Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Frontline's Endgame Opened My Eyes

I missed the first twenty minutes or so of Endgame by Frontline, (thanks to brother Olbermann and my Pavlovian channel change to MSNBC @ 9pm on weeknights) but the ending 2/3's of the program really changed my perception on a couple of fronts.

I was surprised at the continued influence held by Vice President Dick Cheney in policy matters. Story after story has circulated about how a rift has developed between Bush and Cheney, or how Cheney has fallen from favor and lost influence in the White House. Yet the basic presentation and decision making process of the surge for the administration serves to show that Cheney is influential as ever. This may take a couple of paragraphs, but let me explain how the surge shows Cheney's continuing influence in White House affairs.

The seeds of the surge were planted when Colonel H.R. McMaster instituted a new military strategy in the city of Tal Afar in May of 2005. This strategy is called clear, hold and build. Clear the area of insurgents, hold the area after clearing it rather than leaving and letting the insurgency come back, and build up the area using Iraqi reconstruction funds. This strategy was a success in Tal Afar, and in a matter of months Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice was a vocal proponent of clear, hold and build as a strategy for the entire nation of Iraq.

Fast forward to the fall of 2006. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has been tossed overboard after the thumping handed Republicans in the mid term elections. The White House is searching for a new strategy and retired General Jack Keane and Frederick Kagan have written a paper based upon clear hold and build for a conservative think tank. (Note that Kagan is a military historian, a noted neoconservative and has never served in the military, while Keane had been retired from the service for approximately three years when they wrote the paper. The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously opposed the surge, as did the commanders in Iraq at the time. None of this was covered in Endgame, which could have been a three hour program imho.) The President is impressed by the paper and Kagan and Keane are summoned to the White House.

This is where the influence of the Vice President becomes apparent. Keane and Kagan first have a meeting with the President and several other cabinet members. This meeting included several people proposing different plans for Iraq. After that meeting, Kagan and Keane met with Vice President Cheney to describe the details of the surge plan in detail.

Keane partially describes the moment he knew that his plan would be official policy thusly:
"The thing that made it conclusive to me was that evening, one of the vice president's advisers called me and said that the meeting in the White House with the president was decisive, and as a result of that, this operation is probably going to go forward."
[Let me note here that the transcript of the Keane interview provided by Frontline as of the time I am writing this post is incomplete, and the transcript for the entire program is not yet available. Watching the program live, this quote from Keane actually dealt with the process by which the President determined to go with the surge as follows. After the Keane/Kagan/Cheney meeting the Vice President met with the President, and it was that White House meeting which the Vice Presidents advisor was referring to as decisive. If there is any controversy over this expressed in comments, the entire transcript for the program will be available approximately 1 week after airing, and I'll be happy to add further documentation at that time]

So it is clear from this history that the Vice President was intimately involved in the White House deliberations and decision making process which led to the surge. My perception of a Vice President being shuffled into the background where his only influence is sending minions to the neocon establishment to push buttons is officially gone. Cheney is still the unseen force directing power behind the Presidency he always has been. If he can so heavily influence the surge policy, the policy the front line generals and military leadership from Rumsfeld through the Joint Chiefs rejected, Cheney is still instrumental in policy making decisions at the administration. God help us all.

The next misperception this documentary cleared up for me is that Secretary of State Rice is the voice of reason and pragmatism in the administration. Rice is the one who started championing clear hold and build, over the objections of Rumsfeld. The surge never happens if clear hold build doesn't get the boost Rice gives it in 2005. Clear hold build requires many more troops than we currently have in Iraq. The current surge is simply clear hold build for Baghdad. The administration would like to stabilize Baghdad and then spread that success through out Iraq. If that happens we will have more surging and decades of occupation for a successful completion of the strategy.

Rumsfeld's aversion to clear hold build was due to his model of warfare predicated upon fewer boots on the ground, made possible by greater technology enabling control of the battlefield. I believe Rumsfeld's downfall was due to his application of sound theory regarding the conquering of the battlefield, to the occupation following the invasion. The ONE thing this administration got right in Iraq was the drive to Baghdad and ouster of Saddam's government and for that Rumsfeld should get credit. But Rumsfeld's doctrine was a DISASTER for occupation. We left the populace undefended, and left ammo dumps dotting the country side open for the local populace to come around in their trucks and cart away. Who can say how many casualties are attributable to those disastrous post invasion decisions, which allowed an insurgency to take root and grow?

So what is Rice's answer to this manifest disaster? Clear hold build... Rumsfeld is wedded to the Rumsfeld doctrine so the increase in troop strength needed to clear hold build the entire nation of Iraq did not fly with him. Rumsfeld was wrong headed in nearly every aspect of his stewardship, but at least he didn't push to compound that error. Thus we have Rice, the Secretary of State, and the supposed voice of reason, sanity and realism being one of the early forces which pushed for the surge over the objections of Rumsfeld, who was tossed off the bus. Rumsfeld may have been wrong headed in nearly every aspect of his stewardship, but at least he did not try to compound those errors by feeding even more troops into the meat grinder he helped create. In a reversal of previously held perception, I am left with the impression that Rice was the instigator and Rumsfeld the more level headed one when it comes to escalation policy in Iraq.

As mentioned before, I thought Endgame could have been a three hour program. I can not recall any part of the program dealing with the Iraq Study Group. There was no mention in the program of the White House reaction to proposals from other groups and people calling for a withdrawal... phased, immediate or any other permutation there of. The disagreement with the surge by the Generals in place during the winter of 06 is not touched upon. When the credits rolled on Endgame I had the distinct impression that the final product was truncated.

But, as you can see, there were some eye openers for me in the program. I would definitely reccomend it to any who missed it the first time around.

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