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December 31, 2009

The Supreme Leader's Lavish and Paranoid Lifestyle

Recent reports by defectors from Grand Ayatollah Ali Khameini's inner circle paint a grotesque picture of personal corruption and excess. Clearly, Iran's theocratic elites think nothing untoward of living in the lap of luxury on state funds while the general population suffers socioeconomic distress.

The Telegraph cites those defectors as commenting:

Ayatollah Khamenei is said to be a keen collector with a prized assembly of antique walking sticks said to number 170. The Supreme Leader was once a fanatical equestrian enthusiast and his extensive stables reportedly include more than 100 of the country's leading horses. His cloaks are said to be woven from hair of specially bred camels.

Following in the footsteps of Iran’s shahs or kings

Ayatollah Khamenei is claimed to have accumulated a sprawling private court that stretches across six palaces, including Naviran, the former resident of the Shah in Tehran.

The Supreme Leader's political paranoia is evident as well, with an

extensive surveillance operation for the personal use of Ayatollah Khamenei. Each evening the leader is said to listen to recordings of senior officials and colleagues talking about him in a compilation that normally lasts 20 minutes.

An interesting tidbit about Khamenei's mental state comes from a report that

he suffers regular bouts of depression which are treated in part by audiences with a mid-ranking mullah who tells vulgar jokes.

Granted, accounts by dissidents may well contain hyperbole. Yet taken together with recent events, these details give added credence to the image of a tyrannical and materialistic regime whose clerical leaders in reality have long-doffed their religious mantles while claiming piety.

Khamenei seems to be just another two-bit despot hell bent on preserving his corrupt and perverse existence no matter what the cost in blood, sweat, and tears may be for Iran's citizens. No wonder a new attempt at revolution is underway to boot Khamenei and his hypocritical ilk out of power! Even the last shah’s exiled son now speaks of Iranians’ growing desire for a secular democracy.

The Islamic revolution took over a year to come to fruition between 1978 and 1979. So did an earlier attempt to create a democratic state in 1905 -- during the Constitutional Revolution. 2010 could very well witness the rise of a representative and secular government in Iran from the uprising that began in the summer of 2009.

The Luxury of Nuclear Weapons

Andrew Sullivan writes:

The obvious aim, it seems to me, of the Revolutionary Guards is not to nuke al-Aqsa, but to use a nuclear capacity to immunize their terrorism in the region, to balance Israel's nuclear monopoly, to scare the crap out of the Saudis and Egyptians, and to shore up their control at home. I see this as an inevitable coming-of-age of Iran as a regional power, and although there is an obvious and acute danger that nuclearization could entrench some of the worst elements of the regime (and they don't get much worse than Ahmadinejad), the brutal truth is: we do not have the tools to stop it. One day, a nuclear Iran, if led by men and women legitimately elected by the people of Iran, could be our friend, not enemy - and a much more reliable and stable friend than the Sunni Arab autocracies we are currently shoring up. I believe, in short, that in my lifetime we will see a democratic Iran, led by the generation that took to the streets this year. And I believe vigilant containment is the only realistic way at this point to get there.

Why is it that no one talks extensively about human rights in North Korea, or China or Russia? Why does it make sense that Burma's military junta would pursue a nuclear weapons program?

The answer is rather simple: security. As Andrew points out, the likelihood of Iran actually using one of these weapons should they even attain the capability is slim. The problem is that the very possession of these weapons allows Iran into an unspoken club of hush, hush humanitarianism. Sure, we all know bad things go on in the aforementioned countries, but what can we actually do about it?

If Iran acquires a nuclear weapon the regional dynamic, as Sullivan concedes, would immediately change. In order to offset a regional arms race, the United States would essentially need to cover the entire Middle East in its so-called nuclear umbrella. Strategy would shift from engagement to containment. And this is the important point: when you seek to simply contain, you are accepting losses within already compromised boundaries. In this instance, that lost territory is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I hope--and pray--to see a free and democratic Iran in my lifetime, just as Andrew does. But the chances of that happening should this awful and rotten regime get a nuclear weapon would be rather slim. If the casual observer thinks this government is oppressive now, just wait until it is intoxicated with the impunity of the nuclear womb.

Moreover, any hopes of resurrecting nuclear nonproliferation can get kissed goodbye. As I wrote earlier this month, what Obama is trying to do here is admirable--that being, restore some semblance of international order and process for dealing with rogue states that seek nuclear weapons. If the policy toward nuclear Iran is mere containment, then Iran has already won.

What then will be the strategy for the next nuclear aspirant? Containment? War? Something else? The fact that there's no viable answer to those questions is the problem, and it will only get worse if Tehran gets the bomb.

Removing All Options from the Table


Ray Takeyh writes:

The modest demands of establishment figures such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, including for the release of political prisoners and restoring popular trust (via measures such as respecting the rule of law and opening up the media), was dismissed by an arrogant regime confident of its power.

Disillusioned elites and protesters who had taken to the streets could have been unified, or their resentment assuaged, by a pledge by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for the next election to be free and fair, for government to become more inclusive or for limits to be imposed on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's prerogatives. Today, such concessions would be seen as a sign of weakness and would embolden the opposition. The regime no longer has a political path out of its predicament.

I believe Takeyh is mostly right here. The problem however is that the Green Movement has lacked a political option from the get-go--hence the demonstrations and the unrest. Both sides have the option of violence, but that's a leap I don't think the Green Movement is prepared to take. As Takeyh notes, the regime has been mostly reserved and cautious in how it has handled the demonstrations, leaving it in a kind of uncertain limbo: it won't fully crackdown, nor will it capitulate.

He goes on to say:

The Obama administration should take a cue from Ronald Reagan and persistently challenge the legitimacy of the theocratic state and highlight its human rights abuses. The notion that harsh language militates against a nuclear accord is false. At this juncture, the only reason Tehran may be receptive to an agreement on the nuclear issue is to mitigate international pressures while it deals with its internal insurrection. Even if the regime accommodates international concerns about its nuclear program, the United States must stand firm in its support for human rights and economic pressure against the Revolutionary Guards and other organs of repression.

Let's keep in mind that Tehran, to date, has balked at even the most modest of uranium transfer arrangements, all the while withstanding demonstrations and internal unrest. These are men who cut their teeth during the war with Iraq, while at the same time fighting violent insurgents at home. None of this is new to them.

And "standing firm" requires a key commodity: leverage. Reagan had the leverage to simultaneously talk and talk tough because he had a stockpile of nuclear weapons and missiles to back up that talk. Were Obama to follow Takeyh's advice, and premise nuclear negotiations on human rights violations in Iran, then he'd essentially be removing all options but one from the proverbial table: attack.

Russia and China will not back a negotiating strategy intended to support the Green Movement. Thus, the United States will be left--once again--unilaterally lecturing a regime, and with only one remaining option to make good on that lecturing.

So are we prepared in 2010 to take that leap? Do we toss multilateral pressure on the scrapheap and ready for another war? This is the inevitable path if we lose sight of how fragile the international coalition is on Iran.

UPDATE: It's also, I would add, important to take note of the folks who are embracing Takeyh's suggestion. Some are what I would call the usual suspects, and they dragged us into one war based on false pretenses and then attempted to re-package it as a humanitarian endeavor. We know where they fall on the attack or talk question, but where then do their unlikely bedfellows reside?

(AP Photo)

December 30, 2009

War on Terror, Ctd.

I honestly cannot fathom how people are peddling the idea that President Obama has taken a "law enforcement" view of the "war on terror." Just to recap:

1. He is sending 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan, bringing the total number of forces he has sent into combat in Afghanistan to approximately 47,000 and the total troop count to 100,000.

2. He has stepped up Predator Drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal region by orders of magnitude more than his predecessor. Those drones fire hellfire missiles, not subpoenas.

3. He authorized a special forces raid in Somalia to kill an Al Qaeda operative.

4. He reportedly authorized military cooperation in two airstrikes in Yemen that killed north of 64 people and is considering a wider military retaliation against terrorist targets there.

I understand a lot of this "terrorism as law enforcement" business is meant as a partisan smear, but it's manifestly and absurdly dishonest. It's true that the administration has sought to change some of the legal aspects of how we treat detainees, what legal rights they're afforded, and whether they'll stay in Gitmo, but any individual with a shred of intellectual honesty cannot look at the administration's record on counter-terrorism and conclude that they view it simply as a matter of arrest warrants and Miranda rights.

Idle Hands Are the Terrorist's Tools


As we all put on our junior counter-terror decoder rings and attempt to sort out the news surrounding al-Qaeda in Yemen, I thought it might make some sense to step back and look at what makes Yemen attractive for terrorists in the first place.

This graph of data collected by Gallup earlier in the year offers a useful visual:


That's the same disgruntled south where al-Qaeda operatives are allegedly--and brazenly--staging public protests against Sana'a and the West; the same disgruntled south recently targeted by the Yemeni government with American assistance.

I think it makes strategic sense to work with an agreeable Yemeni government on counter-terrorism, but al-Qaeda finds an audience in Yemen for a litany of reasons. Geography and history are among them, but so are poverty and unemployment. Coupling military aid with multilateral assistance addressing jobs and, while we're at it, drought might make for a more well-rounded policy in the country.

(AP Photo)

Are We Winning the Cold War on Terrorism?


Tim Rutten assesses America's "Cold War" approach to the war on terrorism:

While we seem to be applying the containment lesson appropriately, we're failing badly on the struggle's intellectual and cultural front. Many of the most devastating blows struck against Soviet totalitarianism were inflicted by writers and artists who'd lived under the system and then found allies in the West who appreciated their work and, most important, disseminated it. Books such as Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon," Czeslaw Milosz's "The Captive Mind" and, most of all, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago" were iron nails in the coffin of Soviet illusion.

Where now are the critics, Western intellectuals and publishing houses searching out and supporting the Islamic world's voices of tolerance and modernity, whether philosophical or artistic? If we don't find and embrace them and give them a secure platform from which to speak truth to those within their own societies hungry to listen, we're waging this struggle with one arm tied behind our collective back -- and, perhaps, hopelessly.

There are a number of problems with Rutten's analysis. First and foremost, the analogy to American aid to Soviet dissidents would only make sense if America was also supplying the Soviet Union with military and financial aid during the Cold War - which we obviously were not. In the case of terrorism, the United States supports the states that have helped foment Sunni radicalism - specifically Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Egypt. Seeking out dissidents to these regimes would undermine our partnerships with them. If we're seriously concerned about terrorism, the place to start is not with dissidents but with official American aid to these particular regimes.

Second, Rutten completely ignores the political dimension of jihadism. He writes:

Jihadism involves a conscious rejection of democracy, modernity and the open society as embodied in the lives of each of these men.

This is an incomplete reading, to say the least. The University of Chicago's Robert Pape, who has studied terrorism and has compiled a data base of every suicide terrorist attack over the past 30 years, has said that the driver of terrorism is the political goal of compelling democratic states to remove military forces from soil the terrorists prize. Now, you can assign the political agenda of jihadism different weight than a "rejection of democracy" and other factors, but you can't ignore it entirely, as Rutten does.

It's impossible to formulate an effective long-term strategy against jihadist terrorism if we're unwilling to honestly grapple with its root causes.

(AP Photos)

Terrorism as Law Enforcement


Peter Feaver makes a rather striking claim:

There are all sorts of questions about who knew what, when, and what they did about it. But I am most interested in what the investigation will reveal about the bureaucratic mindset, and here I am not talking about a zero-defect mentality but a potentially more pernicious mindset. One of the more important revelations of the 9/11 Commission investigation was the pervasiveness of what Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called the "pre-9/11 mindset." The mindset led the Clinton administration to view al Qaeda as merely a law-enforcement problem and, as a consequence, to limit themselves on what they might do to counter the threat.

The Obama administration has likewise made a big point of seeking to reinstate the law enforcement mindset throughout the counterterrorism enterprise.

That certainly must come as a surprise to Afghanistan, which is about to host 30,000 more American police officers soldiers, and Pakistan, whose tribal areas are being subjected to a stepped up American bombing campaign, and Somalia, whose Transitional Government is receiving weapons and cash from the U.S. and Yemen, where the U.S. has reportedly participated in two military strikes.

Is it really accurate to say that the Obama administration has embraced a "law enforcement" paradigm with respect to counter-terrorism? Instead, it looks more like a hybrid approach that discards a few of the counter-terrorism policies of their predecessors with respect to how terrorists are interrogated, detained and tried. If they're not blown to pieces first.

(AP Photos)

China Cuts into Russia's Arms Sales

Russian daily "Izvestia" reports that China recently successfully tested the naval version of its modern J-10 jet fighter. According to the paper, "... for the first time, China has confirmed not only its ability to create an aircraft carrier fleet, but also the ability to independently produce carrier-based fighters. This event can be regarded as a direct challenge to Russia and the U.S."

According to Russian sources, the aircraft took off and landed on the deck of the aircraft carrier "Shi Lang", named in honor of the Chinese general who conquered the island of Taiwan in 1683. In another life, "Shi Lang" was a Soviet aircraft carrier "Varyag," sold by Ukraine to Beijing in the late 1990s. "Varyag" has been anchored in the port of Dalian since 2002. All this time, Chinese scientists have been actively engaged in its repair and modernization. Beijing made no secret that it considers the Soviet aircraft carrier as a platform for working out its own technology for building an aircraft carrier fleet. The only problem for the implementation of these plans was the lack of aircraft capable of landing on the deck of the ship, as well as lack of experience in training naval aviation pilots.

Russian military and industrial leaders are concerned that China's successful development of indigenous military aircraft will diminish Russia's position on the arms market. "Izvestia" earlier reported that China offered Pakistan the licensed production of the FC-1 fighter, which Russia considers as the closest competitor to its MiG-29 military jet. In the near future, Beijing is planning the production of at least 2,000 of the latest fighter planes for its own air force and for export. Possible buyers may include Bangladesh, Lebanon, Iran, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Algeria - all countries that traditionally bought Russian military aircraft. In Malaysia, for example, the Chinese are even willing to service Russian Su-30MKM planes delivered over the past few years.

This year, according to Mikhail Dmitriev, head of the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technological Cooperation, Russia earned $8.5 billion from weapons sales - a significant portion of this amount came from the sale of combat aircraft. If China continues to move forward with its own aircraft development and export, "these earning could become one of our last successes on the arms market."


During the protests following Iran's June 12 fraudulent elections, Robert Kagan castigated President Obama as being objectively on the side of Iran's tyrannical rulers for his reluctance to rhetorically embrace the protesters.

Now, if I were a neoconservative bent on engaging in the worst sort of demagogic rhetoric, I'd say that lawmakers trying to gin up fear about America's capacity to deal with terrorism in the aftermath of the failed terrorist attempt are objectively pro Al Qaeda, because they're attempting to scare the American people and do the terrorists' work for them.

But instead I'll take the high road and just lament the fact that the first response from our political leaders to this plot was to fall on each other in partisan snipping.

December 29, 2009

Negotiations, Putin Style


According to the New York Times, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is pushing back on the U.S. to make concessions on missile defense as part of negotiations surrounding a successor to the START Treaty:

“If we don’t develop a missile defense system, a danger arises for us that with an umbrella protecting our partners from offensive weapons, they will feel completely safe,” Mr. Putin told journalists during a working visit to Vladivostok. “The balance will be disrupted and then they will do whatever they want, and aggressiveness will immediately arise both in real politics and economics.”

To restore that balance, he said, Russia must develop new offensive weapons to counter the missile shield. Another solution, he said, would be for the United States to provide Russia with data on its missile defense plans in exchange for data on Russian weapons development.

Having already reversed course on missile defense, I'd be hard pressed to see why the U.S. would have to make another concession on this front in order to achieve something both the U.S. and Russia ultimately need (i.e. fewer nukes washing around).

Robert Coalson speculates:

The rhetoric Moscow is using in recent days is also similar to what it deployed when Medvedev was pushing his draft treaty on European security – namely, the idea that it was necessary to radically overhaul existing agreements which Russia argues are outdated and even counterproductive. Medvedev’s proposal seems to be part of a broader Russian strategy of undermining the post-Cold War institutions that it sees as propping up the unipolar world.

It will be interesting to see if the nuclear-arms talks break down because Moscow insists on a “radical” proposal that is as much of a nonstarter as Medvedev’s draft treaty. It would also be interesting if Moscow would spell out what the problems are with START-1 and why a “radical and unprecedented” departure is needed.

The Times quotes Sergei A. Markov, a political scientist and deputy with the ruling United Russia party, on the subtext of the negotiations:

“It’s not just about the START agreement, but about the status of the Russian Federation – whether Russia is a great power or not,” he said. “We have heard a lot from Washington that Russian interests should be limited to Russia’s borders. That means Russia is not recognized as a great power. And that’s why this negotiation is so difficult – because no one knows what Russia’s status is.”

This is the basic tension in dealing with Russia. We do not want to grant legitimacy to their dealings in the region, particularly if that involves exercising a veto (real or perceived) over the sovereign decisions of neighboring states. Fair enough. But yet we insist that we can exercise similar power in the Middle East in the name of defending our interests.

Ultimately, I think at least some of the post Cold War deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations can be chalked up to the fact that the U.S. insisted on treating Russia like the loser it admittedly was after the six decade confrontation. Such was our prerogative, but as we learned with Germany after the second World War, sometimes its better to try to reintegrate the losing party rather than lock in advantages at their expense.

(AP Photos)

Discriminating Sanctions

Dan Drezner ponders the options on Iran:

What to do? I think two big questions need to be asked. First, how are the sanctions supposed to work? Is the idea to squeeze the elite coalition ruling Iran just hard enough to get the current leadership to cut a deal? Or is the idea to cause enough discontent with the regime such that it collapses, and then a deal can be struck with the next regime?

The process by which sanctions are supposed to work matters. If the hope is to still do business with the current regime, then targeted or "smart" sanctions make more sense. They're less likely to impact the broader Iranian population -- though, like precision-guided munitions, there will always be collateral damage.

I don't find the smart sanctions strategy all that convincing, as any attempts to "squeeze" the elites will likely affect the general population, too. The IRGC are invested in just about every major industry in the country, and any pain inflicted upon them will likely--one would think--trickle down to the general population.

And I disagree somewhat with the options Drezner lays out. I think broader, or so-called crippling sanctions are just as likely to bring the regime back to the negotiating table should it balk at President Obama's end of year deadline. We perhaps don't give Iranian protesters enough credit, as they are no doubt more than capable of discerning blame for the sanctions levied upon them.

Moreover, I still wonder why the West's Iran policy must be consumed at all by the Green Movement and its actions. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the Iran protests are promising, but not paramount. There will be no talk of reform or revolution in Iran if the current regime acquires a nuclear weapon. Once that happens, policy will shift toward containment, negotiation and dismantlement (see North Korea). To prioritize human rights in Iran now would undermine actual reform in Iran down the road.

Hollow Rhetoric and the Right

Charles Krauthammer finds President Obama's rhetoric insufficiently aggressive:

I find myself repeatedly stunned by how important hollow rhetoric and lofty promises are to some in the neoconservative community. Indeed, most of their own suggestions--such as extended ambassadorial "holidays," and so on--are mostly symbolic and ultimately fail to match the level of condemnation they'd prefer to hear from Obama.

President Bush gave several lovely speeches about democracy and freedom spreading in Ukraine, Georgia, Afghanistan and beyond. Those words may have made several pundits and politicians feel good about themselves, but they have yielded little for the actual people living in these allegedly burgeoning utopias.

I personally prefer some rhetorical restraint coupled with actual policy options.

(h/t Gateway Pundit)

What to Do about Yemen?


This is the question dejure and it has provoked a number of interesting responses. Here we have Andrew Exum and Richard Fontaine arguing that we should engage comprehensively with the current regime and here's Gregg Carlstrom saying that we did much the same thing with Musharaff in Pakistan and that hasn't exactly brought about a stable, pro-American Pakistan. What we're left with is no good options.

This cuts to the heart of a problem with the war on terror: the tactical moves which appear essential, such as targeted killings and working with unsavory governments can undermine our position over the long term. Collateral damage and the image of the U.S. bombing various terrorist enclaves can drive new recruits, while the empowerment of corrupt and despised regimes inevitably leads to resentment at their foreign patron. On the other hand, doing nothing to aggressively thwart those who would blow up American airliners is an abdication of the basic responsibility a government has to protect its citizens.

Unfortunately, the debate tends to break down with those advocating the long view unable to offer a viable plan to offset immediate dangers, while those urging immediate action (particularly military action) don't have a plausible way to merge those recommendations with longer term considerations.

But the emergence of the airline bomb plot does seem to vindicate those, like Paul Pillar, Stephen Walt and others, who've argued that even a successful surge in Afghanistan won't offset the threat from jihadist terror or prevent the emergence of other safe havens.

(AP Photos)

The Good, the Bad and the Central


Max Boot discusses Yemen and its place in the greater War on Terror:

We cannot ignore the terrorist threat emanating from Yemen or other states but nor should we use this undoubted danger as an excuse to lose the war of the moment–the one NATO troops are fighting in Afghanistan. Winning the “war on terror” will require prevailing on multiple battlefields–Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, and a host of other countries, including, for that matter, Western Europe and the United States. The methods and techniques we will use in each place have to be tailored to the individual circumstances. Few countries will require the kind of massive troop presence needed in Afghanistan or Iraq. In most places we will fight on a lesser scale, using Special Forces and security assistance programs. But because a lower-profile presence may work elsewhere doesn’t mean that it will work in Afghanistan–or would have worked in Iraq. We know this because the Bush administration already tried the small-footprint strategy in Afghanistan. It is this strategy that allowed the Taliban to recover so much ground lost after 9/11–territory that can only be retaken by an influx of additional Western troops. There is no reason why we can’t fight and prevail in Afghanistan even as we are fighting in different ways in different countries.[emphasis added]

The point on the Bush strategy in Afghanistan is simply inaccurate. What Boot calls a "small-footprint strategy" was in fact a rather ambitious, rhetoric-laden, albeit poorly resourced nation building agenda (we all remember the purple and blue fingers, right?). The goals didn't match the muscle, requiring a "reduction in objectives" by the Obama administration, as Richard Haass put it. In other words, President Bush spoke boisterously while carrying a tiny, tiny stick.

But Boot never explains why Afghanistan is such a vital front in the War on Terrorism, nor does he explain what Iraq has to do with that war at all. And why the Taliban--along with roughly 100 al-Qaeda operatives in the Af-Pak region--require a heavier troop presence than other threats (such as al-Shabaab in Somalia, for example) remains unclear to me.

I agree with Boot that the "good war, bad war" stuff is no good, and migrating the designation from one front to the next for political expedience is irresponsible. The real question--one I feel Boot never properly addresses--is why we even need a central front in order to conduct this war.

He writes that "one of the key advantages gained by our presence in Afghanistan is that it makes it easier to target terrorist lairs in Pakistan." But presence and escalation are clearly two different things, and targeting said "lairs" does not require the latter--as was demonstrated two weeks ago in Yemen.

(AP Photo)

Would Tehran Do the Unthinkable?

This is something of a hobbyhorse, I admit, but I find it striking that people who would presumably know better casually float the idea that the Iranian leadership would launch a nuclear weapon at Israel or the United States:

As I've noted before, Iran has had WMD for roughly two decades and they have not used it against Israel or the United States. Nor have they transferred those weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah for a more covert attack. Of course, it's possible that some faction of the Revolutionary Guard might decide that watching Tehran be leveled in a nuclear blast is a bright idea, but it's not especially plausible. And plausibility, not possibility, is what we're ultimately talking about.

December 28, 2009

We'd All Love to See the Plan

Juan Cole makes a great point on Iran's recent unrest:

But for the movement to go further and become truly revolutionary, it would have to have a leader who wanted to overthrow the old regime and who could attract the loyalty of both the people and elements of the armed forces. So far this key revolutionary element, of dual sovereignty, has been lacking, insofar as opposition leaders Mir Hosain Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have tried to stay inside the Khomeinist framework while arguing that it is Khamenei who violated it by making it too authoritarian. Saying you want slightly less autocracy within a clerical theocracy is not a recipe for revolution.

[Emphasis my own.]

Exactly. And as my colleague Greg put it a few days ago, an ideological change at the top doesn't necessarily change strategic regional interests. If I were an Iranian Green, and the reins of power were handed to me tomorrow, I would still hold the nuclear program over the international community's head for leverage and eventual concessions. This new, hypothetical regime might make for a more agreeable negotiating partner, but it doesn't change the dynamic all that much.

Support Iran By Bombing It

With support for a bombing campaign against Iran starting to bubble up in the New York Times, and with analysts urging the U.S. to stand with Iran's protesters, I think a little thought experiment is in order: what if we knew that a bombing campaign against Iran's nuclear facilities would destroy support for the Green movement in Iran. Would it be worth it?

December 27, 2009

Move Over V-E Day, Berlin Wall Et Al.

Today's protests in Tehran now represent "the most significant event in world history."

Um, what?

Is Yemen Tomorrow's War?

Very likely, says Sen. Joseph Lieberman. Spencer Ackerman pounces:

What are the local dynamics in Yemen that a military strike would impact? What would the goals of such strikes be? What are the underlying political effects that have allowed al-Qaeda to establish itself in Yemen? What measures short of war might be better targeted to addressing those conditions? These are just a few of the many prior questions that have to be answered before such a thing is considered. Instead, Lieberman just gets to go on Fox and monger away, unchallenged. Such is life.

Good questions all, but I think this war of tomorrow idea deserves some further unpacking. To me, targeted assaults on al-Qaeda operatives--alongside agreeable host governments--makes for a good counter-terrorism strategy. My question: if this is a sufficient tactic for dealing with one al-Qaeda safe haven, why then does another require costly occupation?

I hope Senator Lieberman will elaborate on what preemptive action would look like in Yemen. Favoring a reserved and targeted war there would seemingly undercut his support for escalation and occupation in Afghanistan, but no one ever accused U.S. senators of consistency.

Answering Andrew


Regarding today's upheaval in Tehran, Andrew Sullivan asks:

How does the regime survive this massive demonstration of its fragility?

This is a repressive regime. It will survive the way it always has. It's important to note that this is in fact a reserved response by the regime in handling what is a very delicate internal crisis of legitimacy. But if it comes to it, like any cornered animal, they will revert to greater brutality and violent coercion.

How does the clergy react to these scenes of total mayhem?

If by clergy he means the reactionary principlist factions, well, they've never held much regard for public sentiment to begin with. They'll no doubt blame the United States, the British, Mossad or some nefarious internal element. Or, they will simply continue to downplay the protests.

How does Ahmadinejad blame all this on Obama, the Queen and the BBC?

I'm guessing with relative ease and impunity.

The real problem here is that analysts such as Sullivan have consistently exaggerated the 'revolutionary' toll these protests have taken on the Iranian regime. I don't think Tehran engages in the kind of navel-gazing that has taken place in the West since June 12, so the regime is quite aware of its limitations and its options. As I note above, for all of the promise and hope we've seen on (mostly) the streets of Tehran since the presidential election, the regime's response has in fact been somewhat reserved and cautious.

Andrew refers rather whimsically to today as Tehran's Tiananmen Square, however the often overlooked aftermath of Tiananmen was a severe government crackdown, one resulting in hundreds--if not thousands--of deaths. There were show trials and executions. The Communist leadership used the events as a purging mechanism, and many of the country's internal reformers were deported or fled the country.

For the sake of those Iranians protesting today, let's hope Sullivan is wrong.

UPDATE: Not quite what I said, but fair enough.

UPDATE II: Perhaps I should clarify matters in anticipation of the Dish readers who may not be familiar with my position. I absolutely believe the June 12 election was stolen, and I subscribe to the theory that the IRGC police state has slowly been consolidating power over the last decade or so. I think the Green Movement, while often exaggerated and misunderstood, is remarkable and worthy of praise.

That said, I do not think this is a revolution akin to 1979, and I question the very usage of that word. And if the protesters had been given their rather modest demands on June 13, this would still be an anti-American, anti-Israeli and pro-nuclear program regime. And even if the current regime eventually succumbs to this movement, the international community doesn't have the luxury of waiting and seeing if this revolution can occur before Iran has a nuclear weapon.

Or, in short, what Andrew Sullivan's reader said.

(AP Photo)

December 26, 2009

How Does the Green Movement End?


Charles Krauthammer speculates about Iran's Green movement:

Assume you care only about the nuclear issue. How to defuse it? Negotiations are going nowhere, and whatever U.N. sanctions we might get will be weak, partial, grudging and late. The only real hope is regime change. The revered and widely supported Montazeri had actually issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons.

And even if a successor government were to act otherwise, the nuclear threat would be highly attenuated because it's not the weapon but the regime that creates the danger. (Think India or Britain, for example.) Any proliferation is troubling, but a nonaggressive pro-Western Tehran would completely change the strategic equation and make the threat minimal and manageable.

Again, it's worth asking where we get the idea that were the Green movement to succeed, it would bring to power a government that's congenial with Washington's view of how Iran should behave itself in the Middle East? It's quite possible that it could, but we don't know for sure and any assertions to the contrary are just that. Assertions. With little discernible basis in fact.

I would like to see the Green movement succeed - I think most in the West do. But that wish is born of a desire to see Iranians live without the oppressive yoke of their government, not because I think it's going to suddenly and dramatically transform Iran's views of its national interests. Consider that Russia went from a one party communist tyranny to a democracy without any serious strategic shift with respect to its security interests in Eastern Europe or its view of NATO.

(AP Photos)

Russia's 5th Generation Fighter Jets


After years of developments and years of speculation, we may actually see, for the first time, what the competitor to the American F-22 looks like. Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov said on Wednesday that "We are not making any New Year presents, but flight tests will start in the very near future."

According to the official RIA Novosti agency, the aircraft trials would begin in 2010. Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin has said the fighter, which has been under development since the 1990s, will enter service with the Air Force in 2015. Russia only has one fifth-generation project - Sukhoi's PAK FA and the current prototype is the T-50. It was designed to compete with the U.S. F-22 Raptor (so far the world's only fifth-generation fighter aircraft) and F-35 Lightning II, but has yet to take to the skies.

The T-50's maiden flight has been repeatedly postponed since early 2007 for unspecified reasons. However, in August 2009, Russian Air Force Chief Alexander Zelin said that there were problems with the engines and research was ongoing. The PAK FA is believed to possess advanced avionics, stealth capability, a ferry range of 4,000 to 5,500 km, and endurance of 3.3 hours. It is armed with next-generation air-to-air, air-to-surface, and air-to-ship missiles, and has two 30-mm cannons. There is a lot of speculation as to how this plane will look like - these are just a few examples.

December 23, 2009

Iran Tops Enemies List

The roiling protests in the streets of Iran have not nudged America's outlook on the Islamic Republic:

Seventy percent (70%) of voters believe it is more important to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons than it is to prevent war between Israel and Iran. That’s up 18 points from July 2008. Twenty-two percent (22%) say preventing war between the two nations is more important.

However, 50% say the United States should help Israel if the latter nation attacks Iran. Three percent (3%) say America should help Iran, and 34% say it should do nothing. These findings are basically unchanged from May.

Americans overwhelmingly regard Israel as a U.S. ally, and it is one of only five countries that most Americans are willing to defend militarily.

By contrast, Iran ranks at the top of America’s enemies list when voters are asked which country they are most concerned about in terms of U.S. national security.

December 22, 2009

Could We Lose Iraq?


Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institute is worried we might:

The mistake we are in danger of making in Iraq is that as our military steps back, our civilians are not always stepping up. Over the past six to nine months, our embassy has been inconsistent at best, and has panicked many Iraqis and many Iraqi leaders into believing that the Obama administration does not care about Iraq and is simply running for the exit as fast as they can. This isn’t true, and the President’s lieutenants have said so time and again, as has Vice President Biden, both in private and in public. But by failing to remain actively engaged with the Iraqi political process at all levels, by disdaining any further involvement in guiding Iraq’s domestic politics, and in abandoning aid programs willy-nilly, many embassy personnel have convinced a great many Iraqis of exactly the opposite. And therein lies the seeds of renewed civil war and a disaster for American interests.

I'm wondering why Pollack believes we can guide Iraq's domestic politics to a destination we find acceptable. If our bureaucrats possessed such a capability, wouldn't it have been in evidence in, say, the period between 2003-2007? That's not to say we should disengage willy-nilly, but I think the presumption here has to be that we really don't know what we're doing and that we should err on the side of minimizing U.S. exposure to Iraq's internal violence should the country implode again.

The other question that's not addressed here but is really central to Pollack's argument is the degree to which Iraq's politicians see their geopolitical interests as closely aligned with the United States. We know Iraqi society is riven with various ethnic and religious divisions which naturally pull at the country's geopolitical orientation, but is there a critical mass of Iraqis (and not just the political elite who depend upon the U.S. for their security) that sees Iraq's interests as largely overlapping America's?

And it's worth repeating again that the only reason Iraq matters to the U.S. at all is oil. If we used less oil, Iraq would matter less. (Pollack himself admits this in his book, A Path Out of the Desert.) Oil consumption is a technical problem, and America has proven time and again that it can solve technical problems (atomic bombs, moon launches, etc.). America has proven far less adept at long-distance nation building, especially in the Middle East. Why not play to our strengths?

(AP Photos)

Tora Bora, Ctd.


Peter Feaver makes a good point:

My problem with the Tora Bora critique -- both its generalized form and the particular form advanced by Glasser -- is that it conveniently forgets that the reason bin Laden was "trapped" in Tora Bora in the first place is that Secretary Rumsfeld and General Franks and CIA Director George Tenet defied both the conventional war plans and the conventional wisdom to mount the very light-footprint campaign that Glasser et al. are complaining about. If Rumsfeld and Franks and Tenet had used the conventional warplan that involved a heavy U.S. ground presence instead of the rapidly deployable light-footprint that Glasser denounces, the invasion of Afghanistan would have happened some time in 2002, if then. If Rumsfeld and Franks and Tenet had listened to the conventional wisdom during the early weeks when the light-footprint approach appeared to be faltering, they would have abandoned the Afghan effort long before the battle in Tora Bora.

I don't think this is a completely accurate rendering of the situation - the Senate Foreign Relations report says there were adequate troops inside Afghanistan to trap bin Laden but we simply choose not to send them into the mountains.

Still, Feaver's point strikes me as valid. We'd have never even gotten close to bin Laden if we didn't use the unconventional approach employed by Rumsfeld and Franks. And while we're playing hypotheticals, here's another one - what if we had listened to Rumsfeld even more closely and pulled our troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq shortly after invading both countries, instead of sticking around to nation build? How much worse off would we be, especially in Afghanistan?

(AP Photos)

Obama, the Prime Mover


One of the chief criticisms I've read of President Obama is that he fancies himself the center of the universe. Funny, then, to read Jonathan Toobin confirm it, blaming President Obama for Syria's deepening hold over Lebanon:

All of which means that we can chalk up another defeat for the United States that can be put at the feet of Barack Obama’s fetish for diplomacy for its own sake. Like the opposition in Iran, the pro-independence Lebanese have been left in the lurch while Washington fecklessly pursues deals with dictators who have no intention of playing ball. And why should they, given the administration’s distaste for confrontations and its inability to rally international support for action on behalf of either a nuclear-free Iran or a free Lebanon?

Is it really the case that President Obama is the root cause of Syria's policy in Lebanon? That doesn't sound plausible to me. The Washington Institute's David Schenker offers a more nuanced take in the Weekly Standard:

Washington's increased diplomatic and military engagement with Damascus also appears to have had an effect, decreasing March 14 confidence in its most ardent supporter. Perhaps the leading factor in March 14 leadership's decision to return to Damascus, however, appears to be Saudi Arabia's equivocating. Riyadh had been a leading force in trying to dissuade Damascus from playing its traditionally pernicious role in Lebanon. Recently, however, Saudi appears to have made a concession on Lebanon in order to improve relations with Syria.

(AP Photos)

December 21, 2009

Iran’s Increasingly Dangerous Liaison with Al-Qaeda

Al Jazeera and other Arabic and Persian media including Asriran carry an interesting news item about members of Osama bin Laden’s family in Iran.

In an interview Abdul Rahman bin Laden, a 30-year-old son of the al-Qaeda leader, claimed:

Eman his sister, one of his stepmothers and five of his brothers have been detained in Tehran since 1997. He alleged that his sister had managed to escape several weeks ago while on a shopping tour permitted by authorities every six months. She has since taken refuge in the Saudi Arabian embassy. Abdul Rahman bin Laden said that he had been unaware whether his relatives were alive until Eman contacted him a month ago. He then told her to go to the Saudi embassy. He told Al Jazeera that he was concerned for his sister's health and he called on Tehran to release his relatives.

The Al Jazeera story gives the interview an interesting spin, suggesting that Iran was “hosting” and “cooperating” with al-Qaeda. Evidence that Iran has assisted al-Qaeda periodically is not new. The issue was raised in the 9/11 Commission Report as well. Iran certainly has been a conduit for al-Qaeda operatives traveling between the Af-Pak region and the Middle East – although the extent to which Iranian authorities have cooperated either officially or unofficially in that transit remains unclear.

Abdul Rahman bin Laden’s comments appear to bolster conclusions that some Iranian authorities may be attempting to play a dangerous game. Iran’s leaders seem to be holding al-Qaeda fighters and their family members hostage as proverbial “guests of state.” Periodically releasing some of the terrorists to return to the Af-Pak region, Iranian authorities extend a degree of assistance to that militant organization and its ancillaries in causing difficulties there for the U.S. Both actions are likely aimed at keeping al-Qaeda from fermenting trouble in Iran among its minority Sunni Muslim population.

Yet such dirty deeds are proving to be self-defeating, as Tehran is slowly but surely realizing. Iran increasingly has its share of problems generated by militant Sunni Muslims who draw upon al-Qaeda’s ideology and violent techniques – from Jundallah suicide bombers in its southeastern provinces to militants infiltrating madrassas in its southwestern and western regions. All these events give the Shiite mullahs theological fits while bringing death to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

More problematic for the leaders in Tehran and Qom, growing Sunni militancy – which is in part a result of their tolerance of al-Qaeda – now extends to them the specter of chaos that grips nations on Iran’s western and eastern borders.


While ascribing some gushing praise to the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush in my most recent NY Daily News column, one word kept running over and over again through my head: Panama. More specifically, how does one reconcile this unilateral action with what I believe and argue was one of the more sensible and multilateral presidencies in American history?

Well apparently, according at least to Jordan Michael Smith over at Foreign Policy, Amb. Thomas Pickering has in retrospect expressed similar reservations over the precedent set by Panama:

Like Panama, Iraq was a war of choice. The light American footprint that had achieved results in the small Central American country convinced figures such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the same strategy would work in Iraq. Furthermore, the ability of the United States to depose Noriega and then swiftly withdraw from Panama contributed to the belief that nation-building was unnecessary in Iraq. "Iraq in 2003 was all of that shortsightedness in spades," concluded Pickering. "After all, the defense secretary said we didn't want anybody else's help, we didn't need anybody's help -- we were going to do it all ourselves."

That sounds just like the strategy that worked in Panama, 20 years ago.

I find this argument a tad bit unpersuasive. While Washington's relationship with Noriega was certainly less than angelic or innocent, one of the primary justifications for the Panama invasion was to uphold the Torrijos-Carter treaties and maintain the blueprint for an eventual handover.

In other words, a timetable for an end to America's presence in the country had already been agreed upon prior to any military action. We went to war over an agreement, rather than agreeing to a war with no clear direction or endgame in mind. I believe the two to be different.

And we did, by the way--much to the chagrin of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher--stick to that timetable, as President Clinton handed over control of the canal in 1999. Contrast that with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where the very mention of a timetable for withdrawal was considered tantamount to surrender.

Had it Been Montazeri


Reporting from Beirut on the funeral of Iranian cleric Hossein Ali Montazeri, Robert Worth writes:

In the years after the revolution, Ayatollah Montazeri served as the Friday Prayer leader in Qum and as a deputy to Ayatollah Khomeini, who designated him as his successor in 1985. Although he lacked a large popular following, the senior ayatollah viewed him as a loyal supporter of the concept of clerical rule.

But Ayatollah Montazeri gradually began to move away from his mentor’s policies. In 1989, after a mass execution of political prisoners, he published an article condemning the decision and calling for a “political and ideological reconstruction.” He also mocked Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for the killing of the novelist Salman Rushdie, saying, “People in the world are getting the idea that our business in Iran is just murdering people.”

Ayatollah Khomeini quickly denounced Ayatollah Montazeri, who was stripped of his post. The state news media no longer called him a grand ayatollah and instead began to refer to him dismissively as a “simple-minded” cleric. In 1997, he was placed under house arrest after criticizing Ayatollah Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Obviously, what ifs and if onlys do us little good now, but it's hard not to wonder what the Islamic Republic of Iran would look like today had Montazeri remained Ayatollah Khomeini's chosen successor. It's tough to tell, but it's not unreasonable to believe that the regime would be a freer one, a more liberal one and a more globally engaged one.

But we mustn't look at Montazeri--as many mistakenly do today regarding the likes of Mir-Hossein Mousavi--through rose-colored glasses. Like many of the reform movements figure heads, Montazeri was a latter-day democrat. He was, at least early on, an ardent supporter of exporting the Islamic revolution around the globe, and was incredibly antagonistic toward the Saudis. So while it's easy to assume Iran may be a happier and freer place today under Supreme Leader Montazeri, there's little reason to assume however that Iran's foreign policy would look much different.

And as Ali Alfoneh points out, it was only when the state had successfully marginalized and humiliated Montazeri that he truly began to look inward and criticize the efficacy of Velayat-E Faqih. Would the cleric have intellectually evolved in the same fashion had he taken the reins of power in 1989 upon Khomeini's death? We'll never know.

But he did evolve, doing so over time with the growing Iranian population at the end of the 20th Century. His growth mirrored that of the young Iranians born, somewhat ironically, as a result of Ayatollah Khomeini's insistence on national procreation for the purpose of bolstering the fighting population.

Instead of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, Iran may have had Montazeri and Mousavi--or even Montazeri and Khatami.

But what ifs and if onlys can only get us so far. The reality is that the Iranian police state won out the day Khomeini changed his mind on Montazeri, and Iranians have been paying the price ever since.

(AP Photos)

Russian Female Boxer Wins Title Bout

Natalya Rogozina - Russia's most successful female super-heavyweight boxer -defended her title on Saturday night against Pamela London (Guyana). Rogozina knocked London out in the eighth round, successfully defending the WIBF title. The fight was held in Ekaterinburg, Russia, on Rogozina's home turf, and she improved her record to 22-0, with 13 knockouts.

Besides her perfect record, Rogozina combines her looks and skills to create a potent combination in and out of the ring. A knockout puncher and a mother, Rogozina has legions of female fans in Russia and is steadily gaining recognition around the world.

She claims to have been inspired by American Laila Ali's success in the ring.

Is the U.S. Repeating Cold War Mistakes?


One of the most intense debates during the early years of the Cold War was the extent to which "indigenous" communist movements were really that, or whether the Kremlin was a global puppet master, manipulating everything. Many in the U.S. at the time tended see communism as a monolith and the Kremlin as the hidden hand, secretly directing events. The reality was more nuanced. The Kremlin did extend its influence into other states, but it couldn't control all of them (see Ukraine and China, for instance). Just because a country "went communist" did not ipso-facto mean that it would take its marching orders from Moscow.

One of the consequences of the U.S. viewing communism as a monolith was the tendency to plunge the U.S. into a series of damaging, even catastrophic, interventions that didn't really reduce Soviet power but did take a bite out of U.S. strength. When we viewed global communism through more sophisticated eyes, we were able to pry apart China and Russia and begin to shore up our position after Vietnam.

No historical analogy is perfect, but we seem to be in a similar dynamic with respect to al Qaeda and "Islamic terrorism" more generally. After 9/11, there was a lot of talk about a broad-based war on terrorism that would tackle not just al Qaeda but groups like Hamas and Hezbollah and states like Iran and Iraq which were seen to facilitate terrorism (but not, of course, the states actually responsible for whipping up the Sunni jihadist whirlwind - Saudi Arabia and Pakistan). It was an undifferentiated lump and we would vanquish it all.

Two wars later, we have an administration that appears eager to scale back the conceptual framework of the war on terrorism into something more bite-sized. But even if the Obama administration would like to pare back to the more discrete goal of defeating "al Qaeda," the job has been made more difficult by the emergence of "like-minded" terrorists with only a tenuous connection to the "core" group inside Pakistan.

This poses a particular problem, I think, for U.S. policy towards Somalia and Yemen. Both are war-torn countries dealing with some insurgent elements that have links to al Qaeda. Do these groups share al Qaeda's core goals of bloodying the U.S. so we'll withdraw support for Arab autocrats? Will these individuals facilitate attacks against American targets in North Africa and beyond? And - most importantly - is that a threat worth taking military action against when weighed against other risks?

These seem like the kind of questions we need to be addressing before stuff like this:

The United States provided firepower, intelligence and other support to the government of Yemen as it carried out raids this week to strike at suspected hide-outs of Al Qaeda within its borders, according to officials familiar with the operations.

Those raids, the AFP reports, killed 49 civilians.

There are good reasons for using force against terrorist targets, and if the New York Times' report is to be believed, those targeted in the Yemen attack had fled Pakistan and so could plausibly be linked to the "core" al Qaeda threat which we are rightly concerned about. But the military is a blunt instrument and given the roiling instability in both Yemen and Somalia, it would be nice if the administration offered some kind of serious defense of its actions rather than just waving a hand and saying "al Qaeda," as if that's sufficient. Particularly because it seems intent on advertising its role in this attack.

(AP Photos)

December 20, 2009

The Success of Copenhagen


Two astute observers of international politics, Water Russell Mead and Leslie Gelb (leading the homepage today), draw the right conclusion: the Copenhagen summit was by in large a success and a harbinger of things to come. Here's Mead:

That’s our recipe for the future: split the difference between Europe and Asia in a way that works for us while opening the door to bad boys to come in from the cold — but otherwise freezing them out.

It reminds me of this:

If the U.S. proceeds along the course set by the Obama administration and defines leadership as the ability to bring other nations along its preferred path, then they should be prepared to define success down. "Solving" the world's problems, as Secretary Clinton suggested, is altogether a bridge too far. Instead, finding a globally acceptable, lowest-common-denominator outcome will be the order of the day (and even that won't be easy).

And there's nothing inherently wrong with that. By their very nature, the problems the administration has sought to address will be tackled collectively or they won't be tackled at all. On balance, it's better to have the wind of global opinion at your back, which Obama appears to enjoy for the moment.

But the administration should at least begin to put its (or rather, our) money where its multilateral mouth is. It's one thing to accept the fact that many global challenges will require the active assistance of other major powers to overcome. It's quite another to begin reconstituting America's global military posture and responsibilities to reflect that reality. If the Obama administration believes U.S. leadership in the 21st century means getting the cooperation of other nations, it should also make clear that America won't be left holding the bag (or the bill) if other nations don't step up to the plate.

It is very difficult to accept "half a loaf" but that's the nature of these things.

(AP Photos)

December 19, 2009

China's Desperate Homeowners

By Patrick Chovanec

I’ve come to learn that when something is banned in China, it’s probably well worth checking out. That's proven to be the case with a new hit TV series called woju 蜗居, which goes by the English name “Dwelling Narrowness”. The series, which aired on Beijing and Shanghai TV, focuses on the difficulties facing average Chinese people in an environment of spiraling apartment prices and official corruption. One blog calls it “without question one of the most influential television series to have aired in China,” and it must have touched some raw nerves, because it was yanked from the airwaves and ordered back to the edit room to be “recensored.” If anything, its abrupt cancellation has generated even more interest among Chinese viewers, who can still download it illicitly online.

The main story revolves around the two Guo sisters, who live in Shanghai. The elder, Haiping, and her husband are graduates of Fudan University, and together live on a typical “local” combined salary of RMB 9,000 (US$1,300) per month. In order to scrimp and save every penny, they rent an cheap one-room apartment and live apart from their young daughter, who is being raised by Haiping’s parents. Frustrated by their earlier decision not to purchase an apartment when prices were far cheaper, they are obsessed with buying one as soon as possible, even though they can barely afford it. They end up buying a place with a mortage of RMB 6,000 per month, 2/3 their income.

The younger sister, Haizou, is a pretty and naive girl who lives with her kind and loyal boyfriend, Xiao Bei. She works for a somewhat slimey property developer who relies on her to help entertain important contacts, one of whom is Secretary Song, an official in the city government who passes along valuable advice and information. Song is facing a bit of a midlife crisis, and is attracted to Haizao’s youth and innocence. Pressed by her elder sister to provide some of the cash she needs to buy an apartment, Haizao grows closer to Secretary Song, eventually becoming his mistress.

An interesting side story concerns one of Haiping’s neighbors, who actually own their tiny apartment in an old part of town that has been condemned for redevelopment. Unwilling to accept the meager compensation they are offered by local officials, they refuse to move, even as the authorities shut off their power and water to drive them out. This subplot is based on a number of real-life incidents that have taken place in China, most notably a family in Chongqing that refused to vacate their home even though the authorities bulldozed the entire neighborhood around them.

So far I’ve only watched up to Episode 19 out of 35, so I can’t spoil the ending even if I wanted to. But I do highly recommend it for anyone who wants to gain an insight into the social tensions and economic challenges facing China today (unfortunately I have not yet found a version that has English subtitles, but if I do I will post a link). One of the things I really like is how none of the characters are outright villains or heroes. They all have a believable mix of attractive and not-so-attractive traits, which makes them feel like people you might actually know. All of them act from credibly human motives and find themselves in situations that definitely ring true to me in many ways.

In watching the show, there have been a few moments in particular that caught my attention and struck me as especially revealing:

* The older sister, Haiping, considers several older (and more affordable) apartments, but is convinced that if the owner is selling, there must be something wrong with them. Ultimately, she decides to buy a brand new apartment — a thought process that sheds some interesting light on why China’s real estate sector is so heavily lopsided in favor of new developments and has such a weak secondary market.
* There’s a classic scene where a developer first opens the doors to pre-selling units in a project that has not yet been built, is still just a model. A crowd of buyers rush in, willing to pay any price, and all the apartmetns are sold out in a matter of minutes — an image that perfectly captures the “gold rush” atmosphere of China’s current property market.
* After returning home from the pre-sale session, an astounded Haiping asks her husband how apartments can be so unaffordable yet there still seems to be unlimited demand to buy them. I’ve wondered the same thing myself. What she doesn’t even mention is how most of these apartments will remain unoccupied long after they have been completed.
* Later, Haiping complains to a coworker that, when she asked a developer whether they had a grocery store nearby, he said no, but they have a cigar bar! I’ve often seen exactly the same phenomenon: developers ignoring basic needs and pitching excessively to the high-end of the market, in order to portray the impression of luxury and command a higher price. Our own building (in Beijing) has had vacant retail space on the ground floor for over a year, and we hoped somebody might open a convenience store or dumpling shop, which would be ideal to serve the office commuters in the area. Instead, they just opened a European wine store — prestigious, maybe, but I can’t imagine who in our part of town would actually buy anything there. Much like the luxury-end mall down the street where nobody ever shops.
* Secretary Song encourages a developer friend to participate in a scheme where fellow developers buy and sell properties from each other in order to boost transaction prices and generate “excitement” in the market. He tells him, don’t worry, the price will never go down. Hmmm.
* Song never accepts bribes directly, and you wonder at first whether he just dispenses tips as a favor, or to help accomplish the government’s agenda. But then you hear a phone conversation about Song’s relatives wondering what to do with the cash they collected. This is exactly the way it’s done — and why anyone doing due diligence in China needs to make it a priority to check out the relatives and any cash flows involving them.
* Insincere local officials tell residents how wonderful it is that the government is revitalizing the neighborhood, all the while conniving at how to remove them as quietly and cheaply as possible.
* When Haiping is reunited with her daughter, the little girl barely recognizes her and clings to her grandmother. I’ve frequently been astounded at how readily Chinese families — parents and children, husbands and wives — split up for extended periods of time to pursue educational or economic opportunities in different cities or even countries. (This phenomenon might come as a surprise to those who have heard so much about the emphasis Chinese culture places on family). From what I’ve seen, it usually causes a great deal of heartache and often ends very badly.

The other day, when I spoke at the American Chamber of Commerce, I mentioned Woju in the context of our discussion of the real estate sector, and whether a bubble exists or not. Virtually all of the Chinese faces in the audience nodded, having either watched the show or heard of it. Many of my students at Tsinghua have mentioned the show to me, and it evidently touched a nerve with them as well. No wonder the series, with its unvarnished take on so many sensitive issues, made the authorities nervous. All of which makes “Dwelling Narrowness” must-see TV.

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

The Root Cause Debate

As a coda to the Hitchens/Wright debate and Thomas Friedman's call for a Muslim civil war, this 2006 interview with Robert Pape is definitely worth watching (if you're not snowed in at the moment and want to get to the meat, it's around the 30 minute mark). Pape's thesis, if you're not familiar with it, is that suicide terrorism specifically has very concrete origins that have nothing to do with religious fundamentalism and everything to do with the presence of foreign military forces on the terrorists' soil or on land they prize:

December 18, 2009

Thomas Friedman's Civil War


Lots of people have been teeing off on Thomas Friedman's column advocating a "civil war" in the Muslim world (see here and here), but I want to focus on a slightly different angle. Friedman writes:

So please tell me, how are we supposed to help build something decent and self-sustaining in Afghanistan and Pakistan when jihadists murder other Muslims by the dozens and no one really calls them out?

A corrosive mind-set has taken hold since 9/11. It says that Arabs and Muslims are only objects, never responsible for anything in their world, and we are the only subjects, responsible for everything that happens in their world. We infantilize them.

Arab and Muslims are not just objects. They are subjects. They aspire to, are able to and must be challenged to take responsibility for their world. If we want a peaceful, tolerant region more than they do, they will hold our coats while we fight, and they will hold their tongues against their worst extremists.

I think Friedman misses two important dynamics here. The first, particularly in the instances of Afghanistan and Iraq, is simple fear. Personally, I'd be less inclined to "call out" the Taliban if I was convinced my headless body would be deposited in a nearby dump the next day. Especially in Afghanistan, where the population is spread pretty thin, there's not a lot of safety in numbers should you want to start an anti-extremist movement.

But the second dynamic is even less favorable to the U.S. and that's the extent to which the moderates don't much like the U.S. either. A recent poll from the University of Maryland illustrates the point: while there is a disgust of al Qaeda's methods (and thus, of radicalism) there's a basic agreement on al Qaeda's political objectives of forcing a change in U.S. foreign policy:

A study of public opinion in predominantly Muslim countries reveals that very large majorities continue to renounce the use of attacks on civilians as a means of pursuing political goals. At the same time large majorities agree with al Qaeda's goal of pushing the United States to remove its military forces from all Muslim countries and substantial numbers, in some cases majorities, approve of attacks on US troops in Muslim countries.

Your run of the mill moderate may be disgusted by al Qaeda attacks against America and may find the idea of slaughtering infidels abhorrent, but he may also think that we're getting what's coming to us and so isn't very motivated to get himself killed purging the radicals from his midst.

(AP Photos)

What's the Deal with Iraq's Oil?


Victor Davis Hanson speculates:

Perceptions of the war in Iraq have also changed in unforeseen ways.

"No blood for oil," for example, was once a common anti-war cry. But Iraq's auctioning of its oil leases has gone mostly to Europeans, Russians and Chinese - not Americans.

The U.S., it turned out, did not go to Iraq to steal its natural resources. Apparently, we instead ensured a fair auction by a constitutional government that preferred non-American companies to pump its oil. In the end, we were more idealistic - or naive -than conspiratorial.

I don't know if this really the right way to frame the issue. America's position in the Middle East was never to straight up expropriate oil but to keep oil moving into the world market, which is what these deals obviously facilitate. We use the lion's share of the world's oil, and so it's better if there's more of it washing around.

On the other hand, I wouldn't characterize American corporations losing out on an initial oil deal as being the result of naivete. Just the opposite, it would have been naive to think that we could have coerced Iraqi officials into awarding a U.S. firm a contract. The revelation of such a deal would likely have dealt our position in Iraq a pretty serious blow.

(AP Photos)

Former Sinaloa Drug Lord Dead in Shootout

Mexican drug lord Arturo Beltrán Leyva, known as the Boss of Bosses, was killed Wednesday night after a two-hour grenade and gun fight with Mexican Navy forces. The Financial Times calls it:

one of the clearest victories for the government since it declared an all-out war against organised crime.

Last year Beltrán Leyva, known as "El Barbas" and his brothers had broken up with Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, eader of the Federation (which combined the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels), in a bloody drug war. The Beltranes then joined forces with the Gulf Cartel and the cartel's enforcers, the Zetas.

Beltrán Leyva had consolidated a drug empire in the state of (warning: gruesome photo at the link) Morelos, where he controlled 15 of the 33 municipalities. Whole sections of Cuautla, Jojutla y Cuernavaca were under his control, while he was headquartered in Cuernavaca after his January 2008 break-up with Sinaloa.

Following last year's outbreak of violence, Beltrán Leyva's wide-ranging criminal activities had been under pressure by Mexican authorities. The Washington Post reports:

Mexican authorities had been closing in on Beltrán Leyva in recent months, capturing and killing his junior associates. They raided a lavish party in the colonial town of Tepoztlan, near Cuernavaca, last week and killed three alleged Beltrán Leyva cartel members. Performing at the party was Ramón Ayala, a popular Texas-based singer, whose attorney denied that his client had any ties to organized crime. [On Thursday, a judge ordered Ayala jailed for up to 40 days pending investigation, the Associated Press reported.] In another near-miss, Beltrán Leyva associates were arrested after attending a baptism he hosted in Acapulco.

Beltrán Leyva was alleged to have masterminded a corruption racket involving high-level Mexican officials in the attorney general's office and federal police, including a former chief of the unit targeting organized crime, Noé Ramírez Mandujano. Ramírez is suspected to have taken almost $500,000 in bribes from Beltrán Leyva.

Mexican officials also hold Beltrán Leyva responsible for the assassination of federal police chief Edgar Eusebio Millán Gómez last year.

Mexican and U.S. drug officials had hinted for two months that authorities would soon capture some "big fish" in Mexico. The death of Beltrán Leyva follows a strategy pushed by officials on both sides of the border to go after his cartel's leadership.

The apartment where Beltrán Leyva was found was only one of several safe houses his cartel owned.

You can watch a Mexican TV news report (in Spanish) here.

Mexican authorities predict an increase in violence may be possible in the power struggle to take Beltrán Leyva's place.

Mexico's president Felipe Calderón praised the Mexican Navy's operation.

The Wall Street Journal has an interactive timeline of Mexico's war on drugs since Felipe Calderón took office in 2006. Associated Press has a time line of arrests, deaths of Mexican druglords. Last January I posted on the Mexican drug wars, and included a link to the 2007 CRS Report for Congress on Mexico’s Drug Cartels, which provides an overview of Mexican drug cartels and their operations.

December 17, 2009

Could Carbon Tariffs Kill Copenhagen?

Well, probably not, but as Bloomberg reports, developed and developing countries are still at loggerheads over the controversial issue:

China is demanding that a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gases prohibit nations from imposing trade sanctions, further pitting the world’s No. 1 emitter against U.S. lawmakers.

The draft accord from a meeting in Copenhagen to forge a climate treaty bars rich nations from adopting trade actions tied to global warming. China said such language will avert “trade wars.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sides with China.

“We will always oppose any practice of establishing trade barriers under the guise of protecting the global environment,” Yu Qingtai, China’s climate change ambassador, said in an interview....

[T]rade is emerging as a central issue dividing developed and developing countries at the United Nations gathering in the Danish capital....

In Copenhagen, the latest version of a proposed treaty includes language banning developed countries from ‘‘resorting’’ to climate-related trade measures is printed in brackets, meaning it lacks consensus agreement and must be dealt with by higher-level negotiators from 193 countries....

Yu said China and other emerging economies simply want outlined in a new treaty what he says already exists in the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the basic climate agreement governing the current talks.

As I noted on Friday, the trade section (paragraph 6) of the first draft Copenhagen text was blank, so it appears that the climate negotiators have made a little progress by at least inserting something there.  However, the brackets make clear that no one has agreed to anything just yet.  (I can't find the latest draft online, can you?) And clearly, the issue of carbon tariffs (aka "border adjustment measures") and eco-protectionism more broadly continue to be a serious roadblock to completing a Copenhagen climate agreement by this Friday.

That said, the current conventional wisdom on this issue - pushed by Bloomberg, Reuters and others - requires two pretty significant clarifications:

First, developing countries like China and India are not the only ones opposing carbon tariffs.  As I've noted several times, many developed countries (e.g., Germany, Australia, New Zealand) oppose carbon tariffs and other forms of eco-protectionism.  So while China's clearly one of - if not the - loudest opponents, there are plenty of other countries, developing and developed alike, rooting for the inclusion of language in the Copenhagen agreement that would limit or ban the use of border measures.

Second, US resistance to the bracketed language on trade measures might not be due to US politicians' demands for carbon tariffs in House and Senate climate change legislation.  At least entirely.  Instead, the US position might be a basic negotiating ploy to get China and others to cave on other key Copenhagen issues like emissions caps and verification measures.  Indeed, here's a NYT report from yesterday hinting to just that:

A group of 10 Democratic senators wrote to Mr. Obama two weeks ago warning that the Senate would not ratify any treaty that did not protect American industry from foreign competitors who do not have to meet global warming emissions limits.

That threat could, paradoxically, help drive the Chinese to cement a deal here, an American official said. “Their No. 1 motivation is to avoid border tariffs,” the official said.

Considering that US officials themselves acknowledge the negotiating leverage that carbon tariffs provide them over China and other developing nations, the United States' current demands at Copenhagen might just be posturing, rather than blatant support for eco-protectionism (as could some Senators' recent statements demanding carbon tariffs).  Considering that so many other developed countries also oppose the controversial measures, the former scenario actually seems more plausible than the latter.

My guess is that it's a little of both, actually.  The politics at home are pretty daunting - I've tallied 19 Senators in support of carbon tariffs - so US negotiators have every reason to oppose language expressly banning them.  That said, the negotiators must know that many more countries oppose border measures than support them, and that it's an agreement-killer for almost all developing countries.  They also know, however, that carbon tariffs are great negotiating leverage, so it's win-win for them to hold out until the very last second and then relent only when the entire agreement hangs in the balance.  The smartest thing to do, it seems, would be for them to hold out and perhaps get a little more from China, India and others, but then cave at the last minute and show the angry folks back home (almost all of whom otherwise support climate change legislation) that they had only one choice: give in on carbon tariffs or get nothing at all.

(Obvious disclaimer: just because that seems to be the smartest play doesn't mean that's what's actually going down, of course!)

Regardless of US motivations and strategy, it's becoming increasingly clear that border measures are going to be a major sticking point at Copenhagen until the very last minutes of the negotiations.  Whether they end up scuttling a final agreement is far from clear, but it'll sure be fun to watch, now won't it?

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

How Do Americans Really Feel About Afghanistan

Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes claimed that "most Americans" have soured on Afghanistan. Not so says Frank Newport:

Nothing like a good polling smack-down to get the heart racing.

Box Cutters and SkyGrabbers


The WSJ has an embarrassing report today on how Iraqi insurgents have been hacking America's multi-million dollar Predator drones--and for under $26:

Militants in Iraq have used $26 off-the-shelf software to intercept live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones, potentially providing them with information they need to evade or monitor U.S. military operations.

Senior defense and intelligence officials said Iranian-backed insurgents intercepted the video feeds by taking advantage of an unprotected communications link in some of the remotely flown planes' systems. Shiite fighters in Iraq used software programs such as SkyGrabber -- available for as little as $25.95 on the Internet -- to regularly capture drone video feeds, according to a person familiar with reports on the matter.


The militants use programs such as SkyGrabber, from Russian company SkySoftware. Andrew Solonikov, one of the software's developers, said he was unaware that his software could be used to intercept drone feeds. "It was developed to intercept music, photos, video, programs and other content that other users download from the Internet -- no military data or other commercial data, only free legal content," he said by email from Russia.

My sense is that this will get exaggerated and blown out of reasonable proportion by some, but setting aside the painfully foolish system security--no encryption???--this screw up reveals a more salient point, and brings to mind an old cliche: where there's a will there's a way.

Whether it's box cutters or file "intercepting" software, this, in my view, once again challenges the notion that a preponderance of troops and treasure exhausted in one part of the world is the right way to fight an allegedly global war on terrorism. There will always be fringe elements who hate the United States and wish us harm, but trying to pick them off continent-by-continent makes far less sense to me than diverting resources toward cyber-security, not to mention biological weapons security and regulation.

(AP Photos)

December 16, 2009

The Limits of Perception

Shadi Hamid wasn't thrilled with President Obama's Nobel acceptance speech:

Too many Arabs and Muslims hold the inverse of America’s opinion of itself: It is not a force for good, or even a burdened, yet flawed, protector of the international system, but rather an actor that has worked, in remarkably consistent fashion, to suppress and subjugate the people of the region.

Are Arabs and Muslims – or to a lesser extent Latin Americans and Europeans – justified in thinking this? It doesn’t matter. This is what they think. For them, that is the reality. So when Obama says something like “no matter how callously defined, neither America’s interests – nor the world’s – are served by the denial of human aspirations,” I like it and I want to hear more of it. It actually reminds me of Bush’s early 2005 speeches, and I mean that as a compliment, because they were great speeches (at least in written form) that promised a move away from our longstanding policy of unquestioning support for Arab dictators.

But Bush’s rhetoric introduced a cognitive dissonance that became so blatant that the whole edifice crumbled. I'm all for soaring rhetoric on human rights and democracy, and fashioning a more just international system, but only if we’re willing to back it up with real policy changes on the ground. And clearly we're not. [Emphasis mine]

I agree with the final sentiment, but not the bolded one. I think objective reality, and not just perception, matters. For instance, a percentage of influential Arab opinion believes that Israel/Jews were behind the 9/11 terror attacks - does it matter that this perception is objectively, demonstrably wrong? I would say that it does matter a great deal. We can't fashion a foreign policy in response to paranoia. I also wonder about the extent to which "public opinion" in countries with government-run media can really be trusted.

But that is a separate question from whether the Arab world has a legitimate case against U.S. foreign policy in the region. I'd say, with respect to support for dictators, they do. We can debate whether it remains in the U.S. interest to support dictators but it strikes me as counter-productive to both support them and profess our undying support for freedom everywhere. Better to more closely align our words with our deeds.

Does a Democratic Iran Mean a Nuclear Free Iran, Ctd.

And never does it dawn on the Jennifer Rubin that Iran's reformers neither want nor need our internal meddling to undermine their cause.

Does a Democratic Iran Mean a Nuclear Free Iran


Jennifer Rubin criticizes Secretary Clinton's speech on human rights:

This is what passes for “smart” diplomacy. But it’s revealing. Never does it dawn on the Obami that human rights, support for democracy, and regime change might actually enhance our objectives and afford us a solution to the problem of an Islamic fundamentalist state’s acquisition of nuclear arms.
I'm not an "Obami" (whatever that is) but I would be interested in seeing this assertion substantiated. On what basis should we believe that if Iran's Green movement were to prevail, it would mean the end to Iran's nuclear ambitions? Put another way, if the Green movement had succeeded in forcing the Supreme Leader to hold another election and Mousavi won, would Rubin and company believe that the threat from Iran's nuclear program had been substantially mitigated?

UPDATE: Daniel Larison makes a good point:

Most Iranians are not preoccupied with foreign and security policies, just as most people in other countries are not, but if they believe as Iranian nationalists that building up their nuclear program is a matter of national right and pride they are going to continue backing their government as it pursues this. If Iranian nationalists see their government attempting to act as a regional power, enough of them are probably going to support it regardless of the character of that regime to make changing that policy politically difficult.

(AP Photos)

December 15, 2009

Another Iranian Nuclear Negotiator Resigns


On Tuesday December 15th, Dr Mohammad Saeedi, the deputy head of planning for the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran (AEOI) and a member of Iran's nuclear negotiation team for the past five years resigned.

Saeedi is the second senior member of AEOI who has resigned since the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June this year. The first was Mohammad Reza Aghazadeh, who was the head of the organization.

Although no official explanation has been provided, it is quite possible that Saeedi's resignation could be related to the infighting currently taking place within the Iranian regime.

After Ahmadinejad's reelection, Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei started a purge in the Iranian government. Many of those who were reformists or moderate conservatives were pushed out.

For those who survived the cull, Iran's refusal to accept President Obama's recent offer, and the impending sanctions and isolation which it will bring, could be a huge disappointment. This is especially true for Iran's nuclear negotiating team.

Dr Saeedi would have seen how, for years, Ali Larijani, Iran's senior nuclear negotiator masterfully delayed major sanctions for Iran by negotiating with the EU and Javier Solana.

Since Larijani's resignation in 2007, Iran's position has significantly worsened. His replacement, Saeed Jalili is far less capable in terms of diplomatic skills. Furthermore, Supreme Leader Khamenei does not want to make any compromises. If anything, Iran is now far more provocative than before. See Ahmadinejad's announcement that his government plans to build 10 new enrichment facilities, in complete defiance of UN resolutions.

Under these circumstances, Iran's nuclear negotiation team has become all but redundant. Dr Saeedi would be forgiven for thinking his job is done.

(AP Photos)

Obama's Afghan Timetable Doesn't Compute


David Ignatius reports:

As one of the selling points of the plan to send an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, rather than the full 40,000 troops Gen. Stanley McCrystal requested, the president's aides touted the idea that the extra forces would be sent in the next six months, rather than over the full year that McChrystal originally thought necessary.

But a top military planner says the actual timetable will be closer to what McChrystal proposed.

I asked Lt Gen. David Rodriquez, the No. 2 US commander here, in a briefing tonight how long the deployment of the extra 30,000 would take. He answered that "it will happen between nine and eleven months," starting in January 2010. Which means that some troops might not arrive until November 2010.

The next month after that, December 2010, is when Obama plans to assess how well the troops are doing -- so he can decide how many to pull out when the withdrawal begins in July 2011.

I am up in the air on the issue of whether timetables do more harm than good, but this is another matter. It strains credulity to believe that we can know whether the surge is working after one month.

Finally Some Good News for Russia

This has not been a good month for Russia. First, a boondoggle missile project caused further embarrassment. Next, China swoops into Central Asia to secure a massive natural gas pipeline deal with Turkmenistan. But now, a victory of sorts:

The tiny Pacific island of Nauru today became the fourth country to recognize the Russian-backed rebel Georgian region of Abkhazia as independent, in defiance of the West.

Russia has been trying to secure international recognition for the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which most of the world regard as part of Georgia, since crushing a Georgian assault on South Ossetia in a five-day war last year.

Win some, lose some.

The Blast Heard Around Kabul

Kabul awoke to yet another bomb blast this morning and, from the looks of it, it was a big one:

Arriving at the blast site roughly six hours after detonation, it was a scene of security officers corralling municipal workers, journalists and curious Afghan onlookers (I being continuously mistaken for the latter) amongst the wreckage, while they themselves tried to take in the enormity of the blast.

In the crowd, an old man announced that we were all "clinging to Bush's testicles" and that from our "fancy cars, only cared about this life and have no regard for the next," before a security official angrily chased him away.  Something could have been lost in the translation.

A steady exodus of foreigners from the Heetal hotel passed by car or on foot, rolling their suitcases through the debris.  A few stopped to pose for a parting shot in front of the collapsed buildings.

The blast crater, said to be a meter deep and two meters wide, had been filled with rubble (see second video).  The black SUV carrying the payload was reportedly hurled through the air by the explosion.  The soft-shelled SUVs in the vicinity were reduced to charred and twisted metal.   The armored variety remaining surprisingly intact:

Violence in Kabul has been steady since this summer's elections but there are concerning reports that while the Taliban were once knocking on the gates of Kabul, they are now banging on its very doors.

In striking one of Kabul's most affluent districts, their message is clear: anyone benefiting from the government's corrupt practices is fair game and cannot hide behind their check points and blast walls. Unfortunately, those actually caught in the blast were most likely guards and domestic staff.

President Karzai's former vice president, Ahmed Zia Massoud, whose house was damaged in the attack is thought to have been the intended target.  Fittingly, the president himself was convening a conference on fighting corruption at the time of the attack.

Tackling corruption will no doubt deflate the Taliban cause, but after eight years of war and borrowing best practices from confederate insurgents in Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere, the tide will not turn on de-greased palms alone.

Alim Remtulla

Polling Climate Change


The more the world discusses climate change, it seems, the less Americans care. Here's Zogby:

As the United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen heads into its final week, nearly half of Americans -- 49% -- say they are only slightly or not at all concerned about climate change, while 35% are somewhat or highly concerned, a new Zogby Interactive survey shows. Zogby's latest polling shows an increase in those who hold this view compared with 2007, when 39% said they were slightly or not at all concerned about climate change and 48% said they were somewhat or highly concerned.

Intensity of concern about global climate change has shifted over the past three years in favor of those who are not at all concerned - 27% held this view in 2007, compared to 37% who say the same now. Fewer now say they are highly concerned - 20% today compared to 30% in 2007.

I don't follow environmental issues close enough to speculate as to why this shift has occurred. Crisis fatigue?

(AP Photos)

Polling the Obama Doctrine


Rasmussen digs beneath the president's Nobel speech:

Fifty percent (50%) of U.S. voters agree with President Obama that Afghanistan is a "just" war.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that only 24% disagree with the president’s declaration about Afghanistan in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize last week. Another 27% are undecided.

Similarly, 52% think the president was right when he said, “The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it.” Twenty percent (20%) take issue with Obama’s remark, but 29% are not sure if he’s right or not.

Surprising how many people are undecided about the justness of the Afghan war. No matter where you sit on the questions of tactics, it seems obvious to me that war was and is justified, even if the strategy the administration settled on may not be the optimal one.

(AP Photos)

Can We Contain Iran?


Danielle Plekta says the U.S. cannot contain a nuclear Iran. The trouble is, she doesn't really specify what we would contain Iran from doing except for a brief mention that a nuclear Iran might "engage in adventurism in Lebanon, Iraq and Israel." In other words, Iran will keep doing what it's doing, only maybe more so.

Then she raises the bar:

Many also scoff at the notion that a responsible Iranian leader would risk using or transferring nuclear weapons or technology. We are told that Ahmadinejad (who most acknowledge is crazy enough to use such a weapon) won't make the final decision. But the regime is remarkably opaque, and shifting power centers ensure that even capable intelligence agencies have low levels of certainty about decision-making in Iran's nuclear program. If our intelligence community's prognostications about Iran's reaction to the Obama engagement policy are any indication (apparently they predicted that Iran was desperate to talk), then it seems safe to conclude that no one knows whose finger will be on Iran's nuclear trigger.

And? What? That means they'll launch a nuclear weapon? I don't see the logic here. We apparently don't know where all of Pakistan's nuclear weapons are either, and, unlike Iran's nuclear scientists, Pakistan's met with Osama bin Laden. That seems much, much more dire.

The only way a nuclear Iran could plausibly be presented as a threat to the United States homeland is if someone produces evidence that, contrary to 60 years of world history, and at least two decades of Iran's own history as a WMD power, that they will try to smuggle into or launch a weapon at the United States. Otherwise, the real fear is not that the lives of Americans are in any concrete danger when Iran goes nuclear but that the power balance in the Middle East might tilt in Iran's favor.

We can have a debate about how bad a development that is and what price we should pay to prevent that - but that is the debate, not scare stories about a potential Iranian nuclear attack.

(AP Photos)

December 14, 2009

Why Are We in Afghanistan?


Joe Klein offers an answer:

Let's start with a fact: the Indian Embassy in Kabul has suffered major, lethal bomb attacks twice in the past two years. There is little question in the intelligence community that these attacks were staged by terrorist allies of the Pakistani Army. The Pakistanis are absolutely convinced that if the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, India will jump in, supporting the non-Pashtun elements in the country--indeed, India was a supporter of the Northern Alliance's guerrilla war against the Taliban in the 1990s (although, it must be said, the Pakistanis have a rather exaggerated sense of Indian involvement).

Why is this a problem we should care about? Because India and Pakistan both have nuclear weapons. Because tensions between the two countries would escalate dramatically if we were to abandon the region. And, most important, because our departure would empower the more radical elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence services--not merely in their support of the Taliban, but also, potentially, in their ability to stage an Islamist coup d'etat. This is the worst scenario imaginable: a nuclear Pakistan, with allies of Osama Bin Laden controlling the trigger.

I think it's obvious that along the spectrum of "bad to worse" we could still progress a lot further toward "worse" in Pakistan, as Klein argues. But there are several problems with this analysis. First, Pakistan and India have had nuclear weapons before the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. They have fought wars before the U.S. arrived and indeed, were on the brink of fighting another shortly after we invaded Afghanistan. There is nothing about our presence there that ensures peace and nothing about our departure that guarantees war. Moreover, Pakistan and India have been quietly working on a peace deal for years now, work that began, I believe, without American supervision or goading.

The second point, about an Islamist coup-d'etat is also dubious. Not that such an event couldn't occur, obviously it could. But I'm not sure why 100,000 troops inside Afghanistan is preventing that. They're not providing palace security for Zardari. If anything, constant U.S. drone attacks in the tribal zone and the incessant, public brow-beating of Pakistani officials by Americans to take the war to their own citizens could just as easily inspire a coup against a government seen as overly solicitous to America.

It's also worth stepping back and turning the problem around: if I understand Klein correctly, our strategic decisions are essentially hostage to what a few Islamist Pakistani military officers may or may not do with respect to the Afghan Taliban and their own government. Under that logic, we can never leave. And it's also worth noting that despite our massive presence in the region, Pakistan is not behaving itself:

Demands by the United States for Pakistan to crack down on the strongest Taliban warrior in Afghanistan, Siraj Haqqani, whose fighters pose the biggest threat to American forces, have been rebuffed by the Pakistani military, according to Pakistani military officials and diplomats.

The regional dynamics are clearly working against us. Where I part company with Klein is with the notion that we can fix them.

(AP Photos)

China in Russia's Near Abroad


There's been a lot of focus on U.S. foreign policy in Russia's "near abroad." Well, move over America:

With one flick of a switch today, Russia's long-standing dominance and near monopoly over Central Asian natural-gas exports officially came to an end.

The massive Turkmenistan-China pipeline, which will carry natural gas from eastern Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan into China's northwestern Xinjiang region, went on line today during an inauguration ceremony attended by regional leaders. It marks the first time in more than a decade that a pipeline has been constructed to pump gas out of the region, and the biggest-ever effort to export Central Asian gas without using Russian routes...

...Observers see RWE's activities as the first steps in securing Turkmen gas for Nabucco. And for Nabucco shareholders and supporters, the example of the new Turkmenistan-China going online demonstrates with certainty that it is possible to build a high-volume pipeline that avoids Russia.

The great game is on.

(AP Photos)

Hitchens vs. Wright on Root Causes

An interesting exchange here on the issue of blow back and its role, if any, in fomenting Islamic radicalism. I think both Wright and Hitchens make some valid points. Ultimately, though, this kind of discussion is too circular. It's very hard to determine the causality here. People join terrorists movements for a number of reasons - coercion, religious zealotry, revenge, money, geopolitical outlook, etc. - and overly reductionist arguments about why this happens can lead us into a dead end.

The broader question is not why some Muslims commit violence, but why that violence is directed at the United States. Liberals like Wright tend to believe it's because of what we have done to them (even President Bush tacitly accepted this point). Conservatives tend to believe we're blameless and the violence is directed at us because of our freedoms. No one seems to want to grapple with a third possibility - that a toxic interplay of American policy and religious fundamentalism have brought us to this moment.

Tony Blair on Iraq War


British Prime Minister Tony Blair is defending his decision to join the American invasion of Iraq:

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said he would have found a justification for invading Iraq even without the now-discredited evidence that Saddam Hussein was trying to produce weapons of mass destruction.

"I would still have thought it right to remove him. I mean, obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat," Blair told the BBC in an interview to be broadcast this morning.

This isn't all that shocking. Paul Wolfowitz admitted much the same thing to Vanity Fair, saying that WMD was the rationale that the bureaucracy could agree on. But it is worth noting that the conception of the Iraq threat had absolutely nothing to do with Iraq's actual capacity to harm America. Yes, there was a lot of talk about Saddam "possibly" transferring WMD to a terrorist group, but that was always dubious and never figured in the original case for war made during the 1990s.

Instead, Saddam was viewed as a "threat" because he had once made a play for Middle East hegemony. That he lost badly and was subsequently crippled as a result didn't seem to matter.

See also: Shadi Hamid has some interesting thoughts on the matter as well.

(AP Photos)

Al Qaeda Moves to Yemen


Terrorism experts frequently cite al Qaeda's long-standing home in Afghanistan as a key argument for why it's essential to conduct armed state building there. Peter Bergen wrote that:

Another common critique of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is that there are numerous potential safe havens in the world; if Al Qaeda were facing defeat in Afghanistan, wouldn't it simply relocate to a more permissive venue? Those who raise this point are essentially talking about two things: on the one hand, the prospect of Al Qaeda moving somewhere far away like Somalia or Yemen; on the other hand, the reality that, no matter what we do to stabilize Afghanistan, its neighbor Pakistan will always be off-limits to American invasion and therefore available as a haven for Al Qaeda.

The point about Somalia and Yemen is unconvincing. Jihadists based there have shown no ability to hit targets anywhere but in their immediate neighborhoods. Many years after September 11, there is scant evidence that any senior Al Qaeda leaders have relocated to either place. For its part, Somalia is probably too anarchic, and possibly too African as well, for the largely middle-class Arab membership of Al Qaeda. In theory, of course, it's always possible that Al Qaeda could pick up and move elsewhere. But, with the exception of a few years in the 1990s, Al Qaeda has now been based in Afghanistan and Pakistan for a generation. This is the region where its leaders feel comfortable, where they have put down roots. If they didn't leave even after the United States conquered Afghanistan in late 2001, it seems unlikely that they will in the future.

But this doesn't seem to be holding up that well. The Boston Globe reports that al Qaeda is indeed moving to Yemen:

As the United States steps up the hunt for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, some of the terrorist network’s veteran operatives are leaving the region and flocking to Yemen, where an escalating civil war is turning the nearly lawless Arab nation into an attractive alternative as a base of operations, according to US and foreign government officials.

Citing intelligence reports and intercepted communications, officials said they believe dozens of battle-hardened followers of Osama bin Laden have recently traveled to Saudi Arabia’s poor southern neighbor, joining other Al Qaeda sympathizers there who are attempting to make the remote mountainous province of Ma’rib, west of the capital of Sana, a new sanctuary.

A senior defense official said US military and intelligence officials, who have armed drones and special operations forces based in nearby Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, are devising new ways to combat the threat, but declined to provide details.

“There is, indeed, concern about the establishment of Al Qaeda elements in Yemen,’’ said the official, who is directly involved in counterterrorism operations in the Middle East.

Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen have been implicated in a series of recent bombings that killed tourists and damaged oil facilities, and are tightening their grip by assassinating local officials in key villages. Others have been captured in recent days trying to smuggle dozens of suicide vests from Yemen into Saudi Arabia, according to a Saudi government official who declined to be identified when discussing intelligence matters.

If counter-insurgency and armed state building is going to be the U.S. template for counter-terrorism, we're going to need a much, much bigger army.

(AP Photos)

December 13, 2009

Berlusconi Attacked

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was struck in the face during a political rally. Here's the video:

Early reports seem to indicate that other than the bruised and bloodied face, Berlusconi is otherwise not badly injured. The attacker reportedly had no criminal record but had a history of mental problems.


The 73-year-old prime minister had suffered what one doctor later called “classic boxer's injuries”. He had a broken nose and cuts on his lips, one of which needed stitches. Two of his teeth were broken and he had a nasty gash just below his left eye. His doctor said he would need about three weeks to recover fully. Mr Berlusconi’s spokesman described him as “tired and suffering”. It was expected that he would leave hospital on Tuesday.
And double ouch:
An inventor and electronic engineer from a town just outside Milan, Mr Tartaglia had been undergoing psychiatric treatment for ten years. Neighbours said he was subject to fits of rage. His father said that the family supported the opposition party, but added: “I am not aware that my son hates the prime minister.”

What the incident has made clear, however, is that plenty of other Italians do. Within hours, some 20,000 people had signed up to Facebook groups lauding Mr Tartaglia as a hero. This is not the first time Mr Berlusconi has been assaulted. Five years ago, during his last government, a man who admitted afterwards that he detested the prime minister, hurled a camera tripod at him in Rome.

Most Italian politicians condemned outright the latest attack. But Antonio Di Pietro, a former prosecutor who leads a small anti-corruption party, said Mr Berlusconi “instigates violence”.

December 11, 2009

Russian Missile Destroys Russian Navy


You may have heard about a weird light show in Norway during Obama's visit. Well, it wasn't celestial acclaim, but a Russian missile test gone wrong. According to Alexander Khramchikhin (translated by Dmitry Gorenburg) the missile in question - the Bulava - is destroying the Russian Navy:

[The Bulava's] effectiveness has turned out to be simply amazing. The missile has not entered serial production, and never will, but it has already destroyed the Russian Navy. Almost all the money allocated to the Navy’s development have been spent on this mindless dead-end program.

Any person who can see the real situation well understands that in a few years the Russian Navy as a whole, as well as all four of its component fleets, will cease to exist. This is already absolutely inevitable — the situation will not be changed even by mass purchases of ships from abroad.

I'm not in a position to know if it's that dramatic (although it could be) but at a minimum, this should put the fears of a neo-imperial Russia into some perspective.

[via Sam Roggeveen at the Intepretator]

(AP Photos)

Poll: Lack of Confidence in NATO

Rasmussen says the U.S. public isn't keen on the Atlantic alliance:

Just thirty-three percent (33%) of U.S. voters are at least somewhat confident that NATO will do all it can to help the United States win in Afghanistan, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. That figure includes five percent (5%) who are very confident.

Sixty-one percent (61%) of voters lack confidence in our NATO allies, with 45% who are not very confident and 16% who are not at all confident that they will help us win the war in Afghanistan.

NATO hasn't exactly covered itself in glory in Afghanistan, so these numbers don't strike me as that surprising.

View China Currency Dogma with Skepticism

The blogosphere has been rumbling over two recent op-eds in the Financial Times - a generally free market publication - arguing against China's currency policies and warning of these policies' economic harms.

The first, and more hysterical, op-ed came from University of Chicago(!) economist Robert Aliber who argues that drastic protectionism is needed to force China to appreciate its currency (the RMB) and thus correct the "unsustainable US-China trade imbalance." This is pretty startling coming from an economist from the free market U.Chicago. Fortunately, Cato's Dan Ikenson gives Aliber's op-ed a proper fisking, so all I need to do there is point you to Dan's great blogpost.

Martin Wolf's op-ed is more thoughtful, but no less alarming. He sees four serious problems with China's currency regime:

First, whatever the Chinese may feel, the degree of protectionism directed at their exports has been astonishingly small, given the depth of the recession. Second, the policy of keeping the exchange rate down is equivalent to an export subsidy and tariff, at a uniform rate – in other words, to protectionism. Third, having accumulated $2,273bn in foreign currency reserves by September, China has kept its exchange rate down, to a degree unmatched in world economic history. Finally, China has, as a result, distorted its own economy and that of the rest of the world. Its real exchange rate is, for example, no higher than in early 1998 and has depreciated by 12 per cent over the past seven months, even though China has the world’s fastest-growing economy and largest current account surplus.

Wolf is a smart, reasonable guy and expresses a view held by a lot of smart, reasonable guys: China's currency is very undervalued; it's distorting global trade balances; and something needs to be done to stop it (and thus end these imbalances). I've expressed skepticism about these views, as have other people far smarter than me (linked throughout my aforementioned posts).  But I thought that a direct response to Wolf - printed in today's FT - also warranted notice.  Here's Jim O'Neill, chief economist at Goldman Sachs:
Like many others, I often, all so easily, fall into the camp that the Chinese exchange MUST still be undervalued, and cite the reserves fact and its growth as evidence, but I am not so sure when I really analyse it. We have a model for estimating fair values for many currencies, our so called GSDEER, and it did used to suggest that the CNY was undervalued. However as a result of the approximate 20pct appreciation of the past 4 years, and higher prices than many other countries, our model suggests it is no longer so clear. Now FX models are FX models, and having spent so much of my career on them, I know only too well that it is subject to even more risks for somewhere like China. But when I see our own- objective -model saying things like this, observe surveys showing that Mexico is now back to being the no 1 place to produce heavy industrial goods, and China’s imports rising much more sharply than exports, I stop to question my underlying tendency. On top of this, and Martin, as many others, never seems to address this, China’s current account surplus this year is going to be close to about half what it was a year ago amidst lots of evidence that domestic demand, especially consumption, is roaring away. Yesterday, we got news that in November, Chinese auto sales rose by 92pt year on year. They are so strong, that they are now importing some directly from overseas. You see similar evidence when you look at LCD TV sales and almost anything else. As some Chinese policymakers point out, this is almost definitely more important than the exchange rate issue that so many are still rather perhaps excessively focused on.

O'Neil's response is reprinted here not to trumpet a big, silly "see, I told you so; look how smart I am" (really!).  Instead, I fully admit that I don't know whether China's currency is undervalued or overvalued, or whether a revaluation will affect bilateral trade flows between China and the US or other countries. (Although I do know that history argues against it, and I'd prefer letting the free market decide.)  But I hope that my posts, and O'Neil's very well-researched and modeled response, make clear that there's a lot of good debate among honest and smart people about China's currency policies and global trade.  There's also a lot of idiotic demagoguery, and we should be very, very suspicious of economists (*cough*PaulKrugman*cough*) and politicians who loudly proclaim with steadfast confidence that (i) China's currency is harming the US economy, and (ii) RMB appreciation will be a magic cure for "unsustainable" global trade imbalances.

It just ain't that easy.

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

Did Russia Try to Roll Obama?


Strobe Talbot thinks so:

Here’s what seems to have happened: the Russians assumed (correctly) that Obama would like to have a treaty to sign with President Medvedev before his trip to Oslo this Thursday to receive the prize. A concrete diplomatic accomplishment would have helped blunt the criticism that the award is premature and, in that sense, undeserved.

The Russians may have overplayed their hand, figuring (incorrectly) that Obama was so eager for a deal that he’d grant them last-minute concessions to get it before he goes to Oslo. That’s the most likely explanation for why their military toughened its stance on some unresolved issues involving verification and monitoring. The Pentagon—in part to demonstrate that it isn’t going to be pushed around—hardened its own stand. Obama himself was miffed at the Russian squeeze play.

It's like the Cold War all over again.

December 10, 2009

Is Obama Naive?


One of the odder criticisms of President Obama is that he's "naive" when it comes to international affairs because of his contention that America and the world share most of the same interests. Here's National Review Editor Rich Lowry:

Obama's mistake is in believing "the interests of nations and peoples are shared." They aren't. Georgia has an interest in becoming a strong nation capable of defending itself; Russia has an interest in quashing it. China has an interest in dominating all of East Asia; Japan and other neighbors have an interest in containing it.

But as John Hannah, former national security adviser to Dick Cheney, notes today, the President's Oslo speech reaffirmed another conservative favorite:

I thought the president's sober defense of the essential role of force and military power -- and specifically American military power -- in maintaining global order against the predations of those who would destroy it was extremely important. It was important most of all because it's the truth, perhaps the central truth of international affairs for the last 60-odd years.
The interesting thing here is that if you believe what Hannah asserts - that American military power has sustained "global" order for 60 years - than either we have done so out of the goodness of our heart or because our interests dictated that we assume that role. If you believe the former, than you are indeed naive, although not in the way Lowry believes.

If you believe the second case, that broadly speaking what's good for America (using our military to sustain global order) is good for the world (enjoying that order), then there's nothing naive about Obama's earlier statements that the world shares common interests. Otherwise, they wouldn't have benefited from America's global military posture.

Personally, I think the entire debate would benefit from a little more rhetorical precision - we haven't underwritten "global" security but the security in regions that were vital to U.S. commercial and military interests. We certainly weren't (and aren't) interested in underwriting the security of China or Russia or Africa to any great extent - and that's a fairly large chunk of the globe right there.

(AP Photos)

Where's the Outrage?


The Swiss ban on Minarets has certainly stirred a lot of commentary, but as Uli Abshar Abdalla argues, not much outrage in the Muslim world:

The ban itself might not qualify to be an “explosive” issue that strikes the Muslim nerve. Apparently the incident pales in comparison to Salman Rushdie Affair, for instance.

However, the fear circulating in Switzerland right after the referendum is that it will provoke an aggressive response from the Muslim world as people learn of the past incident of the Danish cartoon on the Prophet Muhammad.

Abdalla goes onto speculate why the response has been so muted:

Another possibility is that the Danish cartoon controversy taught Muslims a good lesson. The whole mess that has been conducted in the name of defending the Prophet after the outbreak of the Danish cartoon controversy seemed to tarnish the image of Islam.

Instead of doing a good service in Muslims’ interest, it turned into a “dirty” game played by many right-wing movements that have mushroomed in Western countries recently. It also fuels the existing image of Muslim as a “riotous ummah” (community).

There does appear to have been protests, but could it be that the response has been more pointed from Western Europeans (see Timothy Garton Ash's piece on the home page today, for instance) than by Muslims at large?

(AP Photos)

Poll: U.S. Public Split on Global Warming Measures

Rasmussen Reports has some new data:

Americans remain evenly divided over how urgent it is to deal with global warming.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 43% say we must take immediate action to stop it. But another 43% say we should wait a few years to see if global warming is real before making major changes. Fourteen percent (14%) aren’t sure which course to follow.

Looks like they have their work cut out for them at Copenhagen.

(AP Photos)

President Obama's Impossible Troop Straddle


It was evident during his campaign that Barack Obama was going to be a fairly conventional figure when it came to U.S. foreign policy (despite the hysteria from some quarters). And so he has found himself in an uncomfortable straddle - professing a desire to bring troops home from Iraq and, in 2011, from Afghanistan in accordance with a sizable segment of popular opinion and the majority of his Democratic base. Yet the conventional wisdom of which his administration is firmly embedded views extended deployments in both countries as vital to securing American interests.

There's really only one way to square this circle, and that is to bring the costs of both missions down to where the U.S. presence is seen merely as stabilizing force, as it is in Korea. This really seems like what the administration is hoping will happen - that the U.S. will be able to transition its role while Iraq and Afghanistan emerge from their internal violence, while at the same time retaining a military toe-hold in each country to project power regionally.

The U.S. applied a similar strategy in the late 1940s as Western Europe and Asia were collectively attempting to pull themselves out of the ruins of World War. The only difference, of course, is that Western Europe and Asia were vital centers of industry and American commercial activity which fought wars against external, nation state aggressors. In Iraq and Afghanistan, neither of those conditions apply. We're going to be investing an awful lot of time and effort into nations and regions which, at the end of the day, just aren't that relevant.

(AP Photos)

December 9, 2009

More Details Emerging from Perm Fire

New evidence surfaces about the victims of the tragic Dec. 5 night club fire in the Russian city of Perm that killed up to 113 people. According to the local Perm attorney involved with the case, the "law enforcement elite of the city - members of the prosecutor's office, judicial staffers, member of police and even FSB (domestic and international intelligence agency) are among the dead and gravely injured due to the fire at the 'Lame Horse' night club." According to this source, "one of the deceased is a member of the regional FSB office."

An investigation into the identities of the victims continues by the Russian authorities.

See our Russia page for the latest news and analysis from Russia.

December 8, 2009

It's Time to Take Doha Out Back and Shoot It

The WTO's Doha Round once held the promise of increasing global welfare by hundreds of billions of dollars and lifting millions of the world's poor out of abject poverty. Today it's become little more than a travel subsidy program for international diplomats and a tired punchline for trade geeks like me. And it needs to finally be put out of its misery.

It pains me to say this. For the last few years, I've resisted my colleagues' time-of-death declarations, most recently pointing to the near-breakthrough at last year's "mini-ministerial" as evidence that the Doha Round, while imperfect, was salvageable.  But last week's Ministerial Meeting in Geneva has finally settled it for me: Doha is dead.

As a doornail.

Now, true believers will argue that WTO Members are still trying, and that the Geneva Ministerial meeting was never intended to include formal Doha Round negotiations, and they'd certainly be right on both counts.  But three things were made very clear during last week's meeting, and each alone provides a strong indication that the Doha Round is in trouble.  Combined, however, they make it clear that the negotiations are a lost cause, and it's time to pull the plug.

(1) The apparent abandonment of the Round by much of the developing world.  To little fanfare, a group of 22 developing countries, including Brazil, India, Argentina and South Korea (but not China), announced the completion of a "South-South" trade agreement that would reduce tariffs on trade in manufactured goods between all signatories. The agreement, expected to be expanded to more countries and finalized by September 2010, does not formally conflict with the Doha Round - indeed, GATT Article XXIV, GATS Article 5 and the WTO's Enabling Clause each allow for regional trade agreements.  Informally, however, the agreement clearly signifies a lack of developing country confidence in Doha. First, the agreement was spearheaded by Jorge Taiana, foreign minister of Argentina and a longtime Doha critic who was quoted as saying that the agreement "is a clear demonstration that the developing countries are willing to continue working on strengthening South-South trade and in a process of liberalisation compatible with development." (Translation: we don't need no stinking Doha.)

Second, the timing of the announcement - smack-dab in the middle of the Geneva Ministerial Meeting - also is a clear signal of developing country disapproval for the current Doha Round process (often excluding developing Members from high-level negotiations), focus and outcome.  (Apparently, DG Lamy and other developed country ministers were extremely peeved upon learning that the Agreement's completion would be announced mid-Ministerial.)  Finally, the completion of the agreement will certainly diminish the signatories' incentives to complete a Doha Round Agreement that would undermine any tariff preferences/benefits that the South-South Agreement would provide them, particularly vis-a-vis non-signatories.  For example, Brazilian imports would have a significant tariff advantage over Chinese (or American or European) imports in, say, the Argentinian market, so why would Brazil want to ruin that sweet deal with a Doha Round Agreement that forced Argentina (and all other WTO Members, including South-South signatories) to liberalize its market for all WTO Members?  The obvious answer: it wouldn't.

So when the Doha Development Round is publicly undermined/opposed by the very targets of that "development," you know you have problems.

(2) The mirage of United States' involvement.  Developing countries aren't the only ones who have moved on.  I've complained for months now about how the Obama administration's lack of real involvement was hurting the Doha Round, and this fact was a constant theme of the Geneva Ministerial.  Indeed, in the last two weeks we saw developing Members, developed Members and industry groups all openly kvetching about the United States' (i) lack of Trade Promotion Authority (aka "fast track" negotiating authority); and (ii) refusal to make concrete commitments on agricultural and industrial market access, and the retarding effect of these things on the negotiations.  Personally, I think a lack of TPA is a surmountable obstacle because the US has completed trade negotiations (albeit few) without TPA.  But the last few months have made it very, very clear that one of the worlds richest countries, biggest subsidizers and supposed "free trade leaders" simply can't sit on the sidelines expressing vague "support" for the round, making demands of its trading partners, yet refusing to make real commitments of its own.  Such childish behavior might be acceptable by China or Argentina or even India or Brazil, but not the United States.  And past Doha Round breakthroughs have proven that when the US plays the "adult" in the room - e.g., being the first to make a strong farm subsidy commitment at last year's mini-ministerial - it can generate momentum and get things done.  When it sits back, however, everybody just points fingers, and nothing gets done.  Nada.

Either the White House doesn't understand this reality, or they understand it all-too-well.  In other words, the Obama Administration naively thinks that Doha can be completed with the United States being - to mangle an old saying - just another country on the WTO rollcall between Albania and Zimbabwe.  Or they think that the Doha Round is dead (or not going anywhere anytime soon) and have decided that there's simply no point in angering the farm lobby, domestic labor unions, certain manufacturers and the anti-trade greens in 2010 by offering formal liberalization commitments for a Doha Agreement that isn't going to materialize soon (or ever).  Instead, they'll just sit back, express "support," try to force things through secret bilateral meetings, and fail.  Happily. 

Given the significant international trade experience at USTR - Ron Kirk notwithstanding (natch) - I find it impossible to believe the former scenario.  On the other hand, the latter, "politics-first" stance seems very plausible, given (i) the myriad other examples this year of this administration sacrificing trade to advance political priorities; and (ii) the United States' blatant refusal (subscription) last week to commit to a ministerial-level "stock-taking" session in March 2010.  The stock-taking brushoff is especially damning, as it's a crystal clear sign that the United States isn't planning to make formal negotiating offers anytime soon and just doesn't want to get publicly lambasted (again) by most other WTO Members in less than four months. Who needs that, right? Ugh.

Of course, this might be smart politics, but it's dreadful policy.  As I've already pointed out above, things at the WTO just don't move without US leadership, so if Doha wasn't already dead, the Obama administration's political calculations pretty much ensure that it is now.

(3) The Round's complete lack of credibility.  For the last several years, business groups and other Doha Round observers have been treated to a silly five-step dance: (i) set deadline; (ii) breathless, optimistic urgency by WTO leadership (most recently DG Lamy); (iii) missed deadline; (iv) finger-pointing; and (v) stock-taking.  (Over and over and over and....)  Only twice since 2005 has there been significant movement: November-December 2005 (with the agriculture offers of the US and EU) and last year's mini-ministerial.  Other than that, nothing has moved - it's been eight years, and we're still negotiating agriculture and industrial modalities! - and yet the deadlines, baseless optimism and finger-pointing continue.  Indeed, although one must feel sorry for DG Lamy and certainly can't fault his enthusiasm, the "deadline dance" has caused his calls for completion of the Round in (now) 2010 to be met with chuckles, instead of urgency.  And while this diplomatic stagnation is kinda humorous, it's also created a complete lack of confidence in the global business community - the primary lobbying force behind any final deal - that a Doha Agreement is forthcoming.  Without that confidence, business groups simply won't spend the time and money necessary to engage in a major pro-Doha lobbying effort.  And without strong business support, WTO Members (who are always politicians first, and free traders second or third) have little motivation to confront their protectionist constituents with a major trade liberalization agreement.  In Geneva last week, the key business groups were there, but their efforts were pretty minimal compared to years past.  Sure, they'll swear up-and-down to the contrary (except for the occasional moment of candor), but deep down everyone knows better.

Each of these three problems was on full display at Geneva last week, and they're the key reasons that I'm throwing in the towel on a comprehensive free trade agreement to emerge from the Doha Round.  Yet while this is a somewhat depressing realization, there are a couple reasons for hope.  First, if WTO Members could ever bring themselves to admit that Doha's dead, they could quickly complete the Round's uncontroversial negotiations, such as those on trade facilitation, that could improve global welfare by billions of dollars.

Second, and as I discussed recently, the collapse of the Doha Round might cause nations truly interested economic growth and development to take a hard look at the efficacy of reciprocal trade liberalization and maybe, just maybe, seek a better way forward.  In an era of global supply chains, foreign investment and multinational corporations, current "free trade" negotiations - which incorrectly treat liberalization as a zero-sum game and deem market access offers to be "concessions" - are proving increasingly antiquated and difficult.  (Why should doing something that's undeniably in your interest be so darn painful?)   Now more than ever, open markets and improved capital flows are beneficial in their own right, and the Doha's failure could accelerate the process of transitioning away from the old-school "reciprocity model" to a system in which nations engage in unilateral trade liberalization in order to better compete for global capital and talent.

I know, I know, that's some Lamy-esque optimism there, but it's all I got right now.  I'm in mourning afterall.

Now somebody give me the gun, and let's get this over with.

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

Unilateral Lecturing


Matt Duss--responding to news that the Iran Sanctions Act has been hotlined in the Senate--writes:

It’s hard to see how “crippling” unilateral sanctions like those contained in IRPSA would enhance the Green movement’s recruitment efforts.

I agree with those like [Karim] Sadjadpour and Trita Parsi and Dokhi Fassihian of the National Iranian-American Council, and Abbas Milani who say that time is right for President Obama to make a more clear and forthright statement of solidarity with the Iranian people against human rights abuses. But the sanctions currently being considered by the U.S. Congress would do nothing to help that cause — as written, they would in fact be harmful.

I'm struggling to understand why the so-called Green Movement should be of any immediate concern to the Obama administration. There are several disconcerting things about Iranian behavior, but first and foremost must be the regime's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

And if unilateral sanctions make for bad policy, how then does unilateral lecturing from Washington result in a nuclear deal with Iran?

Do those advocating solidarity with the protesters seriously expect key negotiating partners, such as China, to support the prioritization of human rights in Iran? And if sanctions are a poor measure of toughness, how might more empty rhetoric and hollow threats be perceived in Tehran?

These are questions in need of answering before we get caught up if the Green "Wave." The protests in Iran are promising, but they are not paramount. We mustn't confuse the two.

(AP Photos)

Poll: Will America Achieve Her Goals in Afghanistan?

Gallup asks:


Skepticism aside, Gallup also notes that more Americans support the strategy than oppose it, by a margin of 51 percent to 40 percent who do not approve.

Poll: Mexico & the Drug War


If there is one country that's been battered by the war on drugs, it's Mexico. From headline grabbing gun battles to mass graves and shocking violence, the country is on the front lines. So it was interesting to see some recent polling on Mexican's attitudes on the drug war:

Few adults in Mexico would consent to the legalization of drugs, according to a poll by GEA-ISA. 75 per cent of respondents think it is necessary to keep fighting drug traffickers for an unlimited amount of time.
A mere 19 percent of respondents wanted to legalize drugs.

(AP Photos)

Isolating Iran's Bad Guys


On Rep. Howard Berman's Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, Gregg Carlstrom writes:

So we're debating a policy with no demonstrable upside, and a range of nasty downsides. Tougher sanctions could drive up world oil prices; they could undercut the Green Movement, still risking life and limb to protest; they could have a devastating impact on the Iranian poor and middle classes (Iraq in the 1990s remains a haunting example). Oh, and a gasoline embargo could be perceived as an act of war.

No upside; steep downsides. And yet we're still discussing this policy! Why?

I think some of these "downsides" are subject to interpretation. For example, if you want to hurt the IRGC--as some insist we should be doing--you are going to hurt the Iranian poor and middle class. The Guards are heavily invested in--if not in outright control of--several of Iran's vital industries.

Many criticized President Bush for designating the IRGC a terrorist group, but isolating and distinguishing them from the average Iranian seems to be all the rage lately. It's unfortunately not that simple.

And I think embargo talk is a bit premature. This bill, as far as I can tell, is more like a glorified "sense of the Congress" resolution than a serious gesture against the Iranian regime.

(AP Photos)

Russian General: China Is a Potential Enemy

Newly appointed Chief of Staff of the Russian Land Forces, Lieutenant-General Sergey Skokov, recently made a statement that caused a major sensation across the Russian Federation. Speaking about possible conflicts that Russia may face in the future, he outlined three distinct scenarios: fighting in the "western, southern" and eastern" directions.

In the west, Russia may face an innovative, high-tech enemy with "contact-less" modes of fighting - read, the NATO alliance. In the south, Russia faces "irregular formations that conduct guerrilla-style warfare." And in the east, "it could be a millions-strong army that fights along traditional, conventional tactics, with high levels of concentration of manpower and firepower at specific directions."

General Skokov did not actually name China in his speech, but it is important to point out that there is no other army in the "east" that can field millions of soldiers, except China's People's Liberation Army. In this light, the general's statements are nothing short of extraordinary. They mark the first time since the 1980s that China is singled out as a potential - and real - adversary by Russia.

The U.S. Senate vs. the Developing World

Developments over the last few days highlight what appears to be an expanding rift between the United States and the rest of the world (minus France) on the issue of "carbon tariffs." To keep everyone up to speed, carbon tariffs (aka "border measures" or "border adjustments" or "offset measures" or... you get the idea) are measures intended to offset the competitive disadvantages that climate change mitigation policies have on domestic manufacturers by imposing at the border a "charge" (or "tax" or "tariff" or "adjustment" or...) on imports of like products from countries that have chosen not to burden their manufacturers with such regulations.

As I've noted repeatedly, much of the developed and developing world has publicly opposed the unilateral use of carbon tariffs due to fears that such measures are utterly unmanageable, could easily devolve into "green protectionism" (i.e., a "green" excuse to keep imports out, regardless of the actual climate change facts), and/or spark a global trade war. And lots of studies support their views.  The Chinese have been one of the most vocal opponents and, as Reuters reports, just yesterday reiterated their stance against carbon tariffs and (again) issued a harsh warning to other nations contemplating their use:

China's official news agency has denounced proposals for "carbon tariffs" on goods from big greenhouse gas emitting countries, saying on Friday that the idea could trigger trade battles with poor countries....

China, the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and an exporting giant, has denounced the idea before, and its Xinhua news agency pressed that opposition in a commentary issued before key climate change negotiations open in Copenhagen on Monday.

"The carbon tariffs proposed by some developed countries are quite likely to trigger a trade war and spark boycotts from developing countries," said the Xinhua commentary, adding that rich nations had failed to act on their own vows to cut emissions and give more help to poor countries to fight global warming.

"Some developed countries have made a wrong decision. They are practicing trade protectionism under a disguised pretext," said Pan Jiahua, a climate policy expert who has advised the Chinese government, according to the commentary....

The Xinhua commentary underscored China's fears that the United States, European Union and other rich economies could slow the flow of goods from it and other developing countries in the name of environmental protection....

The Xinhua commentary said such measures would violate World Trade Organization rules. Experts have said some border adjustment measures would be permissible under WTO rules.

"The true motive of developed countries' carbon tariffs proposal is to protect domestic industries, which have suffered during the global financial crisis," said Xinhua.

As the article mentions, China's stance is nothing new, and the timing of this latest warning is obviously intended to remove any doubt about the country's position on the controversial issue during next week's Copenhagen talks. And you can't really blame the Chinese - whose products are routinely hit by supposedly "remedial" tariffs under US trade laws that can approach 100%(!) - for worrying that remedial carbon tariffs would be dictated by domestic politics and in no way reflect the actual "remedy" (a leveling of cost-competitiveness) intended by any US climate change law.  Other countries have similar fears, and rightly so: the lobbying in the US and EU has already begun, and we don't even have a law yet!

Speaking of other countries, we also saw this week that India has again rejected a hard cap on carbon emissions. This isn't actually "news," as it's been India's position all along.  But I wonder if it will end up being important in the context of carbon tariffs. For example, would anyone be surprised to see certain protectionist elements use India's and other developing countries' refusal to cap their emissions as the perfect excuse to demand carbon tariffs, regardless of the countries' other commitments? I sure wouldn't.

Unfortunately, it seems that a growing bloc of the US Senate is unconcerned with what the "rest of the world" thinks. As BNA (subscription) reported yesterday:

Nine Senate Democrats from industrial and agricultural states wrote President Obama Dec. 3 in advance of his trip to the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen, calling for an agreement that uses “border adjustments” or tariffs to enforce emissions reductions.

In the letter, the senators also endorsed negotiating “effective bilateral and multilateral agreements” to reduce emissions in specific trade- and energy-intensive economic sectors.

These agreements should include border adjustments “on imports from nations that have not yet adopted sufficient emission control measures,” the letter said.

The lead author of the letter was Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.). He was joined by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), and Mark Begich (D-Alaska).

The senators called climate change “a serious and growing threat to the United States and the world” but said “poorly designed climate policies could also jeopardize U.S. national interests by imposing burdens on U.S. consumers, companies and workers without solving the climate challenge.”

“The United States cannot stop climate change alone—success depends on marshaling an effective global response,” the letter said. “Engaging developing nations will be especially important as they represent half of global emissions today and are expected to account for nearly all of the growth in future emissions.”

The full letter is available (PDF) on Sen. Specter's website.  As you'll recall, ten protectionist Senators - Sherrod Brown, Debbie Stabenow, Russell Feingold, Carl Levin, Evan Bayh, Robert Casey, Robert Byrd, Arlen Specter, John D. Rockefeller, and Al Franken - sent a similar letter to the President in August, and there's a lot of overlap between the two letters' signatories.  Only Klobuchar, McCaskill, Hagan, Begich and Johnson are new, but that's unfortunately five more Democrats that have joined the growing list of carbon tariffs supporters in the Senate. (By my count, that makes 18 Dems and one GOPer (Lindsay Graham) who have publicly announced their support - see full list at bottom.)

On the bright side, three important facts argue against utter despondency.  First, Cap-and-Trade is dead in the Senate for this year, and considering Climategate, the 2010 midterm elections and the fragile state of the US economy, there's almost no chance that any climate bill becomes law before November 2010 (at the absolute earliest).  Second, the fact that Sherrod Brown and his merry band of anti-traders could only scrounge up nine Senators to sign a pre-Copenhagen letter is a somewhat heartening sign of Senate opposition or ambivalence re: carbon tariffs.  Third, a quick review of Cato's Free Trade Scorecard indicates that McCaskill, Klobuchar and Johnson have strong protectionist records, and Senate freshmen Hagan, Franken and Begich have been quickly earning their anti-trade wings since taking office in January. Thus, Senate support for carbon tariffs still remains mostly isolated to the hardcore (or aspiring) protectionists, with only three "trade moderates" - Baucus, Cardin and Kerry - publicly on board.

But still, this is an unwelcome trend. Given the partisan divide on the climate change issue, almost every Democrat vote will be needed if a bill is ever to make it out of the Senate. Thus, 18 Senate Democrats - almost 1/3 of their caucus - intensely supportive of carbon tariffs can almost certainly ensure that any Senate climate change legislation contains carbon tariff provisions - only a strict and public demand by the President could quash such an effort, and that seems rather unlikely.  So if climate change legislation ever does return to the top of the Senate's docket next year, it seems pretty likely that it will contain eco-protectionist provisions.  (Considering current pro-GOP trends for 2010, however, all bets are off in 2011.)

Fortunately, and as discussed above, renewed Senate consideration of Cap-and-Trade seems highly unlikely.  For now at least.

Now let's update the ol' carbon tariffs scorecard:

Pro carbon tariffs - Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT); Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and John Kerry (D-MA); Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Arlen Specter (D-PA), Carl Levin (D-MI), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Mark Begich (D-AK), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Tim Johnson (D-SD), Al Franken (D-MN), Evan Bayh (D-IN), John Rockefeller (D-WV), Robert Byrd (D-WV), Robert Casey (D-PA) and Russ Feingold (D-WI); the US House of Representatives (in Waxman-Markey), France, and Paul Krugman.

Voting present - the White House.

Anti carbon tariffs - the rest of the world.

Winning Iraq


The news from Iraq is both encouraging (an election law has been passed) and disturbing (118 people have been killed by a car bombing).

Many advocates of the Iraq surge have taken to calling the current outcome in Iraq a "victory." As far as victories go, this one is certainly not an unalloyed boon for the United States. We have invested a substantial amount of blood and treasure into Iraq and while it's true that the country is more permissive with its oil contracts than Saddam Hussein was, there have not been correspondingly high geopolitical returns. Maybe those are still to come. We'll see.

But the fact that many in Washington feel content to call Iraq a victory is a good thing in my mind. It means they're willing to define success down.

(AP Photos)

December 7, 2009



(Updated 12/8)

In the aftermath of a terrorist attack against a Russian train, Prime Minister Putin told the press that Russia would "break the spine" of the terrorist threat. It was an evocative phrase, and one that got me thinking about other "Putinisms." We've had "Bushisms" - those malapropisms where the meaning gets wrestled to the ground by the tongue - but Putinisms are different. They're hyper-virile, strikingly crude or, ideally, both.

So I gathered the top five Putinisms. This list is by no means exhaustive, so readers are encouraged to submit their own or quibble with the ranking.

6. "Russia doesn't negotiate with terrorists. Russia destroys them." - Nov. 2005.

5. "If they're in the airport," Putin said, "we'll kill them there … and excuse me, but if we find them in the toilet, we'll exterminate them in their outhouses." - Sept. 1999.

4. Such “rumors,” Putin said, “they picked from a nose and smeared onto their papers.” - Feb. 2008.

3. “You must obey the law, always, not only when they grab you by your special place.” - Nov. 2003

2. “I am going to hang Saakashvili by the balls." - August 2008. Hat tip: MTW.

1. “If you want to become an Islamic radical and have yourself circumcised, I invite you to come to Moscow. I would recommend that he who does the surgery does it so you’ll have nothing growing back, afterward.” - 2002.

(AP Photos)

The Woman Who Wants Us Out, Ctd.

A reader responds to a reader responding to me. Got it? Good. On Malalai Joya, this reader writes:

The fact that she decries US troops, despite the fact that it was US troops that put her into power in the first place, is merely a stronger version of Hamid Karazi's frequent condemnation of US bombings. To me, that suggests that she is a demagogue exploiting a salient issue, not at all a heroine.


Westerners are looking for anybody to latch onto, any hero that appears to validate their existence, so as to claim progress and victory. But that is a foolhardy endeavor, as we don't have to end up being governed by these "heroes" and "heroines" that we praise.

Third-world nations do not need strong personalities and famous leaders. It suffered from them for far too long. It instead needs good institution-building, to ensure its very survival. The United States should not throw money in the hopes of listening to soundbites from Afghani politicians and feeling "good" about themselves. The United States should throw money in the hopes that, in the future, Afghanistan still functions, so that the vast majority of AFGHANS, the ones we don't see in the news or blogs, live in peace.

December 6, 2009

On Not Leaving Afghanistan

As I and others pointed out after the president's speech, using the term "vital national interest" to describe Afghanistan didn't exactly jibe with the notion that we would be walking away from the country in 18 months. And lo and behold, we're not:

"We will have 100,000 forces, troops there,” Mr. Gates said on ABC’s “This Week,” “and they are not leaving in July of 2011. Some, handful, or some small number, or whatever the conditions permit, will begin to withdraw at that time.”

“I don’t consider this an exit strategy,” he continued, “This is a transition.” He said it would begin in less-contested parts of Afghanistan before expanding to the most obdurate Taliban strongholds, largely in the south and east.

The White House used appearances on the Sunday talk programs to convey that the deadline would mark the start, not the end, of troop withdrawal. “2011 is not a cliff, it’s a ramp,” Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser, said.

Wherever one stands on the issue of the efficacy of timelines, it's pretty clear that the administration is actively walking back the idea that responsibility for Afghanistan is going to be handed over to Afghans any time soon.

(AP Photos)

Eye on the Prize


Fareed Zakaria makes a key point:

It also means concentrating on the centers of global power, not the periphery. Throughout history great nations have lost their way by getting bogged down in imperial missions far from home that crippled their will, strength, and focus. (Even when they won: Britain prevailed in the Boer War, but it broke the back of the empire.) It's important to remember that in the coming century it will be America's dominant position in Asia—its role as the balancer in the Pacific—that will be pivotal to its role as a global superpower, not whatever happens in the mountains of Afghanistan.

This is very true, but as Iran proceeds toward nuclear weapons there will be numerous voices telling us how vital it is to focus on the Middle East, and use American power to contain a potentially hegemonic Iran. This would be a mistake - our 60 year history of trying to do this with the Saudis and later the Israelis have brought us a considerable amount of grief, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of transnational terrorism. But with a fragile world economy coming out of a deep recession, any movement of oil prices is likely to figure front and center in the mind of politicians - long term considerations be damned.

(AP Photos)

December 5, 2009

Zombie Protectionism

After being ruled illegal by the WTO in 2001, the highly controversial Continued Dumping and Subsidy Offset Act (aka "the Byrd Amendment") was officially repealed in 2006. The Act diverted duties collected under US antidumping and countervailing duty (CVD) laws from the US Treasury to the domestic firms that petitioned for the relief, and was secretly stashed in a 2000 appropriations bill during conference committee. From its inception, the CDSOA was highly controversial - seen by our trading partners as encouraging AD/CVD cases and unfairly benefiting domestic firms at the expense of their international competition (the ones paying the duties). This opposition led to the WTO complaint and the eventual repeal in 2006 after lots of WTO-sanctioned retaliation by US trading partners, but the act's provisions didn't die immediately. Instead, they applied to all imports that entered the US before October 1, 2007.

Amazingly, however, the Byrd Amendment still isn't dead. Its corpse roams the earth because duties on those pre-10/2007 imports - caught up in administrative litigation and so forth - are still being collected and then distributed to US companies. And we're not talking chump change here, either. For example, Furniture Today reports that "La-Z-Boy has received $3 million from the U.S. government in antidumping duties and will report the income on its fiscal third quarter statement, the company said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.... This year's payment is sharply lower than the $8.1 million La-Z-Boy reported receiving a year ago and the $7.1 million it got the year before that."

So that's over $18 million in "illegal" Byrd money since the law providing the loot was repealed! Who says protectionism doesn't pay?

Unfortunately, it's not just La-Z Boy swimming in that dirty Byrd cash. For this year alone, US Customs has authorized (PDF) the disbursement of around $100 million worth of collected AD/CVD duties on a wide range of imported products. That's down a lot from previous years, but I'm quite sure there will be many millions more next year, even though the CDSOA was "repealed" years ago. Meanwhile, the Japanese are still retaliating against US exports - authorized to do so by the WTO - to the tune of another several million dollars. Fantastic.

Fortunately, the Byrd Amendment will eventually die - related litigation will end, and the final Byrd monies will be collected and distributed. Unfortunately, we're obviously not there yet and won't be anytime soon.

Protectionism is one tough mother.....

December 4, 2009

The Future of Israel's Labor Party (Pt. 2)


By Thomas G. Mitchell

Click here for part one.

Labor is now on the verge of a split. Former faction leader Daniel Ben-Simon has given his party two-three months to reform or he will join four rebel MKs to form a new faction. This faction can either join with Meretz, with Kadima, or remain independent. If Labor does split, expect to see meetings between Kadima, Meretz, and the new faction and perhaps the remainder of Labor as well over a reorganization of the Center-Left in Israel. Whatever new Center-Left combination emerges will first have to destroy Labor and consolidate its hold over the Ashkenazi moderates before it can compete with the Likud. We could see a Big Bang II or a rumble between the rebels, Kadima, and Labor for control of the peace camp. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Labor received 19 seats in both the 2003 and 2006 elections. In late 2008—early 2009 Labor was polling only eight seats before the Gaza War helped to boost it to thirteen seats in the February 2009 election. It suffered from Israel’s poor performance in the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 against Hezbollah. Amir Peretz was replaced as Labor leader in 2007 by former prime minister and chief of staff Ehud Barak. Barak wanted to serve as defense minister until Labor was sufficiently recovered that he could be elected prime minister. So when given the choice of serving in opposition second to Kadima or joining the Likud coalition under Benyamin Netanyahu in 2009 as defense minister, Barak quickly opted for the latter.

From 1984 to 1990 and again from 2001 to 2006, Labor spent most of its time as an equal or junior partner in governments of national unity dominated by the Likud. This has led to a blurring of the borders between the two dominant Israeli parties. This was partly the result of the influence of the “military politicians” or former generals in Labor. These generals, in whichever party, tend to look upon a ministry as another command similar to a theater or branch command in the IDF. Temperamentally most of these generals are incapable of sitting in the opposition for long periods of time as ideologically motivated civilian politicians are. If they don’t get a ministry they will leave politics and make money in the private sector.

Israel’s Center-Left sector has two other parties: Meretz and Kadima. Meretz was formed as an alliance of three smaller liberal or socialist parties in 1992 who had earlier cooperated in municipal elections in 1989. Two of these parties, Ratz and Mapam, were splinters from the ruling Labor Alignment, which existed from 1969 to 1984. The third, Shinui, is a splinter from the Democratic Movement for Change, which began as a protest movement in 1974. In 1997 the three parties merged into a united party. Meretz is, unlike Labor, an ideological party with two main concerns: opposing religious coercion and the peace process. Meretz varied between nine and twelve seats during the 1990s and then went to half that number during the following decade as it lost voters trying to shore up Labor. It has since its inception been the most dovish Zionist party in Israel. In late 2009 Meretz relaunched itself as the New Movement by integrating a number of prominent intellectuals into the party. The move backfired, largely because of divergent views about the Gaza War and the party ended up with only three seats.

Kadima was created four years ago in November 2005 when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon split his followers from the Likud. He did this in order to win more freedom of action than the Likud was prepared to give him. Two months later he suffered a massive stroke and has been in a coma ever since. Kadima’s leadership devolved to former Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, a longtime Likud party worker. In March 2006 Kadima won 29 seats its first time out and emerged as Israel’s largest party. After the Second Lebanon War Olmert’s poll ratings were in the low single digits and then in late 2008 he was indicted for corruption.

Tzipi Livni won a Kadima leadership contest by a narrow one-percent margin but failed to forge a coalition government in the fall of 2008 leading to new elections. Kadima again emerged from the election as Israel’s largest party with 28 seats. On the face of it this would seem as if it has a stable electorate. But the Likud also recovered from an all-time low of twelve seats in 2006 to emerge with 27 seats in 2009. From where did it get those seats? Labor lost six seats and Meretz lost two seats in the 2009 election. Those voters probably all went to Kadima in an attempt to shore it up so it would emerge as the largest party. Thus Kadima probably lost nine seats to the Likud: eight seats from its original 2006 voters who were replaced by voters from the Left and the one seat it dropped. The remaining six seats the Likud gained from religious parties and parties of the Right.

Israeli political scientists have for some time been writing about the “dealignment” of Israeli politics as a result of the lost dominance of Labor and the temporary change of the voting system. Labor went from the largest party to the second largest over a twenty-nine year period. It then remained as second largest for thirty-two years. It then jumped from second largest to fourth largest in 2009. This was due both to the recovery of the Likud, and the expansion of the Russian-immigrant Israel Beitenu (Israel, Our Home) party led by Avigdor Lieberman.

When Barak joined the coalition he was faced with an internal opposition by Labor MKs that wanted to remain with Kadima in opposition to Netanyahu. Barak could be left with a small rump that would then join the Likud. If this seems unlikely, consider that in 1965 former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion bolted from Mapai and formed his own list, Rafi, which received ten seats in the Knesset. Three years later Rafi united with Mapai and another socialist party to form the Israel Labor Party. Ben-Gurion and a rump following stayed separate and received four seats in 1969 as the State List. In 1973 it was one of the two small parties that joined with the Gahal bloc to form the Likud.

Kadima has largely taken Labor’s place as the largest party in Israel. But it lacks natural partners to allow it to form a governing coalition. Its natural partners are Labor and Meretz. But together these two will be able to offer less than the number of seats that Labor alone brought to the coalition in 2006. This means that Kadima, like Labor in the 1980s, will be faced with the choice of opposition or sharing power in a government of national unity with the Likud. This will rule out the type of concessions that would be necessary to make peace viable on the Palestinian track. Incidentally, Fatah on the Palestinian side is in the same position. This will mean that peace talks will be limited to the Syrian track with Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’athist party dictatorship. So the crucial question then becomes what will Assad be able to offer to Israel to persuade it to give up the Golan for peace? That is the subject for another column.

Thomas G. Mitchell, PhD is an independent researcher who was educated in Israel and the United States and specializes in research in settler societies.

(AP Photos)

The Woman Who Wants Us Out, Ctd.

A reader responds to my post on Malalai Joya:

I admire the guts of this young woman and believe it will eventually be the women of Islam who prove to be its salvation.

However, having left Afghanistan at 4 and not returning until she was 20, in 1998, it appears she spent the period of the Taliban's reign of terror in Iran and Pakistan. Ironically, the world would never have heard of Malalai Joya had the US not invaded Afghanistan and created an opportunity for her to even serve in its legislature.

The Afghan region has been in a state, in varying degrees, of perpetual tribal war for centuries and it is easy to understand its people know no other state of affairs. The reality, though, is Afghan existence is mostly defined by raw power from the barrel of a gun.

I don't have a great deal of confidence in American success there, but I am willing for us to make the effort to buy enough time to hopefully allow more Joyas to step forward and blossom. To reasonably compare any current statistical evidence on crime and security to the earlier Taliban era is preposterous. One would have to assume the Taliban actually kept those records and kept them accurately.

I fear Joya is making the Hobbesian choice of native, dictatorial power over a gamble for a better environment in the future, even if it is provided temporarily by a foreign power. If she believes the withdrawal of all coalition forces and an immediate return to local determination is the best solution, she is indeed living in a world of "bellum universale" and "jus non retinendum".

I wish her and her countrymen the best of all luck.

Al Qaeda Kills a Lot of Muslims


Not exactly news, I know, but with Stephen Walt tallying up the number of Muslims felled by the U.S. over the past 30 years, it's also worth noting al Qaeda's body count:

Few would deny that Muslims too are victims of Islamist terror. But a new study by the Combating Terrorism Center in the US has shown that an overwhelming majority of al-Qaida victims are, in fact, co-religionists....

... Between 2004 and 2008, for example, al-Qaida claimed responsibility for 313 attacks, resulting in the deaths of 3,010 people. And even though these attacks include terrorist incidents in the West -- in Madrid in 2004 and in London in 2005 -- only 12 percent of those killed (371 deaths) were Westerners.

That's from a report from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Read the whole thing here (pdf).

(AP Photos)

The 1% Consensus


I found Fareed Zakaria's interview this week with CNN on Afghanistan and President Obama's military escalation rather interesting. The entire interview is worth a read, but Zakaria made what I thought was an especially salient point on Pakistan:

CNN: Do you think the president was justified in raising the specter of nuclear disaster in connection with terrorism and Pakistan?

Zakaria: I used to believe that the Pakistani nuclear weapons were secure and the Pakistani army was strong enough to maintain control over them, but I have seen recent reports, including one from Bruce Riedel who is advising the president on this which cast doubt on the security of nuclear command and control, the security of the weapons themselves.

So yes, reluctantly I would have to say the president was right to raise the specter of some possible collapse of parts of the Pakistani state which could put the nuclear weapons in the wrong hands. I think it's remote, but ... you want to do what you can to minimize the chances of a remote but very bad outcome.

This reminds me of Vice President Cheney's now famous "1% chance" line on the possibility of al-Qaeda acquiring nuclear capability via Pakistan. "It's not about our analysis," said Cheney at the time, but "our response."

This was obviously the guiding doctrine for the Bush administration, but what's interesting is how the very same doctrine, if reluctantly, has found consensus within the Obama administration as well. Zakaria admits to a reluctant acceptance of this, and we heard much of that same reluctance in the President's speech this week.

It is fascinating however--all of the back and forth sniping notwithstanding--to see the same driving paranoia bind the previous and current administrations together. While data indicates that most Pakistanis, prompted in part by drone attacks inside their borders, view the United States as the problem--not the Taliban.

Yet a nuclear al-Qaeda/Taliban consumes our imaginations. To paraphrase the former Vice President, it's not the analysis of such a possibility that matters, but our preparedness to react to that possibility in preponderant fashion. In an age where asymmetric warfare meets nuclear know-how, paranoia may be the new norm. Whereas past enemies fighting with conventional means could be 'contained,' today's enemies must be assumed at their worst, and dealt with in apparently equal fashion.

(AP Photos)

Questioning Pew's Isolationist Finding


I think Daniel Larison is right to cry foul on the use of the term "isolationist" in the just-released Pew survey blogged about below. Before we accept the finding that there has been a surge in isolationist sentiment among the American people uncritically, it's worth unpacking just what sentiment the public is actually expressing. Larison:

No doubt, there was a higher percentage that answered that the U.S. should “mind its own business and let other countries get along the best they can on their own,” but the alternative was to answer that the U.S. “is the most powerful nation in the world, we should go our own way in international matters, not worrying about whether other countries agree with us or not.” Given that choice between something that sounds reasonable and something that sounds idiotic, a great many non-”isolationists” would prefer the former response. Essentially, the survey offered two choices. On the one hand, the respondent can choose arrogant hegemonism and disregard the interests of all other nations, or he can choose something less obviously obnoxious.

What's more, the Council on Foreign Relation's just released Digest of International and U.S. Attitudes unearthed a more nuanced set of questions which, I think, offers a more useful basis for analysis:

Americans prefer a system of world order based on a multilateral approach over one based on hegemony or bipolarity. The Bertelsmann Foundation asked nine countries worldwide in 2005 to identify the best framework for ensuring peace and stability, offering four options. In the United States, the most popular option was “a system led by a balance of regional powers,” which was endorsed by 52 percent of Americans, while a third of respondents chose “a system led by the United Nations.” For other nations, the more common position was a system based on the United Nations. Among Americans, as with all other respondents, small minorities favored “a system led by a single world power” (6 percent) or “a system led by two world powers” (4 percent).

Large majorities of Americans reject a hegemonic role for the United States. In 2006, CCGA and WPO presented three options for the U.S. role in the international system. The least popular choice argued, “As the sole remaining superpower, the United States should continue to be the preeminent world leader in solving international problems.” Just 10 percent chose this option. Likewise, the position, “The United States should withdraw from most efforts to solve international problems” also received low levels of support (12 percent). By far, the preferred option was a multilateral approach, which reasoned, “The United States should do its share in efforts to solve international problems together with other countries.” Seventy-five percent favored this position. Interestingly, Americans concur with publics of most other nations on this; in thirteen out of fifteen countries polled, majorities preferred that the United States adopt a multilateral approach to world affairs, with an average of 56 percent of respondents endorsing it.

To a striking degree, the way we discuss international engagement in the United States hinges on the military dimension. If you're leery about military interventionism, you're therefore an isolationist (or a quitter and a defeatist). It doesn't matter if you favor free trade, international institutions, alliances, etc. It boils down to a willingness to use force. It's a unserious paradigm, but, apparently, the prevailing one.

(AP Photos)

December 3, 2009

Poll: Transatlantic Immigration Trends

The German Marshall Fund is out with a new survey of opinion on the issue of immigration (one that's particularly timely given the goings on in Switzerland). They've put together a nice little video highlighting the research:

Why the Peace Process is Going Nowhere


The Washington Institute's David Makovsky diagnoses:

There were profound implications for the United States in setting the bar high on the settlement issue by calling for a construction freeze rather than merely no outward expansion of settlements. One lesson is that even if the Israeli opposition cannot say "yes" to Barack Obama, the United States has lost mainstream Israelis.

A second lesson is that caution is required in raising expectations. Abbas cannot be less Palestinian than the United States. So if the U.S. demands a freeze, Abbas is boxed in and not likely to agree to less. This pattern will likely repeat itself. With the United States calling for a freeze on Jewish construction in East Jerusalem, Abbas is not likely to accept less -- such as no outward expansion of East Jerusalem Jewish neighborhoods.

There are two schools of thought when it comes how to effectively bring the parties to a settlement. The first, favored by Makovsky, is a slow, incremental process of confidence building on both sides until more substantive agreements can be forged. The other school, favored by Stephen Walt and others, want a 'big bang' settlement, where the U.S. shoe-horns both parties into agreement.

I think the "big bang" school believes that incrementalism is a danger to both parties. In the short run, it's the Palestinians who have the most to lose, since they're the weaker party and can thus be taken advantage of. Over the long run they believe incrementalism begins to endanger Israel, which will face the demographic crisis of having more Arabs under its rule than Jews.

Yet, as Makovsky argues, it doesn't appear that a 'big bang' approach can work, at least not the way the administration has approached it. That leaves incrementalism or - perish the thought - finding a more constructive use for our diplomacy.

(AP Photos)

Poll: U.S. Public & Elite Views on Foreign Policy

Pew Research and the Council on Foreign Relations have released a wide-ranging study of public opinion measuring both general public and "elite" (i.e. members of the Council on Foreign Relations) views on foreign policy. It's interesting to see which issues provoke a divergence of elite and public opinion and where they converge.

Here's one convergence:

The new survey finds that 41% of the public says the United States plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader today than it did 10 years ago -- the highest percentage ever in a Pew Research survey. And while the foreign policy opinion leaders differ with the public about many issues -- including President Obama's foreign policy, the war in Afghanistan and China -- a growing proportion of Council on Foreign Relations members agree that the United States is a less important world leader. Fully 44% of the CFR members say the U.S. is a less important global leader, up from 25% in early September 2001, just before the 9/11 attacks.

There's an interesting divergence when it comes to the threat Pakistan poses - which more CFR members worry about than the public - and the threat posed to the U.S. by the Taliban, which the general public appears to be more worried about.

Declinism Among the Foreign Policy Elite

Robert Kagan is concerned about many of his peers in the foreign policy elite:

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the last few years has been the stunningly large number of American thinkers, strategists and pundits who have been perfectly prepared to lose wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. People talk about American decline these days, but it is not in the basic measurements of national power that American decline is to be found. It is in the willingness of the intellectual and foreign policy establishments to accept both decline and defeat.

There is a new doctrine out there that seems to enjoy enormous cache among the smart foreign policy set: fight wars until they get hard, then quit.

I think a large part of Kagan's problem is that he's unhappy that his peers won't discuss national security issues in cartoonish, Manichean terms. They're many things to call a more narrowly tailored counter-terrorism strategy, but "losing" and "quitting" aren't them. But this is an age old and frankly wearisome technique - stake out a sufficiently vague but maximalist position that requires a long-term garrison of American forces on foreign soil and call it "victory" - and then use the most absurd, demagogic language to characterize every alternative, even ones that contemplate a fairly robust use of military power.

If you are concerned about the decline of America, worry more about the portion of our foreign policy elite that refuses to address the range of policy options in front of the United States in an intellectually honest manner.

The Woman Who Wants Us Out


Afghan politician and women's rights activist Malalai Joya on Western forces in Afghanistan:

Torture, drug trafficking, the continued rule of warlords and fundamentalists–these are the only things that this war has brought Afghans. Today, our people are being victimized by two enemies: the occupation forces bombing us from the sky, and the warlords and their Taliban brothers-in-creed.

If the troops withdraw, it will be easier for Afghans to fight one enemy and to determine our own future. It is the duty of the Afghan people to work for freedom and democracy; these values can never be donated to us by the very foreign powers who–after nearly three decades of funding various fundamentalists are arming warlords and other criminals–are responsible for many of the problems Afghanistan faces today.

While I don't agree with everything Joya has to say, I think her words in this case are worth consideration; especially as we debate women's rights as a byproduct of war.

I understand the temptation to morph the Afghan war into a cause for liberalism and humanitarianism, and the likelihood will only increase now that a liberal president has assumed the role of caretaker over the conflict. And we've seen this before from previous progressive administrations, as Wilson's Latin America policy comes to mind. The temptation to be global evangelists of just about anything can sometimes be too attractive when you possess the means to act on that temptation.

But why we went to war and what we can do with war are two different things, and we should be mindful not to let the latter have too much influence over broader policy ambitions. Making Afghanistan the central front in women's liberation makes no more sense than making Afghanistan the central front in the War on Terrorism--both are in fact global struggles requiring global solutions.

(h/t Andrew Sullivan)

The Future of Israel's Labor Party

By Thomas G. Mitchell

For forty years the Israel Labor Party (ILP) has been America’s partner in the peace process. From the Roger’s Plan negotiations during the War of Attrition in 1969-70, through the Kissinger shuttle diplomacy of 1973-75, to the Oslo peace process of the 1990s it has been Labor that has negotiated with its neighbors. Even when the Likud Party was in power and negotiating with Egypt from 1977-79 it was carried out by a former Labor defense minister and a future defector to the Labor Party.

From 1977 onwards the ILP was in "The Shadow of the Likud" - to quote the title of a book on the party from 1977-96. The only two elected Labor coalitions after 1977 were both headed by former generals. In fact, since Golda Meir resigned in 1974, Shimon Peres was the only “civilian” Labor prime minister and he had to share his term with Yitzhak Shamir of the Likud because Labor’s margin of victory was so narrow. This means that Labor should be compared to the only Western democratic parties that were also dependent on former generals (military politicians): the Whigs in antebellum America, the Republicans in post-Civil War America, and the South Africa Party/United Party in the Union of South Africa. The Whigs collapsed over a four year period after suffering a leadership vacuum and adverse public reaction to a failed compromise on the slavery issue. The United Party staggered on for three decades after running out of generals but collapsed rather quickly over a three-year period.

Since 2000 Labor has also been suffering from the backlash from the failure of the Oslo process and the Al-Aksa Intifada. It can be compared to the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which suffered from a similar backlash from the failure of the Irish Republican Army to decommission its weapons during the two years allowed for this under the Good Friday Agreement. The UUP went from nine MPs in the House of Commons in 1997 to a single MP in 2005 and lost its dominance in the Assembly in the second Assembly election in November 2003. The UUP has yet to begin to recover from this loss.

Labor, and its main predecessor, Mapai, ran Israel from 1948 to 1977. Its dominance ended for four main reasons. First, the public was simply tired of it after three decades in power and another fifteen years of running the prestate Jewish yishuv in Palestine. Second, the party and its officials had grown corrupt after so long in power. Third, the party’s Central European-descended electorate had become a demographic minority within Israel by 1977. Rabin was elected prime minister for a second time in 1992 with the temporary support of Russian Jews but they soon abandoned it for Russian-immigrant parties and the Likud. And starting in 1996 those Israeli Arabs who voted for Labor in the past began either abstaining or voting for Arab parties as the Arabs became more nationalistic. And finally, the voters voted against Labor as a punishment for Israel being surprised by Egypt and Syria in the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. When Labor also lost the 1981 election, it understood that it had a real problem.

For the next quarter century after the 1973 election there were two blocs of roughly equal size led by Labor and the Likud. But because the National Religious Party had become expansionist and moved to the right after 1967, the Likud enjoyed a natural advantage in coalition formation. This usually gave them the first shot at forming a coalition following an election. In 1992 a new law was passed, which went into effect in 1996, giving Israeli voters two votes—one for the Knesset (parliament) and one for the prime minister. This caused voters to begin voting for smaller parties and abandoning the two main parties. This behavior continued even after the double voting system was repealed following a 2001 prime ministerial election. In Israel voters vote for a party list and seats are divided proportionately among the parties based on the percentage of the vote that they receive. Every Israeli government has been a coalition government. It is the party best able to form a majority coalition rather than the largest party that is given the nod to form a coalition.

This is part one of a two-part series. Part two will be published tomorrow.

Thomas G. Mitchell, PhD is an independent researcher who was educated in Israel and the United States and specializes in research in settler societies.

(AP Photos)

December 2, 2009

Brazil and That Coveted Security Council Seat


Both The Economist and Alvaro Vargas Llosa have looked at Brazil's desire to become a world-class diplomatic power and become a permanent member of the UN Security Council--and, how last week's visit by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad played in this ambition.

Neither one is favorably impressed with the fact that Lula invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a state visit. One must emphasize that it was a state visit, not simply a visit by a delegation of 200 Iranian businessmen, and a state visit that was rescheduled after the initial outcry last May.

The Economist:

President Lula frequently talks about how important democracy is, and members of his government invoke their experience of exile or imprisonment at the hands of Brazil’s former military government. This sits awkwardly with reports that Iran’s government has sentenced to death five opposition activists since the protests that followed its disputed election.

Brazil risks overstepping the mark in its desire to be seen as an important country. Earlier this month, when Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, was in Brasília, President Lula talked about Brazil helping to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His suggestion of a football match between Brazil and a mixed team of Israelis and Palestinians is nice enough. However, Brazil has failed to settle far simpler disputes between Argentina and Uruguay, Venezuela and Colombia, and Honduras’s political rivals. It has little chance of succeeding where more powerful countries have failed for so long in the Middle East

Alvaro Vargas Llosa:
Brazil, a bewitching country, needs to take a deep breath. Its ambition ought to be focused on reforming its political system so prosperity can be something more than a combination of high revenue from commodities and some manufactured products, and social programs such as Bolsa Familia, a subsidy distributed to about 11 million poor families. The leaders need to tame their hubris before it pulls too far ahead of reality.
A question that perhaps Brazil's leadership ought to have asked is, how does a state visit from Ahmadinejad sit with the permanent members of the UN Security Council--China, France, Russia, the US, and the UK? Of the five, the only one that perhaps considers the state visit in a favorable light is Russia.

Combined with the misstep on Israeli-Palestinian relations, the hosting of deposed Honduran President Mel Zelaya in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, and Iran's status as a state sponsoring terrorism along with its nuclear ambitions, one can only surmise that the country is not quite ready for that permanent Security Council seat.

Next in Line at the Graveyard?

Max Boot asks for moratorium on the Soviet analogies:

The whole mindset of the Red Army veterans is highly conventional — employing helicopter assault forces and tanks. That works against a conventional army; it doesn’t work against guerrillas. McChrystal realizes that, which is why he’s trying a different strategy — the same one that has been vindicated in counterinsurgencies from Malaya to, more recently, Colombia and Iraq. Anyone who offers a mindless Soviet analogy to suggest that we are doomed to failure in the supposed “graveyard of empires” — and I have heard many such arguments in the past few days — should ponder the profound differences between the Soviets’ tactics and those of NATO. There is no comparison.

Pomp and Circumspect

Fred Barnes writes:

I had hoped Obama would declare that nothing will deter him, as commander-in-chief, from prevailing in Afghanistan. But it turns out a lot of things might deter him. He listed a few of them: the cost of the war, its length (if more than 18 months from January 2010), the failure of Afghans to step up to the task sufficiently. He hedged.

Americans and our allies were looking for more, I believe. To have rallied the country and the world, Obama needed to indicate he would lead a fight to win in Afghanistan, with the help of allies if possible, but with the armed forces of the U.S. alone if necessary. He didn’t say anything like that. He didn’t come close.

The heavy emphasis placed by some on lofty rhetoric never ceases to amaze me. President Obama's predecessor was fond of the stuff, but it never accounted for much on the battle field. As we've now come to learn, the rhetoric President Bush applied to Afghanistan rarely matched strategic application on the ground. And as for Iraq, well, we know what lofty rhetoric and pageantry got us there.

I may disagree somewhat with the President's escalation plan, but I can at least appreciate his coupling of that plan with some sober rhetoric and reality on the ground.

The American Order and Afghanistan


Andrew Sullivan thinks that President Obama is seeking to "unwind the American empire" with his new strategy in Afghanistan:

How best to unwind the empire? By giving McChrystal what he wants and giving him a couple of years to deliver tangible results.

While I think this is the narrow goal of the president's surge strategy, I think it's wrong to characterize this as some kind of broader repudiation of America's strategic posture. Quite the contrary. In his speech, President Obama explicitly situated the surge in Afghanistan as a piece with past American efforts to sustain international security:

Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, and the service and sacrifice of our grandparents, our country has borne a special burden in global affairs. We have spilled American blood in many countries on multiple continents. We have spent our revenue to help others rebuild from rubble and develop their own economies. We have joined with others to develop an architecture of institutions - from the United Nations to NATO to the World Bank - that provide for the common security and prosperity of human beings.

We have not always been thanked for these efforts, and we have at times made mistakes. But more than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades - a time that, for all its problems, has seen walls come down, markets open, billions lifted from poverty, unparalleled scientific progress, and advancing frontiers of human liberty.

In other words, far from repudiating an "imperial" foreign policy, President Obama is positioning the surge within the continuum of America's post World War II role as global leader.

Only this time, instead of the economically and strategically vital areas of Europe and Asia, and instead of facing a superpower threat, we're going to attempt to micromanage a tribal dispute in the mountains of a country that has never been, and likely will never be, a pivotal international power.

And we do not simply because we face a legitimate security threat from international terrorism, but because we now have such an extravagant idea of what is necessary to keep America safe. President Obama:

What we have fought for - and what we continue to fight for - is a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity.

President Obama is not the first president to express such a universalist sentiment. And it's difficult to tell if this was included as a sop to his critics who accuse him of being a monster realist, or a genuine statement of strategic purpose. Either way, it doesn't seem to signal an unwinding of anything.

(AP Photos)

Betting on COIN


Thinking a bit further about the strategy the president laid out in his speech last night, it seems to place a mighty heavy bet that the U.S. military can duplicate in Afghanistan the success it enjoyed in Iraq. The strategy strikes me as modest: calm things down so we can leave with the patina of victory. If the longer term trends in Afghanistan turn south, the fault will lay with the Afghans, who failed to take advantage of the opportunity afforded them by allied military forces.

This worked fairly well in Iraq. The politics inside Iraq are still a mess, and an appallingly high number of Iraqis are still being slaughtered, but we can plausibly and rightfully say that if Iraq can't get its act together now, no amount of American military power inside the country could right the ship.

Obama is gambling that a similar dynamic will take hold in Afghanistan. We'll do our best, and then it's up to them. This doesn't exactly jibe with the contention that Afghanistan is a "vital national interest" but given the circumstances, perhaps this was the only bet available. I sure hope it works.

(AP Photos)

December 1, 2009

Obama Speech Reaction

“As Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan.” - President Obama.

There is an elemental tension between having a short "time bound" surge - as one senior administration official put it in a conference call with bloggers after the speech - and the urgent requirement to pour in additional U.S. forces now.

The official went on to say that the administration explicitly rejected a "10 year nation building" strategy, in addition to leaving now or standing pat.

But if the situation is as urgent and portentous as the administration says it is today, and conditions aren't measurably improved in 18 months, I don't see how you could leave. If it would be irresponsible and wrong today to do anything other than surge, what could possibly change in 18 months? The administration may reject the "10 year nation building" strategy, but the rhetoric it has used to justify the current strategy sets them on a clear path towards such a commitment.

A Band-Aid on Bush's War


I think there's something getting repeatedly lost in the hand-wringing and keyword-tallying going on in preparation for tonight's speech by President Obama. While I'm sure we'll hear a great deal this evening about "benchmarks," and victory and the Taliban, I suspect we'll hear very little about the War on Terrorism. There are some fundamental questions that have not been answered by escalation proponents, and I doubt we'll get those answers tonight when the President takes to the podium at West Point.

Specifically, how is allocating 100,000 troops to Afghanistan--at a roughly estimated cost of $1 million per troop per year, if not more--a justifiable strategy for isolating and killing an al-Qaeda leadership believed to be weak and on the wane in the region. How does escalation in Afghanistan defeat al-Qaeda in Yemen, or the Maghreb?

And in his failure to address broader questions about America's long war on terrorism, President Obama has simply opted for the politically safer option of applying bandages to President Bush's Afghan war strategy. This may assuage the President's critics, but it does little to address greater concerns about terrorism and American security.

Rather than a departing from the Bush doctrine, Obama has simply wed himself to it--or worse--clings to it for dear life.

I'll be 'tweeting' (yes, that's apparently a verb) the speech once it begins, please feel free to follow along.

(AP Photos)

Afghanisan & the Logic of Escalation


I think Alex Massie has it right:

...I guess one ought to have an official "What I Think About Obama’s Escalation in Afghanistan post". And the truth is that I don't know. Don't know whether Obama's new strategy will work, don't know if it is wise or enough or too much or just about right. And I'm intensely suspicious of anyone who celebrates it and, most especially, those who immediately claim that it's insufficient, reckless, half-hearted or whatever. Because (almost) none of us have a clue, really, and pretending that we do does no-one any good.

What may be said, with all due caution, is that the administration is doing its best to make the best of a bad situation. It seems quite possible to me, even probable, that there is no solution to the matrix of problems we face in Afghanistan. If there were someone might have found it by now.

Well said. My biggest concern is that the logic of denying the Taliban and al Qaeda a propaganda win only increases after the president's commitment ofmore troops. If we discover that a population centric counter-insurgency with 100,000-plus allied troops does not do the trick, it will be that much harder to switch tactics and pursue an off-shore counter-terrorism approach. The logic of saving face after putting more of our blood and treasure on the line will only shift further in the direction of further escalation if sufficient progress can't be shown after 18 months.

(AP Photos)

Breaking Developments

This is it. President Obama will announce his new Afghan strategy tonight. Analysts and pundits will learn which of their thinking falls most closely inline with the president’s on such issues as troop deployment, a time line for withdrawal, the training of the Afghan army and police force, and how best to tackle corruption in the Karzai regime.

The President is also aware that force alone will not render Afghanistan more secure. Winning the necessary hearts and minds as part of a victorious counterinsurgency operation also requires a thoughtful development strategy to ensure that any success is both lasting and durable. How will President Obama weigh-in on the development issue?

In my brief few weeks here in Kabul I’ve somehow managed to ensconce myself within development community. While we haven’t yet had the opportunity to discuss what they’d hope to hear from President Obama’s new strategy, I have noticed a pall of frustration that follows their every move, not an uncommon phenomenon here in Kabul.

When their accomplishments are not overshadowed by the unrelenting news of IEDs, corruption and opium, they are undermined by bureaucratic ineptitude. Within a few hours of arriving I was forwarded an article by Rajiv Chandrasekaran--no stranger to good intentions gone awry from his time reporting in Baghdad’s greenzone with the Washington Post--that summed up the aggravations of development work here in Afghanistan.

Worse still, some of their early accomplishments have begun to unravel in the deteriorating security environment

Of the journalists I’ve spoken to, most would love to spend more time covering development success stories but with bureaus already stretched thin, finite column inches for foreign news and development projects that, in a 24 hour news cycle, progress at a glacial pace, it’s rare to find media outlets that are both willing and able.

I would be remiss, however, to not highlight the few positive development stories that did breakthrough: here, here and particularly here.

Like President Obama’s stimulus plan, where we’ll never know exactly how many jobs it saved or created and how much worse the recession would have been in its absence, it’s difficult to gauge how worse off things here in Afghanistan would be, despite all the missteps and backsliding, without the emphasis on development work to complement the security strategy. As the President lays out his grand Afghan plan, it will be worthwhile to see what, if any, mention will be made on development to ensure that a third comprehensive review will not be necessary.

Alim Remtulla

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