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September 30, 2009

If By Engagement You Mean War

Jodie Allen sees hints of nascent isolationism in America's reluctance to nation build in Afghanistan for more than a decade:

Resistance to military engagement in Afghanistan has risen despite that fact that in the same September survey a substantial majority of the public (76 percent) rates the possibility of the Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan as a major threat to the well-being of the United States. As the survey report notes, nearly as many regard the return of Taliban control as a major threat as say the same about the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons (82 percent).

This is not to say that Americans have become isolationists, at least not in principle. Overwhelming support for an active role in foreign affairs is evident in Pew Research surveys going back to the Cold War. Most recently, a May 2009 survey found fully 90 percent of the public agreeing that "it's best for our country to be active in world affairs," a proportion that has remained relatively constant over the past two decades. Moreover, the number of respondents completely agreeing with this statement bounced back to 51 percent from 42 percent two years ago.

Still, the U.S. public enthusiasm for global engagement has waned noticeably in recent years.

Indeed. Perhaps it has something to do with the nature of said engagement? The post Cold War tempo of military interventions once every eighteen months was bound to get a little stale, particularly when the last two have not gone as swimmingly as one would hope.

I think those polls tell us firmly that there is no constituency for "isolationism" but there is a healthy skepticism of open-ended, costly experiments in armed state building.

GMF Event on the German Elections

Our friends at the German Marshall Fund hosted a discussion on the aftermath of the German elections. You can check out event details here, or, watch the event just below the fold:

The Lessons of the Philippines


It's not on the public radar, but the U.S. has been waging another counter-insurgency while the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were raging. It's occurring in the Philippines and Wired's Nathan Hodge takes note of the recent death of two American servicemen there, while adding:

Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines has only around 600 personnel, and they are limited to training missions — like the ordnance-disposal exercise pictured here — and civil affairs projects. It’s the traditional foreign internal defense approach: The military of the Philippines has to take the initiative, with behind-the-scenes support from U.S. advisors.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military is used to taking the lead — albeit in very different circumstances. But as the experience in the Philippines suggests, there are ways to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign without a large foreign force.

I'm not an expert on the Philippines, but it seems to me the major reason why the U.S. can take such a low key approach is that the country has a solid institutional infrastructure already in place. The U.S. is not so much building capacity as improving it. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. was forced (or is forcing itself) to start from scratch.

(AP Photos)

Poll: Obama Not Tough Enough on Iran


Rasmussen Reports notes that 51% of Americans think President Obama is not being "tough enough" on Iran's missile tests:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that only four percent (4%) think the president has been too aggressive in dealing with Iran, while 38% believe his response has been about right.

Of course, we don't know what's encompassed in the term "aggressive."

(AP Photos)

Kennan on U.S.-Israel Ties


Via Justin Logan, the late George Kennan expressed his concerns about foisting concessions on Israel in pursuit of peace in the 1970s:

But we should not try to tell them, or the Arabs, what the terms of a settlement should be. It is they, after all, not we, who would have to live with any settlement that might be achieved. Many of us can think, I am sure, of concessions which, in our personal opinion, it would be wise for the Israelis to make; but for the United States government to take the responsibility of urging them to make such concessions is quite another matter. There are many who would think, for example, that it would be wise for them to give up the Golan Heights. They may of course be right. But how can we be sure? What would our responsibility be if we urged this upon them and it turned out to be disastrous?

There are two predominant schools of thought in Washington with respect to Israel and the peace process. The first is that the U.S. should generously subsidize Israel and let Israel do what it wants. The second, now predominant in the Obama administration, is that the U.S. should generously subsidize Israel and tell it what to do.

Neither option strikes me as particularly satisfactory. We shouldn't be telling Israel what to do, but nor should we be subsidizing behavior with which we disagree. Iran is very illustrative of an issue where the two countries have divergent interests and yet, as I wrote earlier, one party is going to be made to suffer. Either Israel will have to accept greater insecurity and concede a nuclear Iran, or the U.S. will have to live with the dangers of Iranian reprisals if Israel strikes.

It would be far better for both parties if the client-patron relationship evolved into something more flexible.

U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement: Rhetoric vs. Reality

By Scott Lincicome

Uh oh. Looks like someone forgot his Rahm-approved FTA talking points:

* WSJ: US Secy Locke: Colombia Trade Pact Not Likely Ratified In '09. "The U.S. Congress won't likely ratify a free trade agreement with Colombia this year as it's currently focusing on health care reform and energy-related legislation, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said Tuesday."

* Miami Herald: U.S. Trade Representative: free trade agreements underway with Panama and Colombia. "Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for the Americas Everett Eissenstat told a crowd at the Americans Conference that work was progressing on free trade agreements with both Panama and Colombia, though 'less tangible' concerns about violence and impunity in Colombia have yet to be fully resolved."

What a debacle (and I don't mean the incongruous administration statements). The US-Colombia FTA was completed and signed on November 22, 2006. Since that time, American exporters have paid approximately $1.9 million per day in Colombian tariffs that they wouldn't have paid if the Democrat-controlled Congress had just passed the FTA back then and thus allowed it to enter into force. By my math, that means that Congress' and (now) the President's partisan stalling has resulted in a pointless tax on American businesses of almost $2 billion ($1.9798 billion = 1042 days times $1.9 million) and counting. Meanwhile, one of our closest allies in Latin America has bent over backwards to get the agreement passed, holding hundreds of public meetings, working hard to (successfully) reduce domestic labor union violence, and countering Hugo Chavez' viral influence in the region. Heck, the Colombians even sponsored a massive public art campaign here in Washington, DC in an attempt to improve public sentiment about their country.

And USTR's response to the billions in needless tariffs and the Colombians' humbling efforts? Ummmmm...

Speaking Thursday [Sept. 24, 2009] at the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference Town Hall on Capitol Hill, United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk stressed the importance of passing health insurance reform. Reforming the health care system is a trade priority - because American businesses and workers can't take full advantage of job-creating trade opportunities as long as our health care system drains their resources. Health reform will help to grow America's global economic competitiveness.

Oh, right. That makes perfect sense.

(Please note extreme sarcasm and disgust.)

In 2008, Scott Lincicome served as a senior trade policy adviser for Senator John McCain’s Presidential campaign. He blogs at http://lincicome.blogspot.com/

How Do Iranians Feel About Sanctions?


World Public Opinion asked Iranians whether they would give up a nuclear weapons capability in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions:

A new WorldPublicOpinion.org poll finds that two-thirds of Iranians would favor their government precluding the development of nuclear weapons in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions against Iran.

Only one-third would be ready to halt enrichment in exchange for lifting sanctions. However, another third, while insisting on continuing enrichment, would agree to grant international inspectors unrestricted access to nuclear facilities to ensure that that there are no bomb-making activities.

It's also clear from the WPO polling that ordinary Iranians are feeling the pinch from the current sanctions regime. Then there's this:

Most Iranians do not want a nuclear weapon, apart from the question of sanctions. Fifty-eight percent say they do not want to develop an "atomic bomb," including 3% who oppose the nuclear program altogether. However 38% say they do favor developing an atomic bomb.

Iranians also express a readiness to enter into direct negotiations with the United States. Sixty-percent favor, while 30% oppose "full, unconditional negotiations" between their government and the United States.

Unfortunately for us, we know that the leadership of Iran is not exactly solicitous towards domestic public opinion.

(AP Photos)

September 29, 2009

Pax Americana


A good day for grand strategy pieces. First the Layne/Schwarz piece on the home page and this one from Michael Lind, who's American Way of Strategy should be required reading for anyone interested in the topic.

In Salon today, Lind writes:

Defenders of U.S. hegemony, a group that includes most of the members of the Democratic as well as Republican foreign policy elites, argue that American primacy is necessary to avert what I think of as the Two Spirals -- the spiral of arms races and the spiral of protectionism. According to what is called "hegemonic stability theory," both world peace and world trade depend on a single overwhelmingly powerful country that provides other nations with the public goods of security, market access and a global reserve currency. If the U.S. were unwilling to sacrifice its soldiers and treasure on behalf of the interests of other nations as well as its own, then the other great powers -- in particular, Germany and Russia in Europe and Japan and China in Asia -- would arm themselves to defend their interests, and mutual suspicion might lead to arms races and regional or global war. And if the U.S. were not willing to sacrifice its own industries to export-oriented countries, other nations might abandon the idea of a global economy and the scramble to lock up markets and raw materials might also lead to regional or global war. The geopolitical parade of horribles invoked by America's foreign-policy establishment always leads back to the same grand marshal -- the next world war, Dubyah Dubyah Three.

It would be remarkable indeed if the economic crisis did not provoke an even more wide-ranging appraisal of America's strategic posture.

(AP Photos)

Has the American Anti-Globalization Movement Jumped the Shark?


By Scott Lincicome

Last week's G20 meetings featured anti-globalization protest shenanigans that have become routine since the genre began in Seattle 10 years ago - anarchists, arrests, misguided vandalism against Starbucks and other alleged symbols of corporate global-greed, English majors unintentionally demonstrating why they're English (and not Economics) majors, etc etc. But lost in the routine media coverage of the anti-trade protests in Pittsburgh was their striking impotence relative to earlier iterations of the "movement."

According to the AFP, Pittsburgh police estimated that up to 4,500 "protesters on Friday flooded into city streets lined with police in full riot gear, still tense after violent anti-G20 protests in the eastern US city late Thursday." Those violent Thursday protests featured only about 400 hooligans and a few dozen arrests, the AFP also reported.

Sounds pretty big, huh? Well, it's actually pretty insignificant when you provide some perspective (instead of just focusing on the protesters' attention-grabbing violence and tomfoolery):

* The granddaddy of the modern anti-globalization movement - the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization's Ministerial Meeting in Seattle - drew over 40,000 protesters, according to similar local police estimates. Those protests - featuring the strange bedfellows of US labor unions, anarchists, environmental "advocates," socialists, and "consumer groups" like Public Citizen - really flooded Seattle's streets and literally shut down both the city of Seattle and the WTO meetings themselves.

* The follow-up to Seattle - the April 2000 protests against the annual World Bank and IMF meetings in Washington, DC - featured at least 10,000 protesters, summoned about 1,500 additional cops, and shut down most of DC (although the official meetings still managed to happen). I was working in DC at the time and vividly remember how most people stayed home that day in fear of violence (or just really, really bad traffic).

Compared to these protests, the G20 ruckus was pretty tepid. Granted, the devolution of the American anti-globalization movement is not a brand new phenomenon: compared to last April's World Bank/IMF protests - which apparently drew only 150 protesters - the G20 protests were huge. Nevertheless, the G20 meetings were highly publicized, came in the midst of a global recession that's (unfairly) being blamed on "free market policies," and were located in a traditional "rust belt" city with large numbers of folks that are highly skeptical of free trade (Pittsburgh is the national headquarters of the United Steelworkers union, afterall). And the March 2009 G20 protests in London drew "tens of thousands" of protesters.

Yet the G20 meetings attracted a little more than ten percent of the numbers in Seattle. What gives? Has the anti-capitalist movement been replaced by cooler protest movements on the nation's liberal arts campuses? Or have the USW and its anti-trade bedfellows grown complacent in the face of declining US foreign trade activity and a recent victory against Chinese tire imports gifted to them by President Obama?

Well, maybe. Although I have another theory that's at least equally plausible: the vast majority of America's young people (and a lot of other Americans) just don't fear globalization anymore.

Since 1990, the share of US GDP represented by trade - imports and exports - has exploded from a little over 15 percent to almost 30 percent before the onslaught of the current recession. And the share of foreign-owned companies on US soil also has expanded dramatically in recent years. This trend means that today's young Americans - those most likely to be enamoured with protest "movements" (and have the parentally-funded free time to participate in them!) - grew up and now live in a much more globalized America than did their flannel-wearing, Pearl-Jam-loving counterparts of the late 1990s. And because more "potential protesters" own an iPod assembled in China (but designed in California), or have a parent who works for a foreign-owned company, or drive a Toyota Camry made in the US (or a Ford Focus made in Mexico), they're just not buying the anti-globalization hype.

So they, and a lot of similarly-affected older Americans, politely delete the mass-organizing email from Socialistworker.com, and the only ones left at the anti-globalization protests are the anarchists, the diehard unionists, the career protesters, the plain ol' nutjobs, and the professional protectionists. Such a "coalition," while kinda entertaining, does not an official protest movement make, and thus the relatively small numbers on the streets of Pittsburgh.

Either that, or there was a wicked kegger/Dave Matthews concert/global warming protest that day.

In 2008, Scott Lincicome served as a senior trade policy adviser for Senator John McCain’s Presidential campaign. He blogs at http://lincicome.blogspot.com/

(AP Photos)

Al Qaeda in Yemen


The WSJ reports on Yemen's deteriorating situation:

Arab and Western officials worry that al Qaeda is securing a stronghold in Yemen, where the government's focus on quelling a rebel insurgency is allowing the terror group to strengthen its ability to destabilize neighbors in East Africa and the Mideast.

Yemen's government, which has long struggled to assert control over the country's far-flung tribes and Islamic militant groups, launched a new offensive this summer against rebels living near its northern border with Saudi Arabia. The fighting, now in its seventh week, has shaken a fragile humanitarian situation. United Nations officials warned recently that food aid in the region is running low.

This is in a nutshell the problem with the notion, advanced yesterday by Max Boot, that we need a "comprehensive counterinsurgency" campaign in Afghanistan to stop that country from potentially becoming an al Qaeda safe haven. Is such a program going to be replicated wherever al Qaeda takes root? And if not, why do it in Afghanistan?

(AP Photos)

Cops and Robbers in Havana

By Patrick Chovanec

I wanted to take a short break in my series of posts on my visit to North Korea last year to tell the story of an interesting “adventure” I had on an earlier trip to Cuba. I traveled to Cuba in 2005, as part of an academic project sponsored by the Wharton School. Since we were traveling legally, under a U.S. Treasury license, we actually flew direct to Havana from Miami (yes, to my surprise there’s actually a regular Continental Airlines charter that services visiting relatives, journalists, and humanitarian aid workers, tucked away in a small corner of the Miami airport). The trip lasted about a week, and could not have been more different from my experiences in North Korea — not because I came away any more impressed with the system (I didn’t) but because I was able to freely travel and talk to a wide range of people, most of whom had at least one relative in Miami. I’ll try to relate some of these experiences and my impressions in future posts.

The story I want to tell today, though, took place on the last night of our visit, in Havana. Before leaving the U.S., I bought a bagful of sundry items — little sample-size tubes of toothpaste, bottles of shampoo, bars of soap, a couple packets of cigarettes — to take with me as small gifts or tips for people I might encounter. Such items are very hard to come by in Cuba’s economy, and much valued and appreciated. Even if someone doesn’t have an immediate use for them, they can be traded in the country’s thriving black market for something they do need. I found them to be a great help in thanking people when they welcomed me into their home or posed for a picture. One female guard at the old colonial governor’s palace even took me furtively aside and offered to lift the velvet rope and photograph me sitting in the King of Spain’s personal throne in exchange for some Head & Shoulders. (I gave her it as a gift, but declined the photo-op for fear I might break some precious historical artifact!)

Nevertheless, by the final evening I still had half the bag left over, and rather than take it back with me to the U.S., where it would do no good, I figured I might try to sell it to the black marketers who prowled the sidewalks outside of our hotel seeking to change money. I would have been happy to give it away, but to who? None of the black market characters looked particularly like charity cases to me, and time was running out. The bag full of items had cost me about $40 back home, so I thought I would offer to sell the remaining half for $20 and walk away even. And I have to admit, I was curious to find out just how such a deal would go down.

Now somebody at this point is going to ask me about safety. Wasn’t I worried I could get robbed or killed? Well, the former was certainly possible, but since my entire “stash” was worth just $20, and I had planned on giving it all away anyway, it didn’t really matter that much if I was robbed. I’d prefer not to be, but I could live with it. As for being in any danger, it was still early evening and the streets were full of people. I didn’t plan on going anywhere or following anyone too far out of plain public view. I would be cautious and not stick my neck out.

For that very reason, I left the bag of goodies back in my hotel room when I went out looking to find a potential buyer. I’d check out the lay of the land, and if I arranged a deal and it felt safe, only then would I go and get the merchandise. Outside, on the sidewalk, I passed by several men who whispered “change money” to me but I didn’t like the look of the first few I encountered. Eventually I settled on a guy who seemed less shifty than most, and approached him. He was eager to trade currency. I told him I had instead, and explained up front that it cost me $20 and I was leaving the country tomorrow and was willing to sell it to him at cost. I could see him doing some quick numbers in his head and he agreed. “Where is it?” he asked nervously, and became more nervous when I told him I had it in my hotel room and would bring it back down. Clearly, he feared he was being set up for a sting of some sort. But the opportunity was too tempting, and he agreed to wait for me outside the hotel.

He was visibly relieved when I emerged a few minutes later with a backpack in my hands. Our hotel was located on the Parque Central, the park just kitty-corner from the capitol building where all the men gather to argue all day about baseball, right on the edge of Havana’s old colonial district. The labyrinth of tiny street in Old Havana are all dark at night, due to scarcity of electricity, but the park itself is well-lit and well-trafficked, so I felt secure as we walked along its border. We found a convenient alleyway and ducked around the corner — still right next to people walking along the sidewalk, but where we could crouch down and examine the contents of the backpack.

I opened the bag and showed him the soap, shampoo, toothpaste, and cigarettes, just as I had promised. His eyes gleamed as he peered inside, as though it were Aladdin’s Cave full of treasure. He tried to lower the price. No, I said, and began closing the bag to get up and walk away. Okay, okay, he quickly backed off, motioning for me to crouch back down.

But he had one concern. “These products,” he asked me, with great concern, “they are not poisoned, are they?” It was the last thing I expected to hear. Why did he mean, I asked him? He explained, quite seriously, that the government said that the CIA sometimes distributed shampoo that made your hair fall out, or toothpaste that caused cancer. He wanted me to reassure him that my merchandise had not been poisoned by the CIA. I told him that I had bought everything at a local drugstore in the U.S., and would use it myself, and that if he didn’t believe me I could take my bag and go elsewhere. Again, the opportunity was too appealing for him to pass up, despite his doubts. He agreed to buy.

Closing up the backpack, he pointed around the corner to a shop, half a block down the street, where he said he could sell the merchandise and complete the deal. He would take the backpack, he said, go into the store, and come back with my money. I could see the risk involved — he could simply slip out the back of the store and never come back — but given his concerns about product quality, and the minimum loss to me if he disappeared, I decided to give him a chance. He shouldered the backpack and stood to go. I told him I wanted to watch him go into the store, but he wanted me to stand back in the alley, around the corner – just out of sight of the store, “for my safety.” Fine. He started walking, and regardless of what I just told him I stood on the sidewalk, watching him with a clear view.

He walked to the store … and continued walking past it. I began walking to follow him. He reached the end of the block and disappeared around the corner, into a side street. I broke into a run. As soon as I turned the corner I saw him, sprinting down the alley with my backpack on his shoulder. Now at this point, I figured it was all over except for crying. I had played my hand and lost — a learning experience. I was more upset about losing my backpack than the items inside, but I also didn’t want to play the complete fool. There was no way I was going to catch him in the dark winding streets that he knew and I didn’t — and I didn’t really want to catch him, because he might do something desperate. But I had to at least give voice to my outrage and go through the motions of giving chase.

“Policia! Policia!” I shouted, at the top of my lungs, and I ran, a bit half-heartedly, down the side street. There were plenty of residents about, and they all looked to see what was going on. And to my immense surprise, just before my “buyer” turned the next corner to make his get-away, he dropped the backpack. I ran over to it, checked, and everything was still inside.

Not 30 seconds after I cried for the police, just moments after picking up my bag, a police car barreled into the alley and screeched to a halt beside me. I don’t know whether they saw me running (and thought it suspicious) or whether Havana’s “revolutionary” neighborhood watch committees are that incredibly efficient, but it all happened in the blink of an eye.

Two policemen got out of the car and asked me what happened. Of course I was not about to tell them than my black market deal had gone wrong, so I said a man had grabbed my backpack off my shoulder and run away with it. But he had dropped it, so everything was okay now. Obviously I was a tourist, so one of them asked my nationality, and when I told him I was a “Norteamericano” (U.S. citizen) he rolled his eyes like “oh great, that complicates things.” He told me to get in the car. What? I thought, seized with alarm. Is there a problem, officer? He explained that he wanted to drive me around and help them look for the thief. Now at this point it dawned on me that I was holding a backpack full of contraband consumer products, which they had so far not asked me to open, and I was praying the thought wouldn’t occur to them. And the very last thing I wanted them to do was catch this guy and have him spill the beans on our transaction — on top of which, he’d probably accuse me of distributing CIA-poisoned soap. So I told the policemen, thank you, but that’s really not necessary. I have my bag back and that’s good enough for me. But they were very insistent, and I realized I really had no choice but to compliantly climb in back of the police car. To resist to vigorously would have raised suspicions.

As I sat in the back of the police car, we started cruising the neighborhood. Each time we encountered a group of men or youths in a dark corner, the officers rolled down the window and ordered them to come over. I was directed to look at their faces, one by one, in a kind of improvised line up, to see whether I could identify the perpetrator who had tried to run off with my backpack. Fortunately I didn’t see him, and I would never have identified him even if I had. Not only did I not want to incriminate myself, I had no intention of ratting him out. On the one hand, he attempted to steal my merchandise; on the other, we were partners in crime, and I had gotten my belongings back in the end. I suspected that the punishment, especially for stealing from foreigner in Havana’s prime tourist district, would be much harsher than any he deserved. To take such a risk for $20 worth of goods — well, it was clear they were worth far more to him than to me, and I felt sorry for presenting him with a temptation he could not resist.

For the next half hour or so, we drove around the darkened streets, interrogating anyone who even remotely resembled the suspect. I was struck by the fear in their faces, as I was forced to search their faces for signs of recognition. The police were polite to me, even kind in their way, but you could sense the absolute power they possessed. All the while I held the guilty package in my lap. As time passed, and I could not identify the thief, I feared they would grow curious about it. If they made me open it, I reasoned, the worst that would happen is they would confiscate it for themselves, and I would gladly give them the contents in exchange for being let off the hook. But I didn’t relish the awkward questions that might ensue.

In the end, they grew weary of the futile search, and we fell to conversation. It turns out they, too, had relatives in Miami. And since I no longer had any real complaint to lodge, they dropped me off at my hotel. I was immeasurably relieved as I waved goodbye, probably as relieved as they were not to have to file a report involving a Yankee tourist. The entire episode had lasted just over an hour. I ended up leaving the priceless toiletries in my room for the maid as a ridiculously extravagant tip. My brief and not-so-successful career on Cuba’s black market had come to an end. I do hope nobody’s hair fell out.

Patrick Chovanec is an associate professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in Beijing, China, where he teaches in the school’s International MBA Program. He blogs at http://chovanec.wordpress.com/

September 28, 2009

The Efficacy of Sanctions vs. The Efficacy of Doing Nothing


One problem I have with the ongoing Iranian sanctions debate is that it's really a two-way argument being had by three competing factions. On one side you have the proponents of sanctions—a halfhearted and quasi-invested bunch at best—and on the other, you get the anti-Iran sanctions crowd tag teaming with the anti-sanctions always crowd.

The latter are often inclined to remind those of us in the pro-sanctions crowd that sanctions never, ever work, and then proceed to lay out a laundry list of sanctions gone awry. The problem with this argument is that it conflates 2009 Iran with 1986 South Africa (where sanctions were somewhat effective) and 1962 Cuba (not so much). All three of these—along with all the other historical examples—serve as unique case studies on the efficacy of sanctions.

And there's a fine debate to be had over whether or not some array of 'smart sanctions' can work, or if sanctions that circumvent the UN entirely and focus instead on Western banks and insurers would be more effective. Do you establish a multitiered set of sanctions pegged to concrete dates, or do you throw a 'grand bargain' on the table with the option of global isolation or acceptance? Does the threat of force remain on the proverbial table?

A debate over these options strikes me as pretty reasonable, and I think the pro-Iran sanctions and anti-Iran sanctions factions will continue to have that conversation in the coming days.

I find myself less compelled however by the anti-sanctions always faction. Here are two examples, starting with Daniel Larison:

On the contrary, as opponents of sanctions keep saying, a tighter sanctions regime will harm internal political opposition to the regime, increase the political-military establishment’s hold on the economy and cause Iranians to rally behind their government in the face of outside hostility.

And Christopher Preble:

The Obama administration should therefore offer to end Washington’s diplomatic and economic isolation of Iran, and should end all efforts to overthrow the government in Tehran, in exchange for Iran’s pledge to forswear a nuclear weapons program, and to allow free and unfettered access to international inspectors to ensure that its peaceful nuclear program is not diverted for military purposes.

While such an offer might ultimately be rejected by the Iranians, revealing their intentions, it is a realistic option, superior to both feckless economic pressure and stalemate, or war, with all of its horrible ramifications.

Whether or not sanctions should hurt the average citizen is a recurring debate in the efficacy debate. But in the case of Iran, there's still reason to believe that the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad-IRGC cabal in Tehran enjoys a sizable base of support. And what they lack in popular support they compensate for with the use of force and oppressive cruelty. This strategy has thus far worked for them.

It's this thuggish regime the United States must negotiate with if it wishes to halt an Iranian nuclear weapons program and alter Iranian behavior throughout the Middle East. Whether or not sanctions impede or stymie Iranian revolution shouldn't be a calculation in present negotiations with Tehran. A nuclear-armed Iran—based off the North Korean case study, for one—would be far more difficult to press on human rights, fair elections and civil liberties. This is what Ken Pollack once referred to as Iran's dual ticking clocks—one clock ticks down to revolution, the other to a nuclear bomb. Waiting and cheering for the former to go off before the latter is not a luxury the U.S. presently has.

And total reversal of the sanctions regime is equally unrealistic. The international community has at the very least reached a limited consensus on Iranian behavior; that consensus involves several rounds of sanctions and UN resolutions. To backtrack on those demands now would undoubtedly appear weak and terribly equivocal.

Remember that Iran's revolutionary regime justifies its very existence much in the way a mafia extortionist squeezes the corner grocer for protection money. To accept a gushing American offer of full engagement would shake the legitimacy of the revolutionary message—the Iranian equivalent to perestroika. This internal fear is why such efforts to loosen sanctions and draw Iran into the global economy have been rebuffed by the Islamic Republic in the past.

Rejecting sanctions doesn't make Iran go away, it simply limits the viable options for dealing with the recalcitrant regime. Instead of a policy shaded in grays you get the more hawkish option of black and white—attack or do nothing. This dichotomy incidentally suits the hawkish community just fine.

(Credit: AP Photos)

Debating the Long War

Gary Schmitt sets after Andrew Bacevich:

However, the larger point is that Bacevich and other conservative critics, like George Will, are standing on unsound ground when they argue that the transformative goal of the Long War is utopian. It might be long and it might be difficult but, if anything, the evidence so far suggests that the establishment of decent democratic regimes is possible in all kinds of regions and in countries with diverse cultural histories. That hardly means that failure in the Long War isn’t possible; but to hear Bacevich and others tell it, is inevitable.

I think this fundamentally misreads what the so-called long war is about. The circumstance America confronts today vis-a-vis the Arab world is completely different than the one the U.S. faced vis-a-vis the captive nations of the Soviet Empire. Then, the U.S. stood for democracy and against the tyranny imposed by the Soviet Union. Today, the U.S. stands with the oppressors in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, etc. against their own citizens.

Perhaps Schmitt believes this is a mistake and that we should renounce our current Middle Eastern allies and embark on a truly radical program of restructuring our relationship with those autocracies. But I somehow doubt it. The long-war, as presently conceived by Schmitt and others, blithely overlooks the fact that America's real enemies are bubbling forth from the nations ostensibly allied with the United States (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia). Instead, it focuses on old geopolitical hobbyhorses like Iran and before that, Iraq.

Not a utopian program, perhaps, but certainly not a wise one either.

[Hat tip: Justin Logan]

Would the U.S Be Forced to Join an Israeli Strike?


From the London Times:

There is no immediate likelihood of a US military strike; but there are still some in Tel Aviv who believe that an Israeli raid might force Obama’s hand and persuade the Pentagon to join the attack.

Whether the U.S. would be forced to attack Iran after a unilateral strike by Israel very much depends on Iran's response. If Tehran only targets Israel in its retaliation, then it's very unlikely that the U.S. would join in. However, should Iran target American forces and installations in the region after an Israeli attack, then it's very likely that the U.S. would join in.

This is an important question which Iranian decision makers must ponder. Attacking American forces will be a very costly decision. On the one hand, punishing the U.S for an Israeli attack could likewise be very costly. But not punishing the U.S for an Israeli attack - something Iran considers an impossibility without consent from Washington - could bolster America's deterrence at the expense of Iran's. This is a delicate decision that Iranian decision makers must weight carefully, as its consequences could change the balance of power in the region.

(Credit: AP Photos)

Congrats to GlobalPost

Exciting news for our friends at GlobalPost:

CBS News plans to announce Monday that it has formed a partnership with GlobalPost, a foreign news Web site, that will provide CBS with reporting from its approximately 70 affiliated correspondents in 50 countries.

As many print and broadcast news outlets are struggling to find ways to cover foreign news, the alliance may suggest a blueprint.


“Having a broadcast network partner was a high priority for us, and to be associated with CBS News is a great validation of what we are trying to build,” Mr. Balboni said in a phone call. “We hope to become an important source of international news for Americans, and this partnership is a big step in that direction.”

In the early going, at least, GlobalPost reporters will provide information, not work on the air, with CBS using its reporters and anchors to flesh out coverage for broadcast.

CBS News suggested that the alliance with GlobalPost, in which the network will pay a monthly undisclosed fee to the site, represents an expansion of the news divisions’ efforts to cover the rest of the world.

Congratulations to GlobalPost. They do a lot of great work, and being essentially a loose network of freelancers, this deal should enable them to keep producing great content -- and more of it.

For a taste of the quality work they do, please check out this piece by Nadja Drost on the Latin American arms buildup, and also be sure to hit up the GlobalPost website.

(h/t Joel)

It's Not About Afghanistan


One would think that with recent terror plots revealed in Dallas and New York the discussion about what to do in Afghanistan would be grounded in the reality of the wider campaign against Islamic terrorism. Neither plot traced back to Afghanistan. If either had succeed, scores of Americans would be dead. Yet somehow this is all basically irrelevant to those arguing for a surge into Afghanistan. Take Max Boot:

We do not have to create "Jeffersonian democracy" in Afghanistan. But we do have to keep it from becoming a terrorist haven. The only way to achieve that minimal objective is with a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. If Obama blinks now, he will be doing grave damage not only to U.S. security but to his own credibility.

Note to Boot: Afghanistan is not now a terrorist haven. And, as noted above, we still have a terrorist problem. If we follow Boot's advice, we will expend billions of dollars and risk thousands of lives and still have a serious transnational threat to deal with. This is a completely unsustainable and untenable counter-terrorism strategy. There are several countries that could become "terrorist havens." There terrorists plotting in Western Europe and there are terrorists inside the United States. The idea that we have to embark on a "comprehensive strategy" inside Afghanistan seems to surrender all of our flexibility to al Qaeda and its fellow travelers - who have already picked up and move elsewhere, while the U.S., at the behest of Boot and fellow surge boosters, is proving to the world that it is incapable of being similarly nimble.

(AP Photos)

Poll: Australia's Popular Leadership


Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is enjoying some solid numbers:

The popularity of Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd has increased this month, according to a poll by Newspoll published in The Australian. 65 per cent of respondents are satisfied with Rudd’s performance, up four points since August.

The popularity of opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull is also up three points, to 33 per cent.

(AP Photos)

Interests Diverge on Iran

When President Obama addressed the U.N. he proclaimed that for the first time in human history the interests of all nations were aligned. The New York Times' Clifford Levy offers a few (major) caveats:

Russia, a neighbor of Iran, is far more intertwined with it geopolitically than any other world power, and has more concerns about upsetting relations.

Russia is also reluctant to mass the might of the United Nations Security Council against a single country, especially at Washington’s behest. That in part explains why Russia has historically sought to dilute sanctions, as it did in previous rounds against Iran.

And then, of course, there's China:

The dynamic is complicated by China, another sanctions opponent with a Security Council veto. The Kremlin can publicly show more leeway toward sanctions — in essence, offering gratitude to Mr. Obama for canceling the antimissile system in Eastern Europe — while knowing that China may continue standing in their way.

China trades heavily with Iran, and its skeptical comments on Friday after the announcement about the new enrichment plant indicated how reluctant it may be on sanctions.

Reading the above, it's understandable why Eliot Cohen writes the following:

Pressure, be it gentle or severe, will not erase that nuclear program. The choices are now what they ever were: an American or an Israeli strike, which would probably cause a substantial war, or living in a world with Iranian nuclear weapons, which may also result in war, perhaps nuclear, over a longer period of time.

I think that's right, and it also underscores the dangers of the Obama administration's rhetoric on the Iranian program. On the one hand, it has a clear interest in trying to rally the world around sanctioning Iran and conveying a sense of the gravity of the situation. So we get words like "unacceptable." On the other hand, I don't think it's a stretch to conclude that the administration has no interest in starting a third war in the region. That will mean that when Iran does grasp the nuclear ring in the face of American threats, the U.S. looks only that much more impotent.

(AP Photos)

September 27, 2009

German Election Update

Polls opened this morning at 8 a.m. Central European Time (2 a.m. EDT) across Germany for the 2009 federal election. Chancellor Angela Merkel's Chrisitan Democrats (CDU) have a commanding lead in the polls, and there is little doubt that she will remain Germany's leader for the next four years.

The question is: Will she be able to form a center-right coalition with the free-marketer Free Democrats (FDP) or will she be forced to continue the unwieldy grand coalition with the rival Social Democrats SPD), her governing partner over the past four years? The CDU-FDP bloc was above the 50 percent threshold for most of the summer, but as the election approached, its poll numbers have fallen and the possibility of a center-right majority coalition is again in doubt.

The polls will close at 6 p.m. CET (noon EDT). We here at RealClearWorld will monitor the election returns throughout the day until the results are known.

6:10 p.m. CET (12:10 EDT) - The first exit poll results indicate that Merkel may yet get her center-right coalition, with a razor-thin margin. According to ZDF exit data, the CDU is expected to win 33.5 percent of the votes, with SPD at 23.5, FDP at 14.5, the Left Party at 13 and the Greens at 10.

While the combined total of the CDU-FDP bloc is about 48 percent, under Germany's somewhat convoluted (and disputed) system, the CDU, with 228 expected seats, combined with the FDP's 92, will capture 320 seats for the center-right bloc in the 616-seat Bundestag, enough for a majority. [SC]

7 p.m. CET (1 EDT) - While the business of governing coalition will need to be sorted out, the clear loser of the election has conceded its massive defeat. The Social Democrats, in power since 1998, will be booted out of government after its worst showing since World War II.

Once headed by former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the SPD's fortune has declined in recent years, beginning with a narrow loss to Merkel and the CDU in 2005. The junior partner in the grand coalition the past four years, the SPD will be out of power all together after getting less than a quarter of the votes on Sunday, according to exit poll data.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, head of the SPD and Merkel's foreign minister, has already conceded defeat. [SC]

7:30 p.m. CET (1:30 EDT)
- The outcome of the election reached a swift end as Merkel has claimed victory and her aim of forming a center-right coalition with the Free Democrats seemingly assured.

From the Associated Press -

BERLIN – Chancellor Angela Merkel has claimed victory for a new center-right government in Germany's general election.

A beaming Merkel told supporters after Sunday's vote that "we have achieved something great. We have managed to achieve our election aim of a stable majority in Germany for a new government."

Projections showed that Merkel's conservatives are headed for a majority with the pro-business Free Democrats, who performed very well in the vote. That fulfills Merkel's hopes of ending her "grand coalition" with the center-left Social Democrats.

Merkel still made clear she wants to maintain her consensual approach, saying "I want to be the chancellor of all Germans."


7:45 p.m. CET (1:45 EDT)
- A photo gallery of Merkel's victory. [GS]

7:50 p.m. CET (1:50 EDT) - Via Steve Clemons, the CDU-FDP coalition just may give Germany its first openly gay foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle. [KS]

8:10 p.m. CET (2:10 EDT) - The BBC has another exit poll. [GS]

8:20 p.m. CET (2:20 EDT) - Madeline Chambers at Reuters has put together a nice, cursory analysis of today's vote and some of its possible policy ramifications. [KS]

8:45 p.m. CET (2:45 EDT)
- More on Guido Westerwelle, the leader of the Free Democrats, likely the top lieutenant to Merkel in the new center-right coalition. He's openly gay, and a fierce free marketer. Westerwelle also may be the most charismatic newcomer on the German political scene. [SC]

9:15 p.m. CET (3:15 EDT)
A vote for change? Reuters notes the hurdles:

The new government faces tough economic challenges in what is bound to be a more polarised political atmosphere, with the Social Democrats in opposition. The economy is expected to contract by at least 5 percent this year, and export-led growth is likely to return only slowly. Unemployment is set to explode in the coming months as short-time work schemes run out. The budget deficit is set to top 8 percent of gross domestic product next year, more than twice the EU limit. So 2010 will be an extremely difficult year. But there are some problems that are even more urgent. [GS]
9:50 p.m. CET (3:50 EDT) - Just to compliment Sam's last comment, CAP blogger Matthew Yglesias just so happens to be in Germany, and he makes the following observation:
One of the oddest things about being in Germany during an election campaign is that I’m pretty sure I have right-of-center views relative to German politics. The CDU believes in limiting carbon emissions and has no intention of scrapping universal health care or eliminating pensions for old people...Conversely, it really does seem to me that labor markets in Germany are counterproductively over-regulated.

In short - the likely center-right coalition notwithstanding - this is no Reagan revolution in Germany. It'll be interesting to see how the German Left regroups and responds to today's mostly mediocre showing. [KS]

10:50 p.m. CET (4:50 EDT) - Even with a victory in the bag, Ian Traynor thinks Merkel is not out of the woods yet:

Non-ideological, centrist, eschewing confrontation, Merkel is calculatedly inscrutable. Her non-partisan strategy won, but did not triumph. Despite her huge personal popularity, she led her centre-right Christian Democratic Union to its second poorest result, taking a projected 33.5% of the vote, two points down on 2005. It leaves her vulnerable to backstabbing within her party. [GS]

12:15 a.m. CET (6:50 EDT) - Adding to Greg's last update, Judy Dempsey of the NY Times breaks down the potential backroom wars facing Chancellor Merkel:

she will also have to defend her right flank from within the conservative parties. “Conservative leaders from some of the other states, notably Christian Wulff from Lower Saxony and Jürgen Rüttgers from North-Rhine Westphalia, will start talking about her credentials as a party leader,” Mr. Langguth said.

Both state premiers have already had ambitions to take over the Christian Democrats in a bid to win back the tens of thousands of supporters who, in 2005 and again Sunday, abstained or voted for the Free Democrats, he and other analysts said.

Mr. Wulff favors creating a separate party leadership apart from the chancellery, arguing that the organization of a party is too time consuming and that the current system concentrates too much power in the chancellor.

But Mrs. Merkel and her predecessor, Helmut Kohl, have resisted such efforts, fearing it would allow too much public dissension to interfere with running the government.


1:00 a.m. CET (7:00 EDT) The Financial Times reports that German business leaders are quite happy at Merkel's triumph. [GS]

September 26, 2009

Fade to Black

A visual account of the recent dust storm in Australia:

(h/t Andrew Sullivan)

Did Iran Do Anything Wrong?


Spencer Ackerman breaks it down:

Under the NPT, each state negotiates a safeguards agreement to the IAEA so the atomic watchdog can work out where and how to establish monitoring devices like cameras at declared facilities. “Iran’s specific safeguards agreement doesn’t say anything about the time limits for the provision of design information,” says Ivanka Barzashka, an analyst with the Federation of American Scientists’ Strategic Security Program. Specific time-frames for site or design disclosure typically occur in additional “subsidiary arrangements,” and usually provide for disclosure around 180 days before the introduction of nuclear material into a given facility. But Iran’s subsidiary arrangement with the IAEA “has not been made public as far as I know,” Barzashka says.

That said, in its Aug. 28 report, the IAEA criticizes Iran for not adopt implementing a section of its subsidiary arrangement that dealt with design notificiation. “The absence of such information results in late notification to the Agency of the construction of new facilities and changes to the design of existing facilities,” the IAEA warned. Barzashka translates that such adoption would require Iran to notify the IAEA “of the construction of a new plant, any kind of new facilities, as soon as a decision has been authorized by the government.”

And that clearly hasn’t happened. According to an U.S. intelligence official who would only speak on background, “We’ve known about this facility for years. Over time, a clearer picture evolved of Iran’s intentions and activities at this covert site — one that, it turns out, wasn’t unknown to us.”

So as the saying goes, don't hate the player, hate the weak international regulatory system that lacks the means and the will to draw clear lines of behavior for a rogue and recalcitrant regime such as Iran. Or something like that.

And therein lies the problem with the IAEA and the NPT as a whole: they in fact enables the most questionable of regimes to stall and prolong the process of nuclear disarmament; putting the international community in a position of weakness as said regimes use perfunctory benchmarks and protocols to leverage for time and incentives.

Any country that really, really wants nuclear weapons and has the means of doing so likely can by simply not declaring their activities. On the other hand, any country that does wish to declare will likely enjoy countless concessions and financial packages for so kindly not building a WMD.

Want your trade sanctions lifted, or WTO access? Simply tell the world you intend to blow them up. Works every time.

In the case of Iran, you don't build a mountain-fortified nuclear facility because you truly believe you're on the up and up with the world powers. You do this because you expect to face scrutiny over such a facility, while relying on the ambiguity of the NPT to keep the United States at bay.

(Credit: AP Photos)

Knowing When to Hold 'Em

I confess that yesterday's grandiose announcement of Iran's undeclared nuclear facility initially left me a bit puzzled. Today I learned why, and as usual, turned to Laura Rozen to help alleviate my confusion:

Late Thursday night, two hours after it sent out President Barack Obama’s Friday schedule, the White House told reporters it was adding another event – a statement that he would give in the morning. Amid all the hoopla of the G-20 economic summit in Pittsburgh, there was scant indication the announcement would be dramatic.

But behind the scenes, the Obama administration was furiously preparing for a major public intelligence disclosure that it had not planned to make: that the U.S. had known for years about a previously undisclosed clandestine nuclear enrichment facility Iran has been building since 2005 in a mountain near Qom.

Interviews with administration and international officials, diplomats, non-proliferation and Iran experts suggest the administration had no plans to announce its suspicions before beginning international talks with Iran next week. But its hand was forced after learning some time during the week of a letter Iran had sent the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency in Vienna acknowledging construction of a previously undisclosed facility.


In the meantime, a hurried round of briefings took place in Europe, Washington and New York. On Wednesday, intelligence officials from the U.S., Britain and France briefed IAEA officials in Vienna on what they knew about the Qom facility. That same day, in New York, Obama briefed Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. Then on Thursdays, intelligence officials briefed congressional leadership in Washington, while Chinese president Hu Jintao was informed in New York.

This seems like the correct response to what was from the get-go sort of a non-crisis. As I said yesterday, the Bush administration was well aware of this facility's development, and even they refused to act on it. Turning this story into a huge hoopla - as some administration critics will insist upon - can only serve to bolster Iran's position on the nuclear matter. It offers the Islamic Republic a bargaining chip of little value to stall with, and ultimately give up as a 'concession' in negotiations.

I believe Presidents Bush and Obama both handled this information properly. Once President Obama had his hands tied by the IAEA (a frustrating rant for another day), he was left with little option but to go public and leverage what he could out of it vis-à-vis China and Russia. Bush's ability to hold his hand on the intelligence gave Obama a useful tool with which to pressure Beijing and Moscow.

Again, just a friendly note of caution to Obama's critics: make a big deal out of this, and so will Tehran. If you must point fingers, start with the toothless NPT.

September 25, 2009

Casus Belli it Ain't

From the London Times:

Iran has informed the International Atomic Energy Agency that it has been building a previously undeclared nuclear facility to enrich uranium, raising fears that Tehran is closer to acquiring an atomic bomb than has been predicted up until now.

The presence of a secret second site – built inside a mountain near the holy Shia city of Qum – has been known about by American and other Western intelligence agencies for some time, although nothing has been revealed until now.

Iran’s formal letter to the IAEA in Vienna, sent on Monday, pre-empted an announcement to be made today by President Obama, Gordon Brown and President Sarkozy of France before the opening of the G20 economic summit in Pittsburgh, in which Tehran will be accused of building the secret facility about 100 miles southwest of the Iranian capital.

On the surface, this calls for a visceral "whoa," right? Not necessarily. Keep reading:

Although the CIA and National Security Agency (NSA) has been tracking construction of the plant for several years, Mr Obama decided it was time to put maximum pressure on Tehran by revealing its existence.

Reports from Washington indicate that Iran had learnt of the West’s uncovering of its second plant and moved to declare it formally to the IAEA.

Iran wrote a brief, cryptic letter to the IAEA saying it now had a “pilot plant” under construction, whose existence it had not revealed. Iran’s first and officially declared facility is at Natanz in southern Iran.


In response, the IAEA has requested Iran to provide specific information and access to the facility as soon as possible. This will allow the agency to assess safeguards verification requirements for the facility.”

He [the IAEA spokesman] said the IAEA was told by Tehran that no nuclear material had been introduced into the facility.

So this confirms three things for us:

1. The IAEA is not truly equipped to monitor all undeclared nuclear activity around the globe. Check.

2. The Islamic Republic is intransigent on the matter of uranium enrichment. Check.

3. While news of the second facility is certainly alarming, Iran likely lacks the sufficient nuclear materials necessary for producing a bomb at this time. Check, check and check.

None of this means the international community should ignore such news or downgrade it. But some perspective is crucial here: U.S. intelligence has known about this facility for years. That means President Bush knew about this facility, which, one might assume, means the more hawkish members of his inner-circle knew of its existence. If it wasn't cause for panic in 43's White House, it certainly won't be in 44's either. The second facility isn't operational, and David Sanger's report on the same story this morning confirms as much with American officials.

The timing of all this is key. As most reports are indicating, Western leaders had hoped to go public with this story at this weekend's G-20 summit in order to strengthen their hand against Tehran. The audience here is rather obvious: Russia and China.

By officially coming clean on a program everyone already knew about, Iran can assuage any concerns in Beijing and Moscow. This also gives the Islamic Republic a perfunctory bargaining chip ahead of next week's negotiations with the West; a rather meaningless item they can trade away in order to demonstrate Tehran's "good faith" in U.S.-Iran rapprochement.


Andrew Sullivan applauds Obama for his timing:

He busts Ahmadinejad in a air-tight case that focuses on active Iranian deception. All this, of course, may still not be enough. Putin's position remains opaque; and China is still not on the full wagon. But can anyone say that the isolation of Iran has weakened under Obama?

If you add to the mix the critical factor of the Green Revolution, then the West's position vis-a-vis Iran has improved immensely in the last eight months. And if you believe that Obama's Cairo speech was at least a positive factor in helping bring that about - then the promise of the Obama era in American foreign policy begins to take shape.

Weakness? There is sometimes more strength in projecting confidence rather than bluster, and seeking cooperation rather than ultimatums.

I'm not so certain. After all, most reports indicate that the United States had been monitoring the development of this facility for years. In that case, it seems appropriate to applaud President Bush for sitting on this intelligence nugget for a later date, no?

Obama's discretion is not surprising. However, such discretion form the Bush White House - an administrion known for its itchy trigger finger - is in fact far more laudable.

And I remain skeptical, much like Andrew, over whether or not this nuclear revelation truly hurts the Iranian position. Remember, the audience here is in Beijing and Moscow, respectively. If they remain mostly unmoved it leaves the West precisely where it was yesterday. As I said, there's a good chance this could become a meaningless bargaining chip for Iran during next week's negotiations, which may only serve to stall discussion on Iran's active and real threats.

Poll: Asia's View

Over in Asia, Gallup surveyed opinion of American leadership in eight countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan:

Across these countries, approval rates are the highest in Singapore (68%), the Philippines (58%), and Afghanistan (50%) and lowest in Pakistan (13%) and Vietnam (16%), though Vietnam also has the highest rate of not don't know/refused responses (62%). Pakistan (47%) and Afghanistan (42%) have the highest disapproval rates, though approval in both of these countries is statistically steady compared with the 2008 rates.



Polling Afghanistan


Several new polls have been released focusing on Afghanistan. First, New York Times/CBS reports that 29% of Americans think we should add more troops, 27% said keep the same level, 32 % said decrease our troop levels and 12% didn't know. The other results show a similar ambivalence across a number of questions such as whether the terror threat will increase once we leave and how long we should stay.

Pew notes that support for the war has been eroding steadily, but adds:

Nonetheless, a sizable majority of the public (76%) views the possibility of the Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan as a major threat to the well-being of the United States. In fact, nearly as many regard the Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan as a major threat as say that about Iran possibly developing nuclear weapons (82%).

Currently, half of Americans (50%) say military troops should remain in Afghanistan until the situation has stabilized, while 43% favor removing U.S. and NATO troops as soon as possible. In June, 57% favored keeping U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, while 38% favored their removal as soon as possible.

And finally, Gallup:


I think the issue of keeping troops inside Afghanistan is getting muddied with conducting a counter-insurgency and nation building campaign inside Afghanistan. It would be nice if pollsters asked not simply about whether we should add more troops but what those troops should be doing.

(AP Photos)

Protectionists Cling to Their Ataris

By Scott Lincicome

There's a fantastic op-ed in today's Korea Times by Cato Institute expert (and co-author) Dan Ikenson and the International Policy Network's Alec van Gelder on the archaic folly that is protectionism in today's globalized economy. In the piece, Ikenson and van Gelder use examples of actual multinational manufacturing processes to inform G20 leaders on why protectionism is nonsensical in an era of global supply chains (read the whole thing here):

... To quell the anger and gain a constructive focus in Pittsburgh, leaders must recognize how outdated it is to view the world in terms of ``us" versus ``them." A crash course on the global economy is in order.

The largest "American" steel producer is the majority-Indian-owned Arcelor-Mittal, which has headquarters in Luxembourg and Hong Kong, and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and five European stock exchanges.

The largest "German" producer, Thyssen-Krupp, a conglomerate with 670 companies worldwide, is investing $3.7 billion in a carbon and stainless steel factory in Alabama, which will create 2,700 permanent jobs there....

Today, the factory floor is no longer contained within four walls, one roof and national borders. Instead, the factory floor spans the globe, allowing firms to optimize investment and output decisions by matching production, assembly and other functions to the locations best suited for those activities.

Gone are the days when the United States could "punish" another country or "help" an American company by slapping tariffs on foreign imports. To put it simply: now that everything is made everywhere, protectionism just doesn't make sense anymore (although one could reasonably argue that it never made sense, but that's an issue for another time). Such senselessness was certainly evident in the President's recent decision to restrict Chinese tires under "Section 421" of US trade law. Because most US tire producers also made tires in foreign countries (including China), the "protected" actually opposed the "protection." Crazy, huh?

Of course, even though protectionism has become archaic and pointless doesn't mean that it can't still be extremely costly. Today's WSJ has a great piece highlighting these costs and the utter silliness of trade barriers in an age of "global factories." In the article, the author describes the absolutely ridiculous (and expensive) lengths that Ford Motor Company goes through to avoid a decades-old 25% tariff on all imports of trucks and commercial vans entering the United States:

Several times a month, Transit Connect vans from a Ford Motor Co. factory in Turkey roll off a ship here shiny and new, rear side windows gleaming, back seats firmly bolted to the floor.

Their first stop in America is a low-slung, brick warehouse where those same windows, never squeegeed at a gas station, and seats, never touched by human backsides, are promptly ripped out.

The fabric is shredded, the steel parts are broken down, and everything is sent off along with the glass to be recycled. ...

The seats and windows are but dressing to help Ford navigate the wreckage of a 46-year-old trade spat. In the early 1960s, Europe put high tariffs on imported chicken, taking aim at rising U.S. sales to West Germany. President Johnson retaliated in 1963, in part by targeting German-made Volkswagens with a tax on imports of foreign-made trucks and commercial vans.

The 1960s went the way of love beads and sitar records, but the chicken tax never died. Europe still has a tariff on imports of U.S. chicken, and the U.S. still hits delivery vans imported from overseas with a 25% tariff. American companies have to pay, too, which puts Ford in the weird position of circumventing U.S. trade rules that for years have protected U.S. auto makers' market for trucks....

The story is a remarkable, and likely common, example of the perverse business decisions that multinational corporations make in order to provide consumers with the best and most affordable products possible - an absolute necessity in an increasingly competitive and global market for most products. Unfortunately, it's also a prime example of the damage that protectionism inflicts upon US businesses and consumers, as well as the economy as a whole:

* First, while these Ford trucks are no doubt cheaper because of the company's sneaky move to avoid the 25% tariff, they're also undoubtedly more expensive than they would be in the tariff's absence. As such, American businesses must pay more for their (fitted-then-gutted) vans and trucks, and they pass these costs on to the consumer or absorb them, leaving less capital for expansion, investment and hiring. As such, the truck tariff is a large, but mostly hidden, tax on US businesses and consumers.

* Second, the 25% tariffs force a huge misallocation of finite resources, thus making both Ford and the overall US economy worse off. Ford is wasting money, manpower, raw materials and energy in order to equip trucks with seats and windows and then gut them once they clear Customs. It's not difficult to think of ways that Ford could better allocate these resources, to the benefit of the company, its shareholders and employees, and the overall American economy.

So to recap: in today's global economy, protectionism is simplistic, outdated and pointless. It's the functional equivalent of playing Pong on a black-and-white TV (minus the retro-hipster coolness) while everyone else is playing Tiger Woods 10 on their 50" HDTV.

In 2008, Scott Lincicome served as a senior trade policy adviser for Senator John McCain’s Presidential campaign. He blogs at http://lincicome.blogspot.com/

September 24, 2009

Is A Withdrawal Immoral?

Writing in the Atlantic, D.B. Grady puts the Afghanistan exit strategy crowd on notice:

George Will is right: Afghanistan doesn't matter. Not to our security or our coffers. It is a humanitarian operation and nation building at its most distilled, and the United States will never recoup the blood spilled or riches depleted.

But the 58% of Americans opposed to the war, opposed to a continued U.S. presence there, should have a clear-eyed view of what that means. It means condemning thousands to death, and hundreds of thousands to worse. When the Taliban returns to Kandahar and women are properly, in their view, denied any and all access to medical care and education, it should not be a surprise. It should not be a shocking revelation when homosexuals are stoned to death for the crime of existing. It's not an insidious Taliban secret to be later revealed; it is their modus operandi. The United States will not have caused it, but it will have been a party to it. We will have known something terrible was about to happen, and we will have let it. That's a lesson we learned in Vietnam, too.

By this logic, the U.S. is forever morally culpable for every act of semi-predictable violence around the globe. That's an impossible standard and one which most people - as judged by the polling Grady cites - rightly reject. It's also worth noting that even in the "ideal" outcome, Afghanistan would almost certainly remain a violent place. President Karzai signed a law that allowed men to rape their wives and control when they left the house. He backed down in the face of intense pressure, but it's not hard to imagine similar legal outrages occurring in the future, particularly if we "win" and leave Afghanistan to its own devices.

Grady goes onto write this rather eye-opening sentence, emphasis mine:

But assuming American defeat, assuming the surrender of Afghan internal affairs to the Afghan people, assuming that the neoconservative ideal followed Irving Kristol to the grave, what would Afghanistan look like to the average Afghan villager?

It takes a peculiar view of American and Afghan sovereignty to suggest that Afghanistan's internal affairs are something that we would "surrender" to them rather than being something that is rightfully theirs.

Polling the United Nations


Several new polls have been released surveying U.S. attitudes on the United Nations. First, Rasmussen:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 29% of voters see the United Nations as an ally of the United States, while 15% regard the international organization as an enemy. For 47%, the U.S. falls somewhere in between the two... As is often the case, the partisan and ideological divide is notable. Forty-six percent (46%) of Democrats view the U.N. as an ally, a view shared by just 17% of Republicans and 22% of voters not affiliated with either party. Fifty-four percent (54%) of liberals agree, while 26% of conservatives say the U.N. is an enemy of America.

But 63% of all voters say the United States should continue to participate in the United Nations, compared to 60% in April and 66% in March. Twenty percent (20%) say America should not be part of the U.N., and 17% are undecided.

And Pew:
A 25-nation Pew Global Attitudes survey, conducted in May and June of this year, found largely positive views toward the U.N. with majorities or pluralities in 19 of the 25 countries expressing a positive opinion. Moreover, ratings of the U.N. have grown more positive since 2007 in 12 of the 25 nations.

Europeans overwhelmingly give the U.N. favorable reviews. More than seven-in-ten in France (74%) and Poland (72%) offer a favorable opinion, as do majorities in Britain (67%), Germany (65%), Spain (61%) and Russia (56%).

The organization is also widely popular in the two African countries surveyed, Kenya (76% favorable) and Nigeria (71%), and to a lesser extent in two of the three Latin American nations included, Mexico (58%) and Brazil (52%). In Argentina, however, nearly half (45%) offer no opinion.

(AP Photos)

Congress Forms Russia Caucus

Democrat Dennis Kucinich and Republican Tom Price have formed a Congressional Russia Caucus. The formation coincided with the arrival of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to the United States. According to the official press release, Representative Kucinich stated that "the relationship between the United States and Russia has influenced the path of global development and the course of world politics. We announce the bipartisan Congressional Russia Caucus to help make sure that the relationship we share with Russia is equitable and friendly." Representative Price stated that “few matters in the international arena can be discussed today without giving due consideration to Russia’s influence in global affairs. By opening a dialogue and engaging in diplomatic fact-finding, we hope to advance a stronger understanding of Russian policy and how it affects the United States and its allies."

This official caucus will make further conversation about U.S.-Russia relations that much more interesting in DC, as it will have Members of Congress willing to speak up on issues of concern to both states. Stay tuned - this is about to get very, very interesting.

September 23, 2009

Obama to World: We Share Interests


During President Obama's address to the United Nations, he keyed in on a recurring theme in his foreign policy:

Like all of you, my responsibility is to act in the interest of my nation and my people, and I will never apologize for defending those interests. But it is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009 – more than at any point in human history – the interests of nations and peoples are shared.

This is a noble sentiment, and at the level of abstraction, probably true. But when we descend from the realm of abstraction, it falls apart. China no doubt wants to keep the nuclear club elite, but won't join in sanctioning Iran or pressuring North Korea. Pakistan doesn't want to suffer from terrorist attacks, but won't abandon the leverage provided by the Taliban. The world professes alarm at climate change, but can't translate that alarm into concrete policy decisions commensurate with the task.

It's all well and good to cooperate with other nations toward common goals. But such action has to be grounded in the reality that we're still in a competitive, zero sum international system.

(AP Photos)

The Weak Superpower (or Obama & Munich, Con't)

I'm of the opinion that America's preponderance of power is a good thing. But reading this piece by Mark Helprin, I'm no longer so sure why we even bother:

When Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich at least he thought he had obtained something in return for his appeasement. The new American diplomacy is nothing more than a sentimental flood of unilateral concessions—not least, after some minor Putinesque sabre rattling, to Russia. Canceling the missile deployment within NATO, which Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian ambassador to that body, characterizes as "the Americans . . . simply correcting their own mistake, and we are not duty bound to pay someone for putting their own mistakes right," is to grant Russia a veto over sovereign defensive measures—exactly the opposite of American resolve during the Euro Missile Crisis of 1983, the last and definitive battle of the Cold War.

For the sake of argument, let's grant Helprin his premise, that the administration's recent diplomatic maneuvers are world-historical blunders. So what? The U.S. possess more power - across every measure - than either Iran or Russia combined. That was manifestly not the case with Britain vis-a-vis Germany in the run-up to the second World War. And none of the administration's endeavors - talking to Iran, not going ahead with missile defenses in Poland and the Czech, materially weakens the United States.

Really, what is the point of being a super power if a swath of our elite exist in a state of near constant panic?

UPDATE: Daniel Larison answers the question:

Not even people at the Claremont Institute can actually believe that scrapping a small set of missile interceptors that was defending against a threat that didn’t exist makes any difference to European security, much less that it can be seriously compared to Munich or even to the controversy over deployment of nuclear missiles in western Europe. It is hype designed to frighten people, to get them to stop thinking and to begin reacting viscerally and emotionally. This is done by summoning up spectres of past totalitarian threats that are long gone and by tapping into irrational feelings of national righteousness and by encouraging a belief that our government is undermining our national greatness.

September 22, 2009

China Shipping Gasoline to Iran

The Financial Times reports that in anticipation of tough new sanctions, Iran has sought and will receive, gasoline from China:

State-run Chinese companies have started supplying Iran with gasoline in a move that could undermine U.S. pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear programme, the Financial Times reported on Wednesday.

Iran is the world's fifth-largest crude exporter but imports up to 40 percent of its gasoline as it lacks the refining capacity to meet domestic demand.

The United States and its European allies may target Iran's fuel imports if it refuses to enter talks over its disputed nuclear programme by the end of this month.

Iran's oil minister said last week the country was ready for any fuel sanctions and had signed deals with other countries to purchase more gasoline.

If China and Russia aren't interesting in helping the U.S. on Iran, than Iran will have a nuclear weapon or the U.S. will have a third war on its hands.

Is Al Qaeda Passe?


You would think, given their irrelevance in much of the debate over U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. Here's Aaron MacLean:

In one future, the United States and NATO are beginning to draw down troops from the levels they reached in 2010. That was a bloody year, as were the two that followed it, but the level of violence has been dropping steadily since then as the sense of order and stability improves. As happened in Iraq, Coalition forces have come to be respected as the best guarantor of stability and security in most of the country. In some regions this is because the legitimacy of the Afghan government is fully accepted, and in others it is due to bilateral arrangements made by Coalition troops with local tribes. Terrorist attacks are still a regular occurrence, and a low level of cross border violence from Pakistan-based militants--who are harassed but not significantly hampered by the government in Islamabad--seems to be irreducible. But in general the widespread violence which spiked in the later part of the last decade is fading into memory, and the "safe-havens" within Afghanistan where the Taliban and al Qaeda could trade poppy, train, and operate, are eliminated. There are still such places in Pakistan, but our robust presence along the Afghan border gives us options for dealing with them, and leverage over the Pakistani government.

When you read the full post, you realize that this is the preferred outcome. Notice what this scenario does not produce: security against international jihadism. Indeed, it already concedes the existence of training camps in Pakistan (where al Qaeda is now). So, we will expend enormous amounts of resources and lives and labor to bring forth a slightly-less-disasterous Afghanistan while doing little of substance to the international jihadist movement. And that's victory.

(AP Photos)

White House Shells Out $2.4 Billion for Teamsters

By Scott Lincicome

The depressing news for US trade policy just keeps on coming. According to a few news reports, the Obama Administration has admitted that it will not resolve the US-Mexico trucking dispute in 2009 and might not do anything in 2010. Here's WorldTradeInteractive with the details:

Business and farm groups whose members have taken a hit from the retaliatory tariffs Mexico imposed on U.S. exports earlier this year in a dispute over cross-border trucking are trying to keep pressure on the Obama administration to resolve the dispute. It appears, however, that the White House has no plans to do so in the near future, and the increased duties are thus likely to remain in place well into 2010.

On March 20, Mexico reimposed tariffs of 10% to 45% on $2.4 billion worth of U.S. exports in retaliation for the termination of a U.S. pilot project that allowed up to 100 Mexico-domiciled motor carriers to operate beyond the border commercial zones and the same number of U.S. carriers to operate in Mexico. Affected products include Christmas trees; certain fruits, vegetables, juices and nuts; health and beauty items; tableware, kitchenware and glassware; manmade fiber yarn; carpets; jewelry; home appliances; sunglasses; and pens and pencils. Mexican officials have said they are prepared to lift the retaliatory tariffs if the pilot project is reinstated.

In the intervening months affected U.S. exporters have repeatedly urged the Obama administration to quickly resolve the dispute, asserting that the higher tariffs are harming their ability to compete in the important Mexican market. Most recently, agriculture officials of nine Western U.S. states sent a letter to President Obama Sept. 10 stating that the tariffs have been “extremely harmful” for farmers, who have not only seen declining shipments to Mexico, which accounts for one-seventh of all U.S. agricultural exports, but are also losing market share there to other competitors that may not easily return even once the tariffs are lifted. The letter was supported by the Alliance to Keep U.S. Jobs, a group of more than 150 U.S. manufacturers, companies and agricultural interests formed to address this particular issue.

At the same time, however, the issue appears to have fallen off the White House’s radar screen. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood led an interagency effort to come up with a plan that allows the cross-border trucking program to resume but also addresses the concerns of the lawmakers who voted to end the previous program. Press reports indicate that this plan has been floated to key policymakers but that no further action has been taken, largely because the attention of both the administration and Congress has been focused on economic recovery and health care reform efforts. According to an Inside US Trade article, in a Sept. 15 meeting with the Alliance, Under Secretary of Transportation for Policy Roy Kienitz “signaled that any potential resolution was no longer in DOT’s control and now rested within President Obama’s inner circle within the White House” and said he would be “surprised” if the dispute were resolved this year. The article also cited an unnamed source as saying that because the administration needs the help of unions, who strongly oppose the trucking pilot program, on health care, the trucking dispute “just does not seem to be a top priority right now.”

As I've noted previously, the trucking dispute started when Congressional Democrats back in March inserted a provision into the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act that defunded the aforementioned "pilot project." The 2009 trucking ban was a blatant sop to the Teamsters that has resulted in $2.4 billion in Mexican retaliation and drawn strong criticism from pretty much everyone on the planet. And remember: the Bush Administration pilot project showed that the Mexican trucks were safer and cleaner than their US counterparts. (So don't go buying the President's "congressional safety concerns" nonsense.) Yet despite the tariffs, the domestic pleas for relief, the international rebuke and the public shaming, the White House has decided to take it easy and just sit this one out for a while. Nice.

And once again in the battle between domestic politics and a coherent, robust international trade policy, the Administration has chosen the former. At this point, is anyone really surprised?

But hey, let's give the White House some credit: they're getting a fantastic deal. According to the Teamsters' website, there are about 900,000 active members in the union. So by my math: $2.4 billion in US economic injury / 900,000 teamsters = only about $2500 per teamster. To the White House, that's a veritable bargain to ensure strong union support for ObamaCare and other domestic priorities.

Of course, it's an even better deal when someone else - namely, US farmers, ranchers and manufacturers - is paying the tab.

In 2008, Scott Lincicome served as a senior trade policy adviser for Senator John McCain’s Presidential campaign. He blogs at http://lincicome.blogspot.com/

September 21, 2009

Yushchenko: NATO Means Ukraine's Independence


"Since 1917, Ukraine has declared its independence six times, and five times it lost it," said Ukrainian President Vicktor Yushchenko in an event held at the Council on Foreign Relations. "That's why NATO membership and Ukrainian independence are synonymous."

Yushchenko gave a brief overview of Ukraine's post independence economic growth and democratic advances, but focused mostly on the country's relations with Russia and the West.

On relations with Russia, Yushchenko said bluntly, "They’re not the best." Of the many points of contention, he singled out the unsettled land border with Russia. "We have had 27 rounds of negotiations on that. We believe that both sides, from a technical standpoint, are ready to sign an agreement... Unfortunately it's not being done and it’s not our fault."

He also reiterated Ukraine's position that Russia's Black Sea Fleet clear out of Sevastapool in 2017, as agreed upon by the two countries in 1997. The Ukrainian constitution prohibits the stationing of foreign military bases on Ukrainian soil, he said, a ban that applies to possible NATO forces as well. "Our territory will not be used to threaten another country's territory."

(AP Photos)

Poll: US Response to Missile Shield Decision

Rasmussen Reports:

Voters have mixed feelings about President Obama’s decision to halt the deployment of a proposed anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe, but many worry that it will hurt America’s relationship with its European allies.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 31% of voters agree with the decision to stop the shield, but 38% disagree. Thirty-two percent (32%) are not sure what’s best to do.

Fifty-eight percent (58%) of Republicans oppose the president’s decision, a view shared by the plurality (43%) of voters not affiliated with either major political party but only 15% of Democrats.
Among all voters, just 23% think the decision not to deploy the ground-based system will help America’s relationship with European countries. Forty-three percent (43%) say it will hurt that relationship, while 12% say it will have no impact. Twenty-two percent (22%) aren’t sure.
Again, Republicans are more than three times as likely as Democrats to say the president’s action will hurt U.S. relations with Europe. Forty-nine percent (49%) of unaffiliateds agree.

Russia: More Missiles, Please

Even before President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would not be stationing its ballistic missile defenses in Europe, than the Russians announced that they will be developing the newest version of its famed S-300 anti-aircraft system. This time, the S-500 would serve as a true "ballistic missile defense system," according to Russian experts. According to Alexander Zelin, Russian Air Force Chief of Staff, "the work is ongoing, specialists and the scientific community are been utilized, so I think this system could see the light of day in the near future."

According to the daily paper "Vzglyad," it is probable that what Zelin was referring to as the S-500 complex is actually a well-known system under the provisional name "Monarch," which will be able to intercept ballistic missiles of intermediate range of up to 3,500 km (2,170 miles). Its interceptor missile will have a range of 370-400 km (some publications referred to an interceptor range of 1,300 km). An important feature of the complex is that it initially will be adapted to engage objects in the near-space. This will allow it to target not just ballistic missiles, but other objects of choice - such as satellites.

What does the Russian political establishment think of the upcoming G20 meeting between presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Obama? Eugenya Voiko, an expert on foreign policy at the Center of Political Expediency of Russia, thinks defense will be a central theme in the upcoming talks. "I think we need to build on the latest developments with ballistic missile defense in Europe. Russia's leaders will keep this factor in mind. Naturally, for Barack Obama, it is important to maintain a partnership in Eastern Europe, especially with Poland and the Czech Republic, as they are U.S. satellites in the EU. Therefore it is important for Russia to see how United States really intends to revise its missile defense program and what it means in relation to Iran." When it comes to Afghanistan, which Voiko thinks will be discussed, it is important for the two countries to maintain the partnership and work together. Another topic of discussion should be the global financial crisis. At a recent international conference in the Russian city of Yaroslavl, President Medvedev reiterated that the origin of this crisis was the United States. Voiko drew attention to the fact that "it's not that Russia's opinion isn't considered during the ongiong financial crisis - it's just that the opinion of China is considered much more."

For his part, Medvedev stated prior to his visit to the U.S. that while he considers American steps in removing missile defense system from Europe a "positive development, there will be no quid pro quos or compromises from the Russian side."

Destroying al Qaeda


A lot of people in counter-insurgency circles seem to pooh-pooh the idea that drone strikes are an effective means to combat terrorism. But the AP reports today that they are having success:

Recent targeted attacks that killed militants in Somalia, Indonesia and Pakistan have chipped away at al-Qaeda's power base, sapping the terrorist network of key leaders and experienced operatives.

Intelligence officials said Friday that the military strikes have reduced al-Qaeda's core leadership to only a handful of men and have diminished its ability to train fighters, forcing al-Qaeda to turn to its global affiliates for survival.

The killings of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in Somalia, Noordin Muhammed Top in Indonesia and Baitullah Mehsud in Pakistan – all in recent weeks – have been the latest blow.

A U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the deaths deal "a major near-term blow to their respective militant groups."

This year, U.S. forces have stepped up strikes against militants in terrorist hubs. The U.S. national intelligence director, Dennis Blair, said this week that such strikes have been possible because of a greater understanding of al-Qaeda.

Now, these strikes do run the very real and dangerous risk of alienating local populations, but so does dropping 100,000 foreign troops into their midst. And unlike those troops, the drones are expendable.

(AP Photos)

The Obama Administration Is Burying Free Trade

By Scott Lincicome

Myriad actions by the Obama Administration imply that the President has decided to sacrifice free trade policies in order to placate favored domestic constituencies or secure prioritized domestic policy goals. Consider the following examples:

* Signing the Stimulus* Bill, despite its much-maligned "Buy American" provisions;

* Signing the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act, despite provisions (i) banning Mexican trucks from US roads and Chinese chicken from US markets; (ii) "monitoring" Vietnamese and Chinese textiles; and (iii) enabling mandatory country labeling for all imported food;

* Delaying (PDF at pp. 36-37) consideration of completed FTAs with Colombia, Panama and South Korea in order to secure votes on key legislation like Cap and Trade;

* Delaying a scheduled press conference on key multilateral trade negotiations in order to go golfing; and

* Of course, most recently banning Chinese tires from the US market in order to ensure support from US labor unions and their congressional supporters to pass health care legislation.

In each case, the President has quietly chosen his favorite domestic issues over the red-headed stepchild that has become US trade policy (much to the repeated and growing consternation of US consumers, businesses and our trading partners). Of course, this new hierarchy should come as no surprise to people paying close attention (all 6 of us) since Obama was elected last year. Indeed, his first choice for United States Trade Representative, Rep. Javier Becerra (D-CA), turned down the position because he believed that "trade was not a priority for Obama." Boy, was he right.

Nevertheless, each of the examples above merely implies that the Administration has demoted trade policy in order to advance domestic priorities. But according to story earlier this week from Law360, President Obama's policy priorities are also evident in a much more tangible area - Executive Branch job vacancies:

More than seven months into the Obama administration, numerous posts in the federal government dealing with international trade have yet to be filled, and while it's not unusual for such posts to take some time to fill, the number of vacancies has slowed the progress of some trade initiatives, according to attorneys.

There remain trade-related vacancies in several departments, including the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Department of Commerce, the Department of the Treasury and the Department of State. In some cases, President Barack Obama has named nominees who are awaiting confirmation, while in others, no nominee has been announced.

With so many positions vacant, the development of trade policy under Obama has lagged, said Matthew Nolan, a partner at Arent Fox LLP.

There aren't people in place to develop, refine and implement new policies, and the people filling the roles in an acting capacity are unlikely to put forth new initiatives, Nolan said.

The administration is clearly dealing with many other issues, but the vacancies mean that Obama does not have staff laying the groundwork for future trade policy once health care and other issues are off the agenda, he said. ...

The article goes on to list the key vacancies in the Departments of State, Treasury, and Commerce, as well as USTR. (Hint: there are a lot of them.) Indeed, it's quite the depressing state of affairs for those of us who, you know, care about "little things" like jumpstarting the reeling US and global economies and solidifying important strategic alliances in Latin America and Asia, and understand the importance of a strong Presidential commitment to advancing an American free trade agenda. Alas.

On the bright side (I guess), the Obama administration's burial of trade policy totally frees me up from blogging on real and significant breakthroughs in the still-stalled Doha Round negotiations or the jittery G-20 summit in Pittsburgh later this month. The United States has led on every significant free trade initiative in the last 60-plus years, and such leadership is virtually impossible without a full technical staff to implement the White House's high-level commitments. Thus, without such a staff in place, it looks like I'm going to need to find something else to do this fall.

Thank goodness for the NFL.
In 2008, Scott Lincicome served as a senior trade policy adviser for Senator John McCain’s Presidential campaign. He blogs at http://lincicome.blogspot.com/.

Can Obama Say No to General McChrystal?


General McChrystal's request for more troops is in. The Washington Post reports:

McChrystal said he thinks the way to meet the president's relatively narrow objective of denying al-Qaeda's return to Afghanistan involves a wide-ranging U.S. and NATO effort to protect civilians from insurgents by improving the Afghan government's effectiveness. That means not only more troops, but also a far more aggressive program to train Afghan security forces, promote good local governance, root out corruption, reform the justice sector, pursue narcotics traffickers, increase reconstruction activities and change the way U.S. troops interact with the Afghan population.

The numbers floated in the press range from 10,000 to 45,000 additional soldiers. None of this is surprising. Nation building is a manpower intensive exercise. But how much of our combat power do we really want tied down in Afghanistan?

And let's assume for a minute that the General is correct in his assumptions - that in order to achieve narrow objectives we must expend enormous amounts of resources. What does that say for America's counter-terrorism strategy in the long run? Is this kind of effort to be duplicated wherever al Qaeda can potentially take root?

Leaving aside these questions, it seems politically President Obama is now in a very tight spot. While we generally acknowledge that it's the civilian arm of the government that sets U.S. strategy, publicly rejecting the advice of military commanders isn't something that a Democrat will do lightly. It's an issue tailor made for demagoguery.

(AP Photos)

September 20, 2009

A Global Debt Clock?


Global debt is exploding, and Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff thinks that a new debt crisis is bound to follow the latest financial one.

Indirectly supporting the above thesis is a well-crafted and fascinating "Global Debt Clock" now maintained by The Economist. But before you check out the clock, glance over a recent piece by Joseph Stiglitz that smartly warns about the alluring, dangerous, and ultimately deceptive "fetishism" the world has on statistics.

(Cartoon Credit: The Korea Times)

September 18, 2009

Inside Beijing's Lockdown

By Patrick Chovanec

Two weeks ago I sent out a Tweet to my friends telling them I was “confined to my apartment by the PLA [China's military]” for the entire night, and that “they wouldn’t even let me out for dinner!” Well, it’s happening again, for the third time this month, and the whole crazy thing is starting to make world headlines, so I figure I ought to relate the full tale of what’s going on here in Beijing.

October 1st is China’s “National Day,” commemorating the day in 1949 when Chairman Mao stood atop Tiananmen (the main gate to the Forbidden City) and announced the formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Every ten years there is a big parade along Chang’an Avenue, Beijing’s main east-west boulevard, and through Tiananmen Square featuring – but not limited to – a military review of goose-stepping soldiers, tanks, and nuclear missiles reminiscent of the Cold War. This year is the 60th Anniversary of the PRC, and the Chinese government is determined to dazzle the world with some artistic “shock and awe.” The parade is expected to showcase some of China’s newest long-range missiles and other advanced weapons systems.

At first the preparations were rather entertaining. We live across from one of Beijing’s leading high schools, about two blocks north of Chang’an Avenue on the west side of town. Starting halfway through the summer, every morning at 7am we were awoken to the high-decibel routine of students practicing for their role in the parade, an exercise that continued uninterrupted through 10am. As I was writing my blog posts on North Korea, I actually had inspiration in the form of a miniature Mass Games taking place outside my window every day. The students lined up in columns, seven or eight of them that filled the school’s entire soccer stadium, and flipped colored cards (just like their North Korean counterparts) in response to their teacher’s sharp orders over the loudspeaker. Later they would practice the same motions in sync with the songs that will be part of the ceremony. I heard rousing patriotic classics like “We Are the Heirs of Communism” and “Love My China” over and over again so many times I ended up whistling them to myself in the shower. We marveled at how these kids could devote such a large part of their summer to standing for hours in formation endlessly performing the same routines.

Children weren’t the only ones singing. A few of our friends who work for state-owned enterprises (SOEs), such as China Telecom, told us how their companies had organized singing competitions in preparation for the Big Day. Each employee had to choose a patriotic song to perform. Over the past few weeks, they seem to be devoting substantial work hours to organized singing practice and rounds of competition.

Across the street from our apartment, kitty-corner to the school, is a small park (perhaps half a football field in size) surrounding an ancient temple. At the end of August, this pleasant little park suddenly sprouted row upon row of porta-potties, many dozens of them, so that nothing but porta-potties (all of them locked) could be seen from end to end. The overnight transformation of the “Toilet Temple,” as we came to call it, was the first ominous sign that the Powers That Be had Big Plans for our neighborhood’s role in the upcoming festivities. The second sign was the repeated calls we started getting from the police. They would ask my wife (who is a Chinese national) whether she had a foreign residing at our apartment, who I was, and whether I was renting. At first we thought they might be tracking down informal tenants who had avoided paying rental tax. But then they began asking what my plans were during the October 1st holiday.

Starting in September, the government ordered full-scale rehearsals to take place every weekend on Chang’an Avenue itself. As we watched out our window at the students marching forth excitedly from their stadium assembly point, we had little notion what lay in store for us. We knew there would be traffic chaos to be anticipated and avoided. We knew there might be loud overflights by jet fighters screaming across the city sky. It was kind of exciting, though. I even asked my university, where I teach, whether they had any tickets allotted to them that might allow me to witness the parade up close. They said no, that because of security concerns, tickets were extremely hard to come by.

Around 8pm on the evening of the second rehearsal, my wife asked me if I could run to Starbuck’s to grab her a hot milk. I hadn’t had any dinner, so I figured I’d grab a McDonald’s or KFC while I was out. As I left our apartment, I noticed the streets — dark by that hour — were quite deserted. I hadn’t gone 10 feet outside our front gate when a soldier — not the typical scruffy security guards, not even a policeman, but a soldier — quick-marched across the street to intercept me. “You can’t be out walking tonight,” he politely but firmly told me. I explained to him that I lived in the apartment building and just needed to go down the block to nearby the shopping mall to grab a quite bite, then come right back. “No, no no no,” he said, “You can’t come out. You have to stay home.” Even for dinner? He looked bashful, but resolute: “Not possible.” So I marched back upstairs and informed my surprised spouse that I was not to be allowed outside all night long. That was when, more amused and curious than anything else, I sent out the Tweet.

Around 10pm, we heard a great deal of traffic noise outside and poked our heads out our window to take a look. Row upon row of buses stood lined up along every street, at least 50 or so we could see, and probably many more we could not. I realized, at that point, why they had constructed all the porta-potties in our park. Our neighborhood was apparently the assembly point for all of the soldiers after they completed their march, where they would get back on their buses to be taken back to their garrisons outside Beijing. We fell asleep before we could see any of this transpire, but at 4am I woke up and took a look out the window. All of the buses had vanished. The soldiers had come and gone, silently, like phantoms in the night.

The next day I heard many similar stories. There are several major hotels and apartment complexes, some specifically designed for foreigners, all along Chang’an, many of them overlooking the street itself. During the rehearsals, residents were told to stay indoors and not look out their windows or go onto their balconies. The joke is, I don’t think any of this did much good because Phoenix, a popular Mandarin-language satellite channel from Taiwan, apparently placed a camera on one of the balconies and ran live footage of the practice parade on TV all night long.

Last Saturday we had another large-scale rehearsal and I didn’t even bother trying to go outside. All this past week there have been a series of security announcements and measures that have stepped up the sense of a city strangely under siege. On Tuesday, the government imposed tight new security checks on all mail and express packages delivered to Beijing. The next day, the city banned the flying of all kites, balloons, and pet pigeons, and warned citizens to report “any suspicious flying objects.” Authorities also announced that they had set up check points to examine every vehicle entering Beijing at over 200 major road intersections.

Now today comes news that, yesterday evening, a man wielding a large knife stabbed two security guards to death and injured at least 12 more people in rampage just off of Tiananmen Square. I say “news” hesitantly, because Xinhua, China’s official news agency, issued a report online last night and then almost immediately removed it from the Internet. There has been nothing on the print or TV news here at all, and I doubt that 99% of regular people here in Beijing have heard anything about it. But as you can imagine, the incident — strangely reminiscent of the Drum Tower stabbings on the first day of the Olympics — has kicked Chinese security measures into overdrive.

There’s another full-scale rehearsal tonight (Friday). So as of 4pm today, every store in my neighborhood is closed and every street blocked off. Needless to say, I’m confined to my apartment until tomorrow morning. Out my window I can see two PLA soldiers standing at attention at the corner of the park. I wouldn’t make it two steps outside my complex without being stopped. Even under normal circumstances, I’ve taken to carrying my passport and residence permit with me, because I never really know when I could be prevented from returning home.

As I write, tonight’s convoy of military buses is just arriving and our street is filled with the blaring loudspeakers and flashing lights of police cars. Friends on Twitter report tanks rolling past their window along Chang’an. The whole thing — which is likely to get worse in the remaining two weeks leading up to the parade — is not particularly scary (yet), but it does feel odd. It certainly doesn’t feel like the birthday celebration of a confident nation.

Patrick Chovanec is an associate professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in Beijing, China, where he teaches in the school’s International MBA Program. He blogs at http://chovanec.wordpress.com/ .

Obama's Munich (Part One in a Continuing Series)

Like the tide, it's quite easy to predict neoconservative reaction to any foreign policy decision short of regime change. Here is Seth Cropsey delivering a calm, measured analysis of President Obama's missile defense decision:

The Obama administration chose an historic month to appease the Russians by reneging on the U.S. proposal to place ballistic missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. September 1st of 2009 was the 70th anniversary of the Nazis' unprovoked attack on Poland. In the middle of the same month the Red Army invaded Poland--70 years ago to the day. At the end of this month is the 71st anniversary of the Munich agreement in which England and France agreed to allow Hitler to annex large portions of western Czechoslovakia.

And he concludes:

This capitulation is all the more inexcusable because, unlike the situation that Chamberlain faced at Munich in 1938, Russia, unlike Nazi Germany, is still a relatively weak power. The Obama administration has as little to fear from Russia's military as it has to expect that Russian goodwill or self-interest will have a moderating effect on Iran's plans to become a nuclear power.

The future damage, however, to international perceptions of American resolve is incalculable.

Incalculable. I guess we'll have to check back in a few years (if the Internet still operates in the ashes of civilization). But really, what is the point of such rhetoric other than to desensitize the public to legitimate security crises? And even if this does rise to the level of a world-historical miscalculation on President Obama's part, do we really think it's as bad as World War II?

Obama to Brazil: Bring on the Tires

By Scott Lincicome

As I've noted repeatedly, the Obama Administration's defense of the President's decision to restrict Chinese tire imports under Section 421 of US Trade Law has thus far rested on the flimsy assertion that the protection was absolutely necessary to ensure proper enforcement US law or global trade rules. Well, perhaps realizing just how misleading that argument is, United States Trade Representative (USTR) Ron Kirk opened up a new, and bizarrely honest, line of rationalization. Here's the AFP with the news (emphasis mine):

A spat over US tariffs on Chinese tires need not trigger a trade war between Washington and Beijing, US Trade Representative Ron Kirk said Wednesday.

"I don't believe it should or need spark any trade war," Kirk said during a visit to Brazil.

"In the short-term it could mean that we buy a lot more tires from Brazil," he added to a conference of Brazilian businesspeople.

In other words, the United States Trade Representative is telling America's trading partners that their concerns re: Section 421, a US-China trade war and an increase in global protectionism are totally misplaced. Indeed, instead of being upset, they should actually be thrilled about the 421 decision because banning Chinese tire imports from the US market could lead to a big increase in their own tire exports to America. Huzzah!

Actually, Kirk is totally right about the inevitable "trade diversion" resulting from the tire tariffs. I'm just baffled that he has the audacity to acknowledge it, and I wonder whether Kirk's rare moment of unscripted candor is a real gaffe.

As I noted over the weekend, there is ample historical and empirical evidence that restricting imports of a product from one country typically leads to surges in other countries' imports of like products, rather than increases in domestic production. Indeed, this was the very argument offered up by economists, free traders, US tire dealers, and the Chinese and American tire producers as to why Section 421 protection was (and remains) a bad idea. Of course, President Obama ultimately disagreed with this argument and imposed 35% tariffs on Chinese tires, effectively purging them from the US market.

But here's where Kirk's statements in Brazil make things interesting.

As I've already noted several times, under Section 421 the President will impose trade protection unless he determines that "such relief is not in the national economic interest of the United States or... would cause serious harm to the national security of the United States." See 19 U.S.C. 2457(k). "Not in the national economic interest" is then defined as where "taking of such action would have an adverse impact on the United States economy clearly greater than the benefits of such action." Id. In other words, in making his decision President Obama was required by law to restrict Chinese tire imports unless he found that the costs of such protectionism would be "clearly greater" than the benefits.

In this case, the "costs" to the US economy are those broadly borne by US tire consumers, as well as downstream companies (tire importers, tire retailers, auto manufacturers, etc.) and their employees. Rutgers economist Thomas Prusa estimates that the costs of 421 protection to consumers alone would be $600-700 million per year, and could also threaten the jobs of the approximately 200,000 Americans who work in the downstream US tire industry. So the potential costs are obviously pretty high. The potential "benefits" of tire protection, on the other hand, would be narrowly focused on US tire manufacturers and their employees (represented by the United Steelworkers Union). The USTR news release announcing the 421 decision highlights these alleged benefits in its opening paragraph: "Following what the ITC determined was a surge, production of similar products in the U.S. dropped, domestic tire plants closed, and Americans lost their jobs. Today's steps are designed to level the playing field for American workers in the tire market." So the intended benefits of keeping Chinese tires out of the US market are increased (or at least stabilized) US tire production and employment. (Lots of other public support for 421 also cites these "benefits.")

The President's Section 421 decision therefore reflected a statutorily-mandated determination that eliminating Chinese tires from the US market would provide benefits to the USW and the domestic tire industry that were greater or equal to the adverse effects of such protection on tire consumers and downstream users.

Now here's my two-part question:

(1) Given the USTR's candid admission in Brazil that the Chinese tires removed from the US market by Section 421 relief could be replaced by Brazil's (and probably other countries') tires instead of American-made tires, how would 421 "benefit" US tiremakers and the USW? Can there possibly be any tangible benefit at all? It would seem to me that there can't be much - that large-scale trade diversion would eliminate pretty much all benefits to the US industry, just as 421's opponents argued all along.

(2) If there is no (or very little) "benefit," then how could President Obama determine, as he was required to do so by law, that the harms of Section 421 protectionism were not "clearly greater" than the (seemingly non-existent) benefits to the domestic industry? Is Kirk's assertion that Chinese tires could be replaced by Brazilian imports unintentional recognition that the President's decision under 19 U.S.C. 2457(k) was bogus?

In other words, did USTR's new "defense" of Obama's Section 421 decision just effectively undermine that decision's requisite legal basis?

Granted, Kirk's statements contain lots of the usual equivocation and ambiguity, so I'm not calling for congressional investigations or anything. But it sure seems to me that this revelation is pretty important and definitely warrants further exploration and follow-up with USTR, especially considering the numerous negative ramifications of the 421 decision beyond the direct economic harms mentioned above.

UPDATE: For anyone who thinks that the ITC's recommendations somehow exonerate the President of his responsibility for the 421 decision (and thus USTR Kirk for his unscripted moment of truth), please note the following:

1) As Chairman Aranoff clearly states on p. 42 of the ITC report linked above, the Commission is not legally bound to consider nonsubject (e.g., Brazilian) imports when deciding a remedy, only whether the "proposed tariff scheme will remedies the market disruption attributable to subject [Chinese] imports."

2) I ask you to read footnote 209 of the majority opinion and pages 59-66 and 70-71 of the dissenting opinion in the ITC report. In the footnote, the majority acknowledges that (a) their recommended protection would cost US consumers "$459 million to $534 million" in the first year alone, and (b) including increased tariff revenue (which assumes, of course, tha Chinese imports could still compete post-tariffs) the net impact on the US economy would range from a "$71.0 million loss to a $73.3 million gain." In other words, even by the majority's estimates, US consumers lose hundreds of millions of dollars, and the relief has an equal chance of harming the US economy as of benefiting it. And that's based on many assumptions that are very, very favorable to the domestic tire industry, including a basic disregard for the fact that American tire manufacturers uniformly indicated that they would not, contrary to the ITC's models, make changes to their domestic operations (i.e., increase production of products that competed directly with the Chinese tires) if protection were imposed. The dissent, on the other hand, demonstrated that a high tariff would effectively ban Chinese tires from the US market, would not benefit US producers, and would harm US consumers, almost all of whom are on the lower end of the income spectrum. Hmmm.

In 2008, Scott Lincicome served as a senior trade policy adviser for Senator John McCain’s Presidential campaign. He blogs at http://lincicome.blogspot.com/ where this post first appeared.

With Missile Move, The Ball's in Moscow's Court

There seems to be a nearly pathological resistance to the idea that the U.S. should engage in deal-making with Russia, whereby the U.S. would "trade off" an item of lower priority (missile defense) in exchange for Russian help on an issue of higher priority (Iran). While I suspect the Obama administration would vigorously contest the charge that that is just what happened, it's hard to get around at least the appearance that this is the gambit.

And I think it's on that level that we judge the move: if it wins greater cooperation from Russia on Iran, then it will be a success. If not, then not. Although it's worth emphasizing that the entire logic of an Eastern European defense against Iranian missiles is somewhat strained. If Iran somehow got it into its head that it wanted to blow up stuff in Europe, why fire a missile? Smuggling explosives on a truck would be a lot harder to trace while delivering the same destructive force. Firing a missile all but guarantees massive retaliation.

September 17, 2009

Why Missile Defense Is a Political Football

One of the overlooked elements of all the criticism of President Obama's decision to scrap missile defense installations in Eastern Europe is where this criticism is coming from. As a brilliant pundit once observed:

In other words, America is not merely a global cop. We don’t simply enforce rules. We make them. In the neoconservative formulation, America is a global schoolmarm, hectoring and punishing the recalcitrant and belligerent nations of the world. Just as a school teacher would never deign to discuss the rules of the classroom with an unruly student, so too the U.S. cannot sit down with the leaders of rogue states. To do so, Senator McCain warned, would “legitimize” them. “You will sit down across the table from [Iran] and that will legitimize their illegal behavior,” McCain said.

The conflation of American security with hegemonic privilege, and the corresponding obsession with perception, has had an enormously corrosive effect on the traditional (indeed traditionally Republican) understanding of American interests. Rather than identify a discrete set of issues that require resolution, the over-riding interest of the United States becomes the preservation of its global authority - wherever it is contested. It becomes correspondingly harder to resolve issues that require the U.S. to accept a sub-optimal outcome because any trade-off is seen as lethal admission that America’s will is not so implacable.

This mindset is, I think, driving a lot of the criticism. The merits of missile defenses in Eastern Europe, the cost/benefit, all of that is secondary to the over-riding goal of not giving the Russians an inch. Because if we do, then it looks like we can't throw our weight around in Russia's backyard and the brittle facade of global hegemony will shatter.

Obama's Missile Test

I suspect a lot of people are going to echo Mackenzie Eaglen in dismissing Secretary Gates' rationale for scraping missile defense - that it was based on an updated assessment of Iran's long range missile capabilities - as mere spin. That's fine. But this strikes me as a fairly odd reason to worry about the development:

The implications of President Obama’s decision to dump the deployment of U.S. missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic reach far beyond Warsaw and Prague. Rather, this is “a decision on which the future of the transatlantic security alliance itself rests. If the United States chooses to abandon its Central and Eastern European allies as well as its obligations to NATO, it will hand the European Union a blank check to pursue an autonomous defense identity, independent of NATO, and will reduce America's influence within the transatlantic alliance significantly.”

I think fears of an "autonomous European defense identity" speaks volumes about the grandiose conception of American security in some quarters - how dare Europe think it can make its own decisions! Do we really think that the only thing that has restrained an "autonomous" European defense posture is our pressure? Maybe it has. Or maybe it has more to do with Europe's unwillingness to devote a greater share of their budgets to defense spending and a general unwillingness by the continental players to hand over that much authority to the EU.

Either way, I think fears about this move destroying the Transatlantic alliance are overblown. If Europe's uneven contributions to Afghanistan haven't done so, this surely won't.

Obama's Missile Pullback


The Obama administration's decision to not move forward with missile defense installations in Eastern Europe will no doubt raise a huge outcry. Much of this outcry is rooted in the basic premise that these defense installations were never about securing the U.S. but about entrenching our geopolitical influence in Eastern Europe. Those who are upset about this development are framing it not so much as a blow to U.S. security, but as a concession to Russia, which is unforgiveable. Those who will be heartened by the move will also, no doubt, be glad by the signal it sends to Russia that the U.S. is ready to wheel and deal (whether Russia will reciprocate is another story).

But what about the ostensible purpose of the missile shield - the defense of the United States and its allies? The New York Times reports that the administration is not killing regional missile defense but is examining other options, such as installations in Turkey and the Balkans.

(AP Photos)

September 16, 2009

The Afghan Debate (or Clash of the Open Letters)


The National Security Network has a nice rundown of the back-and-forth between liberals, realists and neoconservatives over Afghanistan. This jumped out at me:

Unfortunately, largely absent from the debate is a credible voice among the conservative opposition in Congress, which is now dominated by neoconservative thinking. After bungling the war on Afghanistan in favor of Iraq, neoconservatives have little credibility. Their calls for a massive, never-ending military commitment that will somehow turn Afghanistan into a democratic Valhalla reflect the same misguided thinking and over-militarized approach that we saw over the last eight years.

I'm not sure how you can characterized the opposition's approach as "overly militarized" when the Obama administration sent more troops into Afghanistan and is having an open debate in the press over whether to send even more. Whatever else counter-insurgency is, it is a military concept (albeit one that includes a number of civilian instruments). That's about as "militarized" as you can get, no?

Moving to another heated battlefield, we have the clash of the open Afghanistan letters. The first volley, fired by neoconservatives (and Sarah Palin) is available here, urging President Obama not to accept defeat in Afghanistan and to surge whatever forces are needed into the country. Now comes this letter from the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, advising the president to focus on killing al Qaeda and not state building in Afghanistan.

With all this as context I think there's a pretty clear danger that the Obama administration is going to be caught in a dangerous muddle. They clearly believe that building some kind of capable Afghan state is in our interest, they have an increasingly vocal military urging additional troops, and they have a fairly influential assortment of pundits urging a full-bore counter-insurgency effort (with all the rhetorical restraint and nuance for which they are justly famous). On the other hand, Democrats are clearly loosing patience, public support is eroding and realists (including, reportedly, Defense Secretary Gates) inside the administration and without are airing concerns. The temptation must surely be to split the difference: wage a counter-insurgency with the newly arrived forces we have, but not add anymore and risk provoking a wider domestic backlash.

That, I think, is the worst of all possible outcomes. It's public knowledge that nation building and counter-insurgency requires large numbers of troops - far, far more than we have now in Afghanistan. If we are going to attempt such an exercise, better to do it right. And if we're not, then we should reorient our strategy with haste.

(AP Photos)

Karzai's Vote Theft

The Times has the staggering toll:

One in three votes cast for President Karzai in Afghanistan's presidential elections were faked, with the official body overseeing the ballot condoning the massive fraud, EU election observers said today.

Around 1.1 million votes in favour of Mr Karzai met Afghanistan's electoral fraud criteria, as well as 300,000 cast for Abdullah Abdullah, Mr Karzai's main rival. A futher 100,000 suspect votes were cast for other candidates.

The EU team accused Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission of ignoring its own rules on identifying and eliminating suspect votes, and thus of sanctioning the fraud.

If the suspect votes had been excluded, Mr Karzai's total share of the vote would fall to 47 per cent and a second round run off in the presidential election would be triggered, the observers found.

This is where the proponents of victory need to clarify their position. Are we in this for a stable Afghanistan, even if it is ruled by a corrupt and illegitimate clique? Or are we in this to change the fundamental nature of Afghanistan's governing institutions? There are worse things than a corrupt-but-stable Afghanistan, but such an outcome would almost certainly leave the country ripe for the sort of Taliban-style takeover that occurred in the 1990s. On the other hand, given how rife the country is with corruption, can we realistically achieve anything better?

(AP Photos)

How Important Are Terrorist Safe Havens?


Former CIA official Paul Pillar says not so much:

Consider: The preparations most important to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks took place not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States.

In the past couple of decades, international terrorist groups have thrived by exploiting globalization and information technology, which has lessened their dependence on physical havens.

By utilizing networks such as the Internet, terrorists' organizations have become more network-like, not beholden to any one headquarters. A significant jihadist terrorist threat to the United States persists, but that does not mean it will consist of attacks instigated and commanded from a South Asian haven, or that it will require a haven at all. Al-Qaeda's role in that threat is now less one of commander than of ideological lodestar, and for that role a haven is almost meaningless.

Much of the debate in Afghanistan gets caught up in a false choice: that we either engage in a costly nation building experiment in Afghanistan or surrender to the emergence of al Qaeda "safe havens." Everyone agrees that safe havens are bad and that the U.S. should make eliminating them a top priority. But that doesn't lead directly to the conclusion that we should therefore rebuild Afghanistan.

And if we're truly worried about safe havens, what about this:

Jaish-e-Mohammad ("army of Mohammad"), which is linked to a series of atrocities including an attack on the Indian parliament and the beheading of the American journalist Daniel Pearl, has walled off a 4.5 acre compound just outside the town of Bahawalpur.

Pakistani authorities have turned a blind eye to the new base, in the far south of Punjab province, even though it is believed to have been built to serve as a radical madrassah - Islamic school - or some kind of training camp.

To the extent that Pakistan "turns a blind eye" to massive Islamist compounds being built on their soil, no amount of nation building in Afghanistan is going to protect America.

(AP Photos)

White House Continues Trade Misdirection

By Scott Lincicome

The White House defense of President Obama's late-night Section 421 announcement continues to rely on the "enforcement canard" - i.e., the incorrect assertion that the 421 decision was somehow part of the President's basic obligation to enforce US trade laws or global trade rules.

For example, here's President Obama today in an interview with Bloomberg: “We’ve got to establish credibility and enforcement of the rules precisely because I want to further expand trade,” Obama said. “And that is something that I think the Chinese government should understand.”

And Reuters reports that Obama continued his enforcement theme in an interview with CNBC: "If we don't enforce the rules that are contained in our trade agreements, then it's very hard to have credibility."

Orwellian rhetoric aside (exactly how does protectionism expand free trade?), you gotta give the President credit: he is masterfully sticking to the White House's approved "enforcement-credibility" talking points. Unfortunately, as I discussed on Friday night, the talking points are complete nonsense.

As if Presiden't Obama's version of the enforcement canard weren't bad enough, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs takes it to a whole new level in an impromptu press briefing today on Air Force One. When asked whether the tire tariffs might start a trade war with China, Gibbs was utterly dismissive. Indeed, according to Gibbs, the Administration had no choice but to effectively ban tire imports from the US market:

Look, again, I think it's important to back up and understand that if we're going to have a framework for global trade that works for everyone, then agreements are going to have to be enforced and rules are going to have to be followed. Without following those rules and following those agreements it's going to be hard to make trade work for everyone.

I think this administration obviously has invested a lot of time and resources in ensuring that trade happens throughout the world, that developing nations have the access to capital that they need to buy the goods and services that others are producing. But within that framework, again, we have to follow the rules.

Did you get that, folks? Don't blame the White House for the minor trade war. Their hands were tied. It was those pesky rules that made em do it! Well, that sneaky defense might just work if, you know, the text of the law didn't explicity reject such a theory. As noted before, Section 421 gives the President complete discretion to impose or reject trade protection. Indeed, President Bush rejected Section 421 relief each of the four times he was in Obama's position, and nobody could do anything about it. Literally. Thus, Gibbs' allegations of White House helplessness are completely and utterly false. (Sometimes I really wonder whether the politicos even check with the wonks before manufacturing this stuff.)

And finally, let's not forget the ultimate indicator of just how little the White House buys its own "enforcement" defenses: the 421 decision's timid Friday night news release. As I said that night:

[I]f... the President's decision to support the USW and effectively ban Chinese tire imports from the US market is a bold and important statement about enforcing trade laws in order to "maintain an open and free trading system," then why not release it first thing Monday morning? Or, better yet, why not do it mid-week as part of a strong statement on US trade policy in anticipation of the upcoming G20 summit? (The decision wasn't due until September 17th afterall.)

By now, I think we all know the answer to these simple questions and, by extension, the veracity of the administration's continuing claims re: "enforcement" of "the rules."

Unfortunately, I doubt they'll change their talking points anytime soon.

In 2008, Scott Lincicome served as a senior trade policy adviser for Senator John McCain’s Presidential campaign. He blogs at http://lincicome.blogspot.com/ where this post first appeared.

September 15, 2009

America, Israel and the Priority of Iran


The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens unearths numerous explanations for the Obama administration's approach to Iran:

In sum, the conclusion among Israelis is that the Obama administration won't lift a finger to stop Iran, much less will the "international community." So Israel has pursued a different strategy, in effect seeking to goad the U.S. into stopping, or at least delaying, an Israeli attack by imposing stiff sanctions and perhaps even launching military strikes of its own.

Thus, unlike Israel's air strike against Iraq's reactor in 1981 or Syria's in 2007, both of which were planned in the utmost secrecy, the Israelis have gone out of their way to advertise their fears, purposes and capabilities. They have sent warships through the Suez Canal in broad daylight and conducted widely publicized air-combat exercises at long range. They have also been unusually forthcoming in their briefings with reporters, expressing confidence at every turn that Israel can get the job done.

The problem, however, is that the administration isn't taking the bait, and one has to wonder why. Perhaps it thinks its diplomacy will work, or that it has the luxury of time, or that it can talk the Israelis out of attacking. Alternatively, it might actually want Israel to attack without inviting the perception that it has colluded with it. Or maybe it isn't really paying attention.

Or maybe, the Obama administration believes it is not in America's interest to embroil itself in a third war in the region and that an Iranian bomb, while undesirable, is not an "existential" threat to the United States. Maybe the administration appreciates that Israel and the United States are two different countries, with different interests, risk-tolerances and priorities.

(AP Photos)

Africa's Unimaginable Carnage

According to Gérard Prunier, 5.4 million people have been killed in Central Africa in the past decade in the biggest loss of life since World War II. Stephen Walt marvels at how such carnage could fly under the Western radar for so long. It is, unquestionably, a shocking humanitarian disaster, but I think it also exposes the weakness in the contention of both Susan Rice and President Obama that the security of American people is "inextricably linked to those of people everywhere."

Clearly, with such unfathomable carnage occurring in Africa with hardly a recognition, that's not the case.

How Canadians Feel About America


Pew asks the question that's been on everyone's mind:

...the most recent Pew Global Attitudes survey, conducted in May and June of this year, finds that 68% of Canadians now have a favorable view of the U.S., while just 28% express an unfavorable opinion.

Ratings for the U.S. are slightly less positive among younger Canadians -- 58% of those ages 18-29 have a positive view, compared with 69% of 30-49 year-olds and 70% of those ages 50 and older. Residents of Quebec (56% favorable) and British Columbia (57%) also tend to give slightly less positive ratings than those from other regions.

However, as we've seen in Europe, these newfound positive feelings don't translate into material support for the war in Afghanistan:

While Obama and his overall foreign policy are very popular, his approach to Afghanistan, where nearly 3,000 Canadian troops are currently deployed, is not. Half of Canadians say U.S. and NATO forces should withdraw as soon as possible, while just 43% believe troops should remain until the situation has stabilized. And most (55%) say they disapprove of Obama's decision earlier this year to send additional troops to Afghanistan; only 42% approve.

Canadians are somewhat less likely than publics in some other key NATO allies to say troops should stay in Afghanistan -- 50% in France, 48% in Germany and 46% in Britain think troops should stay in Afghanistan until it is more stable. When the poll was conducted in May and June, 57% of Americans wanted troops to remain, although a recent ABC News poll, conducted Aug. 13-17, suggests American support for the war is declining.

There are clear differences on this issue among supporters of the two major Canadian political parties. A majority (56%) of those who identify with Prime Minister Harper's Conservative Party say the U.S. and NATO should keep troops in Afghanistan, compared with just 44% of those who identify with the opposition Liberal Party.

It's better to be liked than loathed, but progressive supporters of the president elevated international approval of the U.S. into something of a strategic doctrine. And the gains just haven't materialized.

(Photo: David Paul Ohmer under a CC License)

September 14, 2009

Canada's Tories Go “All-in”

The odds of an early election in Canada have increased sharply over the last few weeks. Now, it seems that the minority Conservative government lead by PM Stephen Harper could be defeated on a vote of confidence as soon as Friday, thus plunging Canada into election turmoil.

The Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, announced weeks ago that he would no longer support the government in the House of Commons. The other opposition parties, the Bloc Québécois and the New Democrats (NDP), are unlikely to support or assist the Tories in any way. In fact, a so-called secret recording of one of Mr. Harper’s speeches (no media were allowed in the room) has just been released. Harper's adjusted message is rather clear: the fire breathing reformist is back in business. In a particularly intense show of passion, Stephen Harper urges his supporters to help him win a majority, or else Canada would be left at the hands of a Liberal government supported by separatists (Bloc) and socialists (NDP) that would nominate left-wing ideologues to critical federal institutions. The tone has been set.

Clearly, Mr. Harper - who has been serving as Prime Minister ever since the beginning of 2006, but has never been able to secure a majority in the House - has decided to use every last tool in the box. If he were playing poker, he would be going “all-in”.

At the beginning of the last campaign, the Tories were riding high against a weak Liberal leader, Stéphane Dion, and a Bloc Québécois that appeared on the defensive. In the end, they did clobber the Grits, but their approval ratings sank dramatically in Quebec after some separatist-bashing comments were made, thus paving the way for (yet another) Bloc landslide which effectively prevented them from obtaining a majority. But this time around, Mr. Harper has decided to focus his energy where he can actually win seats: Ontario (108 seats), as opposed to Quebec where 45 to 50 of the 75 ridings remain solid Bloc territory. Not much room to grow for the Tories there; Le Devoir reported last week that an internal report from the Conservative party analyzed that at least 6 of its 10 Quebec MP’s were in danger. Not because of a surge in Bloc support, mind you, but because of a stronger showing of the Grits in the province -- which might split the federalist vote, thus allowing the Bloc to consolidate its nationalist base and win key battleground constituencies.

Right now, democraticSPACE’s poll of polls gives us this picture of the relative strength of parties in Canada (155 seats required for a majority):

Tories: 35.2% (136 seats)
Grits: 30.7% (94 seats)
Bloc: 9.4% (38.4% in Quebec, 45 seats)
NDP: 15.2% (33 seats)

If voters were called to the polls today, the Canadian House of Commons would look much as it is today. With the Bloc’s solid grip on most of Quebec’s ridings, a majority is pretty much out of the question, unless one the two main federalist parties sweeps Ontario as the Liberals under Jean Chrétien did in the 90’s. But right now, the Grits and the Tories are locked in dead heat in Canada’s most seat-rich province.

Once more, Ontario will determine who gets the keys to 24 Sussex Drive.

Should America Pressure Israel?

Barry Rubin says that people who suggest that the U.S. should pressure Israel into making peace with the Palestinians don't know what they're talking about:

Here's the theme: Israelis are so stupid about their country, situation, and region on the life-and-death issues which they have been dealing with for decades that they must be saved in spite of themselves by people who have no knowledge or experience on any of these things. No other country in the world is so frequently told this kind of thing which I hear all the time from Europeans, too.

Is it so hard to comprehend that our views and behavior are based on years of experience and study? That we know best how to save ourselves and have been doing a far better job of it, against tremendous odds and unhelpful kibbitzers, than many others?

It's not hard at all. In fact, it's obvious. But here's another theme that never quite works its way into Rubin's equation: American aid. We give Israel a lot of money, intelligence and diplomatic support. Naturally, one would expect some degree of influence with that aid. It's all very well and good for Rubin to tell the Obama administration and its supporters in the press to buzz off and let Israel do whatever it wants. But I wonder, can they take their aid dollars with them?

Iran's Hillarious Negotiation Offer


Pro Publica has reproduced the letter Iran sent to Western nations to address their demands for a negotiated halt to its nuclear activities. In the letter, Iran offers to talk. But not so much about nukes. Instead, among the items they wish to tackle:

Elevating the weight and position of environmental issues in the international relations and fostering collective participation in the management of environmental issues.

Equitable definition and codification of the rights to space and sharing of oil possessors of space technologies in the management and fair use of space.

This is obviously absurd. Yet the Obama administration appears intent to engage anyway. There's little harm in that, of course. It will neither impede nor accelerate Iran's nuclear program, which appears to be humming along irrespective of outside pressures. But it's hard to review this letter and not conclude that Iran is daring the world to levy harsher sanctions.

(AP Photos)

The Folly of Drawing a Conclusion from Iraq

In the Wall Street Journal, Senators Linsey Graham, Joseph Lieberman and John McCain argue for a troop surge in Afghanistan:

Yet an increasing number of commentators, including some of the very same individuals who opposed the surge in Iraq and called for withdrawal there, now declare Afghanistan essentially unwinnable. Had their view prevailed with respect to Iraq in 2006 and 2007, the consequences of our failure there would have been catastrophic.

Similarly, the ramifications of an American defeat in Afghanistan would not only be a devastating setback for our nation in what is now the central front in the global war on terror, but would inevitably further destabilize neighboring, nuclear Pakistan. Those who advocate such a course were wrong about Iraq, and they are wrong about Afghanistan.

I don't understand how the Senators can draw any conclusions from Iraq. Consider this from General David Petraeus:

"In fact, typically, I think historically, counter-insurgency operations have gone at least nine or 10 years."

If you date the beginning of American counter-insurgency in Iraq in 2006, you'll see we're not even at the halfway point. Looking at the news emerging from Iraq of late, is it so difficult to imagine scenarios which lead to a sharp uptick in violence? The "lessons" we learn from Iraq in 2012 or 2016 may be quite different from the ones we think we know in 2009.

(AP Photos)

Afghanistan: Changing Cultures Is Hard


Fareed Zakaria suggests that we pay off Afghans to keep al Qaeda at bay. Earlier this month, Kimberly Martin said this is precisely what the British attempted to do. And they failed miserably.

Indeed, this is what we tried to do shortly after 9/11. We paid Afghans to go hunt bin Laden. They took our money and then let him get away. It's not too difficult to imagine such a thing happening over and over.

And this gets to the central problem with any "Af-Pak" strategy: changing cultures is hard. Changing people's beliefs, interests, and loyalties is hard. Social engineering is hard.

That we have come to believe that such a practice is vital to our security says more about our pervasive sense of our security needs, I think, than about the objective situation.

(AP Photos)

September 12, 2009

Who Learned What From 9/11

It's hard to know what to make of this assertion by Fouad Ajami:

The impulse that took America from Kabul to Baghdad had been on the mark. Those were not Afghans who had struck American soil on 9/11. They were Arabs. Their terrorism came out of the pathologies of Arab political life. Their financiers were Arabs, and so were those crowds in Cairo and Nablus and Amman that had winked at the terror and had seen those attacks as America getting its comeuppance on that terrible day. Kabul had not sufficed as a return address in that twilight war; it was important to take the war into the Arab world itself, and the despot in Baghdad had drawn the short straw. He had been brazen and defiant at a time of genuine American concern, and a lesson was made of him.

While I think Ajami is correct to emphasize the Arab origin of 9/11 (something the current nation builders in Afghanistan would do well to remember) it still made no sense for Iraq to become the object of our "instruction." The "pathologies" that bred al Qaeda germinated in America's allies in the region - not our ostensible enemies like Iran and Iraq. After 9/11, a proper strategy would have internalized this understanding and repositioned our relationship with countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Instead, we simply proceeded with the geopolitical hobbyhorses of the 1990s.

Obama's Disastrous Tire Tariffs

By Scott Lincicome

In tacit recognition of just how bad a decision the President has made, the White House quietly announced at about 9:45p tonight (Friday) that the United States would impose prohibitive tariffs on imports of Chinese consumer tires under "Section 421" of US Trade Law. Here's the WSJ with the pretty shocking news.

I'm going to leave the substance of the decision itself to my earlier posts and this great new analysis by Dan Ikenson on the case's merits and potential impact. Instead, I want to make absolutely clear just what happened tonight. (Bear with the excruciating detail; it's very necessary.)

First, let's correct the "record" because it will be repeated ad nauseam over the next few days:

(A) Section 421 has nothing to do with "unfair" trade. Its only a determination of whether (i) the subject imports have "surged" and (ii) that surge has injured (i.e., created a "market disruption" for) US producers of like products. Here's the ITC's own summary of China safeguards under Section 421:

Under section 421 of the Trade Act of 1974, the Commission determines whether imports of a product from China are being imported into the United States in such increased quantities or under such conditions as to cause or threaten to cause market disruption to the domestic producers of like or directly competitive products. If the Commission makes an affirmative determination, it proposes a remedy. The Commission sends its report to the President and the U.S. Trade Representative. The President makes the final remedy decision. (For further information, see section 421, Trade Act of 1974, 19 U.S.C. 2451.)

Please note the conspicuous absence of a word about "unfair trade" or "violations of US law." That's because, unlike antidumping or countervailing duty investigations, China-specific safeguards do not address or remedy unfair trading practices. So technically, China has done nothing "wrong" here other than to sell lots of tires - that Americans obviously want and benefit from - in the United States. Oh, the humanity! (Full text of Section 421 is here if you're interested.)

(B) The decision also has nothing to do with "violations" of China's WTO obligations or general WTO rules. China agreed to accept the imposition of safeguards on its imports in its WTO accession protocol, but that agreement, which is reflected in US law by Section 421, does not deal with unfair trade or violations of China's obligations under WTO rules or of its agreement to join the WTO (China's "accession protocol"). In particular, Article 16 of the protocol allows WTO Members to impose safeguards on Chinese imports where "products of Chinese origin are being imported into the territory of any WTO Member in such increased quantities or under such conditions as to cause or threaten to cause market disruption to the domestic producers of like or directly competitive products." (The whole text is here; see pp. 9-10.) And Article 16 goes on to define "market disruption" as--

whenever imports of an article, like or directly competitive with an article produced by the domestic industry, are increasing rapidly, either absolutely or relatively, so as to be a significant cause of material injury, or threat of material injury to the domestic industry. In determining if market disruption exists, the affected WTO Member shall consider objective factors, including the volume of imports, the effect of imports on prices for like or directly competitive articles, and the effect of such imports on the domestic industry producing like or directly competitive products.
Please note the conspicuous absence of language on "violations" or "noncompliance" or "inconsistency" with WTO rules or obligations. By contrast, here's the latest WTO panel ruling that China violated its WTO obligations with respect to measures restricting trade in audiovisual products. The repeated use of the term "inconsistent" throughout that document indicates a "violation" by China of WTO rules. Section 421 and Article 16 have no such references because, again, they do not seek to remedy illegal behavior. Despite what USTR Kirk, Press Secretary Gibbs, USW President Leo Gerard, or anyone else claims.

(C) This decision will not help the "US tire industry," as not a single member of the US industry supported the tires case and most have argued against the ITC remedy. It will, however, help the USW and other unions that bring - or threaten to bring - similar cases, as well as the President's re-election and domestic policy efforts (of course).

Second, let's also be very clear that, contrary to USTR Kirk's statement, this decision also has nothing to do with "enforcing trade agreements" or enforcing US trade law. As I've said before, Section 421 provides the President with complete discretion under the law to disregard the recommendations of the ITC where "such relief is not in the national economic interest of the United States or, in extraordinary cases, that the taking of action pursuant to subsection (a) of this section would cause serious harm to the national security of the United States." See 19 U.S.C. 2457(k). "Not in the national economic interest" is then defined as where "taking of such action would have an adverse impact on the United States economy clearly greater than the benefits of such action." Id. There's plenty of evidence out there that these tariffs will not benefit American tire producers (who, again, didn't support the 421 relief) and would harm many more Americans - consumers, importers, tire merchants and automobile manufacturers - than were allegedly harmed by the surge in Chinese tires. However, even if one were to argue that the economic evidence is mixed on this issue, the express discretion provided under Section 421 means that a Presidential decision to reject the ITC recommendation is as much "enforcing" Section 421 as is a decision to impose the recommended relief. To claim that the President's action tonight denotes "stronger enforcement" of US trade agreements is therefore wholly misleading. Tsk tsk, Ambassador Kirk. Tsk tsk.

Third, tonight's decision provides ample evidence that, in the important choice between a coherent, economically-sound trade policy that advances American foreign policy interests and placating political supporters, President Obama strongly prefers the latter. We saw glimpses of this with Buy American and the NAFTA Trucking issue, but those costly international incidents theoretically could be blamed on a protectionist Congress and/or a new and unprepared White House staff. The Section 421 decision, on the other hand, forced President Obama alone to choose between--

-- the narrow interests of the United Steelworkers Union (USW); and
-- everyone else in America, the United States' image as the world's free trade leader, and the future of both the American and global economies. (More on that choice here.)

Well, choose he did. Emphatically. (And I'm sure America's exporters are just psyched to see how China responds to this decision.)

Finally, the timing of the announcement tells us a lot about the Obama Administration and it's true feelings about the Section 421 decision. The White House has become quite notorious for it's "Friday night news dumps," in which it releases bad or embarrassing news late on a Friday night (or in Van Jones' case, early Sunday morning) in order to keep it under the media radar. So if, as USTR Kirk claims, the President's decision to support the USW and effectively ban Chinese tire imports from the US market is a bold and important statement about enforcing trade laws in order to "maintain an open and free trading system," then why not release it first thing Monday morning? Or, better yet, why not do it mid-week as part of a strong statement on US trade policy in anticipation of the upcoming G20 summit? (The decision wasn't due until September 17th afterall.)

The answer to those questions seems pretty straightforward, doesn't it: the Obama Administration knows precisely how embarrassing the President's decision is, and it thus has cowardly tried to bury the story by releasing it at 10pm on a Friday night.


On the bright side, after months of ambiguity and delay, we now have a very clear view of the future of US trade policy under the Obama Administration. Unfortunately, it's a policy that will consistently favor short-term political gain over the United States' broader economic and foreign policy interests. We also get to sit back and watch the President get an absolute earful from his G20 counterparts. If you thought that last month's "Three Amigos" summit was bad, just wait 'till Pittsburgh.

But at least we trade lawyers should be busy with that flood of new Section 421 cases. Hooray, billable hours! (Ugh.)

UPDATE: Just because a few readers have asked, I am in no way involved in the Section 421 litigation. The comments above are those of an interested observer, not an advocate for any party involved in the case.

In 2008, Scott Lincicome served as a senior trade policy adviser for Senator John McCain’s Presidential campaign. He blogs at http://lincicome.blogspot.com/ where this post first appeared.

Chen Shui-bian Gets His Just Desserts


There was a time when Chen Shui-bian was a rising political star of Asia. He was a masterful campaigner, an astute politician and viewed by some as the champion of the oppressed.

Twice, he won the presidency of the Republic of China, against the better-funded, more-organized Kuomintang (KMT) despite long odds. In 2000, he led the upstart Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) into power in the island's second democratic election, taking advantage of an internal split in the KMT. Four years later, he won by a razor-thin margin aided by a mysterious assassination attempt just two days before the election.

While president, Chen also proved to be incredibly corrupt.

On Friday, Chen was sentenced to life in prison for embezzling $15 million U.S. during his presidency. He had an elaborate setup where he involved family members, including his wife, with a money laundering scheme that'd make the mob proud.

During his second term as president, Chen was busy putting money away while Taiwan's economy went into the tank. His party was routed in the 2008 legislative election, becoming a marginal minority party with fewer than a quarter of the seats. As Chen was barred by the constitution to run for a third term, his successor was beaten soundly by the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou in last year's presidential election.

In his final years in office, as he was trying to cover up the paper trail, Chen unleashed a series of political maneuvers designed to shift the attention of the public: Flogging the corpse of Chiang Kai-shek and stirring up conflict between the islanders and mainlanders; provoking China with frequent rhetoric of Taiwan "independence"; advocating Taiwan's re-admission into the U.N. by holding referendums, all the while knowing it was a purely political stunt.

Chen was dragged out of the office, kicking and screaming. He still has die-hard supporters, who insist on his innocence not because of any shred of evidence but because of their loyalty to a charismatic chameleon, who sold out his principles in exchange for a lucrative retirement. Had Taiwan's judicial authority not detained him swiftly, he surely would've fled, never to return.

The South China Morning Post calls it a tragedy for Taiwan:

The verdict marks the fall of the man once hailed as "Son of Taiwan", the child of a poor farmer who rose to the top, but now dubbed the "shame of Taiwan". As Taiwan's second democratically elected president, he came to power as a leader of some stature, a man seen to embody the hopes of Taiwanese with strong feelings of local identity. Indeed, it was on the back of their support that he became president. He projected the image of an incorruptible champion of Taiwanese nationalism and independence, whose anti-mainland rhetoric froze relations with Beijing.

He is now seen to have betrayed their faith by using his position for personal gain. The question now is how much damage his fall from grace has inflicted on the opposition Democratic Progressive Party and the independence movement in Taiwan. There was already a lot of disillusionment with the DPP over its performance in office after it came to power in 2000. Its reign was marked by internal bickering, administrative incompetence and corruption. Because Taiwan had experienced the dictatorship of the Kuomintang regime for so long, many people were prepared to give the DPP the benefit of the doubt. This fund of goodwill was depleted, however, as the party struggled to come to grips with the responsibilities of office.

This is the ultimate tragedy of Chen's conviction. In order to have a viable and vibrant democracy there needs to be a viable opposition capable of credibly contesting power and testing the government. Chen's disgrace of the island's highest office and his party will make it much more difficult for the DPP to recapture power.

(AP Photos)

September 11, 2009

9/11 Remembrances


The New York Times' Lens blog has a collection of photos and videos from that day. Meanwhile, the Guardian has a long feature on how al Qaeda is faring today.

(Photo via Flickr user Sister 72 under a CC license)

September 10, 2009

Venezuela Recognizes Abkhazia and South Osetia

This Thursday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez officially recognized Georgian break-away regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. According to daily Izvestia, the meeting between Chavez and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev was more than cordial. "I am glad to welcome you back to Moscow, it's been a while since you were here. I have missed you here," said Russian President. The paper emphasized that both men are addressing each other as "ti"- or a more familiar form of "you." In other words, both presidents seemed more like long-time friends than official heads of state.

Chavez did not hesitate to mention that Russia has always been and still remains a superpower. He has also hinted that his recognition of the break-away regions will send an "impulse" to other countries of Latin America. For its part, Georgia did not hesitate to comment. Vice-Speaker of Georgian Parliament Gigi Tsereteli made a statement: "I believe that the whole international community - members of the UN, NATO and the EU - will give an adequate response to Venezuela, if it begins to make some steps in this direction," - he promised.

Carbon Tariffs: New Support for a Bad Policy?

By Scott Lincicome

The International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) reports today on some interesting news out of last month's high-level intergovernmental discussions on climate change in Bonn, Germany. From August 10th to 14th, government officials met to talk about key environmental issues in the run-up to December's negotiations in Copenhagen to forge a successor agreement to the Kyoto protocol. Overall, the multilateral talks were pretty typical - lots of talking, little clear agreement, and no concrete results.

However, there was one important development that warrants mention - an Indian proposal to agree that no developed country would unilaterally impose carbon tariffs or other "border adjustment measures" on imports from countries that don't have "sufficient" climate change measures. As ICTSD reports:

The discussions on the "economic and social consequences of response measures" to climate change saw heated debate on trade-related issues. The talks took a surprising turn when India proposed that the following language be inserted in the negotiating text:

“Developed country Parties shall not resort to any form of unilateral measures including countervailing border measures, against goods and services imported from developing countries on grounds of protection and stabilisation of the climate. Such measures would violate the principles and provisions of the Convention, including, in particular, those related to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (Article 3, paragraph 1), to trade and climate change (Article 3, paragraph 5), and to the relationship between mitigation actions of developing countries and the provision of financial resources and technology by developed country Parties (Article 4, paragraphs 3 and 7).”

The suggestion received support from dozens of developing countries but was opposed by the US, Japan, and the EU. Notably, the language referencing the UNFCCC agreement is clearly meant to cover Boarder Tax Adjustments - measures like the ‘carbon tariffs’ that are included the climate bill that is now working its way through the US Congress - even if such measures are WTO compatible.

As I've stated before, global opposition to carbon tariffs has grown in recent months to expand beyond the typical developing countries like China and India and include developed countries, such as Germany and Australia. The OECD Chief also recently spoke out against carbon tariffs, so the opposition of the US, EU and Japan to the Indian proposal at first blush appears to be a little surprising.

Well, it's not.

Developed country opposition to the Indian proposal does not mean that the countries necessarily support carbon tariffs. All it means is that they don't want their hands tied by the developing world in the multilateral negotiations. Developed countries want to be able to use the threat of carbon tariffs - or other unilateral measures - to get the developing world to commit to domestic climate change policies like carbon emissions caps. So committing to the Indian proposal would essentially ruin one of the developed countries' biggest and baddest negotiating tools. Hence, their unsurprising opposition.

That said, the Indian proposal is still important because it stresses just how much opposition there is in the developing world to carbon tariffs. "Dozens" of developing countries are very serious about this issue, and if the US Senate's climate change legislation mirrors the recently-passed House version ("Waxman-Markey") - as advocated by 10 Democratic Senators - the developing world is going to flip out. And the multilateral climate change negotiations in Copenhagen will collapse before they ever officially begin.

Something to think about when the Senate officially begins debating the climate change legislation. (Assuming, of course, that they stop pushing it off and finally do start debating it.)

So for now, we can't update the ol' carbon tariffs scorecard. It remains as follows:

Pro carbon tariffs - Ten protectionist Senators, the US House of Representatives (in Waxman-Markey), France, and Paul Krugman.

Anti carbon tariffs - the rest of the world.

But be forewarned, EU/Japan/US: I've got my eye on you.


In 2008, Scott Lincicome served as a senior trade policy adviser for Senator John McCain’s Presidential campaign. He blogs at http://lincicome.blogspot.com/ where this post first appeared.

When America Will Risk Casualties


A major element of the new counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan is the idea that American lives must be sacrificed for the sake of securing the people of Afghanistan. The U.S. is committing tens of thousands of soldiers to such a mission and already, the death toll is rising.

Flash back to November 2001.U.S. forces have pushed bin Laden and al Qaeda into the mountains of Tora Bora. According to reports at the time and since, Washington declined to risk the lives of U.S. soldiers to stage an assault on bin Laden fearing excessive casualties in the rocky and inhospitable terrain. Instead, they relied on air power and bribes to Afghan warlords. Both failed. Bin Laden escaped.

It's difficult for me to understand why the U.S. would not risk its own soldiers to attempt to kill bin Laden, who had just facilitated the slaughter of 3,000 Americans, but will risk tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers to protect the Afghans from their fellow Afghans.

(AP Photos)

The Moving Target of Foreign Policy

Is President Obama reprising the Bush administration's foreign policy? Is he hard nosed realist or starry-eyed idealist? Daniel Larison says neither:

No matter how idealistic and ideological an administration may be, there are structures and interests that limit how any administration can act: Every ‘freedom agenda’ must have its exceptions for Arab dictators and anti-Russian demagogues, every non-proliferation regime must have its exceptions for allied nuclear states outside of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and every ‘war on terror’ must make room for or at least overlook the sponsorship of terrorism by allied governments. For that matter, there may also be longtime allies that find themselves at odds with major multilateral organizations, as the Honduran transitional government recently has, in which case Washington may end up siding with the latter as part of its regional or global “leadership” role. So a lack of consistency in administration policy by itself is neither praiseworthy nor damning—it is what the reality of international affairs imposes on even the most zealous ideologue.

What unifies administrations, in my view, is the notion of America's interests. The conception of those interests changes far less dramatically than the approaches taken to secure or advance those interests. Which is why, for all the talk of change, there aren't too many sudden swings in the conduct of our foreign policy.

September 9, 2009

Poll: NATO Nations Not Coming to the Rescue


A new poll from Pew indicates that few NATO nations are eager to embrace sending more troops into Afghanistan:

While the 2009 Pew Global Attitudes survey of 25 nations found broad global support for President Barack Obama and his policy goals, the one notable exception was his decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan. (The possible troop increase proposed by McChrystal would be in addition to the earlier increase advocated by Obama and asked about in the survey.)

Significant opposition to troop increases was found in all NATO countries polled; at least half of those surveyed in Germany (63%), France (62%), Poland (57%), Canada (55%), Britain (51%) and Spain (50%) disapproved of sending more troops to Afghanistan.

In Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim nation and longtime NATO ally of the U.S., only 16% approve of a troop increase, while 49% disapprove.

The interesting point, as Pew eludes to, is that President Obama is unable to translate a broad and generic popularity into concrete assistance from Western allies when the chips are down.

(AP Photos)

Putin 1, Conde Nast 0

Radio Free Europe has a nice interview with Scott Anderson, an American journalist whose investigative story on the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia was spiked by Conde Nast's lawyers from appearing in the Russian edition of GQ Magazine and from the magazine's website. The piece - "Vladimir Putin's Dark Rise to Power" - still appears in the print issue of the American edition of GQ.

September 8, 2009

French Cry Foul on IAEA Nuke Report

The Times of London reports that the French have called out Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, for purposely hiding a damning report on Iran's nuclear activities. Going further in their criticism, even, than Israel:

France went farther, alleging the existence of an unpublished annexe that addresses the evidence that Iran may be building an atom bomb.

Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, said that France had attended a technical briefing that covered the material, so was surprised to find it missing from the report.

“In the annexes there are specifically elements which enable us to ask about the reality of an atomic bomb,” he said “There are issues of warheads, of transport.”

The published section of the report focused more on the positive, noting that Iran had slowed its production of enriched uranium and had agreed to closer monitoring of its plant.

Oil & Conflict


Gideon Rachman has an excellent piece in the Financial Times about the centrality of oil in foreign policy:

Energy is at the heart of many of the biggest issues in international politics. That is because none of the world’s major economic powers – the US, China, Japan or the European Union – is close to self-sufficient in oil and gas. Global demand for energy is rising steadily and the major powers are jostling to secure supplies. In his recent book, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, Michael Klare, an American academic, argues that “a world of rising powers and shrinking resources is destined to produce intense competition among an expanding group of energy-consuming nations”. The book’s cover carries a warm endorsement from Dennis Blair, the US director of national intelligence.

That great powers would go to war over a scarce resource is a no-brainer. That a great power with a vast edge in educational, technological and economic resources would sleep-walk into such a scenario seems unthinkable. Yet it appears to be occurring.

(AP Photos)

What the British Conviction Tells Us About Terrorism


The high-profile conviction of three bombers in Britain who had planned to down several trans-Atlantic airliners in the most serious attack since 9/11 has helped throw a few questions surrounding the proposed nation building mission in Afghanistan into sharp relief. Here's what we know:

1. The bomb-makers traveled to, and sought guidance from, terrorists in Pakistan. This definitely lends support to the notion that al Qaeda needs a "safe haven" if it wants to launch spectacular attacks against Western targets. Unfortunately, that safe haven presently exists in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

2. The plot was disrupted via intercepts and police work conducted in London and Washington. The relative security of Afghanistan - its governing institutions, the security of its population, the strength of the Taliban - was irrelevant. The plot unfolded in the United Kingdom and Pakistan.

3. The attackers cited Western policies toward the Muslim word and their religious faith as the reasons for their assault. Suggesting once again that a heavily militarized presence in the Muslim world is, at a minimum, fodder for jihadist propaganda and, at worse, a catalyst to terrorism.

So the question becomes: how do any of the proposed outcomes for Afghanistan make this plot less likely to occur? What outcomes in Afghanistan prevent these British jihadists from hatching and attempting to conduct this terrorist plot?

(AP Photos)

Why Afghanistan?


The New York Times ran a short piece detailing why nation building in Afghanistan is vital to counter-terrorism:

But most specialists on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, inside and outside the government, say terrorism cannot be confronted from a comfortable distance, such as by airstrikes or proxy forces alone. It may take years to turn Afghanistan into a place that is hostile to Al Qaeda, they say, but it may be the only way to keep the United States safe in the long term. Many agree with the classified strategy for a troop buildup that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, has presented to Mr. Obama and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in recent days. [emphasis mine]

I'm struggling to understand why people believe this. First, Afghanistan is already hostile to al Qaeda - as al Qaeda is no longer in Afghanistan. Second, is Afghanistan the only place in the world where terrorists can congregate? Once we've taken Afghanistan off the chessboard, radical Islamic terrorists are defeated? Really? Does anyone seriously believe that?

(AP Photos)

My Visit To North Korea, Part 4

By Patric Chovanec

(This is part 4 in a series. See part 1, 2, & 3)

The only reason North Korea grants visas to Americans — with the exception of diplomats and exceptional guests like the New York Philharmonic — is to witness the Mass Games. The problem is, nobody knows exactly how long the Mass Games will run. They might be cancelled or extended at the last minute, and if they’re cancelled, the entire trip is cancelled too.

If you haven’t heard of North Korea’s Mass Games, or are sketchy on the details, let me explain. There are no “games,” as in competition. It’s a kind of huge political demonstration that takes place in a sports stadium and features over 100,000 schoolchildren, soldiers, and gymnasts performing synchronized dancing, marching, and acrobatics in mind-bogglingly large mass formations. The spectacle is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest event of its kind.

Because the Mass Games are sometimes compared to the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and take place on so grand a scale, you might get the impression they are a rare or one-off event. They used to be held only for special anniversaries, but now they run all summer long and well into the Fall, with full-blown performances taking place several times each week. In fact, there are actually two Mass Games these days, the original “Arirang Festival” in the evening and the newer “Prosper, the Motherland” performance during the daytime. We attended both. The experiences are very similar and the description that follows is a composite of the two.

When you first arrive, the air is already filled with electricity. All along the route to the stadium, our bus passed columns of school children marching and chanting songs, on their way from outlying neighborhoods to participate in the Games. The scene that greeted us as we disembarked in the parking lot was sheer pandemonium. People swirled in all directions. Troops of young athletes in white jogging outfits surged through the crowd, carrying bright blue banners. Others, in red gym suits, assembled in rows to hear a final pep talk. Spotlights cut frantic circles through the swarm of people. Out of the corner of my eye, on the far side of the parking lot, I spotted an astonishing sight: a pyramid of gymnastic high bars, stacked three levels high, with men swinging in synchronized circles around and around each bar. Behind it was another swinging pyramid, and around them tiny figures bounced high into the air on trampolines hidden amid all the mayhem.

Policemen directed us to the entrance to the VIP section of the stands. Outside, to our surprise, were refreshment stands selling Fritos and Coca-Cola, products otherwise banned in North Korea. Other stands offered souvenir posters and DVDs of the Mass Games. All of them were manned by attractive young women in traditional Korean silk dresses, called hanbok. One girl in particular, in a red hanbok, knew how to make full use of her feminine charms in selling her posters. She batted her eyelashes and smiled coyly at the helpless males in our group, all the while bargaining ruthlessly on price. If they hesitated in agreeing, she’d start rolling up the purchase as though it were already a done deal, then smiled a little inquisitive smile that always ended up with the buyer opening his wallet.

One side of the stadium, our side, was reserved for spectators. The entire opposite side, across a bright green soccer field, was filled with 20,000 students, closely packed row upon row. Each of them had a flip-book of square, colored panels. When they held them up and flipped them according to instruction, each became a pixel in a gigantic human LED display. When we first took our seats, all of the panels were white. But soon the students began warming up, creating simple practice bars and stripes of different colors, like test patterns on a TV screen. Each time they changed colors, they stamped their feet and roared. It began as a low rumble, but as the excitement grew the patterns became more complex and the noise shook the entire stadium. It was like standing in front of an emotional blast furnace — and the show hadn’t even started.

Spectators are welcome to take pictures of the performance (as long as they don’t film the whole thing), so at one point I stood up and took a photo along the side that we were sitting, to give some idea of the whole scene. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but after the show was over, some of the female ushers (in their colorful hanbok gowns) informed our group’s minders that I had taken a “forbidden photo.” I actually didn’t know what they were referring to, so they made me stay behind and cycle through every picture in my digital camera until they came to the shot of the stands. I guess they figured it could be used to identify what other foreigners were there, including VIPs or guests of state. In any event, I had to erase the offending image. Everyone treated the incident as a very alarming security breach.

The show itself, once it began, really defies words. As I mentioned before, people often ask me how the Mass Games compare to the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, which impressed so many viewers around the world. It’s a natural connection to draw, since the Chinese director, Zhang Yimou, told reporters he was directly inspired by the North Korean example. The fact is, though, that the Mass Games make the Beijing version look like a grade school talent show. It’s full-on two hours of one overwhelming scene after another, the entire stadium exploding in colors and motion. There were armies of schoolchildren balancing balls and hula-hoops, row upon row of young men waving crimson flags, all-female marching bands in smart uniforms waving flashing swords, an ocean of women in yellow hanboks that became a vast field of wheat blowing in the wind, and an entire stadium full of white-clad black-belt martial artists doing karate chops and kicks in mass formation. Not only did the card-holders create incredibly detailed backdrops, they even animated some of them to produce the illusion of flowing water or flying birds. At one point an image of a ladle full of molten steel “poured out” onto the field in a surge of fiery red-clad performers, to form a human “cast”. Later, a kooky ensemble of dancing chickens, eggs, and lady pigs wearing hanboks came out to celebrate the country’s bountiful harvest.

One thing, at least, I know: I will never again be able to watch Americans perform a half-hearted “wave” at a baseball game without shaking my head in sadness. The North Koreans have “the wave” down to a science, and are even able to imitate the rippling of a flag across an entire stadium in the most amazingly lifelike manner.

True, the Beijing Olympics ceremony had Li Ning flying around the top of the stadium suspended by wires, carrying a torch. But the Arirang Festival had several glow-in-the-dark acrobats strung up in the same way, except they were spinning upside-down like tops. Then the North Koreans started catapulting performers clear across the stadium, where they were caught by huge nets. They wore no wires, and did flips in the air as they flew through the air. Our jaws just dropped, and we could hardly believe our eyes. Nowhere else on earth would anyone be allowed to stage such a stunt.

Of course, the whole purpose of every act was to sing the praises of the Great Leader (Kim Il-Sung), the Dear Leader (his son, Kim Jong-Il), and the Communist Party. The result was a disturbing cross between Cirque du Soleil and a Nuremberg Rally. The effect was unsettling. Regardless of the content, it was hard not to get caught up in the performers’ obvious enthusiasm. We didn’t know whether to stand up and cheer or be totally appalled. I felt like the hypnotized audience members in the old Saturday Night Live skit who kept repeating: “I laughed, I cried. It was better than Cats. I’m going to see it again and again.”

From all that I’ve read, it’s hard not to conclude that Kim Jong-Il missed his true calling in life. If he had not been born a dictator’s son, he probably would have ended up a film or stage director. Out of all the apocryphal stories endlessly recited about the Dear Leader stopping by some school or factory and offering some gem of wisdom to set everyone on the right path, the ones that actually seem to ring true relate to his active role in the performing arts. Apparently he was, while his father was still alive, very much involved in North Korea’s film industry, which is actually quite prolific. Then there’s the rumors about his massive DVD collection and supposedly love of James Bond flicks. Add it all up and it’s no wonder he seems intent on secretly turning the Hermit Kingdom into a singing and dancing sensation.

Another experience that drove this point home was our trip to the Pyongyang Schoolchildren’s Palace, in between the two Mass Games performances. I actually didn’t know quite what this was until I walked in the door. The Palace is a huge building on the outskirts of the capital, a kind of magnet school for 10,000 students, mainly the offspring of the Party elite. The facilities were top level, as one would expect — I can only imagine how much of the country’s entire education budget is poured into this one school. The emphasis, for visitors at least, seems to be on the arts. We were taken to one classroom where little girls in red “Young Pioneer” scarves played zithers, and another where they all played french horns. Then we were ushered into an auditorium for a school performance.

There’s something about the Stalinist mindset that absolutely adores performing kids. Perhaps it’s the idea of all those impressionable young minds to mold for the Party and the Motherland. Since these child prodigies are usually selected from all over the country, and the regime is willing to spare no expense (or discipline) in training them to praise their little hearts out, they tend to be quite skilled. I’d seen similar displays in the old Soviet Union, so I knew what to expect. But about halfway through the show, it began to dawn on me that these kids were really, really good. There was this one little girl, in particular, who performed a solo act that involved her twirling around while balancing a jar on her head. Her dancing and her coordination were superb, but what really made her stand out was her sheer stage presence. She would bob and weave and tip to the side as though she were about to drop the jar, then flash this charming smile that revealed she was only teasing with us. It was like watching the young Jackson Five. You could book these kids in Vegas tomorrow, I thought, and they’d pack the house.

Just when I thought I had seen it all, the tempo of the music picked up a notch and a brand new act glided onto the stage on movable platforms. Gliding in from the left was a choir stand with about two dozen students; from the right, a bandstand with a full-blown “swing” band, including trombones, saxophones, and an electric guitar. Between them emerged a drum set, a boy and a girl on a xylophone, and a girl playing an accordion. It was the North Korean version of “School of Rock.” And they were rockin’. The star of the act, far and away, was the girl on the xylophone. She waved her sticks in the air and flung her hips to the frantic beat, her pigtails swinging in every direction. By the end, I half expected the guitar player to smash his strings onstage. If I had a cigarette lighter, I would have lit it and waved it in the air — and then pinched myself to remember where in the world I was.

The amount of time, energy, and resources all these various entertainments — from the Mass Games to the School of Rock — consume must be truly incredible. It must be a huge distraction from other more productive activities in what is, after all, a desperately poor country. At one point during the “Prosper, the Motherland” performance, the human LED display showed a series of cartoon images of children studying on computers, traveling to the moon on rocketships, and enjoying DVDs. I leaned over to one of my companions next to me and whispered, “These people are singing and dancing about all these things they don’t have because they’re too busy spending all their time singing and dancing.” But as far as North Korea’s leaders are concerned, the investment is more than worthwhile. It’s vital to instilling the next generation with the proper revolutionary outlook. As Kim Jong-Il himself put it:

Developing mass gymnastics is important in training children to be fully developed communist people, to be fully developed communist man, one must acquire a revolutionary ideology, the knowledge of many fields, rich cultural attainments and a healthy and strong physique. These are the basic qualities required of a man of the communist type. Mass gymnastics play an important role in training schoolchildren to acquire these communist qualities. Mass gymnastics foster particularly healthy and strong physiques, a high degree of organization, discipline and collectivism in schoolchildren, The schoolchildren, conscious that a single slip in their action may spoil their mass gymnastic performance, make every effort to subordinate all their thoughts and actions to the collective.

If nothing else, the whole exercise keeps the population – especially volatile young people — way too busy to cause trouble. With all the rehearsals, individual practice, and performances, virtually all year long, who has time to even think about another way of doing things?

One thing is certain: the North Koreans sure know how to put on a show. I found myself wondering, half seriously, whether with all the incredible talent and showmanship they’ve cultivated, the DPRK wouldn’t be better off just scrapping its nuclear ambitions and transforming itself into the entertainment capital of north Asia. Why be the Prince of Darkness when you could easily be the next King of Pop? Put up a few more casinos — like the one in the basement of our hotel – and North Korea could give Macau a real run for its money. Viva Pyongyang! Those sissies at Cirque du Soleil wouldn’t stand a chance.

Patrick Chovanec is an associate professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in Beijing, China, where he teaches in the school’s International MBA Program. He blogs at http://chovanec.wordpress.com/ where this post first appeared.

Calderon Changes His Cabinet, Not His Policies

On Monday, President Felipe Calderon of Mexico replaced three of his cabinet members, including one of the top anti-drug fighting officials in the country, Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora. The sacking of Medina Mora should not be seen as a change in course in Calderon’s war against the drug gangs. José Cárdenas of El Universal has pointed out that the replacement of Medina Mora has more to do with bureaucratic infighting and politics.

Furthermore, the news that Medina Mora is gone is not likely to come as a surprise to anyone in Mexico. It has been rumored for quite some time now that Calderon wanted to get rid of him (perhaps making him ambassador to Britain).

First, Medina Mora was a dead weight in the Calderon administration. The Attorney General was seen as responsible for the “suspicious tardiness” in bringing to justice those responsible for a childcare fire in the state of Sonora. Medina Mora also received a lot of bad publicity for the flimsy case made against three indigenous women accused of kidnapping six federal agents back in 2006. One of the women is just now set to be released this month after three years of sitting in a jail cell.

Second, and more importantly, Medina Mora has been at odds with Mexico’s top police official and a close ally of Calderon, Secretary of Public Safety Genaro Garcia Luna. The dispute goes back to when the two fought over what role the police would have in investigating federal crimes. According to Cárdenas, Garcia Luna did not believe that the Public Ministry under Medina Mora should have a monopoly on all investigations. Garcia Luna won the turf war this year when Calderon changed the structure of the federal police force, granting them more responsibilities. Medina Mora, on the other hand, simply never gained the respect from Calderon that Garcia Luna currently enjoys.

Whatever the case, Medina Mora was not dropped because of great ideological differences with his boss. Therefore, this cabinet change may not lead to many policy changes.

September 7, 2009

Sarko, Back in Brazil, Makes Jet Deal


Nicolas Sarkozy is back in Brazil, just in time to celebrate National Day in Brasilia. O Globo has a slide show of the celebration.

Sarko has a lot to celebrate. According to Bloomberg,

Brazil’s Senate last week approved a bank loan of 6.1 billion Euros ($3.3 billion) that the government will use to build five submarines and 50 helicopters in partnership with France.

The French will also be building a nuclear submarine for Brazil in the future. The total of that deal is estimated at $10 billion.

Additionally, the two countries signed a nuclear deal that would allow France's partially state-owned electric and gas utility, GDF Suez, to provide assistance to Electronuclear and Eletrobras to develop Brazil's nuclear power industry.

O Globo confirms today that France will be selling Brazil 36 Rafale fighter jets, which would be built by French aerospace company Dassault, for $2 billion. In exchange, France agreed to buy a dozen KC-390 military cargo planes, made by Brazil's Embraer. While Boeing's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Saab's Gripen combat jets were also shortlisted for purchase, France, in addition to having agreed to the KC-390s purchase has also agreed to technology transfer and building the jets in Brazil.

A commenter at my blog contrasts the O Globo article with a report at Zero Hora which refers to the Rafale agreement as 'the intent of the Brazilian government to enter in negotiations to acquire" the jets.]

According to O Globo, as of 2020 Brazil will have the most powerful navy in Latin America, at the same time it develops its offshore oil resources.

As you may recall, Sarkozy has been cultivating business with Brazil for some time now. It's apparently starting to pay off.

Hugo and Mahmoud, Best Friends Forever!


Hugo Chávez, during his stop in Iran, held hands with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and declared Iran to be "a true strategic ally, a staunch ally" to Venezuela:

Speaking to Venezuelan state TV on the phone from Tehran, Chavez defended Iran's "sovereign right" to pursue a nuclear program, which the West fears masks nuclear arms making. Tehran, despite three rounds of U.N. sanctions over its failure to halt uranium enrichment, persists in the pursuit, insisting the program is only for peaceful purposes.

"There isn't any proof that anybody can show that Iran is building an atomic bomb," Chavez said. "We're certain that Iran won't give in to any blackmail."

He said that Venezuela will also likely face such accusations in the future, as it is looking to develop "nuclear energy so that the Venezuelan people can also count on this marvelous resource for peaceful purposes."

But Ahmadinejad is not his only friend. During Chavez's stop in Libya, Muammar Gaddafi awarded him a medal for his part in celebrating Gaddafi's 40th anniversary in power - the day before Gaddafi asked that Switzerland be abolished.

In Syria, Chávez called Israel's government "genocidal" during a two-hour speech that was televised in Venezuela. Israel condemned the statement.

Chávez issued a written statement (in Spanish) today where he even managed to insult Protestants,

"Libya, Algeria, Syria, Belarus, Russia: Countries that go against the Yankee current and integrate, in their own way, as we do, the "Axis of Evil," a name that exudes the smells of reactionary Protestantism."
Over in Venezuela, Infrastructure Minister Diosdado Cabello announced the closing of 29 more radio stations, in addition to the 34 that were closed by the government last month. Cabello also announced that his department is starting an administrative procedure against beleaguered TV channel Globovisión,

Chávez continues his 11-day tour with stops in Belarus and Russia, after visiting Libya, Syria, Iran and Algeria.

September 5, 2009

Why Would al Qaeda Return to Afghanistan?

One point that's being over-looked is the question of whether al Qaeda would want to return to Afghanistan if the U.S. left and the Taliban somehow took over the joint again. Consider: however hunted the top leadership of al Qaeda is in Pakistan, they are protected by the Pakistani government from a full-blown American boots-on-the-ground effort to capture and kill them. America must rely on drones, its own intelligence and the good will of Pakistan to take whatever shots it can at al Qaeda.

Were they to return to Afghanistan, could the Taliban afford the same protection? Not even close. There's nothing stopping the U.S. from invading or aggressively bombing Afghanistan at will. The same cannot be said of Pakistan. Therefore it seems that even if Kabul were to once again fall to the Taliban (an outcome that is nowhere near a certainty even if the U.S. reduces its footprint) al Qaeda would be better served staying put in Pakistan. Or am I missing something?

British Bribes, Afghan Tribes

Kimberly Martin suggests that it's a bad idea to try to bribe Afghanistan's tribes and thus repeat the mistakes the British made a century ago:

The plan draws on the ideas of David Kilcullen, formerly the senior counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq. He recommends that in any tribal situation, the trick is to recruit community leaders who are local power-brokers, able to enforce consistent rules in their communities — in other words, new official maliks. The plan will pay militia members $150 a month for their services. A new Afghan directorate will take over the payments from the United States

At a tactical level this plan may allow the U.S. to compete against the Taliban for immediate influence. But its long-range political consequences sound disturbingly familiar. An outside state gathers intelligence to decide who is powerful and then pays them, making their power even greater. The power-brokers use the funds for patronage. The state continues the payments after the outside power leaves, perhaps eventually being blackmailed to do so. This creates an artificial hierarchy. Resentment grows among those cut out of the deal. Radical Islam may look like an attractive alternative to those not favored.

Mr. Kilcullen helped design the “Awakening Plan” in Iraq, where the U.S. military paid Sunni sheiks to use their militias on behalf of the Iraqi government instead of Al Qaeda. As U.S. forces withdraw, those militias are being integrated into Iraqi security forces. The process is plagued with difficulties, including accusations that Awakening leaders are being targeted for arrest by Shiite officials. Amid resurgent violence in Baghdad, it is premature to declare the plan a long-term success.

Furthermore, Afghanistan is not Iraq. As the RAND analyst Nora Bensahel notes, powerful Sunni sheiks in Anbar Province approached the Americans for protection from Al Qaeda, not the other way around. The sheiks did not want their existing local political control usurped by brutal and predatory outsiders.

Martin concludes that only training the Afghan National Army and using large number of U.S. troops to provide protection will suffice. By doing so, we will supplant the tribal structure, or at least not have to pick-and-choose which tribes we'll co-opt.

Which sounds plausible, as far as it goes. But, again, where is the cost-benefit? Martin suggests, correctly, that we need "tens of thousands" of U.S. and allied soldiers to defend the Afghans from the Taliban. Ok. For how long? At what cost? Which other foreign policy priorities get demoted because the U.S. military, in addition to defending the United States, is now defending Afghans too? Where does the money come from?

Also missing from Martin's analysis is the viability of the Afghan National Army if the "Afghanistan" it purports to defend is actually an appendage of the Karzai family and connected drug kingpins and warlords. Are we nurturing this institution so that it can stage a coup?

Chickens Coming Home to Roost

By Patrick Chovanec

China Daily, the Chinese government’s official English-language newspaper, had an interesting report yesterday. Apparently the Chinese chicken industry is getting creamed by U.S. import competition, and is begging the government for protection. This is sort of a “man bites dog” story, in that normally all you hear about is Chinese imports wiping out higher-cost U.S. industries. In this case, imports from America actually seem to be beating domestic Chinese chickens on price, of all things:

From 2006 to 2008, the broiler imports from the US accounted for 68, 66 and 73 percent of the total Chinese broiler imports. The figure jumped to 89 percent during the first half of this year.

According to an investigation by the animal agriculture association into six major Chinese broiler companies whose output volume made up for 20 percent of the total, the ratio of output to capacity was 79 percent from 2006 to 2008. It dropped to 66 percent during the first half of this year.

“Price is the key reason behind the shift, as consumers have become more sensitive to it during the financial crisis,” said Ma.

In 2008, China’s broiler meat was priced at an average of 10,482 yuan per ton. It was 9,823 yuan per ton for the US product over the same period, 659 yuan lower.

Of course, nothing appears in China Daily without some point to it. The story draws an implicit but clear link between the Chinese government’s pending decision on protecting domestic chicken producers and President Obama’s upcoming decision whether or not to impose special tariffs on Chinese-made tires. China has vowed to retaliate if Obama goes ahead with the tariffs, and it’s not hard to guess what they might have in mind.

Okay, it’s a terrible pun, but if President Obama signs onto sanctions against Chinese tires, the chickens may literally come home to roost.

Patrick Chovanec is an associate professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in Beijing, China, where he teaches in the school’s International MBA Program. He blogs at http://chovanec.wordpress.com/ where this post first appeared.

China’s CCTV to Launch Russian Programming

China’s Central Television will launch a Russian-language channel, the TV’s Vice-President Zhang Changming told reporters Thursday. He indicated that the main objective for the international channel in Russian will be to consolidate mutual understanding, cooperation and exchanges between the People’s Republic of China and the former Soviet republics making up the Commonwealth of Independent States. Following the establishment of strategic partnership relations between China and Russia, the tendency towards a full-format, steady and healthy development of this relationship has taken hold, Zhang said.

The Russian channel will lift off on the background of gala events dedicated to the Year of the Russian language in China and the 60th anniversary since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic and the former USSR. Russian will be the sixth international language, in which TV programs will be broadcast from Beijing. At this moment, the Central Television has international channels in Chinese, English, French, Spanish and Arabic. Future plans indicate the opening of a channel in Portuguese.

What Are Afghanistan's Metrics?

Jennifer Rubin says critics of the war in Afghanistan "have an obligation to step forward with a credible alternative for waging that war or with a scenario by which we could avoid a calamity in Pakistan without victory in Afghanistan."

Well, wait. Shouldn't the proponents of nation building in Afghanistan provide evidence that the stability of Pakistan would indeed be in danger should the United States reduce its military footprint? Rubin sites an op-ed in the WSJ from Frederick Kagan arguing that we have to nation build in Afghanistan for the sake of Pakistani stability. But none of what Kagan writes seems to point toward a complete breakdown of Pakistan. Here's what we know:

1. Pakistani territory is home to a sizable Taliban presence which, despite a stepped up insurgency, has been unable to overthrow the government. Indeed, the Pakistani government continues to support the Taliban (at least Afghan elements of the movement) as a hedge.

2. For all of Washington's professed worry about Pakistan, it seems Pakistan is at least equally if not more concerned with India. Shouldn't that count for something in our calculus?

3. When Afghanistan collapsed in the 1990s, as Kagan argues, Pakistan itself didn't collapse from the instability. It stepped in and propped up its favored side. Those ties continue to this day. Why such a thing wouldn't happen again is never really addressed.

Again, what the proponents of nation building in Afghanistan have to address is how building a stable Afghanistan, with all the costs that entails, prevents international jihadists from launching terrorist attacks against the United States. That is the metric for this mission.

(AP Photos)

September 4, 2009

George Will's Incoherent Critics

At a minimum, the back-to-back anti-nation building columns from George Will have nicely illuminated the strategic choices faced by the United States. Unfortunately, most of Will's critics seem intent on mischaracterizing the debate. Here's Robert Kagan:

To withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan simultaneously would be to abandon American interests and allies in the Persian Gulf and greater Middle East. The consequences of such a retreat would be to shift the balance of influence in the region decidedly away from pro-U.S. forces in the direction of the most radical forces in Tehran, as well as toward al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Taliban, to name just the most prominent beneficiaries. Long-time allies of the United States would either have to accommodate to these radical forces and fall under their sway, or take matters into their own hands. What Will is proposing would constitute the largest strategic setback in American history.

Ah yes. A calm, rational appraisal of the situation. The only thing missing was a reference to Hitler and Neville Chamberlain (although I suspect that will follow in a formal op-ed).

Kagan refers to "interests" in the Middle East as if this ends the debate. It doesn't. It is the debate. The point I take Will to be making is that it is not in America's interests to garrison large numbers of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq and use those soldiers to try and pick political winners and losers among the various factions contending for power.

Kagan is worried that the consequence of a new strategy (which he absurdly, offensively but alas, not surprisingly, calls "a retreat") would be to empower anti-American forces, when there is just as much evidence that the American presence and support for its supposed allies in the region is a catalyst of anti-Americanism. Do we have to remind Kagan of the point Paul Wolfowitz made about the American garrison in Saudi Arabia inspiring bin Laden and his holy warriors? Or the one Gen. McChrystal made about the antipathy people feel toward foreign military forces on their soil?

How Does Obama Feel About Trade?

By Scott Lincicome

I've opined a few times that this Administration has demoted US trade policy in favor of domestic policy priorities and plain ol' beltway politics. And even as serious trade problems mount (like Section 421, Buy American, Mexican Trucking, and Farm Subsidies), I still get the feeling that the White House really would prefer that this darn trade stuff just went away, thank-you-very-much.

Monday's golf outing with President Obama and US Trade Representative (USTR) Ron Kirk epitomizes my concerns pretty well, I think. The day before the Office of the USTR must submit a very important report advising the President on whether he should impose huge tariffs on Chinese tires, and two days before Kirk leaves for New Delhi to meet with other trade ministers in an attempt to revive the comatose Doha Round, he and the President went golfing. Umm, ok, fine. As I've mentioned before, I see nothing wrong with the President relaxing on the links (although the disparate media scrutiny of Obama's and Dubya's golf outings certainly bugs the hell out of me). But should the USTR really blow off a scheduled media debriefing on the New Delhi meetings to hang out with the First Duffer? As Reuters mentions:

Kirk had been scheduled to talk by telephone with reporters Monday about his trip to New Delhi this week to meet with other trade ministers on the Doha round of world trade talks.

Instead, Kirk went golfing with Obama and the Doha briefing was rescheduled for Tuesday.

Look, it was only a delay, and not an outright cancellation. And it's only a presser. I get all that. But it's still a clear signal of the importance of trade to this Administration. Just think of it this way: do you think for one second that the White House would ever, ever let Secretaries Sebelius or Chu cancel a significant press debriefing on ObamaCare or Cap-and-Trade in order to go golfing with the President? Would that ever happen?

The answer, of course, is no. The President cares too much about those issues and about keeping the press engaged, informed and happy. The White House would never want to risk appearing inconsiderate or detached on a policy they deem so critical. Obviously, they don't feel the same way about trade, despite growing concerns at home and abroad that the United States, the world's trade leader for the last 60 years, is now an also-ran, and as retaliation against US protectionism grows.

What a shame. For our sake, let's hope there are no golf courses anywhere near the site of the upcoming G-20 summit in Pittsburgh.
Scott Lincicome served as a senior trade policy adviser for Senator John McCain’s Presidential campaign. He blogs at http://lincicome.blogspot.com where this post first appeared.

U.S. Suspends Foreign Aid to Honduras


Following a meeting of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with deposed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, the US State Department hardened its position on Honduras as it announced today it's terminating foreign aid to Honduras:

The Department of State announces the termination of a broad range of assistance to the government of Honduras as a result of the coup d’etat that took place on June 28. The Secretary already had suspended assistance shortly after the coup.

The Secretary of State has made the decision, consistent with U.S. legislation, recognizing the need for strong measures in light of the continued resistance to the adoption of the San Jose Accord by the de facto regime and continuing failure to restore democratic, constitutional rule to Honduras.

In addition to having temporarily suspended $35 million in aid after Zelaya was ousted, the State Department declared it's in the process of revoking the visas of "individual members and supporters of the de facto regime."

The question remains as to what will happen with $200 million in Millenium Challege funds. The board of the fund meets next week.

Very importantly, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly also announced during the briefing that "at this moment, we would not be able to support the outcome of the scheduled elections." The State Department says,

A presidential election is currently scheduled for November. That election must be undertaken in a free, fair and transparent manner. It must also be free of taint and open to all Hondurans to exercise their democratic franchise. At this moment, we would not be able to support the outcome of the scheduled elections. A positive conclusion of the Arias process would provide a sound basis for legitimate elections to proceed. We strongly urge all parties to the San Jose talks to move expeditiously to agreement.
The U.S. is insisting that Honduras accept in full the San José Accord, which was proposed by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias.

Arias’s seven-point proposal would have a deposed president reinstated even as he has been charged with “crimes against the form of government, treason, abuse of authority, against the public and the State of Honduras” and providing him amnesty; forming a government of unelected officials; transferring power unconstitutionally among the branches of government; and the formation of an extra-constitutional commission composed of foreign officials which would be in charge of “compliance of these agreements,” as if Hondurans themselves could not. The Honduran Supreme Court ruled that any political agreement derived from the San José Accord should be in compliance with Honduras's laws and constitution and the country's rule of law.

Last Thursday Honduran president Roberto Micheletti had offered to step down if Zelaya also renounced his claim to the presidency.

In response to the State Department's actions today, Roberto Micheletti regretted that "the U.S. has taken the side of Hugo Chavez."

After the Honduran courts and electoral board had declared Manuel Zelaya's proposed referendum unlawful and unconstitutional, he had the ballots printed and flown in from Caracas.

September 3, 2009

The Change Japan Needs?


So Japan doesn't love the newly empowered Democratic Party of Japan.

Nonetheless, the DPJ is hitting the floor running: currently 1 trillion yen worth in projects are being considered for suspension, with the revenue instead being dedicated toward pro-demographic growth initiatives such as a child-raising allowance. Will such policies be enough to shore up Japan's deficit in "the ultimate resource"? Can the DPJ really support increasing the already seemingly insane debt-to-GDP ratio (200%)? Can the DPJ actually afford to abandon pro-market reforms?

Talk about Japan's economy is always frustrating, largely because Japan remains one of the absolutely most developed countries in the world. With a 5.4 percent unemployment rate, people really do wonder what the future of Japan is supposed to look like. What can it look like? Has Japan reached the final stage of economic development?

I certainly don't know, but I really do like the robots. Perhaps Japan and Steven Spielberg could collaborate on a sequel to A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.

(AP Photos)

A Syringe Half-full or Half-empty?


A small victory in the war on drugs? A sign of a significant strategic victory in Afghanistan? Really? Maybe.

Afghanistan exports over 90% of the world's heroin product and the opium market constitutes, by some estimates, about 50% of Afghanistan's GDP. Yet, recent news in The Economist may herald a welcome change:

OPIUM poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has fallen by a fifth since 2008 to 123,000 hectares, according to the UN's annual survey released on Wednesday September 2nd. The biggest reason for cheer is Helmand province, where cultivation has decreased dramatically from 103,590 hectares to 68,833 hectares. Opium production has dropped less, by 10% to 6,900 tonnes, because farmers are extracting more opium per bulb. This is still far above the annual global demand of 5,000 tonnes, and oversupply and lower market penetration in Europe have pushed opium prices to their lowest levels in ten years.

However, these new gains constitute a significant strategic victory only if at least three other conditions are met:

1) The war against Afghan cannabis production and the Taliban's illegal trade in gemstones and timber turns a corner.

2) Afghan drug cartels are decommissioned permanently.

3) New opium markets do not appear or simply reemerge elsewhere (i.e.Iraq and Myanmar).

If those conditions are not met, then it's tough to argue that the Taliban have been weakened in any significant way, let alone that a gain has been made in the war on drugs.

(AP Photos)

A Corrosive Interventionism

In his response to Paul Wolfowitz's essay on realism, David Rothkopf says that realists should endorse interfering in a state's internal affairs to advance our interests:

If the objective is to advance the national interest and influence states and our ability to do so is limited and different from circumstance to circumstance, shouldn’t we use every tool at our disposal to do so (assuming the use of the tool provides a net gain toward achieving our goals)? If so, influencing the nature of states or the internal workings of states is not off bounds for realism — it is the beginning of realism — it is the place where the effort to influence states begins.

Daniel Larison counters:

What is strange about this passage is that Rothkopf insists that realists pretend that state sovereignty and international law are ultimately irrelevant in the calculation of the national interest. Even though we have repeatedly seen from the 17th to the 21st centuries that wars fought to change the internal constitutions of other states produce profoundly negative consequences for all parties, respect for state sovereignty and international law appear nowhere in this analysis. If a government respects the principle of state sovereignty, which ours is bound by treaty to respect, it ought to be concerned overwhelmingly with relations between itself and other governments rather than working constantly to subvert them from within. There is no guarantee that changing regime type will change a regime’s behavior in our favor, and if we believe that there are permanent state interests that persist despite major internal political change there is no use in changing regime type.

The problem with the Rothkopf analysis is the U.S. loses either way. If we assert that we care about the internal working of states, then we're bound by a standard we'll never honor (see Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, etc.). If we assert that we only care about the internal nature of states when it suits our interests, then we will have exposed our professed allegiance to democratic principles as nothing more than a cynical gambit.

Moreover, the position that Rothkopf advocates is inherently destabilizing. The U.S. may believe (for good reason) that we have hit upon the ideal mode of governance. That still doesn't give us a mandate to spread that system far and wide. How would Rothkopf feel if the Chinese, pointing to their 6 percent growth while Western economies slumped, declared autocratic capitalism to be the new model for national development and further, declared that it would seek to change governments that didn't adhere to this system. We know how we would react - just as we did to similar claims made by the Soviet Union in the 1940s.

September 2, 2009

An Afghan Warlord's Journey

The Wall Street Journal has a must-read piece today on Ghulam Yahya, an Afghan warlord who was aligned with the West and the Karzai government but flipped over to the Taliban.

So Will it Be Cash or Carbon?


According to a new UN report,

"It will cost between $500 billion and $600 billion every year for the next 10 years to allow developing nations to grow using renewable energy resources, instead of relying on dirty fuels that worsen global warming."

Ooph. The estimate is significantly higher than what anyone was expecting, and no country (perhaps excluding China) currently has the bucks to pay this type of tab. It's tough to imagine the U.S. or Europe selling this to their respective populations with job losses racking up month after month.

The solution? Richard Haass, Moises Naim, and Kemal Dervis seem to all be in relative agreement: at the climate change conference in Copenhagen in December, a treaty that places limits on carbon emissions for all countries is much less likely than an agreement between some major carbon emitters and some major powers to curb their own carbon emissions. A small something is better than nothing; I mean, that's a good place to start. Right or wrong?

(AP Photos)

Why Drones, Not Nation Building, Could Work in Afghanistan

Some commentators - Christian Brose, Joshua Foust, among others- pushing for a prolonged nation building campaign in Afghanistan argue that the alternative approach would fail to secure America's interests. That alternative approach was sketched out by George Will in his column yesterday:

"...do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small potent Special Forces units..."

We're told this won't work because it didn't work in the 1990s and, in Joshua Foust's words, we need massive amounts of troops on the ground to get the right human intelligence. Brose goes onto suggest that the U.S. had been following Will's advice up till now with little success. To which one must ask - oh really? Is al Qaeda operating out of Afghanistan right now?

But the more specific point that a variant of Will's policy - targeted military action but no nation building - was found wanting in the 1990s, I think is also flawed for several reasons.

First, we did not have an armed Predator Drone in the 1990s. As the 9/11 Commission reported, there was a debate in the late Clinton/early Bush administrations whether to deploy one, but it became bogged down on the question of which agency would be responsible for pulling the trigger. Instead, we relied on cruise missiles fired from ships at sea. And we only did that on three occasions. Contrast that with the tempo of operations in Pakistan, where we've launched 53 attacks since the beginning of last year.

Today, with the drones operating in Pakistan, we're "decimating" al Qaeda's senior leadership. And how many U.S. soldiers are on the ground in Pakistan's tribal areas collecting human intelligence?

Second, the U.S. had very little grasp of Afghanistan in the 1990s. Whatever else comes from our post 9/11 experience there, we at least now have better information as to the forces and factions at work. We will have many more intelligence assets in the country than we had during the 1990s. That will almost certainly make an "off-shore" strategy more effective.

It's true that Will's favored approach won't cleanse Afghanistan of its Pashtun guerrillas or transform its society into a beacon of Central Asian stability. And I think it's true that a long term strategy of relentlessly bombing Pakistan and Afghanistan is counter-productive. But if that's the case, then the U.S. would be better served by focusing its energies on the ideological engines of international jihadism. And those are not in Afghanistan.

When Will China Learn to Grow Up?

When in doubt, throw a temper tantrum.

It matters not that China has the world's third largest economy, perhaps the second-most powerful military and is the only potential global rival to the hegemon that is the United States. You can still count on China acting like a third-rate despot with all the delicacies of a bull in a, well, china shop.

So the Dalai Lama decided to visit Taiwan, in an oh-so transparent political maneuver designed to poke and get a rise out of China. Did China take the bait?

At first, Beijing acted only irritated, which was a good move and showed considerable restraint. It absolved Taiwan's beleaguered President Ma Ying-jeou and laid the blame entirely on the opposition and independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

That would've been fine. It'd be better had China just acted like the Dalai Lama didn't exist and ignored the visit entirely. Why give the Tibetan spiritual leader and the DPP the satisfaction?

But after thinking it over, Communist China's mandarins couldn't help themselves. They sunk their teeth in it. Hook, line and sinker.

Never mind that Ma's Kuomintang (KMT) had just sent a kowtow party to Beijing last week to explain themselves. Ostensibly, they told the Chinese that given Ma's weakened political state, they couldn't afford another big brouhaha.

Brushing the KMT aside,

China has canceled or postponed at least two planned visits to Taiwan, and nixed ceremonies meant to mark the expansion of direct air service, said KMT spokeswoman Chen Shu-rong. China had already said its delegation would not join Saturday's opening ceremony for the Deaf Olympics in Taipei.

That last move was so classically clever, it sure would resolve to win over the hearts and minds of the skeptical Taiwanese. In a rare opportunity to host an international athletic event, Taiwan now will get snubbed by its cross-Strait brethren. These deaf Chinese athletes, instead of being celebrated as goodwill emissaries for vastly improving relations between the mainland and Taiwan, are now mere ventilators in the latest Chinese temper tantrum.

But what did you expect from a regime, despite its power and size, that has the diplomatic maturity of a 3-year-old?

...But Smooth Talk Feels So Good


Last week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen lambasted the Obama administration for basing diplomacy more on words instead of actions. "To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate," wrote Mullen.

Former U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs James K. Glassman now provides his own take:

The dangerous narrative in Muslim societies is that the United States and the West are out to destroy Islam. The way to counter that narrative is not to protest that the United States has clean hands and that if you really knew us you would love us -- but to change the subject entirely. The United States is the scapegoat, the animal on which all cares and hatreds are loaded. We only contribute to that way of thinking when we defend ourselves, or talk about ourselves at all.

The accurate narrative, the one that strategic communications should promote, is that Muslim societies are today in the midst of profound change and upheaval.

There's clearly merit to both perspectives (Brookings Institute counter-terrorism expert Dan Byman certainly supports the Glassman analysis), but it seems naive to just dismiss the public diplomacy gains of the Obama administration. Videos like this of the United States President acknowledging Ramadan likely do wonders for the security of the U.S. beyond that which pundits or stats can acknowledge. Giving the world a little bit less of a reason to hate America, at little cost to U.S. blood and treasure, sounds like a good thing to me. In between politics and policy, there are people -- it's too bad that this is far too often forgotten.

(AP Photos)

September 1, 2009

Britain's Lockerbie Document Dump

The British Government has just released a trove of documents related to the release of the Lockerbie bomber. The New York Times John Burns concludes there's no "smoking gun." Instead, the British seemed to view the release as part of a broader effort to improve ties with Libya and re-integrate it into the international community.

What Will's Critics Can't Say

The Internets are alight with responses to George Will's column on the folly of persisting in Afghanistan. Yet nothing I've read to date has adequately addressed the core issue: how a supposed "victory" in Afghanistan does anything to al Qaeda.

It's a very simple question that the war's supporters can't seem to answer: what does a "victory" in Afghanistan do to the international jihadist movement? Does it stop the princes in the Persian Gulf from funding shady Islamic charities that pump money into jihadists groups? Does it stop European, or American-born citizens from deciding they want to blow themselves up? Does it impact the security of the al Qaeda leadership inside Pakistan? Does it prevent al Qaeda from establishing itself elsewhere - in Somalia, Sudan or Yemen?

If all of that would flow from rebuilding Afghanistan, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of more lives, that would be one thing. But can anyone plausibly make such a claim?

Anyone? Wehner? Kristol?

Surge in Afghanistan: A Response to George Will

By Jeff Dressler

Nobody said it was going to be easy. The day after Gen. Stanley McChrystal sent his strategic assessment to the Pentagon, the call for retreat is already being sounded, this time, from columnist George Will. But Will’s article demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of not only the nature of Afghanistan, but counterinsurgency writ large.

Will quotes a Dutch commander in-theatre to highlight the backwards, primitive nature of Afghanistan…"like walking through the Old Testament” the commander said. Surely, Afghanistan does not conform to western understanding of a modern, advanced society… and America does not seek to make it such. Afghans are smart, they understand more than many Westerners assume. To their credit, the majority of Afghanistan’s population supports the war against the Taliban, including coalition and Afghan efforts to achieve some real progress after eight years of neglect. All they want in return is security. Thus far, they haven’t gotten it.

Delving into Will’s discussion of counterinsurgency, he is somewhat correct in describing the Taliban’s ability to “evaporate and then return.” But the Taliban are not superhuman, they are not ghosts. Their ability to “evaporate and then return” is predicated on two current conditions: 1) the absence of sufficient Afghan and coalition forces; and 2) the ability to coerce and intimidate local populations. Much like in Iraq, a sufficiently resourced war (see Surge) and the ability to secure population centers are aimed at removing the insurgency from the population. If this can be achieved, the tide starts to turn.

As far as the “time and ratio of forces” required for a successful counterinsurgency campaign… those numbers aren’t hard and fast either. Achieving the proper ratio will not necessarily require a massive coalition footprint for “a decade or more.” It will however require sufficient indigenous security forces to augment and eventually take-over. An entire brigade of the 82nd Airborne has been tasked with exactly that. The new benchmark for the ANSF is 160,000 police (up from 92,000) and 240,000 for the army (up from 134,000). I’m quite confident that the military understands the necessity of fielding a proper security force, both in sheer numbers and capability.

As far as country’s history of central governance, Will contends that it “never” had one. That’s not exactly true either:

“Afghanistan has been an independent country since the 18th century, with such strong monarchs as Dost Mohammad, who drove out a British incursion in 1842 and ruled for 33 years. Under King Mohammad Zahir Shah, who ruled from 1933 to 1973, Afghanistan made considerable economic and political progress, including the adoption of a fairly democratic written constitution. It was relatively peaceful and stable before a Marxist coup in 1978 set off a long period of war and turmoil whose most consequential events were the Soviet invasion in 1979, the Soviets' departure in 1989, and the rise of the Taliban starting in 1994.”

What’s really surprising about Will’s commentary is his trumpeting of a counterterrorism strategy as the new “revised” policy. This failed Rumsfeldian approach is one of the most glaring reasons for the strategic failures of the past several years. Will contends that this can be done alone from “offshore” drones, intelligence and missiles. Unfortunately, effective counterterrorism is predicated on effective intelligence, that which can only been garnered through an effective counterinsurgency strategy. Some would argue that “offshore counterterrorism” would have serious unintended consequences, some of which we have been privy to over the past several years. Collateral damage (the death of innocent civilians) is perhaps the surest way to turn the population against Afghan and coalition efforts. In short, we become the enemy while the real enemy, the Taliban, capitalize on local discontent. For this very reason, one of General McChrystal’s first orders was to restrict the use of airstrikes, “air power contains the seeds of our own destruction if we do not use it responsibly,” he said.

What we have seen in Afghanistan, even to this very day is the remnants of Gen. McKiernan’s campaign plan. Over the past several years, we have been fighting in the wrong places, in the wrong way and with the wrong assumptions. A significant shortage of resources have contributed to the deleterious situation. A full-spectrum counterinsurgency strategy is needed, and that is exactly what was delivered to the Pentagon yesterday.

There is nothing wrong with questioning the rational of an ongoing war; in fact, it is often quite the responsible thing to do. That said, a misguided call to inaction can be dangerous indeed. Gen. McChrystal was asked to conduct a 60-day campaign review of the war in Afghanistan. Yesterday, he sent that review to the Pentagon. His conclusion: “success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort.”
Jeff Dressler is a Research Analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

"A Petty and Cruel Dictator"

Those were the words of Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, as he introduced Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before a controversial lecture hosted by the University back in 2007. The event was just one stop in President Ahmadinejad's whirlwind visit to the State's that fall; the primary purpose being his address before the UN's General Assembly.

Ahmadinejad returned in 2008 to somewhat less fanfare, but 2009 may be a different story altogether:

With weeks to go until a U.S. deadline for opening talks, a spokesman for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Monday that he plans to travel to New York to give a speech during the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 23. The announcement came as international pressure continued to build for sanctions unless Iran is willing to negotiate over its nuclear program.

The visit will roughly coincide with a Sept. 15 deadline set by the White House for Iran to respond to an offer to open talks on the nuclear issue. It will be Ahmadinejad's first visit to a Western country since the country's June election, which was officially declared a landslide in his favor but which the opposition contends was stolen. The vote led to weeks of demonstrations, with dozens of protesters dying after security forces violently cracked down. President Obama condemned the violence but stopped short of siding with opposition demands that the election be annulled.

Bollinger's words have proven rather prescient in light of the post-June 12 upheaval in Iran. Will we see a repeat of the 2007 circus in New York as a result?

Hariri's Hezbollah Decision Could Benefit Israel

Saad Hariri's pledge to include Hezbollah in his future cabinet, regardless of whether "Israel likes it or not" has raised some eyebrows in Jerusalem.

On the surface, such a decision is against the interests of Israel. Jerusalem was hoping that after Hezbollah's recent defeat in the Lebanese elections, the group's political power would dissipate, thus making it a marginalized political force. Eventually, the hope is that such marginalization would increase calls for the disarming of Hezbollah.

However, all is not lost. Inclusion of Hezbollah in Hariri's cabinet will mean that the organization will now be responsible not just for Shiites. In other words, as member of the cabinet it will now have other groups in Lebanon to answer to for its actions. This will make it more difficult for Hezbollah to start a new conflict with Israel, as the backlash will be much more widespread. More importantly, as well as its military arm, it would risk losing its political influence.

It has been suggested that Joe Biden's visit to Lebanon prior to the May elections was an important factor which helped Hariri win. By including Hezbollah in his cabinet, Israel's arch enemy Ayatollah Khamenei would be forgiven for worrying that his influence on Hezbollah may become diluted in the future. Such concern in Tehran, should be met with relief in Jerusalem. After all, taming Hezbollah politically by including it in Hariri's government is the most cost effective option of dissuading the organization from starting a new conflict against Israel. With Iran becoming increasingly isolated, this could provide a boost to Israel's efforts to maintain focus on Iran's nuclear program.

Why We Need More Troops in Afghanistan


I'm deeply skeptical that nation building in Afghanistan is worth the costs. That said, if the Obama administration is going to try it, it makes no sense to do so with fewer forces.

A consistent theme with the American adventures in both Iraq and Afghanistan has been a persistent unwillingness to match ends with means. In both cases, we have insisted on post war outcomes that completely outmatched our ability to bring them about. Nation building is a manpower intensive exercise. For Iraq, the estimates called for a rotating troop base of 2.5 million - or 1 million more than we had in the entire armed services (including the Air Force and Navy) at the time of the invasion. In other words, even if we had heeded the advice of General Shinseki and poured 300,000 troops into the country, it would have almost certainly not been enough to bring about the outcomes desired by the Bush administration at the outset of the invasion.

None of this is seriously grappled with because, as we know with our domestic budget, Washington does not behave as if it lives in a world of limited resources or constraints on its behavior.

The Obama administration is poised to make a similar mistake in Afghanistan. The U.S. would need somewhere in the neighborhood of 300-400,000 troops to properly police the restive "Pashtun belt." Right now, we have roughly 68,000 troops. Even with NATO forces and the Afghan military (which is not nearly as proficient as Western forces), we still fall short. If we are to protect the Afghan population, root out drug lords, reform their government, and battle an insurgency, then we need to add far more troops into the country.

(AP Photos)

Cheney on Terrorism


Appearing on Fox News, former Vice President Dick Cheney complained that his counter-terrorism wisdom was being slighted by the Obama administration:

"I guess the other thing that offends the hell out of me, frankly, Chris, is we had a track record now of eight years of defending the nation against any further mass casualty attacks from Al Qaeda. The approach of the Obama administration should be to come to those people who were involved in that policy and say, 'How did you do it? What were the keys to keeping this country safe over that period of time?'"

This is a recurring theme in the former Vice President's defense of the Bush administration's counter-terrorism policy and it's one I don't understand at all. By this logic, Bill Clinton did a similarly sterling job protecting the country against terrorist attacks. After all, in 1993 terrorists bombed the World Trade Center - one month after President Clinton was inaugurated. For the remaining eight years he was in office, there were no mass-casualty Islamic terror attack in the United States.

And we know from the 9/11 Commission Report that not only did the Bush administration not seek out the advice of the Clinton administration - they actively spurned it. Then, nine months into the Bush administration, the largest terrorist attack in American history occurred.

(AP Photos)

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