Tuesday, June 24, 2008

John McCain's September 10th Mindset Fallacy

John McCain has a problem. Well, he's got lots of problems, but the one I'm talking about is generally considered to be his strength in this election. John McCain is strong on the issue of terrorism only if you accept the premise of the Bush administration's approach to terrorism.

If you don't, you have to wonder about McCain's use of language and his political and national security priorities.

The problem with the use of McCain's (and Bush's and Rove's) language in this area is that it betrays their true understanding of the subject. "September 10th mindset" or "pre-September 11th thinking" reflects not only a fundamental flaw in their thinking about the threats that face our country. It also exposes their thinking about the real threat posed by terrorism before we were attacked on our own soil. Before September 11th, terrorism didn't even make their list of critical threats and the question we should be asking is, why is that?

George Bush may have a better excuse -- since he admits to excesses as a "young man" -- but you have to wonder what is John McCain's excuse? McCain had only been retired for two years (and was a first term congress) when Hezbollah sent a suicide bomber to attack the marine barracks in Beirut on October 23, 1983:

In the attack on the American barracks, the death toll was 241 American servicemen: 220 Marines, 18 Navy personnel and 3 Army soldiers. Sixty Americans were injured. In the attack on the French barracks, 58 paratroopers were killed and 15 injured, in the single worst military loss for France since the end of the Algerian war. In addition, the elderly Lebanese custodian of the Marines' building was killed in the first blast. The wife and four children of a Lebanese janitor at the French building were also killed.

This was the deadliest single-day death toll for the United States Marine Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima (2,500 in one day) of World War II and the deadliest single-day death toll for the United States military since the 243 killed on 31st January 1968 — the first day of the Tet offensive in the Vietnam war. The attack remains the deadliest single attack on Americans overseas since World War II.

John McCain's reaction to the Beirut Barrack's bombing was basically, "I told you so." He had voted against sending in 1,200 U.S. Marines into Beirut because he "[did] not foresee obtainable objectives in Lebanon." The ramifications of this incident -- and McCain's vote -- are enormous.

I can't share John McCain's cavalier attitude about the Beirut bombings. Among the 241 marines who died was (lt.) Wayne Plymel, with whom I shared a gifted class in high school. His wife, then girlfriend, was best friends with my high school girlfriend. I was sent by the president to represent him at Wayne's funeral and various memorial services. I share the anguish expressed by his daughter, whose poignant message left for all asks:

I just became engaged, and my father wasn't here to bless me. The thing I hate most is that most people don't seem to remember the sacrifice these men, and their families, made. Where is the respect? Never forget, never forgotten.

Strangely, that's exactly what McCain did. Instead of understanding the evolving threat to this country and its interests, McCain viewed the Beirut bombings through the lens of his Vietnam experience -- just as he does the tragedy of 9-11. But there's another tragedy here, and that is that John McCain, George Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and the vulcans not only ignored the threat posed by terrorists but then used it to justify their existing plans for iraq et al when they no longer could ignore it.

The evolution of the terrorist threat represented by al-Qaeda that has reached our shores and continues to germinate against us is not much different than the evolution of the internet. It shouldn't have taken an attack on U.S. soil for the president or a U.S. Senator to recognize the increasing threat posed by terrorism. A pattern of violence had already emerged where terrorists sought to take the battle to us. Little more than six months after the Beirut bombings, 18 U.S. military personnel were killed in a bombing in Spain. A disco was bombed in Berlin two years later killing two more soldiers. The World Trade Center was bombed in 1993. Year after year, our military was being tested, our response was being measured, our defenses were being explored. But John McCain ignored them. They were isolated incidents, unrelated to one another -- or so it was thought -- meaningless to our force structure or our threat matrix.

President Bush's and John McCain's political rhetoric tries to infer that September 11th should be seen as a wake-up call. But the use of rhetoric talking about "pre-September llth thinking" or "September 10th mindsets" should be seen as the attempt to cover up Bush and McCain's active negligence of the issue. Before al-Qaeda plowed airplanes into U.S. structures, our counter-terrorist efforts were wrapped in secrecy and constrained by the current force structure of the united states. We didn't have a terrorism strategy because terror was viewed as a weapon of nation-states from the perspective that only nation-states could represent a true threat. The threat of networked cells with a powerful ideology derived from stagnant cultures indent on preserving their traditions was completely overlooked.

Arguably, for President Bush and John McCain, it still is.

Trying to force fit the threat posed by 21st century networked terrorists into a prism of one's Vietnam experience, as John McCain has, or an Iraq-centric prism, as George Bush and his administration did, does not allow them or us to understand the true nature of the threat, nor to consider the proper response(s) to those threats or to implement a national security policy that will truly keep America safe. Fighting the last war(s) doesn't help. And if our experience in Iraq teaches us anything it should be that not only our force structure but our national security policy must be adaptive in nature yet quick to react. You can't do that if you continue to look at the current threats through the prism of the past ones.

This election *should* allow a debate about our national security policies and how they should be changed to accommodate the evolving threats to our citizens and national interests. But the rhetoric of John McCain, George Bush and Republicans is designed to shut down debate, to prevent the intelligent reconsideration of past and current errors. You can understand why. The policies of George Bush have failed to make us safer, to free us from concerns about al-qaeda and modern networked terrorists. John McCain needs to frame debate over national security policy (current and future) by saying the surge is working. So what?

Do we really need another lazy thinker in the white house? The fact that John McCain needs to view the war on terrorists through the lens of iraq viewed through the prism of his experience in Vietnam should be disconcerting to every american. Even if the surge is working, it doesn't change the threats faced by this country. The surge's success *should* make it safer for iraqis to build their society, but what does it do for us? John McCain wants us to focus on the drop in casualties, as if few casualties of U.S. military personnel equates to a safer United States.

It's clear that John McCain simply does not understand the threats posed by networked terrorists or the alterations in force structure and deployment required to minimize those threats. Harry Reid made that clear, calling recent McCain comments:

a crystal clear indicator that he just doesn’t get the grave national security consequences of staying the course. Osama bin Laden is freely plotting attacks, our efforts in Afghanistan are undermanned, and our military readiness has been dangerously diminished.

John McCain and the Republicans want to run this election on fear. They aren't the least bit interested in a real debate about the threats posed by networked terrorism or questions about how we can make America safe again. It's almost as if John McCain, George Bush and the Republicans have devised national security policies that while they don't make us safer, they do contribute to success for republicans at the ballot box. Insisting that the surge is working doesn't alter the balance in the war on terrorists and talking about "September 10th mindsets" only tells us that John McCain doesn't take the war on networked terrorists very seriously.

We've seen this playbook before. George Bush came to office and deprioritized terror in the threat matrix. The Bush administration didn't share Clinton's obsession with finding and eliminating the terrorist threat. After 9/11, Donald Rumsfeld used the action in Afghanistan to test his theories about technology and military reform. Instead of finishing off al-Qaeda, the Bush administration used the 9/11 attacks to justify its prior plans: attacking Iraq and military reform. It should be no surprise that John McCain advocates a continuation of the Bush line:

McCain advocates high tech solutions to increase military capabilities, such as missile defense and other advanced weapons systems, an increase in the size of the U.S. armed forces, and doctrinal change to confront 21st century warfare. Many of his ideas for reform echo those of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and others in the defense establishment who advocate (as McCain does, on his website), "a new mix of military forces, including civil affairs, special operations, and highly mobile forces…"

The problem with the Bush-McCain approach is that it is aimed at the wrong forces, does little to increase our own security and it is damaging our own military. A survey of more than 3,400 current and former military officers found this about the Bush-McCain approach:

* 60 percent of the officers surveyed say the military is weaker today than five years ago, largely because of Iraq, Afghanistan and the punishing rate of troop deployments.
* More than half say the military is weaker than it was 10 or 15 years ago.
* Some 88 percent say the demands of the Iraq war have stretched the military “dangerously thin.”
* The officers rate their confidence in Mr. Bush — who was hugely popular with the military in the 2000 election — at a mere 5.5 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best.
* More than 80 percent of the officers say it would be “unreasonable” to ask the military to wage another major war today.
* When asked how prepared the United States is to execute a military mission against Iran or North Korea, both of whose nuclear programs are a cause of great concern in Washington, officers put both below 5 on a 1 to 10 scale.
* When asked to judge the readiness of the military services to fight, the Army, which has shouldered the bulk of the Iraq war, rated the worst score — 4.7 on a scale of 1 to 10.

McCain's view of the current conflicts through the prism of his experience in Vietnam, as well as his effort to incite fear, uncertainty and doubt into this election is a step backward, not a step towards addressing the threats posed by networked terrorists. John McCain's accusation that Barack Obama has a "September 10th mindset" stiffles debate and does nothing to build a broad bipartisan consensus on how to defend against the terrorist threat. It's no wonder that McCain's advisors think that another terrorist attack on U.S. soil would "Certainly it would be a big advantage to him." It might be smart political strategy, but it's bad politics. We should take national security policy more seriously than does John McCain and his campaign...

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