- - Tuesday, June 10, 2014


I hope I’m wrong, but like a lot of other folks, I’m seeing a pattern here. The lodestar of current American security policy seems to be to reduce our burdens and minimize our involvement — often in the face of hard evidence pointing toward alternative options.

No one who has seriously advised a president on intelligence matters would claim that his briefing had an exclusive claim on determining the executive’s decision. Other matters, not least of which are the president’s visions and priorities, carry great import. He is, after all, the one who was elected.

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The best that an intelligence officer can hope for is to set the reasonable right- and left-hand boundaries of rational policy discussion, the broad limits within which policy deliberations should flow. The fact-based, world-as-it-is intelligence specialist owes that to the vision-based, world-as-we-want-it-to-be policymaker.

That’s the theory, anyway. But recent policy decisions seem to be outside some of those left- and right-hand bounds, bending or ignoring facts to accommodate a predetermined vision.

Take Iraq and the decision to go to zero U.S. troops there. Quite predictably, with the dampening effect of even a minimal U.S. presence removed, Iraqi factions have reverted to their worst fears of one another, violence has spiked, al Qaeda has rebuilt a safe haven, Iranian influence has soared and the country has become a pipeline for jihadist fighters and Iranian arms to competing factions in Syria.

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Even as his secretaries of state and defense tried to secure a last-minute deal to keep American troops in Iraq, President Obama announced total withdrawal as a “promise kept,” denied in a presidential debate with Mitt Romney that he ever wanted to keep a residual force there and consistently touts all of this as a signal achievement.

Not much better in Libya — where, while “leading from behind,” we managed the overthrow of a tyranical government and then saw the extrajudicial killing of its leader, Moammar Gadhafi. Any intelligence analysis would have predicted that a badly fractured, inherently tribal, increasingly fundamentalist Libyan society would need years of extensive external assistance to grow a functioning civil polity, but that was not consistent with the vision.

The result has been the disintegration of the country, an American embassy under lockdown and ready to be evacuated, a raging terrorist safe haven and an open arms bazaar for all of North Africa.

Which brings us to this past weekend’s decision to swap five notorious Taliban leaders for American serviceman Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

First, let me go on record as saying that we owed it to Sgt. Bergdahl to exert strenuous efforts to free him. How he came to be a Taliban captive does not affect this conclusion. This is binary. He’s a G.I. Period.

But there are limits to what we should do to free any G.I., even if he were Audie Murphy. And we paid a steep price for this one.

The president has a vision. We will be out of Afghanistan before he is out of the Oval Office. No exceptions. This is not conditions-based, or at least it’s not based on any conditions in South Asia. In that light, whatever else he may or may not be, Bowe Bergdahl was a loose end.

It is hard to imagine that the risk represented by the five freed Taliban in 2012 is so different today that the intelligence calculus on them has changed significantly. What has changed is a vision-compelled clock. We’re leaving and the dynamics created by that self-imposed timeline demanded action now.

Even the president has refused to claim that the five would not return to the fight, but that was clearly not an impediment to his action.

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