Situation Report

Vali Nasr: How Obama let diplomacy fail in Afghanistan; Johnson on DOMA; The bumper sticker for the Hagel era; Why a Air Force general’s decision could animate reformers on sexual assault; Get your sequester T-shirt!; And more.

By Gordon Lubold The inside story: how Obama let diplomacy fail in Afghanistan. This morning, FP publishes an excerpt of a new book by Vali Nasr, a former aide to Richard Holbrooke, who argues that President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan policy was more the result of bureaucratic turf battles than a genuine attempt to get "the ...

By Gordon Lubold

The inside story: how Obama let diplomacy fail in Afghanistan. This morning, FP publishes an excerpt of a new book by Vali Nasr, a former aide to Richard Holbrooke, who argues that President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan policy was more the result of bureaucratic turf battles than a genuine attempt to get "the war of necessity" right. Working inside Obama’s foreign policy apparatus was a "deeply disillusioning experience," he writes. As excerpted on FP: "The truth is that his administration made it extremely difficult for its own foreign-policy experts to be heard. Both Clinton and Holbrooke, two incredibly dedicated and talented people, had to fight to have their voices count on major foreign-policy initiatives. Holbrooke never succeeded. Clinton did — but it was often a battle. It usually happened only when it finally became clear to a White House that jealously guarded all foreign policymaking — and then relied heavily on the military and intelligence agencies to guide its decisions — that these agencies’ solutions were no substitute for the type of patient, credible diplomacy that garners the respect and support of allies. Time and again, when things seemed to be falling apart, the administration finally turned to Clinton because it knew she was the only person who could save the situation." 

Nasr: "One could argue that in most administrations, an inevitable imbalance exists between the military-intelligence complex, with its offerings of swift, dynamic, camera-ready action, and the foreign-policy establishment, with its seemingly ponderous, deliberative style. But this administration advertised itself as something different. On the campaign trail, Obama repeatedly stressed that he wanted to get things right in the broader Middle East, reversing the damage that had resulted from the previous administration’s reliance on faulty intelligence and its willingness to apply military solutions to problems it barely understood.

"Not only did that not happen, but the president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics. Their primary concern was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news, or which talking point it would give the Republicans. The Obama administration’s reputation for competence on foreign policy has less to do with its accomplishments in Afghanistan or the Middle East than with how U.S. actions in that region have been reshaped to accommodate partisan political concerns."

And this: "Reflecting on the White House staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs until September 2011, observed ‘they want to control everything.’"

Michael Gordon, writing in today’s NYT on the new book: "His chapters on Afghanistan and Pakistan are likely to receive special attention, as they cover the two years when Mr. Nasr had a ringside view of the administration’s policymaking as a senior adviser for Mr. Holbrooke." And: "The subtext for the squabbling was a deeper battle for influence over policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan. During the early months of Mr. Obama’s first term, Mr. Holbrooke set up S.R.A.P., the office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is still lodged in an inauspicious suite of offices near the State Department cafeteria. Mr. Nasr writes that the White House staff, which firmly controlled policy on Iran and the Arab-Israeli issue, was never comfortable with the arrangement, all the more so since senior members of Mr. Obama’s national security staff had been active members of his campaign team, where they had done battle against Mrs. Clinton during the primaries."

"The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat," by Vali Nasr, on Amazon.

Welcome to Monday’s edition of Situation Report, where it’s national security for the ADD crowd. Follow me @glubold. Or hit me anytime at Sign up for Situation Report here or just shoot me an e-mail and I’ll put you on the list. And as always, if you have a report, piece of news, or tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease. If we can get it in, we will. And help us fill our candy dish: news of the military weird, strange trends, personnel comings-and-goings and whatnot.

This is the first full business day of sequester. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will be working that and other issues after saying Friday that the Pentagon was ready for sequester, we’re told, though perhaps that’s obvious. "This is the security of the United States of America that we’re talking about," Hagel said on Friday. "We will do what is necessary." And: "We will manage these issues. These are adjustments. We have anticipated these kinds of realities, and we will do what we need to do."

Get your sequester T-Shirt. At least get an idea of the one you’d have to order yourself if you click here. Like: "Happy #%@*! Furlough Day," and "Furlough: The New F Word," and [picture of boxer briefs:] "I’m Taking My Furlough In the Shorts," and "Furlough This."

What will Hagel’s bumper sticker be? Bob Gates famously arrived in the Pentagon on the momentum of his single mantra: "To win the wars we’re in." It was the overarching idea under which all other things seemed to fall — a focus on the men and women in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and what they needed to win — after years of what Gates saw as bureaucratic indifference. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was never expected to stay in the building for very long, never had a tagline that resonated in the same way. Panetta talked genuinely about caring for the troops. He also ended "don’t ask, don’t tell" and the ban on women in combat, but no one idea bubbled to the top. Chuck Hagel, however, begins a new era. What will it be called? What will his big idea be? In his first week on the job , it is as yet unclear. But as as sequestration takes effect, one friend to Situation Report suggests "The Year of Living Dangerously." Send others if you got ‘em.

Jeh Johnson made a pitch for repealing the Defense of Marriage Act to an African-American audience of Harvard law school types. The E-Ring’s Kevin Baron: "Johnson, who left his post as the Defense Department’s general counsel at the end of 2012 for private practice, delivered an impassioned plea before Harvard Law School’s black student group, arguing that DOMA makes ‘second-class spouses’ out of the husbands and wives of legally married gay service members." Johnson, according to prepared remarks: "DOMA’s application to those in the United States military is particularly cruel and unfair." And: "If you are straight, legally married, in the military, you and your family qualify for a basic allowance for housing off base at what we call the ‘with-dependent’ higher rate; if you are gay, legally married, in the military, you and your family do not. This unequal treatment of two members of the U.S. military — both legally married, both serving their countries — in the crucial matter of the level of money they receive to support their families, is based solely on sexual orientation."

Did Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin just help advocates trying to stop sexual assault? Stripes’ Nancy Montgomery writes that Franklin, the Third Air Force commander, reinstated Lt. Col. James Wilkerson after a recent assault conviction, in what advocates see as a "stunning example of structural problems in an outdated military justice system rife with bias that discounts victims while emboldening offenders." Wilkerson was accused last March by a 49-year-old physician’s assistant of groping her breasts and vagina as she slept in a guest bedroom at Wilkerson’s home after an ‘impromptu party," Montgomery wrote. An all-male jury of four colonels and one lieutenant colonel convicted Wilkerson of aggravated sexual assault after a week-long trial at Aviano Air Base, Italy. The jury sentenced him to dismissal, total pay forfeiture and a year in jail. Montgomery wrote that Franklin’s decision to overturn that decision "conveyed that the jury, guided in the law by the presiding judge, had made a serious mistake, military lawyers said."

Susan Burke, a lawyer who represents numerous military women: "It’s really shocking…it’s inexcusable. It’s like the poster child for why we need reform. It proves to Congress why they have to act."

Greg Jacob, policy director of the Service Women’s Action Network and a former Marine infantry officer: "It’s atrocious. It’s infuriating…. It’s a perfect example of the due process system being overridden just at the whim of a commander. It’s a real travesty of justice."

The Arab Winter


Into Africa

  • WSJ: U.S. Boosts War Role in Africa (registration/paywall). 
  • France 24: The French pilots in Mali doing battle from the sky.
  • AFP: Gunmen kill regional police chief in Nigeria
  • AP: France: Key al-Qaida chief in Mali likely killed. 

The Stan

  • AP: Karzai lashes out at Pakistan.
  • Lancashire Evening Post: I went to Afghanistan as a boy, came back a man. 
  • Time: Afghanistan, on the leading edge of a technology revolution. 


 Twitter: @glubold

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