Thursday, May 12, 2011

Trusting, Verifying, and the Deal That Might Have Been

I currently have several hundred pages of student papers to grade in the next 6+ days. No better reason in my mind to write a blog piece…

There’s actually a fair amount going on, and I may get to some or all of the following: the less than universally positive reception among Catholics to John Boehner’s imminent commencement address at Catholic University, the Supreme Court’s washing its collective hands of the plight of the cheerleader who was thrown off the squad for refusing to cheer for her (alleged) rapist, the insane decision of the Texas Senate to allow concealed weapons on college campuses (even if the colleges object), and, also here in Texas, the unconscionable priorities which will pour a quarter of a billion (yes, with a "b") dollars of state funds over the next decade into supporting Formula One auto racing (seriously!) even while slashing everything else in sight, including somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 teaching jobs.

But we look now at some of the implications of one of the biggest stories of the year, the raid on the compound of Osama bin Laden. Let us take as given a few things: that whatever any of us thought about the wisdom or goals of the raid, we’re glad it went well; that President Obama will get a significant but doubtless ephemeral bump in his approval ratings, whether he deserves it or not; that we’ll probably never know enough of the details of the raid or the decision-making behind it to be legitimately able to offer much more than the foregoing.

Mr. Obama is (of course) being criticized, mostly if not exclusively from the right. His decision was described by Andrew Napolitano as “immoral” and “a crime.” On the other hand, according to David Koch, the President should get little to no credit for precisely the opposite reason: that “no president in his right mind would not approve that decision to go eliminate him.” Amy Jo Rice of the tea party group Maine ReFounders said that the mission was a re-election stunt [too bad George W. Bush didn’t think of that one] and sniffed that “we entered another country without their knowledge and carried out a military operation” [unlike the entirely preemptive bombardment and subsequent invasion of Iraq, apparently].

The despicable John Yoo suggests that capturing bin Laden would have been far preferable, but that doing so “would have required the administration to hold and interrogate bin Laden at Guantanamo Bay, something that has given this president allergic reactions bordering on a seizure.” Tea Party Exalted Moron (perhaps not his official title) Judson Phillips, citing a “story floating around the Internet,” [so it must be true!] muses that perhaps the SEALs “went behind [Obama’s] back.” Andrew Card, the former Bush chief of staff whose guy was dropped onto an aircraft carrier in a flight suit to falsely proclaim “Mission Accomplished” whines that Obama “pounded his chest” by (get this) going to Ground Zero after the death of OBL.

Meanwhile, from the left, Alternet’s Joshua Holland, whose interest in splashy story-lines unfortunately exceeds his interest in truth is spreading his own conspiracy theories based primarily on the fact that initial reports from Abbottabad turn out not to be entirely accurate. Who’da thunk it? OK, three more givens: 1). initial news reports on virtually anything are likely to require revision; 2). Barack Obama is a politician and is extremely likely to behave like one. 3). about the best thing that can happen to a politician is to have vocal opposition from both sides. Next.

All this said, what really interests me has to do with the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. Much has been written in the decade since 9/11 about the uneasy alliance between the two nations. Pakistan has, in the opinion of most Americans, done far too little to prevent the Taliban and al Qaeda from hiding out there. And the citizenry there seem not to be thrilled with being the targets of drone attacks (why ever not?). The relationship was further complicated by the largely accurate presumption that the U.S. government had propped up the reign of military strongman Pervez Musharraf. With his departure, then (especially), the democratically elected government of Asif Ali Zardari found it particularly difficult to walk the line between maintaining good relations with the U.S. and recognizing the distrust felt by the Pakistani populace.

There are two facets of the OBL assassination story that interest me in this regard. The first is the familiar refrain of “what did they know and when did they know it.” After all, in retrospect, at least, the bin Laden compound would have been pretty hard to miss. Not quite like Dave Granlund’s cartoon, perhaps, but still: high walls, security, no Internet… Anyway, either the Pakistanis didn’t know, and are therefore utterly incompetent, or they did know, and are therefore duplicitous. Not a happy place for them to be, either way.

But even more interesting to contemplate are two sidebar stories that, as far as I can determine, haven’t received a great deal of play. Intriguing enough individually, they’re especially fascinating when taken together. First to come to my attention was the revelation by Eric Schmitt, Thom Shanker and David E. Sanger of the New York Times that “President Obama insisted that the assault force hunting down Osama bin Laden last week be large enough to fight its way out of Pakistan if confronted by hostile local police officers and troops.” Now that’s a look at the reality of U.S. trust of the Pakistani government: speeches are one thing, but when it’s our troops we’re talking about, we’re going to prepare for active opposition.

As you might expect, Gentle Reader, I’m not a big fan of Ronald Reagan (although I liked the real one better than the mythological one created in the imaginations of today’s conservatives). But there was wisdom in one of his most famous sayings, “Trust, but verify.” That line used to drive some of my friends on the left crazy. They’d mutter all sorts of things about how Reagan wasn’t making any sense. But he was. Let’s take an example from my world: what, after all, does an actor do when checking his props? He's trusting that the stage management and props crews have done their jobs, but verifying, anyway... and if the prop doesn't come on stage with him, it's his fault. Obama’s decision reflects this kind of thinking: we’ll proceed on the assumption that the Pakistanis are the allies they say they are… but, just in case, let’s treble the size of the attack force.

The President’s action suggests several things, not least of which would be a level of active engagement in the mission that completely undermines the criticism of, say, David Koch. (Koch is a liar? The Pope is Catholic? What???) But it also suggests, as the Times piece makes clear, not merely that President Obama “was willing to risk a military confrontation with a close ally in order to capture or kill the leader of Al Qaeda,” but also “how little the administration trusted the Pakistanis as they set up their operation.”

OK, now couple that with the revelation by Declan Walsh in The Guardian (why does most of the best reporting on U.S. foreign policy come from east of the Atlantic?) that “The US and Pakistan struck a secret deal almost a decade ago permitting a US operation against Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil similar to last week's raid that killed the al-Qaida leader.” The agreement allowed the U.S. military to conduct raids within the borders of Pakistan against any of the three most significant al Qaeda leaders. There was even a provision that “Afterwards… Pakistan would vociferously protest the incursion.” The pact was put in place late in 2001 and re-affirmed during the “transition to democracy” in 2008.

All of this, assuming this reporting is accurate, means that much of what transpired a few days ago went pretty much according to this agreement: a limited mission, no interference from the Pakistanis when it mattered, considerable hue and cry from them after the fact, supported by (presumably feigned) U.S. impatience at Pakistan’s lack of cooperation. Check, check, and check.

But whereas the mission seems to have played out largely according to the terms of this presumed agreement, the implications are really rather significant. That is, whereas the Pakistani reaction after the raid might be either genuine or scripted, the news that President Obama seems to have personally intervened to increase the size of the incursion allows of only the following possibilities, assuming there ever was a deal in place: a). the Bush administration didn’t tell the Obama administration of its existence, b). the Obama administration forgot, c). Obama thought (rightly or wrongly) that the understanding was more personal than governmental and expired in January of 2009, or d). Obama really didn’t expect the Pakistanis to abide by the pact.

Whatever we may think of the competence and honesty of the two administrations in question, options “a” and “b” seem pretty far-fetched, and “c” isn’t very likely, either. That leaves us with the likelihood that President Obama, despite assurances from the Pakistani government that local forces would offer no resistance, chose to proceed as if there were no agreement in place. Perhaps this decision, and the one not to inform the Pakistani government (until and unless absolutely necessary to ensure the safety of the American troops) was intended to provide Zardari plausible deniability. But surely, even in that part of the world, dropping a strike force of a few dozen commandos backed up by attack helicopters into a city the size of Detroit in an area surrounded by military establishments is likely to attract some attention. That there seems to have been literally no resistance is interesting, to say the least, especially since the locals weren’t informed of the raid in advance. So, Obama didn’t trust the Pakistanis to abide by the deal, but they did, anyway, despite not really knowing what was transpiring at the time? Or what?

Of course, the deal may never have existed in the first place. Former president Musharraf denies it, in fact:
I do not accept anybody getting up and saying there was a deal. There was no such deal. And that was in 2001 between me and President Bush. I personally was trying to cast my mind back to 2001 after 9/11 and in those three, two and a half months left, after September 2001, I do not remember, recollect, that I even spoke to President Bush. And besides, we didn't even discuss this issue about allowing such an action.
Then again, the word of Pervez Musharraf and $1.40 (plus tax) will get you a small drip du jour at my favorite local coffee house.

Which brings us back to where we started: we are unlikely to ever really know. But if a deal existed, and both men know if it did, then Mr. Obama has some fences to mend with Mr. Zardari. In a hurry.

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