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January 31, 2009

Can Iraq be South Korea?

Alissa Rubin writes in the New York Times about America's disengagement from Iraq on the heels of what looks like a very peaceful election:

Still, the American era in Iraq is nowhere near a final act. If this were an opera, it would be just past midway in the libretto. While both sides are disconnecting, neither can let go entirely.

The Iraqis need the Americans not just to dampen terrorist activities within the country but to protect them from rapacious neighbors. Syria and Iran have interfered here since the invasion, and while the Iraqis are often uncomfortable with how the American have reined in these powers, they are reluctant to stop them because they fear their neighbors more.

When American forces pursued insurgents over the Iraqi border into Syria in late October, it was an international incident. Iraq was embarrassed in front of the Arab world. Such incidents are likely to recur and could become much more fraught.

For the United States, Iraq remains a strategic prize close to the Middle East flash points of Israel, Lebanon and Syria as well as Iran and the oil-rich Persian Gulf countries. It is not by chance that the Central Intelligence Agency has its largest station in the world in Baghdad.

I think one of the major unanswered questions facing the U.S. in Iraq is whether the country is ultimately willing to tolerate a "South Korea" like encampment of U.S. forces for years and perhaps decades to come.

January 30, 2009

Is Iran Suicidal?

Michael Yon suggests that, despite 30 years of evidence to the contrary, what the Mullahs of Iran really want to do is commit mass suicide:

And when Iran has the capacity to launch rockets over to Europe or the United States, one can count on it happening. If they can manage to hatch nuclear weapons, we could see Israeli cities annihilated, leaving Israelis with little choice other than to respond with nuclear weapons, which could leave millions dead....If you want to see World War III unfold, just sit quietly about Iran. Iran could be the opening chapter of an apocalyptic era.

One should not discount the possibility that if Iran does acquire a nuclear weapon (and it's still an "if" at this point, as Stephen Walt explains here) the world will be dramatically less secure. We could very well have an arms race in the Gulf and a stepped up campaign of conventional terrorism by Hezbollah and Hamas against U.S., Israeli and Arab targets.

But the notion that Iran will, out of the blue, launch rockets at the U.S. or Europe or, worse, launch a nuclear-tipped rocket into Israel strains credulity.

As I've written earlier, Iran is widely suspected of having a chemical and biological weapons program for nearly 20 years. They have possessed the capacity to launch a mass casualty strike against Israel for a while now - and one that would be far harder to trace back to Iran than a nuclear bomb. And yet, they haven't launched one. Presumably because, contra Yon, they're not willing to sacrifice their entire country to strike a blow at Israel.

It is a mistake to treat Iran as an irrational state when they are in fact a belligerent one (which is bad enough).

Photo via Richard John Jones under a Creative Commons license.

January 28, 2009

The Myth of the Freedom Agenda


Fouad Ajami and Peter Wehner argue that President Bush boldly broke with precedent to align the U.S. with liberty in the Middle East. Here's Ajami in the Wall Street Journal:

Say what you will about the style -- and practice -- of the Bush years, the autocracies were on notice for the first five or six years of George W. Bush's presidency. America had toppled Taliban rule and the tyranny of Saddam Hussein; it had frightened the Libyan ruler that a similar fate lay in store for him. It was not sweet persuasion that drove Syria out of Lebanon in 2005. That dominion of plunder and terror was given up under duress.

And Wehner:

President Obama may be eager to return us to the days of Jimmy Carter, when we spoke about human rights on the one hand and bowed before autocrats and despots on the other; or the days of Bill Clinton, with Madeleine Albright frantically chasing after Yasir Arafat. Such an approach may appear to be less burdensome than advocating freedom, but it comes at a high cost - to the Arab world and, eventually, to our own.

To briefly review the record: the regimes directly responsible for fomenting radical Islamism - Pakistan and Saudi Arabia - were not "put on notice" by the Bush Administration after 9/11. They were embraced. The illiberal/autocratic/monarchical states of Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and the UAE weren't exactly given a cold shoulder either. Qaddafi's Libya was embraced not after political reforms but after a change in WMD policy. He still runs his country along the same despotic, cult-of-personality lines as before. And do we really have to say anything about Pakistan and General Musharraf?

So long as the Middle East produces oil in sufficient quantity to impact global markets (i.e. for as long as industrial economies rely on the stuff) and so long as the U.S. places the security of Israel among its key regional interests, the U.S. is not going to be on the side of liberty in the Middle East. Instead, it will be on the side of stability of the regimes that support the U.S. and Israel (however quietly) regardless of how they comport themselves internally. Indeed, as the containment of Iran becomes ever-more pressing, we will pay even less attention to the internal repressions of the various Sunni autocracies provided they align their foreign policies with ours. Why else did the Bush administration offer $20 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states? For their human rights records?

This is Middle Eastern geo-politics 101 and the notion that President Bush broke from it simply won't wash. Yet at some point during the Bush years, certain segments of the conservative establishment decided they wanted to bathe America's machtpolitic in the region in a miasma of do-gooderism and hokum. President Bush did indeed break from past U.S. practice by invading and militarily occupying a Middle Eastern country, but liberty had (and continues to have) very little to do with that particular endeavor, even if Iraq does consolidate its democratic gains into an enduring liberal government.

Stepping back, it's clear that what the George Bush presidency accomplished was not so much the advance of liberty in the Middle East but to shine a glaring spot-light on U.S. hypocrisy. This hypocrisy isn't a bad thing: the U.S. needs to cooperate with autocracies. But seeking that cooperation while proclaiming loudly that we are freedom's standard bearer in the Middle East is, at a minimum, counter productive.

There will always be a disconnect between a nation's professed values and its conduct abroad. The ideal is to minimize that disconnect where possible, and when not, to stop drawing attention to it with lavish rhetoric and hollow promises.

Defense Spending Is Entitlement Spending

The Heritage Foundation's Baker Spring, Mackenzie Eaglen and James Jay Carafano argue that the U.S. should devote 4 percent of its GDP to defense en-perpetuity. Among the arguments they offer is this:

Pentagon spending is not the source of the federal government's current fiscal woes. Spending on the armed forces represents only about one-fifth of the federal budget and approximately half the average level of defense spending during the Cold War (as measured as a percentage of GDP). Defense has gradually declined as a percentage of GDP since the 1960s, while spending on the major entitlements (now about half the federal budget) have usually exceeded economic growth rates over the same period. Further, current projections show that spending on the major entitlements will far outpace economic growth and all components of government spending in the decades to come. Addressing entitlement spending, not defense expenditures, is the key long-term challenge for lawmakers.

When you consider the vast gulf between what America spends on her defense, and what every other nation does, it's pretty obvious that our defense spending is indeed entitlement spending. Only instead of American citizens enjoying the entitlement (after all, it is their money), it's South Korea, Taiwan, Europe, Israel, Saudi Arabia and a variety of other American strategic dependencies that get the benefit of taxpayer largess.

Maybe this wealth transfer is justified. Maybe it isn't. But let's at least be honest about it.

January 27, 2009

Gates: Iran's "Subversive" Role in Latin America

Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defense, today expressed concern over Iranian activity in the region:

"I'm concerned about the level of frankly subversive activity that the Iranians are carrying on in a number of places in Latin America," Gates said in response to a question from Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican.

"They're opening a lot of offices and a lot of fronts behind which they interfere in what is going on in some of these countries," Gates said, without elaborating.

Gates has plenty of reason to be concerned.

Just last month Italian newspaper La Stampa reported that Iran is going through Venezuela to dodge UN sanctions and use Venezuelan aircraft to ship missile parts to Syria. La Stampa reported that Venezuelan airline Conviasa transports computers and engine components from the Iranian industrial group Shahid Bagheri, which is involved in Iran's ballistic missile program.

On January 6, Turkey was holding a suspicious shipment bound for Venezuela from Iran because it contained lab equipment capable of producing explosives. Over the past few years Chavez has allowed the opening in Venezuela of an Iranian ammunition factory, a car assembly plant, a cement factory, and Iran Air has direct air service between Tehran, Damascus and Caracas.

Bolivia's Evo Morales has raised visa restrictions on Iranian citizens, while Iran promised a $1 billion investment in the oil and gas industry.

Iran is holding several of its citizens from being tried in Argentina for planning the 1994 bombing of the Argentine AIMA Jewish center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people.

In Nicaragua's Caribbean shore, Iran - along with Venezuela - is helping to finance a $350 million deep-water port at Monkey Point, and they're also building a "dry canal" of pipelines, highways and rails to the Pacific shore. Iran recently opened an embassy in Managua.

Iran is lending Ecuador $200 million to finance trade, technology transfer "and many other things," according to Pres. Rafael Correa.

As Greg Scoblete was asking here, we would do well to ask what are Iran's national interests, and additionally, Iran's interest in our hemisphere.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at Fausta's Blog

When America Was Loved in the Muslim World


President Obama gave an interview with Al-Aribiya where he said that the U.S. had made mistakes in the past but "that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there's no reason why we can't restore that."

This is an interesting point. My thinking on this is informed by Michael Oren's Power, Faith & Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present.

My take away from that book is that America was indeed much beloved in the Middle East, prior to 1945. We were beloved when our interaction with the region was confined to civilian missionary work and a political posture that was supportive of self-determination but largely unwilling to interfere with the region's politics. That all changed following the retreat of French and British imperial power in the region, and the establishment of a "pax Americana" knitting together our anti-Communist allies.

Given that history, it will be very difficult (although not impossible) for President Obama to restore America's image in the region. Ultimately, that image is not tarnished by the words of our leaders but by the power politics they're forced to engage in because of the importance of oil and our support of Israel. And I highly doubt that President Obama is going to attempt to reset America's relationship with the region along pre-1945 lines.

UPDATE: Check out the Video log for the video of Obama.

Steve Clemons swoons:

But Obama gets to make his own reality at the moment -- and is imposing it -- in a respectful, humble, and powerful way.

His style matters -- just like Bush's swagger did -- and it is this act of humility towards the Muslim world which may animate hope in the nations around the world and in the Middle East specifically.

Everyone will have to adjust now. The Saudis will leave the peace deal on the table. The Israelis have to remake themselves -- even if Netanyahu succeeds Olmert. Hamas will have to find a way to become differently postured -- if not on Israel, then at least on some level of international acceptability with American partners. Arab stakeholders are going to have to snap out of positions shaped more by status quo thinking and inertia that things will never change and get with the Obama program.

What Obama did has provided a new punctuation point in American foreign policy, and it is not "continuous" foreign policy at all. This is a new game and a very impressive new leader.

While I think the speech was a worthy and important gesture, I really don't see how Clemons can imbue it with this God-like ("reality-creating") impact. I would argue that symbolism does not, in fact, matter nearly as much as Clemons suggests. Do we suppose that the Arab world really cannot discern the difference between rhetoric and policy? That they are going to be swept off their feet? I will happily stand corrected if there's any evidence that mere rhetoric will turn around America's image, but I suspect it won't be enough.

The Neo-Colonialists

John Nagl is one of the more hard-headed proponents of "smart power" out there, so it's well worth reading his "The Expeditionary Imperative" in the Wilson Quarterly.

While the piece makes a lot of sense, I'm troubled by the conclusion:

Victory in this long struggle requires changes in the governments and educational systems of dozens of countries around the globe. This is the task of a new generation of information warriors, development experts, and diplomats; it is every bit as important as the fight being waged by our men and women in uniform, but nowhere near as well recognized or ­funded.

There is a growing body of commentary that suggests that the answer to terrorism is a form of neo-colonialism that injects the United States into every troubled country on the theory that we can - and will - successfully manage to reform them. This reformation, in turn, will reduce the threat of Islamic terrorism around the globe.

Like the theory of "democratic transformation" that provided much of the intellectual impetus behind the Iraq war, there's very little empirical evidence that this is indeed the answer. Shouldn't we have learned by now to be wary of sweeping claims of societal transformation, even if the instruments of said transformation are dollars and not bullets?

Secondly, the most obvious objection to the neo-colonial view is that the Federal Government does not have a mandate for global social work. With a national debt poised to soar over $2 trillion, we have not exactly demonstrated a capacity to successfully manage our own affairs. Just consider how hard it is for Americans (lobbyists, unions, politicians, etc.) to reform the U.S. education system. Now, throw in a culture they don't understand and a language they don't speak and explain to me how the U.S. reforms the education system in dozens of countries.

But more to the point, Nagl and his peers routinely ignore several fairly troubling facts about terrorism. The first is that many jihadists hail from Europe. None of the supposed ills of the world - illiberal educations, poverty, tribalism, autocracy, etc. - can account for Western citizens turning toward radical Islam. Nor can they account for men like bin Laden or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Yes, Europe does not provide the kind of safe havens that a failed state would afford. But a few enterprising youths could certainly devise a way to kill dozens, if not hundreds, of people without access to the Hindu Kush.

Finally, the political dimension of radical Islam's global insurgency is a reaction against Western interference in Islamic societies. "Interfering better," as proponents such as Nagl propose, doesn't change that basic dynamic.

None of this counsels against a rebalancing of America's national security investment. But it should be undertaken with a sufficient dose of humility and an awareness that even when we use all of the "tools" at our disposal, the world is not mere clay in our hands.

U.S. Army Spc. Justin Towe scans his area while on a mission with Iraqi army soldiers from 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 4th Iraqi Army Division in Al Muradia village, Iraq, March, 13, 2007. Towe is assigned to 4th Platoon, Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway) www.army.mil

January 26, 2009

Iran, America & the Great Game

In the course of an interesting post on U.S.-Iran dialoging, Hillary Mann Leverett writes:

It will take not only sustained effort but also clear strategic vision for the Obama Administration to repair the damage to U.S. interests done by the Bush Administration's mishandling of relations with Iran.

Defining that clear strategic vision will require a willingness to question the all-too-prevalent image of Iran as an ideologically-driven and categorical supporter of an undifferentiated array of terrorist groups--from Hizballah to HAMAS to Al Qaida. Fundamentally, the Islamic Republic is a state that acts on the basis of what it perceives as its national interests.

This is all well and good, but what are Iran's national interests? Mann doesn't say, which is unfortunate because ultimately this is the whole enchilada.

We could very well find ourselves in a situation where the basic interests of the U.S. and Iran are simply never going align. The U.S. position on the Gulf is clear: no single power (save the U.S.) can dominate the region. Iran, we're told, similarly seeks to be the single power that dominates the Gulf.

No matter how conciliatory the Obama administration is toward Iran, this baseline divergence of interests is going to rear its head. Unless, of course, the U.S. or Iran renounces their hegemonic ambitions in the region. But what are the odds of that?

January 25, 2009

Mexico's Ominous Drug Wars


Two weeks ago the U.S. Joint Forces Command published its "Joint Operating Environment (JOE 2008)" report, which projects global threats and potential next wars. The report stated that Mexico and Pakistan are two countries that "bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse,"

"The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and press by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state. Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone."

While Mexico's collapse may not be imminent, the report underlines the seriousness of the current drug wars in Mexico, which represent an urgent problem to the US.

This is not a new problem: Last May Stratfor had posed the question, Mexico: On the Road to a Failed State? in one of its Geopolitical Intelligence Reports that expressed the similar concerns to that of the JOE report. Stratfor also points out state failures in Mexico's past.

The most reliable and concise background study on the seriousness of the problem is the 2007 CRS Report for Congress on Mexico’s Drug Cartels, which provides an overview of Mexican drug cartels and their operations, their ties to gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), and Mexican cartel presence and their drug production in the US. The cartels - Juárez, Sinaloa, Gulf, Nuevo Laredo, Guerrero. Valencia and Michoacán - form alliances and work together (like Sinaloa-Juárez-Valencia Federation), but remain independent organizations, which operate throughout Mexico and branch into the United States.

Police corruption and the emergence of multiple, well-armed groups further complicate the problem.

Yesterday's AP article on the arrest of a dozen high-ranking officials with alleged ties to the Sinaloa Cartel (currently the most powerful of the cartels) illustrates the corruption problem :

Over the last five months, officials from the Mexican Attorney General's office, the federal police and even Mexico's representatives to Interpol have been detained on suspicion of acting as spies for Sinaloa or its one-time ally, the Beltran Leyva gang. An officer who served in Calderon's presidential guard was detained in December on suspicion of spying for Beltran Leyva.

Gerardo Garay, formerly the acting federal police chief, is accused of protecting the Beltran Leyva brothers and stealing money from a mansion during an October drug raid. Former drug czar Noe Ramirez, who was supposed to serve as point man in Calderon's anti-drug fight, is accused of taking $450,000 from Sinaloa.

Most of such tips are coming from a Mexican federal agent who infiltrated the U.S. embassy for the Beltran Leyva drug cartel. No such infiltrators have been found for the Gulf cartel, which controls most drug shipments in eastern Mexico and Central America. Sinaloa controls Pacific and western routes.

A year into the Calderon goverment's crackdown on the cartels, the Mexican government continues to increase its efforts against the cartels - for instance, sending 2,000 troops to Juárez this month - but the extent of the violence ravaging the country is immense.

El Universal has a webpage of drug war related articles; there have been 312 deaths in 2009 so far. This article from El Universal lists 34 killings in one day, all related to the drug wars. El Universal and the BBC report the arrest on Friday of Santiago Meza López, a.k.a. "Teo's wellman", No. 20 in the FBI's most-wanted list, who allegedly decomposed in acid 300 bodies of people murdered by the Sinaloa Cartel and Teodoro Eduardo García Simental, alias “El Teo”.

The cartels are waging war on journalists, too, including an attack on Televisa's affiliate in Monterrey on January 6.

The New York Times last Friday wrote about Juárez, Mexico and El Paso,Texas. In Juárez

the killings have become more frequent, more brazen and more gruesome. One body was beheaded and hung from a bridge.
In contrast, the article describes
El Paso... is made up mostly of new immigrants or their children, who tend to be cautious, law-abiding and respectful of authority.
Many Mexicans who previously lived in small villages near the American border had to leave for the US or be killed. Another big difference between the two cities is that the Mexican military and police are understaffed and untrained, while in Texas Fort Bliss and the heavy police presence continue to make El Paso safe.

Presidents Obama and Calderón met prior to Obama's inauguration and, while the American media described the meeting in general terms, Calderón stated in a press conference after the meeting that Obama offered help in fighting the narcos. The NY Times article also reports that

Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the Bush administration had laid plans to send a surge of federal agents and soldiers to trouble spots if the violence spilled over.
According to TIME,
Anti-drug officials believe the uptick in clashes between the police and gunmen of the cartels is a sign that Mexico's long-running drug violence has entered a new phase. Until recently, most fighting had involved rival traffickers battling over turf, but today most of the violence is between the federal government and the gangsters. The year-long government crackdown has seriously rattled the cartels, the officials say, and they are making an orchestrated attempt to get the government to back off.

The scenario in which a breakdown of institutions where the state becomes an instrument of criminals in Mexico would bring millions of war refugees into the US, and neighboring Central American countries would also collapse. Mexico, the world's 14th largest economy, has over 100 million people.

The JOE 08 report, along with the 2007 CRS Report for Congress on Mexico’s Drug Cartels, should be the starting point for the discussion of what we need to do here in the US: Strenghthening the Merida Initiative (whose purpose is to train and professionalize Mexico's military and civil forces), paying special attention to immigration and drug enforcement in the border states, increasing the National Guard, making other defense contingency plans in the US, and educating the public on the level of threat are a few suggestions.

Mexico's descent into chaos, while not imminent, is a real possibility.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at faustasblog.com.

Chinese Sphere: Ringing in the New Year

For Chinese communities around the world, this week marks the beginning of a week-long holiday to mark Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival as it is usually called. The significance of the holiday is on the same level as Christmas for the Western world and also involves family reunions in one’s hometown. One of the phenomena associated with the Spring Festival is the massive outflow of people from the cities where they work back to their hometowns. Even in an island as small as Taiwan, every time Chinese New Year rolled around there would be massive traffic jams on the highways with hundreds of thousands of people leaving Taipei for their hometowns down south. The scale of the travel situation in China is even more mind-boggling where you have an estimated 188 million people making the journey home, and that is only for the railways.

A blog posting in China comparing the differences between how holiday travel is handled in the U.S. and China has struck a chord, receiving over 100,000 views and 1,100 comments. Popular novelist and former Atlantic Council senior fellow Yang Hengjun attributes China’s travel problems to two main factors: 1. The inability of regular citizens to change their official residence (known as hukou in Mandarin) which greatly limits the social services that migrant workers and their families can access outside of their hometown. This often ends up separating parents from their children who can only receive schooling in their hometowns. 2. Train and airplane tickets are snatched up by those with special connections to the government.

Yang writes, “Unlimited authority, abuse of power, an unfair system, monopolistic corporations, social inequality, and corruption has made the Chinese New Year travel rush not a transportation problem, but a social and political one. That is what causes so many people to get angry! … In the U.S., apart from a small minority of government officials who are traveling for business dealing with national interests, those who are traveling for personal reasons are all treated the same in the purchasing of tickets. Even if you were traveling on business for your company or the government, you need to go through the same process as an illegal immigrant worker in a Chinese restaurant: purchase tickets online or line up at the counter, first come first serve. … In China, one’s level in society basically determines whether you are able to get a ticket, and the highest level is, obviously, the ‘servants of the people.’ Have you ever heard any public servant or their family members complain about not being able to get tickets?”

For Taiwanese businessmen working on the other side of the Strait, the new year usually means either getting on a plane back home or flying one’s wife and kids out to China. However, the global financial crisis has changed this dynamic this year. An article in Commonwealth, the leading general affairs magazine in Taiwan, explains how economic difficulties in China have affected cross-strait travel: “The Fu-hsing Travel Agency pointed out that in the past there would always be tons of people flying to the mainland to visit relatives or go on tours, and demand for seats outstripped supply. This year that demand has decreased significantly. ‘There are already airline companies that are selling direct flights to Shenzhen for an extremely low price of NT$7,000 [approx. US$212], but this still hasn’t attracted any buyers,’ a representative from the travel agency said.

This year, China-based Taiwanese businessmen will have a particularly cold Spring Festival. Those who are unlucky have been laid off and sent back to Taiwan. Some are temporarily unable to reunite with their family.

Mr. Chen, who has been ‘recalled’ to Taiwan, said with a note of sarcasm, ‘This year it’s my turn to go back to Taiwan to see my family. During the past decade, whether Taiwanese businessmen spent their Chinese new year in Taiwan or China was an indicator of which location was more attractive. Mr. Chen plans to see how things go in Taiwan for the next year or two, and then make a decision once the economy recovers.

‘It’s hard to say whether I’ll return to the mainland. After this shuffling of the deck, I think new opportunities will appear on both sides,’ Chen said optimistically.”

Russia: Not Swept Up in Obama-Mania

As Russia watched the historic inauguration of US President Barack Obama, there was plenty of commentary about the Jan. 20 event that took place in Washington - from positive and cautious optimism to pragmatic remarks about what the new American president means to Russia, its near abroad and Russia's relations with her neighbors.

Daily "Izvestia" published several opinions on the way Russian political observers saw the inauguration. Almost all of them commented on president-elect's mistake in saying the oath of office, as well as other interesting moments. Many writers quickly took the attention away from amusing moments to the grave concerns about the American economy and the fate of the global financial crisis. "The future is shrouded in darkness, and today's throngs of enthusiastic supporters screaming "Omaba!" will, once things turn for the worse, may be screaming something entirely different," writes political commentator Maksim Sokolov. He further remarked with skepticism that "emotions and effort are well-combined when it's clear how to use one's efforts for best results. But all that we now know about concrete plans of this new American President is boiled down to the slogan. "For all that is good, against all that is bad, and let no one be upset. Technically, he was elected as a wonderful, pleasant and harmless healer."

Turning to the on -going economic crisis, Sokolov writes that " ... in his defense, even more mature and experienced colleagues of the new president do not know the way out of the current economic hardship. The difference between them and Obama is that his colleagues were not elected to office on an emotional wave of hope and change and therefore are not really responsible to anyone for the results of their actions. But Obama is responsible."

Other articles also turned their attention to the Inauguration Day. An "Izvestia" article commented that "... in contrast to the overflowing streets of Washington on Jan. 20, one cannot help but think back to May 2008, when the the procession of the new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev moved towards the Kremlin on empty - almost dead - Moscow streets. But we should not compare the two events - after all, it [the Inauguration] is a typical American showboating. The harsh reality is already setting in - US Dollar, instead of rising on the wave of this presidential euphoria, instead fell against the Russian ruble - while our currency rose in the evaluation. Party is over, so to speak."

Russian political establishment continued to isolate Georgia and to limit any remaining trade with the Caucasus country. On Jan. 20, Russian President Medvedev signed a law that prohibited any deliveries of defense and dual-use materials to Georgia. Medvedev also requested the creation of official legislation that would limit or prohibit military-technical cooperation with countries that deliver Russian or Soviet military hardware to Georgia. The second initiative is clearly aimed at Ukraine, since Moscow accused it of aiding Georgian military during the August 2008 war. However, "it would not be possible to completely cut off military-technical cooperation with Ukraine, since the interdependence of military-industrial complexes of our two countries is too great, dating back to the Soviet times." In another not-so-subtle hint at Kiev, Russian daily "Vzglyad" accused Ukrainians of arming separatist Tamil Tigers movement that fought against the government of Sri Lanka. Quoting a former Tiger commander, the paper wrote that Tigers bought military hardware in Ukraine up until recently, at lowered prices. Such hardware included artillery systems, small arms and other equipment.

January 23, 2009

Which Nation Has a Moral Foreign Policy?

World Public Opinion found what it dubbed a "remarkably modest" self-assessment from the major nations of the world:

Asked to assess the morality of their nation's foreign policy, in 19 out of 21 nations the most common answer is that their nation is about average or below average.

In the United States, about half (49%) say the morality of US foreign policy is average with another 16 percent saying it is below average. Just 24 percent say it is above average.

I admit that I am guilty of bemoaning a certain element of self-righteousness and sanctimoniousness in our foreign policy. But look at the chart below and you'll see that we are by no means an outlier when it comes to how we view the morality of our approach to the world.


January 22, 2009

China's Sagging Economy


Some Q4 numbers from China:

China's GDP for the fourth quarter of 2008 plunged, in the latest indication that the impact of the global financial crisis on China has worsened, AP reported. Economic growth came in at 6.8% compared to a year earlier, according to data released today by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). This compares to 9% growth in the previous quarter and 10.6% in the first quarter. The economy grew by 9% for the full year, marking the slowest annual growth since 2001, and down significantly from the 13% growth seen in 2007. Exports fell by 2.8% in December, following a 2.2% drop in November.

So, will a declining economy spur domestic unrest? If China's leadership is unable to deliver economic gains commensurate with the past few years, will they go abroad in search of demons to slay?

Photo via Gene Zhang under a Creative Commons license.

Chirac Attacked....


By - I kid you not - his "depressed" dog:

Former French president Jacques Chirac was rushed to hospital after being mauled by his own 'clinically depressed' pet dog.

The 76-year-old statesman was savaged by his white Maltese dog - which suffers from frenzied fits and is being treated with anti-depressants.

The animal, named Sumo, had become increasingly violent over the past years and was prone to making 'vicious, unprovoked attacks', Chirac's wife Bernadette said.

I can't wait for the Daily Show tonight...

Photo from edavid3001 under a Creative Commons license.

January 21, 2009

Learning the Wrong Lessons from Iraq

Thomas Ricks touts the brilliance of this article by Col. McMaster (the "brain behind Petraeus") in World Affairs Journal. It is essentially an extended attack on the technological hubris of American defense planners and well worth a read.

However, McMasters offers up this as a conclusion:

In the last paragraphs of his book, A Better War, Lewis Sorley relates a story from December 1975, about seven months after the fall of Saigon. New Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was away from the Pentagon. Workmen took advantage of the opportunity to refurbish the secretary’s office. In doing so, they removed a large relief map of Southeast Asia that had hung on the wall during much of the Vietnam War. Perhaps if the map were still hanging there when Secretary Rumsfeld returned to the Pentagon more than thirty years later, it might have inspired a healthy dose of skepticism about the latest orthodoxy predicting how U.S. technological advantages would make war fast, efficient, and decisive. That skepticism, in turn, might have generated a deeper understanding of the nature of the conflicts in which the United States and its partners remain engaged today.

I think McMaster's point about the dangerously seductive quality of defense technology, while valid, is being taken altogether too far. If we collectively decide that the problem with the Iraq war was that Donald Rumsfeld and company were insufficiently mindful of population security and overly optimistic about high-tech warfare, then we haven't actually learned anything. It never ceases to amaze me that critics of the invasion - such as the New York Times editorial board - nevertheless insist that we build an Army to wage future Iraq-style wars.

But why? If the war was a strategic mistake, as people such as Brent Scowcroft argued at the time, then the flaws that it exposed in our defense establishment are actually not flaws of force structure or doctrine, etc. but flaws in the strategic decision making of our civilian policy makers. The lesson we should learn from Iraq is not that we need to do a better job "next time" but that there should be no next time. I mean, what's easier: replacing strategically inept bureaucrats with astute ones, or reorienting the entire defense establishment on the theory that future blunders are simply inevitable?

Moreover there is nothing about the "nature of the threat that we face" that necessitates building a constabulary Army capable of pacifying unruly natives. Indeed, the nature of the threat of Islamic terrorism warns specifically against such a move, on the grounds that it would vindicate bin Laden's propaganda, tie down a disproportionate amount of U.S. combat power, and drain the economy of needed resources. The surest way to keep the threat of Islamic terrorism alive deep into the 21st century is to garrison ever larger contingents of U.S. troops on Muslim soil.

Yet the very people one would expect to acknowledge that fact are the same people insisting that we build an Army to do just that. It's very frustrating.

One further quibble. McMasters writes that "the way the United States went to war influenced everything that followed. A fixation on American technological superiority and an associated neglect of the human, psychological and political dimensions of war doomed one effort and very nearly the other."

The problem with "how we went to war" wasn't the undue focus on technological superiority, it was the legitimacy of the enterprise. A war without an obvious and compelling casus belli - a war viewed globally as grossly illegitimate - was going to have a much higher hurdle associated with the end state than one (like Afghanistan) where U.S. action was widely viewed as urgent and compelling. We simply couldn't leave behind an Iraq that was demonstrably worse than we found it.

That, again, suggests that the answer isn't to pay more attention to the human aspects of waging war, but to the legitimacy of initiating military conflict. I would argue that the more legitimacy the U.S. has in taking military action against a state, the less will be expected of us by way of nation building.

Latin America Headlines on the Inaugural

A quick roundup of Tuesday evening's headlines from Latin America:

Brazil's O Globo: Bovespa drops 4,01% with investors frustrated with Obama's speech. The article states that Obama's speech did not save the day in the stock markets. Investors were not encouraged by Obama's statement that the challenges we face are serious and many, and

"They will not be met easily or in a short span of time."
The article said that expectations were high but the speech was too vague on the economy.
O Globo's top story today is Obama orders Guantanamo trials suspended for 120 days.

Venezuela's El Universal: Today's headline - US Chargé d'Affaires advocates respectful dialogue with Venezuela: Deputy Chief of Mission of the US Embassy in Caracas John Caulfield said he was optimistic of the upcoming relationship

The student demonstrations in Caracas were El Universal's top stories yesterday and this morning.

Also from Venezuela, Noticias 24 carried articles on the inauguration but their website changes the top story as news arise. Their headline read, "Barack Obama sworn in, is now President of the United States", which earlier in the day read, "Barack Obama makes history as US's first black President."

Puerto Rico's El Vocero: The Obama era starts

A new era has started for the United States and for the world: Barack Obama is now the North American country's 44th President to be sworn in at the Washington Capitol building in front of a huge crowd of people filled with emotion, excitement and hope.

Mexico's El Universal: Obama arrives at the White House
The sun, which had been hiding during lunchtime, shone brightly again during the [Obamas'] trajectory celebrating the swearing in of the 44th President of the United States; sometimes he rode in his car, sometimes he walked.

Argentina's Clarín: Obama sworn in as US President: "Hope won over fear"
This afternoon Barack Obama became the United States' first black President. And he did it in front of a crowd convening at the Capitol to witness the historic event. In a speech that was directed as much to the country as it was to the rest of the world, he talked about the challenges his country faces, which he said, "is ready to return to leadership." And insisted that his electoral victory was the triumph of "hope over fear."
Today's top headline at Clarin: Europe supports Obama's decision suspending the Guantanamo trials. showing a photo of Obama replacing Bush's:


The story's headline was later changed to "After Obama's request, one Guantánamo trial suspended."

Please note all translations are my own. Corrections and comments welcome.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at faustasblog.com.

January 20, 2009

Left Looking Up in El Salvador

While the world welcomes a new American President, Central American political observers also await the results from the first round of historic elections in El Salvador.

This is the first time since 1994 that Salvadorenos go to the polls to elect a new assembly, new mayors and a new president during the same year. Polls have varyingly shown the candidate of the leftist FMLN party, Mauricio Funes, with a steady and sometimes large lead.

Last week, the country went to the polls for municipal and legislative elections. With 75% of the votes counted, the results so far show FMLN moving into the lead in the assembly with 35 seats to ARENA’s 32 - which would essentially flip the current balance of power - leaving the right-wing PCN as kingmakers again. ARENA also expects to lose 30 mayoral seats in sum, although they scored the major headline of the day by retaking San Salvador, where Funes had campaigned last week in support of the FMLN.

The small Central American nation, and one-time Cold War flash point, has been ruled by the right-wing ARENA party since 1992 peace accords ended a 12-year civil war between the U.S.-backed dictatorship and leftist guerrillas. The war featured some of the most brutal and infamous episodes in recent history. Since ’92, though, the country has remained peaceful and ARENA has mostly dominated the country’s politics; maintaining power over a series of legitimate elections.

Electing a left-wing government for the first time would be a sign of political maturity for a young democracy, as the ruling party hands over power for the first time (although the threat to the party, it should be mentioned, stems largely from concerns about corruption and a steep rise in crime). Funes, who is going up against Rodrigo Avila, represents the moderate wing of FMLN. He is a former CNN freelancer, and he has no connection to the party's old days as a Marxist guerrilla group.

The potential for change has also had the predictable effect of placing El Salvador in the spotlight as possibly the latest in a block of Latin American countries to move away from alignment with the United States; opting instead to elect a leftist leadership. Funes has said he plans to keep market-friendly policies and close contacts with Washington, but the right-wing has not shied away from fear-based campaigning, in particular trying to tie FMLN to Hugo Chavez.

Take, for instance, this ad run by ARENA ally Fuerza Solidaria:

The ad begins with an image of President Obama. The narrator tells viewers that, while FMLN claims to be his "friend," "this man - Obama foreign policy advisor Dan Restrepo - says otherwise."

Restrepo: "Obama is very worried about the anti-American rhetoric and broken policies of Hugo Chavez, in Venezuela...or other places, like El Salvador."

Restrepo never explicitly mentions the local political context. But that's politics.

Inauguration Day Live Blog

RealClearWorld will host a Live Blog on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, from 9:30 a.m. to noon (EST). Please join us. All readers and commenters are welcome!

January 19, 2009

Brazil: Lula Invites Bush for Fishing Trip


A small bit of news that probably has gone unnoticed today:
Brazil's Silva invites Bush for fishing trip

The spokesman for Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva says the Brazilian leader has invited Bush to come fishing.

Marcelo Baumbach says Bush made a farewell call to Silva on Monday and received the invitation. Bush also invited Silva to visit him in Texas.

Aside from being sociable and friendly, Lula, by publicly issuing this invitation, is further distancing himself from Hugo Chavez's highly inflammatory brand of politics. Just last week Chavez was saying that Obama has the "stench" of Bush; Lula is very much aware of Chavez's position.

To further drive his point, O Globo quotes Lula as saying that "it's been a privilege to have been among the presidents who are building good relationships with the United States."

Now what would be really interesting is if the UN nuclear inspectors were invited.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at faustasblog.com.

January 18, 2009

China: The View of Bush Legacy

During President Bush’s final press conference last week, he was asked indirectly about his views of America’s damaged “moral standing.” Bush defended himself spiritedly saying, “I strongly disagree with the assessment that our moral standing has been damaged. It may be damaged amongst some of the elite, but people still understand America stands for freedom, that America is a country that provides such great hope.” He went on to name some parts of the world where the U.S. was still held in high regard, and China was one of those countries.

So how does China, or, more specifically, members of the Chinese media feel about Bush’s legacy? A commentary in the Southern Metropolis Daily, one of China’s leading commercial newspapers, mentions how Truman left office with very low approval ratings, but his legacy was later on vindicated. The writer pins Bush’s place in history squarely upon the Iraq war and comes up with a measured assessment: “People say that history often repeats itself, and it’s hard to say that it will not do the same for Bush in how his stature may be revised the same way that Truman’s was. However, the difference is that the emergence of Europe and Japan along with the end of the Cold War serve as the basis for Truman’s place in history. The basis for Bush’s legacy has yet to be determined.

"Moreover, what makes it even more uncertain is the promotion of his Middle East democracy strategy in Muslim countries where there lies a wide gap between them and Western ideals. If Iraq is able to continue moving forward in the development of its democracy and rule of law and go on to influence other Middle Eastern countries, there will be greater hope of a comprehensive realization of Bush’s Middle East democracy project. However, if Iraq goes backwards in democracy and its sects are unable to cooperate, leading to widespread chaos with global effects, than history will render a judgment that Bush will not like. But that is the impartial judgment that he has no choice but to accept.”

The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese government, casts U.S.-China relations in a guardedly optimistic light in an editorial titled, “Sino-U.S. Cooperation Leads to World Peace.” Although Bush is not mentioned directly, his administration’s policy of encouraging China to become a “responsible stakeholder” is discussed. The timing and nature of the article also indicates that it was written in response to Bush’s oncoming departure.

“In recent years, amidst the efforts of the international community to resolve problems of a global nature, the fruits of the Sino-U.S. ‘global relationship’ are gradually being seen. Room for cooperation and opportunity has continuously growing larger, and mutual trust has also been increasingly strengthened. It can be said that the harder the global problem, the more it shows the necessity and importance of Sino-U.S. cooperation. … The Sino-U.S. relationship is made up of the world’s largest developing country and the largest developed country. They have the common responsibility for the peace and development of mankind.”

The absence of criticism and forward-looking nature of this editorial seems to indicate that the Chinese government has been pleased with how the Bush administration has conducted its dealings with them and hopes that they will see the same from the Obama administration.

Russia: Separatism at Home and in Near Abroad

Russian news devoted time and attention to the current problems and concerns in its near abroad. Daily Izvestia published a report from Abkhazia, a break-away region of Georgia that achieved independence together with South Ossetia in the early 1990s. Just like its former Georgian counterpart, Abkhazia is at the epicenter of the continuing stand-off between Russia and Georgia over the international legitimacy of the territory's status. Russia recently launched a massive campaign to award Russian passports to the resident of Abkhazia, and currently more than 80% of the people living in the province have Russian citizenship. The article describes Abkhazia's strong pro-Russian sentiment, and its hopes for common borders and a customs union with Russia and Belarus.

The province's Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba told reporters that Abkhazia already designated two plots of land in Sukhumi, the capital city, for the constriction of the Russian Embassy and Russian Ambassador's future residence, with "... construction to be undertaken by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs ... which should be completed in two years and the diplomatic mission will have 30 diplomats." Shamba noted that Abkhazia has a representative office in Moscow, staffed by 12 people and that "soon enough, our Ambassador will submit his credential to (Russian President) Medvedev. We were already offered several mansions for out future permanent embassy."

The article's description of fait accompli concerning Abkhazia's relationship with Russia is a cause of concern to the European Union and the United States. The international community has tried to resolve the status of Abkhazia for the last 15 years, with no apparent success. Georgia considers Abkhazia part of its territory, the international community - including the United States - supports the territorial integrity of Georgia that includes Abkhazia and South Ossetia (where war was fought in August 2008). On the other hand, Russia threw its full military and diplomatic support behind the breakaway states that are on track to joining the Russian Federation in one way or another - as a constituent republic, as a unionized territory, or a legal territorial entity. Given the fact that similar status issues regrading South Ossetia were settled by war, there is concern that Abkhazia may become another source of military conflict between Russia and pro-Western Georgia.

In Georgia proper, Izvestia reports on the political scandal involving television stations that are favorable in their coverage to President Mikhail Saakashvili. The TV stations reported that future US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged to defend Georgia and Ukraine against Russia's "imperial ambitions." Pro-Saakashvili politicians and political experts tried to convince the population that such statements are a continuation of George W. Bush's foreign policy that maintains strategic partnership with Georgia. However, political opposition reported that Senator Clinton never pledged such policy in her Senate confirmation, and opposition media published the entire 16-page transcript of Clinton's congressional hearings. According to leading Georgian political opposition experts, "such attempts to state that "Obama cannot live without Saakashvili" is pure disinformation. Saakashvili is a great student of Brezhnev and Goebbels." Izvestia noted that President Saakashvili's press office did not refute oppositions' claims about Senator Clinton's actual words.

The question of separatism and breakaway tendencies received additional coverage in an interesting article that described the attempt by Russia's Sverdlovsky Oblast - which encompasses energy-rich Ural region - to secede from the Russian Federation in early 1990s. Online publication "Noviye Regioni" published a remarkable report on the exhibition devoted to the 75-year history of the Ural region. The exhibition featured "Ural Franks", printed in 1991 for use as official currency. Apparently, 56 million of these "franks" were printed in order to fight the inflation of the Soviet rubble that reached nearly 1,000% following years of economic liberalization launched in 1987. Following the deteriorating economic climate, Sverdlvosky Oblast held a popular referendum in early 1990s, in which more than 60% of the population supported the session of the Middle Ural region from the Russian Federation. The idea to use Ural franks as official currency alongside Soviet rubble was even floated to Egor Gaidar, then Economic and Finance Minister of the Russian Federation (still part of the USSR in 1991) and future Economic Minister of independent Russia. There are some uncomfortable parallels between the crashing Soviet economy that facilitated the breakup of the USSR in 1991 and the current worsening economic situation across Russia, which today affects many regions, including Sverdlovsky Oblast.

Turning to the incoming administration of the President-elect Barack Obama, business daily "Vzglyad" published a farewell review of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. The paper noted that Rice was one of Russia's strongest critics, especially during the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russian Federation over South Ossetia. The paper quotes Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stating that he tried to ask Rice over the years to put pressure on Georgia in order to prevent military conflict, with Secretary of State failing to restrain her allies. He noted that for Moscow, the political dialogue with incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be much more cordial than with Rice.

Canada: Coalition and Equalization

The French World Beat is taking a break this week, as news are pretty slow on the other side of the Atlantic, aside from the Gaza crisis, that is. But some interesting issues have come from up north. Less than two full months after two elections (federal and provincial in Quebec), let's discuss the forces involved in Canadian and Quebecer politics for 2009.

Ten seats short of a majority in the House of Commons, Mr. Harper's government was almost overthrown by what Don Martin from the National Post describes as a "hodge-podge coalition led by the Liberals" just before the Christmas holidays. Drawing his last card of 2008, the Prime Minister suspended Parliament for a month in order to buy time and hoped for divisions within the Liberal Party over Mr. Dion's leadership to soar and disrupt plans for a coalition. Now, Mr. Harper's plan at least partially worked, as prospects for a coalition government overthrowing the Tories in the House are slimmer now than they were a month ago. How is that?

First, the Liberals have themselves a new leader in the person of Michael Ignatieff. It was widely known that while Mr. Dion, still the leader of the party, signed the coalition deal with the NDP and the Bloc, Mr. Ignatieff was the least enthusiastic of liberal heavyweights regarding this situation. Second, the liberal MPs, especially Ontarians, can read polling numbers: The idea of a Liberal-NDP coalition supported by the Bloc might get some traction in Quebec and liberal Toronto, but the majority of Canadians remain opposed to the idea. And who could blame them? In the ROC (Rest Of Canada, outside Quebec), electors favored the Tories over the Liberals or the NDP by a significant margin. Especially for Westerners, the idea of handing over the government to a Liberal-NDP coalition is tantamount to a coup d'etat. Third, Mr. Harper modified the initial budget propositions that started the fire. He backed down on cutting public financing for political parties and he is now promoting a stimulus package to jump start the economy in 2009.

Regarding this latest issue, it is interesting to note that Mr. Harper's right-wing ideological zeal, prominent at the end of 2008, has paved way to a more pragmatist approach. Indeed, Mr. Harper, instead of cutting a budget deal with the opposition, launched a series of discussion with the country's 10 provincial PMs. His guess was, and still is, that if he can satisfy the demands of most provinces with his budget, Ignatieff will have no choice but to back down and and vote with the government.

How did the provinces answer to Mr. Harper's economic stimulus package and plans to reorganize equalization* payments? Most did so positively, as PMs from British Columbia and Ontario labeled the discussions as productive and very constructive.

But, yet again, when you read the Quebec media, you get a whole different story.

"Charest hits a wall," titles Le Devoir. After the first few rounds of discussion, it became quite clear that Mr. Harper's equalization program changes did not cut it for PM Jean Charest's government, leading him to qualify the Tories' brand of federalism as "not so open" to traditional Quebec nationalist demands. Coming from a PM whose defense of federalism and Canadian unity in front of sovereigntists came in the form of enchantment by Mr. Harper's apparent "open federalism" just two years ago, this would be funny if it were not so sad.

Quebec will probably lose hundreds of millions of dollars every year in equalization payments with the new formula, which amounts for at least two preliminary conclusions:

First, after suffering a crippling defeat at the hands of the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois in Quebec in the latest federal elections, the Tories have mostly given up on Quebec. They bet that the 10 ridings they lack to form a majority government could be won in Ontario, B.C. and the Maritimes, but not in Quebec. The "open federalism" concept (an updated version of the "renewed federalism" from the '90s), praised by Tories and Quebec federalists just a few years ago, seems long gone.

Second, Quebec federalists, and especially Mr. Charest and his Liberal Party, have lost one of their main argument against sovereigntists. This amounts to the desert of ideas that is now crossing the federalist option in Quebec. While sovereignty as a political option is not showing upward or downward signs, federalism definitely lost the initiative in the last few months.

With a newly reinvigorated Parti Québécois and its 51 MPs in Quebec, sovereigntism and nationalism could be headed for a comeback in the coming months and years.

*Note : Equalization is a constitutional obligation of the federal government to redistribute revenue from wealthier provinces to poorer ones.

January 16, 2009

American Attitudes Toward Gaza Fighting

Pew Research finds remarkable similarity between American attitudes towards Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon and the current fighting in Gaza.

As in 2006, most Americans express a fairly non-interventionist sentiment regarding the fighting:

There is little support for a greater U.S. role in resolving the Gaza crisis. Just 17% believe the United States should be more involved than it is currently, 27% say the United States should be less involved, and nearly half (48%) say it is about as involved as it should be. Again, these opinions closely replicate views of U.S. involvement in the war in Lebanon in 2006.

Pew also found a partisan break-out, with Republicans identifying themselves more closely with government activism:

A majority of Republicans (56%) say that the United States should publicly support Israel, compared with 37% of independents and 34% of Democrats. The plurality view among independents and Democrats, shared by roughly four-in-ten in each group (42% of independents, 40% of Democrats) is that the United States should say or do nothing in this conflict.

There are smaller partisan differences in views about the U.S. role in resolving the conflict. Fewer than one-in-five Democrats (18%), independents (17%) and Republicans (15%) say that the United States should be more involved than it is now in resolving the conflict. However, more Democrats (31%) and independents (26%) than Republicans (20%) say the United States should be less involved than it is now.

Chart after the jump:


January 15, 2009

How to Judge (And Not to Judge) the Iraq War

I hope to have a lot more to say on this shortly, but suffice it to say that I think this is the wrong way to judge the merits of the invasion of Iraq:

To understand properly what the Bush administration’s legacy will be with regard to Iraq, one must comprehend the conditions Saddam Hussein subjected Iraq’s citizenry to prior to the country’s liberation in 2003. Moreover, one must compare those past conditions to the current condition of the newly forming democracy in the Middle East.

I would suggest that those questions are, in fact, irrelevant (not in an absolute moral sense, of course, but to the question at hand). Bush's legacy hinges on the question of whether the invasion improved American security at an acceptable cost. If President Bush had stood before the American people in 2002 and suggested we invade Iraq to improve the lives of Iraqis, there would be no war.

The war's remaining supporters have to answer a simple question, without recourse to absurd hypotheticals about what Saddam Hussein "might" have done (because any leader anywhere might do something crazy): has the invasion made us safer?

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Nick Crosby helps an Iraqi woman cross a water-filled street during a cordon and search mission in Al Risalah, Iraq, May 8, 2007. Crosby is assigned to Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Bennie Corbett, U.S. Army

The Return of Hubris


Stephen Walt takes a refreshing break from the Israel-Gaza war to take a swipe at Hillary Clinton:

Nonetheless, Clinton's remarks were not those of someone eager to make choices or set priorities, even though she deployed clever new concepts like "smart power." Clinton did not say which of these problems merited the most resources or the most immediate attention, which problems were the most easily solved and which might be intractable, or how the United States might deploy its power strategically, so that our actions in one area made solving other problems easier, instead of operating (as we often do) at cross-purposes.

It was an impressive performance in some respects -- she's mastered her brief, showed admirable poise, and made it clear that she's on the same page with the president-elect. But taken as a whole, her testimony was entirely consistent with the well-engrained tendency for great powers to assume that what happens anywhere matters everywhere, and especially matters to them. I'm no isolationist, but it would be refreshing to hear a more rigorous assessment of our vital interests and a clearer acknowledgment of the limits of U.S. power, especially these days.

And I'd like to be named Secretary of Defense. Unfortunately (for me, at least) neither is going to happen.

Obviously, once in power the Obama administration, like any administration, will prioritize even if they pay rhetorical lip service to American omnipotence. But no one should be surprised that an administration staffed with former Clinton officials would wax hubristic.

Photo via seiu international under a Creative Commons license.

Venezuela: Can't Take "No" for an Answer

Following up on this post, news on Venezuela: Hugo Chávez held a constitutional referendum on December 2007 that would have allowed him to remain in power without having to run for office.

That referendum was defeated.

However, since Chávez controls the National Assembly, he has never given up on his quest for permanence, and yesterday the National Assembly approved a constitutional amendment to remove term limits for all elected officials. The amendment is scheduled to go to the board of elections, which is also controlled by Chávez, and they'll probably schedule yet another referendum next month.

Not that this comes as any surprise; Chávez was talking about a February 2008 referendum last December.

In other Venezuela news which also involve Bolivia, and also following up on a prior post, Venezuela, Bolivia break diplomatic ties with Israel:

Venezuela and Bolivia broke diplomatic ties with Israel over its deadly military offensive in the Gaza Strip and refusal to comply with international calls for a ceasefire, their leftist governments said.
Worthy of note is this,
[Evo] Morales' diplomatic announcement on Israel came shortly after he received a letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asking him to support an international agreement to resolve the Gaza crisis.

Iranian Cooperation Minister Mohammad Abbasi disclosed to reporters the contents of Ahmadinejad's letter after he met with the Bolivian president.

Iran's largest embassy in our hemisphere is located in La Paz, Bolivia.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at faustasblog.com.

A Positive Anti-Piracy Action

By Everett Pyatt

Last week, there were two significant events relating on the African piracy front. First was the ransom payout for the Saudi supertanker reported to be $3 million, following initial demands of $25 million. Second was the creation of a multinational task force under the command of the US Fifth fleet. There were also several piracy attempts in the last three weeks and at least one success, according to International Maritime Bureau reports. A few piracy attempts were broken up by coalition forces, specifically helicopters based on ships.

Ransom collection continues to prove that piracy is a good business, but the use of the money remains a puzzle. Who gets it? Public statements from the pirates say that it is divided between the participants only. That’s hard to believe since other reports indicate much of the money moves to others. Even small portions contributed to Islamic extremist activities can fund major terrorists activity. I hope that someone is actively following the flow of this money, because the motivation to do it again must be high.

On the opposite side of the ledger is the creation of the multinational task force focused on anti-piracy actions. It is Combined Task Force 151, which was created to include only forces with national authorization for forceful engagement if necessary. This action is long overdue. It is to be fully operational this week.

Time will tell if sufficient forces will be included to make a difference and hopefully there will be adequate continuous air surveillance to spot the mother ships and pirate skiffs early. This will help anti-pirate ships get out of the emergency reaction mode and into the preventive mode.

While the news is not all good, there is a good signal of possible coordinated action by the ships of many countries now operating in the Gulf of Aden. Let’s hope it proves successful.

Everett Pyatt was Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and Assistant Secretary of the Navy (USA) in the Carter and Reagan administrations.

January 14, 2009

The Politics of National Security

"Smart power" may be an effective exercise in repackaging, but the public apparently still prefers the party of hard power:

Republicans now hold the biggest lead over Democrats on the issue of national security since early September. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 48% of voters trust the GOP more to handle national security and the War on Terror, while only 40% trust Democrats more.

In December, the GOP held just a four-point lead on the issue. Trust in the Republicans hasn’t been this high since September 6, when they led the Democrats 50% to 40% on the issue.

Voters not affiliated with either party trust Republicans more to handle national security by a 51% to 31% margin.

Now imagine what these numbers would be if Obama had stacked his national security cabinet with actual progressives.

"Death to Obama"

The President-elect has truly arrived.

January 13, 2009

History of U.S./Iranian Nuclear Talks


Much of the popular debate over Iran's nuclear program seems to neglect an important historical fact: Iran's nuclear ambitions predate the Islamic revolution. For all the apocalyptic talk that attends their nuclear pursuits, the Iranians were at work on nuclear technology while they were allied with the United States. This shouldn't necessarily make us breath any easier, but it should make us a bit more skeptical of assertions that Iran has been developing a doomsday weapon with the explicit purpose of eradicating Israel.

Either way, the National Security Archive has just published some recently declassified material on U.S./Iranian nuclear talks from the 1970s that makes for interesting reading.

Photo via Kebria used under a Creative Commons license.

Venezuela: Currency Depreciation Through Back Door

Caribbean Net News had the story on Jan. 2, and today Bloomberg has it: Venezuela Begins Stealth Devaluation After Oil Price Plunge: In a move to preserve foreign currency reserves, Venezuela's government reduced by half the amount of of dollars it will let people spend when traveling abroad to $2,500. The Venezuelan Foreign Exchange Administration Commission, known as Cadivi, reduced the amount of cash at the fixed exchange rate that Venezuelans can withdraw from foreign banks by half, from $500 to $250 a month. The new rules require that travelers have airplane, bus or ship ticket abroad; new Cadivi cardholders can't get Cadivi dollars for six months.

Since Venezuelans need government permission to purchase dollars at the official rate, which was established in 2005, and the government is cutting down on its sales of dollars, Venezuelans increasingly are buying dollars in a a parallel, unofficial market where the US dollar trades at a 61% premium.

Call it a de facto devaluation.

The price of oil peaked at $147/barrel last July. As of the writing of this post, it is trading at $37.70. Venezuelan oil, which is of lesser quality, has dropped below $30 a barrel.

According to The Economist,

Venezuela is more dependent on oil now than it was when Mr Chávez took power. Oil brought in 92% of export revenues in the first nine months of 2008, compared with 64% in 1998.
Compounding the problem is the decrease in world oil demand, and Venezuela's decreasing oil production.

Because of this, the government cannot subsidize cheap dollars.

Adding to the economic ills is the rampant inflation, which last year reached 31.9% for consumer prices. Venezuela has the highest inflation out of the 82 world currencies tracked by Bloomberg.

There is talk of reducing the amount of dollars allotted to importers by limiting foreign currency to food, medicine and machinery, and other "priority goods". That would have the effect of cutting imports.

While to the foreign observer devaluation appears to be inevitable, rest assured that Chavez will struggle to avoid it, at least in the near future, since he's pushing for another constitutional referendum to remove the limit on further presidential terms.

Back in the early 1980s Venezuela's economy crashed after the oil boom of the 1970s. Sadly, it may happen again.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at faustasblog.com.

January 12, 2009

How to Solve a Foreign Policy Problem II

Jim Arkedis at the Progressive Policy Institute says that I'm missing the point when I expressed skepticism of General Petraeus' attempt to "regionalize" the challenge of Afghanistan.

Arkedis writes:

...linking Afghanistan to Pakistan isn’t an attempt at making the problem bigger; rather, it’s a simple strategic necessity. Achieving any modest goal in Afghanistan is more often than not tethered to Pakistan. NATO and the US could harden every target imaginable in Afghanistan, but if we don’t address the root of the problem - that militias in Afghanistan are drawing significant support from counterparts across the border in Pakistan - then we will bring at best fragile peace to Afghanistan.
As I understand it, and as Obama himself has said, the problems in Pakistan relate to its stand off with India. That is why they have cultivated the extremist elements now waging war against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

So attempts to bring Pakistan around must hinge on bringing the Kashmir standoff to some kind of resolution. And that is a tall order to say the least. Understanding the solution and implementing it are two vastly different things. Exhibit A: Israel/Palestine. There is a fairly broad agreement about what a "final settlement" will look like, yet getting there has never been harder.

If we go off on a half-cocked effort to bring peace to India and Pakistan, we could find ourselves in a situation akin to the decades long effort to resolve the Israel/Palestine issue. We won't actually bring peace, but we will ensure that the parties to the conflict come to either resent the U.S. or come to depend on the U.S. for security and arms. Any settlement - should it come - would be years in the making while the al Qaeda and Taliban elements inside Afghanistan have to be dealt with immediately. Only a swift and significant change in the Pakistani military's cost/benefit analysis will do that - and if threats of being "bombed to the stone age" and billions in largely misappropriated U.S. aid haven't done it, I'm at a loss to think of what will.

This isn't to say that no effort should be made to relieve the fear in Pakistan that the U.S. is conspiring with India to splinter the country. But that effort should be modest and kept quiet.

Iran's Hamas Support: Reality or Rhetoric?

As the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues, some analysts are addressing a valid concern, and that is whether Iran's relationship with Hamas is based on rhetoric or reality.

In his most recent Newsweek editorial, Fareez Zakaria stated that "Hamas is not Iran's pawn."

He goes on to quote the much respected Iran scholar Professor Vali Nasr as saying "Iran does not have tangible assets in Gaza or the Palestinian territories…It's a misunderstanding to think of its strength in that way. Its real influence in the Arab world comes from its soft power, the reputation it has built as the defender of the great Arab cause of Palestine."

If we look closely at the situation however we see that this analysis misses some extremely important evidence, which shows that Iran does indeed have tangible assets in Gaza, which includes the influence it wields over the Hamas leadership. And the evidence is not from Washington or Jerusalem. It is from the most powerful man in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

In his 2003 Grand Bargain offer to the United States, Khamenei specifically talked about ceasing support for Hamas as part of the bargain he was offering to the U.S. This was confirmed by Flynt Leverett, the former Middle East director of the U.S. National Security Council who received the offer from the Iranians in 2003. In an interview with PBS he specifically said:

"On the Iranian side, they acknowledged that they would need to be prepared to deal with our concerns about their WMD activities, their links to terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, and they said in there that they would be prepared to eliminate military support for these organizations and to work to turn Hezbollah, for example, into a purely political and social organization in Lebanon."

Khamenei did not offer his influence over Shiites in Pakistan, because he has very little or none. The fact that he included support for Hamas as part of the bargain shows that he has something at his disposal. When the words "military support" are included as part of the bargain, it clearly shows that there is something more than Iran's image in Gaza or merely its reputation as "defender of Palestine."

Nor would that be enough for Hamas. It would be illogical for Hamas - an Arab Sunni organization with political as well as military aspirations - to side with increasingly isolated Persian Shiite Iran, solely for the sake of living under its reputation and no financial or military support in return. The losses in relations to rewards would make such a decision completely irrational and counter productive. Hamas' leaders may be good at sending their soldiers on suicide missions. It is very unlikely that they would do that with their own political aspirations.

The current conflict in Gaza does not only serve Israel's interests and goals to reduce Iran's influence. It also serves U/S. interests, which is why Washington is not intervening in a forceful manner in the current conflict. Washington wants Jerusalem to weaken Hamas, not because of the deep love which Joe Biden professed for Israel during his vice presidential debate with Sarah Palin. Its because the Americans know that sooner or later they will have to sit at the negotiation table with Ayatollah Khamenei. If Israel can reduce the value of Hamas, then the Iranians will have one less bargaining chip at their disposal, and that will not be so bad for Obama. Especially since - much like Iran - the U.S. attained its goal through proxy; which, in this case, happens to be Israel.

Meir Javedanfar runs the Middle East Analyst blog.

January 11, 2009

Russia: Rising Tensions with Ukraine

Russian news have been dominated by the growing row with Ukraine over deliveries of natural gas. The entire dispute has been "economically politicized," with both sides blaming the other for non-compliance and belligerence at a time of dropping winter temperatures across Eastern and Western Europe.

Daily Izvestia blamed Ukraine for thwarting the creation of independent commission made up of Russian, Ukrainian and European technical observers in order to mediate the dispute. The newspaper stated that Ukrainians refused to let Russian in, while citing that Ukrainians continued 'till the last minute to illegally siphon off gas for their own use, as "recently, nearly 86 million cubic meters of other people's gas have disappeared in the Ukrainian steppes." Today, as exactly two years ago in a similar dispute, the Russian side blames the Ukrainians for stealing some of the gas intended for the markets in Central and Western Europe. Russian Gazprom chairman Aleksei Miller expressed his concern that since Ukraine blocked the creation of an international observation commission to oversee the end of the dispute, the only people who may be observing the situation are members of the European Commission - themselves career politicians and clerks who may have never seen gas pipeline equipment in their entire life. The newspaper stated that EC's conclusions about the dispute will be undoubtedly politically motivated. "All blame is on the Ukrainian side," Miller was quoted by the paper.

On Friday, the energy dispute took on another dimension, as Kiev Economic Court concluded that the terms of Russian gas transit through Ukrainian territory in 2006 and 2007 are deemed illegal. The five-year contract - signed in 2006 and set to expire on December 31, 2010 - was considered unlawful because the Ukrainian signee, Igor Voronin, former Assistant to the Chairman of national "Naftogas" company, had no government authorization to sign such a contract with the Russian side. As of now, the terms of Russian gas transit through the Ukrainian territory are still undefined.

Izvestia reported on the "persecution" of Russian sailors in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol. Ukrainian Interior Ministry arrested several sailors of the Russian Fleet for "lack of proper registration." The paper commented that such "hunt for the Russian sailors always resumes at the onset of another crisis between Russia and Ukraine." Last time such action was undertaken by the Ukrainian authorities in August 2008, following Russia-Georgia war, when Russian Black Sea fleet returned from a mission to Abkhazia, a break-away region of Georgia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called for greater military-technical cooperation for the Commonwealth of Independent States Members (former Soviet republics) with Russia. "The majority of defense industries across Russia and FSU were based on a single Soviet complex, and still depend on each other to a great degree," stated Medvedev. "The maintenance of such ties increases mutual combat readiness and guarantees collective security in the face of rising threats." The article comments that the strength of today's Russian Army is the result of work of hundreds of defense industries across former Soviet Union. Therefore, future success of the Russian military is not possible without close cooperation with former Soviet partners.

President Medvedev also announced the plan to make purchases of Russian military equipment easier for the CIS members, starting with the ease of delivery of spare parts. This would simplify the purchasing process by former Soviet countries and their militaries - all part of the continuing push by Moscow to become the top defense exporter in the world.

China: All over the Map on Gaza

In line with its desire for stability both at home and in the international system in order to foster its ongoing “peaceful development,” the Chinese government has been generally opposed to Israel’s recent actions in Gaza. When Israel began launching airstrikes two weeks ago, the initial reaction from the Chinese foreign ministry was an expression of “serious concern” and a condemnation of “actions that have caused civilian casualties.” After ground operations commenced, Chinese President Hu Jintao addressed the situation in Gaza as a “humanitarian crisis” and called for all sides to “immediately stop their military activities.” On Jan. 7, China was one of the 14 UN Security Council members who voted in favor of the resolution calling for a ceasefire and the full withdrawal of Israeli military forces from Gaza.

The Southern Metropolis Daily, one of the leading commercial newspapers in China, draws attention to a Jan. 5 blog posting by Renmin University professor Zhou Xiaozheng in which he proclaims that Israel is a “good country” and praises various aspects of Jewish culture and civilization. The sociology professor does not address the Gaza situation, but the timing of his post seems to be a response to the discourse taking place over it, most of it presumably negative towards Israel. Zhou writes, “Chinese are apt to describe their modern history as ‘full of disasters and tragedies.’ Much of that was due to causes originating from ourselves. For the Jewish people, however, the causes are almost all external. All of the enormous calamities they have encountered for the past thousands of years have been solely due to their religious faith. These suffering people who have endured years of wars, who have long wandered in exile, and who have gone through a crucible of famine, torture, killings, and humiliation, have held on to their faith from beginning to end. They prospered in adversity and exhibited stubborn resolve in their growth and development. Not only did they keep from falling down, they were even able to miraculously garner worldwide recognition for their great achievements in technology, military, education, modern agriculture, and other fields.”

Zhou’s blog post has attracted over 350,000 views and nearly 5,000 comments which range from harsh condemnation to unabashed praise. The Southern Metropolis Daily article states that Zhou’s post has given rise to “pro-Zhou” and “anti-Zhou” camps in the blogosphere. The anti-Zhou blogger highlighted by the article writes, “Your defense [of Israel] brings to mind the behavior and actions of Japan and its people. If you choose to ignore their perpetration of inhuman massacres and pillaging, there are also many things you can praise about the various achievements of their culture and civilization. … The problem is that this admiration of Japan’s achievements and my understanding of its crimes of invasion against China, Asia, and the world are two different things!”

The pro-Zhou blogger featured in the Southern Metropolis Daily article writes, “During the War of Resistance against Japan in Shanghai, kindhearted sons and daughters of China, while under attack from the Japanese devils, welcomed Jewish refugees who were fleeing a murderous German Fascist regime. Half a century later, no matter whether China adopted a radical Leftist policy or a pragmatic policy, the Israeli people have always felt a deep gratitude towards the Chinese people. Even after being misunderstood by China for 30 years, this country and its people had still quietly done so much for China. To be frank, as a Chinese citizen, I hold positive feelings towards Israel and the Jewish people. A people that understand gratitude are the true friends of the Chinese people.”

In the absence of strong historical, ideological, or religious connections to the Middle East, Chinese views of the Israeli-Palestinian issue are all over the map as the different viewpoints above illustrate. However, what is notable is that in spite of nearly universal condemnation of Israel’s actions in Gaza and the Chinese government’s critical remarks, there still exists a significant vocal contingent of Israel supporters and admirers in China.

France: From Gaza to Kiev

Two subjects were on top of the list in the French media this week: The hot war in Gaza and the cold war between Kiev and Moscow over natural gas supplies.

Let's start with Gaza. Up until Nicolas Sarkozy's successful bid for the presidency in 2007, the French position on the Palestinian question seemed, at least from this shore of the Atlantic, mostly pro-Palestine. In fact, former president Jacques Chirac was widely perceived as pro-Arab. I need not mention the fact that among Israeli political elites, president Chirac's decision not to run for reelection in 2007 was greeted with sighs of relief. They knew that Sarkozy, the emerging leader of the UMP, was a lot more pro-western and that he had a very good shot at winning the presidency.

Even if I have yet to find a single piece of significant legislation passed by this French government regarding internal affairs, I must admit that Mr. Sarkozy's record on the foreign policy front is impressive. He harnessed France solidly into the Western bloc and it shows in the very moderate comments put forward by the Elysée regarding the situation in Gaza.

But this did not discourage left-wing parties and associations to organize rallies against what they call the "Israeli massacre". On Saturday, the biggest of these rallies so far too place, as organizers claimed the presence of up to 100,000 protesters. A lot of these rallies are taking place in other European countries, as it seems that pro-Palestinian groups are speaking much louder than pro-Israeli ones. But all in all, the only interesting story here is the change of tone that the Sarkozy foreign policy has imposed upon the debate. France can definitely be written off the pro-Arab list of countries.

Aside from the crisis in Gaza, the showdown between Moscow and Kiev regarding gas supplies was the other big story this week. As reported by Le Figaro, Ukraine and Russia did sign on Saturday an agreement regarding gas prices and accumulated debts by Kiev.

I would like to remind our readers that this is not the first time that Moscow has tried to bully Western Europe with its natural gas pipelines. The crisis did get jump-started by Kiev's decision to shut down deliveries to Western Europe, but this is mainly noise. We need to keep our eyes on the ball; the main narrative for this crisis is Moscow's will to bully neighbor countries. From a French perspective, we cannot say that president Sarkozy spoke in full force on this issue. As outspoken as he has been regarding the situation in Gaza, the crisis in Georgia in August 2008 or other topics, he has been remarkably mute regarding Moscow's actions and intentions.

Does the Elysée have a plan to diversify its energy sources in order to rely less upon Russian gas deliveries? Not sure; but if they do have one, we have not heard much of it yet.

Argentina's Outlook: Bleak

After overcoming a severe financial crisis right and foreign debt default at the start of the decade, Argentina is again in the midst of a financial crisis.

A week doesn't go by without news like this, from Goldman Sachs Global ECS Emerging Markets Research:

Government to Update Public Transportation Tariffs on Monday

Public transportation tariffs (buses, trains, and subway) will rise by 20%-25% on Monday.

The measure is driven by the government’s desire to lower costly budget subsides as government revenue is staring to erode on the back of lower commodity prices and the overall sharp deceleration of economic activity.

This is the second tariff increase in six years; the measure is expected to save the government ARS800 million.

Over the last few years Argentina's neighbor, Chile, used the windfall in copper revenues towards a $21 billion special fund that can bankroll future budgets for nearly a decade. Instead, Argentina used the money from high commodity and agricultural export prices (including soybeans) to increase government spending. Both Néstor Kirchner (president from 2003 to 2007) and his wife, Cristina Fernández (president since December 2007) have vowed to reverse free-market policies, and the economy reflects their approach.

Argentina's economy last year was best summarized in this paragraph:

Argentina also embarked on market-unfriendly moves, boosting government revenue by taking control of private pension funds and raising taxes on agricultural exports. Protesting farmers blocked highways throughout the year. Argentinians began withdrawing money from private bank accounts, fearing government seizure.
The farmers were protesting a proposed sliding-scale taxation system for agricultural exports which eventually didn't pass. A pension nationalization law did pass and was made into law on December 2008. Ten bank-owned pension funds worth over $26 billion were taken over by the government, in an attempt to bolster its finances and prevent a second default in a decade.

The Fernández administration denies that motive, claming instead that the pension funds were mismanaged, and that the global financial crisis made it necessary for the government to step in to protect investors.

The country's investors responded with

a mini-flight of capital to neighbouring Uruguay on fears that the government, in emulation of predecessors, would nationalise bank deposits.

A US district court froze $200 million in Argentinian pension fund assets in the US last month,
Judge Thomas Griesa said the assets should not be transferred abroad because they are now Argentine state property following the government's takeover of the private pension system.

He said the assets are subject to US creditors seeking to recover billions of dollars because their administrator is a government entity.

Investors have lost faith as the
Credit-default-swap spreads on its government debt have surged to horrifying levels, signalling that investors see a high risk of default.
The specter of a default has not vanished, in spite of the pension takeover, since its $21bn in debt-servicing obligations is due this year. Jittery investors are also worried that Ecuador's voluntary default on its debt last month might embolden Fernández to follow Ecuador's precedent.

This Stratfor report spells out the fears:

Setting aside the emotional and financial impact to Argentine workers as they contemplate their futures, the government has ensnared itself in an accounting dilemma. If spending continues in the face of falling revenue and limited credit, Buenos Aires eventually will hit a wall. And so far, its only recourse has been to liquidate what few financial assets remain in-country. Although there could yet be a grand scheme that will compensate for this problem, the government has shown no evidence thus far that one exists. The odds of an outright debt default and a return to the economic crisis of 2002 are growing.

The country's economic disarray has even brought about a small-change shortage.

It comes as no surprise, then that even when bond yields might look attractive, "institutional investors remain reticent about having too many holdings in local bonds."

Fausta Wertz also blogs at faustasblog.com.

January 9, 2009

How to Solve a Foreign Policy Problem

Make it bigger:

Petraeus linked Afghanistan's fortunes directly to Pakistan's, where a U.S.-backed civilian government is struggling and the country's ability to control militants along its border with Afghanistan is in doubt.

"Afghanistan and Pakistan have, in many ways, merged into a single problem set, and the way forward in Afghanistan is incomplete without a strategy that includes and assists Pakistan," and also takes into account Pakistan's troubled relationship with rival India, Petraeus said.

This is certainly true, but think about the implications. The U.S. and NATO have not been able to shore up Afghanistan seven years after invading. They're now asserting that they can only solve that problem by tackling a much larger, immensely more complicated one in India/Pakistan.

But why should we have any confidence that this gambit can succeed, if the smaller problem of Afghanistan has proven so difficult? Wouldn't setting more modest goals for Afghanistan make more sense?

January 7, 2009

Joe the War Correspondent

Now, we love our friends over at Pajamas Media. They produce a lot of really good news and opinion content on a daily basis.

But what were they thinking when they made this decision?

Iraq War Timeline

Mother Jones has put together an interesting (and somewhat biased) "lie by lie" interactive timeline of the Iraq War. Check it out.

Who Are Israel's Friends?

Stephen Walt picks up a line you hear frequently in the debate over Israeli military action – that those who oppose the action are actually Israel’s true friends, because stopping a friend from making a mistake is better than reflex cheer leading (which our political leaders engage in unrepentantly).

It’s a valid sentiment to be sure, but it strikes me as essentially conceding the argument to Israel’s reflex boosters. The question isn’t fundamentally “what is or is not good for Israel” because Walt – like me – is not a citizen of Israel. Nor are members of Congress. The proper question is, is their course of action good for American interests. That – and not questions of relative degrees of fidelity to Israel – needs to the be locus of the debate.

Indeed, framing your criticism as coming from a friend of Israel, already concedes the important premise that the proper lens to view these events are Israel’s – not America’s. It makes the important assumption that American and Israeli interests (and enemies) are identical.

Better Realists, Please

Not content to hurt my brain the first time around, Stephen Walt presents us with another "thought experiment":

But if you don't like that "thought experiment," here's another, offered by philosophy professor Joseph Levine at University of Massachusetts: what if Hamas was hiding out among the civilian population of Tel Aviv, and attacking Israel from within? Would the IDF be using massive force to eradicate them? Unless you think that Palestinian and Israeli civilian lives are not equal, what justifies the current policy?

Israel is hardly unique in placing a higher value on its own citizens' lives than it places on the lives of others, and we should not forget that U.S. forces have caused plenty of civilian casualties in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. "The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must." But that doesn't make it right, and there are good reasons to question whether it will even be effective in this instance.

There's so much that's very wrong with this hypothetical scenario. First, as a well regarded realist, you'd think Walt could appreciate the fact that the Israeli government - or any government, for that matter - is first and foremost responsible for the well-being of its own citizenry. If Hamas were embedded within an Israeli city it would of course change the retaliatory options. The IDF is charged with the security of Israelis, not the citizens of the world. Walt admits as much.

I'm inclined to agree with Ross Douthat on this, who rightly argues for a new kind of realism in the realm of foreign policy. What often passes as such in contemporary forums is nothing more than misplaced and misguided contrarianism.

January 6, 2009

Israel's 'Right' to Defend Herself

Israel's "right to defend herself" has taken the lives of over 500 Palestinians and up to 120 (roughly over 20 percent) of those are children. Home-made rockets from Hamas have killed 20 Israelis in eight years and approximately four Israelis have been killed during the current conflict. Robert Fisk sums it up nicely in his piece for the Independent:

We've got so used to the carnage of the Middle East that we don't care any more – providing we don't offend the Israelis. It's not clear how many of the Gaza dead are civilians, but the response of the Bush administration, not to mention the pusillanimous reaction of Gordon Brown, reaffirm for Arabs what they have known for decades: however they struggle against their antagonists, the West will take Israel's side. As usual, the bloodbath was the fault of the Arabs – who, as we all know, only understand force. ... And we demand security for Israel – rightly – but overlook this massive and utterly disproportionate slaughter by Israel. It was Madeleine Albright who once said that Israel was "under siege" – as if Palestinian tanks were in the streets of Tel Aviv.

The fact remains that Israel has carried out its response to Hamas rocket fire with unbridled brutality and it is the Gazans who bear the brunt of this response. Those same Gazans who have been suffering under Israel's economic and aid embargo over the past year. It is safe to say that the Palestinians in Gaza have known nothing but misery over the past year and the so-called "international community" has remained impotent in the face of suffering. During the past few days, according to a Palestinian legislator on CNN's Rick Sanchez, 17 entire families have been wiped out in Gaza.

The international press is banned from entering Gaza so the stories we are getting out of the conflict can only be half the picture. In fact, if one looks at Freedom House's World Press Rankings 2008 Israel flies by with a ranking of "Free." Israel banned journalists from entering Gaza well before the Israeli siege, opened it up again, and then placed a ban when the current conflict started. How they get a ranking of "Free" is beyond me but falls perfectly in line with the point that Robert Fisk makes; the west grants Israel a free ride. And unfortunately it is only the west that have any bargaining power with Israel while they also supply them with the weapons to unleash in their heavy-handed responses.

Furthermore, the Israelis have now started targeting houses, mosques and not-so hidden tunnels where they suspect Hamas militants are hiding out. All the while, Palestinians have no means for warning their citizens of impending air strikes because they do not have the resources for air-raid sirens, according to ABC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel. But then again who knows if that's true considering the Israelis wont allow foreign press into Gaza.

Hospitals in Gaza, as predicted, are overflowing with patients and will continue to have trouble dealing with casualties adding to the suffering and chaos in Gaza. Witnesses report they have already seen Israeli tanks in Gaza City, which can only add to Gaza's hospital crisis.

President-Elect Barack Obama has stayed largely silent concerning the conflict in Gaza. Whether any "change" in the American stance towards the Palestinians and Israelis begins under his administration is still highly unlikely. He himself has repeated the apologist and open-ended statement that Israel has the right to defend itself, yet the American's do not have the political will to define exactly what that entails.

At the moment Israel interprets it to mean that they can take military action, whenever, wherever and by whichever means they find suitable. Obama should help to craft some tangible guidelines for what "the defense of Israel" actually means if he hopes to make any leeway with the Arab and Muslim world. America's policy towards Israel is like that of a mother to her child: Unconditional love. If America wants to be a just power in the world she should learn that she has other children in the region.

Forty rocket attacks over the past few days is evidence that Hamas still has ample capability when it comes to light rocket fire. Israel has stated that its intentions are to "create the conditions" where Hamas does not have the capability to fire rockets into Israel. This means the alleged flow of arms from Iran through Egypt is to be contained. Even if the flow is contained for the next few months, it is almost certain Hamas will find new means.

The Israelis have greatly harmed their efforts to de-legitimize Hamas, who were said to have a 14% approval rating before the current conflict. The Palestinians understand that Hamas has provoked the Israelis, but the bombs that fall around them are coming from Israel fired from weapons provided by the Americans. It is logical that Palestinians rally behind those that are resisting an invading army. Logical, yet unfortunate, because this support is likely to perpetuate the miserable rule of Hamas in Gaza.

Israel has made it clear that it is not targeting civilians but nonetheless it is civilians who are suffering. When a state uses heavy artillery and air strikes on one of the most densely populated areas on earth it is near impossible to distinguish fighters from a civilian population. It may be too far to state that the Israeli government is committing repeated acts of terror. But being fully aware of the horror their military will inevitably unleash upon the civilians in Gaza, the Israeli strategy is willful ignorance at best.

Bolivia Launches State-Run Media

The headline reads, Morales says Bolivia to launch state newspaper, and a TV station, both bankrolled by Iran and Venezuela.

Noticias 24 also had the news, and quoted Evo Morales (my translation),

"We will have our own television channel, that's also a lot of money that we have to invest, and this channel wil serve to incorporate the state network to inform and educate."
Evo also said the paper will counterbalance the local media, even when the Bolivian government already runs
a news agency, a television station, a weekly paper and a network of radio stations.
Morales, who visited Iran last September, decided last month to no longer hold press conferences for the local media. which he considers "biased".

Iranian and Venezuelan financing, however, meets his criteria.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at faustasblog.com.

January 5, 2009

Stephen Walt Confuses Me

Stephen Walt - sporting his new blog over at Foreign Policy - asks his readers to consider the following:

Imagine that Egypt, Jordan, and Syria had won the Six Day War, leading to a massive exodus of Jews from the territory of Israel. Imagine that the victorious Arab states had eventually decided to permit the Palestinians to establish a state of their own on the territory of the former Jewish state. (That's unlikely, of course, but this is a thought experiment). Imagine that a million or so Jews had ended up as stateless refugees confined to that narrow enclave known as the Gaza Strip. Then imagine that a group of hardline Orthodox Jews took over control of that territory and organized a resistance movement. They also steadfastly refused to recognize the new Palestinian state, arguing that its creation was illegal and that their expulsion from Israel was unjust. Imagine that they obtained backing from sympathizers around the world and that they began to smuggle weapons into the territory. Then imagine that they started firing at Palestinian towns and villages and refused to stop despite continued reprisals and civilian casualties.

Here's the question: would the United States be denouncing those Jews in Gaza as "terrorists" and encouraging the Palestinian state to use overwhelming force against them?

Here's another: would the United States have even allowed such a situation to arise and persist in the first place?

This hypothetical strikes me as a bit odd and simplistic. First off, we needn't start with an unrealistic mental experiment in 1967, since there had always been a group of "hardline Orthodox Jews" living in the Gaza Strip. This small, ancient group - which preceded the first Aliyah (major wave of Jewish immigration) by many, many years - didn't form large militias and kill innocent civilians (this is, of course, a cursory glance at the history, but we're already dealing with a rather unlikely and sweeping hypothetical anyway).

There's too much historical oversight to even begin considering Walt's questions. If the Palestinians were handed all of the land then they'd have been in violation of multiple UN edicts and mandates. Why would the international community even let it get to the point where a group of "hardline Orthodox Jews" were conducting acts of terror against the ruling state? Wouldn't said state be made illegitimate by the partition of 1947? Doesn't the UN seek a return to the '67 borders, thus acknowledging a sovereign Israeli state?

I'm at a loss, maybe Professor Walt can help me out here ...

UPDATE: Even Ezra Klein (kind of) agrees!

Israel's Ticking Clock

I suspect Max Boot and Juan Cole don't agree on much, but reading their respective takes on Israel's war in Gaza does bring you to the same conclusion: Israel is in a deep bind, both in the short term but especially over the long term.

There has been talk lately that Israel was doing the incoming Obama administration a "favor" by taking Hamas out of the equation, thereby paving the road to a renewed peace process. It could be the exact opposite. By taking military action now, Israel may be demonstrating how untenable its long term prospects are and affirming in the minds of her enemies that time is on their side (see Cole on the demographic details).

Israel cannot extirpate every Hamas member in Gaza without, as Boot writes, resorting to tactics that it and the world would rightly find abhorrent. But they can cause enough damage to ensure that the residents of Gaza are even less amenable to a negotiated settlement than before - a settlement that everyone recognizes is the ultimate path toward security for Israel and statehood for the Palestinians. Gaza - the security problem for Israel and the governance problem for the 1.5 million Palestinians that reside there - does not go away when (or if) the IDF withdraws.

It's the Administration, Stupid

Matthew Yglesias considers a post-Hamas Gaza:

something you need to look at here is the risk that weakening Hamas will only lead to the rise of more extreme groups. The high level of power that Hamas had achieved as of last week was, after all, precisely the result of a deliberate Israeli campaign to weaken Fatah. The hope was that this would bring some more accommodationist Palestinians to the fore, but instead the reverse happened. And now that Israel is going about trying the same thing with Hamas, one needs to worry that Hamas will be displaced by Salafist groups who think Hamas is too weak-kneed.

This is a fair concern, but I find this Salafist argument to be highly unlikely. Hamas, after all, was put in power for very pragmatic purposes. The idea that Gazans elected Hamas to power as one component in the reinstatement of a creeping 'global caliphate' has been grossly exaggerated. At the end of the day, it's a question of administration and honesty. Hamas is a vast network of politicians, militants and social servants. They were ultimately given power because Fatah had proven too corrupt and too divisive to govern (which, incidentally, they are).

This is what differentiates Hamas from Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and PIJ from radical Salafists hellbent on strict Koranic doctrine. They all share a level of extremism, but Hamas is the only one of the three that has presented a governing platform that actually enjoyed popular support.

As we've learned in Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Somalia, it's stability and steady governance that often make Islamic radicals an attractive option to their usually more corrupt and autocratic alternatives. But radical groups without legitimate means to administer such government are doomed to failure (as we saw in the horrid form of "governance" Al-Qaeda implemented in Ramadi).

Israel has held to pretty limited goals since initiating the Gaza assault, and I've seen no indication that it expects to completely scrub Hamas from the territory. Clearly, there will be leaders and militants left behind to pick up the pieces and rebuild. I highly doubt, however, that Gaza will be left to an even further fringe.

For a more thoughtful analysis on the political implications of supplanting Hamas, please check out our friend and RCW contributor Meir Javedanfar.

January 4, 2009

Cuba: A Photograph as Metaphor

Cuba celebrated fifty years of its Communist Revolution the other day. It was a subdued celebration, as befits a celebration where the locals were not invited, and where the anniversary is marked by grief.

I was doing a roundup of posts for my blog's Monday Carnival of Latin America and the Caribbean when I came across this image:


The rusted wrought-iron balconies and fading handcrafted doors look back to an older era of artisanship and pride of ownership, now gone. Paint colors from decades ago, stucco coming apart from the wall, graffiti and mold, signal decay and pain.

Hope has bypassed that wall.

The photograph is in an article about Steven Soderbergh's latest movie, Che, but it is emblematic of today's Cuba: the only recent paint that building has seen is the iconic figure of Che (most prominently the Korda photo), whose myth and fiction override the reality of the hundreds of people he killed:

But a glance beneath the surface glamour of Alberto Korda's 1960 beret-and-curls photograph of Guevara is enough to expose the less-than-romantic reality. At the time he posed for Korda's camera, Guevara was jailer and executioner-in-chief of Castro's dictatorship. As boss of the notorious La Cabaña prison in Havana, he supervised the detention, interrogation, summary trials and executions of hundreds of "class enemies".

We know from Ernest Hemingway – then a Cuban resident – what Che was up to. Hemingway, who had looked kindly on leftist revolutions since the Spanish civil war, invited his friend George Plimpton, editor of the Paris Review, to witness the shooting of prisoners condemned by the tribunals under Guevara's control. They watched as the men were trucked in, unloaded, shot, and taken away. As a result, Plimpton later refused to publish Guevara's memoir, The Motorcycle Diaries.

There have been some 16,000 such executions since the Castro brothers, Guevara and their merry men swept into Havana in January 1959. About 100,000 Cubans who have fallen foul of the regime have been jailed. Two million others have succeeded in escaping Castro's socialist paradise, while an estimated 30,000 have died in the attempt.

The building it's painted on, like hundreds of other buildings in Cuba, won't be restored, or for that matter, brought back to minimum standards because it's not a tourist destination or owned by a Communist Party big-shot. Since in Cuba only the state has the right to sell property, and the average wage is $20 a month, the only way that building got new paint was a picture of Che. Like the Revolución, even that image is showing cracks.

The woman in front of the building looks at the contents of a small shopping bag, where she may be carrying the meager rations that Fidel Castro introduced in the country in 1962, rations that compare to that which Cuban slaves received in the 1840s.

A month's rations would fit in that bag.

Of course there's a propaganda aspect, and the Cuban government places the blame for nearly everything on the USA and the embargo, el bloqueo, even when the US is Cuba's #5 trading partner according to the Cuban government's own figures:

Trade data for 2007 posted on the website of Cuba's National Statistics Office placed the U.S. fifth at $582 million, compared with $484 million in 2006, including shipping costs.
By the way, food and medicine were never subject to the embargo.

The huge painting of the Che image is on a wall that has been decaying for decades, as the Revolución that brought it.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at faustasblog.com.

January 3, 2009

Gaza Conjecture

Matt Yglesias on the Gaza ground invasion:

Whatever you think of the merits of this step, I think we can take it as implicit acknowledgment by the IDF that the past week’s worth of air strikes were, though deadly to the people killed or maimed by high explosive and flying rubble, basically useless and undertaken without real strategy.

Except that the ground invasion was in fact approved last week.

January 2, 2009

Iran's Gaza Strategy

The recent flare up in Gaza is causing more anger in the Iranian government. There have been several demonstrations, including the burning down of the Benetton shop in Tehran and recruitment of suicide bombers. The Iranian government has also embarked on setting up a tribunal to try Israeli officials and has called for more stringent boycotting of companies who do business with Israel.

These demonstrations and calls for help are directed by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. He is ultimately in charge of Iran's policy, and as such acts would not be under taken without his permission. There are a number of reasons behind his current strategy:

1. To pressure Western governments to put an end to Hamas's destruction. Khamenei is trying to say to them that we don't have a border with Israel, but our anger should be taken into consideration, because we are a new power in the region and our opinion should be taken seriously.

2. There is also the question of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Iran sees both of them as trying to muscle in on Gaza, an area which Tehran considers as its sole sphere of influence. To Tehran's anger, the Egyptians are not budging. Khamenei is hoping that through public gestures such as setting up courts to try Israeli officials, the Egyptian public would feel encouraged, and thus would place pressure on Mubarak to help Hamas.

3. Iran is an Islamic Republic. Compared to all of the chants we used to shout as children (Death to America, USSR, Saddam,) the only one Iran is still holding true to is 'Death to Israel.' Without it, the regime would lose the last revolutionary DNA which holds its identity together.

4. Iran is trying to be the leader of the Islamic world. Khamenei believes that the majority of the Islamic world is angry about what is happening in Gaza, and he is right. He sees the Muslim government's silence as being against the wishes of locals. By saying what he believes Muslims feel world wide, he is trying to be their representative. There is of course no free lunch. In return his hope is that they will get their government to back Iran's nuclear program.

The one person who has the most to gain is President Ahmadinejad. He has just submitted a controversial bill to the Majlis to cut state subsidies. This will make him even more unpopular. The Gaza affair is a gift to him, which he will use to distract the Iranian people from the economic pain which is about to hit them.

Meir Javedanfar also blogs at The Middle East Analyst.

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