Monday, November 30, 2009
A Tagliabue poem, maybe shaped like a boat, sails into your life.
Published in Poetry, August 1960
Where people of today dwell, I do not dwell. What people of today do, I do not do.
If you clearly understand what this really means, you must be able to enter a pit of fire with your whole body.
People imagine enlightenment will make them incredibly powerful. And it does. It makes you the most powerful being in all the universe---but usually no one else notices.
The first question I ask when something doesn't seem to be beautiful is why do I think it's not beautiful? And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.
The other day I was crawling around on the floor underneath our garage-saled computer desk...from which I've embarked upon years of cyberspace adventures and exploration. Occasionally there have been stormy seas. Always the used desk requires on-hands-and-knees maintenance, because a joint wiggles loose and I have to get down there and set it secure again. This time though I happened to look down to my right, and there was a corner of a piece of paper sticking out from who knows how long ago. I pulled at it carefully and produced a page of 2 poems mailed to me by John Tagliabue, poems I don't think I'd ever read before.
John was my favorite professor 50 years ago at Bates, my eventual thesis advisor, and somehow blessed me with his friendship the rest of his life. He succumbed to pancreatic cancer on the last day of May 2006, just short of his 83rd birthday. In between he would mail envelopes full of typewritten poems to his friends, always encouraging us to share them freely. He liked the image of the Chinese poet who would ride along on a stream in a little boat, writing things on leaves and dropping them over the side. He wasn't published as much as he should have been (and should be) but he had very little patience with the "industry." He mailed poems out to little journals constantly though, and much of that work did see the light of day...but the journals themselves flickered out quickly. The big one always was Poetry, but the poem above is one of the relatively few times John showed up in those esteemed pages. You can see the artful way he arranged his words.
I have a whole closet full of Tagliabue poems, almost all of them unpublished. I wish I could say they're arranged in careful chronological order...but they're not. My life, my travels, my chaos are such that almost nothing is arranged anymore...except my collection of jazz records. Even that has gotten sloppy. I'm not alone in having saved all the Tagliabue correspondence I'm sure. There are others of us who have these great stacks of poems and reminiscences, and we should all get together soon and collate everything into a gigantic volume. Time is growing short...and then, what would we do with it? And some of us know the magical secret of the Puppet Plays too. Ah John, how you haunt us still!
But back to these 2 poems from under the computer desk. John identifies the day of writing the second as July 2nd, 2005, and therefore they are among the final poems of his life. The page is titled 82nd Year. John had fallen onto a sidewalk in Providence, where he and his wondrous wife Grace decided to retire, leaving their beloved Maine. He never said what caused the fall, just a stumble. He didn't indicate a twinge of pain that might have brought the stumble...but in the next year the diagnosis came, and suggestion of urgent surgery which didn't work out. Tagliabue did not write about his final months of life as Updike did. I've been reading Endpoint from the death bed just published this year. Tagliabue continued celebration and dance, taking it all in stride---with nary a stumble. Here they are~~~
1. A breathing in time saves millions
So many inspirations, expirations
repeated original respirations, mouth to mouth
words, the varieties of the Holy Spirit, came out of our
one enlivened another ! the breath of life Escapes
escapes also from us ? all these daily escapades
and Brazil and India and Elsewhere are crowded. The
populations with their different beliefs, songs,
somewhat realize that letting ourselves go with
is propitious, is more or less appropriate
2. WPA and/or
A can be for Applause of freedom's Activity
to write a poem unless that is a game
you really want
to play, often it doesn't pay, and as Gertrude Stein
said "To try
is to die." But don't disrespect or neglect a
lovely urge or
a necessary dirge or delight. Sure, try IF
you FEEL like
it. Ah, feelings at any age can be made
This is the 2nd day of my 82nd age and I'm
page the continuing works. As for form what
I was looking this morning to see if there's more information on the Internet about Tagliabue now, and there is. In fact, he's catching up with his more famous cousin, also named John Tagliabue. I thought maybe I could give you a link, in case you're interested. What I can't resist is an incredible display of John's life and work put together by somebody at IBM. It's arranged like one of John's poems! but with techie twists and turns. Tagliabue would have loved it. Thankfully I can hear his eternal laughter in my mind's ear.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Illustration by Victor Juhasz
We accept the graceful falling
of mountain cherry blossoms,
but it is much harder for us
to fall away from our own
attachment to the world.
We were approached by the lobbyist, who asked if we would be willing to enter a statement in the Congressional Record. I asked him for a draft. I tweaked a couple of words. There’s not much reason to reinvent the wheel on a Congressional Record entry.
---Stanley V. White, chief of staff for Representative Robert A. Brady of Pennsylvania, one of dozens of lawmakers who used speeches ghostwritten by a biotechnology company during the health-care debate in the House. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/15/us/politics/15health.html?_r=1&th=&emc=th&pagewanted=all
Prig offered Pig the first chance at dessert,
So Pig reached out and speared the bigger part.
"Now that," cried Prig, "is extremely rude of you!"
Pig, with his mouth full, said, "Wha, wha' wou' 'ou do?"
"I would have taken the littler bit," said Prig.
"Stop kvetching, then it's what you've got," said Pig.
So virtue is its own reward, you see.
And that is all it's ever going to be.
---"Manners" by Howard Nemerov
I'm not a Democrat, although that's how I've been registered for years. The reason is I want to vote in their primaries. After Reagan through Bush, I can't imagine voting for a Republican in this lifetime. People think of me as a liberal, but I'm actually pretty far to the left of that position. When I say that, no one comprehends what I'm talking about. There never seems to be a candidate I really want to vote for.
The history of the radical left seems to most people as crazy as the radical right, but I think there is much to be proud of. The problem with the radical left is the same as for liberals and Democrats: we can't seem to organize anything. All the elections we lose are basically because of that. The right can issue marching orders, but my god where are they going off to? To me that's American's politics in a nutshell.
According to the polls and midterm election analyses, I'm not alone. It looks like most Americans consider themselves independents. I worked harder for Obama than during any election, but it wasn't because I was committed totally to him. I was working against the certain horror of a McCain-Palin victory.
The midterms revealed tens of thousands of Obama grassrooters stayed home, especially the young. I got to the polls late in the afternoon on November 3rd, and in my district fewer than 50 people had voted by that time. I keep hoping Obama has some brilliant strategy that will be revealed over the next year to prevent disaster in 2010. Every once in a while he seems to flash a hint, but essentially this man wants consensus. He doesn't knock heads together. Republicans will label it appeasement.
Has it been a mistake thus far to have left so much of the Bush program intact? If nothing works out, is it Obama's plan to blame the Republicans in his own administration? Shifting the war activities from Iraq back to Afghanistan seems to have been his own idea. But now he's bogged down, and the Sunday talking heads will tear away at him this morning.
The insurance companies, some of whom have monopolies in individual states, appear to be writing the healthcare bill. What about those stump speeches decrying unethical lobbyists? Did Obama miscalculate how powerful those people are? Does he fear not only for his political agenda, but for his life?
Then there's the Wall Street bailout. I just was reading an article by Naomi Klein, written a bit over a year ago, and published in the Rolling Stone issue predated November 13th, but before Obama was elected. In it she predicts with unerring accuracy exactly what has happened, namely that the banks didn't loan out any money but instead gave themselves bonuses and got bigger. Without the loans, which would affect small business, there are no new jobs. And she told us why that would happen.
What Ms. Klein wrote and the fact her prophecy has had absolutely no effect upon subsequent developments is the best argument I know for remaining in the great unwashed independent blob out here. But we have to keep writing, we have to keep trying. Perhaps there's some progress. Maybe stuff we didn't know about or merely suspected (in an insane conspiracy plot) is out in the open now. We have to shine a light on it, we have to protest...else all is lost.
Here's the beginning of Naomi's article and the link to the rest. The editor has a note saying the online version has been updated since the print edition, but I have the magazine in my hand and the only change I see is regarding the Jeffery appointment, which just maybe the original article sabotaged~~~
On October 13th, (2008), when the U.S. Treasury Department announced the team of "seasoned financial veterans" that will be handling the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street, one name jumped out: Reuben Jeffery III, who was initially tapped to serve as chief investment officer for the massive new program.
On the surface, Jeffery looks like a classic Bush appointment. Like Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, he's an alum of Goldman Sachs, having worked on Wall Street for 18 years. And as chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission from 2005 to 2007, he proudly advocated "flexibility" in regulation — a laissez-faire approach that failed to rein in the high-risk trading at the heart of the meltdown.
Bankers watching bankers, regulators who don't believe in regulating — that's all standard fare for the Bush crew. What's most striking about Jeffery's résumé, however, is an item omitted when his new job was announced: He served as executive director of Paul Bremer's infamous Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, during the early days of the Iraq War. Part of his job was to hire civilian staff, which made him an integral part of the partisan machine that filled the Green Zone with Young Republicans, investment bankers and Dick Cheney interns. Qualifications weren't a big issue back then, because the staff's main function was to hand over stacks of taxpayer money to private contractors, who were the ones actually running the occupation. It was this nonstop cash conveyor belt that earned the Green Zone a reputation, in the words of one CPA official, as "a free-fraud zone." During Senate hearings last year, when Jeffery was asked what he had learned from his experience at the CPA, he said he thought that contracts should be handed out with more "speed and flexibility" — the same philosophy he cited back when he was in charge of regulating Wall Street traders.
Thursday, November 05, 2009
Annie with Llamas
A monk traveled a long way to visit the master, Nansen. The monk found him by the side of the road, cutting grass.
"What is the way to Nansen?" asked the monk.
Nansen answered: "I bought this sickle for thirty cents."
The monk said: "I did not ask about the sickle. I ask the way to Nansen."
Nansen answered: "I use it in full enjoyment."
I would like to beg you, dear sir, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, some day in the far future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
---Rainer Maria Rilke
From the temple deep in a bamboo grove
comes the sound of the evening bell,
while the pilgrim's straw hat carries sunset
farther and farther down the green mountain.
I'm fascinated with friends. At some points in my life I have neglected family completely to be involved with friends. They don't need to be 2 separate groups I guess, but there seem to be significant differences. That would need to be a different essay.
I don't think I've had a lot of friends since junior high school, although I don't count or usually compare myself to other people in this regard. I'm not very good at making friends or keeping them...but the ones who have hung around I really treasure. I hope I tell them so enough...but I'm sure I should do more. And I should tell my family I treasure them too.
Sometimes people have shown up in my life who are so incredible, and even famous, that I can't believe we even know each other. I don't understand how that happens, and I don't want to tempt the fates by asking. I just tiptoe along in gratitude. I hope you know people like that too.
Such people are Annie and Jay Warmke, who live at Blue Rock Station up near Philo, Ohio, which is close to Zanesville. That's Annie in the picture...and I can just hear her saying, Oh that picture is a few years old! (I think 2005.) I could write for days about their amazing journey, about their achievements in sustainability long before most of us even heard the term, about their lovely grandchild Catlyn (soon to be sweet 16), and all their chickens and cats and dogs and goats...and llamas, all of whom have names and are talked to and treated almost the same as the rest of us people. You can know more about them by visiting here http://www.bluerockstation.com/ or just email to tell them you're coming and go see for yourself.
I don't know how we found out about each other. It may have been on the Internet some way, through common interests. But I remember the moment we all met in person as if it were this morning. It started with instant recognition and hugs. And we've just stayed that way. Two families traveling through life as friends. We're all different ages and have had extraordinarily different individual lives...but none of that matters. It only makes things more interesting. Both Ilona and Cat have lived in France...and share certain consternations about boys, so there's that. Otherwise, we're unique except that we laugh a lot when we're together. That's not often because we live about 2 hours apart, which is a bit far just to drop by after supper.
They're not the first people I've known who've kept llamas. My cousin Janet and her husband did. They ran a recreation camp on Lake Chautauqua, and I thought maybe the animals were there as kind of a novelty zoo or something. Apparently llamas are very handy creatures though, a kind of combination of a cow, a horse, and a sheep all in one. I still don't know much about them, but I suppose I know them better because they're part of Jay and Annie's family. Herding them from pasture to pasture needs to be a public event, with neighbor help. When a baby llama is born there is great celebration.
Mostly the Warmkes keep to themselves up there in Muskingum County. It's not known as a particularly progressive area, and some folks may wonder about the strange house Annie and Jay built themselves out of old tires, bottles, wire mesh and mud. They've got 38 acres and what they do isn't visible from the road, and you'd think more conservative people would let them mind their own business. But people do come and go at Blue Rock Station. They come for workshops and tours and for one of Annie's high tea ceremonies. There's a sign at the gate and they advertise. People find out and I suppose the old word "hippie" might occur to them. Too bad.
The last couple years Jay has taken an interest in standing for public office. Folks may not know or guess that in his background is a startling business career of great accomplishment. He doesn't unfurl his credentials readily or even willingly, but they're there and he makes a formidable candidate. Cat's reports of her school experience in Muskingum inspired Jay to run for the school board. That's all. It's not like he wants to be county executive or anything. Just a contributing school board member. He tried it once before but didn't get elected. This year he tried again.
Last month we drove up for Annie's unique birthday party. It was for women only and involved swapping stuff from around our houses that we don't use much but that other people might like. No presents. We guys had to leave the grounds and go somewhere else. Jay and I got to talk about the school board and the election. He showed me the big house his opponent lives in and his big SUVs out front, and told me a bit of what he does for a living and how he operates. It was a tight race, and I guess it got rather nasty. At one point Annie wrote me that maybe if Jay lost, it would be better.
Just now I checked the WHIZ website for election results. It looks like the school levy got turned down again, but it appears Jay actually won...and now is a member of the Franklin Local Schools School Board. Yay! Congratulations buddy!
But at what cost? Late at night, election night...someone expressed an opinion. Annie wrote me early yesterday morning. Here it is~~~
"Yesterday was one of the worst days of my life. In the night someone or
maybe more then one person came into the field. They shot Michelle
Belle with a 22, and then as she lay dying they cut off her ear as a
trophy of some sort. I found her when I went to milk this morning.
This is the final act in a tough campaign for school board. I couldn't
have imagined this is how it would all end.
"We spent 3.5 years socializing her so that she was a good llama. Then I
spent the better part of August and September saving her life - hand
feeding her, pulling her up with a tow strap to force her to keep
moving, and massaging her to keep her from stiffening up. She had the
loveliest velvety chocolate face with huge eyes and long lashes. I
"There is nothing else to say until I figure out what this all means to
my life, and what I need to do to protect the rest of the animals.Today
I am able to think again. We refuse to live in fear. I only want good
energy here so in spite of the fact that I will not stop looking for the
person or people who did this to Michelle. I am planning a blessing
day. We are going to light sage and bless the place where she died, and
where we buried her. Then we will walk the property line where we know
they crossed to do this horrible thing. The only protection we can have
for the other animals is a constant good energy. I am also sending
blessings and healing the those who did this, and the constant mantra
that they will come forward.
"I couldn't think of this yesterday - I was just mourning. It is still
not clear to me what all of this means to our lives, but this will be
revealed as time passes."
Later yesterday she added~~~
"I think the thing we have to do is to talk about how to react to these
types of hate crimes. I needed today to think this through and I see
that we need to think about how to raise awareness in the community that
involves talking to each other and not just thinking the law will take
care of this. We need to have a plan with steps that involve the
community. We need to ask for mental health assistance if the person is
caught and not press for jail time....jail will not help. We need to
share how we have mourned this type of invasion in our lives. I don't
know all of the answers yet, but I am determined to figure out how to
fit this into my walk of peace in my life. Annie"
I asked her if blogging and sharing this news would be helpful, or did they need to be quiet about this. She said she has written to the Zanesville Times-Recorder, and perhaps a reporter will contact them today. Annie said any publicity of this monstrous behavior could help and would be welcome. There's not much more I can say, but I thought the Warmkes might like this poem that showed up the other day~~~
by Louis Jenkins
It turns out that the drain pipe from the sink is attached to
nothing and water just runs right onto the ground in the
crawl space underneath the house and then trickles out
into the stream that passes through the backyard. It turns
out that the house is not really attached to the ground but
sits atop a few loose concrete blocks all held in place by
gravity, which, as I understand it, means "seriousness." Well,
this is serious enough. If you look into it further you will
discover that the water is not attached to anything either
and that perhaps the rocks and the trees are not all that
firmly in place. The world is a stage. But don't try to move
anything. You might hurt yourself, besides that's a job for
the stagehands and union rules are strict. You are merely a
player about to deliver a soliloquy on the septic system to a
couple dozen popple trees and a patch of pale blue sky.
"Gravity" by Louis Jenkins from Just Above Water.
Monday, November 02, 2009
Dr Abdullah after announcing that he would not be standing in the election run-off
In the United States today, the Declaration of Independence hangs on schoolroom walls, but foreign policy follows Machiavelli.
To maintain this position of disparity (U.S. economic-military supremacy)... we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming.... We should cease to talk about vague and... unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standard and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts.... The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.
Director of Policy Planning U.S. State Department 1948
We have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. Our minimal expectation is to occupy it as an American colony and maintain social stability for our investments. This tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Colombia and Peru. Increasingly the role our nation has taken is the role of those who refuse to give up the privileges and pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.
---Martin Luther King, Jr.
"A Time to Break the Silence" speech given at Riverside Church New York City April 4, 1967
So a romantic weekend in Afghanistan doesn't fit into your idea of attractive vacation plans? Me neither, but the weekend has been filled with strong consideration of what the mission is...and why. The headlines this morning lead off with this war, and there's no more time to avoid it.
Of chief interest to me however is an article posted by Ray McGovern at 3 or 4 sites, including TruthOut and Consortium News. Mr. McGovern, who graduated summa cum laude from Fordham University, was a Federal employee under seven U.S. presidents over 27 years, presenting the morning intelligence briefings at the White House for many of them. His weekend with Afghanistan began Thursday with a RAND-sponsored meeting in the Russell Senate Office Building. His article in full is reprinted following these opening comments.
What we heard more about is the withdrawal of Dr. Abdullah Abdullah from the Afghan runoff election at the week's end. Reports of what actually happened in the original election are surfacing all over the Internet, but not in the mainstream media. No one is denying a corrupt, invalid original election...but no one is demanding Karzai clean up his act either. The US is saying we'll deal with Mr. Karzai later. That's the mission?
Reports lead off this morning's New York Times and also the London Times~~~
On a similar topic, Friday afternoon yielded typical releases by the government of matters we hope won't be noticed. This time the Justice Department let out pages and pages of information about US secret interrogations. If you prefer that kind of start to your week, look here~~~
Now on to Mr. McGovern~~~
Kipling Haunts Obama's Afghan War
By Ray McGovern
November 1. 2009 -- The White Man’s Burden, a phrase immortalized by English poet Rudyard Kipling as an excuse for European-American imperialism, was front and center Thursday morning at a RAND-sponsored discussion of Afghanistan in the Russell Senate Office Building.
The agenda was top-heavy with RAND speakers, and the thinking was decidedly “inside the box” — so much so, that I found myself repeating a verse from Kipling, who recognized the dangers of imperialism, to remind me of the real world:
It is not wise for the Christian white
To hustle the Asian brown;
For the Christian riles
And the Asian smiles
And weareth the Christian down.
At the end of the fight
Lies a tombstone white
With the name of the late deceased;
And the epitaph drear,
A fool lies here,
Who tried to hustle the East.
With a few notable exceptions, the RAND event offered conventional wisdom to a fare-thee-well. There was a certain poetic justice that President Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has chaired RAND’s Middle East Advisory Board, was chosen to keynote the proceedings.
As national security adviser under President Carter, Brzezinski thought it a good idea to mousetrap the Soviets into their own Vietnam debacle by baiting them into invading Afghanistan in 1979, the war that was the precursor to the great-power quagmire in Afghanistan now, three decades later.
On Thursday, Brzezinski disclosed that he had advised the Bush/Cheney administration to invade Afghanistan in 2001, but insisted that he told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the U.S. military should not stay “as an alien force” once American objectives were achieved.
Exuding his customary confidence, Brzezinski first addressed — and ruled out — several “No’s,” the things that the U.S. must not do:
-Withdrawal is “not in the range of policy options.”
-The U.S. must not repeat the Soviet experience in going it alone, but rather must “use all our leverage” to make NATO’s commitment stick.
-The U.S. should not neglect the need to include “Islamic” groups in the coalition.
Brzezinski offered a much longer litany of “Yeses” — but his list was disappointingly bereft of new ideas. Indeed, it was notable only for his insistence that the U.S. ought to be more actively engaged in promoting a north-south pipeline through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean. He said, for example, that India needs access to the resources of central Asia, an area especially rich in natural gas, as well as oil.
Without batting an eyelash, Brzezinski noted that within three months the war in Afghanistan will be the “longest war in U.S. history,” and warned that the United States could be “bogged down there for another decade or so.” At the same time, he argued, the world impact of an early U.S. departure “would be utterly devastating.”
Questioned about growing opposition to the war, he conceded condescendingly that “public fatigue” is understandable, but expressed confidence that adoption of his recommended policies would be “persuasive” enough to turn public opinion around.
One must give RAND credit for inviting a few outsiders whose remarks came closer to reflecting reality. Former national intelligence officer for the Middle East, Paul Pillar, and Harvard professor Stephen Walt offered observations that, though eminently sensible, somehow seemed oddly out of step — “out of the box,” as we say in Washington.
Pillar asked if what the U.S. was doing in Afghanistan is enhancing the security of the American people. Are the costs justified, given the amount of change and the “direction of change” that U.S. policies can be realistically expected to produce?
Even if the U.S. and NATO effort is, as they say, “properly resourced,” large parts of Afghanistan will remain open to the Taliban, and perhaps al Qaeda — not to mention alternative locales like Somalia and Yemen.
And then there are the counterproductive consequences.
It is a given, said Pillar, that sending more troops perceived as occupation forces will — more than any other step — bring more and more recruits to the Taliban. As for the cost, Pillar cited the recent congressional testimony by Stephen Biddle, a defense policy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Biddle, though supportive of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s counterinsurgency approach, said it would incur “Iraq-war-scale cost for three to five years.” Pillar asked if that kind of anticipated cost was worth what he suggested would be “at best, a slight reduction in the danger from terrorism.” Whether the game is worth the candle is, he said, the calculation that the President has to make.
Stephen Walt picked up on Pillar’s themes, pleading for a realistic assessment of benefits against cost. As for U.S. troop casualties, 850 have already been killed. At a rate of 50 deaths a month, five more years would bring 3,000 dead — not to mention the many thousands more who have been wounded.
And the longer the United States stays, the more it looks like a foreign occupier and the more various Afghan factions are pushed together by giving them a common enemy. Plus, al Qaeda will have a safe haven — in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, even Europe — no matter the degree of “success” the U.S. achieves in Afghanistan.
Walt opined that it is the epitome of hubris for the U.S. to take on the monumental task of “social engineering” the 200 million people in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that the chances of succeeding are “not great.” He questioned the disproportionate attention in resources directed toward Afghanistan when there is little reason to send more U.S. troops, except for the fact that there are already U.S. troops there with too much to handle.
Walt pointed also to a significant “opportunity cost” in the drain on President Barack Obama’s time, noting there are lots of other problems — domestic as well as foreign — that crave his attention.
Remarkably, among virtually all the speakers there was broad consensus that Brzezinski’s first No-No would prevail — that is, that no U.S. troop withdrawal will be in the cards. Walt put it bluntly, saying the President “painted himself into a corner” last spring and would probably not be able to change course to address “one of the world’s most intractable problems” in a sensible way. The Harvard professor predicted that in just a few years the Obama administration will look back with huge regret on how badly it erred.
The Cato Institute’s Christopher Preble took strong issue with the notion that “a country like ours would have no alternative” to escalation. He, too, asked if adding to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is essential to U.S. national security. Or, Preble wondered, has the conflict there simply become an interest in itself — “that we must win this war because it is the war we are in?” He, too, gave U.S. policy makers a failing grade on “the cost-benefit test.”
RAND and the Establishment
The biggest surprise for me came in the remarks of well-respected diplomat James Dobbins, director of RAND’s International Security and Defense Policy Center. Dobbins provided no supporting data or reasoning to support what seemed — to me, at least — to be scare tactics. His words were the kind that a diplomat would use in selling a policy aimed at avoiding the worst.
Addressing the possibility of U.S. departure from Afghanistan, Dobbins predicted a long list of calamities: civil war (as if one isn’t already under way), the involvement not only of Pakistan but of Iran, Russia and China; millions of refugees, widespread disease, negative economic growth, increased extremism and use of Afghanistan for more terrorism.
As for the administration’s public posture, Dobbins pointed to a need to “expand the explanation for our presence in Afghanistan,” so that the rationale will appear more commensurate with an increased commitment” — read, more troops justified by more rhetorical flourishes.
Although Dobbins performed yeoman service, for example, in securing Iranian cooperation in setting up the Karzai government in Kabul, his experience with Asian insurgencies appears paper-thin. I was painfully reminded of this by his gratuitous remark that “in Vietnam we had neutralized the Viet Cong” (sic), and only when the North Vietnamese came into the fray, and the U.S. commitment slackened, did we lose that war.
With that faux history as background, it is less surprising that Dobbins would tout, as he did, the “Powell doctrine” of overwhelming force and advocate for a still deeper U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, to be accompanied by a more persuasive rationale to explain it.
Professor Walt pointed out that, applying the insurgent-to-population ratio Dobbins has used for Bosnia, 600,000 troops would be needed to defeat the insurgents in Afghanistan.
RAND veteran and former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, addressed the public perception problem regarding the Afghan war with unusual candor: “People don’t believe we know what we’re doing.” Still, endorsing the Brzezinski No-No dictum, Khalilzad said that “no serious person” would contemplate U.S. withdrawal thus enabling “extremism” to prevail.
Khalilzad argued for playing to U.S. strengths with a “purchasing power” approach — the United States comes up with the money to pay potential or actual insurgents more than they earn fighting for the Taliban. And he stressed that the U.S. needs to expand Afghan forces.
Speaking last, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Michigan, also emphasized the need for building up Afghan forces, as the administration considers increasing the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. Levin spoke of the need for a 400,000-strong Afghan army and police force by 2012, trained by U.S. and NATO specialists.
Training the Indigenous: Panacea or Mirage?
I am reminded of what former CENTCOM commander, General John Abizaid, described to the Senate Armed Services Committee three years ago as a “major change” in the Iraq war — namely, new emphasis on training Iraqis.
The final returns are not yet in for Iraq, but in my experience this is almost always an unfruitful exercise, as many of us learned from Vietnam. Been there; done that; should have known that.
Three months after John Kennedy's death, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara sent President Lyndon Johnson a draft of a major speech McNamara planned to give on defense policy. What follows is a segment of an audiotape of a conversation between the two on Feb. 25, 1964:
Johnson: Your speech is good, but I wonder if you shouldn't find two minutes to devote to Vietnam.
McNamara: The problem is what to say about it.
Johnson: I'll tell you what to say about it. I would say we have a commitment to Vietnamese freedom. We could pull out there; the dominoes would fall and that part of the world would go to the Communists. ... Nobody really understands what is out there. ... Our purpose is to train [the South Vietnamese] people, and our training's going good.
McNamara: All right, sir.
But the Vietnamese training wasn't "going good.” Before long, half a million American troops were in Vietnam trying to save South Vietnam’s government.
It is a forlorn hope that unwelcome occupation troops can train indigenous soldiers and police to fight against their own brothers and sisters. That the British also seem to have forgotten these lessons, along with some of Kipling’s cautionary poetry about the risks of imperialism, is really no excuse.
If President Obama is depending on the RAND folks and embedded neo-con pundits like the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, we are in trouble. In Friday’s column Ignatius appeals for more troops “to continue the mission,” as the President and his advisers attempt to figure out what the mission should be.
As I sat at the RAND event on Thursday, I could not help wondering what would be the judgments of my former colleagues in the intelligence community on these key issues? Specifically, what might a National Intelligence Estimate on Prospects for Afghanistan say?
NIEs are the most authoritative genre of analytical product, embodying key judgments on important national security issues. They are coordinated throughout the 16-agency intelligence community and then signed by the Director of National Intelligence in his statutory capacity as chief intelligence adviser to the President.
An NIE can, and should, play an important role. An estimate on Iran’s nuclear program, for example, given to President George W. Bush in November 2007, helped derail plans by Vice President Dick Cheney and White House adviser Elliott Abrams for war on Iran. The most senior U.S. military officers had realized what a debacle that would be and insisted that this NIE’s key judgments be made public.
They anticipated, correctly, that public knowledge that Iran had stopped working on developing a nuclear warhead in 2003 (and had not resumed such work) would take the wind out of Cheney’s, Abrams’, and Israel’s sails. Bush and Cheney were not pleased; but the NIE helped stop the juggernaut toward war with Iran.
There’s Always an NIE, Right?
As one of the intelligence analysts watching Vietnam in the Sixties and Seventies, I worked on several of the NIEs produced before and during the war. All too many bore this title: “Probable Reactions to Various Courses of Action With Respect to North Vietnam.”
Typical of the kinds of question the President and his advisers wanted addressed: Can we seal off the Ho Chi Minh Trail by bombing it? If the U.S. were to introduce x thousand additional troops into South Vietnam, will Hanoi quit? Okay, how about xx thousand?
Our answers regularly earned us brickbats from the White House for not being “good team players.” But in those days we labored under a strong ethos dictating that we give it to policymakers straight, without fear or favor. We had career protection for doing that. And — truth be told — we often took a perverse delight in being the only show in town without a policy agenda.
Our judgments (the unwelcome ones, anyway) were pooh-poohed as negativism; and policymakers, of course, were in no way obliged to take them into account. The point is that they continued to be sought. Not even Lyndon Johnson, nor Richard Nixon, would be likely to decide on a significant escalation without seeking the best guess of the intelligence community as to how U.S. adversaries would likely react to this or that escalatory step.
Wrong: No NIE
Here’s the thing. Would you believe there is no current National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan? Rather, Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal are running the show, allowing professional intelligence analysts to be mostly straphangers at planning and strategy meetings.
CIA Director Panetta, a self-described “creature of Congress,” is not going to risk putting any senior military noses out of joint by objecting, and neither is his nominal boss, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair. And, sad to say, National Security Adviser James Jones, in deferring to the military, is serving President Obama just as poorly as Bush apparatchik Condoleezza Rice served President Bush.
How many “militants” are there in Afghanistan? How may “insurgents?” How do you draw a distinction between a militant and an insurgent? Could it be that these combatants are widely regarded, in many areas of Afghanistan, as resistance fighters? What would be the implications of that?
When the Military Does the Packaging
Forty-two years ago, my CIA analyst colleague Sam Adams was sent to Saigon to have it out with the Army intelligence officers working there for Gen. William Westmoreland. After several months of exhaustive analysis, Adams had connected a whole bunch of dots, so to speak, and concluded that there were more than twice as many Vietnamese Communists under arms as the Army would carry on its books.
Bewildered at first, Adams quickly learned that Westmoreland had instructed his intelligence staff to falsify intelligence on enemy strength, keeping the numbers low enough to promote an illusion of progress in the war. After a prolonged knock-down-drag-out fight, then-CIA Director Richard Helms decided to acquiesce in the Army’s arbitrary exclusion from its enemy aggregate total paramilitary and other armed elements numbering up to 300,000.
These categories had been included in previous estimates because they were a key part of the combat force of the Communists. The Adams/CIA best estimate was total Communist strength of 500,000. However, it was the doctored estimate that went to the President and his advisers in November 1967. That was just two months before the countrywide Communist Tet offensive in late January/early February 1968 proved — at great cost — that Adams figures were far more accurate than the Army’s.
Years later, when Adams and CBS told the story of this internal battle on “60 Minutes,” Westmoreland sued, giving Adams his day in court, literally. Subpoenaed documents and the testimony of Westmoreland’s own staff in Saigon established the accuracy of Adams’ charges, and Westmoreland withdrew his suit.
Yet, right up until his premature death at age 55, Sam Adams could not dispel the remorse he felt at not having gone public with his findings much earlier. He felt that, had he done so, the entire left half of the Vietnam memorial would not be there, because there would be no names to carve into the granite for those later years of the war.
In recent years, former Defense Department and RAND analyst Daniel Ellsberg also has expressed deep regret that he waited too long; that he did not give the press the “Pentagon Papers” history of the Vietnam War and its many deceptions until 1971.
What few people know is that a couple of patriotic truth-tellers, including Ellsberg, did reveal key facts about the war in the late Sixties, when they learned that the Johnson administration was working on plans to expand the ground war into Cambodia, Laos and right up to the Chinese border — perhaps even beyond.
In 1967, the beribboned, bemedaled Petraeus — sorry, I mean Westmoreland — addressed a joint session of Congress during which he congratulated himself on the “great progress” being made in the war. Congress was unaware that Westmoreland was on the verge of getting President Johnson to agree to sending 206,000 more troops for a widening of the war that threatened to bring China in as an active combatant.
Two key leaks to the New York Times helped put the kibosh on that escalation. The first, on March 10, 1968, revealed the 206,000 escalation figure; and the second, on March 19—by Ellsberg himself—disclosed the suppression of the CIA’s higher, accurate count of Vietnamese Communists under arms. On March 25, Johnson complained to a small gathering of confidants:
“The leaks to the New York Times hurt us. ... We have no support for the war. ... I would have given Westy the 206,000 men.”
I believe that President Obama wants to make the right decision regarding Afghanistan. For me, his poignant visit Thursday night to the U.S. Air Force Base at Dover, Delaware, to receive the coffins of 18 Americans recently killed in Afghanistan bespeaks an authentic desire to do the right thing and face into any political repercussions.
It is clear, at the same time, that he is under great military and political pressure to send more troops on what those of us who experienced Vietnam are convinced is a fool’s errand. And, sadly, his national security adviser and his intelligence chiefs seem to have gone AWOL.
For Intelligence Analyst Colleagues:
One clear lesson from what Ellsberg did in March 1968—not to mention the November 2007 NIE on Iran—is that patriotic truth telling, official or unofficial, can prevent wider wars. And so I address you all—both my erstwhile colleagues and newer analysts in the intelligence community:
Those of you working on Afghanistan and Pakistan have your own educated estimates of the prospects for success of various U.S. courses of action. If you have not been asked by now to prepare a National Intelligence Estimate, wait no longer. Keeping silent is not a responsible option.
The President should not be deprived of your views.
Perhaps it was serendipity (or maybe a reward for sitting through the entire RAND event Thursday morning), but that evening I was privileged to attend the Washington premier of an excellent documentary on Dan Ellsberg — “The Most Dangerous Man in America” — the sobriquet he earned from Henry Kissinger when Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and other newspapers.
The film contained hard-to-watch footage of the war that took the lives of two-to-three million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans—a very painful reminder. I was happy to see, though, that the film did pick up, from Ellsberg’s book Secrets, his decision to begin revealing important facts to the New York Times in early 1968 and help prevent a still more dangerous escalation and widening of the war in Vietnam.
Think about it, friends. And don’t look just at one another. Visualize instead all those young people from our country’s inner cities and small towns who form the pool for the de facto poverty draft that provides the bulk of U.S. troops sent off to bear the present-day White Man’s Burden.
You may be in a position to help give the President the wherewithal to resist pressure to escalate the war in Afghanistan. Let’s stop the Dover deliveries of the dead headed to tombstones white, with the names of the late deceased.