Wednesday, July 1, 2009

CHUTZPAH with Military Rhetoric

One of the best ways to win a Chutzpah of the Week award is by speaking truth to power, and speaking truth to military power requires a special kind of chutzpah. National Security Advisor James L. Jones seems to have that chutzpah when it comes to military planning in Afghanistan; and, given our history of getting ourselves into inextricable messes, this is definitely chutzpah in the right place at the right time. Not surprisingly, the story behind this chutzpah was filed by Bob Woodward for this morning's Washington Post. Here is his account of the basic act:

National security adviser James L. Jones told U.S. military commanders here last week that the Obama administration wants to hold troop levels here flat for now, and focus instead on carrying out the previously approved strategy of increased economic development, improved governance and participation by the Afghan military and civilians in the conflict.

The message seems designed to cap expectations that more troops might be coming, though the administration has not ruled out additional deployments in the future. Jones was carrying out directions from President Obama, who said recently, "My strong view is that we are not going to succeed simply by piling on more and more troops."

"This will not be won by the military alone," Jones said in an interview during his trip. "We tried that for six years." He also said: "The piece of the strategy that has to work in the next year is economic development. If that is not done right, there are not enough troops in the world to succeed."

Jones delivered his message after a 30-minute briefing by Marine Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, who commands 9,000 Marines here, nearly half the new deployments Obama has sent to Afghanistan.

However, as we read on in Woodward's account, we discover that this is a case where the chutzpah resided not only in the enough-is-enough cake but also in that cake's rhetorical icing. As could be expected, Nicholson was ready to push back against Jones' message and try to open the door to further troop escalations. However, as Woodward reported, Jones was ready with push-back of his own:

During the briefing, Nicholson had told Jones that he was "a little light," more than hinting that he could use more forces, probably thousands more. "We don't have enough force to go everywhere," Nicholson said.

But Jones recalled how Obama had initially decided to deploy additional forces this year. "At a table much like this," Jones said, referring to the polished wood table in the White House Situation Room, "the president's principals met and agreed to recommend 17,000 more troops for Afghanistan." The principals -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Gates; Mullen; and the director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair -- made this recommendation in February during the first full month of the Obama administration. The president approved the deployments, which included Nicholson's Marines.

Soon after that, Jones said, the principals told the president, "oops," we need an additional 4,000 to help train the Afghan army.

"They then said, 'If you do all that, we think we can turn this around,' " Jones said, reminding the Marines here that the president had quickly approved and publicly announced the additional 4,000.

Now suppose you're the president, Jones told them, and the requests come into the White House for yet more force. How do you think Obama might look at this? Jones asked, casting his eyes around the colonels. How do you think he might feel?

Jones let the question hang in the air-conditioned, fluorescent-lighted room. Nicholson and the colonels said nothing.

Well, Jones went on, after all those additional troops, 17,000 plus 4,000 more, if there were new requests for force now, the president would quite likely have "a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment." Everyone in the room caught the phonetic reference to WTF -- which in the military and elsewhere means "What the [expletive]?"

Nicholson and his colonels -- all or nearly all veterans of Iraq -- seemed to blanch at the unambiguous message that this might be all the troops they were going to get.

Jones, speaking with great emphasis to this group of Iraq veterans, said Afghanistan is not Iraq. "We are not going to build that empire again," he said flatly.

Jones knew that he would have to use rhetoric that would get the attention of the brass in the room, and he had the chutzpah to deliver just the right rhetoric to do the trick. Jones has definitely earned his Chutzpah of the Week award; let us now hope that the Administration he represents does not back down from this position!

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