Random thoughts on almost anything and everything, with an emphasis on defense, intelligence, politics and national security matters..providing insight for the non-cleared world since 2005.
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
The Shape of Things to Come (Military Education Edition)
Senior naval officials have revealed more changes in the service's voluntary education program--changes which will make it more difficult for some sailors to go to school in their spare time, or study with the institution of their choice.
The revisions were revealed yesterday during the annual meeting of the Navy Career Counselor Association, a group of more than 800 sailors (mostly Petty Officers and Chief Petty Officers) who advise sailors on career, education and training benefits.
In a speech to the group, the chief of the Navy's voluntary education program, Ann Hunter, revealed that the service's budget for tuition assistance will be cut by 20%in Fiscal Year 2011, which begins in October. That follows a 15% cut in this year's budget, which was pegged at $83 million. Tuition assistance (TA) is the primary benefit that military members use to pay for off-duty education classes. Under the current program, all active duty, guard and reserve personnel receive up to $4,500 a year in tuition assistance, paid at a maximum rate of $675 for a three semester hour undergraduate class.
Ms. Hunter and other officials say the cuts are necessary to help the Navy trim expenses and ensure that TA benefits deliver maximum value for both the service and its sailors.
Reductions in the TA budget mean the service could run out of money for off-duty education. Earlier this month, the Navy added another $5 million to the tuition assistance fund for FY2010, allowing sailors to continue their studies through the end of September. According to Navy Times, the service had spent $70 million on TA through early June, and was prepared to add another $5 million to the account, if required.
But shrinking TA expenditures aren't the only changes in store. In her presentation to the counselor's association (being held in Norfolk), Ms. Hunter also announced that sailors will no longer be allowed to take off-duty college courses until they've served one year at their first permanent duty station.
Additionally, the Navy will end the practice of allowing its personnel to take five courses without a degree plan. Beginning this fall, all participants in the voluntary education must include credits for training; transferred credits, academic hours earned through DANTES or CLEP testing and courses remaining for degree completion. Navy officials also say that sailors with little or no college credit on their transcripts will be encouraged to enroll in a community college, and all personnel will be encouraged to consider institutions that provide "maximum bang for the buck."
Because of these changes, the Navy will only fund courses listed on a sailor's education plan. The service is also ending the practice of funding college certificates (unless they support degree completion) and co current funding for individuals pursuing a bachelor's and master's degree at the same time. Students currently enrolled in such programs will be "grandfathered" into the system.
The service is also trimming expenses by closing many of the Navy College Offices located on bases around the world. So far, there no word on how many of the education centers will be axed, but draft rules for the program suggest that only one office will remain open within a 50-mile radius. That would likely mean the shutdown of multiple centers in such areas as Norfolk, VA, which currently has five Navy College Offices, serving NAS Oceana; the Dam Neck Naval Annex, Little Creek Amphibious Base, the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center and Naval Station Norfolk.
One Navy education source indicates that only two of those facilities--the college offices at Dam Neck and Naval Station Norfolk--will survive the cutbacks. The rest will likely close over the next year, following the example of college offices at NAS Meridian in Mississippi and the Kings Bay sub base in Georgia which have already closed, or will shutter their doors in the coming months.
As a partial replacement for base-level education centers, the Navy is building a multi-million dollar education call center at Dam Neck. When it becomes operational later this year, the new facility will process all tuition assistance requests, validate college transcripts and field calls from sailors in the field. If the Dam Neck operation proves successful, the service may open a second call center in the San Diego area in the future.
While acknowledging the Navy's need to save money, critics find major faults in the new education plan. With a 25% decrease in tuition assistance since 2009, the program will likely run out of money in the coming, unless the service provides emergency cash injections towards the end of the fiscal year. The military had a similar experience this year with a new program called My Career Advancement Account for military spouses. MyCAA, which provided up to $6000 in educational assistance for the husbands and wives of armed forces personnel, quickly ran out of money after thousands of spouses joined the program.
There is also the matter of trying to squeeze more sailors into a community college system that is bursting at the seams in some locations. Junior colleges in the San Diego area have waiting lists for military students, and those lists will grow longer as counselors steer sailors towards two-year institutions. At least one community college in San Diego is working with four-year schools to handle the overflow in the local market. So, it may be impossible for some sailors to enroll in the schools recommended by career advisers and academic counselors.
Others contend that the new plan favors particular institutions over others. Currently, a single institution (California's Coastline Community College) awards almost 50% of all associate's degrees earned by U.S. Navy personnel each year. With increased emphasis on two-year schools, Coastline certainly stands to benefit, at the expense of other institutions.
While some will describe the Navy's education changes as draconian, they were certainly necessary. Like the rest of the DoD, the Navy has seen rapid growth in its tuition assistance program, increased that cannot be sustained during lean budgetary times. The service is also looking for ways to avoid losing millions of TA dollars on courses that were taken outside structured degree plans.
Put another way, we're guessing the brass got tired of paying for instruction in basic photography or rock-climbing, classes that helped sailors develop their hobbies, but--in most cases--did nothing to enhance their professional skills. With the new focus on relevance and degree attainment, the Navy is clearly trying to weed out students who are unwilling to make a serious commitment to their studies.
Still, some elements of the Navy plan are controversial and their prospects for success are iffy, at best. The call center at Dam Neck, for example, is supposed to replace many of the functions now handled by college offices at various naval installations. But call centers are often a mixed bag (in terms of customer service) and constitute one of the biggest complaints about the on-line mega schools.
Will the Dam Neck operation be any more successful, providing the right degree of personal service to sailors trying to navigate their way through the higher education maze. As one education officer had her doubts, observing that "some students still need personal attention, and I'm not sure the call center will meet that requirement." Others worry that the increase in automation (and decrease in local counselors) will steer more students to the big on-line schools that recruit aggressively in the military community. However, those same schools have a high turnover rate among students who grow frustrated over the quality of their academic programs and ineffective support efforts.
However, two things are certain: while education benefits remain an important recruiting and retention tool, they are not military entitlements. As DoD searches for ways to save billions of dollars, there will be more decreases in programs like tuition assistance. Sailors wishing to earn their college degree may find it more difficult in the future, as they compete for a shrinking pile of TA dollars.
And, there is no guarantee that the current payment rate (100%) will remain the same. One of the surest ways to stretch the TA budget is to reduce payment to the previous rate (75%). Likewise, education expenses could also be reduced by scaling back the Post 9-11 GI Bill. Before you dismiss that possibility as ridiculous, consider this: six years after the end of the Vietnam War, existing versions of the GI Bill had been replaced by something called the Veteran's Education Assistance Program, or VEAP. The latter program provided only a fraction of the GI Bill's benefits, but it saved a lot of money. If the Pentagon bean counters see a chance to reduce education benefits--without impacting recruiting and retention--they won't hesitate.
Finally, the other services will be anxiously watching the Navy experiment. Each branch of DoD has its own education budget problem, with costs growing almost exponentially over the past decade. After the payment was raised to 100%, the Air Force TA budget doubled in less than two years. Officials were stunned, with the exception of a single Chief Master Sergeant, they had forecast an increase of just 25%. If the Navy's initiatives deliver cost savings (with minimal impact on education programs), the other services will follow suit.
This much we know: lean times are ahead for the military's voluntary education programs and the impact will eventually be felt by their primary constituency--junior and mid-grade enlisted personnel who are trying to complete their college degrees. That, of course, raises another question: how much could be saved by eliminating one (or more) of the Pentagon's graduate education centers, like the Air Force Institute of Technology, or the Naval Post-Graduate School? Or paring back lengthy programs devoted the professional education of military officers and putting that money in the TA account?
In the era of the "strategic corporal," it's clear that our lower ranks need continued, unfettered access to voluntary education, with a renewed emphasis on relevance to military skills and degree completion.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Business as Usual
For their troubles, Mr. Obama hasn't received much in return. True, the two countries have concluded a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, but the U.S. will make most of the cuts, while Moscow gets to lock-in recent upgrades in its strategic forces. And, on issues ranging from Iran to North Korea, Russian leaders have been less-than-helpful, toning down language and softening sanctions that might embarrass or squeeze rogue regimes.
Indeed, one could argue that the "re-set" relationship actually favors Moscow. Maybe that's why Russian sock puppet (read: President) Dmitry Medvedev was quite happy to join President Obama in last Friday's highly-publicized "burger run" to a D.C. fast food joint. The Russians are more than happy to pal around--and take advantage--of "friends" like Mr. Obama.
Meanwhile, there have been two recent events which remind us that ties between the United States and Russia have never changed (at least, in some respects). Beyond the reset rhetoric, relations continue much as they always have, with the two nations jockeying for position on the world stage, and eyeing each other suspiciously, as you might expect from two nuclear-armed rivals from the Cold War.
Case in point: recent reports that Moscow will move ahead with plans to sell S-300 air defense hardware to Iran. As we recently noted, the advanced anti-air and anti-missile system represents a game-changer in the Persian Gulf region, potentially deterring Israeli attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities. If the Israelis don't mount a preemptive raid on Tehran's nuclear program, the Iranians are essentially home free, and it's just a matter of time before Iran joins the club, and begins sharing weapons technology with terrorist groups and other outlaw states.
But those geopolitical realities don't bother Mr. Medvedev and his political master, Vladimir Putin. On Monday, President Medvedev confirmed Russian plans to continue the development and export of advanced weapons, noting their benefit for his nation's economy. While Russian officials have never confirmed plans to conclude the S-300 deal, Medvedev's comments make it clear that Moscow is looking for customers who can afford state-of-the-art military weaponry, a clientele that clearly includes Iran.
If Russia was truly concerned about Tehran's intentions and the wider issue of nuclear proliferation, they would cancel the S-300 sale, pure and simple. Instead, the deal remains in limbo, as Moscow searches for the right time to deliver the missile batteries. Russia's refusal to do that illustrates the deep gulf that still exists--and likely, will always exist--in its bi-lateral ties with the United States. No wonder the subject never came up during last Friday's confab between Mr. Medvedev and President Obama.
And, not long after the two leader said their good-byes at the G-20 Summit , there was another reminder of our actual relationship with Moscow. Capping years of painstaking surveillance, the FBI rolled up a Russian spy ring on American soil, arresting 11 accused agents in locations that included northern Virginia, suburban New Jersey and the Boston area. The operatives were described as "deep cover" agents, living as American couples under carefully constructed identities, and assigned to gather information from members of the U.S. "policy elite."
The spy ring's "success" is subject to debate. As The New York Times reports, the Russian agents were never caught passing classified information, and much of the material they actually gathered could be described as political gossip and economic information readily accessible over the internet. In that regard, the decade-long espionage program might be described as something of a bust.
Or was it? By definition, deep cover agents remain in place for years, often receiving no assignment (or only menial tasks) until their services are needed. The Russians obviously believed the spies had long-term potential, given the time and money invested in establishing them as "ordinary" Americans. And, we still don't know the full extent of what the spy ring collected. Suffice it to say, the "gossip" was sensitive enough to prompt a long-term FBI investigation and a subsequent indictment from the Justice Department. It's also worth noting that, according to federal affidavits, the Russian operatives went to extraordinary lengths to pass their "routine" information.
Additionally, the spies apprehended over the weekend may represent just the tip of iceberg. A former high-ranking KGB officer (who defected to the west in the mid-80s) says it is common practice for Russia to assign as many as 60 deep cover agents to an important target like the U.S. We can only speculate about the other operatives who are living quietly in our country, awaiting orders from Moscow.
The espionage case illustrates that some things will never change in U.S.-Russian relations. While the Cold War ended more than 20 years ago, America remains a key target for Moscow's intelligence agencies, and we still devote billions of dollars to collect data on Russia. Likewise, the U.S. is also active on the global arms markets, making deals that sometimes infuriate the Russians. For example, Moscow isn't very happy about U.S. plans to help Poland modernize its military. But there is a difference in these transactions, as we've noted in the past. Unlike Iran, the Poles won't use Patriot missiles to protect a nuclear weapons program, or share that technology with terrorist groups or rogue states.
Given these realities, one is tempted to say that key aspects of the Russian relationship can never be reset. And there's nothing wrong with that; as long as both nations have differing agendas (and nuclear weapons that can be targeted against the other), our ties will always be strained, to some degree. So maybe what's needed is a simple acknowledgment; that Moscow will never be our best friend on the world stage, and Russian will always view us with suspicion and distrust. If nothing else, it will make it easier to explain periodic revelations that one side has been caught spying on the other.
Sunday, June 27, 2010
Today's Reading Assignment
This week's confrontation between a senior Army general and the president of the United States may have signaled the beginning of the end of the war in Afghanistan. In a year or two, President Obama will be able to say that he gave the conflict his best shot, reshaping the strategy and even putting his top guy in charge, the general who led the surge in Iraq -- but that things still didn't work out.
Of course, establishing cohesion in the U.S. effort in Iraq took a lot more than issuing statements. In spring 2007, I watched Petraeus work hard to establish a consensus about what the goals should be and how to achieve them. "There are three enormous tasks that strategic leaders have to get right," he told me one day in Baghdad. "The first is to get the big ideas right. The second is to communicate the big ideas throughout the organization. The third is proper execution of the big ideas." An astute bureaucratic operator, he used a variety of studies and panels convened in his Baghdad headquarters to pull together the big ideas of how to deal with the insurgency and how to better protect the Iraqi people. These had the useful side effect of getting buy-in from civilian American officials in Iraq.
Petraeus was aided enormously by Ryan C. Crocker, one of the savviest American diplomats and one of the most experienced in the region, having served in Pakistan, Lebanon and in Iraq decades prior. Early in the war, friction between Ambassador L. Paul Bremer and Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez had crippled the U.S. effort and confused Iraqis. Bremer was all about transforming Iraq politically, an inherently turbulent mission, while the U.S. Army decided on its own that its job was to produce stability.
Repelled by such persistent friction, Petraeus and Crocker were determined to coordinate their actions. Word went out to subordinates that neither of them would tolerate infighting between civilian and military officials. When the two returned to the United States to testify before Congress in September 2007, they showed a united front, key in winning them more time for the war at a moment when congressional leaders such as Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. were saying it was time to "stop the surge and start bringing our troops home."
In Kabul, alas, Petraeus will find no such useful ally in the American ambassador. Instead, the top U.S. diplomat there is Karl W. Eikenberry, who relentlessly opposed McChrystal's initiatives. Unlike Crocker, Eikenberry has no strong base in the State Department and is not steeped in the history and culture of the region. Rather, he is a retired general who in fighting with McChrystal over the past year used many of the same arguments that another American commander, John Abizaid, had used in opposing Petraeus's approach to Iraq. That is no coincidence -- Abizaid and Eikenberry have been close friends since they were West Point roommates in the class of 1973.
On top of that, Petraeus will have to deal with Richard C. Holbrooke, who seems to have achieved little as a special presidential envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. And the general will face a host government even more troublesome than what he dealt with in Baghdad. Indeed, the two biggest problems the United States faces in Afghanistan are the Karzai government and the Pakistani government -- and neither of those really can be addressed by military operations.
So in other words, if Petraeus fails, it will be the result of consequences beyond his control--but not beyond the control of the commander-in-chief. As various analysts have suggested, it's time for Eikenberry and Holbrooke to go; both have contributed little to the war effort, and Eikenberry (in particular) has been a divisive figure. There was no shortage of irony when Mr. Obama said he wouldn't tolerate division among his military and diplomatic team in Afghanistan--that's why General McChrystal had to go. By that standard, Ambassador Eikenberry should have been fired a long time ago and replaced by an experienced hand like Ryan Crocker.
But the final paragraph of Ricks' op-ed is the most fascinating. One of the biggest obstacles facing Petraeus, he writes, is the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a president who is simply unwilling to take risks:
in Bush, Petraeus had a president willing to take huge risks, such as putting Iraq's Sunni insurgency on the American payroll and taking far heavier casualties as U.S. troops moved off big bases. Obama has not shown a willingness to gamble that much in Afghanistan. Perhaps not even Petraeus could talk this president into rolling the dice.
Still, it would be a serious mistake to count out Dave Petraeus. He is a strategic thinker of the first order, a general who understands the constraints now hindering the war effort in Afghanistan. Various reports suggest that Petraeus is already working to loosen the restrictive rules of engagement that hamper U.S. troops, and attempting to walk Mr. Obama away from next July's scheduled draw down.
That suggests that General Petraeus is already looking to 2012--and beyond. Clearly, he wants to keep enough troops in Afghanistan to continue the fight and demonstrate measurable progress towards winning the war. Then, after the 2012 elections, Petraeus may have a commander-in-chief who is less risk averse, and willing to stay the course--with less regard for his political base and short-term electoral consequences.
Thursday, June 24, 2010
Of course, these are the same people who suggested that General Petraeus was "betraying" Congress (and the American people) when he was architect of the U.S.-led surge in Iraq. Indeed, there was no shortage of irony at the White House ceremony where Petraeus was introduced as the next military leader in Afghanistan. There he stood, shoulder-to-shoulder with two of his fiercest Senate critics from 2007, Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Three years later, the general who was once pilloried by Senate Democrats was being summoned to save the Afghan war effort.
To be fair, General Petraeus is already invested in that strategy. As the head of U.S. Central Command for the past year, Petraeus was McChrystal's nominal boss, and approved the counter-insurgency strategy put in place by our former commander in Afghanistan. So, General Petraeus will another chance to put his plans, tactics and ideas to the test.
But that's not why Dave Petraeus agreed to leave CENTCOM and run the show in Kabul. His loyalty lies with the troops charged to execute U.S. strategy. As our campaign enters a decisive phase, they deserve the best possible leadership from someone who won't need two or three months to get up to speed. That's why General Petraeus is moving from Tampa to Afghanistan.
As for President Obama, he clearly made the right call, but some would say it was the only realistic choice he had. Despite the wealth of talent among our senior military officers, there are only a handful of generals capable of taking on a make-or-break campaign in mid-stride, and seeing it through to completion.
The names on that rather short list include General Ray Odierno, current commander of U.S. forces in Iraq; General Martin Dempsey, head of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Monroe, Virginia; Lieutenant General Rick Lynch, former commander of the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq and current commander of the Army's Installation Management Command; Lieutenant General William Caldwell, McChrystal's deputy in Afghanistan, and General James Mattis, the Marine who directed the Fallujah campaign in 2004.
All are exceptionally capable officers, and all (with the exception of General Caldwell) would need time to adjust to their new mission--a luxury we currently don't have in Afghanistan. General Caldwell also has the disadvantage of being "just" a three-star; the commander's job in Afghanistan was elevated to a four-star post because the last Lieutenant General to hold to billet (David McKiernan) was viewed as "not having enough horsepower" to hold his own against diplomatic, political and military heavy-weights in the chain of command.
Needless to say, General Petraeus meets all the requirements for leading the war in Afghanistan. His credentials as a military leader and strategist are impeccable; he knows the region and he knows the various political and diplomatic personalities that come with the assignment. And, he's proven adept at handling the press, granting access (when required), while keeping the media hordes away from his inner sanctum. It's safe to say that no reporter from Rolling Stone--or any other publication--will get to "hang out" with Petraeus and his staff, a decision that cost McChrystal his career.
Mr. Obama should be thankful that David Petraeus agreed to take on the challenges in Kabul. Having served his country faithfully for almost 40 years, Petraeus had every right to say no. Instead, he assumed the greatest challenge of his military career, trying to win a war that some say is already lost. General Petraeus has heard those cries before--and proven his critics wrong. Now, he has an opportunity to do it again, in the employ of "leaders" who once ridiculed him because of political expedience.
And yet, he willingly accepted the challenge. But not for the White House, and not for his own reputation, which was secure long before he moved to CENTCOM. General Petraeus's loyalty lies with the country he serves and the soldiers he leads. Nothing more and nothing less.
In James Michner's The Bridges at Toko-ri, a worn-out Navy admiral, leading a carrier task force during the Korean War, marvels at the willingness of ordinary Americans to tackle nearly-impossible jobs, giving their lives, if necessary.
"Where do we find such men?" he wonders. Where indeed.
And quite predictably, the mainstream media was quick to assert that Mr. Obama is back on his game. This account from the AP's Ben Feller notes how much relations between the U.S. and Russia have improved, emphasizing the chummy relationship between the two leaders:
The president of the United States and the president of Russia enjoyed quite a summer's day on Thursday: Grab some burgers, joke about Twitter, take a walk in the park.
No summit, no sanctions, no weapons treaty. Yet they did strike a deal on chicken exports.
This is the new day, on intentional display, between President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. It's not all about nukes. Obama's first time hosting Medvedev at the White House will probably be remembered most for the extent to which they got along like a couple of buddies.
You want fries with that? Yes, they did. In fact, they shared some.
It was all a metaphor for two countries that were once at risk of Cold War annihilation, and just two years ago were back to cold shoulder animosity.
And for Obama, on an oppressively hot day, in the midst of a most difficult week, it amounted to a surprising chance to relax.
The buzz around the White House centered much more on the presidents' unexpected jaunt for cheeseburgers to Ray's Hell Burger in Virginia — Medvedev took jalapenos_ and less about the many substantive matters they discussed.
Given a seat in the White House briefing room, we'd be tempted to ask an elementary question: why was it necessary to bring Vladimir Putin's sock puppet to the White House to talk about chicken? The Perdue family must be thrilled, but somehow, a chicken export deal doesn't seem worthy of an Oval Office meeting, let alone a head-of-state jaunt to Ray's Hell Burger.
But then again, we're not members of the White House steno pool...err, press corps. And to be fair, we should note their were other topics on the agenda, including recent violence in Kyrgyzstan, and Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization, which Mr. Obama supports.
Still, the matter of immediate concern wasn't trade, regional unrest, or even the recently-signed nuclear arms reduction treaty. In fact, the issue of greatest, short-term importance wasn't even on the agenda, but (apparently) it's been the topic of private talks between Washington and Moscow.
We refer to Russia's long-planned sale of the S-300 air defense system to Iran. According to Geostrategy-Direct.com (subscription required), transfer of the state-of-the-art system is now projected to move ahead, with no apparent objections from the White House.
Russia, in wake of its support for United Nations sanctions, was expected to deliver long-range air defense systems to Iran. A leading Russian analyst said the Kremlin would launch efforts to supply the S-300PMU1 air defense system to Teheran. The analyst said the United States has agreed not to block the S-300 and other Russian defensive exports to Iran.
"Clearly, there is realization that this contract will take place," Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, said.
On June 10, Pukhov said Russia's defense industry has been pressing the Kremlin to implement the S-300 and other military deals with Iran. He said S-300 manufacturer Almaz-Antey wanted to avoid a huge fine for late delivery of the system, which could reach 30 percent of the $1 billion contract, or $300 million.
"All this may negatively affect the financial stability of the leader of the Russian defense industry," Pukhov said. "It is hoped that the state finds a way to compensate for Almaz-Antey losses through subsidies or other funding."
We've written at length about the S-300 deal, most recently in March of this year. One of the most advanced anti-air (and anti-missile) systems in the world, the S-300 represents a game-changer in the Persian Gulf region, with the potential to deter an Israeli air strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.
Obviously, Mr. Pukhov's comments don't represent Kremlin confirmation that S-300 deliveries are imminent. Reports of the arms deal have been circulating for years, but the missiles, radars and support equipment have never materialized in Iran. Still, Iran desperately wants to conclude the transaction, and so do the Russians. Almaz-Antey is one of Russia's most important defense contractors, producing advanced air-to-air missiles (along with air defense systems); the Iran deal would be equal to (roughly) one-quarter of the firm's revenues in 2008 and open the doors for additional sales to Iran and other customers. Additionally, Russian leaders have never backed away from long-standing plans to eventually sell the air defense system to Iran.
With the S-300 in place, Tehran's nuclear future is all-but-assured. Moscow may argue that the U.S. has sold the Patriot to several nations in the Middle East, but there is a difference. With the exception of Israel, none of our customers are using the system to protect a nuclear weapons program. And, unlike Iran, Israel is no threat to share nuclear technology--or finished weapons--with terrorist organizations.
That's why the Russian air defense deal should have been at the top of today's discussion list. But from what we can tell, it never came up, during discussions at the White House, or at Ray's Hell Burger. It's another trademark of the Obama presidency; the commander-in-chief is perfectly comfortable with taking a key U.S. ally (or a senior military officer) to task, but he's far less confrontational when dealing with a "friend" like Russia, whose interests still run counter to our own.
ADDENDUM: Here's another head-scratcher vis-a-vis Iran. The Navy's leading think-tank, the Center for Naval Analyses has concluded that Washington and Tehran will reach some sort of "reconciliation" by 2012, resulting in a decrease naval operations in that area. There are multiple scenarios that could lead to that operational shift; a coup in Iran, a military confrontation with the Islamic Republic, or some sort of "negotiated" agreement. Given the current occupant of the White House, our money is on Option #3.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Why (Presidential) Elections Matter
From the WaPo:
A federal judge in New Orleans on Tuesday blocked the six-month moratorium President Obama imposed on deep-water drilling in late May, and the White House said it would appeal the decision..
U.S. District Court Judge Martin Feldman said he issued an injunction because the Interior Department had acted capriciously and had failed to show that the oil spill triggered by the Deepwater Horizon rig blowout in April meant that there was imminent danger linked to all deep-water drilling. By contrast, he said, the harm to the industry and region was clear and concrete.
In case your wondering, Judge Feldman is a Reagan appointee, who's been on the federal bench since 1983.
The Sacking of Stan McChrystal
By this time tomorrow, General Stanley McChrystal may well be out of a job.
McChrystal, the Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has been summoned to the White House for a meeting with the President. At issue: an article in the next issue of Rolling Stone, which offers a lengthy portrait of General McChrystal and contains less-than-flattering comments about members of the Obama Administration.
The publication won't be on news stands until Friday, and (so far) the article isn't available on the magazine's website. But Rolling Stone has already released short excerpts from the article, which depict a general at odds--some might even say at war--with his superiors. Michael Hasting's piece is called "Runaway General," and based on what's been published so far, it's easy to see why. From an AP account of the article and its fallout:
In the interview, McChrystal he said he felt betrayed by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, the man the White House chose to be his diplomatic partner. If Eikenberry had the same doubts, McChrystal said he never expressed them until a leaked internal document threw a wild card into the debate over whether to add more troops last November. In the document, Eikenberry said Afghan President Hamid Karzai was not a reliable partner for the counterinsurgency strategy McChrystal was hired to execute.
McChrystal accused the ambassador of giving himself cover.
"Here's one that covers his flank for the history books," McChrystal told the magazine. "Now, if we fail, they can say 'I told you so.'"
Other critical comments came from senior McChrystal aides, most of whom are quoted anonymously. But it's clear their thinking mirrors that of General McChrystal. As the Washington Post describes some of their remarks:
Referring to Richard C. Holbrooke, Obama's senior envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, one McChrystal aide is quoted as saying: "The Boss says he's like a wounded animal. Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he's going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous."
On one occasion, McChrystal appears to react with exasperation when he receives an e-mail from Holbrooke. "Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke," McChrystal says, according to the article. "I don't even want to read it."
The story also features an exchange in which McChrystal and some of his aides appear to mock Vice President Biden, who opposed McChrystal's troop surge recommendation last year and instead urged a more focused emphasis on counterterrorism operations. Preparing for a speech he is about to give at a French military academy, McChrystal "wonders aloud" whether he will questioned about the well-publicized differences in opinion between himself and Biden.
"Are you asking me about Vice President Biden? Who's that?" McChrystal says with a laugh, trying out the line as a hypothetical response to the anticipated query.
"Biden?" chimes in an aide who is seated nearby, and who is not named in the article. "Did you say Bite me?"
The piece also depicts a strained relationship between General McChrystal and President Obama. Aides said it was clear that Mr. Obama "knew nothing" about McChrystal when they appeared at the White House event where he was named the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. A few months later, McChrystal was summoned to Air Force One for a "dressing down" after publicly criticizing officials who favored scaled-back operations in Afghanistan.
With the piece slated for publication in just three days, General McChrystal is in full apology mode. Along with a public statement, he has also placed phone calls to officials mocked in the Rolling Stone article. But it won't be enough to save his job. McChrystal has been summoned to Washington for the monthly White House meeting on Iraq and Afghanistan (he normally participates by video teleconference). The appearance will give him an opportunity to apologize once again--and receive his walking papers.
Judging from the tone of the article (or more correctly, what we've seen so far), it's clear that McChrystal has made lots of enemies in high places. People like Joe Biden and National Security Advisor Jim Jones (described as a "clown" by one McChrystal aide) won't miss an opportunity to send the general packing.
During his tenure in Kabul, McChrystal has emerged as a forceful advocate for a large-scale, long-term commitment to the Afghan conflict, a position that doesn't sit well in the White House. With McChrystal out of the picture, Mr. Obama can appoint a commander who's more malleable, and perhaps willing to go along with Biden's "surge alternative," which advocated greater use of UAVs to attack terrorist targets in Afghanistan, while reducing ground operations. That could allow the administration to accelerate its planned drawndown in Afghanistan, beginning next year.
To be fair, there is more than an element of truth in the comments of General McChrystal and his staff. Could someone tell us what Richard Holbrooke has contributed to the war effort in Afghanistan? And, why would anyone take Joe Biden seriously as a military strategist? Remember, he's the same guy who declared Iraq was "lost" before the surge and advocated partitioning the country. As for Mr. Jones, he has been long been regarded as an ineffectual National Security Advisor, with less influence on key policy decisions than his predecessors.
We can also imagine that President Obama knew next-to-nothing about the general he appointed to lead the war effort in Afghanistan. In today's Washington Examiner, Byron York (aptly) describes the POTUS as a "deeply flawed commander-in-chief" who doesn't want to be fighting a war on terror. But, Mr. York is also correct in observing that Mr. Obama, like all presidents, is entitled to military commanders who will carry out his policies without public complaint.
And, this is a clearly a mess of McChrystal's making. The civilian press aide who pushed for the Rolling Stone profile has resigned, but the project clearly had the general's blessing. It is simply stunning that a senior military officer--and his staff--thought it would be a great idea to have a reporter follow them around for a period of weeks and discuss sensitive relationships with senior members of the U.S. government. This was a disaster waiting to happen.
Ironically, the same term has been used to describe McChrystal and his past dealings with civilian officials. As a retired military officer--and former colleague of the general--told Byron York:
“Those of us who knew him would unanimously tell you that this was just a matter of time,” the man says. “He talks this way all the time. I’m surprised it took this long for it to rear its ugly head.”
“He had great disdain for anyone, as he said, ‘in a suit,’” the former military man continues. “I was shocked one day in a small group of people when he took [former Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld to task in front of all of us.”
“The other thing about him is that he is probably one of the more arrogant, cocksure military guys I have run across. That in itself is not necessarily a character flaw, but when you couple it with his great disdain for civilians, it’s a very volatile combination.”
The tragedy is that General McChrystal has inadvertently destroyed his career at a critical time in the Afghan conflict. Assuming that McChrystal is fired tomorrow, allied forces in Afghanistan will be without their top commander as they move into Taliban strongholds in the south. While subordinate commanders can certainly execute the offensive, the process of evaluating results and determining follow-on strategy rests with the top general, a post that will be vacant (we assume) in a matter of hours.
Yet, there may actually be a silver lining in this debacle. As a commander, McChrystal's greatest flaw has been his slavish devotion to unnecessarily restrictive rules of engagement, limiting our troops' ability to obtain needed fire support. In a recent column George Will reported on a nighttime firefight in Afghanistan; under fire, a U.S. unit requested an illumination round to light up the battlefield. Their request was denied, for fear that the flare would somehow damage Afghan huts and fields on the ground. The odds of that happening, as any NCO will tell you, are approximately zero.
We can only hope that McChrystal's replacement will press for more realistic ROE. Limiting fire support has actually resulted in greater casualties for American forces, with no appreciable increase in Afghan support for the war. But viewing McChrystal's dismissal as an opportunity is little more than a pipe dream. His replacement will be kept on a very short leash and (if anything) the rules of engagement may become more restrictive, in an effort to limit collateral damage.
One more thing: it's also a safe bet that our next commander in Afghanistan won't be sitting down with Rolling Stone anytime soon.
ADDENDUM: McChrystal's "man-caused" disaster reminds us, in some regards, of another high-profile military dismissal. In September 1990, then-Air Force Chief of Staff, General Michael Dugan was fired for "poor judgment at a sensitive time." Dugan's crime? In the early days of Operation Desert Shield, General Dugan discussed potential targeting strategy against Iraq, including efforts to kill Saddam Hussein. Dugan made the remarks to a handful of reporters who were traveling with him. After just 79 days on the job, Dugan was fired by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.
Apparently, both General Dugan and his public affairs team were stunned by the fallout. One PA officer described the press contingent as "friendlies," reporters who could be trusted to keep the information on background, or attribute it to a unnamed "senior official." Dugan and his p.r. flacks clearly misjudged their buddies in the press.
Now, twenty years later, Stan McChrystal is learning the same, hard lesson. Opening up to members of the fourth estate is never a good idea for senior military officers; the price is sometimes measured by the end of your career.
A few more thoughts: Colonel Jack Jacobs, an MSNBC military analyst (a Medal of Honor recipient in Vietnam) says McChrystal's views are widely held in the armed forces. While Jacobs believes General McChrystal will be fired (or resign) over the article, he contends that most members of the military will come down on the side of the general.
Across the pond, Telegraph Media Group foreign editor Adrian Michaels says McChrystal has nothing to apologize for.
There was a copy of the article available online until recently, which I’ve read, and some excerpts and a news report about it here and here. Basically, the general – or “THE RUNAWAY GENERAL” as he is hysterically referred to – has been the victim of journalist hype. It is the magazine’s editors that call the White House “wimps”, and it is the author that uses almost every f-word in the piece, gratuitously, gratingly, and not while quoting anyone. The only f-word used by someone else is a Brit saying how much some people love McChrystal’s habit of showing up on patrol.
At the WaPo "PostPartisan" blog, Jackson Diehl reaches the same conclusion, but for a different reason. He says the Rolling Stone article highlights deep divisions over Afghan policy within the president's national security team--divisions that Mr. Obama has allowed for much too long.
Monday, June 21, 2010
Displeasing the Dear Leader
Kim Jong-il's squad was embarrassed today on the global soccer stage, falling to Portugal 7-0. And did we mention that the match was televised live in the DPRK? So, the few North Koreans who actually have TV sets got to share in their nation's soccer humiliation.
We don't claim to be "futbol" fans, so the vagaries of the World Cup are something of a mystery to us. From our perspective, it's slightly amazing that North Korea actually qualified for the World Cup, and played well in their first match against soccer superpower Brazil, losing by only a 2-1 margin.
Still, you don't want to be an athlete, actor, soldier, movie star (or anyone else) who embarrasses the Kim Dynasty. Several DPRK defectors have suffered violent or mysterious deaths after fleeing the Worker's Paradise, a reminder that you never really "leave" North Korea.
And, consider the case of those DPRK "volunteer" pilots who served in the Vietnam War. For decades, there were rumors that some of North Vietnam's MiGs were actually flown by North Koreans. But details of their participation didn't emerge until almost 30 years later. In March 2001, a Vietnamese government official told South Korea's Yonhap news agency that at least 11 DPRK fighter pilots are buried in his country. All died while fighting the U.S. in the skies over North Vietnam.
While the Vietnamese have praised the North Korean pilots, other accounts paint a different story. At least one intelligence report suggests the DPRK volunteers were killed during a relatively brief period, resulting in their relegation to non-combat assignments.
There is also the matter of their burial location. Some analysts suggest that if the North Korean fighter pilots had performed well, Kim il-Sung would have insisted on the return of their remains, so the "martyrs" could be honored at home. Instead, the dead pilots were interred in North Vietnam, with no official acknowledgement of their participation until July 2001--more than 30 years after they died, and almost three months after the original Yonhap report.
Urban legend says the elder Kim was so disgusted by his pilots "performance" that he essentially washed his hands of the volunteers, leaving it up to North Vietnam to arrange their burial and provide grave markers. Visits to the cemetery by the DPRK embassy staffers suggest that attitudes have mellowed a bit, but Pyongyang's decades of silence suggest the volunteer pilots are not regarded as heroes back home.
It's also worth remembering that NKAF participation in Vietnam was officially a secret, so relatively few North Koreans were even aware of their sacrifice. But, their poor performance was a personal affront to Kim il-Sung, one reason the dead MiG drivers are still resting in North Vietnam and not the DPRK.
Contrast that to the North Korean soccer team which committed its faux pas in public. Remember, this is the same squad that was receiving personal direction from Kim Jong-il (via an "invisible" cell phone), with "hired" fans from the Chinese delegation. Obviously, most North Koreans aren't allowed to travel outside their own country (hence, the "rent-a-cheering section" approach), but that didn't stop Pyongyang from investing considerable time, resources and propaganda on its World Cup effort.
If it's any consolation for the North Korean players, they still have one more match (against Ivory Coast) before they head home. In theory, that gives them a few more days to plan a possible defection. But we're guessing the DPRK team is now under lock down at their hotel--to prevent that scenario--so after playing Ivory Coast, it's back home to the welcoming arms of Kim Jong-il.
We can only speculate about the type of reception the Dear Leader has in store. Suffice it to say, there will be a lot of new faces on the North Korean national team in the near future, and the level of play in the Gulag league will probably rise (temporarily), with an infusion of new talent.
Sunday, June 20, 2010
Judging from recent events, a naval showdown appears to be a growing possibility. Eleven American warships, led by the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, transited the Suez Canal on Friday, en route to the Red Sea. Operating in that area, the Truman battle group would be in position to intercept an Iranian "aid" vessel, heading towards the canal and (eventually) the Israeli blockade line off the Gaza coast.
Regional press accounts indicate the Truman and her escorts passed through the Suez Canal while the waterway was closed to other traffic. At least one Israeli naval vessel has also transited the canal during recent days, though it is operating independently of the American battle group.
The Iranian vessel, renamed Toward Gaza, was supposed to set sail last week. There have been no updated reports on its location, but it's virtually certain that the Pentagon is tracking the ship. With more than 60 aircraft in its embarked air wing--and access to the full resources of the intelligence community--the Truman battle group can monitor traffic across thousands of square miles of ocean and intercept the vessel well before it enters the Red Sea.
But there is actually some doubt the confrontation will actually occur. Originally, Tehran threatened to send military escorts along with the aid ship, but that vow never materialized. Iran's Navy--both the "regular" fleet and the Revolutionary Guards component--are the weakest branches of the nation's military, with no power projection capabilities beyond the Strait of Hormuz. Late last week, an IRGC spokesman said his organization had no plans to accompany the aid ship on its voyage. For now, Toward Gaza appears to be on its own.
And, the Iranian vessel may have more to worry about than the U.S. Navy. A Pentagon spokesman notes that pirates are active along Gaza's projected route, and its a safe bet that no western navy would come to its rescue. On the other hand, many of the pirates who operate in those waters are Muslim, and Iran may have greased regional religious skids to improve prospects for a safe voyage.
Still, there are plenty of ways to detain and harass Toward Gaza. Assuming we let the vessel proceed (a prospect deemed very unlikely), Egyptian officials could delay the ship's passage through the Suez Canal, demanding that the ship's papers be translated from Farsi into Arabic, a process that could take weeks or even months, depending on how much pressure is exerted on the Cairo government.
Indeed, given the obstacles facing the Iranian aid ship, there's a very real possibility that it might be recalled, or conveniently break down at a friendly port along the way. Tehran may want to avoid the humiliation of its vessel being towed to an Egyptian port (by a U.S. naval vessel), where it might languish indefinitely.
On the other hand, Iran does have options for creating an international incident, despite the overwhelming show of American naval might. The Iranians might attempt to scuttle the vessel or blow it up (preferably with our boarding parties on the ship), then blame the event on the U.S. military. Or, Tehran might retaliate with naval provocations or attacks in the Persian Gulf, under the cover of friendly aircraft, anti-ship missiles and potential "swarm" attacks by IRGC suicide units.
The potential confrontation between the U.S. and Iran is a long way from being resolved, and no one can say exactly how it will end. But so far, the Obama Administration is taking the right steps, responding to the aid vessel's voyage with deployment of vastly superior forces. To some, that might seem like overkill; afterall, Mr. Obama's Defense Secretary has recently observed that the U.S. is "over matched" against potential foes, suggesting there might be room for potential cutbacks.
But in a situation like this, overkill is the right answer. Faced with a U.S. carrier battle group in the Red Sea, Tehran is already re-examining its options, and may ultimately decide to fore go a confrontation, at least for now.
Still, a military showdown with Iran is probably inevitable, given Tehran's perceptions of American weakness, and its stated goal to "wipe Israel off the map." The Iranians may be about to blink in the Arabian Sea, but they won't blink forever. If anything, a potential setback on the "aid" mission will send them back to the drawing board, looking for new ways to confront the United States and further test our resolve.
Friday, June 18, 2010
His Finest Hour
Mr. Obama's failed attempt illustrates a cardinal rule of political speech-making. Without genuine leadership (and a clear vision), rhetorical flourishes--no matter how well they might be delivered--ring hollow and false. Instead of conveying the impression that he was in command of the situation, Mr. Obama was viewed to be in full damage-control mode, offering homilies aimed at shifting attention away from government failures during this crisis.
And, there is a certain, historical irony in the president's flop. It came as many of us remembered one of the great speeches in human history, delivered 70 years ago by Winston Churchill, before the British Parliament, and later to a nationwide radio audience. We refer, of course, to Mr. Churchill's legendary "finest hour" address of June 18, 1940.
Almost anyone with a cursory knowledge of Churchill (or the Second World War) can recite its signature line, delivered at the end of the speech:
What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.
But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.
While the resolve and determination of Churchill's message are crystal clear, it's worth remembering the circumstances that prompted his address. It came just over a month after he became Prime Minister, just as Allied fortunes took a turn towards disaster. The "phony war" in the west had given way to the German blitzkrieg that quickly overran the low countries and France. Much of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had been rescued from the beaches at Dunkirk, but without their tanks, artillery and heavy equipment. With the capitulation of France assured, Great Britain faced the Nazi horde alone.
And, there was genuine pessimism regarding Britain's ability to fend off an expected German invasion. Rescued elements of the BEF would need months to reequip. The Royal Air Force had acquitted itself well in France, but had suffered steep losses in pilots and aircraft. Facing the prospect of a prolonged enemy air assault, the RAF was rushing pilots to fighter squadrons with minimal training, while British factories ramped up production of front-line fighters like the Hurricane and Spitfire. At sea, the Royal Navy remained dominant, but as the Norway campaign had demonstrated, surface forces could not survive without adequate air cover.
Indeed, Britain's outlook was so bleak that some in Parliament believed privately that Churchill should negotiate some sort of peace settlement with the Nazis. David Lloyd George, the World War I British Prime Minister still serving as a member of Parliament, believed his nation's prospects in the war were dim. "I shall wait until Winston is bust," Lloyd George told his private secretary, indicating that he would push for a negotiated end to the war after Churchill failed. He was not alone in those views.
Against that backdrop, Mr. Churchill labored over his June 18th speech. A new examination of his papers, detailed recently in the UK Telegraph, shows the Prime Minister worked (and re-worked) the address until literally the last minute, fully aware of its necessity--and impact--at that particularly dark moment in British history:
"...while many consider Churchill’s oratorical mastery to have sometimes been improvised or off-the-cuff, a new examination of his papers, held at Cambridge University’s Churchill Archives Centre, reveals the toil that went into early drafts – and the revisions made until the last possible moment before delivery.
They show how the speech went through at least two drafts – the first dictated to his secretaries, then revised in longhand and then put into blank verse form for emphasis and rhythm.
Even this draft he would revise and correct right up to the last minute in red and blue ink – even insert completely new phrases.
The best example of this is on the penultimate page of these final speaking notes.
Just before the phrase "The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin", he added in his own red pen, at the last moment, "all shall be restored".
The speech, of course, was widely praised, rallying British spirits as the nation's wartime fortunes reached their nadir. There would be more bad news in the months to come, but Churchill's magnificent oratory helped crystallize British determination and resolve. Little wonder that Mr. Churchill labored so long over his June 18th address.
It was, arguably, his finest hour. Yet, not everyone was impressed. Churchill's private secretary, Sir Jock Colville, later noted in his diaries that the Prime Minister "spoke less well" during the radio version of the address. "It was too long and he sounded tired," Colville wrote (while adding), "he ended magnificently."
Indeed he did.
Be on the Lookout
According to Fox News, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service issued a "Be on the Lookout" bulletin for the Afghan military personnel on Wednesday night. According to the report, the 17 men have DoD ID cards, which allows them access to U.S. military installations.
A spokesman for Lackland's "host" unit, the 37th Training Wing, confirmed the AWOLs from DLI, and said the group includes both officers and enlisted personnel. All of the missing Afghan troops were undergoing English language training at the institute, which provides instruction to thousands of foreign military personnel each year.
But here's the rub: some of the Afghans have been missing for more than a year. The most recent AWOL occurred in January 2010, when 1st Lieutenant Javed Ayran disappeared. Military spokesmen offered no explanation as to why DoD waited until this week to issue the "lookout" bulletin.
Each of the missing Afghans was issued a Department of Defense Common Access Card, an identification card used to gain access to secure military installations, with which they "could attempt to enter DOD installations," according to the bulletin. Base security officers were encouraged to disseminate the bulletin to their personnel.
"The visas issued to these personnel have been revoked, or are in the process of being revoked. Lookouts have been placed in TECS," it reads.
Treasury Enforcement Communications System (TECS), which is shared by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, is a computer-based database used to identify people suspected of violating federal law.
A federal law enforcement official described the issue as more of an "immigration problem" than a security threat, saying there is no information to link the AWOL Afghans to any terrorism or a security threat.
Still, that comment is rather puzzling. Foreign nationals over-stay their tourist or student visas on a recurring basis, contributing to our massive illegal immigration problem. But federal law enforcement doesn't routinely issue bulletins, asking state and local officials to keep an eye out for the illegals. Likewise, there is no indication that the NCIS (or other DoD investigative agency) has issued a lookout alert for other foreigners who've gone missing from DLI or other military training programs.
And, to make matters even more confusing, a senior law enforcement official told Fox that some of the AWOL Afghans have been caught. But he would not say how many are accounted for, or why the names and pictures of all 17 appear in the bulletin. Why waste time and effort on individuals who have already been apprehended?
Put another way: what does the official really mean when he says "a number of these guys have been located or accounted for?" Based on the recently-issued bulletin (and the urgency of the effort), we're guessing that "located" and "accounted for" are synonymous with "we think we know where they are."
It's also worth noting that some of the Afghans were destined for flight school after graduation from DLI. However, none had reached that stage of training, so concerns about another 9-11-style air attack are probably unfounded. Still, vetting Afghan military personnel has been problematic at best; thousands of recruits have walked away from their units and some have joined the Taliban. We're guessing there are legitimate concerns about the allegiances of some of the AWOL Afghans, their present whereabouts in the U.S. and what they might be up to.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Let the Campaign Begin!
First, the "party establishment" candidate for U.S. Senate was defeated by an unknown who spent no money on his primary bid, and never bothered to campaign. Yet, he received 59% of the vote.
Then it was revealed that the presumptive Democratic nominee, one Alvin Greene, was kicked out of the Army last year. Making matters worse, Mr. Greene is also facing felony charges for displaying obscene materials to a University of South Carolina coed.
At that point, the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, Carol Fowler, asked Greene to drop out of the race. Mr. Greene, who is unemployed, promptly declined and granted a series of interviews with the national media, proving that he isn't the sharpest tool in the shed.
By then, Mrs. Fowler and her associates were apoplectic. Finding someone to run against popular GOP incumbent Jim DeMint was hard enough; now, the Democrats were saddled with the worst possible candidate--someone who may soon add a felony conviction to his already shady resume.
Still, some Democrats in the Palmetto State held out hopes that Greene's legal difficulties might disqualify him and get the preferred candidate (retired Judge Vic Rawl) on the November ballot.
Well, so much for that idea. Election officials tell the Gannett News Service that Greene could still represent South Carolina in the Senate, even if he's convicted on that felony charge:
The U.S. Constitution's only requirements to seek federal office are age, residency and citizenship, Julia Queen, a spokeswoman for the Federal Elections Commission, said Tuesday.
But under South Carolina law, a felon can't vote — at least not until they've served their sentence and any probationary period and paid any restitution required, said South Carolina Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire.
Tuesday, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a non-profit group, asked South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster — who lost a bid in the GOP gubernatorial race last week — to investigate how Greene came up with the $10,440 filing fee required to put his name on the ballot and whether Greene "accepted an inducement" to run.
Greene, an unemployed veteran, has repeatedly said he used money saved from his service in the Army, although he was granted a free attorney in his criminal case as an indigent.
"The people of South Carolina have a right to fair, transparent and fraud-free elections," said Melanie Sloan, the group's executive director.
Meanwhile, other Democrats are alleging "irregularities" with voting machines that were used in the election. So far, there's no evidence to support that charge, but it does fit the party template that's used almost every time there's a close election.
So, it looks like the South Carolina Democratic Party is stuck with Alvin Greene (and vice versa). And, revelations about the nominee are still surfacing. Gawker had an e-mail exchange with a soldier who served with Greene in Korea, one of his last duty assignments during a 13-year military career that included stints in the Army and the Air Force. Mr. Greene's former colleague requested anonymity because he's still serving on active duty. He confirmed what many of us previously suspected: Green wasn't much of a soldier.
Q: Could you tell me a bit about your time working with Greene?
A: During the first couple of weeks of working with him, myself and most everyone else noticed that he wasn't all there mentally. Whenever he was given a simple task such as filling a temporary hand receipt it would never get done, mainly because he didn't know how to fill one out. And this is the most fundamental part of the job.
He also didn't show much interest in being a soldier. For instance, he was asked to do maintenance on the M249. This system is a little more complex than the regular service rifle. When it came to Greene's turn he was able to take the weapon apart but didn't know where to start when it came to put it back together. He showed no interest in learning and would mumble under his breath about not wanting to do it. So after a couple of months of trying and not getting anywhere, people just made sure he was where he was supposed to be and in the correct uniform. He would just basically come to work and stare at the wall till it was time for lunch and then do the same till it was time to go home for the day. The platoon sergeant tried to get him to go see a doctor for help but he would never seek help.
Q: There's been a lot of speculation about where he got the $10,400 filing fee necessary to run for Senate. He says he saved up from the Army. Do you think that's possible?
A: I think that was very possible. Greene didn't do anything during his personal time, and ate at the post dining facility religiously. The first time I saw his room all he had was a radio and a couple sets of clothes, which is not unusual for someone that just moved to a new post. But after 5 months all he had was just a radio and a couple sets of clothes still. Considering his lifestyle and coming back from Korea I believe he could have saved over $10,400, and spent it on putting himself on the ballot.
Greene has been very vague as to why he left the army. He says it was an honorable but "involuntary" discharge. Do you know the circumstances behind his discharge?
I really can't say what the circumstances were under which he was discharged, but I think it might have been failure to adapt. [Greene was transferred to a different brigade before being discharged last year.]
The soldier also reported that Greene was only an E-3 (Private First Class) after his stint in Korea. He had apparently been demoted during that tour, in conjunction with disciplinary action reportedly taken against Greene. As you might imagine, the candidate isn't talking about his failed military career. "Things weren't working out" is the only comment Greene has offered (so far).
According to the soldier, Greene was simply lazy and working the system to get by. He told Gawker that he's seen individuals with serious conditions (bi-polar, alcoholism) that put forth more effort. Amazingly, Greene is a college graduate who earned a bachelor's degree from the University of South Carolina. Somehow, we don't think Mr. Greene will wind up on the cover of USC's alumni magazine.
Meanwhile, we can expect more revelations about Greene and his past. Somewhere along the way, he also served as an Air Force intelligence specialist, a job that requires a high ASVAB score and completion of a long technical training course. How does someone who can't fill out a supply receipt make it through the USAF's intel program? Beyond that, did he actually serve a tour as an intelligence specialist, and perform adequately on the job?
That question becomes relevant when you consider his subsequent enlistment in the U.S. Army. Despite recruiting problems in the not-too-distant past, it's hard to believe the Army would take a former "blue suiter" who didn't have a satisfactory record in the USAF. Either Greene was a better airman than he was a soldier (very unlikely), or someone in the Air Force let him slide by. We're guessing that someone at Randolph (home of the service's personnel center) and Goodfellow AFB (the intel training center) are now reviewing their files, preparing for inevitable questions about Alvin Greene.
It's a long time between now and the general election in November. We're guessing that South Carolina Democrats will be very tired of Mr. Greene (and his checkered past), long before voters go to the polls.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Unable to Serve
From their perspective, these issues are becoming a national security problem. In its various reports, Mission Readiness has noted that more than 70% of young and women between the ages of 18-25 (the primary age group targeted for military enlistment) no longer meet basic standards for serving in the armed forces.
To be fair, we've had our differences with Mission Readiness. For example, we think the group puts too much emphasis on the problem of childhood obesity, while down-playing the impact of criminal activity, drug use and poor education as disqualifiers for military service. As we observed in a recent post, overweight recruits willing to change their diet and exercise habits can still qualify for a slot in the armed forces.
But it's military can't accept enlistees with a history of drug use, an extensive rap sheet or an education that left them unable to achieve a minimum score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test. And, studies indicate that most recruits are rejected for more than one reason, so it's more than just obesity that makes many young Americans ineligible to serve. Mission Readiness would be well-served (in our opinion) by devoting more time--and attention--to the crime, drug and educational issues that hinder recruitment efforts.
Still, the retired flag officers deserve some credit for at least calling attention to the problem, and putting a local face on it. Mission Readiness has staged a number of events in state capitals and large cities, usually in conjunction with a new report on obesity, fitness or educational trends in that area.
These reports (and accompanying press coverage) are clearly aimed at shaming local officials into action. So far, these awareness events haven't had much of an impact, but they offer another reminder that these problems are not limited geographically. Consider these findings from their latest report, on the state of Pennsylvania:
A nonprofit group says that up to 90 percent of young Philadelphians are ineligible for military service because of criminal records, obesity or lack of education.
Pennsylvania-based Mission: Readiness released its report Monday. It says 1 million Pennsylvanians are ineligible for the same reasons.
The report says 145,000 Philadelphians ages 18 to 24 cannot meet the military’s medical, moral and mental standards.
Mission Readiness used the Pennsylvania event to make its usual push for more funding in Pre-K programs. Members of the group claim those programs give children a better foundation for academic and personal success. Again, those priorities may be misplaced. Why are the expectations for these programs so high, when billions of dollars invested in Head Start have been largely a failure, in terms of spurring academic success.
But the retired generals and admirals are correct in their bottom-line assessment. Tomorrow's military cannot be sustained by young people who cannot pass muster. Today, barely one in four Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 can meet entrance requirements for the armed forces. It's an absolute disgrace, and until we address problems affecting that statistic--beyond obesity, nutrition and Pre-K education--our pool of potential recruits will shrink even more.
Saturday, June 12, 2010
After the fall of Saddam, it was assumed the Israel would cross through Iraqi airspace, now under the control of the U.S. military. In recent years, various U.S. officials have offered mixed reactions to that possibility, ranging from "hell no," to "we might intercept Israeli jets if they fly through Iraqi skies. Translation? If you're going after Iran, find another routing option.
And, for more than a decade, that "other option" was believed to be Turkey. The two nations had strong defense ties; in fact, IAF squadrons trained in Turkish airspace on a semi-annual basis, and Ankara's F-16s reciprocated, using electronic warfare ranges in Israel.
But with the Turkish government's steady march towards Islamic fundamentalism--and the recent showdown over the Gaza "aid flotilla"--the Turkey option is no longer viable. That development (seemingly) left the Israelis with two marginal options. First, route the entire package, including aerial tankers, around the Arabian Peninsula and up the Persian Gulf. Not only would that increase flight time and distance, it would also decrease the number of aircraft that could be assigned to the mission (based on tanker capabilities), and increase chances for detection before strike formations reach Iranian airspace.
The other alternative goes something like this: use deception tactics to "sneak" tankers and strike aircraft along an air corridor, most likely through southern Turkey. The refueling aircraft would mimic commercial aircraft, while the strike fighters fly in a close "resolution cell" formation behind the KC-707's, hiding in the radar "shadow" of the larger jets. This particular option would give the Israelis a more direct route, but there are risks as well. Something as simple as an aircraft slightly out of formation could give away the entire operation, and force cancellation of the raid.
But the Israelis may have other tricks up their sleeve. We've written previously about a possible "Kurdistan" option, with IAF support aircraft (and commandos) pre-deploying to the semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq, using airfields in that area as staging bases.
And, according to the U.K. Times, Israel may have secured an even better routing option--through Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has conducted tests to stand down its air defences to enable Israeli jets to make a bombing raid on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
In the week that the UN Security Council imposed a new round of sanctions on Tehran, defence sources in the Gulf say that Riyadh has agreed to allow Israel to use a narrow corridor of its airspace in the north of the country to shorten the distance for a bombing run on Iran.
To ensure the Israeli bombers pass unmolested, Riyadh has carried out tests to make certain its own jets are not scrambled and missile defence systems not activated. Once the Israelis are through, the kingdom’s air defences will return to full alert.
“The Saudis have given their permission for the Israelis to pass over and they will look the other way,” said a US defence source in the area. “They have already done tests to make sure their own jets aren’t scrambled and no one gets shot down. This has all been done with the agreement of the [US] State Department.”
Sources in Saudi Arabia say it is common knowledge within defence circles in the kingdom that an arrangement is in place if Israel decides to launch the raid. Despite the tension between the two governments, they share a mutual loathing of the regime in Tehran and a common fear of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “We all know this. We will let them [the Israelis] through and see nothing,” said one.
If these reports are accurate (and they've been making the rounds for a while), it would represent the second time the Saudis have cast a blind eye towards an Israeli strike. When the IAF bombed Saddam's nuclear complex in June 1981, U.S. AWACS aircraft (then deployed to Saudi Arabia) were operating away from their usual "orbit" over the northern part of the kingdom--with the concurrence of the Royal Saudi Air Force. Urban legend also says the Israeli formation was challenged (in Arabic) by a Saudi ground controller. Prepared for that possibility, one of the Israeli pilots responded in the same language and the mission proceeded.
Three decades later, the Saudi air defense system is a bit more complex, built around F-15s, Patriot missile batteries, 3-D surveillance radars and computerized command-and-control nodes. Given the existing levels of redundancy, taking various sensors "off line" for a bit was probably necessary, to prevent an inadvertent engagement and (more importantly) provide plausible deniability. If the Israelis go after Iran--and fly through Saudi airspace--Riyadh needs a cover story, explaining why its multi-billion dollar defenses failed to detect and engage the IAF package.
Sometimes in the Middle East, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" isn't enough of an excuse.
Wednesday, June 09, 2010
How Times Change
The tide began to turn in the 80s, as thousands of disaffected Democrats abandoned their party forever. By the 1990s, the GOP had become dominant in South Carolina, controlling both houses of the state legislature and (more often than not), the governor's mansion as well. Those trends persist today; a couple of Dims hang on in the state's congressional delegation, but they're little more than afterthoughts. And neither of those Congressmen (John Spratt and James Clyburn) entertain any serious aspirations at state-wide office.
To be sure, the Republican ascendancy in South Carolina has its dark side. When outgoing Governor Mark Sanford admitted to martial infidelity last year, the state's Lieutenant Governor, Andre Brauer, tried to run him out of Columbia on a rail. Mr. Brauer claimed that Sanford could no longer govern effectively. Of course, a Sanford resignation would have put Brauer in the governor's chair, giving him a leg up in the 2010 race for that job.
More recently, Mr. Brauer has been touting results of a polygraph test, which (in his words) "prove" that he wasn't the source of adultery rumors about the GOP front-runner, state representative Nikki Haley. Fittingly, Brauer finished dead last in Tuesday's Republican primary, with only 12% of the vote. As for Ms. Haley, she received 49% of the vote, more than double that of her nearest challenger (Congressman Gresham Barrett), her opponent in a June run-off.
But if the South Carolina GOP has its problems, state Democrats have apparently hit rock-bottom. Going into yesterday's primary, it was widely assumed that State Representative Vic Rawl would win the party's nomination for U.S. Senate, and face Republican incumbent Jim Demint in November. Rawl had campaigned widely across the state and raised almost $200,000 in an effort to secure the nomination. His only opposition was 32-year-old Alvin Greene, an unemployed veteran who lives with his parents in Manning, South Carolina. As far as anyone can tell, Mr. Greene spent no money on his race, didn't bother to campaign, and doesn't even own a cell phone or computer.
You probably know what happened Tuesday.
Greene, the "stealth" candidate, beat Rawl handily, 59-41%. But his joy was short-lived; this morning, ABC News reported that the Democratic Senatorial nominee was kicked out the Army last year, and is facing a pending felony charge for attempting to show "obscene pictures from a website" to a student at the University of South Carolina.
There's no word on when Mr. Greene will have his day in court. Meanwhile, he faces tough questions about his military career, and those criminal charges. An ABC producer described Greene as sometimes "rambling" and "incoherent" during their interview.
Just the guy to represent South Carolina Democrats in the 2010 mid-term elections. I'm sure Senator Demint can't wait to debate Mr. Greene, assuming the challenger actually shows up--or isn't in jail. State Democratic Party officials say they're dumbfounded by Greene's victory. Winthrop University political science professor Scott Huffmon says Mr. Greene's astounding win "says something about the Democratic bench" in the Palmetto State.
ADDENDUM: Greene's no-frills (read: no money) campaign reminds us of the late Monroe Schwarzlose, the elderly turkey farmer who challenged Bill Clinton for the 1980 Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Arkansas. Mr. Schwarzlose spent $4,000 on his run for office, mostly for copies of canning recipes that he distributed as campaign literature. Traveling across the state in overalls and knee boots, Schwarzlose received 30% of the vote against the future President. However, we should note that Schwarzlose (unlike Alvin Greene) was an honorably discharged veteran, and he wasn't facing felony charges during his political career.
UPDATE (8:44 pm, EDT): According to WCBD-TV (Charleston) Democratic State Party chair Carol Fowler has officially asked Mr. Greene to drop out of the race. But with no job--and no court date scheduled--why should he? Incidentally, today marked the first time that Ms. Fowler has spoken with her party's presumptive Senate nominee. Quite an introductory conversation, eh?
Today's Reading Assignment
A great part of America now understands that this president's sense of identification lies elsewhere, and is in profound ways unlike theirs. He is hard put to sound convincingly like the leader of the nation, because he is, at heart and by instinct, the voice mainly of his ideological class. He is the alien in the White House, a matter having nothing to do with delusions about his birthplace cherished by the demented fringe.
Read the whole thing. Simply brillant.
Tuesday, June 08, 2010
Bringing a Thud Back to Life
An F-105 Thunderchief with full bomb load. The Air Force is opposing efforts of a private foundation to restore--and fly--one of these vintage warbirds (Wikipedia photo).