Gen Hayden and the claimed irrelevance of presidential appointments

Until five weeks ago, I literally never heard anyone claim — in either party — that it was irrelevant who the President appointed to his Cabinet and other high-level positions. I never heard anyone depict people like the Defense Secretary and CIA Director as nothing more than impotent little functionaries — the equivalent of entry-level clerical workers — who exert no power and do nothing other than obediently carry out the President’s orders.

In fact, I seem to recall pretty vividly all sorts of confirmation fights led by Democrats over the last eight years (John Aschroft, John Bolton, Alberto Gonzales, Michael Hayden, Steven Bradbury) — to say nothing of the efforts to force the resignation or dismissal of people such as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Gonzales — that was based on exactly the opposite premise: namely, that it does matter who is empowered to lead these agencies and departments, and specifically, that their ideology not only matters, but can, by itself, warrant rejection. Nobody ever claimed that Ashcroft, Bolton or Hayden were “unqualified.” It was their beliefs and ideology that rendered them unfit for those positions, argued Democrats.

When and why did everyone suddenly decide to change their minds about this and start repeating the mantra of some Obama supporters that high-level appointments are irrelevant because only the President counts? For the people who now make this claim to justify Obama’s appointments, were any of them objecting during any of the above-listed confirmation fights that those fights were wasteful and unjustified because presidential appointments are irrelevant? [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — To suspend judgment on Obama’s cabinet appointments before either he or they have taken office is not exactly giving anyone a free ride. And the idea that Obama’s choices have been driven by a false dichotomy drawn between competance and ideology seems bogus.

Two issues are really at play:
1. A real tension between ideology and pragmatism, and
2. The leadership skills of the incoming president.

1. Now more than ever, governance requires evidence-based decision making. If there is reason to think that any of Obama’s picks have ideological fixations that compromise their ability to engage in nimble adaptation, he’s choosing the wrong people.

2. Obama has said: “Understand where the vision for change comes from, first and foremost. It comes from me. That’s my job, to provide a vision in terms of where we are going and to make sure then that my team is implementing [that vision].”

That doesn’t mean that we should now mindlessly express support for all his cabinet choice. What it does mean is that once he’s in office we need to pay attention to whether his vision really is molding the decision-making process, or whether his subordinates are off pursuing their own agendas.

At this point I’m willing to make what might sound like a naive assumption: it is that those who have accepted plum positions do not see these simply as servings from the pie of political power; they see themselves as having a unique opportunity to play a part in the Obama presidency. In other words, they see that Obama brings with him an exceptional political resource. It’s not political capital with a mandate to impose an agenda; it’s political goodwill that will allow Obama to soften opposition to measures that would otherwise meet stiff resistance.

The question that the success or failure of the next administration hinges upon is this: will Obama’s flexibility turn out to be his greatest strength or his greatest weakness?

Naturally, as someone who tends to view the world through a loosely Taoist prism, my expectation is that we’ll see flexible strength. We’ll see…

The Taliban are back

While the international community’s prospects in Afghanistan have never been bleaker, the Taliban has been experiencing a renaissance that has gained momentum since 2005. At the end of 2001, uprooted from its strongholds and with its critical mass shattered, it was viewed as a spent force. It was naively assumed by the US and its allies that the factors which propelled the Taliban to prominence in Afghanistan would become moribund in parallel to its expulsion from the country. The logic ran that as ordinary Afghans became aware of the superiority of a western democratic model, and the benefits of that system flowed down to every corner of the country, then the Taliban’s rule would be consigned to the margins of Afghan history.

However, as seven years of missed opportunity have rolled by, the Taliban has rooted itself across increasing swathes of Afghan territory. According to research undertaken by ICOS throughout 2008, the Taliban now has a permanent presence in 72% of the country. Moreover, it is now seen as the de facto governing power in a number of southern towns and villages. This figure is up from 54% in November 2007, as outlined in the ICOS report Stumbling into Chaos: Afghanistan on the Brink. The increase in their geographic spread illustrates that the Taliban’s political, military and economic strategies are now more successful than the West’s in Afghanistan. Confident in their expansion beyond the rural south, the Taliban are at the gates of the capital and infiltrating the city at will.

Of the four doors leading out of Kabul, three are now compromised by Taliban activity. The roads to the west, towards the Afghan National Ring Road through Wardak to Kandahar become unsafe for Afghan or international travel by the time travellers reach the entrance to Wardak province, which is about thirty minutes from the city limits. The road south to Logar is no longer safe for Afghan or international travel. The road east to Jalalabad is not safe for Afghan or international travel once travellers reach the Sarobi Junction which is about an hour outside of the city. Of the two roads leaving the city to the north only one – the road towards the Panjshir valley, Salang tunnel and Mazar – is considered safe for Afghan and international travel. The second road towards the north which leads to the Bagram Air Base is frequently used by foreign and military convoys and subject to insurgent attacks. [continued…]

Risk factors

Some commentators have simply demanded that Pakistan rid itself of the virus of extremism that threatens its own security as well as its neighbors’. But which Pakistan is going to do it? The weak civilian government of President Asif Zardari? The two-faced security services? The tribal leaders along the Afghanistan border? The huge, overwhelmingly poor, tumultuous population? The core problem is that Pakistan is no longer really a country, if it ever was. [continued…]

Convoy attacks trigger race to open new Afghan supply lines

Nato countries are scrambling for alternative routes as far afield as Belarus and Ukraine to supply their forces in Afghanistan, which are increasingly vulnerable to a resurgent Taliban, the Guardian has learned.

Four serious attacks on US and Nato supplies in Pakistan during the past month, including two in the past three days, have added to the sense of urgency to conclude pacts with former Soviet republics bordering Afghanistan to the north.

Nato is negotiating with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to allow supplies for Nato forces, including fuel, to cross borders into Afghanistan from the north. The deal, which officials said was close to being agreed, follows an agreement with Moscow this year allowing Nato supplies to be transported by rail or road through Russia. [continued…]

Confusion persists over suspects arrested in Pakistan

Pakistani officials offered contradictory statements Monday as to whether an accused mastermind of the Mumbai attacks was among those arrested when Pakistani troops swooped down a day earlier on an alleged militant camp.

A terse statement from the military late Monday acknowledged an unspecified number of arrests in Sunday’s operation in the Pakistani-controlled slice of Kashmir, but it did not address whether Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi, a senior figure in the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, was in custody.

Witnesses said troops sealed off the camp, outside the regional capital, Muzaffarabad, and briefly battled those holed up within.

Two senior Pakistani officials said early Monday that they believed Lakhvi was among those arrested, but two others said later in the day that, to their knowledge, Lakhvi was not one of more than a dozen suspected militants detained. All four officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue. [continued…]

Gates’ plan to fix the Pentagon

It is unusual for an incoming Cabinet officer to spell out a precise agenda or to define the standards by which his performance should be judged before the president has even been sworn in. But that’s exactly what now-and-future Defense Secretary Robert Gates has just done with an article in the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs.

Gates probably didn’t set out to do that when he wrote the article, which was based on a speech he delivered at the National Defense University in September, before the election had taken place.

Yet the article, titled “A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age,” urges his successor at the Pentagon to take particular actions. Now that he’s turned out to be his successor, we can watch how closely he follows his advice. [continued…]

Situation in Somalia seems about to get worse

Somalia’s transitional government looks as if it is about to flatline. The Ethiopians who have been keeping it alive for two years say they are leaving the country, essentially pulling the plug.

For the past 17 years, Somalia has been ripped apart by anarchy, violence, famine and greed. It seems as though things there can never get worse. But then they do.

The pirates off Somalia’s coast are getting bolder, wilier and somehow richer, despite an armada of Western naval ships hot on their trail. Shipments of emergency food aid are barely keeping much of Somalia’s population of nine million from starving. The most fanatical wing of Somalia’s Islamist insurgency is gobbling up territory and imposing its own harsh brand of Islamic law, like whipping dancers and stoning a 13-year-old girl to death.

And now, with the government on the brink and the Islamists seeming ready to seize control for the second time, the operative question inside and outside Somalia seems to be: Now what? [continued…]

Transition’s timing hits climate talks

Barack Obama’s pledge to make the United States a leader in confronting global warming raised hopes that his election would rapidly end the long impasse in international negotiations over climate change, but the timing of the presidential transition has severely dimmed those expectations as the current round of talks comes to a head this week in Poland.

The U.S. delegates still report to President Bush, and they made it clear last week that they will not commit to specific reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that would bind the incoming administration. Obama, meanwhile, has hewed to his one-president-at-a-time policy and declined to send his representatives to the Poznan meeting, as many had expected.

The result, a number of negotiators say, is that the world will have a hard time meeting the long-standing 2009 target for reaching a binding agreement on carbon emissions reductions to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

The delicate state of the global climate talks — weighted down by the worldwide financial crisis — highlights the challenges the negotiators face. The Bush administration and its allies successfully resisted setting specific climate goals during the past few negotiating rounds, and there are doubts that Obama can get Congress to approve a sufficiently ambitious national carbon cap by the time delegates meet again next December in Copenhagen. And without a U.S. commitment in place, other nations will be reluctant to sign a deal. [continued…]

Capitalist fools

There will come a moment when the most urgent threats posed by the credit crisis have eased and the larger task before us will be to chart a direction for the economic steps ahead. This will be a dangerous moment. Behind the debates over future policy is a debate over history—a debate over the causes of our current situation. The battle for the past will determine the battle for the present. So it’s crucial to get the history straight.

What were the critical decisions that led to the crisis? Mistakes were made at every fork in the road—we had what engineers call a “system failure,” when not a single decision but a cascade of decisions produce a tragic result. Let’s look at five key moments. [continued…]

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