Obama’s Deadly Afghan Acquiescence

From his first days, President Obama showed a lack of guts when confronted by powerful insiders. He backed down even when that meant squandering U.S. soldiers in the futile Afghan War “surges,” says ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern.

Occasionally a New York Times writer like Mark Landler will be permitted to step up to the plate and write a sensible article about President “No Guts Obama” and how he caved in to folks whom he lacked the political courage to cross.

Landler’s Jan. 1 article shows, among other things, how Obama’s bowing to heavyweights like Gen. David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ended up getting thousands of people killed and prolonging the fool’s-errand Afghan war.

The pity, of course, is that Landler’s piece, “The Afghan War and the Evolution of Obama,” comes eight years too late. There is a lot of numbness out there today about how we were all had by “NGO,” together with attempts to blame bad decisions on his benighted advisers. But you know where the buck is supposed to stop. And a number of us, including Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), spared no effort to get through to him in “real time.”

I can understand that some of you will not want to risk being further depressed. Others, however, may wish to be reminded of our efforts to warn President Obama before he let himself be conned into doubling down on the Afghan folly. Those others may want to skim through the re-runs (linked below) of early warnings in March 2009 and January 2010, together with some retrospective comments.

On March 28, 2009, as Obama was beginning his plunge into the Afghan War swamp, I wrote an articled entitled, Welcome to Vietnam, Mr. President,” which Consortiumnews.com republished last year with the intro: “With still no end in sight for the Afghan War, President Obama can’t say he wasn’t warned. Barely two months into his presidency in 2009, ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern welcomed Obama to his own Vietnam quagmire.”

Included in that piece was this passage: Equally relevant to Obama’s fateful early decision on Afghanistan, Gen. Douglas MacArthur told another young President in April 1961: ’Anyone wanting to commit American ground forces to the mainland of Asia should have his head examined.’”

The truth of that advice even eventually sunk into the fellow whom we at the CIA used to call “windsock Bobby Gates” in the days when he was starting his bureaucratic climb to the top by tailoring his positions to please his superiors.

Though Gates helped maneuver Obama into a pointless Afghan “counterinsurgency surge” in fall 2009, Gates later told aspiring officers at West Point: Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General [Douglas] MacArthur so delicately put it.”

My “Welcome to Vietnam, Mr. President” article of March 28, 2009, also noted: “When JFK’s top military advisers, critical of the President’s reluctance to go against [MacArthur’s] advice, virtually called him a traitor  — for pursuing a negotiated solution to the fighting in Laos, for example — Kennedy would tell them to convince Gen. MacArthur first, and then come back to him. (Alas, there seems to be no comparable Gen. MacArthur today.)”

Leaked Doubts

On Jan. 27, 2010, I was back at it again, citing the belated disclosure that U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry had tried to warn President Obama against escalating the Afghan War. I wrote:

“I imagine that in years to come, Eikenberry will proudly show his cables to his grandchildren. Or maybe he won’t, out of fear that one of them might ask why he didn’t have the guts to quit and let the rest of the country know what he thought of this latest March of Folly.”

Eikenberry is an interesting case study showing, among other things, that lack of guts on the part of a commander-in-chief can be contagious. A retired Lt. General and then Obama’s ambassador in Kabul, Eikenberry knew more about Afghanistan than the so-called “Gang of Five” – Gen. Petraeus, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Defense Secretary Gates, Secretary of State Clinton, and special envoy Richard Holbrooke – put together.

Eikenberry sent back to Washington some very important, sensible advice, though we don’t know whether Clinton forwarded the cables on to her boss. Nor do we know whether Eikenberry exercised his ambassadorial prerogative to contact the President directly.

Eikenberry had served three years in Afghanistan over the course of two separate tours of duty. During 2002-2003, he was responsible for rebuilding Afghan security forces. He then served 18 months (2005-2007) as commander of all U.S. forces stationed in the country. Surely, he could see the toll in killed and wounded that would inevitably result from the hopeless counterinsurgency strategy being urged on “NGO” by the “Gang of Five.”

And Eikenberry’s cables show that he felt strongly about it. He also knew, of course, that Obama was about to let himself be sandbagged by the Gang and its clever use of the media. So he sent two SECRET NODIS (“NODIS” means No Dissemination) cables to Clinton, who was his boss (and who – along with Gates – was one of what Gates called the “un-fireables”). Eikenberry surely doubted that Clinton would share his advice with Obama, but did Eikenberry ever think of resigning loudly on principle? Apparently not.

So, what did he do when he was overruled? He trod up to Congress and fully supported the feckless surge of troops launched out of the cowardice/stupidity of “NGO” in bowing to the “Gang of Five.” It probably never occurred to Eikenberry to blow the whistle on the “tough guy/gal” policy which would end up getting a thousand or so U.S. troops killed along with a much larger number of Afghans.

For many a graduate of West Point, the academy’s motto seems to get garbled as they climb the ladder of success. Instead of “Duty, Honor, Country,” it becomes “Career, President, Sinecure Retirement.” Perhaps blowing the whistle did occur to Eikenberry. But if you challenge the Establishment in that way, you seldom end up with a cushy job like running a Research Center at Stanford.

Presumably, Eikenberry takes some gratification now in the fact that he turns out to have been correct in his bleak assessment of the surge” in Afghanistan. He may even have been the one behind eventually leaking his cables to The New York Times, thus earning him applause from his academic colleagues.

But his burnished credentials didn’t save the lives of the soldiers tossed into the Afghan meat grinder or the many civilians who died needlessly as senior U.S. government officials put ideology and careerism – the need to look tough – ahead of what made sense for either Afghanistan or the United States.

In the end, however, the bloody futility of the past eight years in Afghanistan rest most heavily on the “Gang of Five” and the easily outmaneuvered “NGO,” who sits at the desk where the buck stops. 

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington.  He was an Army Infantry/Intelligence officer and then CIA analyst for a total of 30 years, and is now a member of the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).




Requiem for a UN ‘Yes Man’

Even as much of the world bridled at the U.S. pretensions of “unipolar” power, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon toed Washington’s line and further undercut the U.N.’s supposed evenhandedness, writes Joe Lauria.

By Joe Lauria

After ten years of almost total obedience to Washington, Ban Ki-moon stepped down Sunday as United Nations Secretary-General, leaving behind a sorry legacy that has undermined the U.N.’s legitimacy, which rests on its real and perceived neutrality in overseeing world affairs.

The U.N.’s second secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold defined the job’s role as a diplomat who has the ability and courage to navigate a course independent of the major powers and in defense of the world’s population.

“The right of the Secretariat to full independence, as laid down in the Charter, is an inalienable right,” Hammarskjold said shortly after his election in 1953. The U.N.’s purpose, he said, was not to submit to the major powers but to seek “solutions which approach the common interest.”

Despite his elite background, his defense of the “common interest” distinguished Hammarskjold and alarmed many of the world’s elites who wanted a more pliable secretary-general who would reliably take their side, especially in management of the Third World. After only one year in office, he condemned the U.S.-led coup in Guatemala that overthrew a democratically elected president. No secretary-general since has publicly criticized a CIA covert operation.

Hammarskjold’s championing of the common interest of Africans and other colonized people put him at odds with the white rulers of apartheid South Africa as well as colonial Britain and the United States.

“The discretion and impartiality required of the Secretary-General may not degenerate into a policy of expedience,” Hammarskjold responded.

When he also angered the Soviet Union, which demanded his resignation, he responded: “It is very easy to resign. It is not so easy to stay on. It is very easy to bow to the wishes of a Big Power. It is another matter to resist.”

By navigating an independent course amid the major powers, Hammarskjold set the standard for the job of secretary-general – and, as I reported in 2014, it may have led to his death in a mysterious plane crash on Sept. 18, 1961, during a conflict over mineral-rich Congo.

Bending to Power

No other Secretary-General has come close to Hammarskjold’s independence or his inventiveness in creative peacekeeping and personal mediation. The few others who tried to follow in his footsteps also found their U.N. careers cut short. For instance, Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s insubordination to Washington in defending developing countries in the face of America’s post-Cold War, unilateralist expansion into spaces vacated by the Soviet Union cost him a second term. He had the temerity to tell Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., that Washington was his “problem.”

“Coming from a developing country,” Boutros-Ghali wrote in his memoir, “I was trained extensively in international law and diplomacy and mistakenly assumed that the great powers, especially the United States, also trained their representatives in diplomacy and accepted the value of it. But the Roman Empire had no need of diplomacy. Neither does the United States.”

Others learned their lesson. Boutros-Ghali’s successor, Kofi Annan, the only sub-Saharan secretary-general, was a major proponent of U.S. initiatives, including the controversial “responsibility to protect” doctrine of military intervention (as applied in Kosovo) and a U.N. partnership with private corporations, the so-called Global Compact, ultimately giving U.N. cover for neoliberal and multi-national misdeeds.

Though a darling of Washington, Annan got himself into hot water when he admitted to an insistent BBC interviewer that the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was “illegal.” The Bush administration made the remainder of his second term miserable and tried to pin the Oil-for-Food scandal on him, though it was a program run by the Security Council.

By contrast, Ban, a South Korean, was seen by the Americans as their man from the start. We “got exactly what we asked for,” an administrator and not an activist, said John Bolton, America’s irascible U.N. ambassador when Ban was elected in 2005. The U.N. charter doesn’t call the secretary-general “president of the world” or “chief poet and visionary,” Bolton said sarcastically in an interview with me and a colleague for The Wall Street Journal.

Ban said his “biggest blunder” until then had been in 2001 when, as South Korea’s chairman of its nuclear test-ban treaty organization, he wrote a letter in favor of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty just a few months after George W. Bush pulled the U.S. out of the treaty. South Korean President Kim Dae-jung issued a public apology and fired Ban for his impertinence. It was the act of a vassal state and marked Ban’s evolution into a servile diplomat.

State Department Advisers

Once Ban was installed at the U.N. in 2007, he broke with tradition by naming Americans — two former State Department diplomats — to be his chief political officers during his ten-year tenure. They brought with them a State Department perspective to the most politically influential job in the organization.

Ban carefully toed the U.S. line in his public pronouncements. Though he privately fumed over the Saudi military bombardment in Yemen and Riyadh’s haughty dealings with the U.N., he dared not blame America’s ally.

Likewise, on occasions when Ban sharply criticized Israel for its bombardment of U.N. schools in Gaza, killing scores of innocent people, he spoke only after the State Department had made the same criticism, almost word for word.

When the whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed U.S. mass surveillance of people all over the world, Ban condemned Snowden rather than defend the common interest of the world’s population to be protected from the U.S. intelligence community’s pervasive violations of their privacy.

Regarding the geo-strategic battle of our times — America’s unilateral push for global hegemony versus an emerging multi-polar world, led by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — the U.N. as the world’s premier multilateral organization would have seemed like a natural ally of the BRICS, which held its first formal summit in 2006 just months before Ban took office. But Ban backed the U.S. in every geo-strategic question against Russia and China during his time in office.

On Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea, Ban parroted Washington’s rhetoric and made no effort to mediate the disputes. He never condemned the U.S.-backed coup in Kiev or Washington’s support for violent extremists in Syria, which Russia has confronted. He called for regime change in Damascus (after Obama did.)

Regarding sensitive concerns about Western interference in Africa, Ban failed to distinguish himself on a single African issue, merely endorsing whatever the U.S., Britain and France were up to on the continent. Ban was a prominent champion in the struggle to combat climate change, but it was a position fully endorsed by the Obama administration.

The new secretary-general, Antonio Guterres of Portugal, is inheriting crises that bedeviled Ban. Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister and head of the U.N.’s refugee agency, whom I interviewed a couple of years ago for an hour without any handlers present, is smart, realistic and outspoken in favor of multilateralism. It won’t be long before it’s known if he will cross swords with the Trump administration, in the tradition of Hammarskjold, or go the way of Ban and let Washington always get its way.

Joe Lauria is a veteran foreign-affairs journalist based at the U.N. since 1990. He has written for the Boston Globe, the London Daily Telegraph, the Johannesburg Star, the Montreal Gazette, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. He can be reached at joelauria@gmail.com and followed on Twitter at @unjoe.




Danger in Democrats Demonizing Putin

With the Clintons’ corporate money machine floundering after a devastating election defeat, Democrats are desperate to find someone to blame and have dangerously settled on Vladimir Putin, writes Norman Solomon.

By Norman Solomon

Many top Democrats are stoking a political firestorm. We keep hearing that Russia attacked democracy by hacking into Democratic officials’ emails and undermining Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Instead of candidly assessing key factors such as longtime fealty to Wall Street that made it impossible for her to ride a populist wave, the party line has increasingly circled around blaming Vladimir Putin for her defeat.

Of course partisan spinners aren’t big on self-examination, especially if they’re aligned with the Democratic Party’s dominant corporate wing. And the option of continually fingering the Kremlin as the main villain of a 2016 morality play is clearly too juicy for functionary Democrats to pass up — even if that means scorching civil liberties and escalating a new cold war that could turn radioactively hot.

Much of the current fuel for the blame-Russia blaze has to do with the horrifying reality that Donald Trump will soon become president. Big media outlets are blowing oxygen into the inferno. But the flames are also being fanned by people who should know better.

Consider the Boston Globe article that John Shattuck — a former Washington legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union — wrote in mid-December. “A specter of treason hovers over Donald Trump,” the civil libertarian wrote. “He has brought it on himself by dismissing a bipartisan call for an investigation of Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee as a ‘ridiculous’ political attack on the legitimacy of his election as president.”

As quickly pointed out by Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at New York University, raising the specter of treason “is simply wrong” — and “its wrongness matters, not just because hyperbole always weakens argument, but because the carefully restricted definition of the crime of treason is essential to protecting free speech and the freedom of association.”

A Liberal Zeitgeist

Is Shattuck’s piece a mere outlier? Sadly, no. Although full of gaping holes, it reflects a substantial portion of the current liberal zeitgeist. And so the argument that Shattuck made was carried forward into the new year by Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect, who approvingly quoted Shattuck’s article in a Jan. 1 piece that flatly declared: “In his dalliance with Vladimir Putin, Trump’s actions are skirting treason.”

The momentum of fully justified loathing for Trump has drawn some normally level-headed people into untenable — and dangerous — positions. (The “treason” approach that Shattuck and Kuttner have embraced is particularly ironic and misplaced, given that Trump’s current course will soon make him legally deserving of impeachment due to extreme conflicts of interest that are set to violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.)

Among the admirable progressives who supported Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign but have succumbed to Russia-baiting of Trump are former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Congressman Keith Ellison, who is a candidate for chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Last week, in a widely circulated post on his Facebook page, Reich wrote: “Evidence continues to mount that Trump is on Putin’s side.” But Reich’s list of “evidence” hardly made the case that Trump “is on Putin’s side,” whatever that means.

A day later, when Trump tweeted a favorable comment about Putin, Rep. Ellison quickly echoed Democratic Party orthodoxy with a tweet: “Praising a foreign leader for undermining our democracy is a slap in the face to all who have served our country.”

Some of Putin’s policies are abhorrent, and criticizing his regime should be fair game as much as criticizing any other. At the same time, “do as we say, not as we do” isn’t apt to put the United States on high moral ground. The U.S. government has used a wide repertoire of regime change tactics including direct meddling in elections, and Uncle Sam has led the world in cyberattacks.

Intervention in the election of another country is categorically wrong. It’s also true that — contrary to conventional U.S. wisdom at this point — we don’t know much about a Russian role in last year’s election. We should not forget the long history of claims from agencies such as the CIA that turned out to be misleading or downright false.

Late last week, when the Obama administration released a drum-rolled report on the alleged Russian hacking, Democratic partisans and mainline journalists took it as something akin to gospel. But the editor of ConsortiumNews.com, former Associated Press and Newsweek reporter Robert Parry, wrote an assessment concluding that the latest report “again failed to demonstrate that there is any proof behind U.S. allegations that Russia both hacked into Democratic emails and distributed them via WikiLeaks to the American people.”

Key Questions

Even if the Russian government did intervene in the U.S. election by hacking emails and publicizing them, key questions remain. Such as:

–Do we really want to escalate a new cold war with a country that has thousands of nuclear weapons?

–Do we really want a witch-hunting environment here at home, targeting people with views that have some overlap with Kremlin positions?

–Can the president of Russia truly “undermine our democracy” — or aren’t the deficits of democracy in the United States overwhelmingly self-inflicted from within the U.S. borders?

It’s so much easier to fixate on Putin as a villainous plotter against our democracy instead of directly taking on our country’s racist and class biases, its structural mechanisms that relentlessly favor white and affluent voters, its subservience to obscene wealth and corporate power.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about refusing to normalize the Trump presidency. And that’s crucial. Yet we should also push back against normalizing the deflection of outrage at the U.S. political system’s chronic injustices and horrendous results — deflection that situates the crux of the problem in a foreign capital instead of our own.

We should reject the guidance of politicians and commentators who are all too willing to throw basic tenets of civil liberties overboard, while heightening the risks of brinkmanship that could end with the two biggest nuclear powers blowing up the world.

Norman Solomon is co-founder of the online activist group RootsAction.org. His books include War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. He is the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy.