Who needs Spies?
I’m surveying an interesting contrast at the moment, between the insistence of the National Football League on the protection of team signals against “spying” by opponents, and the remarkable clarity with which President Barack Obama today insisted on announcing the precise timing of our drawdown plans in Iraq to the world.
I have to confess, I was not among those who thought it was some kind of travesty for the New England Patriots to have someone videorecord the defensive signals being made from the sideline of the New York Jets. This case from the 2007 season seemed a bit silly to me. Seriously, how hard would it be to sneak around NFL rules – and minimize the chance of getting caught — by just putting the recorder(s) elsewhere, and ensuring there is no obvious connection between the people doing the recording and a team that’s on the field that day?
Of course opponents want to know each others’ signals in advance. Sportswriters and blogs spent considerable time, during the investigation of the Patriots, on how much good teams’ “spying” – with or without recording technology — even does them; and in general, concluded: Not much. Maybe they are right. Maybe they’re not. But in any clash of opponents, intelligence on the other guy is as basic as human nature – and keeping your plans and intentions from him is a measure as old as human conflict itself. Coaches whom we see holding clipboards and papers in front of their mouths, as they bark orders into their head-mikes, are simply doing what you do: try to hide your signals from the opponent. Any opponent who’s not trying to gather your signals and interpret them – ain’t tryin’.
It is in this context that Obama’s actions today are thrown into strong relief. It is clear, from the nature of Obama’s speech at Camp Lejeune – and the related signals being sent by others from his administration — that he perceives America to no longer be in an “opponent” or “conflict” situation with terrorists in Iraq. If he did, it would be a colossal mistake of the most basic kind to proclaim to those terrorists – and to Iran, and Syria, and Russia – as he did today, the following:
“Let me say this as plainly as I can. By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.”
An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, enlarged on Obama’s point to reporters (see above NYT link):
While the Bush team once envisioned a long-term peacetime presence along the lines of Germany and South Korea, Mr. Obama’s aides rejected that.
“The path we’re on here, the path is not towards any sort of Korea model,” said a senior administration official, briefing reporters under ground rules requiring that he not be identified. “The path is towards reducing, in a fairly substantial way, U.S. forces in 2010 and then down to what’s currently anticipated, down to zero, by the end of 2011.”
In professional football, the equivalent action would be holding up a sign for the opposing sideline that read: “Now hear this. We will remove our offense from the field at the end of the third quarter. We will remove our defense when the game clock is at 5:00 in the fourth quarter. In the meantime, the offensive coordinator plans to focus our attack on running off the right tackle. Watch this space for updates.”
The irony – and that word is becoming too weak to express the sheer reality of the intellectual dissonance – is that America’s political and military leaders don’t seem to understand what Obama has done today. It is understandable that most of them (as recounted in the NYT story) are comfortable with the drawdown itself. We always intended to draw down; the point of the surge was to bring itself to a conclusion; a drawdown is the intended and natural outcome of stabilizing Iraq, and preparing her to be left – secure and self-defending – in the hands of her own government.
But the political declaration need not – should not – have been made in Obama’s strategically careless, wholly self-referential terms. “Let me say this as plainly as I can. Set your watches. On August 31, 2010, we will stop fighting.”
Rhetoric matters. What thousands of terrorists heard – what the leadership in Tehran, Damascus, and Moscow heard – is an announcement of exactly when we plan to see the conflict as “over.” They heard no determination to keep Iraq in the condition we, and the Iraqis, have brought it to since 2003. They heard no commitment of that kind, or any evidence that continued progress on Iraq’s security, integrity, and self-determination is a condition of our relinquishment of a combat posture, or our departure. They heard, rather, an absolute emphasis on our determination to leave.
In democratic government, it is necessary to be as open as possible with the people. But that obligation does not impose on national executives an obligation to publicly emphasize operational timetables over national objectives. The whole point of executive leadership, and experience, and wisdom, is to produce the ability to decide when and how to draw down force, and communicate to the people the intention to do that responsibly and accountably – but signal, in that communication, not our eagerness to leave, but our determination to keep the conditions we have bought with blood and sacrifice.
Obama failed to do that today. He has given hope to everyone who opposes us, with the drawdown speech at Camp Lejeune – and probably sent shivers down the spines of our allies and partners, particularly in South Asia.
“Gentlemen,” Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson famously said in 1929, on shutting down his agency’s cryptanalysis office, “do not read each other’s mail.” With Obama as president, neither gentlemen nor anyone else will need to read our mail. They will only have to read his lips.