with is whether personnel and promotions systems designed to reward the command of American troops will be able to reflect the importance of advising, training, and equipping foreign troops — something still not considered a career-enhancing path for the best and brightest officers.

....As secretary of defense, I have repeatedly made the argument in favor of institutionalizing counterinsurgency skills and the ability to conduct stability and support operations. I have done so not because I fail to appreciate the importance of maintaining the United States' current advantage in conventional war fighting but rather because conventional and strategic force modernization programs are already strongly supported in the services, in Congress, and by the defense industry. The base budget for fiscal year 2009, for example, contains more than $180 billion for procurement, research, and development, the overwhelming preponderance of which is for conventional systems.

....There is no doubt in my mind that conventional modernization programs will continue to have, and deserve, strong institutional and congressional support. I just want to make sure that the capabilities needed for the complex conflicts the United States is actually in and most likely to face in the foreseeable future also have strong and sustained institutional support over the long term. And I want to see a defense establishment that can make and implement decisions quickly in support of those on the battlefield.

In the end, the military capabilities needed cannot be separated from the cultural traits and the reward structure of the institutions the United States has: the signals sent by what gets funded, who gets promoted, what is taught in the academies and staff colleges, and how personnel are trained.

Gates' full piece doesn't contain any startling insights or bold new directions, but it certainly suggests that his basic sensibilities are fairly sound. The big question is whether he can do anything about it. He understands the obvious, namely that big weapons systems are so entrenched in the Iron Triangle of Pentagon procurement that they aren't going away no matter what he does, so he's set his sights fairly modestly. He just wants to redirect funding a bit and change the military personnel structure to reward counterinsurgency and nation building. It's a limited vision, but as he says, funding and promotions are where the rubber meets the road. It's the right place to start.

Fred Kaplan has more here, including a few specific suggestions for how Gates might turn his concept into reality. Also this: "My guess is that Obama said that he'll back him up on this — not because I have inside information (I don't), but because I doubt that Gates, who has been desperate to leave Washington and retire to his lakeside home in the Pacific Northwest practically since he arrived at the Pentagon, would have agreed to stay without Obama's backing."

From the Annals of Cluelessness

| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 12:50 AM EST

FROM THE ANNALS OF CLUELESSNESS....A reader recommends watching this interview on Friday between Greta Van Susteren and Troy Clarke, president of GM North America. It's worth a listen just to hear his answer to this one question: "What possessed the three automakers to come to town without a plan asking for money [two weeks] ago?...Didn't you know that people would want a plan?"

The exchange starts at about 10:45, and Clarke's answer, basically, is that they figured, hey, the banks got bailed out without a plan, so why shouldn't they? After all, when it's raining money, you don't ask questions, you just get out your bucket.

Points for honesty, I guess, but not much else.

Leverage

| Sun Dec. 7, 2008 8:42 PM EST

LEVERAGE....Hey, you remember John Rogers, the inventor of the Theory of Crazification, don't you? Well, his new TV show, Leverage, debuts tonight at 10 pm on TNT. You should watch, even if you don't think you'll like it. It's the least we in the blogosphere can do to recognize his achievements.

The Auto Industry's 15 Billion Point Turn

| Sun Dec. 7, 2008 6:56 PM EST

Below is a guest blog entry by Nomi Prins:

Perhaps jarred by the November unemployment report, Congress offered a $15 billion olive branch to the Detroit Three Friday night. (Note: You can keep calling them the Big Three if you want, but it's a bit of a misnomer these days, isn't it?)

The loan, stressed House Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), will provide "short-term and limited assistance" to the D-3, though there is some ambiguity about what she meant. She also promised the money would be repaid "within a matter of weeks." But given the absence of inventory movement, and lack of cash flowing through the D-3's books, it's not clear exactly how that's going to happen.

Nonetheless, this loan will allegedly keep the auto industry on a ventilator until March, when the Obama administration and new Congress can take another pass at determining what to do. Until that point, the auto-execs will supposedly go about executing their multi-hundred page restructuring plans. Will they address the core problems that plague the auto industry? Let's hope.

—Nomi Prins

Nomi Prins is a former Wall Streeter and frequent contributor to Mother Jones.

Nisoor Square Update

| Sun Dec. 7, 2008 4:37 PM EST

NISOOR SQUARE UPDATE....The Blackwater guards who were charged on Thursday for their role in the 2007 Nisoor Square shootings plan to give themselves up tomorrow:

Five indicted Blackwater Worldwide security guards plan to surrender to the FBI Monday in Salt Lake City, about 2,000 miles from the Washington courthouse where they were charged, a person close to the case said.

Such a move would be the opening salvo in what is shaping up to be a contentious legal fight before the guards can even get to trial. By surrendering in Utah, the home state of one of the guards, the men can argue for a trial there — a far more conservative, pro-gun venue than Washington.

Via Blue Girl. More here. Iraqi reaction here.

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Afghanistan Update

| Sun Dec. 7, 2008 4:18 PM EST

AFGHANISTAN UPDATE....This is really bad news:

Most of the additional American troops arriving in Afghanistan early next year will be deployed near the capital, Kabul, American military commanders here say, in a measure of how precarious the war effort has become.

....The plan for the incoming brigade [] means that for the time being fewer reinforcements — or none at all — will be immediately available for the parts of Afghanistan where the insurgency is most intense.

It also means that most of the newly arriving troops will not be deployed with the main goal of curbing the cross-border flow of insurgents from their rear bases in Pakistan, something American commanders would like and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has recommended.

This isn't a huge surprise at this point, but it's the most concrete evidence yet of how badly the fight in Afghanistan is going. Two years ago, the main complaint was that, sure, Kabul was safe, but it was just a small island of security in a vast sea of lawlessness. Today, we're apparently close to losing even that small island.

So does that mean that we need a surge in Afghanistan? Well, the theory behind the surge in Iraq was that a relatively small number of additional troops could make a big difference if they were concentrated primarily in Baghdad, where three or four brigades would represent a near doubling of forces. Baghdad was considered so central to Iraqi security that if it could be pacified, it would make an enormous difference in the rest of the country too.

That's not true of Afghanistan. Obviously Kabul has to be safe, but it doesn't play the same outsize role that Baghdad does in Iraq. Nor are any of the other factors that helped the surge succeed present in Afghanistan. It's just a mess. Denying al-Qaeda a safe sanctuary is an important goal, but if even Kabul isn't safe anymore, it means we've got a very, very long road ahead of us before we can make that happen. I don't envy Barack Obama the choices he has ahead of him.

Conservative Hysteria Watch

| Sun Dec. 7, 2008 3:59 PM EST

CONSERVATIVE HYSTERIA WATCH....Shorter George Will: If liberals were trying to do a bunch of things they aren't trying to do, they'd really suck. Next week: If Canadians launch an attack on North Dakota, they'd be real warmongers, wouldn't they?

Late Boomers

| Sun Dec. 7, 2008 3:46 PM EST

LATE BOOMERS....In the Washington Post today, Neil Howe takes on one of my favorite hobbyhorses: The Kids These Days™. Are they really the dumbest generation ever? Howe says no: that honor belongs to my generation, those born between the late 50s and mid 60s:

On both the reading and the math tests, and at all three tested ages (9, 13 and 17), the lowest-ever scores in the history of the NAEP were recorded by children born between 1961 and 1965.

The same pattern shows up in SAT scores....It fell steeply for 17 straight years, hitting its all-time low in 1980, when it tested the 1963 cohort

....According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans born from 1958 to 1962 have the highest share that has never completed high school among all age brackets between 25 and 60. They also have the lowest share with a four-year college degree among all age brackets between 30 and 60.

....Once early Xers entered the labor force in the 1980s, the Bureau of Labor Statistics noticed something else: For the first time in decades, the share of young adults entering professions such as law, medicine and accounting began to drop.

This isn't exactly conclusive evidence, mind you, but I don't think Howe is far off the truth. If I were giving out awards for the least educated, least motivated, and least engaged recent generation, mine would certainly be a top contender.

Battleground "Ad" Nauseum

| Sun Dec. 7, 2008 12:34 PM EST

Despite the fact that as a presidential candidate Barack Obama ran several national ad buys that brought campaign advertising to California, Utah, and a number of other states that hadn't experienced the excitement/overkill of campaign season in quite a while, battleground states still dominated ad purchases. According to Fair Vote:

Percent of all presidential campaign related television ads that took place in [Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvani and Vriginia] from September 24 to November 4 – 54.5%

The campaign was consolidated in other ways as well:

Percent of all 300 campaign events by major party presidential candidates between September 5 and November 4, 2008 that took place in the states of Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia – 57%
Number of states where 99% of all campaign visits and 99% of all campaign spending took place: 16

And the effect of this? Just over 10 percent in voter turnout.

Voter turnout in the 15 states with the most campaign activity: 69%. Voter turnout in the remaining states: 56%