The Only Thing That Matters in War is Looking Tough

Peter Feaver writing in the Shadow Gov’t blog does an e-squat and drops a steaming pile of foreign policy cow manure.  But it’s worth reading insofar as it gives us a sense of Republican talking points in preparation for President Obama’s upcoming (Tuesday) Afghanistan policy announcement.

The entire piece is framed around whether or not Obama is really taking on his role of Commander in Chief, which needless to say (alright, I’ll say it anyway) is pretty stupid stuff.  It only goes downhill from there.

Here are Feaver’s bullet points (bullet points!), which list signs that Obama really is becoming an honest-to-God Commander in Chief (As opposed to whatever he’s been so far in office? WTF?):

  • His follow-through on messaging is sustained and vigorous (and matched by a similar on-message effort by the senior White House staff and cabinet-level officials).
  • He reaches out to Republicans, thanking them for their commitment to the war effort and promising to work with them. (If he really wants to show self-confidence, he might even say some kind words about President Bush and his courage as a war-time leader, but it is perhaps unreasonable to expect such a transcendently classy gesture at this stage.)
  • He and his team describe the Afghan effort as a war to be won.
  • He and his team sketch a vision of “success” in terms of achievable objectives. Any discussion of an “exit strategy” is similarly framed in terms of mission success.
  • He and his team describe the American (and allied) troops who are fighting as heroes who are fighting to defend our freedoms against malevolent enemies that really do seek to do us harm.
  • He thanks our troops as well as our allies, including our Afghan allies, for the sacrifices they are making and he promises them that on his watch he will do everything necessary to see that those sacrifices will be redeemed by seeing the war through to a successful conclusion.
  • He levels with the American people about the costly road ahead, but explains why alternatives would be even costlier

Notice how many of these are built around emotion and rhetoric.

Obama should thank the troops for their sacrifices–and he’s done this on many occasions.  Unfortunately, I think Feaver’s misplaced his right-wing talking points.  I thought the line was to criticize Obama for being photoed while saluting dead soldiers. Obama should also thank Republicans?  What? Why? He should describe our soldiers as “heroes”—um, when does he not do this?

Another neocon classic–defining the fight as a “war to be won.”   Right, because that’s undoubtedly the only thing standing between us and victory.  Not, I don’t know, 30 years of war in Afghanistan, its status as just about the poorest and most violent country on the planet, its black markets in weapons and drugs, a terrorist sanctuary in Pakistan, its corrupt government, drug lords, war lords, and one of the most treacherous terrains imaginable for fighting an insurgency.

Forget all that, we just need some straightforward “messaging.”

In short, there are basically two intelligent points in there.

#4 Sketch a vision in terms of achievable objectives and #8 Be honest about the cost and make a case why the cost is worth it. These are just fairly rational, obvious points in my book.  If you are sending troops into a battle zone, you need to say you have a plan and why the risk is worth it.  Basically, everything else can be deleted or is so obviously going to happen (Is Obama really going to avoid calling our troops heroes?!) as to be unnecessary.

Feaver then follows up with a list of indicators that Obama is not really serious about being Commander in Chief.  Don’t bother asking how Feaver can get inside Obama’s head  and divine his inner feelings.  As you can imagine, these points are basically the opposite of list 1:  e.g. he calls the soldiers victims instead of heroes.

And of course, since we are in the realm of “Who’s the Real Commander in Chief?”, the inevitable Bush comparison closes things out:

President Bush was not a perfect communicator in chief when it came to explaining the war on terror. But one thing that I suspect every American, even or perhaps especially those who opposed him, understood: Bush believed that the wars he was leading were worth winning and he was willing to sacrifice the things that were his to sacrifice (things like political and public popularity) so that America could prevail in them. In other words: He embraced his unexpected role as commander in chief and ranked that above his other assignments.

He was willing to sacrifice?  Bush had no plan for rebuilding Afghanistan, didn’t get bin Laden because it was easier to use the Northern Alliance, and then led a policy of basically ignoring the entire country for 7 years.

He put wars outside the normal budgetary process and cut taxes during wartime.

He had no plan for Iraq post-Saddam and for years let the country descend into anarchic, near apocalyptic violence.  He spent those same years abdicating his actual role as (strategic) Commander in Chief by basically saying in effect, “Well, the Generals said so and who am I to get in their way?” and then only switched course (and SecDefs) after losing an election.

Did I live in a parallel galaxy during those eight years—that all happened, right?

Presidents are political creatures.  War is politics by violent means.  So every president deals with war through the lens of political popularity.  That’s not all they do, but that calculation is never absent.  Presidents have (usually) private moments of conflict over sending people into a deadly fire zone.  They also think about their political careers.

A representative sample of US Presidents from both parties who fit that profile:  Johnson, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama.

And, generally speaking, contra Feaver, escalating a war is almost always in a popular move for a President over the short term.  Drawing down is not.  In the medium/long term it can cause a negative response, but usually the first reaction is improved public opinion.

The only exception to that trend are very small conflicts where US soldiers get killed and there is an immediate push to get them out–in which case the President will do so.  Reagan did it in Lebanon.  Clinton did it in Somalia.  Again, it’s called politics.

If Presidents punish puny countries, they then become more popular and are widely hailed:  Grenada, Panama, etc.

In other words, Presidents always want to look both tough while not getting stuck in a war zone:  Johnson, Nixon, George H.W. Bush (Iraq War I), and now Obama in Afghanistan all follow this pattern.

I don’t think any of this makes them less of a Commander in Chief.

Nevertheless, I find US politics (particularly with respect to issues of war and peace) fundamentally unreasonable and self-contradictory.  As such, I think the actions of said Presidents (this one included) make a great deal of sense and are the outcome of politics as its practiced.  So while I vehemently disagree with Feaver’s take, I also can agree with Scott’s views on the same issue.

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32 thoughts on “The Only Thing That Matters in War is Looking Tough

  1. I agree in the main. If, like Rumsfeld said, you go to war with the army you have, I think you also have to go to war with the President you have as well. The sort of suggestions from the bullet points might even be a good idea in the abstract, but in Obama’s case are an attempt to make him into a very different person than the one he is.

    Policy-wise, I don’t even know what we want to happen. We can talk about victory if we want to, but the actual prospect of it seems too remote for me. If we can’t think of anything better, I’d like to draw some troops home and save money.

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    • Policy-wise, I don’t even know what we want to happen.

      This is an exceptionally devestating critique of what is going on in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

      What does victory look like? In Afghanistan, in 2002, I could have told you. We capture (or kill and can prove it) OBL and kill a good chunk of Taliban fighters. Same for 2003.

      Now? I have no idea what victory in Afghanistan would look like. I don’t even know that capturing (or killing and being able to prove it) OBL would look like victory.

      Iraq? If you defined “victory” as capturing (or killing and being able to prove it) Saddam, Uday, and Qusay, we “won” around the time of that “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” banner and we should have started pulling out about 2 minutes after Bush gave that speech under it.

      I don’t know what victory in Iraq would look like now.

      It seems like victory *MAY* be defined as something like “turn the country into something like Britain was able to turn India into” but I don’t see that happening in 2010. Or ever.

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  2. I think “victory” in Iraq is a lot closer and easier to see than Afghanistan.

    Now that I think about it, I think victory in Afghanistan is actually somewhat comprehensible, I just don’t think we can accomplish it. The idea is to deny taliban and other terrorists safe haven in Afghanistan. The Pak’s see that we are there and clean up their own house, taking care of rogue Pakistani nukes before that becomes a crisis.

    The biggest problem for me is the demographics of Afghanistan don’t work. We can’t guarantee the safety of the population because they don’t live in cities. The manpower, expense, and logistics make this a very dubious strategy.

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  3. One other thing: I’m more sympathetic to Obama’s “dithering” over Afghanistan than some others because he’s got a difficult problem and no good answers. But let’s also note that this a good example of why people like Obama shouldn’t be running for President. If you are unable to unwilling to assume leadership in situations like these, you shouldn’t be going for the job.

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    • What are you talking about?!

      Taking time to consider the options and define goals is very important in leadership. Can we please take the “dithering” talking point out back and have it shot. It is foaming at the mouth I think it has rabies.

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      • Please, Obama has been dithering. Gen. McChrystal, Obama’s handpicked general submitted his report to Sec. Gates on 8/30/09 requesting more troops. Presumably McChrystal, who is generally regard as a smart guy, thought the troops were necessary and laid out a good argument why. Why would Obama need three more months to approve the request if his general already had decided that the troops were a military necessity and that time was of the essence. He wrote in his report that, “failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.” Obama has already wasted three of those months already and it will take at least six more months if not longer to get those troops over there before they can have any effect.

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        • Because Presidents aren’t supposed to just take Generals recommendations. A President has to think about overall strategy. McChyrstal was just doing the job he was asked to do. He was asked to think specifically about Afghanistan and he did.

          But Obama has to think about India, Pakistan, China, Iran, our troop levels in Iraq, the global economic recession (depression?), US banking crisis, mortgage failures, health care reform, environmental legislation, the deficit/debt load, etc. etc. etc.

          All of those are related to each other. And he has to make best guesses and prioritize. He has to think of cost, effectiveness, achievability of goals and so on. McChyrstal doesn’t (and shouldn’t have to, that’s the President’s job).

          So the President asked for a strategic review, which included a military review but was wider than that as well.

          Generals are (unsurprisingly) military men and therefore think the solutions to problems consist of more military weapons, soldiers and so on. Sometimes they are right, sometimes they are half-right, sometimes they are wrong. But no US general tasked to head a war zone is going to say, “He we can’t win this thing.”

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          • “So the President asked for a strategic review, which included a military review but was wider than that as well.”

            And when he didn’t get the answer he wanted, he went to play basketball for two months. Maybe the problem would go away when he got back.

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              • What does the election have to do with it?

                COIN is about protecting the civilian populace, remember “hearts and minds” and all that. Gen McChrystal wants us to make a commitment to that end, with the attendant resources.

                Should we make that commitment? I dunno, I’d probably rather go play basketball myself.

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                • Because the ‘hearts and minds’ is win hearts and minds over the host government. Who it turned stole an election. And did so in a rather ineffective manner–just everything else they do. Whose going to be persuaded in their direction with that kind of behavior?

                  i.e. If you put all these troops in and win battles (which we always do), then what? Then you’ve won some battles and the theory says you are supposed to then “hold and build” and turn over to the government. Well, we don’t really have enough troops to hold the entire country. So we try to build soldiers on their side to do that. Except they might be as corrupt as the government and start extorting the people (which the Taliban already do anyway). Nothing really gets built in a country lacking in infrastructure and so stressed and traumatized by such years of war and hardship. And then there really isn’t somebody on the other end the US seems to be able to trust to turn over to.

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        • “Please, Obama has been dithering. Gen. McChrystal, Obama’s handpicked general submitted his report to Sec. Gates on 8/30/09 requesting more troops.”

          Yeah. Let’s not forget to emphasize the “handpicked” part either.

          McChrystal is there because Obama wanted bring some COIN credibility/magic to bear and that was in May. It’s not like the President has been lacking time for basketball or fundraisers.

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  4. Bush had no plan for rebuilding Afghanistan, didn’t get bin Laden because it was easier to use the Northern Alliance, and then led a policy of basically ignoring the entire country for 7 years.

    1. Why this ridiculous emphasis on “getting” bin Laden? Al Qaeda, as everyone knows, is a network, not a state. Bush effectively neutered him and al Qaeda by disrupting their network. This has degraded their potential to harm us to the point that they have not and cannot mount another strategic attack against us—even though they have the ability to cause catastrophic damage (latest example: the sudden jihad at Ft Hood).

    2. Using the Northern Alliance was a tactic based on learning from the Soviet debacle. How, exactly, was it “easier?” It involved inserting specials forces into the most dangerous and lawless region on Earth and achieving a durable alliance. If that’s easy for Dierkes, then, well… then, sign him up! as our number one wartime strategist at the NSC.

    3. Bush was not “ignoring the entire country.” That’s just unacceptable hyperbole and basically unserious. The main front in the war against jihadism was in Iraq—according to al Qaeda. After their defeat in Iraq, they were back in Afgnanistan, hence the present situation.

    He had no plan for Iraq post-Saddam and for years let the country
    descend into anarchic, near apocalyptic violence.  He spent those same
    years abdicating his actual role as (strategic) Commander in Chief by
    basically saying in effect, “Well, the Generals said so and who am I to
    get in their way?” and then only switched course (and SecDefs) after
    losing an election.

    1. The “he had no plan” meme is simply a Democratic talking-point. It has no basis in fact. Bush had a plan—the famous “light footprint.” Needless to say, it didn’t work, hence the years of violence.

    2. You’re confusing Bush’s announcement of the surge with switching course. He announced the surge and the changes in his wartime leadership after the elections. But he switched course long before that. The COIN doctrine, to take only one example, was designed over a period of two years or so before it was announced.

    The key point you’re missing here is one you state yourself: “So every president deals with war through the lens of political popularity.” Bush could have announced his new strategy, and the personell changes with it, over the summer or fall of 2006. That way he could have tried to save his party from the debacle in November. He chose to wait until after the elections to do so because to do otherwise would have meant that his political role was more important to him than his role as CinC. That would have been deadly for the morale of our forces fighting in Iraq. That he chose to support the troops in this way, by sacrificing his popularity and even his leadership in Congress, speaks volumes about his moral courage.

    And, generally speaking, contra Feaver, escalating a war is almost
    always in a popular move for a President over the short term.  Drawing
    down is not.  In the medium/long term it can cause a negative response,
    but usually the first reaction is improved public opinion.

    The above does show that you were living in a “parallel universe” back then. Or don’t you remember the Iraq Study Group, the so-called consensus of allies and generals for “drawing down” in Iraq, and the overwhelming opposition to the war that led to the Democratic victory in the 2006 elections? Escalating the war was unexpected, very unpopular at home, and also showed allies and enemies in the region that we were serious.

    If Presidents punish puny countries, they then become more popular and are widely hailed:  Grenada, Panama, etc.

    I’m sure that the citizens of Grenada and Panama are happy to be described by you as “puny.” Aside from that cringe-inducing ethnocentrism, we certainly did not “punish” them. In the case of Grenada, we prevented a Communist takeover and in the case of Panama, we captured a narcopresidente and imposed democracy on that country, which political system endures to this day. Maybe you were still in grade school or junior high during these events. I don’t know. But that would be your “parallel universe” in spades. If you were an adult, however, then what’s your excuse?

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  5. –Learning from the Soviets, really learning from Afghanistan itself, would have taught us that the various local groups always make deals with each other and that the Northern Alliance was bound to have let bin Laden go. All sides have been doing this kind of thing forever in that country. It was “easier” because to actually get bin Laden would have required Bush to use more US troops and therefore would have caused more casualties. Instead of using the Northern Alliance guys as not so loyal mercenary types who were bound to make deals in their own best interest (which was not necessarily ours).

    –Iraq became the “center” of al-Qaeda after we invaded. Not before. al-Qaeda’s strategy has always been (as it says repeatedly), to plant its flag somewhere, get the US to invade and then bleed the US out.

    –Yes al-Qaeda as a kind of ideology is a network. Worldwide jihadism is at this point, a “leaderless network” (in Marc Sageman’s phrase). That is always going to be there.

    But al-Qaeda the organization in Pakistan is a product of its time–the leadership mostly cut its teeth in the 70s/80s. It is still therefore far too top-heavy and hierarchical and could therefore be seriously damaged (if not irrevocably) by killing/capturing bin Laden and Zawahiri. Bruce Hoffman’s book on al-Qaeda (Central?) shows this is the case. And as long as the central organization exists other affiliate groups can claim some kind of allegiance as did al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. Those groups would likely still exist even if AQ-Central is gone, but it would an effective “victory” in the global war.

    It would stop the US from seeing all these groups as part of some worldwide conspiracy and start to see them (and deal with them) as much more localized groups. Or in the leaderless jihad case, basically anarchists without any real political goals.

    Not to mention allowing al-Qaeda to regroup has given them space to help train and equip various elements of the insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan, making them much more deadly groups.

    –And no Bush had no plan post-war for Iraq. He and Rumsfeld both failed to distinguish between the war and the stabilization/peace phase. The Rumsfeld doctrine of the light footprint (Net-centric Warfare) was effective in the war phase. But the light footprint was no plan for the after-war. The only “plan” as such for Iraq post-Saddam were the insane ramblings of Wolfowitz: opening up a free market on the spot, etc. The stuff Bremer did (I gather), like disbanding the army/police seems to have been his own decisions.

    –And lastly for God’s sakes, puny is not a criticism of the countries or the people but in relation to the Cold War and by the standards of the US hegemon.

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    • Learning from the Soviets, really learning from Afghanistan itself,
      would have taught us that the various local groups always make deals
      with each other and that the Northern Alliance was bound to have let
      bin Laden go. All sides have been doing this kind of thing forever in
      that country. It was “easier” because to actually get bin Laden would
      have required Bush to use more US troops and therefore would have
      caused more casualties.

      1. That’s what I’m talking about: you can blithely armchair general your way to a perfect strategy that creates a perfect outcome. No problem for you. Why aren’t you on the NSC telling the president what to do?
      Is it worth pointing out that your so-called analysis of this history is based on hindsight, that is, it’s no analysis at all? Probably not.
      2. Could Bush have used more troops? Was it possible politically and militarily? As you say, more troops equals more casualties. Would this have then changed the situation into one even worse than the one we’re in right now?

      The point is, as in all so-called analysis based on hindsight, you’re comparing today’s situation with some ideal situation of your own imagination. To have any credibility at all, you’d have to at least consider the outcome of a scenario such as the one you propose, i.e., “more troops.” If you can’t or won’t consider this, then your opinions are not worth much, except as demagoguery.

      Iraq became the “center” of al-Qaeda after we invaded. Not before.
      al-Qaeda’s strategy has always been (as it says repeatedly), to plant
      its flag somewhere, get the US to invade and then bleed the US out.

      True. So what? Getting al Qaeda to fight where we chose was a central tenet of Bush’s strategy. It worked, and so Afghanistan was on the back burner for a while.

      Yes al-Qaeda as a kind of ideology is a network. Worldwide jihadism is
      at this point, a “leaderless network” (in Marc Sageman’s phrase). That
      is always going to be there.

      1. If the first sentence is true, then why your emphasis on “getting” bin Laden? Makes no sense at all.

      2. All networks are “leaderless,” in the sense that nobody is directing it. If that weren’t true, then it wouldn’t be a network. It would be a hierarchy. You don’t need Marc Sageman to tell you that.

      3. Is it always going to “be there?” Lend us your crystal ball. Like I said, the NSC needs you—and your ball. A point you may want to think about: it won’t “be there” if they’re defeated. You’re conceding defeat. Maybe conceding defeat is the right thing to do, but most people will disagree, including me.

      It would stop the US from seeing all these groups as part of some
      worldwide conspiracy and start to see them (and deal with them) as much
      more localized groups. Or in the leaderless jihad case, basically
      anarchists without any real political goals.

      1. The “US” does not see a “worldwide conspiracy.” You’re forgetting the implications of al Qaeda’s being a network. There is no “conspiracy” in any sense of the word, but there is a general ideological commitment and resources for jihad that are accessible to jihadists through Islamic charities. And so forth.

      2. Jihadists do not fit the definition of “anarchists.” They have political goals: worldwide submission to Islamic law. That’s hardly “anarchism.” It’s totalitarianism. Examples of “anarchists without any real political goals” are drug gangs. These may be affiliated with al Qaeda in tactical alliances today, but you can be sure that if the worldwide Islamic government comes to pass, drug gangs will be exterminated without mercy.

      You say Bush had no plan for postwar Iraq and then continue to talk about his failed plan. What gives here?

      And lastly for God’s sakes, puny is not a criticism of the countries or
      the people but in relation to the Cold War and by the standards of the
      US hegemon.

      Well, OK. But for god’s sakes, neither Granada nor Panama were “punished.” Granada was a proxy in the Cold War; Panama’s narcodictadura was overthrown and a democratic regime was established in its place.

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  6. Tonight, the President will channel his inner Lincoln and give a golden tone speech to the cadets at West Point. Then, as is the method of this administration, his underlings will quietly weaken the actual implementation of the extra troops and policy.

    Case in point–the Navy SEAL team that recently captured Ahmen Hashim Abed, the alleged ringleader of the 2003 murder and desecration of four Blackwater guards in Iraq. It seems that Ahmen suffered a split lip while in custody, and knowing his rights, complained about it. The three SEALs charged with dereliction of duty were expected to roll over and accept their captain’s mast non-judicial punishment. Nope, they are demanding a court marshal. Instead of being treated as heroes, they are facing trial. The worse our enemies treat us, it seems, the better we treat them.

    This puts the ball squarely in the Navy’s and Obama’s court. If the Navy is smart, it will drop all charges. But political correctness is a savage god and must exact its full measure of absurdity. You can bet that every service man and woman in-country or on the way to Afghanistan will be watching the proceedings and deciding what measure of sacrifice he or she is willing to give this administration.

    If the Taliban has any sense of humor at all, they must be chuckling about now.

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    • “It seems that Ahmen suffered a split lip while in custody, and knowing his rights, complained about it. The three SEALs charged with dereliction of duty were expected to roll over and accept their captain’s mast non-judicial punishment. Nope, they are demanding a court marshal. Instead of being treated as heroes, they are facing trial.”

      I don’t think this has anything to do with the changes in the Afghan war, but it’s outrageous enough on its own terms.

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    • Koz
      “I don’t think this has anything to do with the changes in the Afghan war, but it’s outrageous enough on its own terms.”

      And that’s assuming it’s true. If right-wing rhetoric was true, the last several years would have looked far different.

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  7. You can search “navy seals face trial” and see what you find. I haven’t seen denials on the Web. But why should anyone be surprised at this given the grip that political correctness has on the culture and military?

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    • So I googled this issue. I found almost all right wing blogs and fox news talking about it, so I think there is pretty obvious bias to most of what they are saying. On the face of it, this story sounds like weapons grade right wing BS. SEAL’S can and do kill people and that is just fine. Our military has bombed and killed many, many people using all sorts of weapons so charges of some PC fear of hurting people is just not reality based. ( were the various recent attacks on people in Pakistan PC, huh wuh). The one link that wasn’t obviously a RW site noted that the charges are for abusing the guy after he was a prisoner and then covering it up.

      Now obviously in America was know that there are standards of treatment for prisoners and the military does not tolerate cover ups and not following procedure.

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  8. Yes, the charges are for abuse of the prisoner and covering it up. And yes, there are standards for treatment of prisoners. But where is proportionality in this story? “We captured A. Hitler today after years of long and bloody war. Allegedly, one of the troopers, of Jewish persuasion, lost his temper and popped the prisoner right in the kisser, and now faces court marshal.”

    The President has cracked that Fox News is not a “real news organization.” But it is, like the NY Post, The Wall St. Journal and other establishment publications that might disagree with Obama and others on the Left. Political correctness is an ideology or mythology that construes the world a certain way. Anything that doesn’t jibe with the party line is brushed aside and discredited. Its artists become non-artists, etc.

    The new rules of engagement in Afghanistan prohibit bombing where civilians might be injured. Naturally, the Taliban makes certain it is often in the company of civilians. This reduces the Air Forces to buzzing huts where suspected Taliban are hiding out. The drone-Hellfire strikes have killed al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership; and some civilian casaulties havebeen tolerated in this program. But are these small gains enough to win the war?

    I doubt it. It is much better to win a war any way you can and be generous to your defeated enemies, than it is to lose a war and say you played by the rules.

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