Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | January 10, 2014

Secretary Gates, Congress, Afghanistan, Africa, and Other Varied Links

Flickr - The U.S. Army - Mountain descent

1. In case you haven’t heard, former Defense Secretary Gates has a book coming out — the Wall Street Journal has an adapted excerpt from the book on its site, and I’m sure there are other excerpts floating around the ether. Most of the media attention has focused on some critical things Gates has to say about President Obama (because the story is always about Obama!); see, for instance, this NPR piece. Former JAG Unwashed Advocate points to some less-reported passages, where Gates has some interesting things to say about members of Congress (as a species) and about congressional hearings:

I was more or less continuously outraged by the parochial self-interest of all but a very few members of Congress. Any defense facility or contract in their district or state, no matter how superfluous or wasteful, was sacrosanct. I was constantly amazed and infuriated at the hypocrisy of those who most stridently attacked the Defense Department as inefficient and wasteful but fought tooth and nail to prevent any reduction in defense activities in their home state or district.

I also bristled at what’s become of congressional hearings, where rude, insulting, belittling, bullying and all too often highly personal attacks on witnesses by members of Congress violated nearly every norm of civil behavior. Members postured and acted as judge, jury and executioner. It was as though most members were in a permanent state of outrage or suffered from some sort of mental duress that warranted confinement or at least treatment for anger management.

I continue to worry about the incessant scorched-earth battling between Congress and the president (which I saw under both Bush and Obama) but even more about the weakening of the moderate center in Congress. Today, moderation is equated with lacking principles and compromise with “selling out.” Our political system has rarely been so polarized and unable to execute even the basic functions of government.

On the subject of congressional hearings, where members of Congress seek to outdo each other in berating or grilling witnesses for the sake of a hope of scoring a four-second sound-bite that makes national news, see also this post by Ann Althouse.

2. This headline really says it all: “How hard is it to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan? Very hard.”

3. One might think that the experiences of American and NATO involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade would have powerfully impressed intelligent observers with the limitations on the ability of the US and its Western allies to control or direct outcomes in other parts of the world — and especially in the Middle East. But the New York Times nevertheless has a piece arguing that the problem with the Middle East is that there’s not enough American involvement. Seriously:

The images of recent days have an eerie familiarity, as if the horrors of the past decade were being played back: masked gunmen recapturing the Iraqi cities of Falluja and Ramadi, where so many American soldiers died fighting them. Car bombs exploding amid the elegance of downtown Beirut. The charnel house of Syria’s worsening civil war.

But for all its echoes, the bloodshed that has engulfed Iraq, Lebanon and Syria in the past two weeks exposes something new and destabilizing: the emergence of a post-American Middle East in which no broker has the power, or the will, to contain the region’s sectarian hatreds.

Think of this as a “blame the West first” mental disease — a form of nationalistic narcissism, really, that looks at events happening anywhere in the world and then seeks to twist the story so that it’s really about us. In response, I will simply echo Steve Saideman, who says: “the NYT has an article on the US and the Mideast with the same kind of disease: the Western actor (EU/US) is seen as unwilling to impose its will. The reality, of course, is that Iraq, Afghanistan and numerous other policies that have not been super-wonderful demonstrate that it is not just the exertion of power and cleverness by the western outsiders that matter but the incentives and institutions in the countries that are in play that matter.”

Also: “Arguing about who ‘lost’ Fallujah is, of course, silly since it is still there on the map. We know where it is. It was never in the US’s pocket or safe. It was and is always in Iraq, which means that when the US left Iraq (which was the responsible thing to do, given what the Iraqis would not allow and what the American people would no longer support), it would not be able to lose it. There is only so much the US can do about anything.”

See also this post at Howl at Pluto: “Had Maliki’s government made more of an effort to reach out to Sunnis and bring them into positions of responsibility/authority, the disaffection of the Sunni tribes in Anbar province might have been less and there might not have been the demonstrations against the Maliki government that led to the Iraqi security forces’ response and thence to the current situation that the linked article describes. That’s a lot of ‘mights,’ …”

4. I gather that things are not going so well in the Central African Republic:

Central African Republic’s interim President Michel Djotodia and his prime minister have resigned, according to a statement issued after a two-day summit in neighboring Chad.

Regional leaders had put pressure on Djotodia to step down after he failed to halt months of inter-religious violence that has forced 1 million people from their homes.

Djotodia was swept to power last year when a loose rebel alliance known as Seleka seized the capital. However, months of abuses by his mainly Muslim rebels led to the creation of Christian defense militia and cycles of killings that left hundreds dead.

Amy Martin, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Central African Republic, told Amy Curry and NBC News, “This is like Darfur, plus anarchy.”

5. Next door to the Central African Republic, South Sudan, the world’s newest country, is also in the midst of an ethnic civil war that began last month.

This state of affairs led Gregg Zachary, writing in the Atlantic, to propose that “the U.S. Should Help Govern South Sudan.” His case, in brief:

The solution to these problems is not to send in more peacekeepers to Juba and Bor, or hammer out a power-sharing agreement between the warring parties. Or rather, not only to do these things. The response to South Sudan’s turmoil should be crafted with a set of policy tools that were popular in the 1950s but have been used only selectively in recent years. I am referring to the process known as “trusteeship,” whereby a newly independent nation is granted special forms of assistance and special constraints on sovereignty. In some cases, the former colonial power sought to administer the trusteeship, and in other cases an international coalition or the United Nations did so for a defined period of time.

Count me as skeptical. Very skeptical.

Hat tip goes to Chris Blattman, who has his own thoughts on the subject.

Prof. Blattman also points to this rebuttal by Ken Opalo: “No, the West should not have governed South Sudan.” Please read the whole thing.

Image Credit: (1) U.S. Army soldiers descend a mountain during a patrol next to the Tangi Valley in the Wardak province, Afghanistan. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Teddy Wade, August 2009. Source: Wikimedia Commons. (2) Map of Africa from CIA World Factbook.



  1. Interesting things here (I mean apart from the quote from me [cough]).
    The excerpt from the NYT piece is rather amazing. Then I clicked and saw that one of the writers is Michael Gordon. He’s a good reporter but not one, I think, to be esp. sensitive to the limits of U.S. power. I get that sense from listening to him when he’s on the PBSNewsHr from time to time (I don’t read him in NYT that often.) He’s covered defense policy for yrs.

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