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October 30, 2009

What's Dennis Ross Doing About Iran?


Shortly before he assumed a post in the Obama White House, veteran Middle East hand Dennis Ross co-authored a book on the Middle East titled Myths, Illusions and Peace (reviewed here), with the Washington Institute's David Makovsky (interviewed here).

In the book, the authors spell out how to use Saudi Arabia to put pressure on Europe to bring tougher sanctions to bear on Iran. Specifically, they write that the Saudis have substantial holdings in European banks and energy companies and should "make clear that those who cut all ties to the Iranians would be rewarded" and those that didn't "would fall into disfavor and receive no investments or business." They suggest the Saudis could take a similar approach to the Chinese and Russians.

The authors also advocated opening a secret back-channel to Iran to gage intentions and sketch out the parameters of negotiations.

I wonder, following today's news, if Ross has made any trips to Riyadh lately.

(Dennis Ross while speaking at Emory University by Nrbelex under a CC License.)

October 29, 2009

Iran Fail


So much for the U.S. slowing down Iran's drive for nuclear weapons:

But the European and American officials said that Iran refused to go along with the one feature of the draft agreement that could undermine Tehran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon. That provision would have required the country to give up custody, temporarily, of about three-quarters of its current known stockpile of low-enriched uranium, leaving it without enough to manufacture a weapon. American officials said they thought that would give them a year or so to seek a broader nuclear agreement with Iran, one that could address Iran’s continued enrichment of nuclear fuel.

A senior European official characterized the Iranian response as “basically a refusal.” The Iranians, he said, want to keep all their lightly enriched uranium in the country until the I.A.E.A. provides the fuel assemblies of fuel for the reactor in Tehran, produced and fabricated from foreign uranium.

Only then do the Iranians say that they would be willing to export their own lightly enriched uranium. “So it’s all virtual,” the official said.

“The key issue is that Iran does not agree to export its lightly enriched uranium,” he said. “That’s not a minor detail. That’s the whole point of the deal.”

The question is going to quickly turn to sanctions - how biting and will Russia and China play ball? (Me, I say not biting enough and no.)

This is also, I suspect, going to be twisted into a referendum on the efficacy of diplomacy and engagement - which is silly. Making countries do what they do not want to do is a difficult business absent overwhelming leverage.

(AP Photos)

What Constitutes a Threat?


David Blair in the Daily Telegraph says that Iran represents the largest threat to the West:

Today, Iran's nuclear programme is the number one preoccupation of those charged with protecting our safety, outranking Afghanistan, Pakistan and the general field of counter-terrorism.
This is an interesting juxtaposition. In Pakistan at least, we know that there is an organization dedicated to sending terrorists into America to kill innocent civilians. They have done so in the past and, by all accounts, are trying their best to do so in the future. In Iran, we have a country that poses a geopolitical challenge to certain professed American interests - principally a secure flow of oil from the Gulf and the defense of Israel - but poses no threat as of yet to American civilians inside America and may never.

Which is the more urgent priority? Which has the higher claim on the attention of our national security bureaucracy?

(AP Photos)

More Demands, No Solid Commitments, Fewer Concessions, And Mockery! - America's New Strategy At The WTO?

Contrary to popular belief, the United States actually has developed a formal negotiating strategy as part of the WTO's Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations.  It has not, however, made this double-super-top-secret strategy public.  Instead, I've intensely analyzed almost 9 whole months of data and have employed my unparalleled* powers of deduction to systematically determine the Obama administration's grand WTO battleplan.  And I'm providing it today to you, my dear reader(s), free of charge.

So here you go:

Step One: Disavow any and all prior US negotiating commitments.  In the dark, pre-hopenchange days of July 2008 (and without Trade Promotion Authority), the US delivered its most ambitious negotiating proposal as part of the WTO's Geneva "Mini-ministerial."  The deal worked from the United States' December 2005 negotiating proposal and offered steep cuts in agricultural subsidies and increased visas for temporary workers.  And it almost led to a final Doha agreement.  (Hopes for a deal collapsed at the last minute when parties could not agree on smaller issues like agricultural safeguards).  Since the inauguration, however, the Obama administration has steadfastly refused to accept any of the Bush administration's WTO offers or commitments.  As USTR Ron Kirk said back in May, "We are suggesting that we have to be open to all possibilities."  'Nuff said.

Step Two: Express vague support for the Doha Round while hinting at the need for changes before you could commit to a final agreement. Over and over and over again.

Step Three: Do nothing!  (...while saying you're "reviewing" existing US trade policy and will issue a revised, formal Doha position any day now.)

Step Four: Make loud public demands of your trading partners.  See, e.g., the United States' very public demands over the last month on "sectoral" tariff elimination agreements and intensified services negotiations.

Step Five: Privately backtrack from previous commitments.  According to Bridges, US negotiators have quietly sought more import protection for American farm products during small group meetings at the WTO.  In particular, USTR wants the United States to be allowed to designate an additional 2 percent of agricultural tariff lines as "sensitive" and thus not subject to the overall tariff reduction commitments set pursuant to an eventual Doha Round agriculture agreement.  (As Bridges points out - and needless to say - other WTO Members were not amused by the US suggestion, especially considering steps 1-4 above.) 

Step Six: ???

Step Seven: Profit! 

Unfortunately, Step Six appears to be the real sticking point (see below), and I haven't quite figured it out yet. I think it involves magic beans, unicorns or significant hopechangification - maybe all three.  But fortunately, what this "strategy" lacks in realism, it has more than made up for in hilarious, nonsensical diplo-speak from some of America's trading partners.  For example, Reuters reports on EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton's bizarre non-response on Monday when asked directly about the United States' commitment to the Doha Round:

A top European Union official said Monday she believed President Barack Obama was serious about reaching a deal in long-running world trade talks, but the time has come for all countries to show their cards.

"I think first of all this administration is committed to open trade. It is committed to trying to resolve the Doha round," EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton said at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

"I'd like also to say, but I'm not certain, that we'll see significant breakthroughs in the next few weeks and months. But I do think there's no question in my mind that the energy and commitment of the new USTR (U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk) is absolutely there," Ashton said when asked if she had a clear picture of the Obama administration's trade policy.

To recap:  Ashton is confident in US commitment to Doha, but the time has come for, ahem, "all countries" (hint, hint!) to show their cards.  And when asked if she had a "clear picture" of the United States' trade policy, Ashton responded by changing the subject, noting USTR Kirk's energy, and boldly proclaiming that she kinda, sorta maybe thinks that there might possibly be a "significant breakthrough" in the next few "weeks and months."

Seriously, what the... ??? 

Baroness Ashton's kind-yet-incoherent words aside, other WTO Members and WTO officials are rather peeved with the United States' current negotiating plans. The same Reuters article noted that "Many WTO members believe the blockage in the [Doha] talks comes from Washington, where trade has taken a back seat to issues such as economic stimulus, healthcare, the war in Afghanistan and financial regulatory reform."  Indeed.  And according to Bridges, WTO Director General Pascal Lamy has expressed doubts that the current pace of negotiations would lead to a 2010 conclusion of the Round, and delegates from Brazil, Argentina, Tanzania, China, Switzerland, Turkey, and Taiwan also expressed far more extreme - and pointed - frustration with the state of the negotiations.

Yet despite Ashton's thinly-veiled hopes and all of the public and private grousing over the new US "strategy" at the WTO, the White House does not appear to be changing things any time soon. Here's Reuters one last time:

A U.S. trade official who attended the SAIS event with Ashton and Swedish Trade Minister Ewa Bjorling said the Obama administration "clearly ... has been conducting a broader review of U.S. trade policy."

But there seems to be a mistaken impression "that this review would conclude with a nice leather-bound volume, which would be the Holy Bible of the Obama administration's trade policy and make everything perfectly clear," said the official, who asked not to be identified.

Obama has made a number of choices that already define his trade policy, such as a decision to keep "the shoulder to the wheel" on Doha and to build support at home by increasing enforcement of trade pacts, the official said.

But Obama and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk also have been clear "the biggest mistake we could make is to come back with a Doha agreement that would be rejected politically by the U.S. Congress," the official said.

So the current US strategy of "review, delay, demand and backtrack" is producing (at best) confusion and (at worst) serious doubts that the entire Doha Round can be completed according to the current amorphous negotiating format - a format necessitated by the United States' strategy!  And even America's closest allies are calling on it to make some real commitments and to finally "put its Doha cards on the table."  Yet the United States' immediate response is to repeat the same old tired cliches and mock its detractors with bizarre, ill-informed retorts about leather-bound trade bibles.

Impasse resolved!  Huzzah!

In all seriousness, maybe this anonymous "US trade official" wasn't appointed yet when USTR repeatedly stated that it would complete a formal review of US trade policy and would enunciate the new US "policy framework" at some point (supposedly this fall at the latest).  Or maybe he/she doesn't understand how formal trade negotiations are conducted at the WTO, and that other WTO Members simply refuse enter into substantive trade negotiations with the United States until it has formally provided its negotiators with a negotiating mandate that states clearly where the US stands on the current WTO negotiating texts and its previous offers.  Or maybe he/she does know all of this and is just stonewalling, albeit poorly, until ObamaCare, Cap-and-Trade, Afghanistan, and whatever else is "resolved," and the Obama administration can finally feel like it's in a sufficiently comfortable political place to put some real skin in the WTO game.


Well, whatever their reasons, the Obama administration's current "strategy" is proving to be an abject failure.  WTO Members are no longer listening to American demands.  They are openly grousing about the US failure to commit.  The Doha Round is once again on the brink of collapse, and bilateral and regional FTA activity has exploded as nations search to expand trade by other, admittedly less ideal, means.  So if the White House really is going to stick to this strategy - if these are the United States "cards" and nothing changes before (or after) the December 2009 WTO ministerial in Geneva - Doha is doomed.

And anonymous US snark and derision is certainly not going to save it.

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/

Should the U.S. Play Hard to Get?

How can the United States best influence the behavior of other countries? Stephen Walt thinks we're best served by playing hard to get:

The basic idea is simple: the United States is very powerful and fairly secure, and so our allies usually need our support more than we need theirs. If we understand that fact, we gain a lot of leverage over their conduct by making it clear that our support depends on their cooperation. If we forget that fact, or we start obsessing about our own credibility and need to demonstrate "toughness," we lose that leverage and others start taking advantage of us.
Whatever else one can say for this approach, this is not the prevailing view today. Washington appears far more concerned with staying engaged than in standing back and waiting (hoping?) other nations will invite us to the table. I think the fear of someone else muscling their way into our seat always trumps our confidence in the security and attractiveness of an alliance with the U.S.

But is playing hard to get always the right strategy? On the security front, perhaps, but I can't see how it would help us in, say, winning preferential oil and gas deals.

October 28, 2009

Poll: Hamas Not So Popular


Angus Reid has the details:

Support for the Fatah movement more than doubles public backing for its opponent party Hamas in the Palestinian territories, according to a poll by the Jerusalem Media & Communication Center. 40 per cent of respondents would vote for Fatah in the next election to the Palestinian Legislative Council, while 18.7 per cent would back Hamas.

Another 12.4 per cent of respondents would vote for another party. Almost one quarter of respondents say that they would not vote.

(AP Photos)

Iraq: An Asset or Burden?


Former aide to Vice President Cheney, John Hannah writes:

During his campaign, as well as during the first months of his administration, the president's default position was to talk Iraq down, and to leave the impression that America's only stake in the country was to wash our hands of it as soon as possible. That now seems to be changing, as the administration begins to realize that America's strategic interests could in fact be reasonably well served by having a potentially very prosperous, very powerful democratic friend in what historically has been one of the Arab/Muslim world's most influential countries. Moreover, this can be achieved through a relatively modest dedication of additional political, economic, and security resources -- even as U.S. forces continue to withdraw from Iraq and America's combat role dramatically diminishes.

It's very much an open question just how friendly Iraq is going to be, especially if they are increasingly capable of standing on their own two feet, without our "modest" (whatever that means) assistance. And what exactly do we expect from a friendly Iraq anyway? Help with Iran? Pressure on other Arab states to make peace with Israel? Preferential oil deals? Prolonged basing agreements? All of the above? Which "strategic interests" get served, and how?

And please, define "modest."

(AP Photos)

October 27, 2009

Putting Iraq in Context

Max Boot says that we shouldn't be overly concerned that 155 Iraqis were killed earlier this week:

This reminds me of what I learned long ago in Iraq: acts of violence that occur a few blocks away might as well be a world away. Once again, I learned the details from CNN, just as observers back in the U.S. did. I did not feel the roar of the explosion, nor see the smoke. Nor, I should add, did the vast majority of Baghdadis, much less of Iraqis. That is not meant to minimize the horror of what happened or to downplay its significance. It is simply to place it in some context and urge readers not to lose sight of the big picture: Attacks are still down to their lowest level since 2003-2004. Life has returned to a semblance of normality in Baghdad and other areas. A few high-profile attacks — this one or the one in August — do not change the fundamental, day-to-day reality of life getting better.

Iraq's population is currently 29 million. A bombing that kills 155 Iraqis is the proportional equivalent of a bombing that kills 1,600 Americans. I wonder, in the wake of such an attack, if Boot would issue similar calls for context and urge us to recognize that America remains overwhelmingly safe and secure despite the occasional terrorist atrocity.

(AP Photos)

Making Ourselves at Home


James Shinn laments the lack of American patience in Afghanistan:

The average counterinsurgency war lasts a decade and a half; the successful British campaign in Malaya in the 1950s, for example, took 12 years. Even if Gen. McChrystal gets the 40,000 additional troops he has requested, there is unlikely to be short-term progress in meeting any of the security "metrics" that opponents of the war in Afghanistan will try to insert into the defense appropriations for carrying out the president's strategy.

What the White House says—or doesn't say—about a long-term commitment is hugely important. Americans are famously impatient, and there is cruel wisdom in the oft-quoted Taliban boast that "NATO has all the watches, but we have all the time." Most Afghans are sitting on the fence, waiting to see who wins. Our allies are nervously looking for the exits, and the Pakistanis and the Iranians are hedging their bets in case the U.S. decides to pull the plug.

This underscores the difficulty in trying to wage counter-insurgencies. The notion that the "Taliban have the time" is really another way of saying that the Taliban live there and we don't. A strategy that's based on running out the Arabs and other Central Asians who are a part of al Qaeda is one thing (a thing, mind you, we have already accomplished in Afghanistan and have limited ability to do in Pakistan without significant Pakistani help).

Trying to overcome this basic "problem" has been the task of empires through the centuries.

A counter-insurgency strategy that takes years to unfold may well succeed, provided we set the bar for "success" very, very low (as we have done in Iraq). But it doesn't change the fact that a foreign policy based on inserting ourselves into the minutia of governing other people outside of our constitutional system is inherently difficult, if not impossible.

(AP Photos)

Picking on Brazil

Josh Keating takes Charles Krauthammer to task.

October 26, 2009

So How Strong Are the Taliban?


I confess I don't understand this:

Yet victory by the West and its Afghan allies remains eminently achievable: the Taliban enjoys very little popular support and lacks the kind of superpower patron that enabled the Afghan mujahadeen in the 1980s to defeat the occupying Soviet Army and the Vietnamese communists to outlast American forces in Southeast Asia a decade earlier.

This is a post from Dan Twining under the headline "The Future of the West, and the World it Made, is at Stake in Afghanistan."

So the Taliban - with no superpower patron and little popular support can nonetheless threaten to destroy the entire Western World?

(AP Photos)

Poll: Global Leadership Wrap Up


How are various world leaders holding up? Let's take a look:

Silvio Berlusconi:

Fewer people in Italy continue to trust Silvio Berlusconi, according to a poll by IPR Marketing published in La Repubblica. 45 per cent of respondents express confidence in the prime minister, down two points since September.

Yukio Hatoyama:

The new government of Japan under the leadership of Yukio Hatoyama is remarkably popular, according to a poll by Mainichi. 72 per cent of respondents approve of the performance of the prime minister’s cabinet.

Kevin Rudd:

The popularity of Kevin Rudd has dipped slightly but the Australian prime minister remains remarkably well-liked, according to a poll by Newspoll published in The Australian. 63 per cent of respondents are satisfied with Rudd’s performance, down four points in a week.

On the other hand, 54 per cent of respondents are dissatisfied with the performance of opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull, up six points in a week. 65 per cent of respondents say Rudd is their preferred choice for prime minister, while 19 per cent select Turnbull.

Gordon Brown:

Britain’s incumbent head of government holds a low level of public support, according to a poll by Angus Reid Strategies. Only 26 per cent of respondents approve of Gordon Brown’s performance as prime minister.

The approval rating for Conservative party leader David Cameron stands at 48 per cent, while 40 per cent of respondents are satisfied with the way Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg is handling his duties.

And remember, you can follow headlines from specific countries at our Around the World page.

(AP Photos)

Sarkozy: Not So Much


Angus Reid's Gabriella Perdomo says that French President Nicholas Sarkozy has hit a rough patch:

Nicolas Sarkozy has fallen prey to the 50 per cent curse. With one notable exception, the French president’s popularity has remained in the lower half throughout 2009. With two and a half years to go in his term, and the bulk of his proposals yet to be discussed in the legislature, Sarkozy faces a tough road ahead.

One of the president’s main problems is precisely what helped him get elected—a sort of personality cult epitomized by an addiction to being in the media, for whatever reason. The French have not been impressed with this attention-loving president. Sarkozy’s approval rating fell after he publicized his marriage and honeymoon with former super model and singer Carla Bruni, and many people wanted the story out of the airwaves.

On the other hand, France the country was enjoying favorable global poll numbers as recently as January 2009.

(AP Photos)

October 25, 2009

Will Terror Change Pakistan?


In the New York Times, Salmoon Masood reports that Pakistan's capital city is changing under the relentless assault from the Taliban and allied militants:

But a new normal is evolving here, which some find as disturbing as the attacks themselves. Grim news, killings and scenes of devastation are now all too frequent and give terrorism a strange, disturbing sense of familiarity.

“Maybe we’re desensitized,” Ms. Tahir said. “Or maybe we’re just sick of living like this for the last few years and just can’t take it anymore. Now I check the news like I check a game for the score.”

“It is sad,” she said.

It's hard to make any sweeping conclusion from a single blog post. But you still have to wonder if these changes Masood relays are going to re-orient Pakistan politically. For years now, public opinion polling has revealed a Pakistani population that is consistently skeptical of American leadership and intentions, in addition to being hostile to the Taliban. Will the rash of terrorist attacks change ordinary Pakistanis minds about American intentions for the better (or perhaps even for the worse as they blame the U.S. for the entire mess)?

October 24, 2009

Waiting for Tehran, Ctd.

Trita Parsi (via Laura Rozen) explains Iran's holdup:

Iran told the International Atomic Energy Agency yesterday it wanted til the middle of next week to respond to the written proposal.

"There's two different dynamics here," the National Iranian American Council's Trita Parsi said of Iran's request for more time. "One is at the [international] talks, where ... the Iranians have shown greater flexibility, primarily since the deal seems to implicitly accept Iranian enrichment."

"Then there's the dynamics in Tehran, where various factions have to endorse the deal," Parsi continued. "Due to their internal strife, that seems to hold this up now and potentially scuttle it."

A good point. There's surely a fair amount of Iran-as-usual behavior going on here, and I think a good deal of it is so that the regime can save face. If the negotiators accepted the terms immediately it could have been used and manipulated by factions in Tehran as equivocation, or worse yet, outright surrender to those rotten Western imperialists. Anti-Americanism is their communism; their terrorism. It's a catchall litmus test which serves to isolate—and if necessary, purge—internal rivals.

But more to Parsi's point, the regime is in fact a dysfunctional and inefficient one. You know you have trouble being expedient when you have to create a body dedicated to ensuring expedience. They preside over a regime with outrageous unemployment and terrible inflation. Ahmadinejad was handed a country enjoying a record surplus thanks to oil profits, yet still he managed to drive up the deficit and ruin the economy. They're not good at this government thing.

Why would they be any more expedient at this diplomacy thing?

October 23, 2009

Alert the Neo-Punctualists

Tehran dithers!

Dear J Street, Ctd.

Following up on my earlier post on this matter, I believe Andrew makes a good point here:

What's interesting here is that J-Street's head insists that the only serious lever the US has over Israel should be taken off the table before any deal is even negotiated. This is the lefty, peacenik, goddamned hippie position! Military aid, mind you, is already formally illegal because of Israel's secret nuclear bomb program (which no American president can, you know, mention), but is retained because, well, because it would never be repealed by the Congress. And so Netanyahu knows he can do anything he wants without any real blowback from the US. And he has about as much interest in a two-state solution as I have in marrying a woman.

This leaves the US with no leverage over a central party in critical discussions which indeed affect the national security of Americans. In what other case does that apply?

No matter where you fall on the Israel-Palestine issue, I think this is a rather convincing take-down of J Street's rationale for existence. As I mentioned yesterday, there is a finite amount of oxygen to be sucked on this matter inside the beltway, and the line of scrimmage is off the football field, out the backdoor and in the parking lot with the tailgaters.

Strategically speaking, I just don't get J Street's message. If one's hope is to drive a wedge into Washington's Israel thinking, one would think, you'd need to offer a more convincing alternative than "we're the good Israel Lobby—trust us." It seems to me that a more convincing message alternative to the alleged threat that AIPAC et al. presents would be one based on redefining Mideast relationships as a whole in order to make Israel a safer place.

This, if you believe in the J Street mission, may require advising U.S. policymakers to offer hard truths to our allies and friends in Jerusalem. But the U.S.-Israeli relationship hinges on Washington's enabling and maintenance of Israel's military supremacy in the region. If this topic remains off the table, well then, I'd get used to AIPAC directing the policy traffic for the foreseeable future.

Waiting for Tehran


Still no word yet from Tehran.

I hope they don't say no.

If they do, this would be the biggest mistake Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei has made since he backed Ahmadinejad in the fraudulent June 12 elections. In fact, this would be a bigger mistake, because this time, he won't be facing unarmed Iranians. He will be facing a much more united—and very well armed—international community.

He can't turn this offer down. No way. These guys are not stupid. It's too good an opportunity to miss. They stand to gain so much from it.

But if they do, then it would show how desperate Khamenei is for conflict, be it economic or military, in order to avoid any kind of rapprochement with the west.

As I mentioned in one of my articles, "to Iran's current leadership, the sound of Israeli war planes over Natanz would be interpreted as an imminent threat to its nuclear program. However the sound of US Air Force One approaching Tehran's Imam Khomeini airport for a state visit would be interpreted as a threat to the regime's very existence. To Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, it is more viable to deter the latter than the former.”

I hope I'm proven wrong.

(AP Photos)

Andy Garcia Plays Saakashvili


The Internet is abuzz with the news that actor Andy Garcia will play Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in a film based on last year's war with Russia. Filming began this month for an untitled drama by "Die Hard 2" director Renny Harlin on the five-day August war, when Saakashvili's assault on separatists in rebel South Ossetia drew a devastating Russian counter-strike. The plot revolves around an American reporter who gets caught in the crossfire as war engulfs the country, testing his impartiality as a journalist.

So the question that everyone is asking: "When do we see the scene where Garcia eats his own tie?" (In case some forgot, here is why)

October 22, 2009

What's the Problem with Pre-9/11 Afghanistan?


As someone who has been a skeptic of claims that America needs to embark on a costly program of armed state building in Afghanistan, it's worth mentioning that I found the counter-arguments by Steve Coll here and Peter Bergen here to be rather persuasive in favor of a redoubled commitment.

That said, I'm still not quite convinced and this line from Max Boot reminded me why. Boot argues for a surge in Afghanistan, noting that:

It’s a painful process, but what choice do we have unless we want to risk Afghanistan reverting to its pre-9/11 state?

One of the main reasons that "pre 9/11 Afghanistan" is now considered such a problem is because we did not appreciate the magnitude of the al Qaeda threat then. Michael Scheuer, former head of the bin Laden unit at the C.I.A. has said that on ten occasions, the C.I.A. had actionable intelligence on the whereabouts of bin Laden but the Clinton administration refused to act - reasoning that the costs of attempting to kill or capture bin Laden at those moments outweighed the gains.

Today, with drone strikes occurring at an unprecedented pace, that simply would not be the case. If this administration, or any future administration, had a solid lead on a senior al Qaeda figure they would be much less hesitant to pull the trigger.

And return for a moment back to the Afghanistan of the 1990s and imagine that a more aggressive U.S. takes all ten shots it was offered by intelligence officials. Imagine it is able to land a cruise missile on top of bin Laden, al Zawahiri and Khalid Sheik Mohammad. With them dead, it's difficult to imagine 9/11 even occurring.

In other words, one of the major problems stemming from "pre 9/11 Afghanistan" is not simply that it was a host-state for al Qaeda, but that it was a host state and we did next to nothing about it.

Presumably, given eight years of military occupation, the U.S. has a slightly better feel for Afghanistan and a more extensive intelligence network than it did during the 1990s. And presumably we are going to continue to view the establishment of al Qaeda camps as an urgent threat. Presumably (although I do not know for a fact) a Hellfire launched from a Predator Drone is a more accurate weapon than sea and air-fired cruise missiles, which were the weapon of choice in the 1990s. Those two (or three) factors alone ensure that no matter how bad Afghanistan gets, we're still considerably ahead of the game than we were in the 1990s. Or am I missing something?

(AP Photos)

Dear J Street

Let me just preface my point here by first stating that I don't really have a dog in the fight over the J Street conference going on next week in Washington. Do I think Michael Oren should attended? Sure. Do I think it hurts his standing in either Jerusalem or Washington or Peoria to not attend? Not in the slightest.

I think this conference is one of those events that people living and working in Washington think is really, really important, but in the long run doesn't mean a heck of a lot. It seems to me that because J Street has to compete inside the beltway with already established heavy-hitters such as AIPAC, its supporters are going to take small victories—like, for instance, a really formal and distant letter from Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni—and inflate it into something of undeserved value.

I think Michael Goldfarb makes a fair point:

Livni refused to come in person, refused to do a live satellite appearance, refused to do a taped message. Instead she wrote a letter -- and even then she's careful to say that she and J Street do "not agree on everything."

Right, which makes the gushing over said letter even more bizarre. What would the reaction be if a significant Israeli official actually decided to attend? Would there be fainting at the Grand Hyatt?

I think this hysteria stems from the left's general paranoia and exaggeration of AIPAC's influence on Israeli policy. Such influence is clearly there, but it cannot possibly compete with the imaginations of the AIPAC skeptics. And because of that hyper-inflated fear, these critics seem to think that the best way to compete for influence over Israeli policy is to start another partisan group, and to throw even BIGGER cocktail soirees in Washington hotel ballrooms. That'll show those evil Likudniks!

And look, I love chicken on a stick and free wine in plastic cups as much as the next guy; but it seems to me that if progressives believe AIPAC holds a disproportionate amount of influence over our elected officials, than they should take it to the Congressional level and try to change that dynamic in targeted districts.

Getting excited over a perfunctory letter from a powerless Israeli official only highlights J Street's own relative degree of powerlessness, and thus, hands the power right back to AIPAC.

About that Iraq Troop Withdrawal


While surge Afghan advocates such as Max Boot take to op-ed pages urging an ever-larger influx of troops for Afghanistan, the draw down in Iraq seems slightly less assured:

U.S. commanders may have to slow the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq if Baghdad delays national elections scheduled for Jan. 16 or if other political instability develops, senior Pentagon officials said Wednesday.

A more protracted drawdown of the 120,000 troops now in Iraq would not prevent President Obama from boosting the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but it could increase stress on American ground forces, Vice Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., director for strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.

One rarely, if ever, hears mention of the very large American troop presence in Iraq when discussing Afghan strategy. But these troops will ultimately have to leave Iraq if we are to sustain a larger footprint in Afghanistan without putting massive strains on the Army.

(AP Photos)

An Iran-Israel Meeting?

Haaretz this morning ran an interesting story about a meeting between representatives of the Iranian and Israeli nuclear program.

The article states that “this is the first direct meeting between official representatives of the two states since the fall of the Shah in 1979."

This is inaccurate.

Last year in Jordan, Iran's Science Minister Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi met with his Israeli counterpart Raleb Majdele. What is really interesting in this case is the article states that they held “mozakere,” which means negotiations in Farsi. But it doesn't say what they negotiated about.

This caused a scandal in Iran. Here are the pictures from the meeting.

The only significant aspect about this meeting is that Israelis and Iranians discussed the nuclear issue in the Middle East. Nothing more. The Middle East dimension and setting is the only thing that sets this meeting apart. Other than that, there is nothing new. Iranian and Israeli officials have talked before and have also sat in the same conference on numerous occasions.

Nervous About Japan


Secretary Gates is in Japan reportedly pressuring the new Hatoyama government not to cut such an independent path, particularly when it comes to security policy:

Worried about a new direction in Japan's foreign policy, the Obama administration warned the Tokyo government Wednesday of serious consequences if it reneges on a military realignment plan formulated to deal with a rising China.

The comments from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates underscored increasing concern among U.S. officials as Japan moves to redefine its alliance with the United States and its place in Asia. In August, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won an overwhelming victory in elections, ending more than 50 years of one-party rule.

For a U.S. administration burdened with challenges in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea and China, troubles with its closest ally in Asia constitute a new complication.

A senior State Department official said the United States had "grown comfortable" thinking about Japan as a constant in U.S. relations in Asia. It no longer is, he said, adding that "the hardest thing right now is not China, it's Japan."

I don't think the fundamental U.S.-Japan alliance is in jeopardy (if the chips were down, do people really think Japan is going to tilt toward China or the U.S.). What is in jeopardy - at least for now - is the client state relationship. This is, as the above quote illustrates, unsettling for many in the foreign policy establishment but I think it fits comfortably alongside President Obama's UN speech:

Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world's problems alone. We have sought - in word and deed - a new era of engagement with the world. Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges.

The problem, of course, is that Washington doesn't really believe this. As evidenced by the hand-wringing over Japan, there is a deep resistance to letting even very friendly, pacifistic countries chart a more independent course.

(AP Photos)

October 21, 2009

Placating Protectionists Is A Fool's Errand

A quick question to the Section 421 apologists who swore up and down that the President's decision to impose prohibitive tariffs on Chinese tires was magically going to restore professional protectionists' faith in the overwhelming benefits of globalization:   

So how's that working out for ya?

Here's the latest from BNA (subscription):

Public Citizen, the Citizens Trade Campaign, and the United Steelworkers Union Oct. 19 launched a campaign to “turn around” the World Trade Organization, in an effort to change the administration's path on the WTO.

The Obama administration will be facing a political decision point on Doha Round negotiations, with a smaller negotiating meeting starting Nov. 28 and a full WTO ministerial in Geneva scheduled for Nov. 30-Dec. 2, Lori Wallach , director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, said....

She said the current U.S. agenda on the Doha Round and WTO remained the Bush administration's agenda, and that multinational corporations were seeking to push an expansion of the WTO through the Doha Round to the detriment of the general public.

As part of the campaign, the coalition has an online petition, addressed to President Obama, that says: “Time is overdue to turnaround the WTO. We supported your campaign commitments to create a new trade policy that works for all of us, not just the special interests. That is why we are calling on you to replace Bush's more-of-the-same WTO expansion agenda. We're ready to fight for a WTO turnaround plan we hope you will lead.”...

Leo Gerard, president of United Steelworkers Union, endorsed the Trade, Reform, Accountability, Development, and Employment Act or TRADE Act (H.R. 3012) introduced by Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), which would expand congressional oversight, replace trade promotion authority, and analyze existing trade deals to amend those deals to address who has benefitted and who has been left behind, and what it is that the WTO does and doesn't do.

Gerard said he was pleased that the Obama administration had enforced the rules in the Section 421 case imposing a safeguard on tire imports from China, but said the Steelworkers did not have other Section 421 safeguard cases to file at the moment.

Andy Gussert, director at the Citizens Trade Campaign, rejected any attempt by the Obama administration to move pending free trade agreements with Panama, Colombia, and Korea through Congress. He said there was no political will to do the FTAs, and that they needed to be renegotiated.

Gerard said that no “cosmetic” changes would render the agreements acceptable to the U.S. Steelworkers, Public Citizen, and the Citizens Trade Campaign. He said there was no way to solve the problems in the agreements, citing violence against labor unionists in Colombia, tax havens in Panama, and problems with autos trade in the South Korean FTA.

Gerard's statement re: not bringing any more 421 cases is interesting, and while I'm suspicious, I'd be quite happy to be proven wrong on that prediction.  But I digress.  The point of this post was to, once again, point out the awfully bad strategy that is placating professional protectionists like Public Citizen and the USW in order to advance a free trade agenda.  Now, about a month after the President's 421 decision, after his refusal to repeal or resolve the Buy American and Mexican trucking disputes, and after his shelving of pending FTAs and the the United States' negotiating mandate in the WTO's Doha Round, the anti-traders are demanding no less than the complete dissolution of modern US trade policy

So one more time (in bold!) for those of you who missed it: the "anti-trade crowd" is called the anti-trade crowd for a reason, and no amount of kowtowing is going to change that.  Ever.

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/

The Folly Of Bilateral Protectionism

One of the main reasons that I and many other free traders opposed the President's politically-motivated decision to impose tariffs on Chinese tires under Section 421 of US Trade law was the immense likelihood that stopping Chinese imports would just increase other countries' US market shares, rather than significantly improving domestic tire production.  As I noted at the time, tire producers in Mexico, South Korea, Indonesia and elsewhere "gotta be quietly dancing in their offices because China - their main competitor for US market share - is now hobbled."  In fact, shortly after the Section 421 decision, USTR Ron Kirk had a rare moment of candor in Brazil when he basically admitted the same thing: "In the short-term [the tire restriction] could mean that we buy a lot more tires from Brazil."  (So much for assisting US tire manufacturers and workers, huh?)

Anyway, from today's Economic Times (India) comes further proof of the inevitable trade diversion that occurs when you ban China's (or any single country's) imports:

The US government’s move to levy anti-dumping duty on Chinese steel pipes has provided Indian manufacturers an opportunity to increase exports to the US. India’s steel pipe makers such as Maharashtra Seamless, Jindal Saw and Indian Seamless Metal Tubes are all set to more than double their exports to the US.

The US recently imposed preliminary import duties ranging from 10.9% -30.7% on steel pipes, used to deliver oil and gas, from China in order to protect the domestic pipe making industry from low-priced imports. As per industry estimates, China exported 1.9 million tonnes of steel pipes to the US last year....

Maharashtra Seamless produces 2 lakh tonne of seamless and electric resistance welded (ERW) pipes annually. Its exports to the US stood at 20,000 last year, which is expected to go up to 70,000 tonnes this year. India’s seamless, spiral and ERW pipe making capacity is close to 5 million tonnes currently....

Jindal Saw has saw and seamless pipe manufacturing facilities in India with a total production capacity of 1.6 million tonne. The company also has double joint and coating facilities in North America. It exported 7-10% of the total produce to North America last year and is expected to increase exports to 15-20% in the coming months.

So there you go: imposing tariffs on Chinese pipe imports ends up increasing Indian imports of the same product.  It's like a big, global game of whack-a-mole!

As I've noted previously, such trade diversion is part of a larger phenomenon regarding China's role in the global economy - that its producers historically have taken market share away from other foreign (mostly Southeast Asian) exporters rather than American manufacturers.  As such, it's completely expected that Indian and other foreign producers should rejoice every time a domestic industry or union files a request for protection from Chinese imports alone.  Their exports increase.  Good for them.

The only problem, of course, is that the point of bilateral protectionism is not to improve other foreign producers' shipments to the US, and domestic prices inevitably rise due to the removal of a low-cost supplier from the market (and increased transaction costs as importers hunt for new overseas supply).

So American production doesn't increase, yet US prices do.  Awesome.

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/

Coming to America

Charles Wesley Mumbere—nurse's aid by day, Ugandan king by birth:

No word yet on Mumbere's "queen to be."

Check out more great stuff on the RCW video page.

Our Three-Day International Nightmare May Soon Be Over


It looks as though Iranian negotiators have agreed to a draft proposal for transferring the Islamic Republic's known uranium stockpiles.

The Great Panic of October 19, 2009 may be drawing to an end. This of course doesn't account for the possibility of any secret uranium caches, but it does reflect a willingness from Tehran to alleviate primary concerns surrounding the regime's enrichment activity.

Keep in mind that Security Council gridlock pretty much mirrors 2006 circumstances; when Iran rejected a similar proposal by the Russians to enrich Iranian uranium. Western leverage appears no greater today than it was back then, and the differences between then and now are subtle. One reason for the sea change is the domestic discomfort inside Iran. Still smarting from the June 12 unrest, Tehran has some tough decisions to make in the coming months on public gas subsidies and declining oil prices are limiting Iranian options—to fulfill domestic consumption needs, the country must diversify its energy production. Multilateral or unilateral sanctions are not something they can afford at this time.

But I believe it was Washington's acknowledgment of those energy needs and nuclear rights that has made a big difference in getting Tehran to play ball on this. To be fair, President Bush also paid similar lip service to Iran's nuclear rights; but without direct talks Iran had little reason to move on the issue and calm Western nerves (again, that divided Security Council matter).

The Iranian regime wants the bomb for security and regional legitimacy. If the West can secure for them the first two items, Tehran may be willing to bend on the first.

We'll see what happens on Friday; the deadline for both Washington and Tehran to approve the deal.

(AP Photos)

Poll: U.S. Views on Afghanistan


The Washington Post and ABC News are out with new data surveying American attitudes toward Afghanistan and the Obama administration's handling of the war:

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has recommended the substantial increase in troop strength, and 47 percent of those polled favor the buildup, while 49 percent oppose it. Most on both sides hold their views "strongly." The survey also found that a large majority of Americans say the administration lacks a clear plan for dealing with the problems in Afghanistan....

As the administration's review continues, 57 percent of those polled approve of how Obama is carrying out his duties as commander in chief, but confidence in his leadership on the Afghan war has eroded since the spring. In previous polls, Obama received some of his highest ratings in relation to his dealings with Afghanistan, including 63 percent approval in April of his handling of the situation there. In the latest poll, 45 percent approve, down 10 percentage points in the past month alone, and 47 percent disapprove, an increase of 10 points. Nearly a third of those surveyed say they strongly disapprove.

Not exactly firm political ground to be crafting a war strategy.

(AP Photos)

The 2,600 Pound Elephant in the Room


Has Iran finally relented on its nuclear program? The New York Times David Sanger notes that even though Iran has agreed to a draft proposal to export its uranium, there's still a major potential loop hole:

The key to the agreement, if it works, would be in the timing of the shipments — a detail officials were not discussing in Vienna in the hours after the announcement. If Iran actually sends the full 2,600 pounds of low-enriched uranium at issue to Russia in a single shipment, it would have too little fuel on hand to build a nuclear weapon for roughly a year, according to the agency’s experts. But if the fuel leaves Iran in batches, the experts warn, Iran would have the ability to replace it almost as quickly as it leaves the country.

If Iran does indeed ship the whole 2,600 pounds at once, I think we see the contours of the "least worst" outcome, where diplomacy can gum up the works a bit in Iran. Ultimately, Iran can still cheat and wiggle its way toward a bomb but - like North Korea during the 1990s Agreed Framework - they'll have to work their way there along a more torturous path. Not ideal, but with an Iranian population clearly hostile to its current regime, any play for time is valuable.

(AP Photos)

October 20, 2009

What Buying a Used Car Taught Me About Negotiation


I don't quite get the neoconservative panic attacks over Iran's alleged "double-cross" during yesterday's negotiations in Vienna. As David Sanger reported, these were mostly blusterous and veiled threats of the things Iran could do should they find Western offers unacceptable.

And as one participant in the negotiations put it:

“This was opening-day posturing,” one participant in Monday’s talks said, declining to be identified because all sides had agreed not to discuss the specifics of the negotiations. “The Iranians are experienced at this, and you have to expect that their opening position isn’t going to be the one you want to hear.”

Precisely. Much in the way a U.S.-Israeli joint defense exercise scheduled oh-so-coincidentally for today is posturing.

This makes plenty of sense to me, and while the actual results remain to be seen, I can't help but wonder if those screaming of Iranian betrayal have ever had to haggle or negotiate for anything; like a used car, or a raise at work. I have, and I've always been told that you never walk in agreeing to the first offer or asking price if you think you can get something more to your liking. The last thing the Iranians can afford to do now is walk into negotiations with zero bargaining leverage. They understand that this potential uranium deal is as much a chip for them as it is a coup for the West; should it be agreed upon, that is.

What should the U.S. have done, stormed out of a two-day negotiation in the first hour because they didn't like what they had heard? That seems like a bad method for buying a used car, and an ever worse way to negotiate with one's enemies.

October 19, 2009

Against Accomplishment


I think Stephen Walt misses the mark with his post urging the Obama administration to start working on a "Plan B" to accomplish its foreign policy objectives. It's not that I think everything's going swimmingly, but that the standard is unreasonable. Take Walt's list of things that won't happen by 2012:

1. There won't be a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, and Israel will still be occupying the West Bank and controlling the Gaza Strip....

2. The United States will still have tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan. Victory will not be within sight.

3. Substantial U.S. personnel will remain in Iraq (relabeled as "training missions"), and the political situation will remain fragile at best.

4. The clerical regime in Iran will still be in power, will still be enriching nuclear material, will still insist on its right to control the full nuclear fuel cycle, and will still be deeply suspicious of the United States. Iran won't have an actual nuclear weapon by then, but it will be closer to being able to make one if it wishes.

5. There won't be a new climate change agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

6. Little progress will have been made toward reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world. ...

Looking at this list, what's striking is that with the exception of the second and third item, these are basically challenges that transcend the ability of the U.S. to deal with. At least, they transcend the ability of a single U.S. administration. Number 1 has eluded any number of presidents. Number 4 is inevitable unless Walt believes the U.S. should wage an overt or covert effort at regime change - which I don't believe he advocates. Number 5 and Number 6 depend in large measure on Congress or the willingness of other major powers to go along.

More broadly, the tendency to treat foreign policy like domestic policy - where the president is supposed to boast a set of achievements at the four year mark - strikes me as unreasonable and actually encourages the kind of international activism that I've always assumed Walt was skeptical of. Worse, it obscures the complex nature of the issues and the reality that America only has a limited ability to influence events.

(AP Photos)

There's an EMP Threat?

A while back I looked askance at the assertion that Iran would smuggle an electro magnetic pulse (EMP) weapon into the U.S. Little did I know that there is an entire sub-culture dedicated to worrying about these weapons and the possibility of their use against the United States.

I don't know the ins and outs of the technology so I don't know if Robert Farley's dismissal of the threat is plausible on technical grounds. But that's all rather beside the point - it seems clear that such a device is far beyond the technical ken of al Qaeda. And in the event North Korea or Iran managed to perfect such a weapon, they wouldn't launch one for the same reason they won't launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States. It would be suicidal.

Poll: U.S. Views on Iran


The Washington Post and ABC News are out with a new poll on American views of Iran's nuclear program:

There's less, though still sizable backing for military engagement, with 42 percent of Americans supporting the bombing of Iran's nuclear development sites and 33 percent advocating invading the country with U.S. ground forces (54 and 62 percent, respectively, oppose these actions).

Three in 10 support direct financial incentives such as aid money or more trade; two-thirds of Americans oppose these potential inducements.

Public reviews of how President Obama is handling the situation with Iran have changed little since the spring and summer: 52 percent of Americans now approve of how he is doing in this area, 39 percent disapprove. About seven in 10 Democrats approve of how the president is dealing with Iran, while a similar proportion of Republicans give him low marks here. Independents split 51 percent positive, 41 percent negative.

As noted earlier, it's always best to view public opinion warily. Still, it's interesting to see that about a third of the country supports bribing Iran outright and another third supports invading them.

(Representatives of the U.S., France, Russia and Iran meet today in Vienna. AP Photos)

A Hectoring Super Power

Over at the Asia Times, Spengler writes of Central Asia and the Middle East:

Without America to mediate, scold and restrain, each of the small powers in the region has no choice but to test its strength against the others. That is why the major players in the region resemble a troupe of manic Morris dancers in a minefield.

This analysis only makes sense if there was a point in time in which this region wasn't a minefield and the various regional players never jockeyed for position. I can't think of one (although I'll gladly stand corrected) - in part because this view of American power is facile. America has a limited means through which to control the behavior of independent nations. We can, at times, restrain actors from making very serious moves, particularly when our interests are directly implicated, but keeping a lid on sundry ethnic tinderboxes isn't exactly an American strong suit, is it?

Jundullah and Iranian Nationalism

I think David Frum makes a serious error in his analysis of yesterday's suicide attack in Iran:

Iran is not a nation-state. It was built as a multiethnic empire, and even today Persian speakers make up only about half the population. (51% is the conventional estimate.)

Iran is much more Shiite (over 80% at least) than it is Persian. But it’s an interesting question to what extent Iran’s distinctive Shiism should be understood as an expression of Persian nationalism. If so, that too might inflame the resentment of non-Persians against the regime.

It would be a mistake to assume--much as the Bush administration likely did--that Iran is a fractiously torn assortment of tribes, sects and races waiting to be exploited. While it's true that the idea of Greater Persia once extended well beyond the presently drawn borders, the nationstate of Iran is not the geographical product of imperialists or occupiers. The state as it exists today is very much the modernist product of Pahlavi nationalism.

Saddam Hussein couldn't flip Iran's Arabs, nor could Ayatollah Khomeini (a critic of the nation-state model) ever truly export his revolution--in the end, it was still about nationalism and the needs of Iranians; not Shiites.

Jundullah is a recurring problem for Tehran, and they're one that predates the June 12 unrest. The group has virtually nothing in common with embattled opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi and his base, and it would be a mistake to look for patterns tying the two together. One is a militant separatist group, while the other is asking for fair elections--a reformist impulse, not a revolutionary one.

The real story here is how the weekend's suicide bombing will affect relations between Tehran and Islamabad. It's often assumed that Pakistan's "Sunni Bomb" spurred Iran's own nuclear ambitions, and the suspicions held of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence can only be outdone in the Iranian imagination by Western and israeli intelligence outfits.

If anything, the attack highlights Washington's often bizarre choices in the Near East. American interests in the region are in truth more in sync with Tehran than other local actors. The weak states in both Pakistan and Afghanistan--coupled with the Sunni militants they foster--are as much a threat to Iran as they are to us. But until the West can reconcile its differences with the Islamic Republic it will continue to make illogical bedfellows in the Middle East and Asia in order to "isolate" the Iranians; who are, again, the more logical allies in the region

Karzai Digs In


The Times is reporting that Hamid Karzai won't play nice:

President Karzai is refusing to accept the result of a UN-led probe into vote-rigging in Afghanistan's presidential election and a senior aide said today that the crisis had reached a "deadlock".

Mohammad Moin Marastyal, an Afghan MP and leading member of Mr Karzai’s campaign team. said that the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) had twisted the facts in a deliberate attempt to trigger a run-off vote.

“Effort has been made to lower Karzai’s vote to below 50 per cent," Mr Marastyal said. "Now we are in a deadlock.”

One of the consequences of Western governments proclaiming from the roof-tops that there is no greater foreign policy issue than Afghanistan is the impression in the minds of Afghan leaders that, corrupt or not, the West is not going to bail on them. Karzai, at least, certainly isn't acting as if his government is desperately in need of international support.

(AP Photos)

An Untenable War


Jeffrey Gettleman's piece on counter-terrorism in Somalia raises an important point - what is America's over-arching strategy? Reflecting on the Battle of Mogadishu (aka Black Hawk Down) and the American withdrawal that followed, Gettleman writes:

But American policy has pivoted since 1993 to another question: What happens when we don’t get involved?

The experience in Somalia speaks to that concern as well — to the problems of ignoring any patch of ungoverned territory, especially in the Muslim world, whose anarchy might tempt the arrival of the likes of Al Qaeda.

The reality of the world we live in is that there are going to be many places that fit the above description - either entire states, like present day Somalia, or portions of states, like present day Pakistan. This isn't something we can necessarily fix at a cost that would be acceptable or even commensurate with the threat. Instead, it's something we need to monitor and manage.

But there is also a narrative developing that all these troubled states need is some American attention and resources and all will be well. How many times have we heard someone bemoaning America's "withdrawal" from Afghanistan after the Soviet defeat. Such talk makes it sound as if there was a plausible and iron-clad mechanism by which to ensure that post-civil war Afghanistan would be put firmly on the road to modernity, when in fact we know no such thing.

(AP Photos)

World Moving on Free Trade Without America

By Scott Lincicome

The world is moving on without the United States. Our trading partners have decided that they can no longer wait for the White House to emerge from its self-induced ObamaCare coma. They are moving on, and both the United States and the global economy are worse off for it.

It's no longer a secret that, after charting an aggressive trade liberalization plan last spring, the Obama administration has since eliminated all tangible support for free trade in a wrongheaded attempt to ensure support for health care "reform" and climate change legislation. Indeed, administration officials have openly admitted that they've shelved the Mexican trucking dispute and pending FTAs until these domestic priorities are achieved. Other issues, such as a Doha negotiating mandate, Buy American and Section 421, have been similarly sacrificed on the mantle of domestic politics.

The effects of the White House's political strategy are being felt on both the multilateral and bilateral levels. On the multilateral front, I've already documented the blowback: first, the EU and Brazil have openly fretted about the United States' failure to establish firm negotiating positions in the WTO's Doha Round, and they implored us to get in the game or else they'd be forced to move the process along without American input; second, our trading partners essentially blew off very public US demands on "sectoral" tariff elimination agreements and services liberalization. As I said the other day, we're quickly becoming a "WTO backbencher."

On the bilateral front, our failure to ratify pending FTAs with Colombia, South Korea and Panama is producing equally distressing results. I freely admit that I'm not a huge fan of bilateral FTAs and strongly prefer unilateral or multilateral liberalization, but I also understand that politics and a comatose Doha round often make bilateral FTAs the only option for significant market opening. So the fact that our trading partners are completing such deals right and left while we sit on agreements that were signed years ago is a problem. Consider just a few examples:

* On October 15, South Korea completed a massive (~$28 billion) FTA with the EU that should enter into force in late 2010. The agreement, which will seriously disadvantage US businesses in the Korean and European markets vis a vis their European/Korean competitors, actually used the Korea-US FTA (KORUS) as a template to speed completion of the complex negotiations. Moreover, the EU showed real backbone by completing the agreement despite significant resistance from its domestic automakers - the exact same type of resistance that has stopped feckless American politicians from considering and passing KORUS. Indeed, KORUS is actually stronger on autos than the EU agreement, because it contains a "snapback" provision that would re-establish US tariffs on Korean automobiles in the case of a dispute over the agreement. The EU agreement has no such provision. So even though the United States completed KORUS more than two years (June 30, 2007) before the EU-Korea deal, it is very likely that the latter will enter into force long before the former. And American exporters will pay the price. Embarrassing.

* South Korea is also negotiating bilateral FTAs with Canada, Mexico, India, New Zealand, China, Colombia, Peru, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and Japan; and Seoul is exploring deals with Mercosur, Malaysia, Turkey, and possibly Israel. All the while, the completed KORUS agreement collects dust.

* Panama and Colombia are following in the Koreans' footsteps, albeit on a smaller scale. On August 11, 2009, Panama and Canada completed FTA negotiations, and Panama announced recently that it has begun bilateral negotiations with the EU and several Caribbean nations. (A Chile-Panama FTA is already in force.) Since the US-Colombia FTA was signed in November 2006, the Colombians have completed bilateral trade agreements with Canada, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), and the "Northern Triangle countries" (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras).

These bilateral examples closely parallel the aforementioned multilateral problems and make clear that US trading partners are not sitting on their hands while the White House plays political footsie with their economic futures. Optimistic free traders like AEI's Claude Barfield hope that other nations' bilateral moves will push the United States to get its free trade act together in order to avoid harming our ability to compete in key markets. One can only hope, although I'm not so sure that anything will change until the domestic political dynamic shifts significantly - whether that's through the passage or failure of ObamaCare and cap-and-trade or a GOP rout in the 2010 elections.

However, if Barfield and others are right and the extracurricular activities of Korea, Colombia and Panama (most notably implementation of EU-Korea FTA) force the White House to advance the pending FTAs regardless of domestic politics, the irony will be as thick as it is depressing. The United States initiated these (and other) trade agreements pursuant to "competitive liberalization," under which we entered into bilateral/regional FTA negotiations with several countries in order to get them to compete for access to the US market and thus offer greater concessions at a faster pace. Supporters (like former USTR Robert Zoellick) also claimed that competitive liberalization would motivate WTO Members to complete the Doha Round, as the US FTAs would provide preferential access to only a select few nations. If the United States is forced to pass FTAs with Colombia, Korea and Panama in order to keep pace in their markets, America will have become the target of competitive liberalization, rather than its champion. Should this "bizarro competitive liberalization" come to pass, I think it would be safe at that point to officially conclude that that the United States no longer leads on free trade but instead is forced to pursue it as a last resort.

And that would be a shame.

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/

October 17, 2009

A Tale of Two Media in Honduras Crisis

Here's a chronology of the Honduran crisis, as summarized by Agence France Presse (AFP) and Noticias 24 (my translation, found at the Noticias 24 website).


From left to right, above:
28th: Coup d'etat, Zelaya removed from power.
Noticias 24:
28th: Zelaya attempts to carry a popular vote to call a referendum and change the Constitution.
200 troops enter his house in the early morning, capture him and expel him to Costa Rica.
Congress names its president, Roberto Micheletti, as new head of state.
The international community unanimously condemns the coup.
30th: UN General Assembly requests that Zelaya be restored to power.

7th: Costa Rican president Oscar Arias, starts as mediator.
24th: Zelaya briefly steps on Honduran soil, but returns to Nicaragua.
Noticias 24:
2d: European Union ambassadors leave Honduras.
3d: OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza arrives in Honduras.
4th: OAS suspends Honduran membership.
5th: Honduran army prevents Zelaya's jet from landing in Tegucigalpa.
7th: Costa Rican president Oscar Arias becomes the crisis mediator.
9th: Arias meets separately with Zelaya and Micheletti in San José, Costa Rica.
18th: Arias proposes the San José Accord, which supports Zelaya's reinstatement. Micheletti's delegation rejects it, Zelaya's delegation considers the dialogue ended.
20th: The EU freezes 65.5 million euros of aid to Honduras.
24th: Zelaya briefly steps on Honduran soil, but returns to Nicaragua.

31th: The electoral campaign starts for the November 29 elections.
Noticias 24:
25th: OAS mission to Honduras ends without Micheletti's support.

21st: Zelaya secretly returns to Honduras and seeks refuge at the Brazilian embassy.
27th: Micheletti restricts civil liberties and silences opposition media.
Noticias 24:
3rd: US suspends aid for $30+ million.
10th: US suspends the visas for Micheletti and dozens of Honduran coup-supporting officials and businessmen.
21st: Zelaya secretly returns to Honduras and seeks refuge at the Brazilian embassy.
27th Micheletti restricts civil liberties and silences opposition media.

5th: Micheletti admits the possibility of reinstating Zelaya; de facto government reinstates civil liberties, opening the possibility of dialogue.
7th: Zelaya's and Micheletti's delegates start a dialogue supervised by the OAS.
14th: They reach an agreement, which must be approved by both leaders.
Noticias 24:
7th: Zelaya's and Micheletti's delegates start a dialogue supervised by the OAS.
14th: They reach an agreement, which must be approved by both leaders.

October 16, 2009

A Visit to North Korea, Part 5

By Patrick Chovanec

(See earlier installments here.)

The most tantalizing mystery about North Korea is its people. How do they live their lives, and what do they really think? Their belief system seems so alien, so isolated from all we know about the rest of the world, we wonder whether they have any sense of the disconnect or not – and if so, what they make of it.

Ever since I returned from my trip to the DPRK last year, one of the first questions friends always ask me is whether we ever had the chance to talk or interact with regular people there. The short answer is no. North Korea is not the kind of place where any foreigner – even the ones stationed there for months or years on diplomatic assignment – can just walk up and chat with a typical person on the street, or swing by a local pub for a round with the locals. To even attempt to do so would be courting real trouble – for the unwelcome foreigner, perhaps, but far more seriously for the hapless Korean counterpart who would fall under immediate suspicion of being a spy or worse.

It’s a strange isolating feeling, visiting a country where nobody can talk to you, except your guides — and even they tend to be pretty cagey. As our bus passed through the streets of Pyongyang, taking us from one officially sanctioned tourist site to the next, we craned our necks to catch glimpses of what might or might not be typical daily life outside the window. Pyongyang, we knew, is hardly typical. The country’s capital is a showcase, filled with grand statues of godlike leaders and fearless patriots, imposing monuments – such as the oversized replica of the Arc de Triomphe that greets you on the way in from the airport — and vast open plazas devoted to celebrating the State. There is no such thing as a Pyongyang “native.” Its population, carefully controlled at 2 million, is selected from the most politically loyal and useful citizens all across the country, and is subject to regular turnover. After the army, of course, residents receive the best food and housing in the country, and priority access to fuel and electricity.

It may seem disappointing then, that aside from its monuments, Pyongyang looks a lot like an obscure provincial city in China – the kind laid out in the Mao era to site factories out in the back of beyond. The living quarters, set out row on endless row along broad empty boulevards, are square concrete apartment blocks. They are relentlessly grey and, up close, somewhat grimy. If you look into the windows, you can see that every single room – without exception, in both offices and homes — has dual portraits of Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il prominently hung on the wall. Pedestrians are orderly and relatively few in number, especially compared to chaotic China, and most appear to be Party professionals going about their business in simple but neat attire. Public areas are kept extremely clean, but I did see some people, including children, in ragged clothing gathered around what looked like improvised campfires in a few of the lawns next to intersections. The only signs along the street were propaganda billboards in hammer-and-sickle “socialist realism” style, extolling the efforts of the workers, the vigilance of the military, and the farseeing vision of their leaders.

One of the few chances we had to get off our bus and “mingle,” as it were, was our visit to Pyongyang’s subway system. This is a standard stop on all tours, since for some reason the North Korean authorities are inordinately proud of this marvel of industrial-age technology. I’m guessing, from its resemblance to the Moscow subway, that this was a gift from the Russians. It was, at the very least, inspired by them. Like Moscow’s, it’s something halfway between a nuclear bomb shelter and a cathedral. After descending one of the longest escalators I’ve ever seen, you are greeted by a gilt mosaic of Kim Il-Sung, surrounded by a throng of happy followers, waving to you from the other end of a cavernous hall. Glittering chandeliers hang from the white marble ceiling, while frescos of joyful Koreans cover the walls. The subway cars themselves are rickety wooden trams, probably the original rolling stock. Passengers, directed by female conductors in smart blue uniforms using semaphore flags, move on and off with a purpose. Onboard the cars, which we rode to the next station, dual portraits of the two Kims stare down from their perch above the connecting door. Big Brother is always watching.

A map on the wall of the next station depicts a rather extensive subway network, with several stations scattered across Pyongyang. Several South Koreans I know are adamant that the entire thing is a sham, a Potemkin Village that consists of just two stations, and even those just for show. The “riders,” according to them, are all actors posing for tourists. They swear they have actually seen people get off one train and get right back on heading the opposite direction, in an infinite loop. From what I saw, I can’t say whether this is true or not, but it sounds a bit outlandish to me. It might well be true that there aren’t actually that many stops, and that the others stations aren’t anywhere near as fancy. But to run the whole thing just to impress foreigners … well, that would be pathetic, because it’s just not that impressive.

I did find it a bit odd, though, how all the other subway riders – including schoolchildren – resolutely ignored us, as though we were invisible. You’d think they would show a little bit of curiosity, but they didn’t even give us a glance. It hardly proves they were all actors, however, because the same was true of the passersby along the sidewalk when we finally resurfaced to street level. It was as though they had seen so many foreigners they were bored by us, which can hardly be the case. Perhaps they just figure it’s safer to pretend not to notice.

Nearly everyone who passed by had a red plastic badge on their lapel, usually a star or flag with a tiny picture of Great Leader Kim Il-Sung on it. While some of the shops set aside for tourists sold similar badges as souvenirs, these were the real thing. They can’t be bought, they have to be earned. The precise type of Kim badge you wear – differences which can barely be distinguished by Western eyes – signifies your place in the North Korean pecking order. And you’d better take care of it. Lose your Kim badge and you’d really find yourself in hot water. It’s considered a personal insult to the Great Leader – as is folding a newspaper over a picture of either Kim, or throwing such an image into the wastepaper basket. Before embarking on our journey, we were warned that to do either, even inadvertently, would give great offense.

In sharp contrast to China even today, few people in Pyongyang ride bicycles. Road traffic is relatively sparse, but I was surprised by the number of expensive-looking cars on the street. I had expected more East Bloc clunkers, but instead saw plenty of sleek new sedans, jeeps, and SUVs. Obviously somebody has cash and connections. Who needs an old subway anyhow?

Hardly any intersection in Pyongyang has traffic lights. Instead, traffic is directed in person by members of one of the DPRK’s most hallowed institutions, the capital’s all-female corps of traffic police. Like the flight attendants on Singapore Airlines, the Pyongyang traffic guards are selected on the basis of beauty – at least according to North Korean standards, since to us they looked pretty severe. They stand for hours in the middle of each and every crossroads, in their crisp blue drill uniforms, spotless white gloves, and reflective power sunglasses, waving through cars with precision moves that would put the Queen’s guards at Buckingham Palace to shame. Our North Korean guides seemed to have boundless admiration for these beauties, although I’m not sure they get asked on many dates. Then again, they are less scary than the girls with the swords at the Mass Games.

At one point, our bus stopped near a city intersection so we could pile out and take pictures of the traffic girl on duty. This was actually one of the few chances we had to just stand on a typical street corner and people watch. At this corner, like many others we had passed, there was a little blue-and-white canvass kiosk that sold what appeared to be soft drinks. Because we had general permission to photograph the traffic girl and her environs, I snapped a photo of the kiosk, which I thought was a pretty interesting slice of Pyongyang life. Mr. Anxious (the more shy and easily flustered of our two minders) was appalled. He didn’t make me erase the shot, but he admonished me: “Take photos of good things, not bad things.”

I tried to explain to him that I didn’t think the kiosk was a “bad thing.” We have hotdog stands in New York that are kind of similar, I told him, and tourists take photos of them. It’s not a symbol of poverty, people are just curious how other people live. And to tell the truth, it wasn’t like the Pyongyang kiosks looked that bad or anything, they were just different. Mr. Anxious nodded; he knew I meant no harm. But still, he beseeched me, “Take pictures of good things, not bad things.” (I made it up to him at our next stop, where I made a great show of photographing a monumental fountain with sculptures of nymph-like dancers around it. I showed him the photo on the digital screen and asked “This is a good thing, right?” With a visible sigh of relief, he replied, “Yes, good thing.”

I have to admire anyone who comes back from North Korea with good people photos. Unlike virtually everyone I met in Cuba, who acted like they were born to pose for the camera, North Koreans tend to be very shy about photos. Officially it is prohibited to take a photo of anyone in uniform, which rules out about half the population and about 2/3rds of the really unique shots. And that is one rule that the guides on our U.S. citizen tour, at least, did enforce when they could help it.

The only photo I got where someone actually “posed” for me happened by surprise, and I don’t quite know why. I was leaving the Children’s Palace (where we had just witnessed the North Korean version of “School of Rock”) and all of the different groups of visitors and students had become somewhat mixed up near the exit. Three schoolgirls, wearing red “young pioneer” scarves, happened to be standing in the doorway. They looked at me with blank but curious expressions, the kind a deer gives you when you come across it in the woods and it’s not scared enough to run away. Not knowing what else to do, I fumbled for my camera, figuring they would immediately demure and wave me away. But they kept looking. They didn’t smile, they didn’t giggle or chatter to each other, they just quietly stared.

For me, that photo captured the invisible gap that always seemed to exist between us and the North Koreans we encountered. Even when we were outside the bus, it was like a pane of glass separated our world from theirs. If we could talk with them, what would we even say?

That gap, between two worlds, became even more noticeably after sunset. While we sat in a well-lit restaurant or bus, the city just outside was plunged into pitch-black darkness. Even in Pyongyang, electricity is in short supply. There are hardly any street lights, just the headlights of passing cars casting long twisting shadows among the crowds of people still trudging home from work. The grey tenements dissolved into great black shapes that loomed more like empty cliff faces than human habitations. They were filled with families going about their evening routines, but only a few isolated pinpricks of lights – perhaps one or two windows in a vast apartment block – gave any indication of the life within. Back at our hotel room, looking out the window into the black empty void, it was hard to believe we were smack in the middle of a city and not stranded in some self-contained colony on the far side of the moon.

You may have seen satellite photos from space that show North Korea as a great pool of inky blackness – as dark as the ocean around it – wedged between a brightly lit South Korea and China. On the ground, that darkness is all consuming, and the contrast even more striking. A few months after visiting the DPRK, I traveled to Dandong, a Chinese border town just across the Yalu River from North Korea. During the day, two cities of roughly equal size – Dandong in China, Sinuiju in Korea – face each other across the broad river. At night, Dandong, like any other Chinese city, erupts into an explosion of brightness. The Chinese have a love affair with flashing colored lights, and will rig a simple seafood restaurant to outshine the Las Vegas strip. Sinuiju, on the North Korean side, simply disappears. Hardly a flicker can be seen, and you’d think that the shore opposite Dandong was completely uninhabited. What the North Koreans confronted every night with this blazing contrast must think, I can hardly speculate.

One day on the bus, Mr. Smooth (the bolder, more self-assured of our two minders) asked me what my impressions were of his country. As a guest, I tried to be diplomatic but honest. After searching for the right words for a moment, I told him that Pyongyang reminded me of China when I first visited there in the 1980s. It’s not a precise fit – even then, China was in the process of opening up – but the similarities were real enough. There was the same uniformity of plain drab clothing, the same propaganda posters and absence of commercial advertising — absence of any commercial activity at all, in fact. On my first trip to China, I told him, our tour group also had two minders in the back of our bus to keep watch on us foreigners. True, we had greater freedom to interact with the Chinese who wanted to change money in front of our hotel, and we could walk a stretch down the main street. But we could hardly wander at will, and the same gulf of incomprehension existed between our world and the Chinese.

Mr. Smooth was greatly intrigued by this comparison. He had never been to China, but many higher-ranking North Koreans have, and there is some level of awareness of the kind of changes that have taken place there, although their exact nature is not widely discussed or understood. In recent years, quite a number of refugees from the DPRK have crossed the border into China to work, and returned to their families bearing tales of a very different world. In fact, it would be fair to say that China’s transformation has had a profoundly unsettling effect on North Koreans’ perceptions of their own lives and range of possibilities. Our minder was incredibly interested to hear about China’s economic reforms, particularly how they got started, and was brimming with all kinds of very rudimentary questions about the conduct of business beyond North Korea’s borders. He wanted to know, for instance, if all companies in the U.S. were owned by the government, and if they were not, did the owners require special government permits to do business? He was amazed and curious to learn that American companies had joint ventures or even their own independent operations in China.

His questions, and my observations, drove home to me how profoundly China had changed in the past 20 years. In particular, it made me realize how many changes had to take place to make it possible for me to meet my wife, who grew up in Beijing. When I first visited, she was one of those schoolgirls wearing a red “pioneer” scarf. In the years that followed, China opened, and she went to college in America and worked on Wall Street. Her world changed, and became part of my own. Sometimes we talk about what it would have been like if we had encountered each other when I first came to Beijing. What would we have said to each other? Could we have believed what life had in store for us? I thought about her as I watched North Korean kids passing by through my bus window, on the other side of that pane of glass. At best, maybe I would have taken her picture. She would have stared back at me, and then we would each go our own way, wondering what the other person was thinking.

Patrick Chovanec is a professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management in Beijing, China. He blogs at http://chovanec.wordpress.com/

Corruption in Afghanistan

With news that there may indeed be a runoff in Afghanistan it seems like a good time to observe that we may be unduly emphasizing the corruption issue. Yes, Afghanistan is corrupt. But as Amb. James Dobbins observed in our interview, the standard has to be a relative, not absolute one. The key metric for Afghanistan is stability. The real question is the degree to which corruption in Afghanistan is actually destabilizing.

Poll: Public Ignorant About Afghanistan, Iran

Public opinion is always a tricky cudgel to wield while debating policy. It's useful when it agrees with you, not so helpful when it doesn't. But the larger problem with "public opinion" is that the public doesn't know that much. That's not an indictment per se, but it does cast resorts to public opinion in a more jaundiced light.

It's with that in mind that we turn to the latest Pew report on how respondents handled a pop quiz on issues in the news:

Only about four-in-ten (42%) knew that Iran and Israel do not share a border; 27% said the two countries do share a border and 30% did not answer. In March, 69% knew that Pakistan and Afghanistan do share a border.

The current news quiz also touches on the subject of Afghanistan. Fewer than three-in-ten (28%) correctly estimated that the U.S. has roughly 70,000 military personnel stationed in Afghanistan, while 25% believe the U.S. has a larger military presence there and 17% think that that U.S. force is smaller.

Credit Where Due

By Scott Lincicome

Kudos to the Obama Administration.

Yesterday, the US Treasury Department released its Semi-Annual Report to Congress on International Economic and Exchange Rate Policies, aka "the report wherein Treasury decides whether US trading partners are 'currency manipulators' under US law." As expected, and as it did back in April, the Department declined to label China a currency manipulator, and for that I commend the administration. Here's the money quote from the report (PDF):

The Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 (the “Act”) requires the Secretary of the Treasury to provide biannual reports on the international economic and exchange rate policies of the major trading partners of the United States. Under Section 3004 of the Act, the report must consider whether any foreign economy manipulates its rate of exchange against the U.S. dollar to prevent effective balance of payments adjustments or to gain unfair competitive advantage in international trade. For the period covered in this Report, January 1, 2009 to June 30, 2009, Treasury has concluded that no major trading partner of the United States met the standards identified in Section 3004 of the Act.

The decision is the right one - China is not a "currency manipulator" under the statute; any attempt to label it as such would have resulted in a trade war with China that would make the Section 421 spat look like a third-grade tickle fight; and it would have completely obliterated any chance that either the end-October US-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT) meetings or the Obama-Hu summit in November would achieve anything meaningful. And Obama had to (again) turn down a direct, public demand from a key constituent - the US labor unions. So kudos are in order.

I've yet to see a response from the unions or manufacturers that lobbied for the currency labeling, but trade-disinformant-extraordinaire Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) was quick to condemn the move. (Of course he was.) His statement was "classic Brown," and that's not a good thing - falsely blaming the US-China trade deficit on the loss of "4 million" manufacturing jobs (see pp. 20-21 here for the factcheck on that bogus stat) and falsely claiming that the "best estimates" show that China's currency undervaluation amounts to a "40 percent subsidy" (which could only be true if by "best" he means "worst" and if it's 2003 - before China's currency appreciated by about 15-20% against the dollar).

But I digress. I was supposed to be applauding the Treasury decision. So...

*golf clap*

(Your regularly scheduled criticism, I'm sure, will be back tomorrow.)

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/

October 15, 2009

Is Khamenei Dead?, Ctd.

Just to follow up on Meir's take, Ali Afoneh adds a few points on the future of Iran's power structure:

It is worth considering, however, that one day, rumors of Khamenei’s demise will be true. Like taxes, death is certainty. What is uncertain, however, is what would follow.

The passing of Khamenei would represent a seismic shift in the Islamic Republic’s power equations. With no successor-designate, Khamenei’s death would unleash a huge power struggle.

Several things will happen once Khamenei dies. Officially, the Assembly of Experts, currently headed by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, anoints the next Supreme Leader. Behind the scenes, however, the major power brokers—whether on the assembly or not—will jockey for power and seek consensus. If the decision is fractious, the assembly may decide to appoint a clerical council in the interregnum period.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) will seek to influence the selection, either of the interregnum council or of the next Supreme Leader. The most radical scenario—but an increasingly plausible one—would be for the IRGC to lobby to abolish the institution of leadership, thereby transforming the Islamic Republic into a presidential system and giving ultimate power to current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a veteran of the IRGC and its primary benefactor.

Under any circumstance, governance in the Islamic Republic is fast degenerating into a military dictatorship with an eclectic ideology composed of Shi’a Messianism, Iranian nationalism, and populism.

Nation Building in Pakistan


To understand the magnitude of the challenge Washington is creating for itself with Afghanistan and Pakistan, it's instructive to read Dan Twining:

Third and relatedly, America must sustain a long-term commitment to Pakistan and its region across the political-economic-military spectrum to change some of the intractable ground realities that lead Pakistani leaders to define their interests in ways inimical to those of the United States. Chris Brose and I have detailed the outlines of such an approach here. The goal of such a strategy would be to gradually reorient Pakistan's definition of national security away from its current manifestation -- supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan and terrorism against India, for instance -- policies destructive to its neighbors, to us, and to itself. This would be a slow, systematic, and evolutionary -- not revolutionary -- approach to changing the strategic context of Pakistani decision-making and so nudging Pakistan in a direction more favorable to the interests of the United States -- and the welfare of the Pakistani people.

In other words, for the U.S. to succeed, we have to commit to a sustained, large-scale military presence in the region with an active involvement in Pakistan's domestic and external politics. Why do we think this will work? Just look at the reaction to the Kerry-Lugar bill - a well intentioned and, according to Twining, well conceived bill to provide aid to Pakistan nonetheless created a major row between the two countries. If Pakistan is going to get pissed off when we offer them $7.5 billion dollars, how are they going to feel when they hear American officials talking about how we're going to wade into their affairs and set about changing their national interests?

(AP Photos)

Italy Paying Bribes to the Taliban

Quite a shocking story in the Times today:

When ten French soldiers were killed last year in an ambush by Afghan insurgents in what had seemed a relatively peaceful area, the French public were horrified.

Their revulsion increased with the news that many of the dead soldiers had been mutilated — and with the publication of photographs showing the militants triumphantly sporting their victims’ flak jackets and weapons. The French had been in charge of the Sarobi area, east of Kabul, for only a month, taking over from the Italians; it was one of the biggest single losses of life by Nato forces in Afghanistan.

What the grieving nation did not know was that in the months before the French soldiers arrived in mid-2008, the Italian secret service had been paying tens of thousands of dollars to Taleban commanders and local warlords to keep the area quiet, The Times has learnt. The clandestine payments, whose existence was hidden from the incoming French forces, were disclosed by Western military officials.

US intelligence officials were flabbergasted when they found out through intercepted telephone conversations that the Italians had also been buying off militants, notably in Herat province in the far west. In June 2008, several weeks before the ambush, the US Ambassador in Rome made a démarche, or diplomatic protest, to the Berlusconi Government over allegations concerning the tactic.

Because the Italians kept their bribes secret as they handed off command to the French, the French had no idea that the area was more dangerous than it appeared, leading to an assault that left 10 soldiers dead.

It's looking increasingly likely that NATO is going to emerge from Afghanistan as a deeply dysfunctional alliance.

Is Khamenei Dead?


There are numerous rumors circulating in the Internet which suggest that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is in a coma. Others say that he is already dead.

These rumors were started by an article in Pajamas Media. Entitled “Khamenei Said to be in Coma”; the article written by Michael Ledeen cites sources in Tehran. According to his sources:

“Yesterday afternoon (Wednesday) at 2.15PM local time, Khamenei collapsed and was taken to his special clinic. Nobody – except his son and the doctors – has since been allowed to get near him.”

Since then a number of Persian language blogs have also talked about Khamenei's death.

For now, this report should be treated as a rumor and nothing else. Mr. Ledeen already pronounced Ayatollah Khamenei dead three years ago in another one of his articles. His sources proved unreliable, something which can happen to anyone. Perhaps his new sources are more reliable. All we can do is wait and see. We have nothing to corroborate it with.

Furthermore, the Iranian blogsphere is a great source for those seeking opinion. But when it comes to news, it's extremely unreliable. Anyone can write a blog in Persian, and he/she could write it from anywhere. A good example is the source used for the story earlier this year by western press that during a visit to the city of Uumiyeh, shoes were thrown at President Ahmadinejad. The source used by the international press was a site in Iran called “Urumiyeh News." At first glance, the name sounds very credible. Many cities in Iran have their own news sites and they are run under a management which adheres to censorship laws. But in this case, when we look closer, we see that “Urumiyeh News” is nothing more than a blog - meaning the story could have been written by anyone.

Should Mr. Ledeen's story turn out to be true, the CIA should seriously consider giving him a senior post. Anyone who has access to sources in Iran who know Khamenei's exact whereabouts and the timing of his movement is to be taken very seriously. They should also ask Mr. Ledeen if his sources have any friends/relatives who work near or at a giant construction site in Qom, which glows at night. And while they are at it, if they manage to find Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's secret Bar Mitzvah pictures at The Western Wall, then they would make a lot of people at The Daily Telegraph very happy.

(AP Photos)

October 14, 2009

Russia: We'll Nuke Preemptively


From the "world without nuclear weapons" file, Nathon Hodge reports that Russia is updating its nuclear doctrine to include an option to launch a first strike against a range of potential states - including non-nuclear ones:

In an interview published today in Izvestia, Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Kremlin’s security council, said the new doctrine offers “different options to allow the use of nuclear weapons, depending on a certain situation and intentions of a would-be enemy. In critical national security situations, one should also not exclude a preventive nuclear strike against the aggressor.”

What’s more, Patrushev said, Russia is revising the rules for the employment of nukes to repel conventionally armed attackers, “not only in large-scale, but also in a regional and even a local war.”

Nothing has been officially approved by the Russian President. And before the predictable hysteria sets in, the United States contemplated the preemptive use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear targets as well in 2005. Nevertheless, unsettling.

(AP Photos)

Trade and Global Development

Our friends at the German Marshall Fund will be hosting a discussion this afternoon on trade and U.S. development with Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios J. Marantis.

The event begins at 2:30pm EST, and can be viewed live below the jump:

So Which Is It?

Liz Cheney has formed a group to take on President Obama's "radical" foreign policies that, she claims, are endangering the United States. Peter Feaver, who served in the Bush administration, writes that there has been "dramatic continuity" between President Bush's and President Obama's national security policy.

My head hurts.

Bipartisan Consensus for Cap & Trade?

By Scott Lincicome

In my continuing effort to document global stances on carbon tariffs comes a new NYT op-ed by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John Kerry (D-MA) proposing a bipartisan "roadmap" that they claim can lead to the eventual passage of climate change legislation in the US Senate. The Senators' suggestions merge the GOP's drilling/nuclear/clean-coal proposals and with the Democrats' emissions-caps/wind/solar proposals. The other thing that the two Senators can agree on? Carbon tariffs:

Fourth, we cannot sacrifice another job to competitors overseas. China and India are among the many countries investing heavily in clean-energy technologies that will produce millions of jobs. There is no reason we should surrender our marketplace to countries that do not accept environmental standards. For this reason, we should consider a border tax on items produced in countries that avoid these standards. This is consistent with our obligations under the World Trade Organization and creates strong incentives for other countries to adopt tough environmental protections.

WTO misstatements aside (it is far from clear that carbon tariffs are WTO-consistent), this passage clearly means that Senators Kerry and Graham join ten of their colleagues in supporting carbon tariffs in Senate climate change legislation. Their advocacy comes despite initial resistance from President Obama and the growing global revolt against the use of "border measures" as a complementary means of offsetting any competitive disadvantages that climate change initiatives would impose on US industries. So it's still far from clear that carbon tariffs will be included in any final Senate climate change bill (although the Kerry-Boxer bill provides a tepid placemarker for them). But as you'll recall, the ten Senators also in support of carbon tariffs are all Democrats, so does the Kerry-Graham op-ed signal new bi-partisan support for carbon tariffs in the US Senate and/or a shift in overall support for their use?

Well, not quite.

According to the Cato Institute's handy congressional free trade ratings, Senator Graham is not what you'd call a strong free trade advocate, having voted for trade barriers 13 out of 23 times in the Senate (since 2002) and a whopping 19 out of 24 times in the House (1994-2002). So we're not exactly talking about one of GOP's more principled free traders (i.e., someone who would refuse to consider carbon tariffs even if it meant securing a broader legislative goal). Moreover, Senator Graham might actually support carbon tariffs regardless of any bi-partisan energy "compromise" because his state is home to the notoriously protectionist US textiles lobby. According to a new study strongly supporting carbon tariffs, the Economic Policy Institute found that the US textiles industry is one of the nation's top ten carbon emitters, and that South Carolina has the second largest percentage of workers employed in these ten carbon-emitting industries. Also worth noting is that Senator Graham has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from textile magnate (and noted protectionist) Roger Milliken and his company, Milliken & Co.

So Senator Graham is hardly the posterboy for anti-protectionist sentiment in the US Senate and might actually have strong political interests in supporting carbon tariffs outright. Thus, while the Kerry-Graham op-ed might indicate an increase in the overall chances that a Senate climate change bill will eventually pass, it cannot be said that the Senators' overt support for carbon tariffs is indicative of overall bipartisan support for the controversial measures.

So for now, we have only a minor update to the ol' carbon tariffs scorecard:

Pro carbon tariffs - Senators Lindsay Graham and John Kerry, ten protectionist Senators, the US House of Representatives (in Waxman-Markey), France, and Paul Krugman.

Anti carbon tariffs - the rest of the world.

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/

October 13, 2009

Is Iraq a Natural U.S. Ally?


In the course of teeing off on Joe Klein's gloss on Charles Krauthammer's article on America's supposed decline, Peter Wehner ventures into some interesting territory regarding the foreign policy preferences of a sovereign Iraq. Klein took issue with Krauthammer's assertion that:

In Iraq, a determination to end the war according to rigid timetables, with almost no interest in garnering the fruits of a very costly and very bloody success--namely, using our Strategic Framework Agreement to turn the new Iraq into a strategic partner and anchor for U.S. influence in the most volatile area of the world. Iraq is a prize--we can debate endlessly whether it was worth the cost--of great strategic significance that the administration seems to have no intention of exploiting in its determination to execute a full and final exit.

Klein finds such a sentiment redolent with neo-colonial hubris:

A prize! Sounds sort of like Churchill in his most demented colonial moments: India, the jewel in the crown! (The fact that a duly elected Iraqi government wants us to leave is ignored.) Krauthammer’s sort of imperialism–a brutal and patronizing neo-colonialism–has never sat well with the American people.

Then along comes Wehner with this rather interesting argument:

What Krauthammer is championing is not some kind of imperial exploitation; rather, he is in favor of the elected government of Iraq cooperating with the United States in order to fight terrorism and counteract the disorders in the Middle East. (Only a simpleton would believe that withdrawing troops means an end to bilateral relations. Lots of nations work cooperatively with each other even when they do not have combat troops deployed in each-other’s territories.)

Now, unlike Wehner, I don't pretend to know what the geostrategic preferences of a truly sovereign and independent Iraq would be. There's an obvious incentive for Iraq to maintain friendly relations with the U.S., particularly while its governing institutions and security services are still weak. But there are also countervailing factors, such as its strong and friendly ties to Iran and whatever lingering hostility there is among the country's Sunnis toward the United States.

None of this is terribly difficult to understand - even for the simpletons of the world. Nor is it difficult to understand that Krauthammer is basing his "Iraq-as-strategic-prize" argument not simply on a free trade pact between the U.S. and Iraq but on the hope that the U.S. can maintain military installations in the country. And who knows, perhaps being a forward leaning regional ally of the United States is what a sovereign Iraq really desires. My reading of the Status of Forces Agreement signed by the Bush administration and the reports of how that agreement came to fruition, certainly do not lend credence to such an idea. But maybe Wehner knows something about Iraq's strategic thinking that I don't.

More likely, I suspect that Krauthammer means what Klein took him to mean - that the U.S. forge a "cooperative" Iraq by continuing to wade into Iraq's politics, make an end run around the SOFA and bolster factions which support America's regional ambitions and marginalize those that don't. That's not full blown, British Empire-style colonialism, but it isn't a business-as-usual bilateral relationship either (at least, not outside the Middle East).

(AP Photos)

Preparing for a Nuclear Iran


Secretary Clinton's seemingly unsuccessful push to get Moscow to agree to a adopt a more threatening posture toward Iran should put to bed (though it won't) the notion that the world is united by common interests and common dangers. It isn't. Neither Russia, nor China, seem compelled by Washington's fears of nuclear proliferation to set aside their commercial interests in Iran.

Ironically, I think it's China that stands to get burned the worst here because shortly after Iran goes nuclear, oil may get very expensive. That's good for Russia. Not so good for China.

(AP Photos)

The Taliban's YouTube Page

Typically it's al Qaeda who's been associated with media savvy, but it appears that Taliban are trying to get into the act with their very own YouTube channel - Istiqlal Media. As Wired's Adam Rawnsley observes this is all slightly behind the Web 2.0 curve but it does raise a disturbing question of whether this move means they're seeking to broaden their appeal.

Russia's Pipeline Politics


Shortly after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave a speech urging Russia to diversify its economy away from oil and gas exports, the New York Times reports that Eastern and Central Europe are concerned about the geopolitical impact of Russia's Nord Stream gas pipeline:

Currently, Russian gas has to be piped through Eastern Europe to reach Western Europe. If Russia shuts off the gas to pressure a neighbor in the east, it is felt in the more powerful, wealthier countries to the west, where it touches off loud protests.

The new Nord Stream pipeline will change that equation. By traveling more than 750 miles underwater, from Vyborg, Russia, to Greifswald, Germany, bypassing the former Soviet and satellite states, it will give Russia a separate supply line to the west.

As a result, many security experts and Eastern European officials say, Russia will be more likely to play pipeline politics with its neighbors.

“Yesterday tanks, today oil,” said Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, a former head of Poland’s security service.

It would seem that to the extent Central and Eastern Europe can diversify their energy portfolio, now would be a good time.

(AP Photos)

October 12, 2009

About that Nobel Peace Prize


There isn't much to add to towering pile of commentary on this other than to further take issue with the president's defenders that this is a signal that the "world" is happy.

Even if we define diplomacy down to generating feelings of international good will, the president still hasn't won "hearts and minds" where it counts, the Middle East:

However, in other predominantly Muslim countries, views toward Obama were more lukewarm. The new president is more popular than Bush among Middle Eastern Muslims, but on balance he receives more negative reviews than positive ones in places such as Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories. And in Pakistan -- a nation at the center of foreign policy debates in the United States -- only 13% believe Obama will do the right thing in international affairs.

To the extent that President Obama's international goodwill was supposed to bring forth beneficial results, the Middle East seems about as important place as any. Of course, it's too early to tell if the Obama administration can alter the terrain here but that's the point, isn't it?

(AP Photos)

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Who Weakened America?


Charles Krauthammer has a long piece in the Weekly Standard on American hegemony under President Obama. As you would expect, Krauthammer is very worried about the global hegemony project under President Obama:

This deliberate choice of strategic retreats to engender good feeling is based on the naïve hope of exchanges of reciprocal goodwill with rogue states. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the theory--as policy--has demonstrably produced no strategic advances. But that will not deter the New Liberalism because the ultimate purpose of its foreign policy is to make America less hegemonic, less arrogant, less dominant.

Interestingly, over the span of a very long article, Krauthammer does not touch on the true engine of America's (relative) decline: neoconservatism. The record on this is as clear as it is irrefutable: President Bush enters office with a budget surplus, and leaves with yawning deficits, two open-ended, expensive and strategically ill-advised bouts of nation building, the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea progressing, and much of the world ill-disposed toward the United States. By every measure, American power declined substantially under the stewardship of those predisposed to Krauthammer's arguments. Yet he insists on constructing a rather baroque argument around "New Liberalism's" project to destroy the American Empire.

Krauthammer then asserts:

Because what for Europe is decadence--decline, in both comfort and relative safety--is for us mere denial. Europe can eat, drink, and be merry for America protects her. But for America it's different. If we choose the life of ease, who stands guard for us?

This is an extraordinary statement. Consider some of the places the U.S. military has intervened since the collapse of the Berlin Wall: the Balkans, Kosovo, Somalia, Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan.

In most of these cases, the security of the United States wasn't even a remotely relevant factor.

Conflating American security with military interventionism is an old trick, but it doesn't make it any more intellectually defensible. And again, it's worth repeating: when those disposed to Krauthammer's arguments held policy making positions, American power declined precipitously.

(AP Photos)

The Idiocy and Immorality of American Tariffs

By Scott Lincicome

From the United States International Trade Commission (ITC) comes further proof that US tariff policy is, as the the kids say, freakin' whack.

(Ed. note: the kids haven't said that in a decade, if ever.)

In a new report (PDF) released last week, the ITC estimated "changes in U.S. welfare, output, employment, and trade that would result from the unilateral elimination of significant import restraints, specifically U.S. tariffs and tariff-rate quotas on certain agricultural products, textiles and apparel, and other manufactured products." In non-nerdspeak: the ITC examined what would happen to the US economy if the government just woke up one day and decided to remove all major barriers to trade in goods. Their results are probably surprising to many people, particularly those lost souls who listen to their elected officials' demands for reciprocal, tit-for-tat, tariff reductions in global trade negotiations. Most broadly, the ITC projected that:

U.S. economic welfare, as defined by total public and private consumption, would increase by about $4.6 billion annually by 2013 if all significant restraints quantified in this report were unilaterally removed. Exports would expand by $5.5 billion and imports by $13.1 billion....

For most liberalized sectors, prices faced by households and domestic producers would both fall.

Put simply, by just removing trade barriers, the US Government could improve the lives of American families and businesses by $4.6 billion per year over the next four years. This "free stimulus" also could expand US exports by $5.5 billion over the same period. Crazy, huh?

Granted, $4.6 billion isn't a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, but it's still nothing to sneeze at. And unlike all the other economic "stimulus" nincompoopery out there, these benefits would cost the US government, and thus us taxpayers, nothing! Yet these self-defeating trade barriers remain in place and our trade negotiators and politicians demand reciprocal "concessions" from other countries before even considering eliminating them. Indeed, compared to the last version of the ITC report, most of these restrictions are exactly the same as they were two years ago when the economy was still humming along. How does this make sense? (Hint: It doesn't.)

Now, critics of free trade and defenders of the "reciprocity model" of trade negotiations could argue that the ITC's projections are unsound, and they may well have a point. Projecting the impact of tariff reductions or increases is nearly impossible because the changes themselves will directly and indirectly affect all sorts of economic behavior. Fortunately, the most common critics of free trade have been singing the ITC's praises for months now, ever since it recommended the imposition of 55% tariffs on Chinese tire imports under Section 421 of US Trade Law. For example, Congressman Sander Levin (D-MI) recently lauded the economic analysis of the "independent, bipartisan" ITC in the tires case, and United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard had similarly complimentary things to say. So I'm sure that now the same ITC analysis demonstrates the overall economic benefits of unilateral tariff elimination, these guys will continue their praise and support of the Commission's findings, right?


Anyway, even if the ITC's modeling is off, their new report remains highly valuable because it spotlights where the biggest US barriers to trade remain and the effects of those barriers on everyday Americans. And it's these incontrovertible findings that should have most Americans pretty ticked off.

The table below is from the 2009 ITC report. It shows the products that face the highest import and export tariffs in the United States, as well as the US-world price difference caused by those import barriers.

As you can see, some of the highest trade barriers in the United States are on things that American families use everyday - food (cheese, butter, milk, sugar, tuna, etc.), clothing (including thread, fabric and textiles) and shoes. The taxes on these necessities range from a few percent to almost 48 percent, and these trade barriers result in US prices that are up to 57 percent higher than prices for the same goods in other markets. So, for example, US trade policies force American families to pay $1.57 for a stick of butter, while Canadian families pay only a dollar for the exact same thing. Nothing like a 57% butter tax to help the Joneses really tough-out the recession, huh? Awful.

Unfortunately, because these goods are necessities, it's not like Americans can protest the policies by boycotting the protected products. We all need shoes, clothing and food, and these are across-the-board price increases. Worst of all, this "necessities tax" is highly regressive, as it forces the poorest Americans to fork over the largest share of their paychecks in order to buy the protected/taxed products.

And the US government is taxing American families and businesses for what? To help the American butter/sugar/textile/whatever industry? Actually, yes, that's exactly what our tariff policies are doing and have done for decades - regressively taxing American consumers and businesses in order to line the pockets of well-connected special interest groups like the US sugar lobby. Seen this way, American tariff "peaks" are just like earmarks: legislative creations championed by in-the-bag politicians that force you and me to pay higher prices for the stuff we need in order to subsidize the pols' cronies. (And disproportionately harming the neediest of Americans in the process!)

Considering the current economic malaise, I'd say it's about time that such an idiotic, immoral system is overhauled, wouldn't you? (And maybe we could ditch our outdated reciprocity model of trade negotiations while we're at it.)

Now who's with me?

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/

October 11, 2009

Poll: Obama's Nobel in Context

In lieu of President Obama's Nobel win, the German Marshal fund offers up some data to confirm Obama's European popularity:

Polls in 11 European Union countries and Turkey carried out by GMF and its partners in June 2009 document European enthusiasm toward Obama. Three-in-four (77%) respondents in the European Union and Turkey support President Obama’s handling of international affairs, compared to just one-in-five (19%) who approved of President Bush’s foreign policy in 2008.

The polls also show that the Obama bounce could produce tangible outcomes for America’s relationship with Europe.

The people polled within the European Union are now more likely to think that the United States and the European Union now have enough common values to be able cooperate on international problems. In 2008, only 58% of them agreed that they have enough common values with Americans; a year later, this number increased by 13 percentage points to 71%. The jump in perceived common values is especially remarkable in Germany, where 76% think there are enough common values now, up from 54% in 2008. Other countries show similar trends, including France, the U.K., and the Netherlands.

The desirability that the United States exerts strong leadership in world affairs has also increased under Obama’s presidency.

October 9, 2009

A Gold Star for the Imperial Presidency

Michael Cohen's argument on behalf of the Nobel decision strikes me as terribly wrongheaded:

A year ago this nation was run by a man who eschewed international cooperation, who thumbed his nose at international conventions, who was complicit in the use of torture and who seemed to believe that bullying was a form of global leadership.** Now we have a President with the potential to not only reverse those disastrous positions, but to turn a new corner in global cooperation. And clearly, the world has noticed that potential - and they want America to lead. But above all they believe that America can be, perhaps the most important force for good in the world.

Yes I know that we are often not - and I know there is a lot of deserved cynicism about America's role in the world - but lest we ever forget there are millions of people around who admire what we stand for as a country. And they want us to live up to it.

This should be a humbling day for every America and an object lesson not only in the potential of American leadership, but in the inspirational power of the "idea" that is America. It's a great day for the USA.

But there's a reason only two other sitting presidents ever won the award: getting substantive stuff done is difficult while in elected, accountable office, and the American president alone does not determine the course of American foreign policy. By praising this move, all Obama's supporters are doing is rewarding the intentions of one preferred executive over the less preferred actions of another—much as Cohen has done in comparing Obama's intentions to Bush's deeds.

I outsource the remainder of this post to Matt Welch:

Among many other things, this selection illustrates the United States' way-too-oversized role in the world's imagination. And it shows how people–almost touchingly–remain suckers for likeable politicians who replace guys they hated, investing in them a kind of faith mere mortals usually don't merit. As Chili Davis famously (and presciently) said about Dwight Gooden, "He ain't God, man."

Moon & Order? NYPD Moon? I Got Nothing


But Jordan Timerman has something: a good post on the legality (or lack thereof?) of this morning's NASA moon 'bombing.' Apparently it was a success.

Moon Truthers around the world grumble.

(Photo Credit: AP)

Nobel Handcuffs?

David Frum raises an interesting point:

How can a Peace Nobelist strike Iranian nuclear plants? Or wage a protracted war in Afghanistan? Or tell the Palestinians, “Sorry, that’s the best offer, take it or leave it”? The hope of course is that he cannot.

We’ve heard a lot over the past few years about radicals trying to achieve their aims through “lawfare.” Here’s a new concept in asymmetric conflict: “prizefare.” The Nobel Committee was not rewarding Obama. It was attempting to geld him.

I'm not so certain. While that may have been the committee's intention, I don't know that their track record validates such a strategy. To my recollection, the 1906 award didn't alter President Roosevelt's strong-arm policy toward Nicaragua regarding the Panama Canal. Same goes for President Wilson.

Did the Nobel Prize change Kissinger? Not really. How about that champion of peace, Yasser Arafat? Enough said.

Of course, the award has on occasion gone to notable world leaders who had made—and in some cases, realized—brave and selfless efforts toward peace. Some actually paid for those efforts with their lives. But for the most part, recipients were either already on the track that earned them the award, or, the awarding was so preposterous in the first place that it had no bearing on any decisions made by the recipient.

Glenn Greenwald and the Taliban

Aside from being a potentially wonderful band name, these also happen to be two opinions I am in agreement with this morning.

It's a strange Friday.

(h/t Andrew)

Voted Most Likely to Succeed


Spencer Ackerman on why President Obama should accept the Nobel Peace Prize:

But turning it down would be a slap in the face to an international community that is showing, in the most generous way possible, that it wants the U.S. back as a leading component of the global order. The issue is not Barack Obama. It’s what the president represents internationally: a symbol of an America that is willing, once again, to drive the international system forward, together, toward the humane positive-sum goals of peace and disarmament. The fact that Obama hasn’t gotten the planet there misses the point entirely. It’s that he’s beginning, slowly, to take the world again down the path.

Uh, no. While the President may well be on this "path" Ackerman speaks of, the Nobel Peace Prize is not an anticipatory blue ribbon based off all of the great things one intends to do. If the President is on some kind of "path," than that path is leading straight up the K2, and he's just stepping into the foothills.

One meeting with Iranian diplomats and a UN resolution don't strike me as Nobelist material.

And as Greg already noted, turning this award into a PR boon for Obama's agenda will only cheapen the award; an award—as Dan Drezner was quick to point out—that really can't afford to be cheapened any further.

The Peace Prize is not a high school yearbook award. Agreeing with Obama's policies and meriting them in all their unrealized glory are two easily distinguishable things. Like Greg, I hope those in favor of the award can see the difference, and how this actually hurts the case for the Nobel Peace Prize as a liberal internationalist mark of substantive works done.

I don't believe Obama can return the award at this point, but hopefully, he can come up with a way to honor some of the world's more deserving champions of nonproliferation and diplomacy in his acceptance process.

A Bad Day For International Diplomacy


I'm sure I join all the world's citizens when I say, huh? A Nobel Prize... now?

I would think that anyone committed to a liberal internationalist, diplomacy-oriented approach to American foreign policy will be deeply dismayed by this Nobel. The thrust of progressive foreign policy, as I understand it, is not that it yields positive poll numbers, but substantive results. By bestowing a Nobel Prize on President Obama before his diplomacy has reaped any substantive gains, completely undermines the seriousness of this approach. And those now cheering the award would do well to consider this.

Creating a "new international climate" is irrelevant if that new climate does not translate into real changes on the issues on the international agenda.

(AP Photos)

October 8, 2009

Pakistan Rebuffs Billions

It's not everyday someone offers you $7.5 billion, but Pakistan doesn't seem quite pleased with the terms of a proposed U.S. aid package:

Although President Obama has praised the $7.5 billion, five-year aid program -- approved by Congress last week -- Pakistani officials have objected to provisions that require U.S. monitoring of everything from how they spend the money to the way the military promotes senior officers.

Their criticism threatens to complicate the administration's efforts in the region, where Pakistan's assistance is seen as crucial to the war in Afghanistan.

One of the outrages, apparently, is a U.S. demand that Pakistan sever its ties with the Taliban - a sensible suggestion given that that support can make or break U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Which underscores an important point: you can add all the U.S. troops you want to conduct the most culturally sensitive counter-insurgency in the world and if Pakistan wants to keep using the Taliban as a strategic hedge, how far are you really going to get?

With a Little Help from My...Prime Minister?

Canadian PM Stephen Harper—presumably sending this dedication out to all of us here in the States—does a surprisingly good rendition of The Beatles' With a Little Help from My Friends; with, of course, a little help from world renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma:

(h/t TPM)

Sarkozy the Hawk


Leon Hadar deconstructs France's hawkish stance on Iran. It didn't start with Sarkozy:

In fact, Sarkozy's predecessor in office was also very apprehensive about Iran's nuclear ambitions. Without naming Iran, Chirac in an address he made in early 2006 warned that states which threatened his country could face the "ultimate warning" of a nuclear retaliation. The warning was followed by a French decision to modify its nuclear arsenal to increase the strike range and accuracy of its weapons, according to a report published by the French Liberation. Moreover, in an interview with American and French journalists in January 2007, Chirac suggested that if Iran were ever to launch a nuclear weapon against a country like Israel, it would lead to the immediate destruction of Tehran. According to The New York Times, Chirac explained that it would be an act of self-destruction for Iran to use a nuclear weapon against another country. "Where will it drop it, this bomb? On Israel?" Chirac asked. "It would not have gone off 200 meters into the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed to the ground."

The deconstruction of Chirac's remarks suggests that French strategic planners, not unlike many of the leading U.S. foreign policy realists, have concluded that the most effective response to the threat of a nuclear Iran would be a robust containment and deterrence policy. Indeed, while they continue to publicly threaten a possible military strike against Iran's nuclear sites, the Israelis have been preparing for the "day after" - if and when Iran goes nuclear -- by developing a second-strike capability.

I think a deterrent posture is preferable to a containment posture - the notion that Iran is irrational and willing to court its own destruction is belied by history. Still, deterrence for Iran's regional and European neighbors means better nuclear weapons delivery vehicles, perhaps the expansion of existing arsenals and potentially the addition of new nuclear states. Not an ideal outcome, of course, but better than a shooting war with Iran.

McChrystal Wanted 50,000 More Troops


CBS News is reporting that General mcChrystal's original number for an Afghan troop surge was 50,000 not the 40,000 he has now settled on.

Given the magnitude of performing a wide ranging counter-insurgency/nation building campaign in Afghanistan, I think even 50,000 is far too low, particularly if the quality of Afghan forces is spotty.

The bigger question, as always, is what's the point? I think Stephen Walt frames the problem correctly:

Imagine that the situation in Afghanistan were exactly what it is today -- a corrupt government in Kabul with dubious legitimacy, the Taliban gaining strength, al Qaeda's leaders still hiding out in northwest Pakistan, etc. -- except that the U.S. military wasn't there. And then ask yourself: would you be in favor of sending 100,000 or so American soldiers to fight and die there?

My views on this subject are clear, so feel free to discount what follows. But I doubt we would be having a serious debate about sending a large number of troops to Afghanistan if we weren't there already. Instead, we would be treating Afghanistan the same way we treat most failed states. We'd express our concern, offer modest amounts of humanitarian assistance, we'd let the U.N. do its best, and if we thought al Qaeda was operating there, we'd go after them with special forces and Predators or other military assets. Just look at how we are currently dealing with Somalia or Yemen or Sudan and you get an idea of how we would be dealing with Afghanistan if were we not there already.

I'm very leery of Vietnam analogies, but I think there's a similar dynamic at work insofar as America's material resources and strength are being put on the line for a series of intangibles - denying al Qaeda a public relations win, preserving America's prestige, etc. Yes, there is a security threat on the table, but the existence of that threat does not lead in a straight line to 100,000-plus troops occupying Afghanistan indefinitely.

(AP Photos)

October 7, 2009

Poll: Americans Support Strikes on Iran

David Paul Kuhn passes along some sobering findings from Pew Research:

The public approves of direct negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, although most Americans are not hopeful the talks will succeed. And a strong majority – 61% – says that it is more important to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it means taking military action. Far fewer (24%) say it is more important to avoid a military conflict with Iran, if it means that the country may develop nuclear weapons.

There is broad willingness across the political spectrum to use military force to prevent Iran from going nuclear. Seven-in-ten Republicans (71%) and two-thirds of independents (66%) say it is more important to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons even if it means taking military action. Fewer Democrats (51%) express this view; still, only about three-in-ten Democrats (31%) say it is more important to avoid a military conflict with Iran, if it means Tehran may develop nuclear weapons.

One of the problems with formulating the question of "military action" is that it makes it sound as if Iran will be the passive recipient of a bombing campaign. While that may indeed be the case, it could very well be that Iran hits back. There are a range of retaliatory measures available to the Islamic Republic - from a stepped up campaign of covert activity against American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, to attacks on ships moving through Hormuz or to terrorism directed against American civilians. In other words, we are not necessarily contemplating "military action" against Iran but a war against Iran - a very different, and far more dangerous, thing.

Afghanistan, Eight Years On


By Jeffrey Dressler

This week marks the eighth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Yet, eight years on, the Obama administration is reconsidering first principles for the war effort, despite articulating its goals for the region earlier this year. In March 2009, President Obama said his goals were, “…to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” That was and should still be the current definition of success. According to General Stanley McChrystal, the commander that President Obama appointed to lead the war effort, “…success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort.” The strategy is counterinsurgency; the unity of effort can and will be addressed. The commitment and resolve to succeed is the final element, and thus, we await the President’s decision.

While the Obama administration takes the time to evaluate General McChrystal’s suggested counterinsurgency strategy, others in the fold have also weighed in. In the past month, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have both hinted that more troops and more time would be required to succeed in Afghanistan. Perhaps the most significant question for President Obama at this juncture is whether or not his definition of success has changed, and if so, why? Is redefining success a viable option?

According to General McChrystal, the answer is no. Redefining success encompasses a host of options, all of which would require fewer troops and resources. However, the fundamental assumption that anything short of disrupting, dismantling and defeating the insurgency in Afghanistan to prevent the re‐establishment of safe havens for al Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups could possibly constitute success is a flawed assumption.

One option that has been vigorously argued for is a counterterrorism strategy that seeks to scale back the American military presence in Afghanistan in order to focus on al Qaeda in Pakistan. The assumption is that Special Forces, or at the very least, Predator UAVs and missiles would be able to strike high-priority targets from afar, or “over-the-horizon” as it is commonly referred. However, this is easier said than done. Identifying key targets requires timely intelligence from a host of intelligence-gathering assets, something that would be increasingly difficult without boots on the ground. Not to mention the fact that this intelligence will be even harder to come by when civilian casualties swell –a likely consequence of an “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism approach. In short, “you have to navigate from where you are, not where you wish to be. A strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a short-sided strategy,” the General said.

Another option is maintaining the current force structure with an increased emphasis on expanding the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The thinking goes that increasing the size and capability of the ANSF will allow them to slowly take over for coalition forces and precipitate the withdrawal of combat forces sooner rather than later. However, you can’t transition to the ANSF a security environment that they won’t be able to manage. Casualties will continue to mount and the insurgency will continue to make gains. Furthermore, increasing the capability of the ANSF requires training, not simply within the safety of fortified training centers, but in combat with coalition trainers and mentors. This is where the most valuable training takes place. There is no viable substitute for combating the insurgency head on and taking back the initiative. “The status quo will lead to failure if we wait for the ANSF to grow,” according to the General’s assessment. Although increasing the size and capability of the ANSF is absolutely critical, it in itself is not an exit strategy.

Then there is the option put forth by General McChrystal: increasing combat forces to resource a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign, while providing the necessary resources and conditions for expanding the ANSF. This will require redefining “both the fight itself and what we need for the fight,” the General concluded. Most of all, this option will require the commitment and resolve of the United States and coalition forces to weather the tough times ahead in pursuit of the ultimate objective. Indeed, as the saying goes, “we may have all the clocks, but the enemy has all the time.” The definition of success that President Obama put forth in March of 2009 is an appropriate and achievable objective –provided the U.S. and its international partners are still committed to victory in a war that enters its eighth year.

Jeffrey Dressler is a Research Analyst at The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in Washington D.C. and author of the recent report, “Securing Helmand: Understanding and Responding to the Enemy.”

(AP Photos)

Busy Eurasia

Interesting stuff from the Atlantic Council's Alexandros Petersen on the booming Eurasian gas market, and the looming consequences it holds for Europe:

Not only is it the EU that is desperately in need of alternative sources of gas to diversify away from dangerous dependence on Russia, but the biggest gas player in the Caspian, Turkmenistan, has a strict policy of only selling its gas on its borders. Turkmenistan’s Director of the State Agency for Management and Use of Hydrocarbon Resources, Yagshygeldi Kakaev, underscored this point at the Bucharest Forum, amongst counterparts from Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania and Turkey.

In practice, this means that Western companies would have to build a Trans-Caspian gas pipeline from Baku to Turkmenbashi, on the Caspian’s eastern shore, to connect with the planned Nabucco line to Central Europe. China, the EU’s primary competitor for Turkmen resources, has almost finished its own pipeline across Central Asia to Turkmenistan’s borders, and despite a dispute with Ashgabat, Russia will seek to resume importing Turkmen gas in early 2010, some of which will be resold to Europe for inflated prices.

Moreover, Kazakhstan has taken the initiative to string together its own pipeline network. Azerbaijan is positioning itself as a key energy producer and pivotal transit bottleneck between the Black and Caspian seas. Turkey is busy signing contract after contract to live up to its name as the world’s largest energy hub. Turkmenistan is courting consumers in Iran and South Asia, while Russia and China muscle in.

In short, the EU’s neighboring energy players are busy. Only Europe, the beggar not the chooser in Eurasia’s energy game, is inactive. While the Lisbon Treaty and a new EU Commission have drawn the Union’s attention inward, neither Brussels nor European capitals should expect to have their energy security handed to them.

Read the whole thing.

When the Metrics Are Morally Bankrupt

Juan Cole on Israel's peace deficit:

First of all, Iran ranks much higher on the Global Peace Index than does Israel.

Ah, yes, the Global Peace Index. That most serious of lists which ranks peace-loving regimes such as Zimbabwe (#134), North Korea (#131), and Sudan (#140) higher than Israel.

Sort of makes you sympathetic to Israel's Goldstone concerns.

Poll: Global Popularity Contest


Who's the most popular country of them all? That would be the United States, according to a survey from GFK Roper Public Affairs & Media. Reuters reports:

The United States is the most admired country globally thanks largely to the star power of President Barack Obama and his administration, according to a new poll. It climbed from seventh place last year, ahead of France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan which completed the top five nations in the Nation Brand Index (NBI).

"What's really remarkable is that in all my years studying national reputation, I have never seen any country experience such a dramatic change in its standing as we see for the United States for 2009," said Simon Anholt, the founder of NBI, which measured the global image of 50 countries each year.

He believes that during the previous administration of George W. Bush the United States suffered in the world ranking with its unpopular foreign policies but since Obama was elected, and despite the recent economic turmoil, the country's status has risen globally.

At a minimum, the Obama administration's tenure should put to rest the notion that popularity and global goodwill are capable of motivating other nations to act contrary to their interests.

(AP Photos)

Is America Still the Free Trade Leader?

By Scott Lincicome

Well, it sure doesn't look like it. According to Reuters yesterday, some of the United States' biggest trading partners have grown tired of waiting for the Obama Administration to complete its much-delayed review of US trade policy, and publicly warned that any further delay could harm the global free trade agenda. Here's the unsurprising-yet-still-depressing news:

The European Union and Brazil will put pressure on the United States Tuesday to set out its demands to conclude the Doha round of world trade talks in 2010 to boost dwindling world trade, a draft document showed.

The draft communique prepared for an EU-Brazil summit on Tuesday and obtained by Reuters, said a commitment by the world's leading and developing economies to reach a deal next year "will be at risk" unless progress, such as the United States revealing its demands, is made soon.

"Brazil and the EU believe that closure of the Doha Round in 2010 should take place on the basis of progress already made, including with regards to modalities, and therefore call on WTO Members to set out any specific demands they may have," the draft said.

"The EU and Brazil underline that absent progress within this timeframe, the objective of closing the Round in 2010 will be at risk."

The EU and Brazil also called for trade ministers to meet to specifically discuss progress on Doha before a scheduled full WTO conference in Geneva in December.

Translation: "Dear United States, Please get your act together asap. Your senseless foot-dragging is jeopardizing the near-term completion of the Doha Round, and the billions of dollars of benefits that it could provide the ailing global economy. Seriously, man. Pick it up. Best regards, the EU and Brazil."

Me: Ugh.

In April, I opined that that the President's inaction on trade was putting "60 years of US leadership on free trade... in jeopardy." The administration remained silent.

In July, Dan Ikenson and I again cautioned about the harms caused by the administration's failure to enact a pro-trade agenda. Were were joined by a growing chorus of concerned citizens, newspapers and trading partners, and yet the administration's silence continued.

Now it's October, and still nothing. But America's trading partners are finally fed up with the stonewalling, and they're openly making plans to advance the Doha Round with or without the United States' input. Their patience, it appears, has worn out. So unless something changes quickly inside the White House, 60-plus years of American trade leadership will have abruptly come to an end, and the first year of American also-ran status will have quietly begun.

And no one in the administration can ever claim that he wasn't warned. Repeatedly.

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/

America vs. Israel 2010

Bret Stephens summons his imaginative powers and envisions the not-so-distant future when the U.S. fails to exercise its Security Council veto in defense of Israel's not-so-secret nuclear program. Even as a work of fiction this strikes me as implausible, not least because, as Daniel Larison reminds us, the Obama administration has already given Israel the green light that it's nuclear arsenal is OK by us. Yet there is also the subtext of outrage that the U.S. would even consider framing its interests in a way that differ from Israels. But countries are going to disagree, even allies and even on matters of major significance. There's really nothing shocking about that.

(AP Photos)

Bomb Iran?

National Journal's national security forum is currently pondering what a U.S. strike against Iran would entail. The initial respondents don't seem quite sanguine on the matter. Meanwhile, Matt Duss concludes that there is a growing consensus that containing a nuclear Iran is the preferred policy option. That sounds right to me, but I think we need to be very careful about such a course of action.

To the extent that America and Israel already possess an overwhelming nuclear deterrent and an overwhelming superiority in conventional firepower, Iran is already contained. Bolstering the defenses of our Arab allies strikes me as wrong-headed, for reasons I wrote here:

Indeed, the rise of al Qaeda points to the singular danger of any Iranian containment regime: it could stir up a Sunni jihadist whirlwind. The Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, would not only need arms to keep Iran in check militarily, but would step up an ideological campaign to undermine the legitimacy of its Shiite theocracy in the eyes of the Muslim world. This ideological conflict would put the U.S. in the absurd position of supporting the same theological forces which have propelled al Qaeda terrorism.

What’s more, given the recent protests in Iran, does Washington want itself associated with anti-Persian, anti-Shiite demagoguery if Iran’s "Green Revolution" eventually prevails? To date, Iran is one of the few nations in the Middle East, outside of Israel, whose population is not anti-American. That is not the case with the citizens of the countries Washington is scrambling to defend. A 2008 Pew Research poll, for instance, found that a mere 22 percent of Egyptians had a favorable view of the United States.

The Value of Propaganda


Secretary Gates is reportedly worried about what an American draw down in Afghanistan would do to al Qaeda's spin machine:

Speaking alongside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a George Washington University forum moderated by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and GWU professor Frank Sesno, Gates plead agnosticism as to whether al-Qaeda would move its headquarters from Pakistan to Afghanistan but said “what’s more important than that, in my view, is the message that it sends that empowers al Qaeda.”

The Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, Gates said, represents the “modern epicenter of jihad.” A place “where the Mujahedeen defeated the other superpower,” and in his estimation of the Taliban’s thinking, “they now have the opportunity to defeat a second superpower.”

Defining al-Qaeda as both an ideology and an organization, Gates said their ability to successfully “challenge not only the United States, but NATO — 42 nations and so on” on such a symbolically important battlefield would represent “a hugely empowering message” for an organization whose narrative has suffered much in the eight years since 9/11.

Justin Logan is not convinced:

That is to say, Gates is being a bit too postmodern for my tastes here. We have interests. We should make clear that we will defend them. Then, we should defend them. But to say that we’re so concerned about lending al Qaeda a propaganda victory that we can’t leave Afghanistan is a bridge too far. There will always be somebody to declare victory for al Qaeda, whether we leave Afghanistan next year or 20 years from now. Staying until you feel comfortable no one can claim a moral victory as we depart is a recipe for staying forever.

A good point, but I wonder about this. If I've read my Justin Logan correctly in the past, he's very concerned about al Qaeda propaganda - at least the propaganda that singles out U.S. policy in the Middle East as a major driver of Islamic terrorism. If we're going to be solicitous of that propaganda message, why overlook the one Gates fears?

(AP Photos)

October 6, 2009

The Key to Winning Afghanistan

Leslie Gelb makes the obvious point: the key to winning in Afghanistan is the Afghans.

This is a point that's understandably overshadowed by discussions of whether or not to inject more Americans into combat, but we overlook it at our peril.

More Iranian Nuclear Scientists Defect?

The defection of General Ali Asgari in 2007 took everyone in Iran by surprise. He was a former Deputy Defense Minister and a senior member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC). After completing a trip to Syria, he crossed by land to Turkey and defected to the West. Some believe that his defection was handled by the CIA. This angered Iranian authorities greatly, as such defections are political, and—more importantly—an intelligence blow.

And now there are more stories circulating about two other mystery defectors. The first is Shahram Amiri, who has gone missing in Saudi Arabia. According to the Sharq Al Wasat newspaper, he was a nuclear scientist who worked at the recently exposed nuclear site in Qom. He took refuge in Saudi Arabia after a recent pilgrimage to the country in July this year. According to the article, no connection has been made between his disappearance and the recent discovery of the nuclear site in Qom.

Meanwhile, the spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry, Hassan Ghashghavi, called on Saudi Authorities to help find Mr. Amiri. Ghashghavi denied that Amiri worked at Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, referring to him instead as a 'civil servant.' However, suspicions were raised due to the attention given by Iranian authorities to Amiri's case. Every year, thousands of Iranians travel to Saudi Arabia. There are many cases of missing persons and Iranian Foreign Ministry does not address most of them. In fact, many people in Iran complain about the poor job the Foreign Ministry does in protecting their interests in Saudi Arabia. In this case, it is possible that after the Sharq Al Wasat report it felt compelled to act. However, the possibility that Amiri was more than a Civil Servant cannot be ruled out either.

The second case which seems to be worrying Iranian authorities more is the case of a man by the surname of Ardebili. According to Iran's Foreign Ministry, he was a businessman who was recently arrested in Georgia. The story takes a strange twist when according to Iran's Foreign Ministry, subsequent to his arrest, he was handed over to American authorities. In its article, Sharq Al Wasat describes Ardebili as another nuclear scientist. Iranian authorities deny this. However, why would Georgia risk its relations with Iran by arresting a simple businessman, as Iranian authorities describe him? And why would America want him to be passed over to their jurisdiction? Although the power of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is not one to be ignored, there is also the possibility that the reason for his arrest could have been more than a case of financial dishonesty.

In the current war of intelligence between Iran and West, distinguishing between rumors and real genuine breakthroughs is sometimes difficult. The case of Mr. Amiri and Ardebili are a perfect example. The West could have scored major victories, if they are nuclear scientists. However at the same time, it may at the end be proved that both were innocent cases which received excessive media coverage.

One certainty is that the West seems to be waging a psychological warfare against Tehran. After the discovery of the secret site at Qom, Tehran will find that it will be facing an uphill struggle.

Bunker Mentality

Elliott Abrams is very worried about the course of U.S. foreign policy and advises his comrades to gird themselves for a protracted battle against President Obama:

To those who do care about the interests of this country and its friends and allies, it should sound like a call to arms, leading us to ask how successful struggles to change America's foreign policy were waged in the past. In the 1970s, the headquarters of resistance to détente and its associated blunders was Room 135 in the Old Senate Office Building, which housed the foreign policy and national security staff of Democratic senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson.

I worked on Jackson's personal staff, next door. We called Room 135 "the Bunker" because the senator and "Scoop's Troops" were regularly assaulted by all right-thinking, liberal, cosmopolitan, Establishment voices.

Missing from his article is any explanation, or even a passing reflection, on why he and his fellow neoconservatives are formulating policy from a bunker instead of the White House. A sustained period of self-reflection before mounting the barricades might be worth it. Sadly, that does not seem to be in the offing.

October 5, 2009

What's Your Problem?


Frontline is running a documentary on the War in Afghanistan. In it, they interview Andrew Exum (of Abu Muqawama fame). Here's a snippet of the Q&A:

One of the very difficult lessons that the military, and also the American people, have learned in both Iraq and Afghanistan is that you can't just throw the military at the problem and expect that things will be solved, especially not in political wars. If the problem is governance, if the problem is a lack of essential services being provided to a population, then the military can't solve that.

So you have to utilize other instruments of national power, whether it be the State Department, whether it be USAID [United States Agency for International Development], whether it be instruments that aren't national power but maybe non-governmental organizations, international organizations. ...

I think this is pretty indicative of why we're in the situation we're in. The problem of Afghanistan is no doubt poor governance, the lack of services, the lack of security, the lack of literacy, drugs, etc., etc. And indeed, for most of those problems, the military isn't the right answer. But this is also not the problem - in the sense that this has nothing to do with transnational terrorism of the type that led us into Afghanistan in the first place. We could shore up governance, provide services and security, and open schools in Afghanistan and we'd still have a major international terrorist problem on our hands.

(AP Photos)

The China Currency Conundrum

By Scott Lincicome

On October 15th, the Treasury Department will issue its Semi-Annual Report to Congress on International Economic and Exchange Rate Policies, in which the US Government officially determines whether its trading partners are engaging in "currency manipulation," as defined under US Law (Sections 3004 and 3005 of the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988). In April, Treasury declined to deem China to be a "currency manipulator" - a bold reversal of President Obama's protectionist campaign rhetoric on the issue and a move I've applauded as the lone "free trade" action of the President's short tenure.

Most economists agree that China's currency (the Renmibi or RMB), despite appreciating about 15% against the Dollar since 2005, remains undervalued by around 10-15%. US labor unions and some manufacturing groups steadfastly believe that that the RMB's undervaluation has given Chinese exports a competitive advantage in the US market and disadvantaged US exports in China, and thus is the key driver of the large US-China trade deficit. They therefore have intensely lobbied the US government to label China a "currency manipulator" in the Treasury Report, to challenge China's currency practices at the WTO, and/or to make "currency manipulation" a "prohibited export subsidy" under US anti-subsidy (or "countervailing duty") laws. The last of these demands would lower the standard for finding "currency manipulation" and essentially make every Chinese export to the United States subject to a countervailing duty equal to the amount of the currency undervaluation. (Nothing like a 15% tax on all Chinese imports - including shoes, clothing and industrial inputs - to really jumpstart the ailing US economy! Yikes.)

In anticipation of the October 15 Treasury Report, the currency protectionists are at it again, as Reuters reports:

U.S. steel and textile producers on Friday urged the Obama administration to get tough with China over its currency practices, while other groups said Beijing was dragging its feet on promised trade reforms.

"The U.S. government should cite China as a currency manipulator and should support legislation that allows U.S. industry to defend itself and its workers against this predatory practice," said Cass Johnson, president of the National Council of Textile Organization.

He made the remarks at an Obama administration hearing chaired by the U.S. Trade Representative's office to examine how well China is complying with the market-opening commitments it made when it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.

Obama disappointed manufacturing and labor groups in April when he decided against labeling China a currency manipulator, after indicating during last year's campaign that he would take that step.

The groups complain China deliberately undervalues its currency, giving it an unfair price advantage in trade....

Barry Solarz, vice president of the American Iron and Steel Institute, said Obama should "take far more aggressive action" against China by declaring currency manipulation an "actionable" subsidy under U.S. trade laws.

It should also "pursue legal action in the WTO (World Trade Organization) to protect U.S. rights," Solarz said.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said Washington should steer clear of any action on Chinese currency that violates WTO rules or invites Chinese retaliation.

But "China should move as quickly as possible to a system that allows market forces to determine the exchange rate" of its currency, the renminbi, said Jeremie Waterman, the business group's senior director for China.

The Chamber's remarks and efforts are a welcome counterpoint to the currency marauders' intense lobbying - any major offensive against Chinese currency practices would no doubt lead to a full-fledged trade war with the Chinese (dwarfing the Section 421 spat) and would cripple the US economy in the process. However, the Chamber - and pretty much everyone else who rightly opposes overt hostility to China's currency policy - never challenged the underlying assumption, fueled by the usual Beltway conventional wisdom, that China's undervalued currency has actually been the major driver of the US-China trade deficit.

They should.

Respected economist and former Treasury official David Ranson certainly doesn't think that the conventional wisdom is correct and lays out the theoretical reasons for his stance in a 2007 WSJ op-ed:

It's a myth that deficits are created by currency misalignments. They are driven by the business cycle. In the late stages of a U.S. business-cycle expansion, as now, exports traditionally outgrow imports and the trade deficit narrows as a result. When that occurs, the dollar's foreign-exchange performance tends to improve with a delay of about a year. Symmetrically, after U.S. imports grow faster than exports, the dollar's foreign-exchange performance tends to deteriorate.

While Ranson has soundly criticized the theoretical underpinnings of the currency-deficit argument, a new study by Yang Yao and Jianwei Xu of the China Center fo Economic Research appears to undermine the concept's factual basis through an analysis of historical trade and economic data. Here's Yao in a Forbes op-ed explaining his findings:

In an ongoing study of 39 countries for the period 1990-2006, Jianwei Xu and I examined various factors contributing to China's trade surplus with the United States. We found that China's disadvantage in finance vs. manufacturing can explain 40–50% of China's trade surplus with the United States. China's low dependency burden can explain another 24%. By contrast, the undervaluation of the yuan vs. the dollar explains less than 2%. That is, China's trade surplus with the United States is better explained by its low cost labor supply and limited consumer spending than the value of its currency.

The implications of our analysis are three-fold. First, so long as trade imbalances are a product of labor imbalances, the trade surplus will not be corrected so long as the global division of labor remains unchanged. And so long as the status quo brings gains to all parties, there is no impetus for change.

Second, the so-called "dollar hegemony"--or predominance of the dollar in international trade--is not the cause of imbalances, either. Even if the dollar did not dominate world trade and finance, there would be imbalances as long as countries stick with their comparative advantages. The "dollar hegemony" only attracts excessive liquidities to the United States.

Third, promoting the yuan as a settlement currency will not solve China's problem of external imbalances. Nor will moderate adjustments of the yuan's exchange rate against major currencies. A sharp revaluation may be required to reduce China's current account surplus to a reasonable level. Yet that would probably lead to large swings in the yuan's value, a result China would not like to see.

China will continue its export-led growth model over the next decade primarily because the long-term factors affecting its position in the international division of labor--especially its comparative advantage in manufacturing, reserve of labor in the countryside, and a low dependency ratio--will not change quickly.

Of course, one would need to see the underlying study (which I can't find online) before giving these findings too much weight, but it does make sense if you look at basic bilateral trade and currency stats over the few years. Between mid-2005 and mid-2008, the RMB dropped about 15% against the Dollar, and yet Chinese imports into the US steadily and significantly increased over that period (as did US exports to China). The overall bilateral deficit also increased. If the USD-RMB exchange rate was really the nasty deficit driver that the protectionists claim it is, wouldn't you expect a noticeable decline (or at least a deceleration) of Chinese imports and the bilateral deficit over that period? Granted, I'm certainly no expert in this area, but these basic data sure seem to argue that something other than currency is dictating bilateral trade flows.

In less than two weeks, Treasury will publish its semi-annual report on China's currency. Although it's quite unlikely that China will be labeled a "currency manipulator" in the report for both pragmatic and legal reasons (the law's hurdles are very high), Treasury's announcement is sure to cause myriad US politicians, union leaders and manufacturers to loudly call for dramatic US action against China to force a revaluation of the RMB versus the Dollar and thus to decrease the bilateral trade deficit. The analysis of Ranson and Yao, as well as the basic trade data discussed above, strongly suggest that free traders should question not only the protectionists' dangerous means for bringing about a revaluation of the RMB but also the underlying - and widely accepted - argument that any such revaluation would dramatically affect US-China tradeflows.

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/

China’s Angry Artist Throws Down the Gauntlet


By Patrick Chovanec

To my mind, the most underreported story of China’s October 1st “National Day” anniversary was the emergence of Ai Weiwei as the most outspoken critic of China’s ruling regime.

For those who are not familiar, Ai Weiwei was the designer of the “Bird’s Nest” stadium that served as the main venue for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. A big bear of a man with a grizzly beard, he is known for his gruff and eccentric manners and his avant garde antics as a performance artist (his most notorious work was the F*** Off” exhibit, which featured photos of Ai giving the finger to the White House and Tiananmen Square, and smashing real — and priceless — Ming vases).

Ai_WeiweiAi, whose father was a poet exiled to Xinjiang to clean toilets during the Cultural Revolution, has never been shy in expressing his contempt for China’s Communist Party leadership, usually in the form of blunt and quotable asides. Authorities have long seen him as a “disruptive element”. But recently, Ai has really stepped it up a notch. He has played an active role in organizing investigation petitions by parents in Sichuan whose children were killed when many schools collapsed in late year’s earthquake, allegedly due to substandard materials and construction attributable to official corruption. On a recent trip to Sichuan, to witness the trial of one of his fellow activists charged with “inciting subversion of state power,” police broke into Ai’s hotel and walloped him over the head, causing cranial injuries that later required emergency brain surgery in Germany.

But it was his public statements on and around October 1st which have truly propelled him into untested and potentially dangerous territory. He published a prominent op-ed in TIME Magazine calling for democratic accountability and describing the 60th Anniversary celebrations as “the final hurrah of a dying system.” In an interview with Al Jazeera, he violated one of the country’s most sensitive political taboos by saying “China would be much better off” if Mao’s Communists had lost to Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. Elsewhere, he openly compared China’s ruling Party to a Mafia crime family (something he has done before, but without quite the same global audience to hear it). None of these comments would seem that shocking coming from pundits or activists outside of China. But coming from a Chinese citizen, on the incredibly sensitive occasion of an anniversary marking the Communist Party’s 60-year hold on power, China’s leaders are likely to view them as virtual treason.

Obviously Ai Weiwei is making a conscious bid for the role of China’s dissident-in-chief. The interesting question is how China’s authorities will respond as he grows more and more provocative. True, Ai does not have a large public following — most people in China know him for the Bird’s Nest and know nothing of his politics. I personally find some of his countercultural antics a bit childish. But his TIME article, in particular, was a measured and eloquent expression of precisely the social trends and political ideas that the Party fears most. Ai’s gutsy words will be seen as both an affront and a threat.

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/

(AP Photos)

October 4, 2009

Poll: Iran Top Threat to U.S.


According to Rasmussen Reports:

Nearly one-out-of-three voters (32%) now regard Iran as the biggest threat to U.S. national security, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey.

That’s up 10 points from a month ago, when Iran was virtually tied with North Korea on the lists of countries U.S. voters were most concerned about. Last week, the United States and its allies disclosed the existence of a secret Iranian nuclear plant and stepped up efforts to shut down that country’s nuclear program which is suspected of developing nuclear weapons.

Republicans are more suspicious of Iran than Democrats and voters not affiliated with either major party.

Just 19% of all voters now list North Korea as a bigger threat to U.S. national security, followed by China at 14%. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Russia all rate single-digit levels of concern.

Given the fluctuation, it seems like the American public is making their judgment based on which country is in the news instead of any detached analysis of the international situation. But I could be wrong...

(AP Photos)

October 3, 2009

Did the Iranians Actually Agree to Anything?

Mark Pyruz has his doubts.

Arm for an Arm

For those who remain unmoved by the prospects of a Mideast arms race should Iran go nuclear, I give you this:

(h/t Uskowi)

Sanctions or Nothing, Ctd.

Daniel Larison responds to my take on his Iran sanctions argument:

Of course, refraining from imposing punitive measures on a state with which we have no necessary conflict of interest is not “doing nothing.” It could be the prelude to rapprochement and the normalization of relations, the opening of economic and diplomatic ties, and the de-escalation of tensions through the region. That is not really “doing nothing.” It only counts as inaction for those who have been conditioned by the nature of foreign policy debate in this country to equate coercion with “doing something.” One of the reasons why we routinely define “doing something” in terms of coercion is that our foreign policy is not tied to concrete interests of the American people, but has instead become a hegemonic project with a life and vested interests of its own.

I can appreciate Daniel's broader concerns regarding America's "hegemonic project," and it's in part why I read his blog regularly. I of course don't agree, but my disagreement is the respectful kind. Same goes for many of his more specific points in this case on sanctions. As I noted in my initial post, I view sanctions—and all their various levels of severity—to be an often necessary evil when diplomatic options have been exhausted.

Larison argues that "sanctions did not “work” to topple Hussein’s government," but this is half the point, and half beside the point. The purpose of the UN sanctions was not to topple Saddam Hussein, but rather, to compel him to disarm and repay war debts for the invasion of Kuwait. That's it. In a broader sense, they were intended to keep a hegemonic power with a clear record of militaristic defiance from ever acting on those militaristic urges again. As far as that went, the sanctions were indeed successful.

And I think the same idea applies when dealing with Iran sanctions. These sanctions—even the so-called crippling sanctions—are not intended to topple the Islamic Republic or force them to completely denuclearize. Far from it. These sanctions are intended to make Iran comply with three UN Security Council resolutions calling for the halt of uranium enrichment. Not one relevant actor is threatening the Iranian regime's security (with perhaps one glaring exception), nor are they questioning Iran's legitimate right to nuclear power.

All that said, I still understand and appreciate Larison's concerns about sanctions, so on that note I will agree with him partially as a reluctant disciple of this specific sanctions plan myself.

But I must take further issue with Larison's other point on the options remaining for the West. The notion that the United States and the greater international community have somehow failed to reach out to the Islamic Republic in an effort to normalize relations and ease economic sanctions is totally false and unfounded.

Every single American president since Carter attempted to bridge the gap with the revolutionary regime. The pattern usually went like something as follows: some type of rhetorical niceties, followed by the easing of sanction; followed then by some heartwarming gesture of soft power and bilateral trust; followed then by some form of Iranian backlash or withdrawal.

President George H.W. Bush famously said in his inaugural address that "goodwill begets goodwill," and his administration made its own limited efforts to negotiate with Tehran. President Clinton—reversing a round of sanctions he had earlier imposed on Iran via executive order—attempted to reconcile with what appeared to be a softening Iranian regime, and even had Secretary of State Madeline Albright apologize for American involvement in the coup of 1953. Albright, more importantly, met with senior counterparts in the Iranian government; something that hadn't happened since President Carter's early efforts at rapprochement.

Even George W. Bush—yes, "axis of evil" George Bush—attempted to work in limited capacity with the Iranians when applicable. Tehran had a role in the both the pre- and post-invasion planning stages in Afghanistan, and American officials had attempted several times to meet with Iranian counterparts on Iraqi security matters.

The European powers have engaged in "critical dialogue" with Iran for years, offering the easing of sanctions and WTO access—all rebuffed and deemed insufficient. Russia—in an apparent tweak to the uranium plan Tehran agreed to this week—had initially offered in 2005 to enrich uranium for Iran, only to be rejected.

In short, punitive measures never existed in a vacuum, and they have always been the result of exhausted efforts by the international community to engage and include Iran in the global community. But engagement requires two willing and agreeable participants, and up until now Iran has lacked such will.

So if I conflate Larison's proposal for engagement and rhetorical niceties with inaction it's only because his suggestions have all been exhausted to no avail in the past. History demonstrates that Iran has in fact been moved by international pressures, and it's in the interest of the entire international community—not just the United States—that Iran be so moved.

Extreme Aggregate Makeover

I've decided it was time to clean out my Google Reader account and start anew from scratch. It dawned on me that I don't actually read 2/3 of the feeds I had in there, and it was time for a makeover.

So, anyone have suggestions? Good foreign policy websites, blogs, etc.? If you know of any, shoot me a line and make the pitch.

Thanks. We now return you to your regularly scheduled foreign policy wonkery.

October 2, 2009

The Savior Strategy


The crisis in Indonesia following a recent earthquake presents a critical opportunity for the international community to win "hearts and minds." Of course, these "hearts and minds" are probably not viewed as immediately strategically important by various heads of state, because there is no current level of actively aggressive military engagement in the region; however, smart public diplomacy is based on confidence-building initiatives that take place during peace time as well as war time.

Public diplomacy built on the ethos of humanitarianism has already been proven as an effective means to gain global trust. For example, immigration trends toward the United States have for decades reflected a belief by people worldwide that the U.S. was the "promised land." Moreover, effective public diplomacy comes with many other attractive "soft power" benefits.

And the public diplomacy benefits to be reaped from a successful relief effort in Indonesia are likely quite large. After a tsunami struck Indonesia's coast in 2005, a Pew Research Center report discovered a 25-point jump in public support for the United States following U.S.-led relief efforts.

This situation -- along with others similar -- readily present the opportunity to save lives and win hearts and minds in the process. This is the Savior Strategy, a global security and public diplomacy strategy for a world increasingly wracked by natural disasters. Perhaps most importantly though, for these public diplomacy gains to be sustainable, they must be viewed as strategically ancillary to the genuine primary goal of providing effective relief to the victims of natural disasters.

Was it Worth it Mr. President?


By Scott Lincicome

BNA reports that President Obama held a super-secret, unscheduled meeting with the world's labor union leaders, including AFL-CIO big dog Richard Trumka, on the eve of last week's G20 meetings in Pittsburgh. According to the report, the President received very high marks from the unions; Sharan Burrow, president of the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), even went so far as to declare Obama a "champion of working Americans." How sweet. Anyway, it's all but certain that tops among the unionists' reasons for giving the First Worker a big, global thumbs-up was his recent decision to impose prohibitive tariffs on Chinese tire imports under Section 421 of US Trade Law. As I've noted ad nauseam, the United Steelworkers alone brought the tires case, and by imposing the stiff protection, President Obama decided to favor the USW's (and his own) interests over those of American tire producers, retailers and consumers.

Well, over the last week, we've seen three developments that call President Obama's Section 421 decision further into question, regardless of the pre-G20 union lovefest:

(1) Despite Congress' initial efforts last Friday to end the US ban on Chinese chicken imports that began as part of the Obama-signed 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act, the Chinese Government announced on Sunday that it was formally initiating anti-dumping and anti-subsidy investigations of US imports of chicken parts. As you'll recall, the chicken case, along with one against US autos, was filed in China as an immediate response to the President's Section 421 decision. Now that the case has started, it's essentially on "autopilot" (just like American cases) until China announces a final decision about a year from now. At risk: an expanding foreign market that purchased $722 million in American chicken last year alone - tops in the world.

(2) The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that tire tariffs' initial domestic effects are starting to be felt. And just as predicted, American tire dealers, retailers and consumers are getting hammered:

Many dealers fear a drop-off in demand. "People have been putting off the purchase of tires anyway," says Bill Trimarco, the CEO of Hercules Tire & Rubber, a private-label tire supply company in Findlay, Ohio. "When the price of tires goes up, [fewer] tires will be sold."

Still, after getting socked with a $325,000 bill per the new tariff earlier this week, Trimarco says the company was forced to raise prices 10% to 15% on Chinese tires. "This is an anti-small business policy. A company like Goodyear won't get hit, but a lot of small businesses will be hard hit," he says.

Translation: because of the tire tariffs, smaller American tire dealers will eat the huge costs imposed by these new "bills per the tire tariff" that they're already receiving - thus threatening the jobs of the companies' numerous employees (who outnumber the USW's tireworkers by 20-to-1, by the way); or the dealers will pass on those costs to consumers, thus turning the tire tariff into a 10-15% tax on retail tire purchases - a tax that, considering Chinese (and directly-competitive) tires are on the low-end of the market, will predominately harm lower-income Americans.

(3) Reuters reported yesterday that China will not participate in WTO negotiations to eliminate tariffs on chemicals and other key products - so-called "sectoral agreements" that are part of the Doha Round negotiations on Non-Agricultural (Industrial) Market Access. China's reasoning? You guessed it, tire tariffs (emphasis mine): "[China's WTO ambassador Sun Zhenyu] linked China's reluctance to cut tariffs further than it has already offered, or participate in sector deals, to trade measures it faces from its partners, such as this month's increase in U.S. tariffs on Chinese tires to block imports." In other words, China's blaming President Obama's Section 421 decision for its blanket refusal to participate in the sectoral talks.

Regardless of the merits of Sun's reasoning (and they're dubious, at best), it's clear that the tire tariffs have provided an already-reluctant China with the perfect excuse to abandon the sectorals. China's decision is important because the sectoral agreements contain "critical mass" exceptions which essentially say that no signatory country can benefit from an agreement's tariff elimination commitments unless Members representing at least 90% of all world exports in that sector have signed on to the deal. And because China's one of the world's largest exporters, its refusal to participate in the sectorals essentially ruins the tariff elimination party for everyone else. Now, considering that the United States - prodded on by big US exporters who see the sectorals as providing the only real benefit to the Doha Round - has sponsored several sectoral negotiations, the Chinese decision is a real hit that essentially salts critical negotiations to enhance the global competitiveness of many key US exporters like Dow and Dupont. And what's to blame (fairly or not)? Yep, Section 421.

So to summarize, we've seen in the last week that Obama's Section 421 decision has resulted in:

* direct retaliation against US exports, a harmful tax on American small businesses and/or low-income consumers, and the perfect excuse for sandbagging critical industrial market access negotiations at the WTO; and

* a host of back-slaps and high-fives from the AFL-CIO and it's unionist allies around the world.

Hmm. I hope it was worth it.

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)

Disarmament For Everyone Except...


I've always felt that President Obama's ambition for a "nuclear free world" was a classic case of barn door closing after the horses have long fled. This reporting from Eli Lake confirms it:

President Obama has reaffirmed a 4-decade-old secret understanding that has allowed Israel to keep a nuclear arsenal without opening it to international inspections, three officials familiar with the understanding said.

The officials, who spoke on the condition that they not be named because they were discussing private conversations, said Mr. Obama pledged to maintain the agreement when he first hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in May.

Under the understanding, the U.S. has not pressured Israel to disclose its nuclear weapons or to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which could require Israel to give up its estimated several hundred nuclear bombs.

There's really no point in trying to make a stand on a principle if you're carving out multiple exceptions. And it's not just Israel - India and Pakistan aren't exactly being pressed on their nukes either.

(AP Photos)

Why Iran Wants the Bomb

Alastair Crooke on Iran's regional intentions:

The significance of this for Obama is that he is not facing just the issue of Iran's nuclear program. This program is rolled into a more substantive and sensitive issue, one at the heart of the Iranian approach to negotiations: whether Israel and the U.S. -- nuclear weapons issue apart -- are able to come to terms with an Iran that is, and will be, a preeminent power in the region.

At present, these two issues have been conflated. Iran has signaled on various occasions that the nuclear issue could be resolved, but first it wants to know the answer to the wider issue: Can the U.S. bring Israel to accept Iran as a principal regional power? Can the U.S. accept such an outcome?

All here in the region understand the significance of this question: It is not just the nuclear weapon possibility that concerns Israel; it is the fact of Iranian conventional military power too. Already it is the conventional military power of Iran and its allies that is circumscribing Israeli conventional military freedom of action in the region. What we are dealing with is whether Israel and, by extension, the U.S., can accept that Israel will no longer enjoy its hitherto absolute conventional military dominance in the region.

I've never been a big proponent of focusing Iranian engagement and/or isolation on the nuclear question. I understand why this is the case, as a nuclear weapon obviously presents the most existential threat to the Western world, and the most accessible and digestible argument for democratic leaders to take back to their citizenry.

But it should be remembered, despite the revisionist theories of a few, that Iran's revolutionary regime has a bloody and brutal record of expansionism in the Middle East. It turned a two year border war with Iraq into an eight year total war of attrition to overthrow the secular dictatorship in Baghdad. They plotted and supported coups, assassination attempts and upheaval throughout the Arab sheikdoms, and of course, helped build the most tactically proficient terrorist organization in the Mideast—Hezbollah.

This policy has of course softened and curtailed with time, change and maturity, but the desire to be a hegemonic player has never fully waned. A nuclear armed Iran is not simply a threat to American allies, but a geopolitical game changer in the region.

UPDATE: Or, what Andrew Sullivan's reader said.

The Problem with Obama's IOC Appeal


I never really had any investment in whether or not the 2016 Olympics went to Chicago, Rio, or wherever (sounds like it'll be Rio). I suppose if Chicago had won the bid it may have been good for the city, the state and so on.

And I think the First Lady's appeal on behalf of Chicago made perfect sense—her story and background is compelling, as is her familial attachment to the city of Chicago. It made perfect sense.

I don't however understand why President Obama felt it was prudent to take such an active and passionate role in this appeal. He must have known that if the appeal fell short—as it apparently has—his political opponents would jump on it as yet another example of rhetoric being trumped by the hard realities of global politics. Words alone, you can hear them say, won't compel other world leaders to follow you and like you.

Kind of like Iran on nuclear enrichment. Kind of like China and Russia on sanctions. Kind of like Israel on settlements. Kind of like Nicolas Sarkozy on nuclear disarmament. Not really the week—or the month, for that matter— to add to one's checklist of futile rhetorical appeals.

Steve Clemons wonders if this marks the end of "the Obama effect." Only if that "effect" entails moving mountains. Or in this case, an Olympic committee.

I don't know if Obama's foreign policy vision was ever quite so ambitious as his domestic campaign rhetoric. I think success for Obama abroad will come primarily by grounding the more ambitious (and often careless) adventurism of his predecessor. This means, among other things, sticking to the pragmatic realism that underpins his policies.

But I believe the President's foreign policy appeal is actually the inverse of his domestic one. Yesterday's statement on Iran is a good example: reserved, cautious and realistic. He won't win too many points for that from his political rivals, but it means a heck of a lot more than some trivial Olympics appeal.

UPDATE: Ben Smith raises a good point. You have to wonder who was feeding the President information on this committee's decision making. Clearly, the White House believed this thing was close enough that it warranted Obama's in-person appeal.

Do heads roll?

(Credit: AP Photos)

Poll: Afghan Views on a U.S. Troop Surge

Gallup surveyed Afghan opinion earlier in the year after President Obama announced the first influx of forces:


Gallup also broke down the polling by ethnicity:


October 1, 2009

In Support of a Global Transaction Tax


Last week, the G-20 formally agreed to become the new G-7, which theoretically will help put a little more "oomph" into policies designed to tackle the twin challenges of maintaining global economic growth while restructuring economies worldwide to fit low-carbon or even carbon-free economic growth models.

Piggybacking on the recent surge in international coordination, Germany's Minister of Finance Peer Steinbrück wrote recently on the case for a global financial-transaction tax:

A global financial-transaction tax (FTT), applied uniformly across the G-20 countries and covering all financial transactions at a very low rate, is the obvious instrument of choice to ensure that all financial-market participants contribute equally. Foreign Minister Steinmeier and I are suggesting that the G-20 take concrete steps toward implementing an FTT of 0.05% on all trades of financial products within their jurisdictions, regardless of whether these trades occur on an exchange. National governments could establish a personal allowance to exempt retail investors.

Based on calculations by the Austrian Institute of Economic Research, which studied the possible effects of general FTTs on behalf of the Austrian government, a global FTT of 0.05% could yield up to $690 billion per year, or about 1.4% of world GDP. Such a tax would not unduly burden financial-market participants, yet it would raise a significant amount of money to finance the costs of this crisis.

This makes a lot of sense. A small tax like this would help build a "rainy day fund" in preparation for whenever the global economy next takes a slight downturn, a policy that has proven highly successful in countries like Chile and Norway. The slight tax might also nudge investors toward buying and holding, which might also help deter against a major run on the dollar and other currencies. Maybe such a tax could also help the U.S. avoid eventual economic meltdown as the rising costs of social welfare programs cause public debt to explode in the near future.

Steinbrück's suggestion is a good one, and the G-20 would do well to consider it.

(Photo Credit: AP Photos)

What bin Laden Can Teach Us About Georgia


Shortly after Russia invaded Georgia, John McCain rushed before the cameras to declare that "we are all Georgians." Now, McCain's former campaign staffer Michael Goldfarb cites - wait for it - Osama bin Laden for an authoritative interpretation of America's response to that war.

Goldfarb writes:

But the fact that al Qaeda is mocking America's shameful indifference to the invasion of Georgia should not obscure the real problem with abandoning our allies in times of crisis -- that bin Laden's interpretation of events is sure to ring true to America's allies in Eastern Europe and the rest of Russia's near abroad. When America fails to stand by her allies, it is a signal of weakness and a lack of resolve.

Whether al Qaeda's take "rings true" with America's other allies in Eastern Europe will almost certainly depend on whether those allies are interested in starting a war with Russia. If they - like Georgia - are interested in attacking Russia over long-disputed separatists enclaves, then yes, they should not expect America to court a nuclear war with Russia over their land dispute.

While Goldfarb finds room in his post to compare Russia's attack with - you guessed it - Nazi aggression, he's curiously silent on this bit of relevant news:

An independent inquiry ordered by the European Union has concluded that Georgia violated international law and triggered last year's war with Russia by attacking the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

In a report released Wednesday that could redefine public views of the five-day war, the European mission also found that Russia's invasion of Georgia after the attack was illegal and unjustified and that Russian-backed Ossetian militias conducted ethnic cleansing of Georgian villages.

"There is no way to assign overall responsibility for the conflict to one side alone," the report concluded. "They all have failed, and it should be their responsibility to make good for it."

So again, American allies who provoke fights with Russia should not expect America to go to war on their behalf. Is that such an unreasonable standard?

(AP Photos)

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