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November 30, 2009

Israel–EU Relations: Coming to a Head

According to a recent article in Israel's Haaretz newspaper

“European Union foreign ministers are expected to officially call next week for the division of Jerusalem, to serve as the capitals of both Israel and Palestine.”

The article goes on to say:

“Jerusalem is waging a diplomatic campaign to keep the EU from issuing such an endorsement, but diplomats close to the EU deliberations believe it is virtually inevitable.”

The deterioration of relations between Jerusalem and Brussels is likely to strengthen the voice of the left in Israel. Until today, the right wing of Israeli politics, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, has continued with its controversial policy of expanding settlements without any real opposition from abroad.

However, this new development with the EU is different. Brussels is now openly showing the current Israeli government that it is no longer accepting its policies of expansion of settlements in Jerusalem. Such a move could lead to further isolation of Israel in the EU. The Israeli left in this case could point to the deterioration in relations as a clear sign that Netanyahu's policies are counter productive for Israel's standing abroad. The fact that the EU is one of Israel's biggest trading partners is likely to add weight to the sense of concern between decision makers in Jerusalem.

The current Israeli government sees Iran as its biggest enemy. Consequently, it wants the international community to isolate Iran and to impose tough sanctions against its rulers and their nuclear program. For now, the Iranian leadership seems to be helping Israel by turning down the recent nuclear proposal from the West, as well declaring that it intends to build 10 new enrichment facilities.

What Netanyahu seems to overlook is that his recent actions have helped Ahmadinejad and the Iranian government. The EU, instead of just condemning Iran, is now condemning Israel too.

The deterioration of relations with the EU could be taken as a sign of things to come for the U.S., too. The Obama administration is under increased pressure to show results in its foreign policy. The Netanyahu administration could find that instead of focusing entirely on Iran, the White House may also start placing pressure on Israel as means of improving its credibility in the Middle East. Ignoring the EU will be difficult. If history is to be our teacher, it shows that ignoring Washington can also be very costly. Don't forget that it was U.S pressure which contributed to the fall of the Shamir government in 1992, and the victory of Yitzhak Rabin's Labour led, pro peace coalition.

Advice for the President's Afghanistan Speech


Tom Donnelly offers some:

The message he must communicate is beyond pure reason. The troop numbers, the strategic rationale and the policy direction matter more as indicators of temperament than as elements of an argument. The question of commitment was less pressing six months ago when Gen. Stanley McChrystal, trumpets across Washington blaring, was sent to take command in Afghanistan. But now it can no longer be avoided. The current moment is a test of the president’s “courage d’esprit,” of his determination.

The trouble is, the president is speaking to multiple audiences. There is a constituency - called the American people - who are as much interested in hearing how the war ends than in Churchill 2.0. There is Pakistan, which we are told wants to hear that we'll never leave, ever, so they'll stop backing the Afghan Taliban. There are the Afghans themselves - some of whom want a reassurance that the U.S. will not bug out on them and others who want a reassurance that the U.S. is not bent on permanently occupying them. You can signal resolve to one party and undermine your message to the other.

The broader problem is that this question of resolve is a red herring. What if Obama resolutely declares that American interests will be better served with an off-shore approach? I suspect Donnelly would not be pleased with such a display.

But more broadly, the president is one man. In a democratic society, there is going to be a loud, public clash of views on the subject of whether we need to stay in Afghanistan for decades or whether we should switch our strategy. By the very nature of our society, it is impossible to signal "resolve" when it comes to a mission that is as ambiguous as Afghanistan has become. There will always be powerful voices - in Washington, in the media, etc. - who can dissent and by dissenting, dilute a unified message. If the Taliban are paying attention, they'll surely pick up on that dissent no matter how resolute President Obama becomes. Unless you want to silence that dissent, there's no way a democratic debate cannot ultimately serve as fodder for enemy propaganda.

That's not to say it's impossible for a democratic society to convey an image of resolve. You could signal unity of purpose and seriousness about the war by instituting conscription and putting the economy into a war-footing, as we did during World War II (great stimulus prospects there as well). Both moves would certainly put the world on notice that America was serious about the business in Afghanistan.

(AP Photos)

Honduras: Pepe Lobo Wins


Porfirio Lobo Sosa, best known as Pepe Lobo, won yesterday's general election with a clear majority of 56 percent and over 60 percent of registered voters participating in the election.

Noticias 24 has a profile of Lobo (in Spanish): The 61-yr old father of eleven children (currently married to Rosa Elena Bonilla, mother of three of his children) and black belt in Karate is a seasoned politician who, as leader of the National Party, ran on an anti-crime platform in 2005 but was defeated apparently for his support of the death penalty. He served as president of the National Congress from 2002-2006.

Lobo owns large landholdings in Olancho, birthplace of deposed president Mel Zelaya, where he grows grains. He attended the University of Miami in Florida, where he studied business administration, and his political rivals say that he also studied in the Soviet Union--a charge Lobo has never denied but does not show on his CV.

Lobo is regarded by his supporters as conciliatory and open to dialogue. His campaign focused on reducing crime by strengthening institutions such as the National Police and the Public Ministry, promoting job creation and decreasing poverty by 10 percent.

Lobo appealed for unity during his acceptance speech,

"I am announcing a government of national unity, of reconciliation. There's no more time for divisions,"
while also asserting that he "will not allow [Hugo Chávez] or anyone to stick their noses in Honduras:
"Honduras is a free, independent and sovereign country... We will not allow anyone's interference nor political compromises that may create division."
Regarding deposed president Mel Zelaya, Lobo made clear that it's up to the National Congress to decide next Wednesday whether Zelaya is to be reinstated. Lobo is scheduled to be sworn in as president on January 27, 2010. Zelaya has already stated he will not accept being reinstated since that would lend legitimacy to the election.

Peru, Costa Rica, Panama, the German parliament and Japan will recognize yesterday's vote. The European Union is also expected to follow suit.

The British Iraq War Inquiry


The British are knee deep into their look-back on the Iraq war. The Guardian reports:

George Bush tried to make a connection between Iraq and al-Qaida in a conversation with Tony Blair three days after the 9/11 attacks, according to Blair's foreign policy adviser of the time.

Sir David Manning told the official inquiry into the war that Bush, speaking to Blair by phone on 14 September 2001, "said that he thought there might be evidence that there was some connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida."The prime minister's response to this was that the evidence would have to be very compelling indeed to justify taking any action against Iraq," Manning said.

Blair followed up the conversation with a letter stressing the need to focus on the situation in Afghanistan, where the attacks originated.

Outside of the administration, it was much the same story, as neoconservatives leaped immediately past Afghanistan toward Iraq. Here's a look at some neoconservative writings circa 2001. I don't see much in the way of prioritizing the rebuilding of Afghanistan.

Which brings us to the present debate. If you consider that neoconservatives were willing to essentially breeze past Afghanistan in September 2001, I find it a little difficult to countenance their arguments for why there is absolutely no other choice but to commit 100,000 troops to the pacification of the country in 2009.

(AP Photos)

Will the Economy Sink the American Empire?


Niall Ferguson thinks its possible:

As interest payments eat into the budget, something has to give—and that something is nearly always defense expenditure. According to the CBO, a significant decline in the relative share of national security in the federal budget is already baked into the cake. On the Pentagon's present plan, defense spending is set to fall from above 4 percent now to 3.2 percent of GDP in 2015 and to 2.6 percent of GDP by 2028.

Unfortunately, Ferguson never really explains why this is a problem. Obviously, if China declares war on the U.S. in 2027 and we insist on spending 2.6 percent of GDP in our defense in 2028, that's going to be a huge problem. But otherwise? Not so much.

In and of itself, defense spending as percentage of GDP doesn't strike me as a particularly good barometer of imperial health. The U.S. spends vastly more on its defense than any potential competitor. When you look at the world's top defense spenders, almost all of them are American allies. Moreover, while there is certainly a need to keep a healthy lead against nations like China and Russia, we could probably do so and cut our defense spending. Consider the not-insignificant sums invested in policing Baghdad and Kabul and the security subsidies we provide for South Korea, Japan, and Germany.

In other words, there is not (or shouldn't be) a tension between maintaining a superior military force within a tighter budget, provided you're willing to focus your investments in a prioritized fashion and not embark on costly nation building exercises. Of course, when you read Ferguson's piece you learn (or relearn) that Washington can't, in fact, exercise any fiscal discipline. And that has consequences:

The precedents are certainly there. Habsburg Spain defaulted on all or part of its debt 14 times between 1557 and 1696 and also succumbed to inflation due to a surfeit of New World silver. Prerevolutionary France was spending 62 percent of royal revenue on debt service by 1788. The Ottoman Empire went the same way: interest payments and amortization rose from 15 percent of the budget in 1860 to 50 percent in 1875. And don't forget the last great English-speaking empire. By the interwar years, interest payments were consuming 44 percent of the British budget, making it intensely difficult to rearm in the face of a new German threat.

Call it the fatal arithmetic of imperial decline. Without radical fiscal reform, it could apply to America next.

There is an important insight: empires almost always collapse because of internal mismanagement. Either that mismanagement dethrones them outright or, more commonly, makes them much more vulnerable to challengers. This is why worries about Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, et. al. miss the point. The damage they can do to the U.S. is nothing next to the damage we have done - and continue to do - to ourselves.

(AP Photos)

No Choice?


The New York Times expresses its frustration at the lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and then says:

The president has no choice but to keep trying. At some point extremists will try to provoke another war and the absence of a dialogue will only make things worse. Advancing his own final-status plan for a two-state solution is one high-risk way forward that we think is worth the gamble. Stalemate is unsustainable.

The idea that the president has "no choice" is self-evidently wrong. The president always has a choice. Nothing compels the United States to try to broker a peace deal. We've survived lo these many years without one and I suspect we'll endure a great deal longer.

(AP Photos)

Losing Bin Laden


The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has a new report out (pdf) on the failure to kill or capture Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora in December 2001. In it, the Committee notes:

There were enough U.S. troops in or near Afghanistan to execute the classic sweep-and-block maneuver required to attack bin Laden and try to prevent his escape. It would have been a dangerous fight across treacherous terrain, and the injection of more U.S. troops and the resulting casualties would have contradicted the risk-averse, ‘‘light footprint’’ model formulated by Rumsfeld and Franks. But commanders on the scene and elsewhere in Afghanistan argued that the risks were worth the reward.

This jibes with other accounts that suggested that a fear of casualties stayed the American hand at Tora Bora. Which is very strange, when you think about it. After all, Secretary Rumsfeld, President Bush et. al. countenanced a much, much riskier danger in invading Iraq. Why they wouldn't put a far lower number of American lives at risk to nab bin Laden escapes me.

(AP Photos)

November 28, 2009

Honduras: Election Tomorrow, Zelaya Talking of Leaving

Noticias 24 and O Estado quote a source close to deposed President Mel Zelaya (who is still cooped up with his teddy bear in the tin-foil lined room at the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa) saying that Zelaya may seek asylum in Nicaragua by January 27, when his successor is scheduled to be inaugurated as president.

Tomorrow the country's holding the presidential election. The election was scheduled and the candidates chosen while Zelaya was still in office. The U.S. will recognize the election.

A traffic accident involving a truck from the Armed Forces carrying election materials killed four people, three soldiers and one civilian (link in Portuguese).

While Zelaya's been asking his followers to boycott the election, zelayista candidate César Ham is still running and is not promoting a boycott. Candidate Pepe Lobo is ahead in the opinion polls.

Is Obama Making Headway on Iran?


The IAEA has agreed to take a harsher line on Iran:

The United Nations nuclear watchdog demanded Friday that Iran immediately freeze operations at a once secret uranium enrichment plant, a sharp rebuke that bore added weight because it was endorsed by Russia and China...

...Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said China’s support on Iran and its decision to set a climate change goal on Thursday showed that Mr. Obama’s trip to Beijing was producing results despite criticism of the visit. “This is the product of engagement,” Mr. Emanuel said, adding that it was “a direct result” of the trip.

I appreciate the need for the administration to show some results for the trip to Asia - which has been roundly, and in my view somewhat unfairly, condemned as a failure - but I think there's a real danger in holding up the UN's move as any real "progress." The point of engaging China on Iran is to convince the Chinese to sign onto more coercive sanctions against Iran which, in turn, will lead to the ultimate goal of dissuading Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The end goal - as stated by the president himself - is not to win international condemnation of Iran (although it may be a useful first step) but to ensure they do not develop a nuclear weapon.

As long as the end result is an unambiquously nuclear-weapons free Iran, I think the administration is going to find it has an awful long way to go. If they had insisted on a somewhat more modest - yet achievable - goal, they wouldn't be in this fix.

(AP Photos)

Butchering Sacred Cows

It’s Eid in Kabul.The city has shut down. Locals head to mosque, then home to their families. American expats are celebrating Thanksgiving; the rest of us are simply enjoying a long weekend. When the two groups do cross paths, Afghan kids have been know to light firecrackers behind the feet of unsuspecting Westerners before running off giggling, leaving the foreigner, shocked and alarmed, to quickly search for cover from what can only be assumed to be incoming fire.

At the Indonesian embassy Rock 'n' Roll classics are butchered by way of karaoke. Outside, cows and goats are ritualistically slaughtered for the holiday.

Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population, is one of the few countries that has maintained a diplomatic presence in Kabul throughout Afghanistan’s turbulent past.

Situated next to the embattled Indian embassy, the Indonesians don’t need to be reminded of the importance of upholding the appearance of neutrality in Afghanistan’s pugnacious politics. Picking up stray body parts off the embassy tennis courts leaves a powerful impression.

But like the Indians, the Indonesians know all too well the threat of Islamic terrorism and can ill-afford to remain completely impartial on the topic of Afghanistan. For the moment, however, there are painfully fresh kebabs and a harmonized "More Than Words" guitar sing-along to contend with.

Alim Remtulla

November 27, 2009

Poll: Public Supports Bombing Iran


Jodie Allen at Pew Research has an interesting new report:

Yet even as enthusiasm for American involvement in Afghanistan has faded, the public has assumed a warlike stance on another front: Iran. In an October Pew Research survey, a substantial 61%-majority of Americans say 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 acquire nuclear capability.

Especially after Iraq, the public's willingness to countenance a war with Iran surprises me. Of course, deficit spending goes a long way toward disguising those costs. It's hard to have a debate about the course of American foreign policy if Washington defers the actual costs of its action to future generations. And there is more than just the debt-load they'll inherit. There are geopolitical consequences to taking military action that aren't always clear at the beginning of the fight, but which rear their head many years later nonetheless.

Afghanistan itself is an excellent case in point. Secretary Gates recently noted how ironic it was that the U.S. is fighting some of the very Taliban figures that he "shoveled arms" to during the Afghan civil war. Indeed, it is ironic. But it's useful too - it should serve as a reminder that when Washington tries to direct the course of societies other than its own, the full cost and consequences of such actions won't be readily apparent at the time. But they will be real nonetheless.

(AP Photos)

Poll: What the World Thinks About... Everything

The Council on Foreign Relations is out with a new omnibus study of U.S. and international attitudes about a range of global issues - on terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the environment, global institutions. A gold mine of world polling data.

November 26, 2009

Kabul's Bristling Bureaucracy

My second week has been spent trying to navigate Kabul's bureaucracy. What I thought was a six month visa, purchased at the accordant price, now appears to be valid for only one. I have two weeks to exit the country.

Working strictly from hearsay, the only apparent source of information here in Kabul, I can now either fly to Dubai and brave the lines at the embassy, armed with a convincing yarn on why I am deserving of the scarce commodity that is the six month multiple entry visa. Alternatively, I can work towards finding a trusted Afghan fixer who can work the system and, for a modest fee, secure any visa.

Most firms here have dedicated staff to resolve such issues. As a freelancer I'm left to rely on the kindness of others or fend for myself. From what I've gathered a successful freelance journalist cannot be above the transparent calling-in of favors or even the forging of official documents.

On a recent mission to scour the streets of Kabul for a cheap iPhone, my companion, an Afghan of few words and gentle features, explained that Kafkaesque bureaucracy is nothing new to this country. Under the Taliban he was forced to wear a beard of at least eight centimeters. Erring on the side of caution he kept it at ten. Looking back at pictures as a bearded 29 year old, he thinks the facial hair added at least ten years. For the first two months the beard constantly itches but then you get used to it, he says. Sleeping was difficult though, the whiskers tickling at your face and neck. Now clean-shaven and baby-faced, he doesn’t plan to sport a beard until at least 50. Apparently a gray beard in Afghanistan is license to make your own rules.

Alim Remtulla

November 25, 2009

US-China Trade Deficit: Krugman v. Krugman

Paul Krugman is really worried about the US-China trade deficit and global trade imbalances more generally. He has now devoted two near-identical NYT op-eds to the issue, each essentially complaining that it's all China's fault.  Here's the latter Krugman column on the subject:

Despite huge trade surpluses and the desire of many investors to buy into this fast-growing economy — forces that should have strengthened the renminbi, China’s currency — Chinese authorities have kept that currency persistently weak. They’ve done this mainly by trading renminbi for dollars, which they have accumulated in vast quantities.

And in recent months China has carried out what amounts to a beggar-thy-neighbor devaluation, keeping the yuan-dollar exchange rate fixed even as the dollar has fallen sharply against other major currencies. This has given Chinese exporters a growing competitive advantage over their rivals, especially producers in other developing countries.

What makes China’s currency policy especially problematic is the depressed state of the world economy. Cheap money and fiscal stimulus seem to have averted a second Great Depression. But policy makers haven’t been able to generate enough spending, public or private, to make progress against mass unemployment. And China’s weak-currency policy exacerbates the problem, in effect siphoning much-needed demand away from the rest of the world into the pockets of artificially competitive Chinese exporters.

But why do I say that this problem is about to get much worse? Because for the past year the true scale of the China problem has been masked by temporary factors. Looking forward, we can expect to see both China’s trade surplus and America’s trade deficit surge....

Unfortunately, the Chinese don’t seem to get it: rather than face up to the need to change their currency policy, they’ve taken to lecturing the United States, telling us to raise interest rates and curb fiscal deficits — that is, to make our unemployment problem even worse.

And I’m not sure the Obama administration gets it, either. The administration’s statements on Chinese currency policy seem pro forma, lacking any sense of urgency.

That needs to change. I don’t begrudge Mr. Obama the banquets and the photo ops; they’re part of his job. But behind the scenes he better be warning the Chinese that they’re playing a dangerous game.

As Dan Drezner humorously points out, Krugman wrote the "exact same column" last month (that's nice work if you can get it).  In each case, he blames global macroeconomic imbalances on China's currency policy, and his recipe for reducing, or "re-balancing," the US-China trade deficit rests solely on the appreciation of China's currency against the dollar.  Such appreciation, so the theory goes, would make US goods relatively cheaper (especially as the Dollar declines against other currencies too) and Chinese goods relatively more expensive, and the trade deficit will magically shrink.  Presto!

For the time being, I'm going to put aside my doubts that the US-China trade deficit is the big problem right now.  I'm also not going to focus on the historical evidence (pointed out by me and a few others) that currency appreciation - including the RMB's - hasn't "cured" past trade imbalances.  Instead, let's just look at Krugman's theoretical argument that currency policy alone can "fix" the trade deficit.  Is that sound liberal economic theory?  Coming from a famous liberal columnist and Nobel Laureate in trade and economics, one would sure assume so.

Well, as my mom would say, you know what happens when we assume, now don't you?

A quick review of the literature calls Krugman's basic "currency-only" theory into question, even among liberal economists.  These folks say that currency policy alone cannot guarantee a change in trade balances.  Instead, they argue that any US government policy to reduce the trade deficit must involve a combination of currency depreciation and corresponding fiscal discipline.  Indeed, even Paul Krugman himself doesn't believe that currency policy alone can rebalance US trade.  Here he is in his 1997 treatise The Age of Diminished Expectations on the subject:

Unless we are prepared to raise domestic saving, which essentially means a sizable cut in the budget deficit, any attempt to reduce the trade deficit will come at the expense of higher interest rates and lower investment...

The orthodox recipe for reducing a trade deficit is to combine currency depreciation with fiscal austerity. The United States has been willing to try the first, but not the second. So we can legitimately ask whether it makes sense to try to do anything about the dollar until there are clear signs that a budget solution is in sight....

The textbook recipe for curing a trade deficit calls for a lower dollar combined with a lower budget deficit. If we have no intention of actually cutting the deficit anytime soon, then it's too soon to seek a lower dollar.

In other words, attempting to reduce the US trade deficit through currency policy is pointless - and maybe even very painful - unless the US government also stops spending with reckless abandon.  Yet twelve years after Krugman penned the above passage, he seems to have forgotten this economic "orthodoxy."  His op-eds make no mention of the necessary fiscal austerity that must accompany dollar depreciation (which is essentially what forced RMB appreciation is) in order to guarantee a rebalancing of the US trade deficit.  Instead, he blames China's undervalued currency, and by extension the overvalued dollar, for the US-China trade deficit and claims that RMB appreciation alone can achieve the trade rebalancing that America so desperately needs.  Indeed, Krugman today praises "cheap money and fiscal stimulus" and derides China's calls on the US to "curb fiscal deficits," despite the fact that he wrote a decade earlier that liberal fiscal policies would undermine any effects that currency changes would have on the trade deficit.  So what possibly could explain Krugman's curious change of heart?

It couldn't be that he's penned a boatload of columns (see, e.g., here, here, here and here) breathlessly imploring the government to print, borrow and spend money like Charles Barkley in a Las Vegas champagne room, could it?  No, that can't possibly be it because such a bush-league move not only would be disingenuous, but it also could lead a complicit White House to pursue policies that do nothing to change the trade deficit and instead create a devastating combination of "higher interest rates and lower investment." So I guess the economic "textbooks" must've changed since 1997, right?


Scott Lincicome is an international trade attorney in Washington, DC. He blogs at http://lincicome.blogspot.com/.

Curtain Call for "Abu Muquwama"

I have long felt that it is vanity for blogs and newspapers to treat news about the relay of news in the same way it does actual news. That said, there is something to be learned by watching the occasional trends in reporting. In a move that is getting a great deal of discussion in the military blogging community, Andrew Exum, aka Abu Muquwama, announced on Monday that he intends to discontinue regular blogging.

Abu Muquwama is a rarity in the military community, in that he is a self-proclaimed center-left figure who the military establishment takes seriously; he understands the tactical and operational levels of war; he is comfortable with the use of force. In my mind, he reflected the Truman branch of liberalism. While Abu Muquwama will continue on as an active blog, Andrew Exum will post less frequently, and the blog will serve primarily as an outlet for Londonstani, a correspondent in the Af/Pak region.

This reminds me of the transition that CNN experienced after the first Gulf War. While CNN had been around for years, it was only in the First Gulf War that it really came into its own. The hourly riveting and relatively sterile images made for extremely high ratings and propelled people like Wolf Blitzer into the national spotlight. However, after the war, a 24 hour news cycle was difficult to maintain, and CNN suffered. (Faced with a similar dilemma after the invasion of Iraq, the news channels increased their commentary to fill the gap.)

Similarly, Andrew Exum, like many bloggers, had plenty of fodder with two wars ongoing, and lots of news flowing out of both Afghanistan and Iraq. Quick evaluations based on experience could influence the course of debate, and that is exactly the role Abu Muquwama and others played. Now, a lot less information is reported in the news. Iraq has fallen off the radar almost completely, and most of the news about Afghanistan seems to be about the Obama administration's grappling with the war's complexities instead of actual events inside the country. As such, there is much less to comment or report on, unless you are on the ground like Londonstani, or Michael Yon. Unfortunately, the decline in readily available information means that the Western public is forming opinions on even less information than before, and in my opinion, that bodes ill for informed decision making on the part of democratic states.

Japan Goes Nuclear


The DPJ government is causing quite a stir:

Japan's new government, already bickering with the United States about the location of a Marine air station on Okinawa, appears intent on revealing evidence of a decades-old secret pact between Tokyo and Washington that allowed U.S. ships and aircraft to carry nuclear weapons on stopovers in Japan.

Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said that the investigation is in its final stages and that its findings will be announced in January. "We'll be unburdening ourselves of the insistence of past governments that a secret agreement did not exist," Okada said in a speech last weekend.

The pact violates a Japanese law that prohibits nuclear weapons from being made, possessed or stored on its territory.

Japan's new-found assertiveness is causing some heartburn in the U.S. but it could also be an opportunity. As Cato's Justin Logan notes:

But the broader point is that for those of us who have been advocating a larger role in Asia for Japan and a smaller one for the United States, the increasingly independent nature of the new DPJ government ought to be seen as a feature, not a bug. If the Japanese are really feeling their oats and aren’t too excited at continuing the LDP’s lockstep alliance with the United States, more power to them. If they want fewer US troops in Japan, terrific. We’re militarily overextended as it is and have serious economic problems to deal with.

Indeed. For all the worry about other countries not "stepping up" and helping the U.S. lead the international system, Japan seems like an ideal test case of a new way forward. You cannot lead without power and Japan cannot have greater power without greater independence from the United States. If handled correctly, the U.S. could enjoy a twofer: we save money that we're now spending on defending Japan and we get a more capable Japan, albeit one less deferential.

Of course, the hegemonists greatest fears may be realized and a newly empowered Japan may really try to stiff-arm the U.S. out of Asia and take other measures detrimental to our interests.

(AP Photos)

November 24, 2009

Don't Panic

Democracy Arsenal's David Shorr is worried:

I also start to wonder about how America will sustain its role as the foundation of the international system. It's a dubious premise for some people, but it's clear to me that in many ways (you'll-miss-it-when-it's-gone kinds of ways) the United States serves as glue for the geopolitical order. And I'm growing less confident that our own domestic politics will sustain the associated international engagement and commitment.

It won't be the reawakening of America's historical isolationism, sometimes cited as a tendency that's merely in remission. Having followed opinion polls over the years, I think the voting public has basically the right instincts. Looking at the 2008 election, voters were clearly uncomfortable with the widespread international mistrust that Bush foreign policy had generated; they wanted America to be the good guys. But improving international perceptions is different from providing international leadership, and I can imagine the US turning inward and relinquishing the role of global leader.

American retreat from the world wouldn't come all at once. Retrenchment instead would creep up gradually. Indeed, it's possible that the pull-back has already started. For instance, it's not clear that our political system is still able to ratify significant treaties. Likewise, I worry about whether we will really commit to rebuilding our corps of diplomatic and development professionals. Down the line, I could imagine the United States reducing its forward deployments of military bases around the world -- not an abrupt severing of alliances, but reducing overextension. I don't advocate any of this and worry that the world's problems would worsen as a result. But I'm started to get seriously concerned that this is where we might be headed.

Why, I wonder, would Shorr want to perpetuate a circumstance which he admits overextends the United States? And, in any event, is it really natural to expect the United States to foot the defense bill of other leading economies en-perpetuity?

Some Perspective on "Trade War" Reporting

Although I have no scientific data to back this up, I think it's safe to say that I take a backseat to very few people in my criticism of recent US trade policy. That said, I've grown quite concerned with a growing number of media reports that a recent spike in US trade remedies (i.e., antidumping and countervailing duty) cases is a scary signal of burgeoining US protectionism or an impending "trade war" with China.  For example, last week the AFP reported:

Tensions between the world's number-one and number-three economies intensified last week when the US slapped anti-dumping tariffs of up to 99 percent on imports of some Chinese steel products used in the oil industry.

Similar statements have appeared in lots of recent op-eds and wire service reports, each pointing to a 2009 increase in antidumping and CVD cases as hard evidence that a tit-for-tat trade war between the United States and China is brewing. (Insert ominous "dah-dah-duhhhh" here.)

Such "analysis," however, demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of how AD/CVD cases are initiated and decided in the United States, and it might actually do free traders a disservice.  Sure, China is complaining, but that's hardly anything new.  The fact is that the US government does not bring AD/CVD cases. They instead are the result of massive petitions filed under US law by private domestic companies (or coalitions of companies) and/or their unions purusant to their own economic interests.  Such petitions typically take months to produce, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawyer and economist fees - hardly an efficient retaliatory weapon.  The US government (through the Department of Commerce) can, by law, have a small role in the crafting of an AD/CVD petition but only in a basic advisory capacity (e.g., to assist the petitioner with meeting the basic legal criteria for a proper petition) and little more.  And once filed, cases are essentially on "autopilot," with DOC's initiation of the case, as well as affirmative preliminary determinations by the DOC and the US International Trade Commission, all but certain (a common free trader complaint against the law, actually).  Meanwhile, the President himself has no formal role in the process.

This automaticity, and the lack of White House involvement, means that it's a real stretch to claim that the filing of an AD/CVD petition - or the subsequent initiation of case against China, the preliminary domestic injury determination by the ITC or the preliminary calculation of antidumping or CVD duties by DOC - is a sure sign of US protectionism. Indeed, even a final injury determination or the actual imposition of AD/CVD duties isn't a good indicator of surging American isolationism: according to a plethora of studies, the filing of an AD/CVD petition almost always results in the final imposition of remedial tariffs (unless respondents hire my firm, of course).

Yet even if one were to conclude that the simple initiation of an AD/CVD case amounts to US "protectionism," the number of AD/CVD cases in 2009 is well within recent historical norms. According to DOC statistics, the United States has initiated 22 AD or CVD cases against China on 12 products so far in 2009. That might sound like a lot, but consider that in 2008 there were 15 AD/CVD cases against China, and 19 such cases in 2007. (These elevated numbers actually have persisted ever since the "free trade" Bush Administration changed its decades-old policy in 2006 and started applying the CVD law to imports from China and other "non-market economies".)  Sure you can blame US trade law for producing such numerous and seemingly pre-ordained outcomes, but it was doing that long before President Obama took office.

By contrast, the President's decision to impose prohibitive tariffs on Chinese tires under Section 421 of US trade law was both completely discretionary and the first of its kind. As such, it warrants intense criticism and serious concern about increased White House protectionism and the future of US trade policy.

With the 421 decision, the White House's failure to engage at the WTO, its shelving of pending FTAs with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, its refusal to resolve te Buy American and Mexican Trucks disputes, and USTR's increased "enforcement efforts," free traders have plenty of bad moves to criticize, and journalists have plenty of troubling signs to report.   But when these well-meaning souls add AD/CVD initiations to the list, they risk undermining their message for those policymakers and readers who understand the difference between "typical" and "extraordinary" US trade policy.  Such a move, therefore, could actually end up hindering the important causes of trade liberalization and US accountability, rather than promoting them.

Scott Lincicome is an international trade attorney in Washington, DC. He blogs at http://lincicome.blogspot.com/.

If I Were Lula's Political Rivals

I would remind Brazilians that their President believes Iran and Brazil share "identical development models."

Which part, the soaring inflation, or the astronomical unemployment? Maybe the sanctions levied for nuclear proliferation? Maybe the misuse and embezzlement of oil revenue?

I suppose I take his point--Brazil is working toward becoming a net oil exporter again, and Iran would like to get on a similar path regarding gas and oil production--but it seems somewhat illogical to compare Brazil's development model to that of a regime in violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions. Intransigence and extortion aren't very sturdy development models.

Fodder for next year's general election, one would think.

From AfPak to Somalia


This news today surely puts this news about the president's decision to pour 34,000 additional U.S. troops into Afghanistan into sharper relief:

Federal officials on Monday unsealed terrorism-related charges against men they say were key actors in a recruitment effort that led roughly 20 young Americans to join a violent insurgent group in Somalia with ties to Al Qaeda.

With eight new suspects charged Monday, the authorities have implicated 14 people in the case, one of the most extensive domestic terrorism investigations since the Sept. 11 attacks. Some of them have been arrested; others are at large, including several believed to be still fighting with the Somali group, Al Shabaab.

The case represents the largest group of American citizens suspected of joining an extremist movement affiliated with Al Qaeda, senior officials said. Many of the recruits had come to America as young refugees fleeing a brutal civil war, only to settle in a gang-ridden enclave of Minneapolis.

A fully resourced counter-insurgency in Afghanistan would do nothing to avert this kind of problem. It's not that we should ignore Afghanistan. But the idea that we need to put all our resources into a single basket in the name of counter-terrorism sure seems counter-productive.

(AP Photos)

November 23, 2009

Afghanistan and the Articles of Confederation

Greg noted recent efforts to arm local leaders to fight the Taliban and recently, George Gavrilis at Foreign Policy called for a less centralized state in Afghanistan along the Tajikistan model. Indeed, it is likely that the problem with Afghanistan is actually the government's structure.

Right now Afghanistan has something it never has had in the past: a strong central government. That means that the stakes are very high both internally and externally for those who control the government. However, by empowering and arming local leaders, we might be able to successfully create a system which is at least externally stable.

Put another way, the United States currently has a strong central government because the first system, the Articles of Confederation was viewed as too weak to prevent a takeover by the British or the French. However, in the case of Afghanistan, we are playing the role of the British and the French. It may well behoove us to encourage a more decentralized model wherein the Taliban do control some territory, but not enough that they are externally a threat. Western air power and special forces could intervene as needed if the balance ever tipped too far towards the Taliban, without requiring the troop commitment we have now.

Such a solution would not turn Afghanistan into the Colorado of the Himalayas that American politicians hope for, but it would probably be much more sustainable in the long term, and it may allow the U.S. to contain Salafist threats in the region.

Questions for FPI, Ctd.

Adding to Greg's excellent points from earlier regarding the Foreign Policy Initiative's recently published fact sheet on Afghanistan, I too noticed a couple of curiously absent items from their analysis: cost and scope.

On the first point, FPI make no mention of the financial costs entailed in the Afghan mission--estimated somewhere between $750,000 and $1 million per person based off the proposed surge total of 40K--or how an indefinite presence in Afghanistan will affect American spending options both at home and abroad.

This leads directly into mission scope. Absent any kind of endgame or "Mission Accomplished" benchmarks, this fact sheet merely outlines the indefinite occupation of one particular country. If the greater War on Terrorism can be fought and won on this front alone, then what does that say about known al-Qaeda havens such as Yemen and Somalia? Max Boot, who's cited in the brief, writes in the pages of Commentary Magazine that "pure" counterterrorism:

is the strategy that Israel has used against Hamas and Hezbollah. The result is that Hamas controls Gaza, and Hezbollah controls southern Lebanon. It is the strategy that the U.S. has employed in Somalia since our forces pulled out in 1994. The result is that the country is utterly chaotic and lawless, and an Islamic fundamentalist group called the Shabab, which has close links to al-Qaeda, is gaining strength. Most pertinently, it is also the strategy the U.S. has used for years in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So if our strategy to defeat al-Qaeda is insufficient in Somalia, why aren't we planning indefinite counterinsurgency in that country as well? In the brief, FPI argues that the All Volunteer U.S. military is stronger than it has been in years, and any complaints about it being overburdened are "no truer now" than they were when voiced in reference to Iraq. Does this argument apply only to a War on Terrorism based in Afghanistan, or does it give the United States the flexibility to fight al-Qaeda as needed on other continents?

If, as FPI claims, 60,000 troops slated for redeployment from Iraq next summer will help plug in the holes of a revamped Afghan presence, where then would the troops come from to properly fight al-Qaeda elsewhere? If Fred Kagan--cited multiple times throughout this fact sheet-- is correct, and a "small-footprint counterterrorism strategy" can't work in Afghanistan, why is it acceptable in other terrorist hotbeds?

To believe this fact sheet is to believe that the so-called Global War on Terrorism isn't all that global after all--it in fact leapfrogs from mission to mission, conveniently enough, alongside American forces. Wherever we go, there's your war. Whereas Iraq was once the "central front" in the War on Terrorism, now--in accordance with an Iraq withdrawal I suspect most of the analysts listed in this brief likely opposed--it is imperative that we shift those resources toward Afghanistan. The so-called central front appears to be one step ahead of us.

For FPI's facts to add up, Afghanistan must now remain the one and only central front, and al-Qaeda must remain America's only serious enemy. Both notions strike me as terribly shortsighted.

Al Qaeda vs. Japan


Michael Goldfarb makes an analogy:

As soon as I started comparing the war in the Pacific with the war in Afghanistan, Innocent jumped all over me. "You're not comparing Imperial Japan to al Qaeda?" she asked. "No, of course not," I assured her. Respectable people can't compare the wars America is fighting now with the Great and Good War America fought against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

But, you know what? On second thought, Imperial Japan and al Qaeda have a lot in common -- and so do the Second World War and the war in Afghanistan. The Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor, killing more Americans than any attack on U.S. soil until al Qaeda launched its own sneak attack on 9/11. The Japanese and al Qaeda also share the same fanatical devotion to their "cause." The Japanese had kamikazes and al Qaeda has kamikazes -- with hundreds of passengers on board. Our enemies in both wars shared a suicidal commitment to an impossible delusion of world domination. The war in the Pacific was a bloodbath as a result. Women and children threw themselves off of cliffs on Saipan rather than surrender to U.S. Marines. Only 1,000 Japanese surrendered on Iwo, the other 22,000 died fighting or were buried or burned alive in the island's caves. On Okinawa the Japanese sacrificed 100,000 men in the service of a lost cause.

All true. But here are some other relevant facts. At its strength, Imperial Japan had:

1. a navy
2. an airforce
3. an empire

Al Qaeda, needless to say, has none of those things. But the differences go beyond mere capacity. The war in Afghanistan is not a war against a territorial aggressor. It is a war to pacify an insurgency. That the insurgency is populated with a lot of nasty people doesn't change the fact that we're not fighting to rebuff imperial encroachment. We're fighting to get tribal Pashtuns to accept the writ of the Western-allied Afghan government.

That can still be a cause worth fighting and dying for, but conflating it with World War II doesn't really help frame the choices we face.

(AP Photos)

Questions for FPI


The Foreign Policy Initiative has circulated what it dubs the Case for a Fully Resourced Counter-Insurgency in Afghanistan, where they attempt to rebut assertions raised by skeptics of nation building there. Well worth a look.

There are, however, some rather important questions that are left untouched. They are:

* Would a fully resourced counter-insurgency prevent or seriously reduce terror attacks against the United States from Islamic radicals? If we "win" in Afghanistan, would the Fort Hood shooting not have occurred? Would radicals in London not have hatched a plot to bomb transatlantic airliners?

* If counter-insurgency is the American template for beating Islamic terrorism, will it be applied in Somalia, particularly if al Qaeda flees there?

* Why does Afghanistan warrant such an out-sized claim on American resources, given that al Qaeda's ability to launch mass-casualty terrorist attacks has been severely diminished? Are America's other foreign policy priorities - including relations with China, Russia and India - less significant than the battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan?

* How many terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland have been thwarted by U.S. troops operating inside Afghanistan, and how many have been thwarted by intelligence operatives outside the country?

* And finally, why should we believe that Pakistan would be at risk if we were to withdraw from Afghanistan? Doesn't Pakistan, to this day, cultivate the Afghan Taliban for its own ends?

Inquiring minds want to know.

(AP Photos)

Damaging the U.S.-British Relationship


Ever since President Obama removed the bust of Winston Churchill from the White House, commentators have worried about an erosion in the special relationship between the U.S. and Britain. But a British inquiry into the Iraq war is casting new light on those ties under the Bush administration:

The end of “major combat operations” in May 2003 set the stage for two different kinds of conflict. There was the nascent insurgency in US-controlled central Iraq – though not, initially, in the four southern provinces occupied by Britain. And, quite unknown at the time, there was the growing battle between the UK and America, whose relations appear to have been far worse than anyone suspected.

The entire piece is worth a read. The upshot seems to be the British favored a lighter hand in Iraq and the Americans didn't. The rest, as they say, is history.

(AP Photos)

The Decline of Maritime Empires

This is a neat video showing the decline of four maritime empires over time:

Visualizing empires decline from Pedro M Cruz on Vimeo.

If you liked that, you'll probably enjoy this one as well.

[Hat tip: Jesse Walker]

November 22, 2009

An Afghan Awakening?


Dexter Filkins reports on U.S. efforts to aid some Afghan tribes who have turned against the Taliban:

American and Afghan officials have begun helping a number of anti-Taliban militias that have independently taken up arms against insurgents in several parts of Afghanistan, prompting hopes of a large-scale tribal rebellion against the Taliban.

The emergence of the militias, which took some leaders in Kabul by surprise, has so encouraged the American and Afghan officials that they are planning to spur the growth of similar armed groups across the Taliban heartland in the southern and eastern parts of the country.

The American and Afghan officials say they are hoping the plan, called the Community Defense Initiative, will bring together thousands of gunmen to protect their neighborhoods from Taliban insurgents. Already there are hundreds of Afghans who are acting on their own against the Taliban, officials say.

I know several Afghan experts were wary about an "arm the tribes" strategy. But if the tribes, which Filkins says are already well armed, want to turn their guns on the Taliban, it seems smart to give them some ammo.

(AP Photos)

November 20, 2009

Back to the Stone Age?


In making the case for an extended American commitment in Afghanistan, the New Yorker's Steve Coll argued that the U.S. must prevent the restoration of the Taliban-led "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" which held sway over the country in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, as Eli Lake reports today, it seems that elements within Pakistan's intelligence service have another idea:

Mullah Mohammed Omar, the one-eyed leader of the Afghan Taliban, has fled a Pakistani city on the border with Afghanistan and found refuge from potential U.S. attacks in the teeming Pakistani port city of Karachi with the assistance of Pakistan's intelligence service, three current and former U.S. intelligence officials said.

If one steps outside the debate over how many troops to send into Afghanistan, there is a broader discussion of how to turn the regional dynamics around in such a way as to favor a successful outcome for the U.S. inside Afghanistan. The biggest question mark has always been how to ensure that Pakistan doesn't nurture Taliban elements in Afghanistan as a hedge against India and an American departure. Unfortunately, no one seems to have solved this particular puzzle.

First, we had the Bush administration's initial response after 9/11, which was to threaten a military reprisal against Pakistan if they didn't quickly reorient their position toward the Taliban. That was quickly followed up with generous financial support directed at the Pakistani military. Neither really worked. The Obama administration, together with Sens. Kerry and Lugar, have decided to spread the money further afield, to Pakistan's civilian government and civil society.

Maybe this tack will work, but it will do so over time. And it will take a major, decades-long commitment on the part of the U.S. inside Afghanistan - not simply to combat the insurgency but to convince Pakistan that we're never leaving and they won't need to cultivate Afghanistan for "strategic depth." We would, in effect, have to make Afghanistan a perpetual ward of the United States.

Needless to say, none of that is cheap. Nor is it going to keep us secure from Islamic radicalism, as the Fort Hood massacre demonstrates.

(AP Photos)

November 19, 2009

Obama & India


Whatever your impression of the Obama administration's foreign policy to date, it does seem the administration has not found its footing with respect to India. First, there was the blow-up over Richard Holbrooke's "AfPak" portfolio (he wanted it to include India, until the Indians reportedly spiked that idea). Now the Indian press is reporting on worry that the Joint Declaration signed by the U.S. in China this week will undermine Indian security:

The joint statement issued by US and China, after the talks between Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao, declared that both sides "support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan."

This created much confusion and suspicion in New Delhi.

"At a time when Indian public opinion was looking forward to fruitful results from the forthcoming visit of PM Singh to the US, reports from Beijing on Obama's visit to China would strengthen the impression that Obama is not well-disposed towards India," said strategic analyst B Raman.

America and China have named India and Pakistan in their joint statement after a decade -- but the last time US was furious over India conducting the Pokhran nuclear tests. This time, the joint statement has raised questions about Obama's understanding of India.

G Parthasarathy, former high commissioner to Pakistan, told rediff.com, "India has cause to be concerned when there is collusion or confrontation, rather than constructive cooperation, between the United States and China. The statements made during Obama's visit to China smacked of collusion, giving China the status of a regional hegemon -- that too just after China's role in providing nuclear weapon capabilities to Pakistan was made public in the US."

He added, "There is no room for a third chair on the table on India-Pakistan issues".

(AP Photos)

Poll: Western Views on Iran Threat


Pew Research is out with some new numbers today on Western attitudes towards Iran's nuclear program:

A 14-nation survey by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project, conducted Aug. 27 through Sept. 24, finds worries about Iran developing nuclear weapons most common among Americans: 82% say that this would be a major threat to the well-being of the U.S. Similarly, concerns are widespread in Western Europe -- large majorities in Spain (81%), Germany (79%), Italy (78%) and France (74%) view Iran's emergent nuclear capabilities as a major threat.

This view is less common among Eastern Europeans. Still, 69% of Czechs view Iran's potential nuclear capabilities as a threat, as do more than six-in-ten in Poland (65%), Bulgaria (63%) and Lithuania (62%). Roughly half in Slovakia (52%) and Hungary (46%) express worry about Iran developing a nuclear capacity.

More interesting still:

In each of the nations surveyed, more people consider a nuclear armed Iran a major threat than say this about two other potential dangers: the Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan and extremists taking control of Pakistan.

Majorities in 11 of the 14 countries say that a nuclear Iran poses a major threat to their own country; across the 14 nations, the median percentage rating a nuclear Iran a major threat is 66%.

I personally don't understand this view. I don't think extremists would be able to topple Pakistan in the first place, but let's say for the sake of argument they do. Which group is more likely to use a nuclear weapon - Iran's Mullahs or the Taliban? I think it's obvious we'd be vastly more threatened if Pakistan's nuclear weapons fell into the hands of Sunni extremists than if Iran's currently non-existent arsenal eventually develops into something they could use.

(A Pakistan army patrol. AP Photos)

November 18, 2009

Are Manufacturing Exports the Key to Recovery?


In President Obama's speech in Japan over the weekend, he stressed the need to increase US manufacturing exports in order to create new, well-paying American jobs:

[T]his new strategy will mean saving more and spending less, reforming our financial system and reducing our long-term deficit. It will also mean a greater emphasis on exports that we can build, produce, and sell all over the world. For America, this is a jobs strategy. Right now, our exports support millions upon millions of well-paying American jobs. Increasing those exports by just a small amount has the potential to create millions more. These are jobs making everything from wind turbines and solar panels to the technology you use every day.

The Japan speech was not the first time that Obama mentioned exports as a key to future American job growth. Just two weeks ago at a meeting of his Economic Recovery Advisory Board, he spoke about "export-driven growth, manufacturing growth, growth that pays high wages and provides high living standards for a broad-based middle class."

Clearly, exports, and the manufacturing jobs they create, are an integral part of the administration's jobs strategy. But is that a wise approach? The facts seem to say "no."

First, let's make clear that there is very little connection between manufacturing output and those "high wage, middle class" manufacturing jobs that the President lauds. As Cato's Dan Ikenson pointed out in a recent op-ed, "American real manufacturing value-added — the market value of manufactured goods, over and above the costs that went into their production — reached a record-high level in 2007 (the last year for which final data are available), breaking the record set in 2006, which broke the record set in 2005, which broke the record set in 2004."  Yet over that same period (2004-2007), the US lost about 100,000 manufacturing jobs per year. (As an aside, let's just note again that the US remains the world's largest manufacturer - about 2.5 times more than China, by value.)

Second, it's important to understand that the disappearance of manufacturing jobs is not an America-specific phenomenon.  As this awesome chart derived from Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data readily indicates (h/t ToGetRichIsGlorious), developed countries - the US included - have been hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs for decades:

The chart also makes clear that America's "consumption culture" can't be blamed for the loss of manufacturing jobs.  According to the CIA's World Factbook, Germany, the United States, Japan, Italy, France, the Netherlands and the UK are all among the world's top ten merchandise exporters; according to the OECD, some are net importers, and others are net exporters.  Yet the long-term employment trend for each country is decidedly downward (but for a few random upticks).  So neither a country's total exports output nor its trade balance is a magical recipe for increasing - or even retaining - manufacturing jobs.

The Congressional Research Service also made the latter point (on trade balances and employment) in a June 2009 report on China's currency policy when it said:

[A]n undervalued yuan neither increases nor decreases aggregate demand in the United States. Rather, it leads to a compositional shift in U.S. production, away from U.S. exporters and import-competing firms toward the firms that benefit from Chinese capital flows. Thus, it is expected to have no medium or long run effect on aggregate U.S. employment or unemployment. As evidence, one can consider that the U.S. had a historically large and growing trade deficit throughout the 1990s at a time when unemployment reached a three-decade low. However, the gains and losses in employment and production caused by the trade deficit will not be dispersed evenly across regions and sectors of the economy: on balance, some areas will gain while others will lose. And by shifting the composition of U.S. output to a higher capital base, the size of the economy would be larger in the long run as a result of the capital inflow/trade deficit.

In other words, altering the trade deficit would not affect employment and might actually lead to a decrease in GDP.

Third, and before any of you start shouting that it's the nefarious China that's stealing all of those good-paying manufacturing jobs, they're bleeding these jobs too!  According to a recent op-ed by GMU's Walter Williams, China has lost over 4.5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000 - a lot more, by the way, than the United States (about 3.3 million, according to the BLS).  Williams helpfully adds, "In fact, nine of the top 10 manufacturing countries, which produce 75 percent of the world's manufacturing output (the U.S., Japan, Germany, China, Britain, France, Italy, Korea, Canada, and Mexico), have lost manufacturing jobs but their manufacturing output has risen."

The reason for this is simple: the world's manufacturers keep getting more productive and thus need fewer man-hours to produce more stuff.  Here's Williams again:

According to a report given by Dr. William Strauss, senior economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, titled "Is U.S. Losing Its Manufacturing Base?" the answer is no.  In each of the past 60 years, U.S. manufacturing output growth has averaged 4 percent and productivity growth has averaged 3 percent. Manufacturing is going through the same process as agriculture. In 1900, 41 percent of American workers were employed in agriculture; today, only 2 percent are and agricultural output is greater. In 1940, 35 percent of workers were employed in manufacturing jobs; today, it's about 10 percent. Again, because of huge productivity gains, manufacturing output is greater.

Since the beginning of the current recession in December 2007, the United States has lost 8.2 million jobs.  And while I appreciate (really!) the White House's newfound attention to exports (and, by extension, international trade), all of the above data strongly caution against a modern US jobs program that is based, in whole or significant part, upon boosting manufacturing exports. To add millions of jobs under such a plan would defy almost all recent economic experience - in developed, developing, consuming and exporting countries alike.

So I sure hope the President and his economic team have more up their sleeves than a strategy of "exports, manufacturing, and wind turbines." Because it sure looks like they're gonna need it.

Scott Lincicome is an international trade attorney in Washington, DC. He blogs at http://lincicome.blogspot.com/.

(AP Photos)

Sarah Palin's Israel Policy, Ctd.

Just to follow up on Greg's Palin post, the line that stuck out for me--and others-- was the one about Jewish people "flocking" to Israel in the "days, and weeks and months ahead":

Maybe this was just a throwaway line, I don't know. But I thought it to be pretty common knowledge that Israel was undergoing a demographic crisis, and that its modest growth bump in the past couple years was mostly internal. Immigration has declined slightly in the past couple years, and it's half what it was in the 90's.

Who, unless I'm mistaken, is "flocking"?

Poll: The Threat to the West


If the American public is uncertain as to the best way forward in Afghanistan, there does seem to be a clear-eyed, and transatlantic, consensus that there is a threat:

A 14-nation survey by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project, conducted Aug. 27 through Sept. 24, finds Americans expressing the greatest concerns about the Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan: roughly three-in-four (76%) say that this would be a major threat to the well-being of the U.S.1

However, solid majorities throughout Western Europe also see this as a major threat to their nations, including 72% of Italians and at least six-in-ten in France (66%), Germany (65%), Spain (64%) and Britain (60%).

Concern is also shared about the potential danger from a Pakistan controlled by extremists. More than six-in-ten Italian (68%), French (67%), British (65%) and American (64%) respondents say this would be a major threat to their countries. Slightly smaller majorities hold this view in Spain (59%) and Germany (57%).

Eastern Europeans are generally less concerned than those in the West about these potential dangers.

(AP Photos)

Poll: U.S. Views on Afghan War


Washington Post/ABC News is out with a new poll showing declining public support for the mission in Afghanistan. Strikingly, 52 percent have said the war has "not been worth fighting." They also found that "only 44 percent of Americans see the war in Afghanistan as worth its costs, a new low in Post-ABC polling."

However, when asked whether they would prefer Obama send a larger number of troops or a smaller number (but still on top of what is there now), 46 percent wanted a higher number of troops vs. 45 percent who wanted a smaller number added.

What's interesting is the question of whether Afghanistan is "worth fighting." Clearly, Afghanistan was worth fighting in Oct. 2001 through around the time that al Qaeda crossed into Pakistan. At that point, the nature of the American mission changed fairly significantly - from one of counter-terrorism to one of armed state building. And as the consequences of that shift in mission have played out, less and less people seem enthusiastic about it.

Meanwhile, Gallup is out with its own poll:

As President Barack Obama prepares to make a decision on U.S. military policy in Afghanistan, 35% of Americans say he should follow the recommendation of the commanding U.S. general in Afghanistan and increase troop levels by about 40,000. Another 7% support a smaller troop increase, meaning a total of 42% of Americans support a troop increase of some size. However, nearly the same percentage, 44%, would like to see the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan reduced.


(AP Photos)

Sarah Palin's Israel Policy


Appearing on ABC News, Sarah Palin weighed in on Arab-Israeli peace:

"I disagree with the Obama administration on that," Palin told Walters. "I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon, because that population of Israel is, is going to grow. More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead. And I don't think that the Obama administration has any right to tell Israel that the Jewish settlements cannot expand."
Blake Hounshell isn't impressed, calling Palin's policy "morally and strategically obtuse" and then adding
This is why, from their inception, successive American presidents of both parties have denounced this colonization of the West Bank, although rarely, such as when George H.W. Bush put real pressure on the Israelis by temporarily holding up loan guarantees, have they done more about it talk. Even George W. Bush, the bulk of whose Israel policy can be fairly summed up as "Let Ariel Sharon do what he wants," at least expressed his displeasure over the settlements every now and again.

So Palin is way out there on the lunatic fringe, supporting an Israeli policy that all serious people understand to be deeply corrosive to the prospects for peace and to Israel itself.

This seems a bit like a Casablanca moment - we're shocked, shocked! - by what Palin said about American policy toward Israel. But that's absurd.

I would note that, as Hounshell himself admits, not a single U.S. president has actually done more than mouth empty threats or apply mild, temporary, pressure on Israel over its settlements. All serious people may believe settlements are corrosive to peace, but those people do not include the current Prime Minister of Israel and the current U.S. administration (again, judge what they do, not what they say).

What Sarah Palin is saying has been U.S. policy in deed, if not in word, for decades. I see no reason to beat up on Palin over stating the obvious, not least because she will (thankfully) never be president.

(AP Photos)

November 17, 2009

Poll: Chimerica? Not So Much


Rasmussen finds that most America's don't seem to buy into the idea of "Chimerica"

Twenty percent (20%) of Americans think what is good for China’s economy is good for the U.S. economy, as President Obama meets with Chinese leaders this week in an effort to ease economic tensions between the two nations.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that 59% disagree. That’s down five points from a year ago, when 64% rejected the idea that what’s good for the Chinese economy is good for America’s.

Still, 84% of Americans rate U.S. relations with China as at least somewhat important, unchanged from November 2008. But 59% now say that relationship is very important, a 13-point jump from the earlier survey. Only 11% say U.S.-China relations are not very or not at all important.

(AP Photos)

Meanwhile, in Yemen...


From the AP:

Iran's chief of staff has warned Saudi Arabia over its military offensive against Shiite Yemeni rebels, saying it signals the start of "state terrorism" and endangers the entire region.

The official IRNA news agency Tuesday also quoted Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi as saying the actions of Yemen and Saudi Arabia would fuel militancy and spread violence to the rest of the Muslim world.

Shiite Iran is alarmed by the Yemeni and Saudi offensive against the rebels, whom the two Arab nations accuse of receiving arms and money from Iran.

The Saudi offensive began earlier this month, apparently to deny Iran a foothold on its doorsteps.

I wrote last month on the soft power opportunity this conflict offered Tehran. At that point, there was still a lot of pretense surrounding the actors involved, but that is deteriorating rapidly as a Saudi-Iranian proxy war is beginning to emerge.

The only problem is that it remains unclear just how much influence Iran genuinely has over the Houthis. Some allege an Iran-Eritrea- Houthi weapons triangle, but that evidence has thus far left me unconvinced.

But as I argued back in October, perception is key in this dispute. It serves Saudi-Yemeni interests to perpetuate the "Shia Crescent" theory, as it will no doubt draw Washington closer to both regimes.

As for Iran, these greatly exaggerated fears grant them a mostly undue influence in a conflict they may have little actual investment in. Tehran could leverage that paranoia into something positive--such as offering direct diplomatic and clerical mediation in north Yemen--and possibly improve its standing with the incredulous Arab world.

The Islamic Republic instead appears to be stirring the pot. Sticking it to the Saudis apparently never gets old.

(AP Photos)

Goldfarb on Obama on Jerusalem

Biting but true:

From the moment during the campaign that Obama declared "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided," to the subsequent walkback, to the demand that all settlement construction in East Jerusalem come to an end, to the subsequent walkback on that. Nobody knows what this administration's position is on Jerusalem, least of all the parties involved in the peace process.

The only "achievement" this administration can claim is having driven the Israeli public into Bibi's arms, helping him solidify his support across party lines, and destroying President Obama's credibility with the Israeli public -- smart power.


Yes, people are still talking about this.

Hopefully Ben Smith has helped put it to bed.

Losing Afghanistan


Steve Coll ponders the implication of an American failure in Afghanistan:

As I’ve argued, in my view, a purpose of American policy in Afghanistan ought to be to prevent a second coercive Taliban revolution in that country, not only because it would bring misery to Afghans (and, not incidentally, Afghan women) but because it would jeopardize American interests, such as our security against Al Qaeda’s ambitions and our (understandable) desire to see nuclear-armed Pakistan free itself from the threat of revolutionary Islamist insurgents. So, then, a definition of failure would be a redux of Taliban revolution in Afghanistan—a revolution that took control of traditional Taliban strongholds such as Kandahar and Khost, and that perhaps succeeded in Kabul as well. Such an outcome is conceivable if the Obama Administration does not discover the will and intelligence to craft a successful political-military strategy to prevent the Afghan Taliban from achieving its announced goals, which essentially involve the restoration of the Afghan state they presided over during the nineteen-nineties, which was formally known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

He then goes on to list a variety of potential outcomes, none of them cheery. But I want to focus for a minute on the definition of failure above. I think, as a baseline statement of American goals in Afghanistan, the prevention of this kind of restoration seems reasonable. But it's worth noting how - and how quickly - the original Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan collapsed. It took roughly 300 special forces, CIA paramilitary, U.S. airpower, and the Northern Alliance to run them out of town in a few weeks.

In other words, we didn't need 100,000 troops to shut down the Taliban in 2001 when they ran the place. I'm hard pressed to see why we'd need 100,000 to keep them away.

(AP Photos)

Choosing Palestines

David Hazony makes a fair point on the thought of the PA unilaterally declaring statehood:

Many of the world’s most successful countries achieved internationally recognized independence without the benefit of a negotiated agreement between conflicted parties, the United States and Israel being two obvious cases. If Palestinian national aspirations were so legitimate and a two-state solution the only answer, why wouldn’t the great powers recognize this much? And in such a scenario, what unilateral retaliation could Israel reasonably get away with?

Rather, the real problem with Palestinian independence — the elephant in the room, if you will — is that there is no viable Palestinian regime that can claim to run a sovereign country. Right now, the Palestinian territories are divided, ruled by two different Palestinian regimes. The one in Gaza is led by an internationally recognized terror organization supported by Iran and dedicated to war against Israel and violent conflict with the West. The other, in the West Bank, is led by a revolutionary-style regime that is deeply corrupt and still fosters and harbors terrorist groups like the Fatah-Tanzim, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. Efforts to negotiate a unification between the two sides have consistently failed, and one gets the sense that the only thing preventing an all-out civil war between Hamas and Fatah is the sliver of land that divides them (Israel, that is).

So the problem, it seems, is not between Israel and the Palestinians so much as among the Palestinians themselves.

True, however the legal establishment of a Palestinian state--hinging, of course, on UN approval-- would force world governments to be more selective in how they dole out their aid to the Palestinians. While much of the humanitarian aid flowing into Gaza would likely continue, the aid and support provided to Gaza--and by default Hamas--in the name of Palestinian statehood and support would become more complicated.

Furthermore, the asymmetric support provided to Hamas by Iran would lose a great deal of its validity. After all, to continue funneling weapons and resources toward Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian state would likely undercut Tehran's influence in the region.

In short, it could force Hamas' supporters to better justify and enumerate their investment in the territories. Even if dysfunction were to persist as Hazony suggests, at least the lines of culpability in that dysfunction would be made a little clearer.

The Use and Abuse of American Power


To truly achieve victory as Clauswitz defined it – to attain a political objective – the U.S. military’s ability to kick down the door must be matched by our ability to clean up the mess and even rebuild the house afterward. - Sec. Robert Gates

As the Obama administration prepares to send more troops into Afghanistan, Stephen Walt questions the underlying rationale behind the vogue in counter-insurgency warfare:

In short, the current obsession with counterinsurgency is the direct result of two fateful errors. We didn't get Bin Laden when we should have, and we invaded Iraq when we shouldn't. Had the United States not made those two blunders, we wouldn't have been fighting costly counterinsurgencies and we wouldn't be contemplating a far-reaching revision of U.S. defense priorities and military doctrine.

I wouldn't phrase it quite like this, particularly the first part. However, the decision to stick around in Afghanistan and try to create some semblance of a modern, centralized state was a strategic choice that has led rather directly to our current woes. As Secretary Gates said above, the purpose of war is to obtain a political objective. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has established political objectives which are considerably difficult to achieve, especially with the amount of manpower and resources we have devoted to the task.

And that's important, because counterinsurgency warfare is being pushed in a strategic context - and that is one in which the U.S. is going to be an interventionist power using the military to shape political outcomes. In that same speech in 2008, Secretary Gates also said:

Think of where our forces have been sent and have been engaged over the last 40-plus years: Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, and more.

What’s interesting in Gates' formulation was what was not said – whether most of these military conflicts were worthwhile endeavors in the first place. This is not the place to debate the particular merits of each of these conflicts, but looking at the list what's striking is how irrelevant most of them are to American security. I'm hard pressed to imagine a world in which the U.S. is vastly less secure because it did not intervene in Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti or Iraq the second time around.

And this is a problem. We are spending too much time arguing about the application of American power and not nearly enough about its purpose.

(AP Photos)

Kabuli Impressions

I'm approaching my first week here in Kabul. It's been filled with all the expected first impressions of a foreign conflict zone: the layers of military security and precautionary protocol; the motley crew of bacchanalian expats, myself among them; romantic notions of Afghanistan's storied past, rugged terrain, defiant people.

Coming from a nugget of truth, cliches serve as a shorthand and ought not be dismissed outright. But it's still worth being mindful not to slip into these the well-trodden pitfalls without at least of bit of resistance.

This week's evenings have been spent meeting dozens of aid workers, diplomats and journalists, and a few elusive security contractors. The days on learning how to navigate the city enough to feed myself and exerting mental energy on figuring out exactly how I'm supposed to make rent. It's going to take some time to understand exactly what's going on here, how things function, and who's who.

While still getting settled, events continue without me. A military convoy was bombed Friday morning (a friend said he heard his windows rattle), only a few days ahead of President Karzai's inauguration this week. I'm told most of the city will be even more locked down than usual for the event. Offices will be closed, roadblocks will choke the city, foreign staff's mobility will be restricted to a few secured locations and curfews are to be tightened.

Still without a press pass, I'll likely be doing the same.

Alim Remtulla

November 16, 2009

Exporting Skepticism

As I noted yesterday, President Obama announced over the weekend a new "Asia strategy" that will focus on "re-balancing" the U.S.-Asia trade relationship. According to Obama, increased U.S. exports--boosted by, among other things, expanded market access in Asia--will play a prominent roll in his plan. But just how serious is the administration about boosting exports through trade liberalization policies?

Based on a quick review of the facts, I'd say "not very."

First let's look at two of the key trade policies mentioned by Obama in his Japan speech, the Doha Round and the Trans-Pacific Partnership FTA.  On Doha, Obama claimed that an "integral part" of his strategy would be "working toward an ambitious and balanced Doha agreement."  But as I've noted repeatedly, U.S. trading partners have been complaining about U.S. non-involvement in the WTO's Doha Round since Obama took office in January. And the administration's abject refusal to own the 2008 U.S. commitments on farm subsidy cuts, while it openly demands that its trading partners improve market access, is a clear indication that the White House is not serious about concluding Doha anytime soon.

Obama next stated that "[t]he United States will also be engaging with the Trans-Pacific Partnership countries with the goal of shaping a regional agreement that will have broad-based membership and the high standards worthy of a 21st century trade agreement." However, almost immediately following his speech, Deputy National Security Advisor Mark Froman totally hedged when asked what the President meant:

I think what he meant is that there is an ongoing initiative called the Trans-Pacific Partnership and that our intent is to engage with them to see whether we can shape that initiative into one that is comprehensive and a very high standard and could serve as a platform for further trade liberalization and regional integration in the region. We'll begin those discussions with the current and potential future members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and see whether this is something that could prove to be an important platform going forward.

Translation: the U.S. has decided that it will begin the process of seeing whether it will want to seriously consider formally entering into TPP negotiations.  How bold!  In reality, Froman's flaccid statement makes clear that the United States has not committed to formal negotiations to enter the TPP.  But it might, someday.  Meanwhile, completed FTAs with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea remain shelved due to political concerns, costing US exporters billions.

Second, and as I summarized in a recent op-ed, the administration's unilateral trade actions--each designed to secure support for domestic policy priorities--have significantly harmed American exporting interests.  Obama's decision to slap tariffs on Chinese tires under "Section 421" of U.S. trade law has jeopardized American chicken and automobile exports in China, and the administration's decision to sit on a Transportation Department plan to re-admit Mexican trucks on US roads has subjected a wide range of American goods to $2.4 billion in Mexican retaliatory tariffs.  Politics has trumped trade every time.

So pardon me if I sound a tad skeptical of the President's new-found appreciation for exports.  There are plenty of ways that the Obama administration could put its "pro-export" money where its mouth is and immediately and significantly boost sales of US goods and services around the world.  And yet it has done nothing of the sort.  Indeed, its much-heralded announcement to enter into new FTA negotiations (with the TPP) appears to be nothing more than rhetorical window dressing.  So until I see some concrete commitments to real trade liberalization, I'll continue to think that Obama's Asia speeches have little to do with signaling a renaissance of US free trade policies and much more to do with signaling other policy plans at home and abroad.

American Presidents Are Not Naifs on the Pacific

In his speech to ASEAN leaders, President Obama claimed to be the first 'Pacific President' because he was born in the Pacific and spent time as a child in Indonesia (Politico has a summary of the whole speech). I will leave the domestic political commentary to the able authors at Real Clear Politics, but will note that this is a favorite rhetorical device of this administration to portray itself as pioneers in a given field. It is also popular, both in and out of the United States, to behave as though Americans and American presidents in particular are rubes who want nothing to do with the outside world.

In the case of the Pacific, however, Obama has neither the earliest, nor the best claim to being the "First Pacific President." As far as being born on the Pacific, Richard Nixon was born in California (which is on the Pacific), and actually served in the U.S. Navy entirely in the Pacific, as did John F. Kennedy. Nixon, Kennedy, Johnson, Truman and Eisenhower all spent significant parts of their presidencies concerned with Viet-Nam and Korea (also on the pacific). George Bush was ambassador to China.

An even better claimant to being the first Pacific President is Ronald Reagan, who actually spent eight years as Governor of California, and--while the inflation rates and exchange rates are unclear--it was probably the second largest economy on the pacific rim at that time.

However, all of these claims pale in comparison to the claim of Herbert Hoover. Hoover was not born on the Pacific, but he was a member of the first class from Stanford University, and he lived and worked as an adult in Australia and China. He and his wife both spoke Chinese, which they used as a sort of secret language in the White House. He was even apparently involved in fighting during the Boxer Rebellion. This all happened over one-hundred years before President Obama was elected president!

Needless to say, the Pacific has been of intense personal and professional interest to many if not all presidents, at least since the admission of California to the Union. It may be politically expedient to portray it otherwise, but it simply is not correct.

Better Iran Hawks, Please

The Trita Parsi/Iran lobby non-story took yet another turn last week. On Parsi's critics, Andrew writes:

They are essentially trying to accuse Iranian-Americans who disagree with them of dual loyalty. Even as they rightly scream blue murder if that is ever applied to them. You realize after a while that they have no principles but the maintenance of their own power and the destruction of their perceived enemies. War for ever indeed - within American and outside it. At any cost. Whatever it takes.

I think Sullivan is giving Parsi's accusers a little too much credit here. Anyone who could possibly argue that it's somehow pro-regime to support rapprochement and question Western democracy promotion inside Iran isn't really an honest broker in this policy debate. I happen to disagree with Parsi on sanctions, but I'm not about to call him "Iran's man" in Washington. That's irresponsible, and it speaks volumes about how truly disinterested hawkish pundits are in a conversation absent of bombs and regime change. It simply bores them.

And I seriously doubt this uproar is entirely about Iran for the Lakes and Goldfarbs of the world. My suspicion is that they view this as payback for years of left-wing and realist assaults regarding AIPAC and the so-called Israel lobby. This is their opportunity to pigeonhole those falling short of the regime change position on Iran.

A quick glance at Eli Lake's Twitter feed only reaffirms my doubts. He's a little too clever by half on this, and clearly relishes this opportunity to get back at the Stephen Walts of the world.

As a J-Street skeptic, allow me to say I'm not impressed. The whole thing strikes me as disingenuous and undeserving of any further response.

It's Not Like It's Important


This line from David Broder on the Afghanistan debate sure caught my eye:

It is evident from the length of this deliberative process and from the flood of leaks that have emerged from Kabul and Washington that the perfect course of action does not exist. Given that reality, the urgent necessity is to make a decision -- whether or not it is right.

I don't think anyone's seriously holding out for "perfect" here and, obviously, the president can't postpone a decision forever. But there is no urgency here. The U.S. has "neglected" Afghanistan since Iraq war planning began - a few more weeks along the present course won't be decisive one way or another.

(AP Photos)

Obama's Bow

Which one's worse?




(Photos: AP Photos)

U.S. & China: Exchange Rates Aren't the Problem

By Patrick Chovanec

When President Obama arrives in Shanghai tonight, one of the hottest issues on the table will be the exchange rate between the U.S. Dollar and China’s Renminbi. In the past few weeks, commentators like New York Times columnist Paul Krugman have argued that Obama’s top priority should be to pressure China into strengthening its currency, in order to “rebalance” the global economy. I disagree. A more flexible exchange rate – and the stronger Renminbi that would likely result – would be a step in the right direction. But it’s not a silver bullet, and would have little effect in the absence of more substantive economic reforms. In my view, the focus on currency is a huge distraction from far more pressing issues.

Krugman is correct that a rebalancing needs to take place. The current situation, in which China runs larger and larger trade surpluses, and lends the proceeds back to fuel ever-rising consumption in the United States, is not sustainable indefinitely, especially as the Chinese economy grows to rival America’s in size.

According to conventional economic theory, flexible exchange rates play a vital role in correcting such imbalances. When a Chinese exporter sells a product to the U.S., it receives dollars in return. Those dollars don’t just disappear; they stay in China until someone wants them to buy products from America or invest in American assets. For quite some time now, China sells more than it buys from the U.S., and brings in more capital than it invests abroad, which means that there aren’t enough people who want to use all the dollars that keep flowing in. Just like any other market, when the supply of something – in this case dollars – outstrips demand, its price should drop. The dollar depreciates, making U.S. goods cheaper and more attractive to Chinese consumers, while the Renminbi appreciates, making Chinese goods more expensive in America, eventually closing the gap in trade.

The Chinese government, though, isn’t letting that happen. Instead of letting those excess dollars sell for a lower price in Renminbi, it steps in and buys them at the current exchange rate, and holds them as reserves. By keeping the Renminbi artificially cheap, Krugman and other critics contend, China gains an unfair trade advantage. If only the Chinese would stop interfering, and allow the dollar to find its true level, American products would become more competitive and this dangerous imbalance would correct itself.

Sounds good, but the problem is we’ve been here before. In the early 1980s, Japan was running a chronic trade surplus with the United States, and accumulating dollar reserves on a massive scale. Economists argued that an undervalued Yen was to blame. So in September 1985, the central banks of the U.S., Japan, Britain, France, and West Germany agreed on what became known as the Plaza Accord. Over the course of the next two years, they intervened heavily in global currency markets to bring the value of the dollar down by over 50% against the Yen, from around 250 JPY/USD to 125.

The outcome baffled and frustrated economists. While the cheaper dollar had a significant effect in reducing America’s trade deficit with Europe, Japans’ trade surplus with the U.S. barely budged – in fact, it grew. How could this be? Why didn’t the new exchange

The reason was structural. The post-war Japanese economy had been based on export-led growth. Its financial system, supply chains, and distribution channels were all geared to push exports. The cheap Yen was one pillar supporting this structure, but when that changed, other factors swung into effect to maintain the status quo. Following the Plaza Accord, the Japanese banking system flooded the economy with cheap credit to fuel continued expansion, and brushed bad debts under the rug. On the equity side, Japan’s system of corporate crossholdings within keiretsu industry groups tended to produce a greater emphasis on preserving market share than on maximizing profits. The country’s domestic distribution system, virtually impenetrable to outsiders, created a formidable barrier to imports, regardless of price.

Exchange rates are prices, but they only matter so long as prices matter. We normally assume that prices do matter, but soft budget constraints and subsidies embedded in the structure of an economy can blunt or entirely negate the impact prices should have. That’s what happened in Japan.

China, too, has relied on an export-led model to fuel its stupendous growth these past 30 years. With the collapse in overseas demand caused by the global financial crisis, much talk has been devoted to the need to foster domestic consumption as an engine of growth. But China’s actual response to the crisis has been to rely on an explosion of cheap lending and state spending to freeze the existing economic structure in place, in the interests of social stability. China’s stimulus program has tilted the playing field in favor of large state-owned companies which often pursue other goals besides profit and are regarded as “too big to fail.”

An undervalued Renminbi may be part of the problem – its peg to a weakened dollar is certainly putting the squeeze on other countries that compete with Chinese exports to the U.S. But my concern is that, even if President Obama succeeded in pressuring China to strengthen the Renminbi, we’d be looking at a replay of the Plaza Accord. Rather than face a difficult economic adjustment, China would find other ways to bolster its export sector, and the imbalance would persist. America’s interests, and the world’s, would be much better served by encouraging China to open its markets to greater competition, foster capital markets that allocate resources more efficiently, and develop a social safety net that makes labor markets more flexible and unlocks the savings of China’s vast population. The President can also help by sending a clear signal that America welcomes Chinese investment, offering China a more productive way to use the dollars it does earn. If progress is made on these fronts, it well help create an environment in which prices do matter, and exchange rates can make a difference in producing lasting outcomes.

If President Obama wants to achieve real results, he should press China on market-oriented reform, not exchange rates.


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

November 15, 2009

Zelaya: No Part of U.S. Brokered Deal


Staying in this tin foil-lined room at the Brazilian embassy in Honduras, deposed president Mel Zelaya has told President Obama that he's backing out of the agreement he signed two weeks ago:

Zelaya also rebuffed US efforts after the Honduran Congress failed to vote to reinstate him as president -- a crucial part of last month's US-backed deal to end the impasse.

Shortly after the coup the United States had demanded that Zelaya be reinstated before it would back an election, but Washington later shifted its position, saying it would support the outcome of elections even if Zelaya does not reclaim his post.

"We support the elections process there," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Thursday.

Zelaya had made his intention to withdraw from the agreement clear on November 5 when he didn't submit a list of candidates for a unity government.

You can read Zelaya's rambling letter to Obama in English (rough translation), and in the original Spanish. He insists on being reinstated to power.

It remains for the US to insist that Zelaya abide by the accord he had agreed to and recognize the results of the November 29 elections as verified by international monitors.

November 14, 2009

Putin Goes Hip Hop

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin isn't exactly rapping here, but it's pretty awesome just to see him at this show. ABC News put up a solid summary of Putin's intentions, though their article title could use a little work ("Putin goes gangsta at rap contest"). I could say more, but you really should just watch:

Only Mr. Putin can rock a turtleneck at a hip-hop concert.

A Visit to North Korea (Part 6)


By Patrick Chovanec

(For previous installments, see here)

Even though Kim Il-Sung died in 1994, officially he is still the “Eternal President” of North Korea. So when official visitors call, they are expected to present not one but two gifts, one to Kim Il-Sung and the other to his son, the country’s current ruler, Kim Jong-Il. All of these gifts are reverently collected and displayed in two extensive underground galleries burrowed deep into Mount Myohyang, several hours north of the capital. As tourists, we weren’t expected to offer any gifts, but we were taken to visit this exhibit as part of our one and only overnight trip outside Pyongyang. When I first saw this item on our itinerary, I thought it sounded kind of boring, and maybe you’re thinking the same. Quite the contrary, it turned out to be one of the most bizarre and memorable places I’ve ever visited.

Mt. Myohyang is located in the mountains that dominate the northern half of the DPRK and ultimately rise higher and higher to form a rugged boundary with China. We drove there after sunset, so we couldn’t see a thing along the way, except for a few lights in the distance that one of our minders told me was a Fiat joint venture auto plant. After several hours of unrelenting darkness, we arrived at the Hyangsan Hotel, a pyramid-shaped tourist facility built in 1986. Although it’s described as a “luxury” hotel, it proved to be a lot more spartan than our quarters back in Pyongyang. The beds were hard as boards and there was certainly no BBC, just two channels with poor reception featuring the staple fare of North Korean TV: an army drama on one, women in colorful hanboks (traditional Korean gowns) singing patriotic folks tunes on the other. We soon fell asleep.

The next morning, after breakfast, we had a rare opportunity. For the entire trip, I don’t think I had stepped more than 20 feet from one of our minders, and even that made them nervous. Just outside the hotel’s front door, though, there was a long, straight driveway that stretched maybe 100 feet to meet the main road. At the foot of the driveway there was a small bridge over a rock-strewn stream, which wound its way between two misty hillsides whose trees were just turning autumn red and gold. Local villagers were riding past on bicycles, and every so often a truck would drive by, its open cargo bay filled with North Koreans hitching a ride. Several of us asked whether we could walk down to the road “to take a picture of our hotel” (which qualifies as a “good thing” to take a picture of). Our minders could hardly deny such a flattering request, but watched us warily from, what to them, must have been an uncomfortable distance.

It might seem silly, but it was essential to ask permission. A few months before, a 53-year South Korean woman, a tourist visiting a similar tourist enclave (Mt. Kumgang, along the country’s east coast), woke early and strolled down to the beach by herself to watch the sun rise. She was killed — shot in the back of the head — by a North Korean soldier who must have taken her for a spy. Conflicting reports said she had actually been shot twice, once at point blank range. So you didn’t play games with these folks. You didn’t wander off. “Stay with the group” was more than your typical tour guide’s happy chatter.

Our first visit that morning was to the Pohyonsa Buddhist monastery, a charming collection of ancient temples and pagodas set in a thickly wooded valley. As we admired the elaborately painted panels and roof timbers, and soaked in the serenity of the pristine surroundings, a monk or two stood gazing at us from shadowed doorways. But Pohyonsa, which dates from 1024 AD and was reconstructed in 1979, is more a monument to Korea’s cultural heritage than a functioning religious community. According to official government statistics, more than half of the country’s population are practicing Buddhists, but outside sources place the actual number at barely more than a million, or less than 5%. The cult of Kim is a jealous god, and the real places of holy pilgrimage on Mt. Myohyang are across the valley, on the opposite slope: the father-and-son treasure houses of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, officially known as the International Friendship Exhibition.

The Exhibition is comprised of two separate tunnel complexes carved deep into the mountainside. The entrance to each is a set of large metal doors at the base of an imposing marble pagoda-like structure, which you reach by walking up an asphalt driveway. Unsmiling guards in crisp military uniforms stand at attention outside, holding automatic rifles — otherwise, you might think you had happened upon the garage door of some Asian tycoon’s vacation mansion. The first pavilion we approached belongs to Kim the Elder. The doors rolled open as though someone had spoken the magic word “Open Sesame” at the entrance to Aladdin’s Cave. Once we filed in, they shut behind us with a resounding clang.

Inside, absolutely no photos are permitted. They’re not taking any chances, either: all cameras must be surrendered to the cloakroom immediately upon entering. That’s too bad, too, because one glance at the palatial marble interior told us this would be a place worth taking pictures of. Each “exhibition” is really a vast underground museum, a labyrinth of rooms filled with glass cases containing every doo-dad and gee-gaw the Kims ever collected in their 60+ years of rule. The official tally is 223,500 items from 180 countries, displayed in over 150 rooms. The rooms are arranged by geography, with several countries – such as guilt-ridden Japan – accounting for several chambers. One great hall is devoted entirely to gifts the Elder Kim received from fellow dictators: medals and plaques given by Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe, and Nicolae Ceauşescu, all comrades in a sort of mutual admiration society.

When I say every doo-dad, I mean it. Some gifts are huge, like the bullet-proof limousines and railway cars sent by Joseph Stalin. By most are tiny, the size of a small clock or sports trophy, and reading the inscriptions often proved a surprising source of amusement. One item was from the Communist Party of San Marino (a tiny country of 30,000 people), which can’t be comprised of more than a dozen or so regulars. But that’s the big leagues compared to the “Study Group of Kim Il-Sungism for Latin Americans in Scandinavia” or a similar Kim fan club catering to Nigerians in New York City – truly, I kid you not. And you have to figure, these guys are probably the ones who splintered off from the original Kim Il-Sungism study group because it didn’t meet their standards of ideological purity.

Regardless, the North Koreans are pretty wowed by it all. Like Kim Il-Sung’s mausoleum, the gift exhibition is part of the indoctrination circuit; every work unit in the country is regularly cycled through. In their eyes, the seemingly infinite collection of treasures and awards is testament to the adulation the entire world feels for the Great Leader and his son, the Dear Leader. Nowhere was the gap between their perception and ours more evident than in the rooms devoted to gifts from South Korea.

In recent years, a number of South Korean business leaders have courted the Kims in the hope that, under their country’s “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with the North, they might be allowed to sell their goods or open a factory in the DPRK. As a matter of course, they sent samples of the products their companies make, which duly ended up on display in the International Friendship Exhibition. Entire bedroom sets from South Korean furniture manufacturers are set up on pedestals beside widescreen TVs, as though they were valuable works of art. Slightly outdated MP3 players, laser printers, and computer monitors lie protected in glass cases like precious relics of some lost civilization. But what looked to us like used belongings at a garage sale appeared to the North Koreans – who had never seen such things – like the world’s most marvelous technology laid out as tribute to the Great Leader. Their jaws dropped and their faces grew puzzled as they pressed noses against the glass between them and a dusty old VCR. Who could imagine such wonders? Who could inspire them but the Great Leader?

But as odd as that felt, something much weirder was about to unfold. We had nearly completed our tour of the Elder Kim’s treasure chambers when our resident guide, a middle-aged women in a bright hanbok gown, rather urgently directed us to line up in formation in front of a large wooden door. Her tone grew hushed and excited, and it was hard to decipher exactly what she was saying, except that behind the door was an “image” of the Great Leader that had been donated from Japan. It was so lifelike, she blurted, that it was almost like standing in the presence of the man himself. Many people, she said, experienced almost a religious experience upon viewing it. One Japanese girl fainted, she said, and later reported “it was almost like the Great Leader was entering my mind.” Before we could figure out what to make of all this, the door opened and we were ushered inside.

The room was bare and its lights dim. Along the wall opposite the door stood a smiling, life-size wax statue of Kim Il-Sung – the same kind you’d find at Madame Tussaud’s – his hand raised in greeting. With great solemnity, the guides motioned for us to line up in three rows facing him, arms neatly at our sides. I glanced to my side and caught the eye of one of my companions. From the look on her face I could tell she was thinking the same thing I was: We have just entered the Twilight Zone. I literally had to bite down hard on my lip to keep from breaking out laughing, as we bowed deeply in unison to this earthly avatar of the Great Leader. At Kim’s mausoleum, I found the idea of bowing upsetting and ultimately balked at it. This time, the whole situation was so surreal it seemed mad to take it seriously. I briefly considered falling to the floor in a fit and speaking in tongues – the Great Leader has entered my brain! – but doubted whether I could carry it off.

At this point I half expected them to hand us the kool-aid. Emerging from our face-to-face encounter with … whatever that was … we looked at each other with stunned expressions, words entirely failing us. The rest of the tour, including our visit to the Younger Kim’s underground display, passed in a haze. We saw the basketball signed by Michael Jordan that US Secretary of State Madeline Albright brought with her on her historic visit to Pyongyang, as well as a gun presented by Russian leader Vladimir Putin, both enshrined like holy relics before a gigantic – and rather flattering – gleaming white statue of Kim Jong-Il seated on a throne. I’m told there is also a standing stuffed crocodile presenting a tray of cups, courtesy of the Sandinistas, and some silver coconuts from Saddam Hussein, but by then it was all just a blur.

Soon they were loading us back on the bus, and it was time to head back to Pyongyang. This time it was still light out, and I stared out the window in a haze as we drove back along a shallow, winding river with gravel banks. Suddenly I realize that this was the Chongchon River valley. Our guides certainly weren’t going to point it out, but for any American with an interest in military history, this was hallowed ground. It was here, in November 1950, that Chinese forces that had secretly crossed the Yalu River surprised and almost totally destroyed the entire Eighth U.S. Army. Four whole U.S. divisions plus accompanying allied troops were (just barely) saved from complete annihilation by the heroic holding actions of the Turkish Brigade, but the army was broken. Defeat turned into a headlong, chaotic flight – the longest retreat of any American military unit in history. In 19 days of fighting, nearly 12,000 U.S. soldiers were killed, wounded or missing, not including 22,000 more crippled by frostbite or frozen feet. The army’s commanding general, General Walker, was killed when his jeep crashed along the road back to Seoul. All hopes of achieving a quick victory in Korea – which had seemed all but certain before the disaster – were dashed. The war was to drag on as a bloody stalemate for two and half more years, and even now has not officially ended.

We were probably among just a handful of Americans who had passed this way ever since. I bowed my head — for real this time – and thought about the more than 8,000 Americans, and countless others, still counted as missing from the war. Many of them, no doubt, still lay here, among the quiet forested hills and meandering streams. We couldn’t visit them, or pay our respects, but we could remember them.

As the road leading back to Pyongyang left the mountains and reentered the plains, I spotted a train forlornly chugging its way through the empty fields, under slate grey skies. It was pulling empty tank cars back to China, to be filled with oil. This is the lifeline, the slender thread of support that keeps North Korea going. It seemed, at that moment, like a phantom crossing a landscape of ghosts, a land where the past still haunts the present, ruled by remote and terrible gods.

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

November 13, 2009

President Obama in Japan

The White House has released a pair of statements from President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama:

PRIME MINISTER HATOYAMA: (As translated.) President Obama, I would like to welcome you to Japan. I'd like to express my heartfelt welcome to you. It is very hard -- despite the tragedy of the mass shooting in your country, that you have taken time out of a busy schedule to come and join us here today. We're very thankful to you.

And today we have had a 90-minute, very intensive discussion. I'm very happy to have had this opportunity to hold this discussion.

Well, we have come to call each other Barack and Yukio. I think I've grown quite accustomed to calling each other by our names. And we did cover a lot of ground today. First, for Japan's diplomacy, the U.S.-Japan alliance is the cornerstone. And this is one thing I've stressed. But as time changes and as the international environment changes, there is a need for us to further develop and deepen the U.S.-Japan alliance to make it even more constructive and future-oriented alliance. This was what I proposed today.

And the U.S.-Japan alliance -- well, actually it so happens that next year marks the 50th anniversary of the revision of the U.S.-Japan security treaty. And starting from today we'll be starting a year to start a new process of deliberation. And I have made this proposal, and President Obama has given his consent and support towards this idea.

Now, the U.S.-Japan alliance, looking at it from the security front, naturally we have to cooperate in proliferation deterrence, on information protection, missile defense, and the use of other states amongst others. We need to consider these new systems for issuing security. And this is my thinking.

But the U.S.-Japan alliance is not just focused on security -- for example, disaster prevention, or health, education. We had many levels -- and also environmental issues, as well. We need to cooperate in all these areas so as to cooperate in the Asia Pacific and others so that we can further deepen our bilateral alliance. I believe that we have reached an agreement on these points.

Now, turning our eyes to the global situation, again there are different topics that we've covered. From our side, I've talked about Afghanistan and our support to Afghanistan. On to Afghanistan; we will not be taking part in the refueling, but instead providing civil assistance, and we are planning to mainly provide civil assistance of 5 billion yen in five years for agriculture, building of infrastructures, schools. So this is the type of assistance we want to provide. And also to improve security, we want to support the police force in Afghanistan. Furthermore, for the former soldiers, we want to provide vocational training. These are the types of things that we want to conduct.

I have communicated this to the President, and towards this new assistance package, President Obama in principle has stated his gratitude, appreciation for this assistance. And furthermore, when it comes to assistance to Afghanistan, it's important that we try to directly talk with one another as to the assistance to be provided.

Now, in the area of climate change, again, we have talked on this subject. By 2015, we have set out this goal of an 80 percent reduction. And both Japan and U.S. have agreed on this, and we want to make COP-15 a success, and we agreed to cooperate towards this end.

And including China and others, there are other issues that need to be resolved. And therefore we need to collaborate to address these challenges.

Now, in regards to nuclear disarmament, again, we have agreed to cooperate with one another. Now, in regards to nuclear issues and also climate change, we have issued a joint statement. And I do believe that this is quite innovative in itself, and the fact that we can take up these issues as core issues at the summit meeting is something of vital importance.

Now, on the economic front, well, the economy was not a major issue this time, but again, this might reflect the times in which we're living. And over dinner, maybe, we hope to be able to discuss the issue of the economy.

Now, in relation to nuclear issues, North Korea, Iran was also discussed from President Obama. And again, we have agreed to closely cooperate with one another. And Special Representative Bosworth will be visiting North Korea -- or may be visiting North Korea shortly. But this is on the premise of the six-party talks. And I do endorse this thinking and have stated so to the President.

And in regards to Iran, again, we have to support -- we would like to support the approach to Iran. On the one hand, we want to emphasize our historic relationship, but also, at the same time, I promise to strengthen our alliance vis-à-vis Iran.

And also, again, in Asia, President Obama has stated that we have some -- we do have a vital role to play, especially in East Asia. I have set out the concept of East Asian community, and this is because I believe that there is this alliance as the cornerstone on which we can rely.

And in Asia, the fact that the U.S. presence increases is something that has great extension towards at various levels in Asia and East Asia, and Asia on the whole. Both Japan and the United States should deepen, and as a result, in East Asia we hope to bring about peace, stability, and economic prosperity in this region. This is something that we have pledged.

I don't want to take up all the time myself, and therefore I'd like to conclude. But I do think that this summit meeting was extremely meaningful. And on this note, I'd like to once again say that I am very grateful to Barack, President Obama, to take time to join us here at Japan. And also, I'm thankful that he's chosen Japan as his first leg to his visit to Asia. And as Prime Minister, representing the Japanese people, I'd like to express my gratitude. Thank you.

And next, President Obama, please.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, good evening. It is a great honor to be making my first trip to Japan as President of the United States. I have fond memories of visiting Japan in my youth. I've been looking forward to this trip for some time. I'm only sorry that Michelle and the girls could not join us. The girls have been studying Japan in school, and so they have a great interest in Japanese culture. And hopefully I'll be able to bring them next time.

I want to thank the warm welcome that Prime Minister Hatoyama and the Japanese people have extended. I appreciate the graciousness with which you understood the delay that took place as a consequence of the tragedy at Fort Hood, Texas.

Japan is my first stop as President in Asia. I began my trip here in Tokyo because the alliance between the United States and Japan is a foundation for security and prosperity not just for our two countries but for the Asia Pacific region. In a few months we'll be marking the 50th anniversary of our alliance, which is founded on shared values and shared interests that has served our people so well and has provided peace and security for the region in an unprecedented way.

That anniversary, as Prime Minister Hatoyama pointed out, represents an important opportunity to step back and reflect on what we've achieved, celebrate our friendship, but also find ways to renew this alliance and refresh it for the 21st century. Both Yukio and I were elected on the promise of change, but there should be no doubt, as we move our nations in a new direction, our alliance will endure and our efforts will be focused on revitalizing that friendship so that it's even stronger and more successful in meeting the challenges of the 21st century. It's essential for the United States, it's essential for Japan, and it's essential for the Asia Pacific region.

Throughout my trip and throughout my presidency, I intend to make clear that the United States is a Pacific nation, and we will be deepening our engagement in this part of the world. As I said to Prime Minister Hatoyama, the United States will strengthen our alliances, build new partnerships, and we will be part of multilateral efforts and regional institutions that advance regional security and prosperity.

We have to understand that the future of the United States and Asia is inextricably linked. The issues that matter most to our people -- issues of economic growth and job creation, non-proliferation, clean energy -- these are all issues that have to be part of a joint agenda. And we had very productive discussions about these issues this evening.

It's true that because of the strength of our economic ties, that was not the first item on our agenda, but we are fortunately going to have the opportunity to spend a lot of time discussing that in Singapore in the coming days. As the world's two leading economies, we have spent a lot of time working together in the G20 to help bring the world back from the brink of financial crisis, and we're going to continue to work to strengthen our efforts so that we can expand job growth in the future. And we will be discussing with our APEC partners how to rebalance our deep economic cooperation with this region to strengthen our recovery.

The Prime Minister and I discussed our cooperation on Afghanistan and Pakistan. And I did thank the people of Japan and the Prime Minister for the powerful commitment of a $5 billion over the next five years to support our shared civilian efforts in Afghanistan, as well as the commitment of a billion dollars to Pakistan.

This underscores Japan's prominent role within a broad international coalition that is advancing the cause of stability and opportunity in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And I shared with the Prime Minister our efforts in refining our approach to make it more successful in the coming year.

We discussed our shared commitment to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and ultimately seeking a world without them. Since I laid out a comprehensive agenda in Prague to pursue these goals Japan has been an outstanding partner in those efforts. And together we passed a historic resolution in the Security Council last September. We are building a new international consensus to secure loose nuclear materials and strengthen the nonproliferation regime.

And to that end, we discussed both North Korea and the situation in Iran, recognizing that it's absolutely vital that both countries meet their international obligations. If they do, then they can open the door to a better future. If not, we will remain united in implementing U.N. resolutions that are in place and continuing to work in an international context to move towards an agenda of nonproliferation.

Finally, we discussed our partnership on energy issues and climate change. The United States and Japan share a commitment to developing the clean energy of the future and we're focused on combating the threat of climate change. This is an important priority for us; I know it's an important priority for the people of Japan. And we discussed how we can work together to pave the way for a successful outcome in Copenhagen next month.

So I believe that we are off to a very successful start. I'm looking forward to continuing the conversation during dinner, as well as as we both travel to Singapore. And I am confident that we will continue to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance so that it serves future generations.

Thank you very much.

Do We Need Al-Qaeda?


Gustavo de Las Casas argues that the world is better off with an Al-Qaeda organization that is not dead, but instead just constantly held on life support. He writes:

It is tempting to draw up an organizational chart of al Qaeda and think that if the important nodes can be identified and destroyed, the rest of the network will follow. But if al Qaeda is shut down and its middle management decimated, eager fanatics around the globe would no longer gravitate toward a centralized base. Their alternative? To form their own no-name networks and band up with any other al Qaeda survivors. Killing off al Qaeda would do little to reduce Islamist terrorism. It would only make the world of terrorism more chaotic....we should take full advantage of the simple fact that the net which unites the worst Islamist terrorists also snares them.

Hopefully, this debate is happening in the upper echelons of the White House, because if Las Casas's logic is correct, then it's time for the U.S. and NATO to leave Afghanistan. If the preference is for weak jihadi groups rather than dead ones, then Af-Pak may have now earned the stamp "Mission Accomplished," at least on the basis of defeating Al-Qaeda.

If the logic is incorrect, then a surge in troops in Af-Pak may be necessary as a means of procuring total elimination of Al-Qaeda.

But now for a second question -- is elimination of Al-Qaeda even possible?

November 12, 2009

Isn't it Ironic?


Defense Secretary Robert Gates thinks so:

“I think you need to have a highly developed sense of irony,” Gates told me in an interview aboard the Doomsday Plane. “Because twenty or twenty-five years ago, I was shoving arms across the border to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar,” a former mujahedin leader turned anti-American warlord.

Whether or not you need a sense of irony, it does seem that this history should inform some of America's forward-looking discussion on how to handle Afghanistan. To wit: "shoving arms" into the hands of tribal militias isn't always the best long term strategy.

(AP Photos)

Poll: Chavez Popularity Declining

Hugo Chavez doesn't seem to be polling quite so well these days:


As Gallup's Steve Crabtree argues, the country seems a lot less enthusiastic about 'Chavismo.' Of course, if you gradually transform your country into an autocracy, that doesn't tend to matter.

Chavez Sort-of Backtracks on War Statements


Hugo Chavez craves attention, and what best to get everybody's attention than to announce to the military and civil militias to prepare for war with Colombia? Especially when it may distract from the power outages, water rationing, a recession, 30% inflation and a huge crime rate?

Chavez used his weekly marathon program, Aló Presidente - which has to be broadcast by all licensed TV and radio stations in the country - to make the announcement,

“Generals of the armed forces, the best way to avoid a war is to prepare for one,” Chavez said in comments on state television during his weekly “Alo Presidente” program. “Colombia handed over their country and is now another state of the union. Don’t make the mistake of attacking: Venezuela is willing to do anything.”
While he was at it, he ordered 15,000 troops to the Colombian border.

Chavez is upset about the US-Colombia agreement through which the US Air Force and Navy will have more access to Colombian military bases for U.S. drug surveillance flights. He says he believes the US is preparing to attack Venezuela, and that the thought is keeping him awake at night. Chavez buddy, Bolivian president Evo Morales, didn't take long to side with Chavez and talked about calling a meeting of countries allied to Chavez to discuss the matter:

Morales said the meeting would aim to advance military and security cooperation among Alba’s member countries, including Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua.
Not quite what you could consider military powerhouses, even if you consider that Russia is helping Cuba modernize its military.

Tthe reaction in Venezuela was not agreeable to Chavez's statement. Venezuelans oppose a conflict with Colombia by a margin of 4 to1. Venezuelan journalist Marianella Salazar scorned Chavez's insomnia and advised him to get a teddy bear.

Today Chavez attempted to soften his earlier statement, and claims that he was misquoted by the media: "Us, the Venezuelan military, are pacifists, and we prepare for war to ensure peace, that's what I said on Sunday."

At least until the next time Chavez needs a distraction from the chaotic domestic situation he has created.

Why Afghanistan, Ctd.

Michael Cohen hits a home run:

Of course, as Spencer notes, it would also be nice if a single person in the Administration were advocating for troop reductions - or perhaps making the case that our presence in Afghanistan actually bolsters the insurgency and harms US interests. Instead the template seems to me more troops and a counter-insurgency approach. With the military furiously pushing both - and leaking that view to the major dailies on a daily basis - I suppose this shouldn't come as a huge surprise, but it doesn't make it any less depressing.

Justice, Saudi Style, Ctd.

America's close ally demonstrates its enlightened justice system:

After a thorough trial consisting of 10 hearings spanning over 2 years, a Saudi court has reached the measured, judicious and – given the mounting evidence in the case – only reasonable course of action regarding a Lebanese man found guilty of practicing black magic: death....

The key evidence appears to have been finding the man in a hotel room with – people with a nervous disposition may wish to look away now – herbs, talismans and “some papers with strange drawings and writings”.

This follows the beheading and crucifixion of a Saudi found guilty of a considerably more serious crime.

November 11, 2009

Why Afghanistan?


My thoughts in today's NY Daily News on the Afghan debate:

But to escalate the war at the consult of generals and advisers cuts a vital participant out of this critical decision in American history: the American people. And while the current health care debate warranted district-by-district town hall debates and presidential stump speeches, this equally crucial decision has been mostly reserved for the administration and its detractors.

We can expect little more from Congress. In a recent interview with CNN, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) - fresh off a diplomatic intervention in Afghanistan - echoed the President's concerns over an excessive troop commitment in the region. Kerry was quick, however, to include the essential asterisk of any American official bound by the long war. "Obviously," remarked Kerry, "if you exhibit weakness or indecision, or if the United States were to suddenly pull out of here, it would be disastrous in terms of the message that it sends. Nobody is talking about that. That's not what's on the table here."

But whether or not such an amorphous "message" - coupled with an equally vague global audience - would be misinterpreted is debatable. Weakness, after all, is relative. But in American civic culture, among the pundit class at least, no such nuance exists.

This leaves the solitary executive to set the agenda and "lead," thus exposing a contradiction in the modern American presidency: Surrounded by a small army of experts and advisers, and deemed "too important for politics," American foreign policy - unlike its domestic counterpart - is ultimately thrust upon one man.

Cornered into acting, these men have often confused convulsive action for progress. The two are deathly dissimilar.

President Obama will likely announce his intentions later this week to send more U.S. forces to Afghanistan. The number being bandied about is 30,000. His supporters will praise the move, while his critics will probably condemn anything short of 40,000. And with that, we have the apparent margin for debate on American involvement in Afghanistan: 40,000 will lead to certain victory, while anything less equals capitulation and appeasement.

The "liberty of the world," after all, is at stake in Afghanistan. But how supporting Afghan "liberty"--or, more precisely, an undemocratic and corrupt regime in Kabul--is somehow in logical sequence with the greater War on Terrorism eludes me.

Why, for example, are we not debating a greater presence in southern Yemen, where al-Qaeda remains active and deadly? Moreover, if a reserved and withdrawn tactic is acceptable in Yemen, why is this not the case in Afghanistan?

At what point do we join alongside the Pakistani army in its mission to clean out South Waziristan? When will we take Iranian concerns of al-Qaeda activity in Baluchestan seriously?

If America is at war then it seems about time that Americans decide the context and the future of that war. Why Afghanistan--which for eight years had warranted little attention or time from Washington until now--is suddenly a vital front in the fight against Islamic extremism is a question in need of an answer.

(AP Photos)

November 10, 2009

From Two States to One State

Stephen Walt suggests that talk of disengaging from the peace process is meaningless unless America is also willing to cut its aid to Israel, which it will never do. He then argues:

Israel is going to get what it has long sought: permanent control of the West Bank (along with de facto control over Gaza). The Palestinian Authority is increasingly irrelevant and may soon collapse, General Keith Dayton's mission to train reliable and professional Palestinian security forces will end, and Israel will once again have full responsibility for some 5.2 million Palestinian Arabs under its control. And the issue will gradually shift from the creation of a viable Palestinian state -- which was the central idea behind the Oslo process and the subsequent "Road Map" -- to a struggle for civil and political rights within an Israel that controls all of mandate Palestine.
I think Walt overlooks the possibility that the Israelis will try to unilaterally solve this problem by creating a de-facto border (as they have in essence done with the security wall) while consolidating its West Bank settlements into defensible pieces - pieces it was likely to keep in any land-swap with the Palestinians. There will be some tension when it comes time to evacuate those settlements that wouldn't fall within the defensible zone, but Israel has already proven a willingness to dislodge settlers in Gaza. Admittedly the West Bank would be a more contentious affair, but what alternative would they have?

The rump of what's left to the Palestinians will, like Gaza, be policed by Israel and ministered to by the United Nations and NGOs. That's clearly not an ideal outcome for either party, but I cannot for the life of me imagine that Israel is going to allow itself to be convulsed with the kind of "civil rights" struggle Walt eludes to.

This is, at root, a power struggle. And Israel has more power. When faced with the kind of scenario Walt describes above, they will either capitulate to American demands for concessions to advance a two state solution, or they will impose a solution that's in their perceived interest if one can't be worked out to their liking at the negotiating table. It's not pretty. But it was never going to be. And America has proven time and again that it cannot bring this situation to a peaceful conclusion.

(AP Photos)


Why Do Developing Countries Want FTAs?

AEI's Phil Levy has written a very thoughtful and provocative new study on Peru's motivations behind entering into the US-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement (PTPA).  In it, Levy examines the evidence and interviews Peruvian business people and government officials to determine why they worked so hard to secure passage - at home and in the United States - and implementation of the PTPA when Peru was already enjoying duty-free access for more than 90% of its US-bound exports.  His findings will surprise most people:

Bilateral free trade agreements have generally been analyzed as instances of preferential reciprocal tariff liberalization. Viewed through this lens, such agreements raise concerns both about new competition and about trade diversion. The United States-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement, an example of a serious North-South accord, demonstrates that new market access was not a principal Peruvian goal in the trade negotiations. Instead, the agreement was intended to encourage investment by locking in Peru's economic reforms. This motivation has very different implications for the global trading system than a quest for preferential access.

Read the whole thing here (PDF). Given the limited scope of the the Peru case study, Levy's findings raise a lot of important questions that demand further research (as he fully admits). But if these conclusions hold, it could have significant implications for the future of US trade policy - for example, (i) how the US targets future developing country FTA partners; (ii) how free traders sell these FTAs to the general public once they're complete; and (iii) how bilateral FTAs fit into a multilateral free trade agenda (i.e., at the WTO).

Great food for thought.

The Wages of Peace


Robert Kaplan commemorates the fall of the Berlin Fall by lamenting the fact that millions of Europeans are no longer killing each other and are thus missing out on the benefits that large-scale slaughter and war bring to a society:

What does the European Union truly stand for besides a cradle-to-grave social welfare system? For without something to struggle for, there can be no civil society—only decadence.

Thus, with their patriotism dissipated, European governments can no longer ask for sacrifices from their populations when it comes to questions of peace and war. Ironically, we may have gained victory in the Cold War, but lost Europe in the process.

I always assumed that a pacified Europe was the entire point of the exercise here. Alex Maisse isn't impressed either:

Now besides a "cradle-to-grave social welfare system" I'd say that the EU stands for, or at least has ambitions towards, peace and prosperity and that, whatever one may think of the organisation, these are hardly small things. Indeed, their absence through for much of the twentieth century was, shall we say, marked.

For that matter, absorbing the countries of central and eastern europe into the EU is itself no tiny task and one that, not unreasonably, has preoccupied europe these past twenty years. That this absorbtion has, generally speaking, been a success is also an achievement of note. And, of course, the process is not yet complete.

Kaplan also makes this interesting argument:

Iran holds the key to changing the Middle East, much as the collapse of the Berlin Wall held the key to changing Europe. With a reformist regime in power in Teheran, turmoil in Iraq will lessen and Hezbollah may eventually be robbed of a sturdy patron, even as Syria is forced to make its peace with the West, and hopefully with Israel, too. All that, taken together, will release nascent democratic forces that can truly reform the Middle East.

Oh my, where have we heard this before?

Now, if any Middle Eastern nation would be a candidate for true liberalization it would be Iran. But really, isn't some modesty in order here? I suspect when the oil runs out we'll see a much sharper move toward liberalization and market-oriented economies - a true democratic revolution in the Middle East, much like collapsing commodity prices help push over the rotten edifice of the Soviet Union. Until then? Perhaps not so much.

UPDATE: Daniel Larison makes a good point:

In this column Kaplan offers his best Otto von Bismarck imitation. Bismarck was once quoted as saying that the world would succumb to materialism without war; Kaplan replaces materialism with decadence, but the idea is much the same. It is also worryingly similar to Teddy Roosevelt’s concept of war as a kind of invigorating sport. As Massie notes, Kaplan is rehashing ideas that were last fashionable approximately a century ago before WWI taught (almost) everyone that they were complete rubbish. In fact, the main movements that came out of the horror of WWI convinced more than ever that constant struggle and endless wars of “liberation” were essential to political health were the communists and fascists.

It's worth turning the Kaplan thesis on its head and asking what his reaction would be if China or Russia decided they wanted to save their civilization from decadence.

(AP Photos)

Rehabilitating the Iraq Hawks


Responding to the (now contested) report from CBS News that President Obama is ready to go the "Full Monty" in Afghanistan, Cato's Christopher Preble dissents:

Second, if the president has decided to follow the advice of those who called for more troops (most of whom — it is worth noting — were also leading advocates for the disastrous Iraq war), it is important for those of us who harbored doubts to have publicly registered our concerns.

The problem for Preble and others who would dissent from a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan is that the putative success of the Iraq surge has obscured the larger strategic failure that was the invasion of Iraq (a failure manifest in the fact that we are faced with "losing" Afghanistan after eight years of combat). Analysts who urged on the invasion of Iraq have been able to sweep away the strategic costs of the war by highlighting a short term, tactical success.

But it's important to understand that just because Iraq surge advocates were correct that more troops would quell the violence (at least, temporarily, the long-term prognosis for Iraq is still unclear), they still made a disastrous strategic judgment to forcefully remove Saddam Hussein and militarily occupy Iraq. It's like setting fire to your house, watching it burn almost to the ground and then grabbing a fire hose and dousing the flames. Yes, it's good that you put out the fire. But you shouldn't have started it in the first place.

(AP Photos)

Peak Oil Back on the Radar


The International Energy Agency is out with its new global forecast on oil and energy reserves (a short highlight is available here - pdf). Meanwhile, a whistle-blower at the IEA has gone to the Guardian to say the organization's estimates for global output are far too optimistic:

In particular they question the prediction in the last World Economic Outlook, believed to be repeated again this year, that oil production can be raised from its current level of 83m barrels a day to 105m barrels. External critics have frequently argued that this cannot be substantiated by firm evidence and say the world has already passed its peak in oil production.

Now the "peak oil" theory is gaining support at the heart of the global energy establishment. "The IEA in 2005 was predicting oil supplies could rise as high as 120m barrels a day by 2030 although it was forced to reduce this gradually to 116m and then 105m last year," said the IEA source, who was unwilling to be identified for fear of reprisals inside the industry. "The 120m figure always was nonsense but even today's number is much higher than can be justified and the IEA knows this.

Kevin Drum isn't so sure this anonymous source is really onto something significant.

(AP Photos)

November 9, 2009

Is Iran Arming Venezuela?


By Fernando Ariel Gimenez & Meir Javedanfar

On October 4, the Israeli Navy seized a cargo ship in the Mediterranean Sea near Cyprus.

The arms shipment, disguised as a civilian cargo, was being carried by an Antigua-flagged ship named “Francop." According to Israel Navy Chief Brigadier General Rani Ben Yehuda, the ship was carrying hundreds of tons of weapons. Israel alleges that the weapons were intended for Hezbollah via Iran.

IDF Spokesperson's Unit has released several videos showing the contents of the Iranian containers. Among the findings, there were rifle bullets, F1 fragment grenades, rockets, mortar shells and artillery shells.

What was particularly surprising was ammunition boxes, with Spanish writing. Here is a video showing the cargo.

The label reads “2 DISPAROS” (which means “2 shots”), “LOTE” (lot, as part of a collection), and “ESPOLETA” (the fuse in explosives), accompanied by other descriptive numbers and letters. The topmost line of the box label contains “M40 A1." The M40 is a bolt action sniper rifle. A1 is the second variant of the rifle, and it was introduced in the 1970s. These three words are identical in Portuguese.

It is unknown to us whether this specific lot was originated from a Spanish/Portuguese country. If it was imported by Iran, we may consider Spain--the largest arms exporter in the Spanish speaking world (and one of the biggest in the world, period). Argentina and Brazil also had prominent arms industries some decades ago; the former had severed ties with Iran after 1994 AMIA bombing.

It is also possible that the weapons were built in Iran, with the original goal of exporting them to one of the Spanish speaking countries. Venezuela is Iran’s biggest ally in Latin America. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has built strong ties not only with Iran but also with Syria, where "Francop" was supposed to dock. What likely happened in this case is that instead of exporting the weapons to Venezuela, Iran decided to send them on to Hezbollah.

This is not the first time Iran has been accused of shipping arms to foreign organizations. In May of this year, a convoy of Iranian weapons was destroyed in Sudan by either the Israeli or American Air Force. And last week, Yemen says it intercepted an Iranian boat carrying weapons for Zaydi Shia Houthis rebels who have recently intensified their attacks against Yemeni and Saudi security forces.

Fernando Ariel Gimenez runs the Oriente Miedo blog, which analyzes events in the Middle East in Spanish.

(AP Photos)

Bhagwati: Doha Is Toast

Columbia professor and free trade guru Jagdish Bhagwati has a characteristically excellent op-ed in Today's Times of India. The entire thing is worth reading, but it's this final passage that deserves the most attention:

[T]he actual damage to trade is still within bounds, though we must remember that a tsunami starts with a slow surge of the waves. But why has protectionism been contained? I believe that the answer lies in the interdependence today in the world economy as production and world trade have become globalised. There are far too many firms today that depend on world markets. General Electric, Boeing, Caterpillar are among the hundreds of US firms that have actively lobbied to contain US protectionism: they fear that retaliation by other nations will hurt them.

But liberalising trade, i.e. moving forward, is a hard slog. Rarely have democratic nations successfully liberalised during recessions. But we now have an added problem: the virtuous statements on finally closing the Doha Round carry little salience when the biggest rottweiler on the block, the US, is paralysed on trade.

The Democrats in the US Congress, after the last election, are heavily indebted to the labour unions that fear trade. In turn, they straitjacket the president, an eloquent man whose silence on Doha is eloquent instead. Progress on Doha without the US playing a key role to close the deal is impossible. So, the news on Doha is bad.

By contrast, the last Indian election, by freeing the government from reliance on the communists who are generally hostile to liberal reforms - which are often described as "neoliberal" reforms by their critics as that sounds more sinister including trade liberalisation, has made India a potential leader in the fight for Doha. Will the prime minister take the lead and ask his host to join in that great task when he goes to Washington for his state visit later this month?

This, I think, is exactly right (of course, it echoes a lot of what I've been saying for months, so it's hardly surprising that I'd say that!). The globalization of supply chains and the modern rules-based international trading system have prevented any doomsday protectionist scenarios from engulfing the world. But real progress at the multilateral level--which still could reap billions upon billions of dollars in economic benefits, especially for developing countries--is dead in the water until the United States gets in the game.

When will 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/.

A Civilian Path to Iran’s People

Vexed discussions and heated accusations on nuclear issues tend to overshadow the daily tribulations that Americans and Iranians share--yes, we have more in common than negotiations and sanctions.

As in cities and towns of the U.S., where school closings and parental concerns about their children’s health are an important focus this Fall, Iranians too feel the swine flu’s impact. Take for instance two reports on November 8 in the Tehran Times:

271 schools in cities across Tehran Province have been temporarily closed due to the swine flu epidemic, the Tehran Education Department’s public relations officer for provincial cities said…. So far, many schools in Kashan and Isfahan have been temporarily closed to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus. On October 28, 235 schools at the elementary and secondary levels were closed for eight days in Kashan.

The Health Ministry and the Majlis (Parliament) Health Committee are seriously opposed to allowing Iranians to go on hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) this year due to the swine flu epidemic.... However, the Health Ministry and lawmakers have no jurisdiction over the issue and other officials must decide about whether to cancel Hajj 2009 for Iranians…. But the Health Ministry will not allow people over the age of 60, young children, and pregnant women to go on hajj this year… The health minister has also announced that swine flu has claimed the lives of 28 of the 250,000 people who have become infected with the disease in Iran.

News like this rarely comes to the attention of Americans. It’s usually the threat of death and destruction potentially dispensed by Iran’s leaders that dominates our perception. Yet Iranian citizens and civilian administrators share similar concerns and opinions with us on a wide range of social, scientific, even religious issues. Grappling with the H1N1 virus is just one example.

As the U.S. seeks paths to Iran, the seemingly mundane may prove most productive in re-forging ties between Americans and Iranians.

A Great Day for Freedom, Con't

Check out our video page for more.

[Hat tip: Mary Katharine Ham]

The War That Never Ended


There's lots of good commentary on the home page to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I think Ross Douthat makes a cogent point in the New York Times today:

Twenty years later, we still haven’t come to terms with the scope of our deliverance. Francis Fukuyama famously described the post-Communist era as “the end of history.” By this, he didn’t mean the end of events — wars and famines, financial panics and terrorist bombings. He meant the disappearance of any enduring, existential threat to liberal democracy and free-market capitalism.

This thesis has been much contested, but it holds up remarkably well. Even 9/11 didn’t undo the work of ’89. Osama bin Laden is no Hitler, and Islamism isn’t in the same league as the last century’s totalitarianisms. Marxism and fascism seduced the West’s elite; Islamic radicalism seduces men like the Fort Hood shooter. Our enemies resort to terrorism because they’re weak, and because we’re so astonishingly strong.

Yet nobody seems quite willing to believe it. Instead, we keep returning to the idea that liberal society is just as vulnerable as it was before the Berlin Wall came down.

Part of this idea that the West is perpetually under siege is pure cynicism on the part of those who wish to perpetuate (and expand) America's Cold War military posture under the guise of "benevolent hegemony."

Part of it, and related to the above, is the fact that because America has a fair number of security commitments and an expansive view of what are "vital" interests, we tend to see a multiplicity of minor threats which collectively contribute to a kind of siege mentality. If we were to be a bit more judicious with how we engage with the world (particularly militarily), and if we had frankly a more mature public debate that didn't default to 1939/Hitler/Chamberlain as the template for all international relations, this mentality would abate.

There is, though, a legitimate debate to be had over the course of market democracy and whether China has hit upon a sustainable model with its autocratic capitalism. But even if China proves to have a durable development model, it does not mean that it will seek to supplant Western democracies with systems in its image, as the Soviet Union sought to do during the Cold War.

In short, we should celebrate today and recognize that the world is considerably less dangerous than it was 20 years ago and, with prudential leadership, these gains could deepen.

November 8, 2009

A Great Day for Freedom

It's tempting to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall with a reprise of Pink Floyd's The Wall. But in reality, this is the more appropriate tune from the Floyd catalog:

Ship of fools indeed.

Tom Friedman Goes There


This strikes me as a pretty important column from Thomas Friedman:

If we are still begging Israel to stop building settlements, which is so manifestly idiotic, and the Palestinians to come to negotiations, which is so manifestly in their interest, and the Saudis to just give Israel a wink, which is so manifestly pathetic, we are in the wrong place. It’s time to call a halt to this dysfunctional “peace process,” which is only damaging the Obama team’s credibility.

If the status quo is this tolerable for the parties, then I say, let them enjoy it. I just don’t want to subsidize it or anesthetize it anymore. We need to fix America. If and when they get serious, they’ll find us. And when they do, we should put a detailed U.S. plan for a two-state solution, with borders, on the table. Let’s fight about something big.

I agree. It's important to underscore that the Arab-Israeli conflict is a very big deal to Arabs and Israelis. We insist on getting involved by cutting huge aid checks to Israel and inserting ourselves in between the combatants to broker a deal, but ultimately, who lives where in the West Bank has absolutely no strategic bearing on the security of the United States. In theory at least, this understanding would liberate us from this counter-productive morass.

(AP Photos)

Fort Hood and Afghanistan


All the facts are still to emerge from the Fort Hood massacre, but thus far the incident does seem to highlight one of the problematic arguments surrounding a surge into Afghanistan, and that is the need to eliminate terrorist "safe havens." While the threat from a centralized, save-haven operating, terrorist organization is no doubt real, free-floating radicals (assuming, as it looks increasingly likely, the Fort Hood shooter was one) seem much more dangerous, if only because they're inside the country already and can operate under the radar more effectively.

Given that we're operating in Afghanistan under the broad rubric of preventing mass-casualty terror attacks from occurring on American soil again, the attack on Fort Hood should raise the question of how much we need to invest in a single theater in what is obviously a global campaign.

(AP Photos)

November 7, 2009

A "Nutty" Foreign Policy


James Goldgeier has a nice recap of the course of American strategy following the collapse of the Soviet Union:

When the Berlin Wall fell, the American foreign policy establishment was suddenly adrift. There were brilliant and widely read analyses of the world produced in the early post-Cold War period such as Francis Fukuyama's End of History and Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations, but those were assessments not strategies.

The most developed strategy early on was articulated by Dick Cheney's Pentagon in the notorious 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, which was leaked to the New York Times. "Our first objective," an early draft read, "is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union." What made the document controversial was that it argued that the United States needed to prevent not only its adversaries from gaining greater power in core regions, but also major allies such as Germany and Japan. The White House disavowed the Cheney document, and George H.W. Bush's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, later described the Pentagon's approach at the time as "nutty."

Looking at the years since that nutty proposal, it's pretty clear that either by conscious design or inertia, it remains America's de-facto strategic framework. The question for the Obama administration is whether it wants to change that (so far the signals are mixed) and if so, what will replace it? Goldgeier thinks of all the possible grand strategies briefly hinted at by the administration only one - nuclear disarmament - is the most fleshed out. It's also, to my mind, the least necessary.

(AP Photos)

November 6, 2009

Democracy in Egypt


David Kenner laments that Egypt is a sinkhole for America's tax dollars:

Stop the presses: the Egyptian government is riddled with corruption, and hostile to democratic reform! After three decades of distributing aid in Egypt, these facts shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone -- and shouldn't be an excuse for why USAID has been flushing taxpayers' money down the drain.

Fortunately, in 2005 Congress provided USAID with the authority to issue direct grants to Egyptian NGOs, bypassing the approval of the Egyptian government. As the audit shows, USAID "achieved its greatest success" with these direct grant programs. Direct grant recipients completed 80 percent of their planned activities during the 2008 financial year, in programs that ranged from anticorruption initiatives to programs emphasizing political processes and civic participation. The Egyptian government often still found ways to stymie these programs: in one case, the government delayed distribution of the civic education material produced by one recipient, making it difficult for the material to reach schoolchildren.

However, these obstacles pale in comparison to the difficulties of working directly with the Egyptian government. It is naive to expect a regime that is preparing to elevate Gamal Mubarak to the presidency will be willing to make aggressive reforms. And it is hypocritical for the United States to preach the virtues of democracy while still devoting most of its funds to efforts which have proven ineffective. U.S. policymakers know perfectly well how to design more effective programs in Egypt. They should do it.

I think this underscores just how untenable our approach is. On the one hand, the president travels to Egypt to make his big speech on U.S.-Muslim relations and treats the monarch president as a key ally of the U.S. On the other, we're funneling money into Egypt with the fairly explicit purpose of undermining Mubarak's rule. I know we like to leaven our realpolitik with a healthy slathering of other people's money, but it just seems rather obviously counter-productive. Either Mubarak doesn't pass on rule to his son and democracy takes hold (paving the way for the Muslim Brotherhood) or Mubarak Jr. takes power and we continue to waste money and look hypocritical.

(AP Photos)

War with Russia


As we near the 20th anniversary of the collapse of communism, Justin Logan flags this post from the Weekly Standard's John Noonan heralding the arrival of a new Warsaw Pact:

Recently I was chatting up an Army Lt Col -- a West Point grad who started off as an Armor Officer in Cold War Germany and later moved on to Russian linguistics and intelligence. I asked what would have happened if the U.S. was drawn into the Georgian war of '08. "Ten years ago we would have kicked the Russians' ass," he said. "Last year they would have bloodied our nose, but we still would've won. Ten years from now... who knows?"

I find this thought experiment more than a little hard to believe. First, despite the adolescent posturing from some quarters, the U.S. is almost certainly not going to fight a war with Russia over anything and especially Georgia. The still substantial nuclear arsenals on both sides ensures that.

Noonan continues:

No one wants to be drawn into conflict with the Russians. But it's useful to remember that time after time, we've extended our hand to Moscow only to have it slapped away. Putin clearly has grand aspirations for his burgeoning CSTO, with Poland shaping up to be the new Germany in another round of US-Russian geo-political chess.

If it's really true that "no one" wants to be drawn into a conflict with Russia than why are we openly musing about going to war with them over Georgia? What vital interests are at stake there?

(AP Photos)

Debating Afghanistan

RAND held a policy forum on Afghanistan recently, culling a wide range of expert opinion from Frederick Kagan, Stephen Walt, Steve Coll, Zbigniew Brzezinski and more. Definitely one of the more engaging four hour (!) discussions you're likely to see on the subject.

November 5, 2009

Carnegie Forum: Obama Goes to Asia

President Obama will travel to Japan, Singapore, China, and South Korea beginning next week. Continuing uncertainty in North Korea, the violence in Urumqi, and the ongoing fallout in the wake of the global recession indicate that this could be one of the most important trips of his first year in office. In a live streamed event, experts from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace discuss the possible implications and outcomes of the trip for the U.S. strategic and economic relationship with the region.

The event starts at 12:15 p.m. Wednesday. Live streaming here:

Launch in external player

November 4, 2009

Developments in Colombia-Venezuela Trade Row?

What the heck is going on between Venezuela and Colombia?  According to unconfirmed reports, a Chavez-inspired trade war between the two nations has produced a WTO complaint:

An August directive by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to “reduce to zero” bi-national trade with neighbouring Colombia has begun to bite, with imports from the neighbouring country falling dramatically.

Chavez issued the directive in protest against a military agreement signed between Bogotá and Washington allowing US military troops access to Colombian bases.

According to a report by Colombia’s National Department of Statistics, exports to Venezuela fell 49.5% in September. Trade between the two countries is expected to decline even further, after Venezuela imposed a blockade on Colombian agricultural products.

On October 14 Venezuela’s Ministry of Agriculture and Land decided to restrict the entry of Colombian agricultural products and the issuing of sanitary certificates on Colombian animal and vegetable products.

In response, Colombia filed a formal complaint with the World Trade Organisation’s Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures last Friday.

Colombia argues that the measure, which impacts the sale of meat, eggs, chicken, coffee, cattle, fruits and vegetables, among other products, was not reported through official channels and the WTO was not notified.

Colombia’s Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism Luis Guillermo Plata, said the measures are a “flagrant violation” of WTO norms.

Despite the move, Venezuela continues to remain Colombia’s second biggest trading partner after the U.S., accounting for 14.7% of Colombia’s export market, followed closely by the European Union at $14.6%. In 2008 the two countries shared an estimated $7 billion in bilateral trade.

The measures will affect an equivalent of 17% of Colombia’s 2008 exports to Venezuela, valued at an estimated US $1.03 billion according to Colombia’s Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism.

Under WTO regulations, Caracas is required submit justification to the WTO at its next meeting, scheduled for February 2010, if the restrictive measures are to continue.

The Venezuelan government, which aims to substitute Colombian agricultural imports with imports from Brazil and Argentina, has issued no formal statement on the WTO complaint. However, delegates from Venezuela indicated that they will review the case and hope to address the issue bilaterally....

I can't verify whether the Colombian complaint was actually filed at the WTO, although they certainly appear to have a case.  There's been only one other report of the filing, and that came from an equally dubious source - Venezuela's El Universal.  I've checked the WTO, the Colombian Government and a few other trade sites and see no mention of the complaint at the WTO SPS Committee or the WTO's Dispute Settlement Body (DSB).  So it's far from certain that Colombia has actually gone to the WTO.

That said, the bilateral trade conflict itself is undisputed.  According to Reuters, Chavez' embargo "is damaging their $7 billion a year in trade," and considering that several deaths have occurred at the countries' shared border in recent weeks, a WTO complaint is certainly a preferred means of dispute resolution.

But if only there were a way for Colombia (described by Reuters as a "staunch Washington ally") to gain some leverage over Chavez by securing economic ties with its other major trading partner, the United States. If only there were some sort of already-drafted-and-signed agreement or something that deepened and normalized free trade between the United States and Colombia and could be quickly ratified by Congress.  And considering the US-Colombia military agreement provided Chavez with his excuse to start the bilateral trade war in the first place, expediting implementation of such a mythical agreement would be the least that the US could do to calm Colombian nerves, right?

Alas, too bad nothing like that imaginary "free trade agreement" exists.  Because, boy, if it did, now would seem like a perfect time to whip it out.

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/.

Inside the Iran Protests

The Lede has more videos.

Obama's Statement on Iran

The White House has released a statement on Iran:

Thirty years ago today, the American Embassy in Tehran was seized. The 444 days that began on November 4, 1979 deeply affected the lives of courageous Americans who were unjustly held hostage, and we owe these Americans and their families our gratitude for their extraordinary service and sacrifice.

This event helped set the United States and Iran on a path of sustained suspicion, mistrust, and confrontation. I have made it clear that the United States of America wants to move beyond this past, and seeks a relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. We do not interfere in Iran’s internal affairs. We have condemned terrorist attacks against Iran. We have recognized Iran’s international right to peaceful nuclear power. We have demonstrated our willingness to take confidence-building steps along with others in the international community. We have accepted a proposal by the International Atomic Energy Agency to meet Iran’s request for assistance in meeting the medical needs of its people. We have made clear that if Iran lives up to the obligations that every nation has, it will have a path to a more prosperous and productive relationship with the international community.

Iran must choose. We have heard for thirty years what the Iranian government is against; the question, now, is what kind of future it is for. The American people have great respect for the people of Iran and their rich history. The world continues to bear witness to their powerful calls for justice, and their courageous pursuit of universal rights. It is time for the Iranian government to decide whether it wants to focus on the past, or whether it will make the choices that will open the door to greater opportunity, prosperity, and justice for its people.

Iran's Domestic Nuclear Challenge

November 4, 2009 is the 30th anniversary of the U.S. embassy takeover in Iran.

Every year, the Iranian government encouraged, and in majority of cases forced civil servants and students to take part in celebratory events and demonstrations. I know because I took part in at least two such demonstrations. As primary school children, our studies were cut short for the day, and we were taken to the streets in order to shout anti-U.S. slogans.

Few Iranians willingly went to take part in such demonstrations. In fact, the government was so enthusiastic that it did not require permission for the demonstrations.

This year, the opposite is true.

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians willingly wanted to demonstrate; so much so that the government for the first time on this occasion required permission.

The reason for their demonstrations were much different than what the government desired. While Khamenei and Ahmadinejad wanted the demonstrators to chant against the U.S, most people chanted against the government--especially Ahmadinejad.

Today's events must have brought out strong feelings of schadenfreude in the U.S, especially amongst the American hostages who were kept captive in Iran for 444 days. In a strange twist of fate, their misery--which used to be a cause of celebration for hardliners in Tehran--is turning into a nightmare for the regime.

This is on the heels of Quds day, which instead of being an anti-Israeli day, turned into an anti-Ahmadinejad day.

Therein lies one of the main reasons behind Iran's rejection of the recent nuclear deal.

The controversy surrounding the June 12 elections initially weakened the regime's domestic stance. However, as the demonstrations and the crackdown continues, the loss of faith and credibility has started to permeate to foreign policy as well. It has now become a potent tool in the hands of the opposition. This is yet another crack in an important pillar which Khamenei uses to maintain the balance of his regime.

Khamenei is now worried that if he shows any flexibility towards the West it could be interpreted as a sign of weakness by the opposition; thus emboldening and encouraging them to take his administration on even more.

This is especially true after some of the opposition demonstrators started chanting “A green and developed Iran, does not want a nuclear bomb”.

This shows that more and more people in the opposition are turning against current policies regarding the nuclear program, as they see it as a tool in the hands of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, and not as a national project which would enhance their country's economy and security.

It is time that the West especially realized that after the June 12 elections, the Iranian nuclear program and its goals are more about internal dynamics of Iranian politics. Iran's neo-cons want to push on with making the bomb much more because of their sense of concern from and hatred for Mousavi and Karoubi than their disdain for Israel or America. As long as this perception continues, it is unlikely that we will see major positive overtures from Tehran.

Mr. Obama Goes to Asia

Our friends over at the Carnegie Endowment will be hosting an event tomorrow at 12:15 ET on President Obama's upcoming trip to Asia.

Michael Pettis, Douglas Paal, Taiya Smith and Michael Swaine will discuss the possible implications and outcomes of the trip for the U.S. strategic and economic relationship with the region.

RealClearWorld will be live-streaming the event, and if you'd like to submit a question to the panel you can do so HERE.

November 3, 2009

America to the World: Grow Up

Scot Wilson's piece on Obama's foreign policy in the Washington Post echoes some familiar themes and quotes an administration official on the over-arching strategy of trying to win international cooperation by emphasizing shared interests:

"There is no naivete here," said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications who helped Obama write many of his foreign policy speeches. "The president knows that nations do not always live up to their responsibilities -- otherwise this would be easy. But if you walk away from the basic bargain that all nations have rights and responsibilities, then you have less ability to marshal the cooperation to resolve these issues, too."

That doesn't sound naive, but it sure sounds arrogant. Another way to say what Rhodes said is that the president knows that nations do not always have the same interests as the United States, but it's up to us to try to find some common ground. Instead, Rhodes suggests that other nations - like adolescents - don't always understand what's expected of them by the adults (i.e. us).

David Schor thinks that's just great:

With respect to gaining the cooperation of others more broadly (including to maintain pressure on Iran), my own tack is to ask what the alternative is. If the only hope for international cooperation lies in those areas where traditional national self-interests converge, this would all be easy. More to the point, international politics as usual would leave many problems -- nuclear proliferation, global warming, poverty, Israel-Palestine -- on a very negative trajectory.

It shouldn't take a lot of enlightenment to see the enlightened self-interests on these issues. A little statesmanship is all we're asking. After all, that's why they're called world leaders.

I simply don't understand this conceit - that once nations jettison their false consciousness they'll recognize their "responsibilities" just so happen to align with Washington's interests. Take China. What is its "responsibility" vis-a-vis North Korea? To do what the United States wants it to do? Or to defend its border against potential instability? Take Iran. Clearly, the "threat" of Iran is a lot different if you're Russia (or India, or China or even Germany) than if you're Israel and the United States. Why does "enlightened self interest" obligate these countries to subordinate their economic interests to Washington's desire to retain hegemony in the Gulf?

I'm not saying we shouldn't try to win their cooperation. But I think we need to be realistic about the extent to which other nations are going to put aside their interests on behalf of Washington's the world's. Consider that to win Schor's hoped-for broad-based international cooperation, we'll likely end up with lowest common denominator outcomes - if we achieve anything at all. He is right to ask what the alternative is, but then, it would serve those advocating for international cooperation to lower domestic expectations. You're not doing the cause of international diplomacy much good if you make demands of it that it cannot bear. That's politically problematic, of course, because Democrats are as much in thrall to an expansive reading of what America's core interests are as the Republicans, but it's the only viable option that I can see.

Justice, Saudi Style

Not much more to say about this:

A Saudi man convicted of kidnapping and raping five children, one of whom he left in the desert to die, has been sentenced to be beheaded and his body publicly crucified, the Saudi Arabian media said today.

A Nuclear Counter-Offer to Iran

By Jamsheed Choksy

Apparently, Iran has not completely rejected the nuclear deal from the IAEA. It is re-negotiating the initial terms.

Now Tehran seeks to ship its low enriched uranium (LEU) for processing outside Iran or have the LEU converted inside the country by a third party, in batches. Moreover, Tehran’s regime wishes to purchase nuclear fuel from abroad prior to relinquishing any of its own LEU. Basically, Iran’s leaders have “no confidence that they (i.e., the West) will give us 20% enriched fuel in exchange for 3.5% enriched fuel.”

Whether sent abroad or converted within Iran, the LEU can be replaced quickly. So even transforming the entire current stockpile--into civilian-use rods and plates--would only delay any Iranian nuclear weapons plan by approximately one year. Likewise, providing Iran with nuclear fuel not made from its own LEU--so long as no military use or uranium re-extraction is possible --would not really compromise the situation.

So why not respond positively to the tentative response from Tehran and at the same time include a counter-offer to Iran? After all, if Iran wishes to modify the deal’s terms so can the West.

In exchange for accepting Tehran’s modifications, the IAEA and P5+1 should require Iran permit the West to process not just the current stockpile but all LEU including future batches. Altering the form of Iran’s nuclear material has an added benefit--ensuring none of it will be of use to terrorists. Even better would be to propose that Tehran agree to halt its own enrichment so long as the West supplies nuclear fuel for medical research and energy production. Either accord would effectively restrict Iran’s use of uranium to civilian purposes for the long-term. Verification by the IAEA must continue as well.

Each constructive response by Washington and its partners puts more pressure on Tehran to demonstrate that it sincerely seeks “to cooperate” in solving problems rather than exploiting negotiations until breakout capability is reached. Cooperation will ensure trust is built up, too, by all involved. Ultimately, if the West and Iran can reconcile their positions to ensure that conversion and use of uranium is solely for civilian purposes then all nations stand to gain.

Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Iranian studies and former director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Indiana University. He also is a member of the National Council on the Humanities at the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities. The views expressed are his own.

Poll: Where Would Migrants Go?

Gallup has an interesting poll examining how many people wish to migrate and where they'd want to go:

Every day, immigrants leave their homelands behind for new lives in other countries. Reflecting this desire, rather than the reality of the numbers that actually migrate, Gallup finds about 16% of the world's adults would like to move to another country permanently if they had the chance. This translates to roughly 700 million worldwide -- more than the entire adult population of North and South America combined....

From its surveys in 135 countries between 2007 and 2009, Gallup finds residents of sub-Saharan African countries are most likely to express a desire to move abroad permanently. Thirty-eight percent of the adult population in the region -- or an estimated 165 million -- say they would like to do this if the opportunity arises. Residents in Asian countries are the least likely to say they would like to move -- with 10% of the adult population, or roughly 250 million, expressing a desire to migrate permanently.

The United States is the top desired destination country for the 700 million adults who would like to relocate permanently to another country. Nearly one-quarter (24%) of these respondents, which translates to more than 165 million adults worldwide, name the United States as their desired future residence. With an additional estimated 45 million saying they would like to move to Canada, Northern America is one of the two most desired regions.

Score one for soft power.

Clinton on Settlements

The State Department released the following statement from Secretary Clinton during her swing through the Middle East:

For 40 years, successive American administrations of both parties have opposed Israel’s settlement policy. That is absolutely a fact.

And the Obama Administration’s position on settlements is clear, unequivocal. It has not changed. And as the President has said on many occasions, the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. Now, the Israelis have responded to the call from the United States, the Palestinians and the Arab world to stop settlement activity by expressing a willingness to restrain settlement activity. They will build no new settlements, expropriate no land, allow no new construction or approvals.

And let me just say this offer falls far short of what we would characterize as our position, or what our preference would be. But if it is acted upon, it will be an unprecedented restriction on settlements and would have a significant and meaningful effect on restraining their growth.

Let me take a step back because I want to put this into the broader context. I will offer positive reinforcement to the parties when I believe they are taking steps that support the objective of reaching a two-state solution.

I will also push them as I have in public and in private to do even more. And in my report to the President last month, I talked about Israeli willingness to restrain settlement activity as a positive step.

In the same report, I praised President Abbas’ leadership of the Palestinian Authority for their courage and the security measures on the West Bank. The steps being taken under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayed are also unprecedented and we have never seen such effective security. I have on many occasions going back – as you know in Sharm El Sheikh - praised the accomplishments that the Palestinian Authority has demonstrated in building, training, and reforming their security forces.

I told Prime Minister Netanyahu that these positive steps on the part of the Palestinians should be met by positive steps from Israel - movement and access, operations by the IDF and on Israeli security arrangements on the West Bank. Israel has done a few things in that regard but they need to do much more. And President Abbas has shown leadership and determination on this issue and Israel should reciprocate.

I just want to clarify that what we are trying to achieve is a two-state solution with a state that represents the aspirations of the Palestinian people – the sovereignty and to have control over their own future, and provide the security guarantees to Israel for their own future. That is my goal. And when either party takes any steps that looks like it moves us in the right direction – even if it is not what I would like or what I would prefer - I’m going to positively reinforce that.

This is an opportunity for both sides to try to move forward together, to get into negotiations, and to realize the goal that many of us around this table have supported and worked for for many years.

November 2, 2009

China's Timely Reminder on Carbon Tariffs

Reuters reports on a wholly unsurprising development out of China:

Proposals to impose "carbon tariffs" on countries that do not make efforts to reduce their CO2 emissions are unworkable and counterproductive, a Chinese trade representative said on Thursday.

Zhang Xiangchen, one of China's permanent representatives at the World Trade Organisation in Geneva, said "all countries should firmly oppose" the proposals, which have been raised by both the European Union and the United States.

"It is very difficult to have a unified standard for levying carbon tariffs and the starting point (for the proposals) is to restrict competition from China," he said on the sidelines of a conference.

"Frankly, if tariffs are being implemented unilaterally, they cannot be objective and cannot be non-discriminatory."...

The new U.S. climate bill now being deliberated by Congress includes a set of provisions that allow future administrations to impose "border adjustment measures" on imported goods, thereby restoring the competitive balance....

But China's Ministry of Commerce has already voiced its opposition to carbon tariffs, which it has described as "trade protectionism disguised as environmental protectionism".

"Up to now, whether it is the proposals in the U.S. climate bill or the comments by French President Sarkozy, the carbon tariffs are just a kind of deterrent used by developed countries to put pressure on developing countries, breaking the principle of 'common but differentiated responsibilities' and making them commit to their own emission cuts," Zhang told the conference.

He said retaliation would also be inevitable.

"The United States per capita emission rate is four times as big as China's. Does that mean we can impose 400 percent tax rates on all imported American goods? If so, the result is a global trade war that is good for no one and no use at all in the fight against climate change."

As the Reuters article indicates, Zhang's comments reiterate earlier statements from China that it opposes carbon tariffs in any form, and that the United States' unilateral imposition of such "border measures" would start a trade war.  But the statement remains noteworthy because of its timing: on the very same day that Zhang publicly repeated China's stance, the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee was holding its second day of hearings on Cap and Trade legislation (aka "Boxer-Kerry") that includes a placeholder for the imposition of carbon tariffs.  And as CEI's Iain Murray points out, most of the hearing's participants were all too eager to embrace eco-protectionism as part of the Senate's final climate change legislation. 

So is it merely a coincidence that Zhang's strong reminder of China's opposition fell on the same day as the inaugural Senate hearings on Boxer-Kerry? 

I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say "no."

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/.

Bizarro Competitive Liberalization, Ctd.

According to Reuters, there's a twitch of life coming from the comatose US-Korea FTA:

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk will outline the Obama administration's review of a long-delayed free trade agreement with South Korea in a speech next week, a U.S. business group said on Friday....

Kirk will give his speech on Thursday evening at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a leading business group that has criticized Obama for failing to move forward on the agreement with South Korea and others with Colombia and Panama.

The speech will come just weeks before Obama visits South Korea at the end of an Asian tour that will also take him to Singapore for the annual summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and to Shanghai and Beijing.

Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak issued a joint statement when they last met in June saying they "were committed to working together to chart a way forward" for the free trade agreement, which was signed in June 2007.

South Korea's ambassador to the United States, Han Duk-soo, said this month that Seoul hopes the upcoming summit will be a catalyst for action on the long-stalled agreement.

Just two weeks ago, the European Union signed its own free trade agreement with South Korea that is expected to take force by the middle of 2010.

White House deputy national security adviser Michael Froman said this week the Obama administration viewed the EU-South Korea deal with interest but declined to say whether it made it more urgent for the United States to approve its own pact.

Although most mainstream U.S. business and farm groups support the agreement, it faces strong opposition from labor groups and two of the big three U.S. automakers.

The United Auto Workers, Ford and Chrysler say the agreement fails to tear down non-tariff barriers that keep out American cars while eliminating the few remaining tariffs the United States still has on South Korean cars.

On September 15, 2009, USTR received about 300 solicited comments on the KORUS FTA, and about two weeks later, Assistant USTR Wendy Cutler stated in no uncertain terms that there was absolutely no timeframe for US consideration and passage of KORUS: ""All our efforts are really to understand concerns and figure out how the concerns can be timely addressed. There is no timeline assigned to this, but I can assure you that we are working intensively."  Now, about 6 weeks after those 300 comments were dumped on USTR's doorstep, and about a month after Cutler called "no timeline," USTR Kirk is prepared to announce the results of the administration's review of multi-billion dollar trade agreement.

So what's going on here?  Has the White House been pressured into accelerating KORUS due to increased pressure from business groups (and some public embarrassment) now that the EU-Korea is complete, or are they just buying time with another lukewarm and empty statement of support?  At this point, no one really knows for sure, but if Kirk announces next week that the administration will soon try to move KORUS through Congress - despite the vocal opposition of Ford, Chrysler and the UAW - it will certainly appear that "bizarro competitive liberalization" has indeed become a reality, and that America's trading partners will have dragged it, kicking and screaming, back into the free trade game.  The tables will have officially turned.

As I said yesterday, I highly doubt that this will be the case, and instead expect more stalling by the White House.  But if I'm wrong, it's good and bad news.  The good: any free trade movement in the U.S. is a good thing these days.  The bad: it's a depressing state of affairs that said movement will have arisen out of fear (of losing overseas market share) and embarrassment, rather than an earnest and public desire to liberalize trade and better the lives of a vast majority of American citizens.

Stay tuned.

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/.

Europe After the Wall

Our friends at the German Marshall Fund are hosting a live-stream discussion on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Watch the whole thing live in progress HERE.

Trita Parsi Is a Terrible Iran Flack

If--as Michael Goldfarb and Jeffrey Goldberg would have us believe--Trita Parsi is a flack for the Iranian government, then I would advise the Khamenei regime to seriously reconsider its advocacy team in Washington.

I don't know if Tehran is aware of this, but its "man in Washington" has been spending his days promoting dissidence, critiquing the June 12 election, bashing the regime and advocating for rapprochement with the West--something the Khamenei regime apparently opposes.

Isn't there anyone else in Washington who can do a better job of advocating for the continued isolation of the current regime? Perhaps someone with solid campaign communications experience?

Poll: Israelis Support Two States

While Secretary Clinton hasn't been able to kick-start peace talks, a new poll out from Peace Index Project shows support for a two state solution:

A large number of Israelis would accept a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority under the principle of "two states for two peoples," according to a poll by the Peace Index Project. 64 per cent of respondents support the so-called two-state solution, while 33 per cent reject it.

Of course, the devil is in the details and the question as asked was simply whether respondents supported peace based on the principles of "two states for two peoples."

Does America Want an Independent Europe?

The European Council on Foreign Relations has an interesting report out today on the European-U.S. partnership. In it, the authors Jeremy Shapiro and Nick Witney argue that Europe is wasting the "Obama moment":

The US no longer dominates the world as the sole superpower. It knows it must turn to China on the economy and Russia on nuclear disarmament. Yet Europeans remain in denial about how the world is changing. They make a fetish out of the transatlantic relationship, anxiously pursuing harmony for harmony's sake without questioning what it is good for.

The mistaken belief of most European nations - not just the obvious Atlanticists like the UK and the Netherlands - that they have a ‘special relationship' with the US further distorts the transatlantic dialogue. These member states deploy different strategies to ingratiate themselves with Washington in a competition for American favour, believing that this works better for them than any collective European approach. The result is a frustrated US and an impotent Europe: Europe has 30,000 troops in Afghanistan yet virtually no say in strategy.

The truth is, the US would prefer a more united EU, but expects so little that it cannot bring itself to greatly care. When the EU is hard-headed, as with trade negotiations, the US listens. When it is not, Europeans are asking to be divided and ruled.

For Europe to become a credible and strategic partner for the US, Europeans need to shift their political psychology away from fetishising the transatlantic relationship. European governments need to get over the mistaken belief that their individual ‘special relationships' matter in Washington, and learn instead to act together and speak to the US with one voice.

From the European side, I can see the authors' frustrations. But I wonder just how much the U.S. wants a "united EU." Take the point on Afghanistan. What if a united EU wanted its troops out of Afghanistan immediately? The point on trade is also apt - is Washington necessarily pleased that Europe is driving a hard bargain when it stalls trade negotiations?

America's strategy for decades now has been to nurture strategic dependencies - in Europe first and foremost. A Europe with a greater capacity for independent action might be a more effective partner, but it is also a Europe that will almost certainly challenge Washington more directly. I suspect that for all the talk of wanting the EU to be a more capable and serious ally, the U.S. still prefers a (somewhat) pliable client.

This is an issue that is going to increasingly define America's relationship with both Europe and Asia - not simply how to encourage them to be more effective international players, but whether that is even a desirable goal.

(AP Photos)

November 1, 2009

For the Common Defense?


Cato's Christopher Preble passes along the following remarkable (though unremarked) news:

Earlier this week, President Obama signed into law the $680 billion FY 2010 Defense Authorization Bill, the largest such budget since the end of World War II. If you missed that aspect of the story, you weren’t alone. Many news stories chose instead to focus on the hate crime provisions tacked onto the bill....

You see, most of the money we spend on our military is not geared to defending the United States. Rather, it encourages other countries to free-ride on the U.S. military instead of taking prudent steps to defend themselves.

The massive defense bill represents only part of our military spending. The appropriations bill moving through Congress governing veterans affairs, military construction and other agencies totals $133 billion, while the massive Department of Homeland Security budget weighs in at $42.8 billion. This comprises the visible balance of what Americans spend on our national security, loosely defined. Then there is the approximately $16 billion tucked away in the Energy Department’s budget, money dedicated to the care and maintenance of the country’s huge nuclear arsenal.

All told, every man, woman and child in the United States will spend more than $2,700 on these programs and agencies next year. By way of comparison, the average Japanese spends less than $330; the average German about $520; China’s per capita spending is less than $100.

And yet, despite these enormous expenditures, we cannot achieve our aims in one of the poorest countries in the world, against an adversary that spends an infinitesimal amount on their arms. Maybe it's time to rethink our defense strategy.

(AP Photos)

Don't Give Peace A Chance


Why does the United States want to settle the dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians? After Secretary Clinton's rather embarrassing trip through the Middle East (where she got nothing from the Palestinians and pretended that the nothing she got from Israel was somehow significant) it might be time to reassess first principles.

As far as I can see, the U.S. is engaged in this effort because it's concerned that the continuing inability to find peace is a source of regional anger toward the United States. The Arab world is outraged that America supports Israel. America wants to support Israel but is sensitive to this outrage and so it tries to square a circle by bringing the standoff between the Israelis and Palestinians to a close.

But for at least a decade it's been obvious that such a straddle is untenable. Neither party is prepared to take the steps necessary to forge a final status agreement. So where does that leave the U.S.?

As Karen DeYoung reports, the administration believes it's sufficient that they make it look as if we're trying really hard: "Clinton's objective on this trip seemed less to achieve any real breakthrough than to give the impression of continued effort."

I'm not sure who is supposed to be impressed with the "impression of continued effort." Certainly not the Palestinians who, as DeYoung notes, have only dug in their heels deeper. The Arab world is not going to give the Obama administration an "A for effort" if they're unable to actually accomplish anything.

Wouldn't it be better to drop the pretense that a peace settlement is actually important? America has made clear that its support for Israel is unconditional - peace or no peace. It's also made clear that it is unable to force the parties by dint of persuasion to set aside their differences. Why not be honest with ourselves and the world and declare that we will not seek peace (but would, of course, welcome any steps the parties choose to make in that direction)? Whatever anger that may arouse in the Arab world is almost certainly compounded by the impression that America not only doesn't care about a settlement but is also feckless. Let George Mitchell enjoy his retirement and let our foreign policy establishment focus on problems - like Afghanistan and Pakistan - that actually impact American security.

(AP Photos)

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