Saturday, August 30, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

POSTED: Friday, July 2, 2010, 12:41 PM

The holiday weekend began this morning, at least around here. Enjoy yours. I'll resume on Monday.

POSTED: Thursday, July 1, 2010, 10:57 AM

Before venturing into July, I want to dispense with one piece of unfinished business from June. Amidst all the eventful primaries that were staged last month - particularly in Nevada, Arkansas, North Carolina, and South Carolina - it's also worth noting what happened in the Republican gubernatorial primary in Iowa:

Terry Branstad, a former four-term governor, won that Iowa GOP primary and seems poised to complete his political comeback in the November election.

POSTED: Wednesday, June 30, 2010, 11:12 AM

Finally, she speaks!

Ever since tea-party favorite Sharron Angle won the right to challenge Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid in Nevada's November election, the surprise Republican nominee has been fleeing the press corps - understandably so, given the fact that she doesn't swim in the American mainstream and doesn't relish the prospect of explaining why. But it's impossible in big-time politics to play Greta Garbo forever, which is why she finally relented last night and appeared on a Nevada TV forum.

POSTED: Tuesday, June 29, 2010, 11:06 AM

The best way to beat the heat is to laugh it off. And nobody supplies comic relief better than the Senate Republicans. Their Senate Judiciary Committee members provided some priceless belly laughs yesterday, as they played to their base and went through the motions of attacking Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan on day one of her confirmation hearings.

It's tough to name the day's biggest howler. Maybe it was Alabaman Jeff Sessions' thrilling expose of a senior thesis that Kagan wrote wayyyy back when she was a student at Princeton, a thesis that (in Sessions' breathless view) "seems to bemoan socialism's demise." Or maybe it was Arizonian John Kyl's lament about how Kagan supposedly embodies the supposedly evil values of "Manhattan's upper West Side" - a place that, at least in Kyl's assessment, is apparently far less American than anywhere in Arizona.

POSTED: Monday, June 28, 2010, 10:47 AM

Before we inevitably speculate on whether Robert Byrd's death will give the Republicans an opportunity to pick up his West Virginia Senate seat, let's first bid farewell to a rare Byrd indeed, a guy who was virtually orphaned 91 years ago at the age of one in coal country - and who wound up serving the longest U.S. Senate stint in history, mastering the arcane rules of the chamber like no other, lecturing extemporaneously about ancient Rome, bringing home roughly a billion bucks in federal pork, and casting a record 18,500 votes during a career that incrementally inched leftward.

Byrd, who died at 3 a.m. this morning, lived a life that spanned the modern American experience. A member of the Ku Klux Klan in his youth (even in his late twenties, he lamented in a letter that "this beloved land of ours" might become "degraded by race mongrels"), he endorsed a black man for president when he was 90. A conservative Democrat who had long swore fealty to the coal industry back home, he recently endorsed the view that greenhouse gas emissions pose a threat to public health. A one-time hawk who gave presidents a blank check to wage war in Vietnam, he morphed into a dove at the dawn of the Iraq war, denouncing the Bush team's "secrecy and arrogance," and insisting that our values, as spelled out in the Constitution, "do not include striking first at other countries."

POSTED: Thursday, June 24, 2010, 11:19 AM

Anyone who has tracked the downfall of our Afghanistan commander would be well advised to read the entire Rolling Stone article that triggered the controversy. The trash-talking quotes from General McChrystal and his frat-boy entourage are merely shreds of parsley atop a very substantive meal.

All the buzz about this piece is drawn from the opening anecdotes - McChrystal flipping somebody the bird, his boys ridiculing a French official as "gay," a top aide making fun of Joe Biden's name, "sources" close to McChrystal dumping on President Obama, yetta yetta - but somewhere around the 25th paragraph, the reporter delivers his well-earned downbeat verdict on what he rightly recognizes as "the longest war in American history."

Michael Hastings writes, "The president finds himself stuck in something even more insane than a quagmire: a quagmire he knowingly walked into, even though it's precisely the kind of gigantic, mind-numbing, multigenerational nation-building project he explicitly said he didn't want." And way down at the bottom, he concludes that America's "counterinsurgency" (COIN) strategy, which hinges heavily on winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people while creating a friendly national government from scratch, "has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military - perpetual war."

Fans of an open-ended war in Afghanistan will no doubt dismiss the article, given the fact that it appears in left-leaning Rolling Stone. But Hastings, who has been embedded for months with the U.S. military, reached his conclusions with the help of military sources who are outspokenly pessimistic about America's prospects for success. Forget all the trash-talking quotes up at the top of the story; the money quote - attributed to a senior McChrystal adviser - appears four paragraphs from the bottom: "If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular."

But most Americans are not paying attention. They don't follow the news about the war, because it's unrelentingly grim. They don't follow the war policy debates, because (as the Rolling Stone article makes clear) there are no good options. The McChrystal story was a two-day splash, but once his successor, General Petraeus, settles down to the onerous task of trying to wring success from a bad hand, most Americans will again avert their eyes. Meanwhile, a relatively small percentage will push harder for a more hawkish policy, and the rest (especially on Obama's left flank) will talk more vocally about the need to get out.

The Rolling Stone piece spells out the fundamental contradiction at the core of COIN. Under McChrystal's command, the troops in the field were told to aggressively seek out and kill the bad guys - yet, at the same time, they were told not to be too aggressive, lest they kill innocent civilians and thus generate hostility among the very people they were trying to woo. It has been difficult, if not impossible, to calibrate the balance properly. One confused soldier, Staff Sgt. Kennith Hicks, told Rolling Stone, "We're losing this f------ thing."

Worse yet, as the article detailed, the COIN nation-building strategy requires that America partner with a credible Afghan leader. The problem is that the designated leader is Hamid Karzai, who has little grassroots credibility. MChrystal's top teammates trash-talk him, too ("He's been locked up in his palace the past year"). The bottom line, as articulated by Douglas McGregor, a retired colonel who went to West Point with McChrystal: "The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people. The idea that we're going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense."

Obama signed on to COIN last December when he sent in 30,000 new troops (thereby hoping to placate hawkish conservatives), with the caveat that America would begin to withdraw troops during the summer of '11 (thereby hoping to placate his liberal base). The Rolling Stone piece, in its entirety, lays out a political/policy predicament that is likely to get worse before it (presumably) gets better. And the guys on the ground will be the ones who really take the hit. Long after the McChrystal firing has faded from the news, what I'll remember most about this article is a single quote from a soldier, Pfc. Jared Pautsch:

"You sit and ask yourself, what are we doing here?"

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POSTED: Wednesday, June 23, 2010, 9:23 AM

President Obama dumped Gen. Stanley McChrystal late this morning (in official parlance, he "accepted McChrystal's resignation") - and rightly so. This post was written a few hours before the news was announced. Also, I am told that a "systems-related problem" has apparently hindered the ability of readers to post comments today. The repairmen will go for the fix early tomorrow.

When President Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant to lead the Union Army during the Civil War, he sternly informed the general: "You are not to decide, discuss or confer with anyone or ask political questions; such questions the President holds in his own hands, and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions."

Translation: Just shut up and do your job. Lincoln was essentially reminding Grant that, under the terms of American democracy, the civilians run the military. And Grant got with the program.

Nearly a century later, Harry Truman was compelled to serve up his own reminder when General Douglas MacArthur was publicly defying the White House with his grandiloquent campaign for a wider (and potentially A-bomb) war in the Korean peninsula. Truman, a far less popular figure than his media-savvy nemesis, had no choice but to relieve MacArthur of his Far East command, if only to reassert the fundamental principle of civilian supremacy over the military. Had Truman failed to fire MacArthur, the principle would have been dead.

Now comes U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, our commander in Afghanistan. Having just trash-talked the civilian commander-in-chief and the civilian veep in the pages of Rolling Stone, and (at Rolling Stone's invitation) having vetted the snarky, insubordinate quotes attributed to his senior aides, the guy's status appears to be crystal clear: He is toast. Or he should be, anyway.

The fact that he and his senior officers are ticked off at the White House is irrelevant. They apparently perceive Obama (and especially Joe Biden) as being insufficiently committed to a Afghanistan victory strategy, and perhaps they are right. But, as many military vets have pointed out during the past 24 hours, the McChrystal team's frustrations can't possibly justify such flagrant acts of insubordination.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice states that officers shall not treat their superiors "with contempt." They are barred from "being disrespectful in language or deportment." It's all about enforcing discipline in the ranks; if top officers publicly disrespect the people above them, the whole system risks breaking down.

As the conservative commentator Joel Rosenberg said this morning, Team McChrystal's insubordination "must be dealt with firmly...as a message to others that civilians run the military, not the other way around, and generals must show the president and his team respect in public and private. The president, therefore, should immediately accept the resignation of the general and his top staff...Losing them will be a terrible blow to an already difficult war, and on the eve of a major offensive planned in Kandahar. But it must be done."

Indeed, Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs hinted strongly yesterday that it will be done: "Our efforts in Afghanistan are bigger than one person." Obama has little choice but to fire the guy - and it's not just a matter of principle. It's also a virtual necessity for political reasons. If Obama gives a pass to a senior general who disses him in public, he looks weak and sends the message that there is no price to be paid for crossing him.

Obama already is bedeviled by one video spillcam; there isn't much he can do about the gush in the Gulf. But McChrystal, he can do something about. He should plug the hole.

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The sole proprietor of this blog is on the road for the month of June. Virtually all June posts will be briefer than the norm, except on the rare weekdays when posts won't show up at all. Apologies in advance for this disturbance in the force. The standard verbosity will return next Monday.

POSTED: Tuesday, June 22, 2010, 10:01 AM

Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber, pleaded guilty yesterday in federal criminal court. He didn't seek leniency in exchange for his plea. He faces a mandatory term of life imprisonment, the maximum sentence for the 10 counts listed in the criminal indictment. He outlined his criminal behavior to the federal judge yesterday, just as he had cooperated with the authorities for several weeks following his May 3 arrest, when he had waived his Miranda rights and spoken openly without counsel.

Yesterday's successful conclusion of the Shahzad case is worth a quick mention, if only to remind us how the Republican right had predictably attacked the Obama administration's May decision to pursue the case via the criminal courts, assailing it (naturally) as a sign of weakness.

The usual critics claimed that the Obama team was supposedly wimping out by treating Shahzad as a potential criminal rather than as a military combatant. Various Fox Newsers complained that Obama was afraid to use the word "terrorist." Former New York Gov. George Pataki complained that terrorist suspects should not be allowed to "lawyer up" and thus "weaken our security." Liz Cheney complained that the Obama people "aren't willing to acknowledge that (they're) facing a committed network of terrorists." John McCain and GOP congressman Peter King complained that it was a mistake to read Shahzad his Miranda rights (despite the fact that Shahzad, as an American citizen, was entitled to the reading; and that he willfully cooperated before the authorities finally read his rights).

And as recently as yesterday morning, conservative commentator Andrew McCarthy of The National Review was assailing the purported weakness of the law enforcement approach. He claimed that the government's 10-count criminal indictment was proof that Shahzad was not coughing up crucial terrorist info. When a bad guy is really and truly cooperating with the authorities, he wrote, "the standard practice is to strike a deal, complete with a cooperation agreement and a guilty plea." Ooops! Late in the day, the authorities announced that they had struck a deal with Shahzad for a guilty plea.

In reality, of course, it was no surprise that Shahzad was successfully routed through the criminal court process - because that's precisely what has happened, hundreds of times, in terrorist cases dating back to the early days of the Bush administration. As I've noted here previously, Richard Reid, the failed ’02 shoe bomber, was processed through the criminal courts. The 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui was processed through the criminal courts. The Bush team also prosecuted '01 "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla via the criminal courts. Indeed, the Bush team, in one of its own budget documents, reported that, between 2001 and 2008, it had utilized the criminal courts to obtain 319 convictions in "terrorism or terrorist-related cases" – roughly 90 percent of all cases, with the average sentence running for 16 years.

Let's see whether the McCain/Fox/Limbaugh nexus will rise up today and assail Obama's Justice Department for sending the cooperative Shahzad to the slammer for life. I suspect not. In our attack culture, there's no percentage in saying, "Gee, I guess we were wrong."  

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The sole proprietor of this blog is on the road for the month of June. Virtually all June posts will be briefer than the norm, except on the rare weekdays when posts won't show up at all. Apologies in advance for this disturbance in the force. The standard verbosity will return next Monday.

 

About this blog

Cited by the Columbia Journalism Review as one of the nation's top political reporters, and lauded by the ABC News political website as "one of the finest political journalists of his generation," Dick Polman is a national political columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is on the full-time faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, as "writer in residence." Dick has been a frequent guest on C-Span, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and the BBC. He covered the 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 presidential campaigns.

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All commentaries posted before April 18, 2008, can be accessed at www.dickpolman.blogspot.com.

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