Military officers call them after action reports, or AARs. At their worst, AARs are self-serving accounts that do little except take up file space. At their best, AARs identify strengths and weaknesses in doctrine, training, and leadership, and thus become key components of both institutional memory and the historical record. The AARs of American units in North Africa in 1942-43 paint a picture of an often poorly-trained rabble led by men whose egos and ambitions often exceeded their skills and judgment, all under a commander who seemed too star-struck and afraid of upsetting others to assert real command.
More below the fold....
Here and There, Strengths and Weaknesses (Non-Cynical Saturday)
Had the most headstrong of American military chiefs had their way in the spring of 1942, the U.S. Army would have tried to land in France in late summer. As we discussed yesterday, that plan was scuttled by what General Eisenhower called "the great, transatlantic essay contest," a series of cables between U.S. and British leaders that presaged many of today's arguments in the blogosphere. There were even bitter meta arguments about the bitterness of the arguments. All that was missing was someone noting that this was nothing compared to the pie fights before the Peloponnesian War.
It was good that the headstrong plans were scuttled. Most historians now agree that an Allied invasion of France in 1942 or even 1943 would have met with disaster. Operations in North Africa exposed deficiencies in planning, training, and leadership at all levels. In the field, small units alternated between ill-coordinated charges and panicked retreats. Staff officers overestimated resources and underestimated enemy resolve. At the top, General Dwight Eisenhower was a genial, studious, intelligent leader who spent too much time and energy smoothing over disagreements and had not yet learned to assert his will and compel plans into action.
Despite the flaws, operations in North Africa achieved some successes. But more important, the army and its leaders learned from their mistakes. Units had to train better to integrate their capabilities and gain confidence in each other. Bravado and optimism could not substitute for careful planning and a realistic assessment of the opposition. And General Eisenhower - though always genial, studious, and intelligent - learned to ignore distractions and be more forceful.
Then and Now.
A dispassionate after action report of the past year in politics suggests many of these same lessons apply for the Democratic Party and President Obama. The party has some strengths: our internal debates are robust, in part because we're more diverse than Republicans; our ideas resonate more among the new generation of voters; and our public relations skills are better than many suggest. On the year's signature issue - health care - we built and maintained a consistent 2/3rds national popular support for progressive reform including a government-run public option, despite a massive, well-financed, industry-led PR campaign that stooped to new lows of demagoguery and deceit. President Obama, like General Eisenhower, is genial, studious, and intelligent. But the past year also exposed some weaknesses. The 2/3rds national popular support never translated into the votes needed for a national public health insurance option in the Senate. What should we learn, going forward?
- We in the field must work together better - Robust, internal arguments are healthy, but factions working against each other are not. Rather than criticizing progressive activists, the White House should better integrate us into the Democratic coalition. We, along with union leaders, and party organs like OFA must coordinate better and take better advantage of each others' skills and resources to build more party and policy support in key states and districts. Even after a year of watching industry-funded, Fox News-advertised tea party protests - and despite our large, well-organized online presence - we still can't stage rallies that turn out similar numbers.
- Less bravado and optimism; better planning and intelligence - Democrats overestimated our resources. The much-vaunted "filibuster-proof supermajority" in the Senate was always a mirage with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and several Democrats from conservative states in the caucus, and we should have been more realistic on that from the outset. For example, on health care reform the public option did not hold majority support in states like Nebraska and Arkansas, despite 2/3rds national popular support. We also underestimated the opposition. It's easy (and fair) to criticize the White House for not anticipating the GOP's counterattack during the August recess, but we were all caught flat-footed. Staffers took too long to devise procedures for town hall meetings, and health care supporters rarely matched protesters in numbers, organization, and intensity.
- President Obama must learn to be more focused and forceful - Like General Eisenhower, President Obama is genial, studious, and intelligent, and those are important leadership traits. But also like General Eisenhower, he often lacks the focus and forcefulness needed to assert his will and compel plans into action. For example, in his health care press conference he should have turned away that final question rather than let himself be drawn into the brouhaha over Professor Gates and the Cambridge P.D. While I disagree with arguments that President Obama should have threatened to veto any health care bill that lacked a public option, he could have publicly called on Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) to wrap up negotiations in the Finance Committee's "Gang of Six" and get a bill out before the August recess. That lost month put too much time pressure on Majority Leader Harry Reid and gave more leverage to centrist Democrats.
Learning and Moving On.
I'm not among those who believe we accomplished nothing in the past year, but we didn't accomplish as much as we might have with better training, coordination, and leadership. As we look forward to 2010 and the midterm elections, we can learn from our mistakes and improve on our performance.
The best next campaign, in my opinion, would be a comprehensive jobs bill. While I understand the calls for energy, immigration, and other issues to be top priorities moving forward, too many Americans are out of work and desperately in need of immediate help. Our economy has been too hollowed out, and a good jobs bill can help create a more robust economy. Moreover, a jobs bill can be structured to sustainable energy and other progressive issues in the projects it creates. Finally, in political terms, nothing would do more to improve our party's position in the 2010 and 2012 elections than getting more Americans back to work.
The past year was not the triumphal victory parade some seem to have imagined, but neither was it the crushing defeat some now suggest. Our party and our leaders have important strengths we can employ, but also weaknesses we need to address. If we better employ those strengths, and address those weaknesses, we can still seize opportunity and usher in a more progressive era in American history.