The Real Housewives of CENTCOM

All of three days ago I offered my analysis of the emerging Petraeus debacle. Over the last seventy-two hours so many unpleasant details have popped up which are shocking to even a moderate cynic like myself that I don’t want to proffer a guess where the next few days will take us with this drama. First it was a legit news story, then it became a Lifetime episode, suddenly a reality show on Bravo, now it’s looking like a Coen brothers’ script. The only guess I will venture is: nowhere good.

It has emerged not only that Paula Broadwell, Dave Petraeus’s main gal not his wife, is pretty nuts, between online threats to perceived rivals and generally stalkerish and inappropriate behavior, but that she’s actually the kinda boring one.

Fortunately we now have Jill Kelley, the other doctor’s wife in this tawdry story, who is vastly more entertaining. Paula – she’s wound a bit tight, too West Pointish with the running obsession. Jill, however, is something else with her multiple aliases (Jill Kelley AKA Gilberte J. Kelley AKA Gigi Kelley AKA Jill Khawam AKA Gigi Khawam … and those are just the ones we know so far), the shady financial shenanigans (ok, it’s not officially fraud since no convictions yet despite obvious “financial issues”), the overt status whoring (since when do Combatant Commands have “social directors”? do they work for the J3?), the absurd posturing (normal women do not call their husband “Dr. Kelley”), and I won’t even mention her, ahem, fashion sense. The gal’s a Levantine macher from central casting.

Basically Jill Kelley is a more effective Tareq Salahi, minus the winery. Despite obvious huge issues here which ought to have scared off any normal person, especially anyone in a position of responsibility with a public image to protect, she and General John Allen, our commander in Afghanistan, traded tens of thousands of emails now considered “inappropriate.” I could care less if those two were doing naked pushups together, but I do wonder where Gen. Allen found all that time, since losing a war as badly as NATO is in Afghanistan is nothing if not a full-time position.

Since I have no trouble believing – as Paula obviously did – that Jill is a seductress who had her eyes set on guys with stars, including very possibly her very own general/boyfriend, questions will be asked what was up between Jill and Dave too. Can’t wait to find out. She had enough pull with both Allen and Petraeus to get them to go to bat for her “psychologically unstable” twin sister – because this story couldn’t be perfect without a crazy doppelganger for at least one of the mistresses – in her incredibly nasty custody battle.

With exquisite timing, the Army today announced, after an absurdly long delay, that it is “punishing” General William “Kip” Ward for his ridiculous bling-bling lifestyle as AFRICOM commander by having him retire as a three-star: a bit of a financial loss, but hardly the GULAG. So now we’re up to three – yes, three that we know of so far – four-star generals who all displayed, over a pattern of years, worse judgement than most parents would expect of teenagers.

Or than the military consistently expects of its junior personnel. L’affaire Dave et al isn’t about sex – though sex, broadly defined, is what sells here – rather judgement. These scandals are so bad that the military, the Army especially, can’t do its usual trick of punishing the most junior soldiers and letting senior officers, plus every general involved, get away scot free (see: Abu Ghraib). This is so public that Petraeus and Allen will have to suffer something beyond humiliation – though, as with Kip Ward, DoD will try and drag their feet as long as possible.

There is a serious angle to all this which Americans need to think about. For the last decade especially, we have lionized our military beyond anything resembling what it actually is. Americans in uniform are presented to us as something like martyrs, and some are possibly even saints living among us; that everyone who’s ever actually served in uniform knows this is ridiculous doesn’t matter, since the vast majority of Americans know nothing about the military except from a very safe distance. Americans love to put out yellow ribbons and offer discounts to military members, but they’re not big on actually joining up themselves. Not to mention that Americans’ long-distance love affair with its armed forces probably says more about the dysfunction of pretty much all our nation’s other institutions than it does about the Pentagon, which only looks efficient and honorable when compared to, say, the Department of Motor Vehicles.

No one in recent years benefitted more from this lionization than David Petraeus, who has lived a very charmed life as a conquering hero (without actually conquering anything) in a country which treats its military, especially its generals, very lavishly, but that bubble has burst, lost in a haze of tawdry love gone very wrong, and that cult – for a cult it surely was, as even formerly hagiographic journalists are conceding – is over. The saint is revealed to be a sinner, and we can assume that the gods, and the public, will not be forgiving.

Dave can fight this, but that would be inadvisable on many grounds. As he was the symbol for goodness, unjustly, he will now become the stand-in for badness, perhaps unjustly. He ought to think about his options, the most attractive of which should be just going away. No big speaker deals, no Beltway Bandit cash-ins, no FoxNews cameos … simply retreat from the limelight while you still can and you still have a tiny bit of personal dignity left.

This will be tough for Dave, who has been every bit as enamored of the limelight and paparazzi as his girlfriends were, but there’s an honorable precedent for this. Back in 1963 the British government was shaken by a not altogether dissimilar sex-and-war scandal that took down John Profumo, the defense minister and, everyone had assumed, the future prime minister. Profumo had it all – looks, money, fame, power, plus an outstanding war record (he was a bona fide war hero, having started World War Two as a lieutenant and ending it as a brigadier, winning a raft of decorations along the way; unlike Petraeus, who first saw “combat” as a two-star general in 2003), and like many good looking and powerful men, he had zipper problems. One of his paramours was Christine Keeler, a rent-girl whose other boyfriends included the top Soviet naval attache in London (i.e. a GRU spy). The resulting scandal destroyed Profumo’s career and caused the collapse of the Conservative government.

What did John Profumo do? Did he sign a book deal for a tell-all memoir? Did he go on a pseudo-apology tour on TV talk shows? Did he perhaps engage top lawyers, PR flacks, and image consultants to set it right? No, he decided to – I know this word may be unfamiliar to our younger readers – atone for what he had done.

Knowing he had humiliated his family and his country, John Profumo devoted the rest of his life to charity among the poor of London. He labored intensely at Toynbee Hall – his work for years included cleaning the toilets – and later raised millions for the needy. Eventually he was allowed back into polite society, being knighted later in life for his good works, yet he never wanted the limelight, devoting all his efforts to his charity work and his redemption. When he died in 2006, at the age of 91, John Profumo was remembered not so much for the scandal but more for all the good works he had done after his life and career fell apart in shame.

Redemption is pretty passe these days but it’s never really out of style. Dave Petraeus, who likes to read, might want to read up on John Profumo if he wants to do the right thing.

[N.B. The comments here are mine alone and certainly not those or the Naval War College of the Department of Defense.]

Love Demands Sacrifice

As we celebrate Veterans’ Day – technically it was yesterday, November 11th, but we’ve done this extend-the-weekend thing; as a Federal employee I thank you – it is time to think, one day per annum, about the nature of sacrifice, pro patria mori, et al. War is a constant in human life, no matter how much progressives wish it weren’t, and America has been lucky enough to not have to fight on its own soil, with all the horrors that entails, in a century and a half. Wars for Americans are an expeditionary thing, far away, and these days hardly felt by 99 percent of the public; the dead arrive in limited numbers at Dover, customarily tactfully away from cameras, and that’s that. We have privatized not just whole swaths of our once-vibrant economy, but suffering and grief to boot.

It’s not always been that way, of course. Find any veteran over 60 or so and ask him; buy him a drink if you’re a mensch. I’ve served my country – I plan on getting my free Bloomin’ Onion at Outback today, time permitting – and I’ve been to more than one warzone. But I’ve not been to war the way my father (three tours in Vietnam) was, to say nothing of relatives who survived even worse in Korea, World War Two, World War One. When I was a kid I didn’t know about PTSD but I was well acquainted with, “Hey, get me another beer” late in the evening, when sleep was elusive.

Since our Veterans’ Day is tied up in the Great War – eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month and all that – we have regrettably internalized the tragic futility of that conflict in our discussions of war and memory. And, whatever my historical misgivings about the whole Dulce et decorum est crowd, that conflict, which pretty much ruined Western Civilization, was nothing if not tragic, in the full sense: heck, I’ve written a whole book about that, and why we must remember it.

But the oversensitive war poet approach overlooks the fact that wars are sometimes necessary, sometimes unavoidable. Like when foreigners invade your country; then, suddenly, there is no choice. Then, you must muster all your courage, no matter the cost, and fight until you can fight no more.

America knows little of this, but others do. Many NATO allies know all about this. I think often of the fate of Poland, which was cruelly dismembered in September 1939 by Hitler and Stalin. Her gallant military, outnumbered and outgunned, fought to the bitter end, to no avail. Her vanquished armies retreated, fighting every step of the way, and never capitulated. Her government went into exile, with her soldiers, continuing the fight and refusing to give in.

But most Polish soldiers, unable to escape to Hungary or Romania, wound up as POWs by the end of September 1939 – the unlucky ones were in Soviet hands. The following spring horror ensued. In an effort to make their future takeover of all of Poland less troublesome, the Soviets decapitated the country by systematically executing Polish officers – 22,000 in all. They were shot in the back of the head and disposed of like cordwood.

Each man was a human being with a family and a story. Today we will speak of Colonel Szymon Fedoronko. A middle-aged man, he was a career officer, unlike most of those murdered at Katyn, who were largely reservists (the Soviets thereby deprived Poland of her professional caste – lawyers, teachers, accountants, doctors, anyone who might resist Soviet rule). He was the chief Orthodox chaplain in the Polish military, a man of the cloth in uniform. Generals were murdered alongside lieutenants; death at the hands of the NVKD proved no respecter of person or rank. Those who died with Fedoronko included Baruch Steinberg, the Polish military’s chief rabbi. They shared a bullet to the back of the head and an unmarked mass grave.

Undaunted, Polish soldiers in exile and at home, underground, continued the fight. Perhaps most famously, Polish pilots played a significant role in the Battle of Britain, besting the Luftwaffe as it tried to do to Britain what it had done to Poland. Polish squadrons in the Royal Air Force marched under the standard that had been made in secret in their occupied homeland and shipped to Britain clandestinely. It bore the inscription Miłość żąda ofiary (Love demands sacrifice).

Under that standard the Polish Air Force in Britain fought on. As did Col. Fedoronko’s sons, who did not know their father’s fate. Among the many who did not return from missions over Germany was Alexander, age 26, a pilot with 300 Squadron, lost in 1944. A few months later his two brothers would die heroically, leading the Warsaw Uprising against brutal Nazi occupation: Orest, age 22, fell on the first day of the revolt, followed two weeks later by 24 year-old Wiaczeslaw. There ended the Fedoronko clan.

The sacrifice of the Fedoronko family featured prominently in the memorial speech of Polish President Lech Kaczynski – the speech he never gave since he was killed with his wife and 94 senior government representatives when his Tu-154 airliner crashed at Smolensk in April 2010, on their way to commemorate the dead of Katyn. Among the many lost in the crash was Miron Chodakowski, the Polish military’s chief Orthodox chaplain and Szymon Fedoronko’s successor.

Terrorism versus Fake Terrorism, Part II

One of the regular issues this blog tries to shed light on is the shady problem of provocation in counterterrorism. When intelligence services systematically penetrate terrorist groups – which is, bar none, the most effective way to defeat them – things get murky fast, and it can become rather unclear who’s actually doing what, why, and for whom. In that confusion the terrorists usually lose. In some cases, the spies have so many agents inside the terrorist groups that they are functionally in control; this is a morally ambiguous, and sometimes downright nasty, game, but it works a lot better in the long run than using drones (see: Algeria).

Provocation is effective but complicated, not to mention difficult for outside observers to make sense of. The United States has its own experience with this, and the FBI’s highly successful penetration and provocation operations against domestic extremists in the 1960s left a lingering bad taste in the mouths of civil libertarians. The Bureau continues to run informants inside terrorist groups – practically every wannabe jihadist since 9/11 in this country has been stopped well “left of boom” when a secret FBI representative enters the picture – which is unquestionably effective in operational terms but leaves political and ethical questions open. J.M. Berger of the excellent INTELWIRE has explained how good the FBI has gotten at thwarting terrorism domestically through aggressive employment of confidential informants, and that this may raise as many questions as it provides answers. One need not be a dues-paying member of the ACLU to worry where this might lead, not least since when FBI informants go bad, it can be more than a little embarrassing.

Yet this problem exists everywhere, and even societies which worry a lot about civil liberties can get themselves into politically and morally ambiguous situations when provocation comes into the picture. Take Germany, where more than anywhere else in Europe, for obvious reasons of history, right-wing extremism is – shall we say – frowned upon. Since its creation in 1949, the Federal Republic has taken a hard line on groups espousing any affection for the Nazis, and German authorities have banned several fringe parties over the decades when they crossed public redlines (though brownlines seems more apt here). It’s also long been the worst kept secret in Germany that any groups that veer towards Hitlerphilia are surely penetrated by German domestic intelligence, which keeps its eagle-eye on right-wing radicalism.

This can take a vaguely comic turn at times. The National Democratic Party (NPD) is the legal far-right group in the country, though it hardly exists in electoral terms (its performance in federal elections rarely exceeds one percent), but it is an embarrassment to authorities, who periodically try to ban it on the grounds that it engages in neo-Nazism, which is illegal there. A decade ago, the government’s last effort to get the NPD banned failed when the case went to Germany’s highest court, which determined that the NPD’s leadership was so filled with government informants that it was impossible to determine what were the party’s actual views and what were the actions of (many) agents provocateurs. Moves are again afoot to ban the NPD, which unquestionably does have ties to people who think the Nazis were merely misunderstood, but the issue of provocation will doubtless come to the fore again here.

Nevertheless, the German government’s confidence that it has the neo-Nazi problem “under control” (as the spies put it) was badly shaken recently by the revelation that a lone-wolf cell of violent extremists had managed to perpetrate a decade-long wave of terror across Germany. The National Socialist Underground (NSU), as it grandly called itself, consisted of exactly three radicals, two men and a woman, who formed a threesome of a cancerous sort (both the men were named Uwe, conveniently for Beate, the sole female member, who was the intermittent lover of the Uwes) which between 2000 and 2006 murdered nine immigrants – eight Turks and one Greek, whom they mistakenly took to be a Muslim – in random-appearing shootings all over the country. Since the NSU spaced its shootings well, in time and geography, and chose their targets somewhat carefully, they evaded detection for years. They also pulled off some bank robberies, a few small bombings, and killed a cop before they were taken out of business in late 2011; when the authorities finally caught on to them, the Uwes shot themselves while Beate was arrested and is awaiting a very long prison sentence.

The NSU story caused an earthquake in Germany far beyond its direct criminal impact. The press and bien-pensants have expressed horror that such a thing could have happened, despite the fact that Beate and the Uwes were quite moderate serial killers compared to a Ted Bundy or a John Wayne Gacy. For their part, Germany’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies, which were always confident about their handle on this sort of thing and therefore are wearing egg on their faces now, have been in full meltdown mode over the fact that there actually was a small bunch of violent neo-Nazis not under their control.

The recriminations for the cops and spooks have been considerable and embarrassing. Since the NSU were a secretive and malignant triumvirate unto themselves, living off the grid and possessing little contact with established neo-Nazi groups, they were never on the authorities’ radar. To make matters worse, Der Spiegel, Germany’s top newsmagazine, has published a detailed article which establishes that the issue is a good deal worse than it seems, raising awkward questions about the long-term impact of penetration and provocation.

It has never been in doubt that German domestic intelligence (the mouthful Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, BfV for short) has deeply penetrated known neo-Nazi groups for decades, often at the very highest levels. But that, it turns out, may be part of the problem. In 1997, before the NSU ever got off the ground, the German federal police (BKA) issued a secret report elaborating the shortcomings of the infiltration approach to the far right. This detailed assessment painted a disturbing portrait of just how deeply the BfV had penetrated neo-Nazi groups, and how that was actually making the problem worse. BfV agents inside radical groups, some handsomely paid, were egging each other into ever-greater extremism, even violence, while the BfV was protecting its “stars” from unwanted BKA attention. These agents provocateurs were often criminals, and many seemed quite authentically radical, creating what the BKA, which wondered who was really in charge here, called  an “incendiary effect.” Not to mention that some BfV officers seemed awfully cozy with their agents, whom they got to know well, and in some cases bonded with personally. It seemed more than coincidental that certain well-placed radicals seemed to be tipped off about impending police raids. The bottom line, the BKA concluded, was that German domestic intelligence, instead of preventing extremism, was instead actively encouraging it through its extensive use of confidential informants, many of whom acted as agents provocateurs, but whose ultimate loyalty was questionable. Unfortunately, this assessment fell on deaf ears – whether due to interagency rivalry or willful obtuseness is impossible to say – and the BfV’s tricky game has now been exposed in the aftermath of the NSU’s murder spree.

None of this will be new to anyone who is familiar with provocation – the rivalries among agencies, the problems of working with morally dubious people, the need to do bad things to “protect cover,”  plus the perennial doubts about ultimate loyalties. These enduring challenges are a feature, not a bug, of the counterintelligence approach. Yet the NSU scandal has put it all into the German public’s view for the first time, with negative effects. As a counterintelligence officer by background, I have no doubt that agents provocateurs are the most effective weapon against terrorists and extremists. But the German case illustrates why some activities ought to remain secret, since the public cannot be expected to stomach certain things over the weekend paper with a nice breakfast.

ALL IN: The Unraveling of Dave Petraeus

Yesterday saw a remarkable story break: the surprise resignation of CIA Director David H. Petraeus over an extramarital affair. Any day this would have been a biggie, since CIA directors seldom leave the job with so detailed a press release regarding salacious personal (mis)conduct. Not to mention this was just a couple days after the election and a couple days before the director was slated to testify about what exactly his Agency was up to back in September when our ambassador in Benghazi along with three other Americans, two of them CIA contractors, were killed in the line of duty by rampaging mobs of well-armed Libyan radicals.

Plus, this is Dave Petraeus we’re talking about, the best-known American general officer of his generation, heralded nearly universally as the Man of the Hour for pushing a decade now. This was the brainy, can-do soldier who, the story went, through his genius and determination reeducated the U.S. Army in counterinsurgency and then applied the new wonder-doctrine successfully in Iraq, snatching victory-lite from the jaws of defeat. Stars, accolades and glory fell on Petraeus and he became something of the Magic Man for many in and around the seat of power of Washington, DC. Even the increasingly obvious failure of his generalship and ideas in Afghanistan – where so many American projects go to die of late – could not really tarnish his stellar reputation.

There were always dissenters from the official story about Dave: some hard-lefties who saw in Petraeus the embodiment of all they disliked about the military and its impact on American life. Additionally, there were always those in the Department of Defense, in uniform and out, who sensed in Petraeus more than a whiff of hokum. Some who had gotten close to Petraeus Inc., which included a raft of young and hungry officers on the make, sensed the inner emptiness of the whole enterprise, that it was more about PR and bluster than actual accomplishment. Whispers abounded that only in an institution as intellectually bereft as today’s Army could someone like Petraeus seem like a genius. Still, none of it really mattered, and after expressing that politics (the vice-presidency, just to start) did not interest him, Petraeus retired from the Army and took over the CIA in September 2011 and Dave’s greatness moved ever forward.

Then came Paula.

For those who are professing shock that an affair happened here, I must hasten to add that the, ahem, exceptionally close relationship between Petraeus and his biographer-mentee-number one fan-running buddy, who also happened to be younger, chesty, super-fit, and fawning all over the guy at every opportunity, was something of an open secret in certain DC circles. I heard about it a couple years ago, and I have no claim to be the most networked guy on the planet. Besides, Paula’s hot-schoolgirlish repartee about her subject-mentor-boyfriend on camera was more than a little revealing. When you title your laughably hagiographic book about the guy ALL IN, you ought to expect questions. Now that weird letter to the New York Times agony-aunt, by one very unhappily cuckolded husband, takes on new significance.

So the CIA director gets caught having some sort of long-term affair – they first met in 2006; when the naked pushups began is not officially known – with a woman not his wife. Reporting to date indicates that the FBI got wind of shenanigans through an investigation of an IT compromise unrelated to where, and with whom, the director had been having extracurricular fun. (That Paula may have had stalkerish tendencies perhaps did not help her paramour here.) Surely such conduct is unbecoming by such an esteemed personage, but Petraeus would hardly be the first Big Person in the Intelligence Community to have found the burdens of marriage so heavy that he required some help to carry the load – as a former counterintelligence guy off the top I know of a half-dozen similar cases – yet Petraeus’s resignation is unique.

We are hearing from journalists who suddenly profess intricate knowledge of personnel security policy about how people with TS/SCI access have their clearances pulled over infidelity … yeah, right. Only when it’s with a suspect foreigner or there are other “issues” involved. And Mrs. Broadwell is quite American and a major in the Army Reserve, with clearances of some kind, surely. Notions that Petraeus could be compromised by a foreign intelligence service due to his zipper problems (I can see it now: the GRU illegal living as an insurance adjuster in Falls Church starts jogging with him and one day blurts out: “Meester Dave, I hear you are liking ze Paula very much, yes?”) are mostly fantasy. So, what gives?

Perhaps that FBI investigation dug up more, and worse, than we’re hearing about – and, since Petraeus has fallen on his sword and closed the door on l’affaire Paula officially, we’ll never get the full story. As a counterintelligence guy I always think there’s more to the story, and that’s often, but not always, the case. Additionally, the perfect timing of Dave’s relieving himself is so terribly convenient for the Obama administration vis-a-vis the election and Benghazi that something almost has to be up. A great deal of speculation is out there, but I wonder if we’ll ever get that story fleshed out either.

We’re being assured by Dave’s legions of fanboys and fangirls, in their current state of shock, that he will be back. Like MacArthur – another supremely self-regarding yet only intermittently successful general who fostered a remarkable personality cult with the public – he shall return. Perhaps. Time will tell, as it always does.

For now, we can begin the process of evaluating Petraeus with a bit more balance and dispassion: less worship, more analysis. The dissenters from the myth, who were always there, may now get a seat at the table in discussions of the putatively great man and his legacy. Once their current schadenfreude wears off they will have helpful contributions to make to writing the history of the Petraeus era. There were always contrary indications in the Petraeus story – the obsession with fitness, the aloofness, the slightly weird personal requirements – which will now get incorporated into the narrative, along with Paula.

David Petraeus deserves the nation’s gratitude for his leadership during the darkest years in Iraq, where he deserves credit for trying to fix a wicked problem. His solutions were flawed, but they were at least a serious effort to mend something very broken. His drive and determination were never in doubt and ought to serve as a model to our military, even if some of his other choices seem less inspired.

The only people in this suddenly rather sordid story who need sympathy are Mrs. Petraeus, Mr. Broadwell, and their children.

UPDATE (1455 EST): The FBI’s involvement in this case began with threats by Paula towards another, yet unnamed, third woman, which scared the woman so badly that she asked for help from law enforcement. Stay classy, Paula. We need Lifetime to get working on a script. We have now officially left the espionage realm and have entered the Roissysphere.

UPDATE (1030, 12 Nov): The third woman is Jill Kelley, a FL socialite/hanger-on at MacDill AFB (ie CENTCOM HQ, where she met GEN Dave a few years back). While there is no indication of any sexual relationship between Petraeus and this third woman, this did not stop Paula from sending Jill nastygrams (“I know what you did”, “stay away from my man”) which caused her to go to the FBI. Jill, who like Paula is married to a physician, is of Lebanese background, looks like she walked off the set of The Real Housewives of Tampa, and is laying low right now.

One more comment on the election

For Republicans seeking a upside to Tuesday’s bad news, there’s the positive development that Karl Rove, at long last, may be laughed out of public life for his bizarre FoxNews meltdown. He ought to be expunged anyway, for giving the country Dubya, and for his absurd declarations over the years about the GOP’s emerging Hispanic majority and related magical thinking. Don’t worry about Karl, he’s made millions off this, and he’s all good. His party, not so much.

We are now being treated to gallons of facile commentary about how the GOP needs to do better with Hispanic voters. Which is true and also a truism. Expect to hear a lot about how the Republicans need more brown faces, mariachi bands and fiesta-themed GOP outings. Under this lies a deeply patronizing belief that Hispanics are suffering from a sort of false consciousness as they are “natural conservatives” who will opt for the Republicans if only the GOP can find the right spokesmodel. I can only imagine how much time, treasure and effort the RNC is currently expending on finding a right-of-center J-Lo to pitch for the party.

The reality, however, is that Hispanics are not fools, and they vote heavily for Democrats because that party treats them better and gives them lots of stuff. Republican genuflecting to low taxes and less government has limited appeal to people who actually benefit from government largesse more, on average, than they pay for it. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Moreover, despite much liberal crowing about how successful their electing a new people thing has worked out for Obama and the Democrats, the reality is a tad more complex. The always interesting Sean Trende has actually crunched the numbers, which show that what mattered in 2012 was not minority turnout, but white non-turnout. Obama did as well among non-whites as could have been easily guessed, but Romney simply did not get out the white vote as he needed to.

Trende’s one-liner that captures it all: “But most importantly, the 2012 elections actually weren’t about a demographic explosion with non-white voters. Instead, they were about a large group of white voters not showing up.”

Why those whites failed to show up on Tuesday is an interesting question which will, no doubt, be debated for some time. One interesting aspect is that Romney was unable to bring upscale whites – educated, affluent suburbanites who deserted the GOP due to George W. Bush – back into the fold. In places like Virginia’s DC suburbs, this really hurt. Much of this may not be Romney’s fault, since W’s damage to the GOP brand was serious, and having nominee who, no matter what faults, certainly did not fit the truck-drivin’, NASCAR-watchin’ stereotype which W cultivated, could not undo this negative image, which may take years.

But what’s really interesting, as Trende shows, is that Romney lost downmarket whites too. It’s clear, from his look at Ohio voting, that poorer whites, who dislike Obama and were surely open to a Republican alternative, nevertheless failed to show up for Romney in the numbers they needed to for the GOP to win in 2012.

Trende speculates that this probably has much to do with the barrage of anti-Romney ads during the summer which defined the GOP’s man negatively, early, setting a bad image from which the governor was never able to fully recover, despite impressive debate performance in October.

In other words, negative ads work. They especially work when they are based in truths. No matter how nasty some of those ads were, they were grounded in some essential realities about Romney; to make matters worse, Romney said some stupid things that played right into this, and he failed to release his tax returns. That, alone, may have doomed him; it certainly didn’t play well with poorer whites in places like Ohio, who are hurting badly in the current economy, and wanted Obama out, but not at the cost of putting a sneaky plutocrat like Romney in. So they stayed home. Americans don’t mind that you’ve made a lot of money. Many, however, do mind when you’re secretive about it all, with a whiff of condescension.

The GOP has a basic choice to make if it wants to survive as a national party: Get more Hispanics or get more whites. Doing the latter, especially reaching out to whites who are economically hurting, would require the party to conduct a painful self-examination as to why it favors the wealthy so consistently at the expense of average people. Doing the former will require glossy ads, more token brown faces at GOP events, and greater marketing en espanol yet no real introspection.

Of course, the latter course might actually save the Republicans nationally, while the former course is a flight of fancy. Nevertheless, expect bulk purchases of “Yo soy Republican!” t-shirts and bumper-stickers to rise.

Election 2012: A Wrap-Up

This blog is about issues of intelligence and security, broadly speaking, not politics per se, and certainly not domestic politics, which is a topic of marginal interest for me. That said, it’s hard to ignore yesterday’s verdict altogether, as its potential consequences, well beyond America, loom large. So, a few observations.

Since, unlike most journalists today, I believe in getting my biases out there, here they are. I’m not a particularly partisan person, in the literal sense: I have no great affection for either the Democrats or Republicans, which over their long duopoly have both shifted dramatically in ideological terms (just take a look at how different the electoral map was as recently as 1976). I mustered little enthusiasm for either Obama or Romney, finding serious flaws in both candidates, so I was not particularly moved in the election either way. As a historian by background, I take the long view and strive to see the Big Picture.

First off, the GOP is broken, probably irretrievably; the Republicans, if they don’t get their act together fast, may go the way of the Whigs. Rather soon. It is easy and just to place a lot of this as the feet of George W. Bush, whose two terms were a train-wreck almost across the board, at home and abroad. Yet “W” cannot be blamed altogether, since it’s not his fault that the GOP continues to live in a strange fantasy world where it’s 1980 forever, and all that’s required is sufficient incantation of tax cuts, less government, and a strong military. Republicans love to invoke the memory of Ronald Reagan, but I cannot believe that the Gipper would find his own party these days at all intellectually coherent; not to mention that Ronnie, a quite winning politico lest we forget, would be aghast at how Republicans have turned into a hyper-aggressive bunch of interventionists (one of the most misremembered aspects of the 1980s among right-wingers is how minimally interventionist Reagan actually was in practice).

It speaks volumes about the institutionalized escapism of the GOP in 2012, at a time of profound and enduring economic crisis for working people, that it felt that nominating someone whose real claim to fame is expertise as a top-level bankster, and then adding an Ayn Rand fantasist as the veep, would get the white working class out to vote Republican. We saw how that worked out in the upper Midwest yesterday.

Romney ran as good a campaign as could be expected, given his less than likable nature, his hard-to-sell record, and the fact that the mainstream media was as shockingly in the bag for Obama as it was. The conduct of the MSM was a disgrace, for anyone who cares a whit about having decent journalism in a free society, but that was only the culmination of a long-developing story. Moreover, the collapse of legacy media means this will matter less and less in coming years, as voters find their own sources of information, some decidedly not mainstream.

But the real bumper-sticker here is how much the country has changed, relatively quickly. In demographic terms the United States is simply not the country I was born in a little over forty years ago. Some liberals are heralding this New America in glowing terms:

President Barack Obama did not just win reelection tonight. His victory signaled the irreversible triumph of a new, 21st-century America: multiracial, multi-ethnic, global in outlook and moving beyond centuries of racial, sexual, marital and religious tradition.

Howard Fineman’s assessment is basically correct, but his near-gloating tone will be off-putting to those who are less enthused about it all. Voters – and I mean here especially white voters – were never asked if they wanted a new country, yet they have one, whether they like it or not. This is big, and will get bigger. It’s impossible to say what might have happened had Romney done anything to run against this New America, since in fact he did nothing of the sort, and seemed to go out of his way to alienate poorer whites on economic issues.

While many will focus on the ethno-racial aspect to this, not least because Obama does so frequently, the gender-social angle is just as significant. Chucking aside centuries of social and religious tradition is a fine progressive talking point, I understand this gets the MSNBC crowd fired up, but we easily ignore how big a change this is for mere human animals. Single white women – the fastest-growing part of the electorate – went for Obama at about the same percentage as Hispanics did, i.e. about two-thirds. We are engaged in a vast social experiment where marriage is receding and ever-larger groups of society are ever-more dependent on government-derived largesse. Here Romney had a valid point about the vaunted 47 percent, however ham-handedly he made it.

Many things can only be guessed at about the trajectory before this Brave New America where marriage is allowed for gays but decreasingly found among straights. One thing that can be said for certain, however, is that it will produce fewer children – the USA is already at the lowest birth rates the country has ever recorded – and expectations that America (where birth rates among the native population are hardly better than in the decidedly non-fecund EU) can avoid a European-style birth dearth were unfounded. Another certainty is that the United States, with fewer births, will soon confront serious economic and fiscal problems based solely on a lack of future taxpayers, i.e. children (see: Japan).

I have said some harsh things about the GOP here, but it needs to be stated that both parties are fully complicit in the parlous finances we face. Obama’s worst sin in his first term was casting aside any efforts, even by his own specially-selected panel, to confront (or even really admit) the looming fiscal disaster. Saying the Republicans have been unhelpful is true but meaningless. Action must be taken, and soon. The essence of the problem is simple: the American people consume more federal largesse, far more, than they pay for in taxes. Most want the services but not the paying for them. This game has continued so long due to the dollar’s status as the global reserve currency, but it cannot go on much longer, given that by many standards the country is as deeply in the hole, relatively speaking, as much of Southern Europe. Unless the USA wants to become a bigger Argentina with nuclear weapons, Obama’s second term will need to see decisive actions to remedy this looming catastrophe not just talked about but taken. I am not, at this juncture, optimistic.

The election basically decided nothing. The American people are divided pretty much in half, Congress will remain where it was. One party is the home of the declining white majority (however much they decline to say so), the other is the home of a collection of minorities (ethno-racial, social, and sexual). We can expect gridlock to continue for years to come. And that is the problem.

As someone who has spent a lot of time studying multinational and multiethnic societies, I am skeptical that the New America built around “diversity” is going to have an easy time dealing with its huge fiscal problems. As social-civic cohesion frays – as even eminent liberal scholars admit is the outcome as a society becomes more diverse – to say nothing of subpar economic performance for years to come, I find it difficult to see how the country can overcome its rising challenges. When knotty issues of state finance representing truly hard choices are seen through a lens of ethno-racial identity and interest, they become even more difficult to address seriously in a democracy.

There will be much gnashing of teeth among Republicans, followed by the inevitable incantations that the GOP must appeal more to blacks and especially Hispanics. Which is true but assumes that there are lots of Hispanics who are just waiting to be seduced by the GOP’s free market fantasy ideology, if only the right salesman can be found. Juan Galt does not exist.

The upside to yesterday’s election for Republicans is that it offers the party a needed opportunity to divest itself of its more annoying and vote-losing tendencies (free-market fanatics and hucksters, evangelicals obsessed with rape and abortion, neocon warmongers), and in that we can expect to see fewer appeals to universal American empire masquerading as “defense.” Although Obama made a serious misstep in Libya back in early 2011 by listening to advisors who seem to think the entire world ought to be subjected to U.S. military intervention until the planet is made new, it’s clear that the president’s heart just isn’t in aggressive Wilsonianism for its own sake. It’s also clear that paeans to new wars of choice (AKA Operation PERSIAN FREEDOM) were not a vote-getter for Romney, which is probably why he sounded more realist towards the end of the campaign: too little, too late.

But we can at least comfort ourselves that America may soon conduct a long-overdue self-examination of its role in the world, and how much that role should be an overt military one. Going abroad in search of monsters to destroy has diminishing returns and gets damn expensive too. And no matter what, the drone war against Al-Qa’ida and Friends will continue.

[N.B. Per always, the opinions expressed here are mine alone and assuredly not those of the Naval War College or the Department of Defense.]

Uncovering Iran’s Espionage-Terror Apparatus in the Balkans

As the Western world moves inexorably closer to a full-blown crisis with Iran over its nuclear program – and make no mistake, whether or not bombs get dropped, we (by which I mean NATO as well as the U.S. and Israel) are in a major league crisis with Tehran – the issue of malign Iranian influence in the West continues to rise in importance.

Tehran has not exactly helped itself by engaging in bizarre behavior like using a used car salesman to plot acts of terror in the United States, but Iran lacks a well developed infrastructure for espionage and terrorism in America, and much the same is true in many Western countries. A couple months back Canada shut the Iranian embassy in Ottawa, since its diplomats spies had brazenly surveilled and harassed Iranian emigres and regime opponents in Canada for years. Even in Germany, where Iranian spies used to be thick on the ground, their presence is less than it used to be due to excessively public and nasty misdeeds by Iranian operatives, like gunning down regime opponents in Tony Montana style. Western Europe isn’t quite the benign operating environment for Tehran’s spies that it once was, unlike the Middle East, and even Turkey, where Iranian operatives are notably active.

The one place in Europe where Iranian spies are not hard to find, and they have a relatively free hand, is the Balkans, especially Bosnia, where Tehran’s spooks have a second home, amounting to a reasonably secure operating base close to the heart of Europe. This has taken on new urgency given Iran’s apparent involvement in July’s terrorist bombing in Burgas, in nearby Bulgaria, which killed five Israeli tourists. In recent months, the U.S. government and its allies have put pressure on the Bosnian government to cut some of the too-cozy ties between Sarajevo and Iranian intelligence, and three months ago Western ambassadors read Bosnia’s security minister the riot act about ridding the country of its substantial Iranian spy network.

There’s a lot of excavation to be done, since Iran’s spy network in that country has deep roots, being over twenty years old, dating to even before Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH) declared independence from ailing Yugoslavia. As I’ve written about previously in detail, beginning in 1990, Iran cultivated a tight clandestine relationship with the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the dominant political faction among Bosnian Muslims. For years, Tehran lavished men, money, and guns on the SDA and established a deep and wide agent network that penetrated Bosnia’s security services, military, and political cliques. Beginning in 1995, when NATO came to BiH to enact the Dayton Peace Accords which ended the country’s terrible three-year war, U.S. pressure caused Iran to whittle down its espionage operations in Bosnia, which included robust ties to mujahidin groups affiliated with Al-Qa’ida, but it never shut them down altogether.

Just how much of that espionage-terror network remains in BiH today has been laid bare by an exclusive report in Slobodna Bosna, the country’s leading investigative newsmagazine. Entitled “Iranians’ Secret Diplomatic Offensive in Bosnia,” and clearly based on a lot of leaked intelligence reports, this is the most detailed description yet of what Tehran’s clandestine activities in BiH actually are, and what they mean for European security.

Iran’s outsized embassy in Sarajevo hosts a lot of Iranian spies, most of them serving under diplomatic cover, but there are plenty more operatives across Bosnia working for Iranian and Islamic NGOs. Although the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS or VEVAK in Farsi) has a station inside Iran’s embassy which is headed by Abolghassem Rafie Parhizkar, VEVAK is largely dependent on operatives who come to BiH, short-term, from Vienna, which is the main VEVAK base in East Central Europe.

Far more active in Bosnia is the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC or Pasdaran), which has a much bigger and more active footprint in BiH than VEVAK, Tehran’s conventional spy organization. The Pasdaran chief in the country, according to Slobodna Bosna, is Hamzeh Doolabi, and his deputy is Jadidi Afsaneh, while the report identifies as other senior IRGC officers Shir Del Ali Asghar, Ali Akbar Dadrasi Iranji, and Abouyasani Ramezanali, who work under cover at the Iranian embassy. Given the IRGC’s active involvement in terrorism in many countries since 1979, this large presence must be assessed a serious concern.

In addition to a busy Iranian Cultural Center, a longtime front for Iranian espionage in the country, Bosnia has a plethora of Iranian-financed NGOs, many of which seem to have only modest official duties, and the report names several of these organizations and the suspected Iranian intelligence operatives in them:

Ibn-Sina Scientific Research Institute (Soleimani Amiri Mohammed Bagher, recently the institute’s director, his deputy Abassi Valadi Mohammad Hossein, director’s advisor Abedpour Saeid)

Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (TV director Ramin Mansouri)

Mullah Sadra Foundation (director Shaykh Akbar Eydi)

Persian-Bosnian College (PBC head Mohamed Jafer Zarean).

Observing that there are many Iranian businesses operating in BiH, the report explains that Mellat Bank, an Iranian financial institution under UN sanctions due to its role in suspected nuclear activities, previously attempted to open a branch in Sarajevo, but was blocked by authorities. Last year Star Commercial Company, an Iranian firm located in the Sarajevo neighborhood of Hrasno, opened its doors as a management consulting shop, but Slobodna Bosna states that it appears to be a front company designed to give Iran illicit access to European markets. Another cause for concern are the hundreds of Bosnian citizens annually who are sponsored for travel to Iran and other Islamic countries, often for religious educational purposes, all arranged and paid for by Iranian intelligence.

The report names as a key figure in the Iranian spy network Fikret Muslimovic, who is roughly the gray eminence of the extremist underworld in BiH. His biography is one of the strangest in the annals of recent jihad. A career counterintelligence officer in the Yugoslav Communist military, who made his career rooting Islamic extremists out of the army, when Yugoslavia collapsed Muslimovic underwent a conversion as total as it was sudden. He quickly became the SDA’s top intelligence official, noted for his fanatical newfound faith, and during the 1990s he was responsible for handling Sarajevo’s relationships with Al-Qa’ida and Tehran. Slobodna Bosna‘s report makes clear that Muslimovic, who ostensibly retired from his day job over a decade ago, maintains his tight relationship with Iranian spies, and he meets with them regularly.

Recent developments in this story ought to cause deep concern across Europe. The report notes that in the first half of 2012, Sarajevo approved visas for 200 new Iranian businessmen to enter the country, many of whom are suspected of having ties to VEVAK or Pasdaran. Additionally, Iranian spies (the report names Hamid Roughani and Sohrab Jadidi, who are ostensibly cultural workers) have visited the mujahidin community at Gornja Maoca, which has been linked to several terrorists and terrorist attacks in recent years, including Mevlid Jasarevic, the young man who shot up the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo in October 2011.  Pasdaran has established ties with Nusret Imamovic, who resides at Gornja Maoca and can be considered the de facto emir of violent extremism in Bosnia today.

Of perhaps greatest concern, Slobodna Bosna reports that, among the many suspicious Iranians who have entered Bosnia in recent months are several senior intelligence operatives who have perpetrated acts of terrorism abroad. One of them, whom the report does not name, is known to have recently been in India, Georgia, and Thailand – the exact countries where, over the past year, Pasdaran operatives have plotted attacks on Israeli targets. Bosnian security officials are preparing for the worst, with good cause

Doesn’t anybody just die?

One of the themes of this blog is the notion that there are mysteries out there which can be tough to solve since the perpetrators of the crime wanted it all to be murky. Unraveling the story, getting to the truth, can be difficult and sometimes impossible. Good spies and saboteurs cover their tracks well.

This past week has seen a couple big stories hit the international media – sadly yet typically with too little reflection in the U.S. press, which is presently caught up in presidential polling – which ought to raise some high-level questions about what’s really been going on in a couple major NATO allies.

Poland, where political life remains uneasy since the tragic death of pretty much the whole government in a plane crash in Russia in April 2010, got another taste of unpleasantness this week when the Smolensk disaster reappeared on the front pages. Rzeczpospolita – one of the country’s leading dailies, not the Polish equivalent of The National Enquirer – caused an uproar when it reported that investigators had found explosive residue on several parts of the doomed Tu-154 which crashed, killing 96, including President Lech Kaczynski along with dozens of top politicians and the country’s entire military and security leadership. The late president’s twin brother Jaroslaw, who has always insisted that the tragedy was no accident, jumped on the story to demand a real investigation.

Then, almost immediately, the Polish military prosecutor’s office which is charged with the investigation denounced the report and stated that no explosive residue had been found. In response, Rzeczpospolita backed off its account a bit, yet not entirely, without explaining its sourcing for the bombshell reportage. This, like so much else about the Smolensk disaster, seems fated to remain mysterious for a long time, perhaps forever.

While there has never been much evidence to back up the claims of those who feel something is missing from the official account of the crash, most of whom come from Poland’s congentially Russophobic right wing, it is abundantly clear that Warsaw and the government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk have mishandled important aspects of the tragedy. The Russians, as is their wont, have played games with handing over wreckage and evidence, neither Moscow nor Warsaw has been as transparent about the investigation as many Poles would like given the extent of the tragedy, and most embarrassingly several bodies of victims have been misidentified and require reburial. This weekend Ryszard Kaczorowski, the last president in exile, who handed over the presidency to Poland’s new and freely elected government in 1990, was buried in Warsaw, after it was revealed that his family had been given the wrong body.

Not to mention some of the strangeness surrounding certain aspects of the case, by no means all of which can be dismissed as fringe obsessions. Last week a Polish flight engineer who had flown into Smolensk shortly before the doomed Tu-154 and had provided key evidence in the case, not all of it apparently in accordance with the official story, was found dead in Warsaw, in what authorities said appeared to be a suicide. In January, a colonel from the military prosecutor’s staff, who defended his office’s account of the disaster, at the conclusion of a press conference on the matter promptly shot himself in the head more or less on camera (amazingly he survived).

One need not be a hardcore conspiracist to find this all a tad strange. Small wonder that the Tusk government, which had been doing well with the public until recently, is tanking in the polls, and suddenly the government looks unstable. Few Poles seem to have much confidence that the full story of the Smolensk disaster will come to light anytime soon, and it’s difficult to counter their skepticism. Instead, Poland likely faces an enduring mystery about a profound national tragedy, something which bodes ill for the country’s political health.

Much the same can be said of Turkey, where a big story has broken about a similar sort of presidential mystery, one which is perhaps less traumatic but every bit as mysterious as the Smolensk saga. Authorities recently exhumed the body of Turgut Özal, the country’s president who died in office in 1993 under less than clear circumstances. Best remembered as a reformer who brought an end to military rule and set the stage for the country’s remarkable economic growth over the last couple decades, he was reported to have died of heart failure, and Özal, who was not exactly svelte, did have a history of heart problems. Yet he had also been the victim of a failed assassination attempt in 1988 by shadowy right wing plotters, he had a host of enemies not all of whom were above murder, and his ostensibly natural death five years later led to a seriously botched job by Ankara: no proper autopsy, lost blood samples, and his family’s insistence that the president had been poisoned.

Hence the effort, nineteen years later, to get to the bottom of the mystery. Which has only, it seems, led to more questions. Yesterday, Zaman, one of Turkey’s top newspapers, reported that the president’s body, which was well preserved, indeed had traces of poison. Yet the very same day, Hürriyet, a leading Turkish daily, reported just the opposite: citing the head of the forensic institute charged with the matter, it said that the autopsy is not complete and nothing suspicious had been found. The forensic boss added that the public should pay no attention to the matter until the investigation is complete. Which is what he is supposed to say, one assumes.

So who knows? All very Byzantine, as perhaps it is fated to be, given history and geography. Perhaps the truth about the death of Turgut Özal will eventually come out, but it’s more likely that half the population will accept the official story and the other half won’t, with the Turkish press equally divided. Nothing healthy for a democracy in that, but perhaps nothing unusual either.

[UPDATE, 24 Nov: The autopsy has revealed that President Özal died of poisoning by four (!) different agents: the radioactive chemicals Cadmium, Americium, and Polonium, plus DDT. It is suggested that Özal’s body was weakened by radioactive chemicals before he was assassinated with DDT, an insect poison. As for who murdered the president … that will have to wait for another day.]

Update: How Irena from Bjelovar became Mrs. Awlaki

I recently blogged about the strange case of “Amina,” the Croatian convert to Islam who reportedly left her home, got hitched to the infamous Imam Anwar al-Awlaki, and inadvertently played a key role in his getting set up for death in a complex Danish-US intelligence operation. Since Awlaki’s UAV-induced flameout in September 2011, his widow is reputed to be helping edit the glossy AQ fanmag Inspire to keep the dream alive … or something. There have been some doubts about Amina’s true identity, as my post explained.

Irena with another guy who failed to get AQ’s “blondes are trouble” memo

Those doubts can now be laid to rest, as the Croatian daily Večernji list has reported that “Amina” is actually 35 year-old Irena Horak. Born and raised in Bjelovar, a sleepy town about an hour east of Zagreb (I once spent a weekend in Bjelovar … a very long weekend), Irena abandoned her native Catholic faith in a sudden conversion thanks to a British Muslim man whom she met in Zagreb. However, displaying all the legendary zeal of a convert, Irena/Amina soon found her boyfriend too staid for her newfound taste in jihad, and she quickly abandoned him in favor of stronger, or at least more fanatical, men like the good Imam Awlaki, whom she met in a Salafi version of online romance.

There seem to be no obvious signs of any predisposition to fanaticism by Irena, who we have learned was a noted athlete and a track standout in Bjelovar, and her parents and twin sister apparently had no idea what to think when the school teacher suddenly abandoned her entire life and disappeared to Yemen to marry her online paramour, who happened to be an AQ higher-up. Her family claims to have heard nothing from Irena in several years, and until a few days ago they had no idea she was the notorious “Amina” that the Croatian press has been agog about for the last couple weeks. Her high school boyfriend, too, has expressed disbelief that the gentle, sporty blonde of his memory became a jihad fanatic and bride of one of the world’s top terror propagandists.

Guess you never can tell how people will turn out. This is still a developing story, which is slowly coming into focus. Irena/Amina seems to be yet another cliched case of life transformation through radical Islam gone very wrong. Ms Horak’s self-starting jihad took an odd turn indeed. More as we have it …

Fixing America’s Military

Something is very wrong with America’s armed forces.

Despite the astonishing competence of the U.S. military at a tactical level – where they are pretty much unstoppable, by anybody, anywhere – in terms of strategy the last decade has been one of unprecedented defeat. Our retreats in the Middle East – already in Iraq, soon in Afghanistan – are taking place under conditions well short of victory, something which no amount of political obfuscation and flag-waving can wish away. The consequences, which are barely coming into focus yet, promise to be vast.

What’s going on here? How has the greatest military power on earth singularly failed to translate its tactical awesomeness into strategic victory against frankly fourth-rate opposition? This is a deeply troubling question which historians will ponder, with greater dispassion than we can today muster, decades henceforth.

But that discussion cannot wait decades. Fortunately, Tom Ricks, award-winning journalist-cum-historian, has a new book out on American generalship which promises to be a must-read. His teaser article, General Failure, is a tour de force, elaborating just how ineffective the U.S. Army has become in recent years. Its top leadership is iffy, at best, filled with self-promotion and self-delusion, and there appears to be zero accountability for failed generals, unlike in World War Two. This is not George Marshall’s Army any longer, in any way.

Aside from failures in ethics, which are themselves considerable, it seems that the U.S. Army has forgotten how to wage war – as opposed to battles – effectively. I’m not sure that the other armed services are much better: our Navy hasn’t faced serious opposition at sea since 1944 and the Air Force hasn’t faced a peer competitor in the air since its birth in 1947. Our forces remain tactically fantastic, but how effective they are strategically remains a very open question. The United States has operated freely, on a global basis, since the last couple years of World War Two; our control of the seas and air has been basically unchallenged. How effective would we be without this dominance? I’d prefer not to find out.

Fixing the military, getting it better at winning wars, is a huge undertaking, but the easy – and true – answer is education. In the aftermath of defeat in 1918, the Germans hunkered down, with a small and underfunded military, and revamped their whole military education system, based on the harsh lessons of losing. While the military machine which emerged ultimately served a nasty regime, that does not detract from what a superb fighting force it was, and how quality education was at the center of its excellence. In some ways, the U.S. Army after Vietnam engaged in a serious rethink of how it fights wars, and how to educate officers in that subject, which bore fruit in the Gulf War of 1991 (though Ricks shows that, ethically speaking, nothing was fixed).

The U.S. is hardly coming off a 1918-style defeat now, but the centrality of education is the same. The Department of Defense spends a lot of time and money educating its forces, but to what effect? The Professional Military Education (PME) system is a complicated one and its mission is big: teaching our warfighters how to win, politically as well as militarily.

It’s pretty clear now, examining the last decade, that our uniformed leadership lacks critical skills in mastering the political outcomes of conflicts – which after all is the whole point of wars. They seem content to leave to the civilians what really is the military’s job, as Tom Ricks makes painfully evident. It’s also clear, to those who care to look closely, that a lack of rigor in PME is contributing to the problem. Simply put, our War Colleges are not sufficiently challenging students: nobody fails. The outcome of that is seen daily in the Middle East.

Fortunately there are concrete ideas out there on how to make PME work better. Joan Johnson-Freese, a longtime PME educator (and, full disclosure, a colleague) has just published a book which promises to open up a very necessary and timely debate. Educating America’s Military has already gotten endorsements more potent than mine, yet I encourage all those concerned with our military to take a look and participate in that debate. This, too, is a must-read for those concerned about our nation’s defense and security.

Joan, who is best known as an expert on Chinese space policy, has taught at a raft of PME institutions and possesses leadership experience, so her views, which she’s already given us a preview of, deserve to be taken seriously. While you’re waiting for Amazon to bring your copy of the book, here’s a good teaser from C-SPAN.

Not everyone will agree with Joan’s points – and if you disagree strenuously I especially invite you to read closely – but that’s why there needs to be a debate. Our PME system was fundamentally recast in 1986, like so much of DoD, by the Goldwater-Nichols Act, yet our failures in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate that more change is needed to ready the U.S. military for the conflicts of the 21st century. Another big recast seems overdue.

What sort of change should it be? Let’s get the debate rolling …

[Note: The opinions expressed here are entirely my own, and in no way those of the Naval War College or the Department of Defense.]