Foreign Service Pessimism vs. Brookings Optimism


Over the last day and a half, I’ve been connecting with folks in the military, in intelligence, from the Department of State on the American side of the equation, as well as chatting with some well-placed Brits and even Iraqi government officials, and a good passle of journalists in order to kick the tires of the O’Hanlon/Pollack New York Times oped that Dick Cheney is now favorably referencing in his talking points.
My sources are at odds with the anecdotes these writers shared. But unlike John McCain’s SWAT-Team aided escort through a marketplace, Pollack and O’Hanlon offer a litany of detail that probably are fair reads of how they see micro-circumstances now compared to similar micro-circumstances during their last trip. To their credit, they don’t try and suggest that the political order is any healthier — and they say that the place is still in a huge mess, and fragile.
They just say morale is up in the ranks and that the military is succeeding for the most part in securing its objectives. Again, this doesn’t square with my data sets — but they are on the line for their own report.
But to take their micro-observations further, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a recent Maria Leavey breakfast, the plural of anecdote is not data. She did not buy the story being promulgated by the Brookings writers mostly because the only measure that can matter at this point in Iraq is a change in the paralyzed political standoff in Iraq’s quasi-government.
Here is Speaker Pelosi’s response to a question posed at a small breakfast I attended Tuesday:

Tom Oliphant: I’m just curious in advance whether, from people you trust in the past few weeks, you have a sense of what’s going on in Iraq?
Speaker Pelosi: I’ve had a pretty good idea about what’s been going on in Iraq. And it’s not a pretty sight. It’s a terrible sight.
The question is what will be the report in September? General Petraeus, I always keep thinking about this report, something we used to say in appropriations. . .the plural of anecdote is not data. (Laughing from crowd)
So, they will tell us about an isolated ‘well over here hey did that, here they did that’ and we have to keep the standard high. That is to say, ‘is this worth what we’re doing?’ I’m very concerned that they will kick the can further down the road or talk about a few anecdotal successes that they’ll try to pass off as the situation in Iraq.
The corruption, the no bid contracts, by the way, that’s almost no bid and no performance contracts.
Any piece of it that you take is terrible on the ground in Iraq. The civil war is terrible in Iraq we have no business being in it.
So I think the standard people want to see is don’t tell me anecdotally that you captured and held for five minutes someplace because some local Sunni decided to shoot his neighbor but what’s the political change that is there? If there is no political change, there is no way that we should have our troops stay there.

On a related front, I just got an intriguing anonymous tip — not double sourced — but from a source I have confidence in.
Apparently, the State Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) has commissioned some real heavyweights in the foreign service — several high-ranking former ambassadors and others — to participate in a large scale exercise on how non-combatant American personnnel would be evacuated from Kabul and Baghdad where America’s largest embassy operations are now based. These are called NEO plans, or non-combatant evacuation operations.
Perhaps they have been watching the Department of Defense squirm in response to Hillary Clinton’s question about planning for military withdrawal and are getting the State Department ready for her next letter on the subject. Or perhaps the State Department has reasons to worry given on the ground realities that we might not know about.
According to someone close to this effort, the evacuations from Liberia and Saigon are on peoples’ minds, not the more rosy outlook offered by O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack.
This effort has been coordinated with CENTCOM and the 5th Fleet, in part because the latter would deploy anti-terror Marine teams to secure escape perimeters.
The word is that the “tone” of the diplomats was “not good” and “quite pessimistic about conditions.” My source said that “there is a high level of concern.”
According to another source, Al Jazeera posed a question to State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher about this NEO effort, and his response was “I’m not gonna comment on that.”
Perhaps Dick Cheney will quote The Washington Note now in his next reference of contending outlooks on America’s mess in Iraq.
— Steve Clemons


21 comments on “Foreign Service Pessimism vs. Brookings Optimism

  1. Chicago Angster says:

    I hope that this report is true, and that DOS is doing their homework. Any rapid departure from Iraq by the Blue Team will be very difficult at best, and a disaster if Tehran decides to make it so.
    Visualize a basket of peaches suspended from two 40 foot threads above the Grand Canyon. That is Iraq upside down, and the Iranians have the scissors.


  2. Kathleen says:

    POA, let’s make a bet. One thing’s for sure. We both agree they’ll do it to us, soon.


  3. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “What better place to declare Martial law and start with the extraordinary renditions? You know they hate Massachusettes liberals. They even make a face when they have to say the word “Massachusettes”. ”
    Naaaah, they’re gonna do Los Angeles or Frisco.


  4. Kathleen says:

    Well of course the military will be withdrwn and the Foreign Serivice remain behind. What the hell else is that giant Embassy for, if not the Foreign Service?
    And, of course there will be a military drawdown because there will no choice after December.
    The Iraqi Parliament passed a binding resolution to request the UN Seucurity Council to not extend authorization for Coalition Forces to reamin in Iraq when it expires in December, unless the question is put to a vote by Parliament, rather than extend authorization simply on the word of Maliki, as it has since his election.
    They also asked for a greater role for the UN and the Arab League in Iraq. End of story.
    So now, Busholini is meeting with Ban Ki Moon and the UN Security Council to ask for the UN to have a greater role in Iraq. They’ll be shaking hands and leaving by December, for all outward appearances.
    I’ve been begging Demz to propose this since Day One. I guess I’ll have to stop calling Dopey, Dopey.
    Meanwhile, back in the OSP, Darth, who has already quoted from the TWN, is checking maps of that other liberal bastion, Boston. Remember that phony PR stunt with the backpacks placed at the foottings of bridges in Boston? That had the feeling of a “dry run” to me.
    What better place to declare Martial law and start with the extraordinary renditions? You know they hate Massachusettes liberals. They even make a face when they have to say the word “Massachusettes”.
    If only Larry Flynt can come up with a bunkerbuster for that OSP.


  5. arthurdecco says:

    Unfortunately, Sandy, it’s not over yet – not by a long nuclear shot.


  6. rapier says:

    I think it is possible that the Pentagon has no plans at all for a significant withdrawal from Iraq. This is unconscionable since normally the Pentagon has plans, not necessarily good ones, but plans about thousands and thousands of contingencies.
    Maybe I am wrong, I hope not because even with a plan extracting our forces from Iraq will be no simple task. Well it would be impossible without a plan. Thus my idea there is no plan. Circular logic that probably fits the case.
    The picture of the Saigon Embassy could under many circumstances looks like a picnic compared to the Green Zone in my daydreams. Providing enough fuel for rightest sentiment for another century, or until the end of the Republic, whichever comes first.


  7. Sandy says:

    Me either, POA. SO disillusioning! Sad….
    What does it say about the “experiment” in capitalism if this is how it ends?


  8. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “they’re more convinced that the military will be pulled out and the Foreign Service will be left behind….”
    Well, don’t forget that we would also leave the huge contingent of Blackwater mercenaries there, unbound by international law. Erik Prince recently stated there are more mercenaries in Iraq than there are actual troops. (Well, at least if there over there, they aren’t stalking the streets of New Orleans, right?)
    Is this the Twilight Zone? It sure as hell isn’t the United States anymore. Not the one I grew up believing in.


  9. pauline says:

    An increased threat of another al Qaeda attack between now and Sep. 11 of this year has caused Capitol Police officials to step up security on Capitol Hill, Roll Call reported.
    An unnamed Capitol Police source told Roll Call that Congressional security officials were recently made aware of the potential threat by federal anti-terrorism authorities.
    “Given the world situation and recently released snippet from al-Qaida threatening to attack Washington, we’re just being a tad more vigilant if that’s possible,” Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer told the Capitol Hill newspaper. “Although, if you’re ready for a four-alarm fire at any time, it’s hard to be more vigilant.”
    Gainer, who chairs the Capitol Police Board, said he noticed an increased police presence on the Hill, but he would not disclose to the newspaper any specific threats or dates.


  10. Miriam says:

    It is sad to see O’Hanlon and Pollack so desperate to rescue a failed operation? Guilt? Wishful thinking? Saving face? What can be gained from this now? It only boosts the Cheney world view a little longer, until the next President who will be left in charge of the disaster.


  11. pauline says:

    WASHINGTON: Republican presidential hopeful Tom Tancredo says the best way he can think of to deter a nuclear terrorist attack on the US is to threaten to retaliate by bombing Islamic holy sites.
    The Colorado congressman on Tuesday told about 30 people at a town hall meeting in the state of Iowa that he believes such a terrorist attack could be imminent and that the US needs to hurry up and think of a way to stop it.
    “If it is up to me, we are going to explain that an attack on this homeland of that nature would be followed by an attack on the holy sites in Mecca and Medina,” Tancredo said at the Family Table restaurant.
    “Because that’s the only thing I can think of that might deter somebody from doing what they otherwise might do,” Tancredo said in comments recorded and posted on the Web site


  12. jonst says:

    I think the Brookings two are being realistic. About their own professional careers. Nothings sells in DC like the narrative of the left leaning ‘tough guy’. You are perceived as a “democrat” (the reality of that perception is totally irrelevant)and you want to be popular with the Cookie Roberts David Broder et al crowd. Give Cheney something he can point to as ‘wisdom’ and ‘reasonableness’. As opposed to the ‘dirty fucking hippies who always blame America.’ Not only do people forget that you were incorrect….it does not matter to them, to the limited extent they DO recall it. You were ‘intrepid’ and useful. THat is all that matters from a realistic professional perspective. And when some critic points this out….you accuse them of employing the ‘politics of the smear’! You accuse them of rabid partisanship….McGovernitis….Jimmy Carterism and so on.


  13. karen says:

    “they’re more convinced that the military will be pulled out and the Foreign Service will be left behind….”
    That’s a stunning comment. I can’t imagine the fallout, but I do know it would be severe.


  14. Shawn says:

    The word I hear from a lot of colleagues is they’re not skittish about serving in Iraq because of cowardice or doubt in the mission (although there is some of that), they’re more convinced that the military will be pulled out and the Foreign Service will be left behind.


  15. Art Rantarian says:

    Thanks for following up on this, Steve. It’s an important article that we need to understand.


  16. tomz says:

    I have worked for Ambo Crocker under some trying conditions elsewhere. If he has not changed, he will pull the plug and get his people out of there without waiting for a White House decision. He is one of the most trusted CAREER dips at DOS.


  17. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Both “pessimism ” and “optimism” are intellectual fantasies. Don’t you think its about time these assholes in Washington started considering “realism”?


  18. John Bennett says:

    I was the acting USAID director in Saigon at the end in 1975, so I read your Foreign Service Pessimism vs. Brookings Optimism with great interest. It was one of the most difficult periods in my life. As we tried to get people out while preventing order from collapsing, things turned sour hourly. I would make one very important overall comment. We were very lucky that the NVA let us take people out as long and as smoothly as they did. That is not a view you will find widely held, I suspect, but it is true: they could have closed the operation down at any time for several months. They didn’t stop us, because it kept us busy and aided their own takeover.
    I rather doubt we will have the same kind of luck in Iraq, if it comes to that. The contending sects will be fighting for supremacy and getting our people out, much less the Iraqis who remained loyal to us will be far from their concerns. It will be brutally difficult. I conclude we should be drawing down the civilians now as well as well as the military.


  19. Chaps Leatherby says:

    Seems the Brookings duo of O’Hanlon and Pollack see the entire world through rose colored glasses. When the Iraq dam breaks, and it will break sooner rather than later, all hell will pour through that gapping hole. Will O’Hanlon and Pollack be there to attempt a plug? Not on a Vegas sure thing bet. The Pentagon knows full well that a bug-out is in the offing. State knows it as well. Possibly, September might just be the time for a skee-daddle. With the Iraq government in full collapse, it’s just a matter of timing and “collateral” damage. That collateral damage will of course, be U.S. military boys and girls that MUST facilitate the getting gone. It’s all over now but the crying.


  20. Linda says:

    One of the reasons that the O’Hanlon and Pollak piece got so much interest was the headline that NY Times put on it: “A War We Just Might Win.” According to O’Hanlon, when one submits an op-ed to them, it is understood that the newspaper’s editors get to pick the headline–and that one got a lot of attention.


  21. TulsaTime says:

    It sounds like the pros are beginning to recognize how brittle the situations really are. I’m seeing more and more mentions of Hue ’68 on the web. There is no doubting the ability of the insurgents to put almost anything together, especially in Baghdad.
    Something like a tunneling operation into the Green Zone could grab headlines and start a panic in the residents and contractors. Just like ’68, we would ‘win’ the battle, but the facade would be blown for good.


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