My 2015 Mistakes

January 19th, 2016

The late, great David Broder of The Washington Post used to write an annual column admitting to all the mistakes he’d made the previous year. Seems sensible, so here are mine in the political sphere:
First, I misjudged the potential and prospects of all, or nearly all, the Republican candidates for President. (I have a history of this; in 1980, I opined on live television that the American people would never choose a B-movie actor for President, even if he had been governor of California.)
Donald Trump: I predicted, with great confidence, would never go anywhere. I was certain that his act would get old, that the public would tire of his bluster and bragging, that his lies and exaggerations would trip him up, that the media would finally stop giving him free airtime and that his callous, crude appeal to our worst instincts would eventually, surely, erode his standing in the polls. Well, as editors used to say, I’m still exclusive with that one.
My revised, 2016 prediction: Trump will go all the way to the GOP convention. He will accumulate delegates, especially in states that are not winner-take-all, even if he slips in Iowa, courtesy of the evangelicals there, and stumbles in New Hampshire. Unless I’m wrong – again – Trump will be a factor when the Republicans gather in Cleveland, but I still find it hard to envision him as the nominee.
Ben Carson: I never understood his appeal, other than as a soft-spoken contrast to his fellow candidates. Since I don’t consider the presidency to be a starter office, I could not understand how a surgeon, no matter how able, could be taken seriously as a commander-in-chief. And yet, he rose in the polls; my forecast of his demise seemed hollow… until it didn’t.

Ted Cruz: I wrote that he was too hard-edged, too angry and too unpopular with his fellow Republican Senators. The more I said that, the faster he rose in the polls, especially in Iowa. (These guys should hire me to criticize them.) My 2016 view: Cruz clearly appeals to a certain, angry base that somehow accepts him as an outsider. He will be a major factor in Cleveland.
Marco Rubio: despite his youth and inexperience and the fact that he doesn’t seem to like being in the Senate, and despite my skepticism, he is clearly positioning himself as a smoother, more modulated conservative.
Jeb Bush: I wrote repeatedly that he would emerge as the more moderate, consensus, establishment choice, even if he was George W.’s brother and even after he selected as his foreign policy advisors some of the same, lame, misguided neo-cons who brought us the senseless, unjustified war in Iraq. Well, I am still hanging out there with that one, and my prospects of being right seem as dim as Jeb’s of being the nominee, unless he really scores in New Hampshire.
Chris Christie: I could never see him as the nominee, even before Bridgegate, even before he threatened in one debate to take us to war with both Russia and China, and yet he has improved his standing in New Hampshire, so who knows?
The others? Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindall, Lindsay Graham and George Pataki dropped out before I got a chance to be wrong about them in print. John Kasich seemed to me like the kind of experienced, Jack Kemp-style Republican who might attract a following, but his debate performances apparently turned people off. He may revive in New Hampshire… or not.
Carly Fiorina clearly helped herself in the debates. She could emerge as a vice presidential choice if the GOP decides it needs a woman on the ticket, but I doubt it. The other candidates from the undercard debates seem destined to remain in the low single digits.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton at first seemed off-stride to me as a candidate: short-tempered, impatient, visibly annoyed with the press. But her confident, informed performances in the debates convinced me that she is the prohibitive favorite for the nomination.
But the caucuses and primaries lie ahead, so I have many opportunities to be wrong in 2016.


The View From Annapolis II

December 13th, 2015

Just two more days to the next Republican Primary debate in the long-running, messy spectacle known as the 2016 Presidential election. So, gather round, pop the popcorn and settle down to watch the next episode of Donald Trump and Friends.
This Tuesday, the leading GOP candidates will assemble in the ornate halls of The Venetian, that gaudy temple to bad taste in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Donald should feel right at home.
Here in Annapolis, we have an excellent perspective on this carnival. We are close enough to Washington to follow the action, but far enough away so your shoes don’t get splattered with mud. All we have to do is tune in to CNN at 9 p.m. Tuesday and watch Wolf Blitzer herd the cats.
It is not really a debate in the Lincoln-Douglas sense, of course, rather a calculated cage fight in which Trump is expected to rail against immigration and Muslims, and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush and others will struggle for air time.
Along with most political and world leaders, many in the media started to turn on The Donald in the past week in the wake of his xenophobic proposal to bar Muslims from entering the country. He was widely criticized – but widely covered – on social media and most evening and morning news shows. My former paper, The New York Times, had the story at the top of page one, describing Trump’s remarks as “an extraordinary escalation of language aimed at voters’ fears about members of the Islamic faith.”
The result: Trump remains at or near the top of most polls of likely Republican primary voters, and the GOP establishment is starting to worry about a brokered convention.
The dirty little secret over the last several months is that the media has been fully and joyfully culpable in the extraordinary rise of Donald Trump, giving him almost unlimited air time with scant hard questioning, aiding and abetting his rise in the polls.
There is an unacknowledged-but-profitable symbiotic relationship between Trump and news organizations: the more outrageous his statements, the more coverage – “free media” is the term of art – the greater the ratings.
The GOP debates are a case in point: they have been a revenue bonanza for the cable channels that have carried them.
The first Republican debate on Fox News last August attracted a record audience of 24 million. A month later, CNN pulled in 23 million, half-again its largest audience ever. CNBC attracted 14 million in October. The November debate on the Fox Business channel , which rarely has 100,000 people watching, pulled in 13 million viewers.
Four years ago, the Republican primary debates drew 4-to-6 million viewers. Needless to say, this year’s record ratings translate into serious ad revenue.
I’m not suggesting the debates are not worthwhile; they are. I’m not disputing that the coverage of Trump is justified; it is. A presidential candidate who is leading in most polls six weeks before the Iowa caucus is news, no matter how outlandish his positions.
But more rigorous questioning of Trump would be welcome, along with more consistent fact-checking of his fabrications. The wall-to-wall coverage of his pronouncements is wearing thin.
Many in the media have been and remain skeptical of The Donald and his chances of actually securing the GOP nomination. In fact, my former colleague on the PBS NewsHour, David Brooks, has doubled down on his prediction that Trump will collapse from the weight of his own baggage.
And Dana Milbank in The Washington Post dropped all pretense of objectivity in his column when he flatly labeled Trump a racist and bigot and compared him to Il Duce.
But perversely, the more Trump is denounced, the more popular he becomes with his hard-core supporters who see him as refreshingly honest. The running controversy is likely to build audience for Tuesday’s debate, not diminish it.
And in the now-familiar Trump playbook, any publicity – even this column – is good publicity.

Terence Smith, who lives in Annapolis, is a former media correspondent on the PBS NewsHour.


Annapolis Face Lift

December 2nd, 2015

In a letter to The Annapolis Capital on November 27, Wayne Adamson takes me to task for my recent Capital column supporting the Annapolis City Dock Master Plan, which he dismisses as “neither masterful nor suitable.”
I disagree.
The Plan, drafted by a citizen’s committee headed by former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke and formally adopted as policy by the City Council, is not perfect. If anything, I wish its authors had been more ambitious. But it is a major step in the right direction towards liberating the City Dock from its current status as a potholed, frequently flooded parking lot.
The plan envisions removing the cars that currently enjoy the best view of the water, relocating the Harbormaster’s office building and redesigning the public spaces to accommodate pedestrians and bicycles in a green, open area that would invite visitors and residents alike to enjoy what the plan describes as “the iconic emblem” of the city.”
Mr. Adamson, representing the businesses that line Dock Street, is afraid that “getting the cars out of there,” as recommended by Alderman Joe Budge, will compel his customers to walk a few blocks from off-site parking. I suspect that a refreshed, pedestrian-friendly City Dock area will attract more customers, not drive them away.
The complete City Dock Master Plan, with illustrations and artists’ renderings, is available on the city’s website. I hope Annapolitans will read it and decide for themselves if it envisions the right way forward for this historic seaport. And, if they agree, I hope they will insist that the City Council implement its guidelines.


Annapolis Makeover

November 12th, 2015

Ego Alley and City Dock are looking forlorn these days.
Most of the area is fenced off, crowded with construction equipment and dominated by a huge crane atop a massive barge anchored in the waterway. Even the bronze Alex Haley and his attentive pupils are temporarily out of reach.
The $7.5 million repair and renovation of the inner portion of Ego Alley is underway. Rotting bulkheads are to be rebuilt, sea walls shored up and the electrical connections elevated. The waterfront will look better, but none of this will prevent the frequent flooding of the surrounding streets or deal with the more serious, longer-term threat of sea level rise.
Meanwhile, the City Council is embroiled in another, long-running debate over the zoning changes required to accommodate the latest proposed redevelopment of the shuttered former Fawcetts Boat Supplies store at 110 Compromise Street. Legislation has been submitted to relax the rules governing the Waterfront Marine Conservation District in that area to permit up to 60 per cent of the site to be devoted to non-maritime uses such as restaurants and retail.
As usual, there are opponents and supporters of the proposed changes. I have no dog in this particular fight, but, intrigued by the Waterfront Maritime Conservation concept, I looked up the enabling legislation that was adopted in 1986.
It calls for preservation of …”the maritime industry and historic character” of the City Dock area, which includes 8.43 acres from the Annapolis Yacht Club around Ego Alley to Susan Campbell Park. This is the heart of downtown Annapolis, a high-rent district embracing 16 parcels with an assessed value of $54.4 million.
But exactly what “maritime industry” is there now?
The waiters serving painkillers at Pusser’s Caribbean Grille? The room clerks at the Annapolis Waterfront Hotel? The barflies along Dock Street? Is that “maritime industry?”
“The maritime district concept was flawed from the get-go,” Alderman Ross Arnett told me when I asked what the original idea was. “It was well-intentioned, but they were trying to preserve something that didn’t really exist anymore.”
Indeed, City Dock was once a bustling seaport lined with all kinds of boats and chandleries. But that was a long time ago. Arnett’s main concern today is that if the waterfront conservation standards around Ego Alley are relaxed, property owners in Eastport – his district – will seek the same relief.
Before long, he fears, the genuine maritime businesses that currently line the shores of Eastport, the sail makers and boat builders and the like, will sell out to higher-revenue bars and restaurants and an important element in Annapolis’ maritime character will be lost. At a town hall meeting Thursday night, Arnett said he’d already heard from two Eastport businessmen who want rezoning there as well. Patrick Shaughnessy, president of Farr Yacht Design, spoke up at the meeting to say that he’d been offered better inducements to move his business to France than stay in Annapolis.
Gene Godley, the chairman of the Annapolis Port Wardens, has a broader concern about altering the Waterfront Conservation District zoning to accommodate any one project.
“We need a comprehensive, well-thought-out plan for the entire City Dock area,” he said, “not piecemeal zoning to satisfy one party or another.”
In fact, Annapolis already has such a plan. It is called The Annapolis City Dock Master Plan, drafted by a commission headed by former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke. Completed in October 2013, with Godley as vice chairman, it was adopted as policy by the City Council.
The Master Plan calls for a thorough re-design of City Dock and Ego Alley, which is where Annapolis meets the water and establishes its identity. It would convert the area from a frequently-flooded parking lot where critics have noted “the cars have the best view of the water,” into a pedestrian-friendly public space that would draw tourists and residents alike. Ward One Alderman Joe Budge said Thursday night that “the real nut to crack” in implementing the City Dock Master plan is “to get the cars out of there.”
Done right, an imaginative City Dock makeover could be a huge asset to the city that both recalls Annapolis’ rich maritime history and enhances the waterfront experience today. Let’s hope that whatever The Council decides respects the Master Plan and helps make the Annapolis inner harbor the welcoming space it can be.


Don Edwards, R.I.P.

October 11th, 2015

Annapolis and Anne Arundel County lost a remarkable, delightful former neighbor on October 1, when Don Edwards, a 20-year resident of Mayo, passed away at the spectacular age of 100.
Don, and his late wife, Edie Wilkie, were passionate enthusiasts of the Chesapeake Bay. Their beautiful waterfront home was on Holly Point, between the South and West Rivers, on high ground looking southeast down the Bay. They birded and boated and swam and entertained there in high style. (Full disclosure: my wife, Susy, and I were longtime friends and frequent guests of Don and Edie and, on one stunning fall day, were married beneath the tall trees on Holly Point. So, there is no pretense of objectivity here.)
William Donlon Edwards, as he was christened in 1915, spent 32 years in Congress, representing San Jose, CA, and a swath of San Francisco Bay. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights, he became a celebrated champion of free speech, human rights and equality for women, minorities and the disabled.
Don was proud to be labeled “relentlessly liberal,” and counted among the highpoints of his Congressional career the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and in 1975, the abolition of the infamous smear-machine, The House Un-American Activities Committee.
No pacifist – he had served in the Navy in World War II – Don nonetheless was an early and vocal opponent of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam and opposed our other hapless adventures in Grenada, Iraq and elsewhere. I once asked him what we should do in Iraq after Saddam Hussein had been overthrown, when conservatives were warning that we must not “cut and run.”
“Cut and run,” he said, flatly.
Had we listened to Don, and to Edie, who was as ardently anti-war as her husband, we could have saved a decade of losses and heartache.
Don was a proud, capital D, Democrat, who had grown up in a prosperous, Republican family in San Jose and been president of the California Young Republicans. Disillusioned with the GOP’s rightward drift, he won a four-way Democratic primary in 1962 by 726 votes and never had a close election again.
Graduating from Stanford University, Don was a crack golfer who went on to win the Bing Crosby Clambake — the forerunner of today’s ATT Pro-Am tournament– at Pebble Beach as an amateur. When he told his crusty and opinionated father that he wanted to turn pro and play golf for a living, the elder Edwards blustered: “Don’t be ridiculous! There’ll never be any money in golf. Go to law school.”
After Stanford Law, Don became, by his own description, “the worst FBI agent in the history of the Bureau.” One of his early assignments, was to photograph the automobile license plates arriving at a mob funeral outside Detroit.
“I hid behind a bush beside the side of the road,” Don told me, laughing. “When a car approached, I’d jump out, take the picture, and jump back. When the film was developed, all I had were pictures of the bush!”
In Congress, the former agent became a leading critic of the Bureau, which he thought compromised people’s civil rights, and especially its dictatorial Director, J. Edgar Hoover. The enmity was mutual.
Once, when Don floated the idea of retiring from Congress years before he did, it made the papers and Hoover clipped the article at his desk and scrawled across it: “Good riddance!” and signed it “H.” Don eventually got the clipping, had it framed, and displayed it proudly at Holly Point.
He also framed and hung in the bathroom at Holly Point his member’s pass to the impeachment hearings of Richard M. Nixon. Don was among the committee members who voted in favor of all the articles of impeachment.
Don’s life-long commitment to racial equality led him to march in Mississippi in 1964 and demonstrate against apartheid in South Africa decades later.
With his usual good timing, Don announced his retirement from Congress at the age of 79 before the election of 1994, when the GOP captured the majority in the House.
He and Edie divided their time after that, summers at Holly Point, winters in Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA. When Susy and I visited them in Carmel, as we did once or twice a year, Don would always ask me: “How’s the Bay?”
“I love The Chesapeake,” he’d say with a big smile.


What Sleepy Summer?

September 13th, 2015

Summer is normally a drowsy, dull time in the news business. Papers struggle on a diet of shark sightings and weather stories, waiting for things to pick up after Labor Day.
But this summer was different: desperate migrants streaming across Europe, the Iran nuclear deal and the Greek debt crisis filled the front pages. There were wildfires in the west and wild market gyrations on Wall Street. There were shootings around the country and riots in Baltimore. The Supreme Court upheld same-sex marriage and subsidies for Obamacare, while Congress fulminated and mercifully left town. Pope Francis remade the face of the Catholic Church by everything he said and did.
On the normally somnolent political front, we had Bernie rising, Hillary sinking and Joe Biden pondering; we had17 — count ’em, 17 — Republicans volunteering to be president, with Jeb! slowly subsiding, The Donald and Dr. Ben ascending in the polls and all the others struggling to get a headline.
The biggest cable audience of the summer — 24 million — watched the Aug. 6 GOP debate on Fox and then followed along as The Donald trashed Megyn Kelly and insulted most of the others on and off the stage.
For news organizations, the Donald Trump spectacle was summertime catnip. Talk shows like “Morning Joe” and “The O’Reilly Factor” couldn’t get enough of him. Stephen Colbert had a running joke on his inaugural “Late Show” in which he could no more stop talking about Trump than stop eating Oreos. Even when The Donald phoned it in, as he often did, ratings jumped as he ranted and raved about immigration, China or his “low-energy” competitor, Jeb!
It all seemed like innocent summer fun. Pundits and hacks like me confidently predicted that the audience would tire of The Donald’s act and that he would fade like Herman Cain four years ago. Except he didn’t. He climbed in the polls as the other candidates sank and serious commentators seriously suggested that he could win the GOP nomination. Seriously.
The other summer phenom was Dr. Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who became famous for being part of the large surgical team that separated a set of Siamese twins. “Gifted Hands” was the title of his bestseller. The media treated him gently, never mentioning the sad fact that the twins died shortly after the operation.
A soft-spoken African-American movement conservative, Carson climbed steadily in the polls, eclipsing Jeb! and the other establishment wannabes in Iowa and other early states.
Another of the Gang of 17, Carly Fiorina, also moved up in the polls. As the only woman on the Republican side, the former Hewlett-Packard executive stood out in the junior varsity debate when she prodded Trump and his pomposity. The Donald responded last week in an article on the website of Rolling Stone mocking her appearance. “Look at that face,” he was quoted as saying, “would anyone vote for that?”
These three overnight sensations have one thing in common: None has been elected to public office. All three consider the presidency a starter office. Beyond their egos, they share something else: They personify a massive protest vote, in which voters are expressing their exasperation with government in general, politics as usual and the current crop of candidates in particular. These voters evidently admire Trump as too rich to be bought, Carson as genuine and Fiorina as smart.
The question, of course, is whether these voters and more will still support these nonpoliticians when casting an actual ballot, not just answering a pollster’s question. Once they have “made a statement” in the polls, will they reconsider and choose one of the more experienced candidates?
I have no idea. But this unusual, news-filled summer has set us up for a fascinating fall and winter and spring.


The View from Annapolis

August 9th, 2015

Annapolis, I’ve come to discover, affords an excellent vantage to view the many machinations of Washington, D.C., aka America’s Entertainment Capital.

Our town is far enough from the Congress and the White House to escape the inside-the-Beltway mindset, yet close enough to get a sense of what’s going on.

From Annapolis, we’ve been treated so far to the first six months of the Republican-led 114th Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky promised last November that he would convert the upper chamber from what he derided as a Democratic cave of winds into a productive, GOP-administered body that gets things done.

Instead, McConnell has been thwarted repeatedly by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and his tea party faction, who have delayed some important priorities (fast-track trade legislation,) derailed others and denounced the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran.

In the House, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has been grappling with a continuing rebellion from the right that forces vote after fruitless vote against Obamacare, seeks to defund Planned Parenthood and rails against the Export-Import Bank as corporate welfare. (Of course it is corporate welfare for big companies like General Electric and Boeing, which employ thousands of workers. But it keeps us competitive with the 63 other nations that have and use similar financing authority to stimulate exports.)

Most frustrating has been Congress’ inability to provide long-term funding for the nation’s crumbling transportation infrastructure. While Congress has fiddled, desperately needed, job-producing projects to upgrade our highways, bridges and tunnels have stalled. The best Congress could produce was another three-month continuing resolution and a promise to revisit the issue in the fall.

All this obstructionism is exhausting work. So the House and Senate have embarked on a 39-day summer recess. It is no vacation, mind you. Nancy Pelosi, D-California, the House minority leader, and six of Democratic her colleagues immediately boarded a military jet for Kiev, to show support for the beleaguered people of Ukraine.

But, as Al Kamen helpfully pointed out in his “In The Loop” column in The Washington Post, they are taking the scenic route to the war-torn country, via Rome, Naples and Milan, all of which are lovely at this time of year.

From Annapolis, we can recognize this junket for what it is: an all-expenses-paid vacation. But for the record, Congress defines it as part of its August “work period.”

In the interest of governmental efficiency, I am tempted to suggest that Congress stay out of town longer. Say, a couple of years. But I realize the problem: The government would shut down altogether on Sept. 30 for lack of funds. Then the national parks would have to close and the animals in the National Zoo might go hungry.

The Annapolis City Council has taken a page from Congress, going on its own, albeit shorter, summer break. But the business of government grinds slowly on: Last week Mayor Mike Pantelides signed a 20-year lease for the Annapolis Renewable Energy Park, which will become the nation’s largest solar energy project in an unused landfill. Eventually, the 16.8 megawatt solar voltaic installation will offset greenhouse gas emissions and benefit the Chesapeake Bay. It’s a real accomplishment, even if the proposal dates back to Mayor Ellen Moyer’s administration.

So, maybe the Congress could take a page from Annapolis and shorten its vacation and endorse President Barack Obama’s sweeping carbon-cutting proposal, known as the Clean Power Plan. That’s not likely, of course, because the Senate’s top Republicans have already come out against it and 14 states have joined in a lawsuit seeking to block it. Don’t hold your breath on that one.

Still, some things do eventually get accomplished. I think we all know that after all the Senate hearings on the proposed nuclear deal with Iran have been held, and all the attacks from the roster of Republican presidential candidates have been heard, the dealt will likely be approved and go into effect, if only because Obama has vowed to veto any congressional vote to block it and because all the alternatives to the deal are far worse.

I’m not sure Winston Churchill had the U.S. Congress — or Annapolis — in mind when he famously said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” But he had it right.

Terence Smith is a journalist who lives in Eastport. He can be reached at terencefsmith@verizon.net


A Thorny Question for Annapolis

July 13th, 2015

As an Annapolis newbie – I moved here last September – I have a question:

Why do certain things seem to take so painfully long in Annapolis?

I’m talking about important things that influence the look and feel and character of this beautiful city, especially around City Dock.

Things like the city-owned Marketplace, that long-running soap opera that dragged on for years; like the city’s Rec Center, shuttered since 2010; like the former Fawcett Boat Supply location that has sat vacant and neglected for five years; like the former Stevens Hardware store, empty since 2012.

Things like City Dock itself, which cries out for a serious makeover that would convert it from a scenic parking lot to what it should be: Annapolis’s face to the world.

Things like Ego Alley and the historic downtown, which urgently need protection from the looming threat of sea level rise.

Why the long stalemate over these issues? What is it about Annapolis that generates gridlock? Explain it to me, please. If Baltimore can remake its inner harbor, if Charleston can revive its battery, if Miami can transform its waterfront, why can’t Annapolis?

I realize all these things cost money, and that the city has budget problems and zoning issues and, most important, that different people have different ideas about what should be done, but none of that is unique to Annapolis.

Seeking an answer, I asked around. Since I live in Eastport, I started with my local Alderman, Ross Arnett. I caught him on his cell phone while he waited to extricate his car from the clutches of Jiffy Lube, and, did he vent!

“There is no shared vision in this city, and no leadership,” he said, his voice rising. “There is no reward for getting things done!”

“Tell me what you really think, Ross,” I said, but I don’t think he heard me over the Jiffy Lube roar.

“The city is in paralysis and the Mayor’s motto is ‘don’t make waves,’” he went on. “What is his vision for City Dock? Don’t lose a single parking space?“

“Forgive my rant,” he said, ranting. “But the city is in decline, we’re headed for bankruptcy, people have given up.”

When I interrupted long enough to say that he sounded like a candidate for Mayor in 2017, Mr. Arnett raised it a notch. “I AM running for Mayor!” he said, “I’m fit to be tied, and so are the other council members!”

After that outburst, it seemed only fair to call Mayor Mike Pantelides and let him respond. We met at the long table in his conference room in City Hall.

“Ross hasn’t been here that long and doesn’t really know what it takes to get things done,” the Mayor said coolly, leaning back in his high-backed chair. “The truth is that there is a strong sense of ownership among the people of Annapolis and everybody has to have their say. It is hard to build a consensus.”

The Mayor conceded that he doesn’t want to lose a single parking space when the City Dock is re-designed, but, he said, “those spaces don’t have to be on City Dock itself, they can be nearby.”

Finally, the Mayor said that his biggest lesson in office so far was — wait for it — “how long it takes to get things done.”

This past Tuesday, there was a hint of movement when developers presented a new plan to renovate and finally reopen the old Fawcett’s site. The artist’s rendering depicting rooftop and dockside dining was well received at a meeting of the Ward One Resident’s Association, but wait, don’t make your dinner reservations just yet. They will need an exception to the zoning regulations, and in Annapolis, that takes time.

Seeking another explanation why things move at a glacial pace around here, I called Kitty Higgins, former chair of the Annapolis Democratic Central Committee and a member of the commission that was charged with re-imagining the City Dock area. Keep it simple for me, Kitty, I said, why so slow?

“Entrenched interests, a lack of leadership and a reluctance to change anything,” she said.

Succinctly put, Kitty. Thanks.


Debate: What Next in Iraq:

June 14th, 2015

The Washington Post

By Greg Jaffe and Missy Ryan June 13 at 2:18 PM
As President Obama was weighing how to halt Islamic State advances in Iraq, some of the strongest resistance to boosting U.S. involvement came from a surprising place: a war-weary military that has grown increasingly skeptical that force can prevail in a conflict fueled by political and religious grievances.

Top military officials, who have typically argued for more combat power to overcome battlefield setbacks over the past decade, emerged in recent White House debates as consistent voices of caution in Iraq. Their shift reflects the paucity of good options and a reluctance to suffer more combat deaths in a war in which America’s political leaders are far from committed and Iraqis have shown limited will to fight.

“After the past 12 years in the Middle East, there is a real focus by senior military leaders on understanding what the endgame is,” said a military official, “and asking the question, ‘To what end are we doing this?’ ”

The military’s reluctance belies a prevalent narrative in Washington of a cautious president holding back his aggressive generals. The Pentagon’s position was most evident in the White House debates after the surprising retreat of Iraqi army and police in Ramadi last month.

In the days that followed, Obama assembled his national security team to fix a strategy that appeared to be foundering.

Obama’s top generals presented a range of options, including one dubbed “higher risk” that would have embedded U.S. advisers in Iraqi combat units to direct airstrikes from U.S. fighter jets. The plan also would have employed Apache attack helicopters, which are lethal in urban combat but vulnerable to enemy ground fire.

The higher-risk option represented a major change in the White House’s strategy, which puts a heavy burden on the Iraqis to take the lead in the fight against Islamic State militants and keeps Americans away from the front lines.

Some senior State Department officials argued that the front-line American spotters and attack helicopters would provide critical help to Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whom the administration strongly backs. Without some quick battlefield victories, these officials argued, Abadi would be under heavy pressure to rely more on Shiite Iran, which has cast itself as Iraq’s only effective partner in a largely sectarian war with the Sunni-
dominated Islamic State.

But the president’s top military commanders argued against a change in strategy that would reduce the onus on Iraqi forces and pull U.S. troops deeper into the war. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, like other military officials doubted that the gains from using embedded advisers and attack helicopters were worth the possible cost in American blood, said several U.S. officials familiar with his position.

Instead, he counseled patience, maintaining that the U.S.-led air campaign was weakening the Islamic State and that a force of Sunni tribal fighters would need to be trained and armed to hold the battlefield gains.

[A long war in Iraq]

Gen. Lloyd Austin III, who oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East and developed the higher-risk option, conceded that the ground spotters and helicopters could make U.S. military operations more lethal, but he also said they weren’t needed in Iraq right now, U.S. officials said.

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter similarly argued that ground spotters weren’t essential to bolster an air campaign that was “going well,” said a senior defense official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The president ultimately decided to send about 450 American advisers to a secure military base outside the Islamic State-
controlled city of Ramadi. The advisers will meet with Sunni sheiks in the area in an effort to mobilize and potentially train thousands of tribal fighters. They will also provide advice and intelligence to the Iraqi headquarters overseeing the fight for Ramadi. But they will not accompany Iraqi troops on combat missions, as some State Department officials argued was essential if the Iraqis were going to retake Ramadi in the coming weeks.

The State Department has “a more optimistic view of the opportunities there than the military does,” a U.S. official said.

A senior Pentagon official described the military’s objections to the higher-risk options in starker terms: “We have become very sensitized to the idea that we don’t want to risk lives and limbs if there isn’t a high probability of a payoff,” said the official. “Our calculus is different.”

Obama didn’t foreclose riskier options that would push U.S. advisers closer to the front lines and into combat, senior U.S. officials said. If conditions worsened, the president indicated, he would be open to using ground spotters or attack helicopters. The president also said that he would revisit the riskier courses if they were needed to help Iraqi forces achieve a major breakthrough, such as a victory in the fight to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, from the Islamic State, U.S. officials said.

One big challenge with embedding combat advisers is finding front-line Iraqi units that U.S. military commanders trust enough to keep the Americans relatively safe, a senior military official in Iraq said.

The military’s unwillingness to press for more resources could undercut calls from some Republican presidential candidates, such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), who have pressed for sending more U.S. troops to fight Islamic State militants.

The military’s reluctance also represents a shift in mind-set for a force that, while not monolithic in opinion, has in recent years pressed for a more aggressive military response in the wake of battlefield setbacks.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, for instance, in 2009 said he needed as many as 40,000 new troops to push back the Taliban and train Afghan forces. After weeks of contentious debate, Obama agreed to send 30,000 troops, but in a sign of his unease with the military’s ambitious plans, the president put a firm time limit on how long they could stay.

“In the Afghan surge, the military believed the mission could be accomplished and wanted more forces to buy down risk,” said Michele Flournoy, a former top official in the Pentagon and chief executive officer at the Center for a New American Security.

Today in Iraq, expectations are far lower and political support for the mission among lawmakers, the White House and the American people is far more tenuous. The goal in Iraq, Flournoy said, “is to retake lost territory.”

The military’s 12 years of experience in Iraq, meanwhile, have imbued it with an abiding wariness of being drawn too deeply into the country’s internal ethnic and sectarian wars. That instinct is shared by the team of senior military advisers Obama has assembled. “Every single one of these guys has signed too many letters to too many parents,” said Maren Leed, a former senior adviser to the Army chief of staff in the Pentagon who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They’ve had their hearts broken and watched a lot of others get their hearts broken.”

Austin, who oversaw all U.S. troops in Iraq prior to the U.S. withdrawal in December 2011, pressed for keeping as many as 17,000 American troops in the country to train and advise Iraqi forces. The Obama administration whittled that number down to fewer than 5,000 troops, but it couldn’t reach an agreement with the Iraqi government that would allow the troops to stay.

What followed was a slow deterioration and collapse of the Iraqi and Army and police forces that U.S. commanders had built at tremendous cost.

Dempsey lost 133 troops when he commanded U.S. troops in Baghdad in 2003-2004. He returned to the country one year later to command the Iraqi army and police training effort from 2005 to 2007. Like many U.S. commanders, he hoped that the Iraqi forces, though far from perfect, could survive on their own after U.S. troops left in 2011.

“What did the U.S. military learn from the last decade of support to the Iraqi army?” asked Emma Sky, author of “The Unraveling,” who spent four years in Iraq as a senior adviser to the U.S. military. “We can give the Iraqi army lots of equipment and training, but we cannot address the psychology and morale of the force and its willingness to fight.”

Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

Greg Jaffe covers the White House for The Washington Post, where he has been since March 2009.
Missy Ryan writes about the Pentagon, military issues, and national security for The


How Do You Spell Quagmire?

June 13th, 2015

“Obama Looks at Adding Bases and Troops in Iraq,” read the headline in The New York Times. “Outposts would put U.S. Trainers Closer to Front Lines in Fight Against ISIS”

The irony in that headline fairly jumped off the page.

Is this the same Barack Obama that campaigned in 2008 on a promise to end the war in Iraq and bring the troops home?

Is this the same President who fulfilled that promise in 2011, taking considerable heat as he did so?

Is this the same man who has resisted (mostly) calls from Senator John McCain and others that he dispatch 10,000 or more U.S. troops to Iraq to fight ISIS?

A day earlier, the Obama Administration had announced the opening of a new training base in Anbar Province to be staffed by 450 American advisers, bringing the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq to 3,550, the equivalent of a full Army brigade. (By comparison, the U.S. began its adventure in Vietnam with 1,600 “advisers” in 1965.)

Is this the same U.S. that has been training Iraqi Army troops in one fashion or another for more than a decade, only to see them flee in the face of ISIS assaults in Anbar and elsewhere?

Stepping back a bit, is this the same U.S. that supported Saddam Hussein against Iran in the 1980’s, went to war against him in 1991, dethroned him in 2003 and disbanded the 400,000-man Iraqi army in the name of de-Baathization?

The President is certainly credible when he concedes in public that the U.S. does not have a fully-developed strategy for dealing with the challenge posed by ISIS. In lieu of a coherent plan, the U.S. is confronting ISIS with thousands of air strikes that everyone acknowledges can impede the advances of the Islamic State, but not defeat it.

Now add to that a string of advance training bases designed to accomplish what tens of thousands of U.S. forces and billions of dollars in equipment failed to achieve over a dozen years, namely, a competent, committed Iraqi Army that is prepared to stand and fight.

No one denies that ISIS poses a brutal threat to the people and regimes in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere throughout the region that would be the new Caliphate. But its reach and capacity and ambitions beyond that are open to question. Containment may be the answer rather than all-out warfare.

In any event, the history of the United States’ adventures in the region over the last three decades should give any President pause.

How many ways can you spell quagmire?