Listening To The People On The Ground

While the folks in DC tussle over whether the Oh-So-Very-Important words of General Petraeus will be delivered publicly or in a closed-door session, and whether the White House did or did not want it to be closed, a number of experienced soldiers have spared us the bother.

In what may for them be a career-limiting error, they have joined together to publish an op-ed in the New York Times. It is clear and refreshing in its honesty and willingness to confront the complexity of issues in Iraq. Particularly when set against the raft of statements from politicians and others who’ve dropped in for a few days of high-level military briefings, the words of these infantrymen and non-coms at the end of a 15-month deployment have a powerful credibility.

Read the whole thing. Here are some samples.

The claim that we are increasingly in control of the battlefields in Iraq is an assessment arrived at through a flawed, American-centered framework. Yes, we are militarily superior, but our successes are offset by failures elsewhere. What soldiers call the “battle space” remains the same, with changes only at the margins. It is crowded with actors who do not fit neatly into boxes: Sunni extremists, Al Qaeda terrorists, Shiite militiamen, criminals and armed tribes. This situation is made more complex by the questionable loyalties and Janus-faced role of the Iraqi police and Iraqi Army, which have been trained and armed at United States taxpayers’ expense.

A few nights ago, for example, we witnessed the death of one American soldier and the critical wounding of two others when a lethal armor-piercing explosive was detonated between an Iraqi Army checkpoint and a police one. Local Iraqis readily testified to American investigators that Iraqi police and Army officers escorted the triggermen and helped plant the bomb. These civilians highlighted their own predicament: had they informed the Americans of the bomb before the incident, the Iraqi Army, the police or the local Shiite militia would have killed their families.

As many grunts will tell you, this is a near-routine event. Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.

As for the political situation,

Political reconciliation in Iraq will occur, but not at our insistence or in ways that meet our benchmarks. It will happen on Iraqi terms when the reality on the battlefield is congruent with that in the political sphere. There will be no magnanimous solutions that please every party the way we expect, and there will be winners and losers. The choice we have left is to decide which side we will take. Trying to please every party in the conflict — as we do now — will only ensure we are hated by all in the long run.

At the same time, the most important front in the counterinsurgency, improving basic social and economic conditions, is the one on which we have failed most miserably. Two million Iraqis are in refugee camps in bordering countries. Close to two million more are internally displaced and now fill many urban slums. Cities lack regular electricity, telephone services and sanitation. “Lucky” Iraqis live in gated communities barricaded with concrete blast walls that provide them with a sense of communal claustrophobia rather than any sense of security we would consider normal.

In a lawless environment where men with guns rule the streets, engaging in the banalities of life has become a death-defying act. Four years into our occupation, we have failed on every promise, while we have substituted Baath Party tyranny with a tyranny of Islamist, militia and criminal violence. When the primary preoccupation of average Iraqis is when and how they are likely to be killed, we can hardly feel smug as we hand out care packages. As an Iraqi man told us a few days ago with deep resignation, “We need security, not free food.”

In the end, we need to recognize that our presence may have released Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are — an army of occupation — and force our withdrawal.

We could listen to the perspective of these men on the front lines, confront the contradictions in our policies and change our approach. Or we could accept the reports from Brookings Institution fly-bys on what the brass told them, and brave words from Senators who travel with armored vehicle escorts and helicopter cover.

Maybe, if we’re lucky, this op-ed won’t just ‘disappear’, but will become something for the cable-news talking heads to furrow brows over. Maybe some will be prompted to demand that the decision-makers in DC, even if not the Decider himself, actually listen to the people on the ground.

“All Politics, All the Time.”

Following up yesterday’s post on possible Hatch Act violations by the White House — John Solomon, Alec MacGillis and Sarah Cohen provide more details in today’s Washington Post. Karl Rove, they write, enlisted “political appointees at every level of government in a permanent campaign that was an integral part of his strategy to establish Republican electoral dominance.”

Thirteen months before President Bush was reelected, chief strategist Karl Rove summoned political appointees from around the government to the Old Executive Office Building. The subject of the Oct. 1, 2003, meeting was “asset deployment,” and the message was clear:

The staging of official announcements, high-visibility trips and declarations of federal grants had to be carefully coordinated with the White House political affairs office to ensure the maximum promotion of Bush’s reelection agenda and the Republicans in Congress who supported him, according to documents and some of those involved in the effort.

“The White House determines which members need visits,” said an internal e-mail about the previously undisclosed Rove “deployment” team, “and where we need to be strategically placing our assets.” …

… Under Rove’s direction, this highly coordinated effort to leverage the government for political marketing started as soon as Bush took office in 2001 and continued through last year’s congressional elections, when it played out in its most quintessential form in the coastal Connecticut district of Rep. Christopher Shays, an endangered Republican incumbent. Seven times, senior administration officials visited Shays’s district in the six months before the election — once for an announcement as minor as a single $23 government weather alert radio presented to an elementary school. On Election Day, Shays was the only Republican House member in New England to survive the Democratic victory.

Apparently the administration officials on these trips didn’t make campaign appearances with the GOP candidates. However, these appearances were hardly apolitical.

In practical terms, that meant Cabinet officials concentrated their official government travel on the media markets Rove’s team chose, rolling out grant decisions made by agencies with red-carpet fanfare in GOP congressional districts, and carefully crafted announcements highlighting the release of federal money in battleground states.


… the scale of Rove’s effort is far broader than previously revealed; they say that Rove’s team gave more than 100 such briefings during the seven years of the Bush administration. The political sessions touched nearly all of the Cabinet departments and a handful of smaller agencies that often had major roles in providing grants, such as the White House office of drug policy and the State Department’s Agency for International Development.

As I understand it — note that I’m not an expert — the grants themselves were not a violation of the Hatch Act if the “team” was only making announcements and not meddling with the allocations themselves. The question is, did Bush appointees make grant decisions based on the White House’ political goals?

“What we are seeing is the tip of a whole effort to make the federal government a subsidiary of the Republican Party. It was all politics, all the time,” Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the oversight committee, said last week.

There is no question there was tight coordination of campaigns and grant allocations —

Shays wrote Bush on Sept. 8, 2006, to seek the early release — before the election — of heating assistance money for low-income residents in his state. Just four days later, the White House released $6 million. Asked to comment on the administration’s help, Shays’s campaign manager Michael Sohn said, “Chris was grateful to be returned to office based on his record of hard work and accomplishment.”

Were the grant decisions made for political expedience? A WaPo analysis of 2004 Department of Health and Human Services grants for community health and disease-prevention programs showed that

[H]alf the awards went to targeted election states or congressional districts, the rest to noncompetitive areas that included Democratic strongholds.

The agency’s news release about those grants, however, detailed at the top just four recipients — in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and an Oklahoma congressional district — that Rove’s team identified in earlier 2004 briefings as key to the GOP’s reelection strategy.

I would argue that while these grants may not have been politically tainted, taxpayer monies were being used to pay someone in the agency to write GOP campaign press releases. I’d also like to see how much taxpayer money was used to pay for all that travel.

Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao made 13 official visits in the last two months of the election, never straying more than 50 miles from the media markets on Rove’s office list, the analysis showed. That August, she attended three local Fraternal Order of Police meetings in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan to tout new overtime rules that would soon go into effect. Likewise, she traveled to Tampa — another targeted media market — to announce grants for recipients who actually lived in Jacksonville, Fla., a less competitive area.

Aside from her home town of Denver, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton visited just five cities in the first two months of 2004, according to the public announcements. But that pace changed between June and November, when — in visits to 37 cities — she hit the target election markets 32 times, the announcements show.

The White House probably will argue that as long as the officials didn’t specifically endorse candidates, these were not really “campaign” trips. On the other hand …

Those visits occurred after Interior liaison William Kloiber wrote to White House political affairs aide Matt Schlapp to thank him for a briefing about the political landscape. In an e-mail obtained by congressional investigators, Kloiber wrote, “Sometimes these folks need to be reminded who they work for and how their geographic travel can benefit the President.“[emphasis added]

Um, Mr. Kloiber? Who do you work for?

Let’s go back to grant allocation. The White House claims that Karl avoided meddling in “grant and contract decisions made by career government employees.” But more and more of those “career government employees” were hand-picked for their political loyalties.

And can we say “Department of Homeland Security”? In the spring of election year 2004, we learned that DHS was not exactly allocating grant money according to risk.

Of the top 10 states and districts receiving the most money per capita last year, only the District of Columbia also appeared on a list of the top 10 most at-risk places, as calculated by AIR for TIME. In fact, funding appears to be almost inversely proportional to risk.

If all the federal homeland-security grants from last year are added together, Wyoming received $61 a person while California got just $14, according to data gathered at TIME’s request by the Public Policy Institute of California, an independent, nonprofit research organization. Alaska received an impressive $58 a resident, while New York got less than $25. On and on goes the upside-down math of the new homeland-security funding.

There was much chest-thumping and vows to do better, but in the spring of election year 2006 we learned that New York City has no landmarks worth protecting.

Instead, the department’s database of vulnerable critical infrastructure and key resources included the Old MacDonald’s Petting Zoo near Huntsville, Ala., a bourbon festival, a bean festival and the Kangaroo Conservation Center in Dawsonville, Ga. …

… [T]he Homeland Security assessment of New York this year failed to include Times Square, the Empire State Building the Brooklyn Bridge or the Statue of Liberty as a national icon or monument.

Someone might want to revisit the DHS grant issue. When New York City howled about its reduced DHS money in 1996, Michael Chertoff said it was New York’s own fault for not filing their proposals properly. Jen Chung wrote at The Gothamist (June 2, 2006; emphasis added):

As New York state and city politicians attack the Department of Homeland Security over cutting the funds NYC gets for anti-terrorism efforts, the DHS has been fighting back by saying that New York City’s proposal wasn’t well-prepared. The NY Times writes, “Federal officials said yesterday that the city had not only done a poor job of articulating its needs in its application, but had also mishandled the application itself, failing to file it electronically as required, instead faxing its request to Washington.” Ha! NY state and city officials say that, in fact, they did electronically submit the application – but you know that there’s probably sniping about so-and-so’s aide or intern screwing things up. But In fact, NYC, though in the “top 25% of urban areas at risk,” was rated in the bottom 25% for the “quality of its application”! Our politicians, though, are saying that the DHS directed money to cities where reelections were coming up in the fall. The Daily News has a feature on Tracy Henske, the DHS official who “signed off on the cuts” – she’s from Missouri and Missouri cities got increases in funding!

Jen Chung linked to a New York Post article that is no longer online. This deserves further investigation, I say.