Welcome to Planet War

Today William M. Arkin and Peter Feaver start a new discussion group, Planet War. Planet War is the place to discuss and argue about national security, war and peace, guns and butter, stars and stripes, you get it, all aspects of military affairs and intelligence. Three to five times a week, Bill and Peter will pose questions and hazard some answers from their differing perspectives. They welcome your posts -- with the objective of developing common ground and sound ideas.

Here is more information about the group and its moderators. Please join the discussion at Planet War.

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Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 05/28/2008

A New Era for Early Warning

This week Early Warning begins its transition from a daily blog to a column and discussion group. The new Early Warning will continue to address the issues nearest and dearest to me: government secrecy and its manifestations in intelligence, special operations and information warfare; air power; and civil-military relations, specifically the role of the military in American society. The discussion group will address a variety of topics on national security and will, I hope, provoke a more interesting and focused discussion. As always, I remain interested in your comments and input.

More details about the new gig, and some thoughts and observations about the old one, will be forthcoming.

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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 05/22/2008

In This Case, Rumsfeld Was Right

If there were a musical about the Pentagon today, the opening number and reprise would be "If Rumsfeld Was for It, We're Against It."

Witness the portrayal of the reversal of a "controversial" plan by the former secretary of Defense, first reported in the New York Times last week, to use special operations forces as the lead element in the war against terror.

There is a lot wrong with the way the United States has been "fighting" the war against terror in the past seven years, and there is much wrong with the special operations aesthetic. But any push to reduce their role and turn over counter-terrorism to the conventional military instead is wrong in every way.

I have often criticized special operations for being too secretive and for a lack of basic accountability; for pursuing a "direct action" (read: head-hunting) approach to counter-terrorism that is circular and never-ending; and finally for believing their own P.R. about how great they are. But the "quiet warriors," as they often call themselves, are just the right element of the military to contribute to counter-terrorism efforts.

If there's going to be a "war" against terrorism, it needs to be quiet and stress the non-military. This means a small military footprint and fewer bases and a fully coordinated "interagency" and international effort. For all this, the Army and Marines are just too much of a blunt instrument. Haven't we learned that blundering out there, as we are blundering in Iraq, just confirms our desire for subjugation and empire in the minds of far too many in the Islamic world?

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Posted at 09:40 AM ET, 05/21/2008

A Sordid Sea Tale


A rising Navy officer serving as a military aide to President George H.W. Bush has an adulterous affair, lying to his wife that his various absences are mission-related and to his mistress that he is a widower. When he gets caught, he gets booted out of the White House -- but over the next 18 years in the Navy, he gets promoted repeatedly. When he is finally "reprimanded" and forced to retire, just last month, he is a three-star admiral.

Who says the military doesn't take care of its own?

The vice admiral will be allowed to retire with a reduction in rank to two stars. My hat's off to Navy Times and USA Today for revealing the story of Vice Adm. John ("Boomer") Dickson Stufflebeem and his fall from grace. But this tale speaks to a larger truth that American society often fails to acknowledge: General officers are fallible, ambitious and often self-serving, like the rest of us mortals.

Worry not for the admiral, though. I'm sure he can find a gig on a new reality show that features discredited and outspoken retired flag officers competing for a lucrative consulting job.

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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 05/20/2008

Tying Obama's Hands?


On Jan. 20, 2009, a small and little-known group will go through the motions of the most sensitive part of presidential transition, transferring the nuclear "go" codes from President Bush to his successor. It is a process so secret that even the name of the operation is highly classified and compartmented.

For the next four years, the president will be accompanied by a military officer 24/7 who carries the "football," a suitcase containing what is commonly called the presidential decision book with the various nuclear war options and associated approval codes and authenticators. Everywhere the president travels, the White House military office will set up secure communications for the commander-in-chief so that he can instantly be in touch with the military to convey his orders.

On inauguration day, a high-level Pentagon civilian, authorized to act on the president's and secretary of defense's behalf, will stay behind from the Bush administration for the hours until a new secretary is confirmed and given the twin briefing and authorities held by the president. Raven Rock Mountain in northern Maryland will be activated just in case. Strategic Command in Omaha, Neb., working closely with the intelligence community, will stay on the highest level of alert.

This exacting continuity process goes back at least to the Eisenhower administration. Even though the nuclear era seems a bit old-fashioned, given that Russian or Chinese intercontinental nuclear missiles could still destroy Washington in 30 minutes, it persists. So when I heard last week at a conference on civil-military relations that national security professionals were fretting about this particular presidential transition because it was occurring during "wartime," I was a bit confused.

I was also a bit suspicious.

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Posted at 11:35 AM ET, 05/19/2008

To the National Security Professionals, It Doesn't Really Matter Who Wins


I attended a Washington conference last week on "Civil-Military Relations in a Post-9/11 World," sponsored by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and the U.S. Army War College's Center for Strategic Leadership. Like many conferences I've attended over the years, it was as interesting for who was there as for who was not, as much for what wasn't said as for what was.

Though the title of the conference suggests that some change in civil-military relations occurred after 9/11, no one particularly made this case or mentioned the events of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks as a watershed. I conclude therefore that the title of the conference suited this particular middle-of-the-road group and that it would have been impolitic to say "Civil-Military Relations After the Bush Administration" or "After Rumsfeld" or even "After the Iraq War," the latter of course because that title might suggest that the conference organizers and attendees believe that there is an "after the Iraq war," a proposition that many are agnostic about.

Though there seems a consensus that there is some kind a "crisis" in civil-military relations today, the historians and the veterans in the group offered sage reassurances that the situation today is less severe than the days of Truman or even Lincoln, that there has always been a healthy tension in the American system between our civilian way of government and the American military and that the health of our nation is confirmed in that we do not fear a Latin American coup -- in other words, that not only do our generals ultimately understand their place and their role in our society, but that our civilians (and here I mean a particular profession of national security civilians) really do understand theirs.

Yet as I sat listening to these national security insiders -- practitioners and academics -- speak about the state of relations between civilians and our military, there was something that made me uneasy. I had to listen carefully to code because so much wasn't being said and though much of the conversation was given over to the coming electoral "transition" and a new administration's task, there was never a mention of John McCain or Barack Obama. Indeed, though the next secretary of Defense was probably someone in the room (or someone just like someone in the room), to the professionals, it didn't really matter who the next president was. There was a kind of Washington-insider undercurrent that the task of successfully "managing" national security just needed to follow a generic template, and in that it doesn't really matter who is president.

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Posted at 04:30 PM ET, 05/14/2008

Gates the Substitute Teacher


Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates is at it again. In a speech in Colorado Springs yesterday, he implored the armed forces to cure themselves of what he calls "Next-War-Itis" and focus on current needs.

Conventional wisdom has it that the anti-Rumsfeld is doing God's work by trying to convince the generals to buy more gear for the troops today and less for war with China tomorrow, by prodding the bureaucracy to supply more of what is needed today and abandon its fixation with fantastic super-weapons. He is trying, in short, to build some kind of team spirit to fight on.

But I'm beginning to wonder whether Gates is less a wise man than a substitute teacher. Gates wants the military just to complete its assignment while he watches from the front of the room. Not only does he know he'll be gone tomorrow, but his grasp of the subject matter and his knowledge about his own students is questionable.

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Posted at 01:00 PM ET, 05/12/2008

Pakistan Shifts the War on Terrorism


What's going on in the counter-terror war in Pakistan? Last week we learned that the U.S. military's chief liaison, Maj. Gen. Jay W. Hood, has been pulled from the country, ostensibly because of his previous assignment as commander of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay. Hood was called "notorious" in the Pakistani media and was roundly denounced by Pakistani politicians, symbolizing in many minds the mistreatment of Muslims that are perceived in this part of the world since the war against terrorism began.

The Hood departure also comes at a time when the Government Accountability Office is questioning whether the United States has any kind of plan to fight terrorism in the Pakistan. Though the United States has significantly increased its capacity for covert action and attacks in the region over the past year, its policy of relying on Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Pakistani forces to lead the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban has fallen into disarray after the country's parliamentary elections and the elevation of a new civilian government.

A key element of the change in governance in Pakistan has been a repudiation of the joint U.S.-Pakistan military-oriented pursuit and thus the strategy of the Bush administration. Washington, and certainly none of the candidates, has fully digested this shift. But it is a tricky, particularly since it comes at a time when a "surge" in Afghanistan is increasing pressure on the part of those fighting the United States to seek even more of a sanctuary in Pakistan.

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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 05/ 8/2008

A Secret Afghanistan Mission Prepares for War with Iran


Those predicting war with Iran or some Bush-Cheney October surprise attack on Tehran are constantly looking for signs of military preparations: a B-52 bomber that mistakenly takes off from North Dakota with nuclear-armed cruise missiles; a second or third aircraft carrier entering the Persian Gulf; a B-1 crashing in Qatar.

Since the most likely path to war with Iran is not Marines storming the beach but a strike on nuclear facilities and "regime" targets, signs such as these can often just be mirages. The true strike is not necessarily going to come with any warning, and the U.S. military has developed an entire system called "global strike" to implement such a preemptive strike.

A secret mission conducted last August over Afghanistan caught my eye because it tells us everything we need to know about the ability of the U.S. military to conduct a bolt-out-of-the-blue attack in Iran. It also tells us how useless such a strike might be.

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Posted at 12:15 PM ET, 05/ 7/2008

The Iran Consensus Grows More Dangerous

As I've noted, the three candidates share a consensus, backed by the national security community, that Iran is the new strategic threat. It is radical, anti-American, anti-Israel, terrorist-supporting, nuclear-armed and provocative.

But just because this is the consensus view does not mean it is right. The danger, regardless of who is the next president, is that officials have already begun military preparations, and shaping public opinion, to build momentum for the inevitable.

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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 05/ 5/2008

Another General Cashing In

Retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the Iraq commander from June 2003 to June 2004, is the latest soldier to head into the media spotlight in retirement. Coming tomorrow to a bookstore near you is "Wiser in Battle: A Soldier's Story."

So we are supposed to listen to the guy who presided over Iraq's implosion and Abu Ghraib? http://blog.washingtonpost.com/earlywarning


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