Beautiful

Because I have a background in professional communication, the Trump administration’s lack of message discipline often causes me to grind my teeth.  I’m seeing signs of improvement, however small.  Over the past several days, the president has been on Twitter, pointing out he’s available to discuss the budget.  Contrast that to the Congressional Democrats jaunting down to Puerto Rico last weekend, accompanied by over 100 lobbyists.  (Way to show solidarity with furloughed workers, donkeys!)

This, however, is brilliant.  Shortly before another Congressional junket was due to leave, using government aircraft, President Trump waved it off:

trump letter to pelosi

Naturally, Trump’s critics are calling this “petty” and “childish.”  But it’s a logical follow-up to the Speaker’s own letter yesterday suggesting Trump forego the State of the Union address due to the shutdown.  Note how many messages are packed into the letter above.  Pelosi sought to use the shutdown to deny the president a forum.  He used it to call out the Speaker for not sticking around to resolve the shutdown and restore workers’ paychecks, and at the same time cancelled a pointless seven-day vacation using government resources.  (I’ve worked my share of Congressional Delegation, or “CODEL” trips… I know whereof I speak.)

Forget the chattering classes.  Who do you think the average American in “flyover country” supports in this exchange of letters?

As for the State of the Union address, perhaps the President should simply deliver it to Congress via a prime-time TV address from the Oval Office, during which he talks with rank-and-file members of the Customs and Border Patrol about what they see everyday, and what they think it would take to secure the border.

Yes, our government is squabbling like children on a playground.  I can both mourn the current state of public discourse and at the same time recognize effective messaging when I see it.  I can also hope the squabbling only ends when there’s a commitment to finally secure our border and discourage the ongoing invasion of our country.

Build.  The.  Wall.

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A worthwhile New Years resolution

…would be for the United States to admit we’ve achieved everything we’re likely to in Afghanistan (i.e. not much), and end the operation:

No other country in the world symbolizes the decline of the American empire as much as Afghanistan. There is virtually no possibility of a military victory over the Taliban and little chance of leaving behind a self-sustaining democracy — facts that Washington’s policy community has mostly been unable to accept…

Indeed, Afghanistan represents the triumph of the deterministic forces of geography, history, culture, and ethnic and sectarian awareness, with Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras and other groups competing for patches of ground. Tribes, warlords and mafia-style networks that control the drug trade rule huge segments of the country…

The United States’ special adviser to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is trying to broker a diplomatic solution that allows the United States to draw down its forces without the political foundation in Kabul disintegrating immediately.

That may be the real reason the United States keeps spending so heavily in Afghanistan. The Pentagon is terrified of a repeat of 1975, when panicked South Vietnamese fled Saigon as Americans pulled out and North Vietnamese forces advanced on the city. The United States military did not truly begin to recover from that humiliation until its victory in the Persian Gulf war of 1991. An abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan could conceivably provide a new symbol of the decline in American hard power.

There is also the fear that an Afghanistan in chaos could once again provide a haven for an international terrorist group determined to perpetrate another Sept. 11-scale attack. Of course, Yemen, Somalia and a number of other places could also provide the setting for that.  The point is, we remain in Afghanistan out of fear of even worse outcomes, rather than in the expectation of better ones.

Afghanistan has become America’s “tar baby.”  The more we try to do there, the more we seem “stuck” with no vision or endgame in sight.  The writer of the linked article is correct that our misadventures there are likely to signal to our adversaries we aren’t the power we used to be.  But what is far worse is that our indecision and inability to know “when to fold them” demonstrates poor strategic judgment as well.  Nothing encourages aggression like thinking your potential opponent is both weak AND a fool.

(Chinese) Rear Admiral Lou Yuan has told an audience in Shenzhen that the ongoing disputes over the ownership of the East and South China Seas could be resolved by sinking two US super carriers.

His speech, delivered on December 20 to the 2018 Military Industry List summit, declared that China’s new and highly capable anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles were more than capable of hitting US carriers, despite them being at the centre of a ‘bubble’ of defensive escorts.

“What the United States fears the most is taking casualties,” Admiral Lou declared.
He said the loss of one super carrier would cost the US the lives of 5000 service men and women. Sinking two would double that toll.

Our extended presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan underscored our country’s emphasis upon what the military calls “force protection.”  It’s natural for any military to seek to limit casualties, but when it becomes apparent that even a few deaths are enough to change national policy, outside observers begin to doubt one’s resolve.  The thoughts expressed by Admiral Lou Yuan echo those of the Japanese militarists in 1940: the U.S. is a paper tiger, and will acquiesce to its rivals if smacked hard enough on the nose.  Japan’s miscalculation led to a brutal Pacific War that ended in atomic fireballs over two of its cities.  To see the line of thought being resurrected by the Chinese, whose potential to oppose the U.S. dwarfs that of Russia, should give plenty of people pause.

Afghanistan is known as “the graveyard of empires” for a reason.  The sooner we recognize that, and take steps to restore the deterrent credibility we’ve lost there, the better.  The misguided 17-year (and counting) occupation may have sought to avoid another 9/11.  But at this point, it risks far worse outcomes by emboldening rivals who believe they’ve taken our measure by watching us there.  Perhaps America in 2019 lacks the ability to muster the resolve shown after Pearl Harbor in 1941.  Then again, perhaps not.

The only certain thing is it’s better to ensure we never have to find out.

The long twilight struggle

Sometime late next year, a young man or woman who was not yet born on September 11, 2001, will raise their right hand and join the U.S. armed forces.  Given the tempo at which those forces have operated the past 17 years, that young person likely will be sent quickly to the Middle East in some capacity.

There, they will form part of the second consecutive generation to fight this “war.”  Unlike my uniformed cohort, they will have no memory of the events that led to them being there.  Nor will they have a concept of a time when the TSA didn’t exist, and the government didn’t conduct constant surveillance.  For them, America has always been at war.

The same will hold true of their contemporaries who stay in civilian life.

So what have we accomplished thus far, at the expense of nearly 7,000 dead and almost $3 trillion?  Very little, it would seem:

…Al Qaeda may be stronger than ever. Far from vanquishing the extremist group and its associated “franchises,” critics say, U.S. policies in the Mideast appear to have encouraged its spread.

What U.S. officials didn’t grasp, said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, in a recent phone interview, is that Al Qaeda is more than a group of individuals. “It’s an idea, and an idea cannot be destroyed using sophisticated weapons and killing leaders and bombing training camps,” she said.

In fact, a good case can be made that the resilience of jihadi groups in the face of the most technologically sophisticated military force on the planet only underscores the righteousness of their ideas.  In swatting bees with sledgehammers, we’ve only increased the size of the swarm, with no vision of how this is supposed to end:

There is a stunning lack of strategic vision in America today. The range of foreign policy activities, beyond so-called “traditional diplomacy,” extend across military power and include everything from financial aid to information to exchanges of all kinds. These instruments are, however, seemingly applied without synchronization or thoughts about end states. The different bureaucracies often work together only on an ad hoc basis and rarely share collaborative requirements and communications with their respective oversight committees in the Congress.

Our few and feeble attempts to articulate vision have been badly flawed, and rarely considered the cultural and political realities of where we were fighting.  I was in Baghdad when the Bush administration declared our objectives there were a stable, unified, democratic Iraq.  A quick wit in our section soon had those diagrammed with a triangle on a marker board with the caption “pick any two.”

While pursuing this quixotic endeavor abroad, we have also failed to secure our own borders or effectively increase scrutiny of those entering our country.  The 9/11 hijackers covertly but legally entered the United States.  Now we have a veritable open fifth column of Islamists spreading the influence within the country.  Since many young Americans have been conditioned to believe their nation to be a blight on history, it’s difficult to mount an effective ideological defense.

Our continued thrashing about in the world only underscores our nation’s diminishment.  One measure of “just war” — a pillar of Western thought rarely referenced in the general public these days — is whether a conflict results in improved circumstances.  Can anyone say that Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen… or the United States are better off after a generation of warfare?  Is this likely to change when the sons and daughters of the original military force are the ones doing the fighting?

Seal the borders.  Deport the disloyal.  Bring our troops home.  That’s a coherent proposal, and at least has the benefit of not yet having been seriously tried.  Anything short of that is insanity — defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  That’s no way to honor the memory of those who died 17 years ago… or the tens of thousands of American servicemen dead or disabled since then.

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