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January 31, 2010

Helping Haiti the Right Way


Martha Mendoza of AP writes:

Only 1 cent of each dollar the U.S. is spending on earthquake relief in Haiti is going in the form of cash to the Haitian government...Less than two weeks after President Obama announced an initial $100 million for Haiti earthquake relief, U.S. government spending on the disaster has tripled to $317 million at latest count. That's just over $1 each from everyone in the United States. Relief experts say it would be a mistake to send too much direct cash to the Haitian government, which is in disarray and has a history of failure and corruption.

I’m not sure how smart it is to completely subvert whatever remains of the Haitian state. Even in the cases of failed states like Haiti, landmark work by Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart proves rather definitively that the most effective, long-term foreign assistance policies are directed through a state apparatus.

Also, whatever “experts” are being referenced here, I doubt that their argument was that U.S. AID should subsume the entire role of aid distributor and implementer. Preeminent development economists Paul Collier and Jeffrey Sachs and former economic adviser to Haiti’s Prime Minister Jean-Louis Warnholz each argue that aid should be distributed through a transparent international bank.

Sachs provides the most specific plan:

I want the money to come from the US, but not to go through the US government. What I'd like is for US and other donor money to be put into a multi-donor trust fund (MDTF). My specific recommendation is that the MDTF should be located at the Inter-American Development bank. There are a lot of reasons for that. In essence the IADB is a development-finance institution that works well, has a long-term commitment to Haiti, has a lot of expertise, and is competent in handling money and organising projects with the proper monitoring, auditing and evaluation. And so I think that when you scan the institutional environment, the IADB seems the best place to do this. I think that relatively little of the aid should go through the bilateral development agencies of any of the major donor countries.

Either way, the U.S. maintaining a monopoly on nation-building initiatives in Haiti seems the far less sensible and sustainable policy choice.

(AP Photo)

Containing Iran


The New York Times reports that the U.S. is providing sophisticated missile defense technology, and U.S. support troops, to several Middle Eastern states as it moves to contain Iran:

Military officials said that the countries that accepted the defense systems were Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait. They said the Kuwaitis had agreed to take the defensive weapons to supplement older, less capable models it has had for years. Saudi Arabia and Israel have long had similar equipment of their own.

General Petraeus has declined to say who was taking the American equipment, probably because many countries in the gulf region are hesitant to be publicly identified as accepting American military aid and the troops that come with it. In fact, the names of countries where the antimissile systems are deployed are classified, but many of them are an open secret.

A militarized containment of Iran is preferable to a preemptive military strike, but it still carries risks (outlined here). The stationing of U.S. military forces in the Middle East is one of, if not the principle political driver of Islamic terrorism. And the General's reluctance to acknowledge the specific defense commitments is telling: here America is literally putting the lives of its soldiers in between Iran and the various Persian Gulf monarchs and autocrats, and yet these autocrats dare not openly acknowledge it, lest it inflame their citizens.

Put simply, containing Iran means strengthening the very Sunni Arab regimes and the same regional political structure that has driven some Arabs to radical Islamic terrorism. The Obama administration obviously believes it can manage that threat while strengthening its Middle East position. Let's hope they're right.

(AP Photo)

January 30, 2010

Defense Review Published

National Journal's Congress Daily has the 128 page Quadrennial Defense Review here (pdf). Plenty of time left in the weekend to kick back and enjoy it.

It seems to codify themes Secretary Gates has stressed earlier: rebalancing the U.S. military to perform better at counter-insurgency in addition to conventional threats. It is a QDR that envisions that Iraq and Afghanistan presage the future of American combat in what it dubs a "complex" threat environment. I'm dubious of this premise, given that we choose to invade Iraq and thus a lot of the deficits in counter-insurgency the QDR attempts to remedy by spending gobs of money on, could have just as easily been avoided had we not made poor strategic choices.

Indeed, given what we have learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, I'd be hard pressed to see why any political leader would wish to give armed state building another go, particularly when, in the case of Iraq at least, these are wars of choice.

Iraq the Irrelevant

Before the invasion of Iraq, we were told by Fouad Ajami and others that the Arab world suffered from certain pathologies that could only be cleansed by deposing a secular dictator who flouted our will and installing a democratic polity in his place. The net effect, we were promised, would "transform" the autocratic structures of the Middle East, giving its people more democratic channels for dissent and thus reducing the threat of jihadist terror directed at the United States.

So how's that going? Max Boot hails the progress thus far in Iraq:

A fragile but working democracy, an increase in foreign investment, a steep decline in attacks over the past several years—all these are signs that Iraq is hardly unraveling. That doesn’t mean that it is on a one-way flight to Nirvana. American vigilance and involvement remain essential. But an awful lot has gone right recently—more than I would have predicted back in 2007, when the surge was just beginning. Perhaps, just once in the Middle East, the pessimists will be proven wrong.

Here's hoping.

But notice what has not happened as a result of the progress to date in Iraq: a diminution of the al Qaeda threat. Instead, that threat is where it always was, tied to a Taliban insurgency in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and creeping out into Yemen and Somalia.

The net result of the Iraq war from a counter-terrorism perspective has been to give Arab terrorists a first hand seminar in urban warfare, skills they are now delivering to the Taliban to sow death against U.S. and NATO forces. There is not much in the way of evidence that I'm aware of to suggest that progress in creating a democratic regime in Iraq is having any influence over the global terrorist movement. And at the end of the day, wasn't that the point of the endeavor?

January 29, 2010

Video of the Day

The plan to 'reintegrate' the Taliban with money may seem like a new idea, but some are skeptical of its potential effectiveness:

The logic behind aid for current Taliban fighters is roughly the same as that behind foreign aid: we give you money to meet your needs, and you do not support our enemies. Underlying this is the assumption that these groups are actually somewhat autonomous and independent. If it works, 300 million is actually a fairly cheap price to make Afghanistan calmer.

For more videos, be sure to check the RCW video page.

R2-D2 to Lead the Global Recovery?


Former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and current Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University Kenneth Rogoff made a fascinating declaration:

As the global economy limps out of the last decade and enters a new one in 2010, what will be the next big driver of global growth? Here’s betting that the “teens” is a decade in which artificial intelligence hits escape velocity, and starts to have an economic impact on par with the emergence of India and China….

In 50 years, computers might be doing everything from driving taxis to performing routine surgery. Sooner than that, artificial intelligence will transform higher learning, potentially making a world-class university education broadly affordable even in poor developing countries. And, of course, there are more mundane but crucial uses of artificial intelligence everywhere, from managing the electronics and lighting in our homes to populating “smart grids” for water and electricity, helping monitor these and other systems to reduce waste.

In short, I do not share the view of many that, after the Internet and the personal computer, it will be a long wait until the next paradigm-shifting innovation. Artificial intelligence will provide the boost that keeps the teens rolling. So, despite a rough start from the financial crisis (which will still slow global growth this year and next), there is no reason why the new decade has to be an economic flop.

For an image of what a future controlled by computers and robots might look like, look no further than Japan, which employs over a quarter of a million robot workers, envisions using robots to counter future economic and demographic challenges, and creates robot fashion-models.

Was Colin Powell Right About the Taliban?


In Oct. 2001, Colin Powell floated the idea of negotiating with "moderate" elements in the Taliban to form a new Afghan government when Mullah Omar was run out of Kabul.

Conservatives hated the idea at the time. Far better to stay in Afghanistan for a decade and try to rebuild the country along Western-approved lines while transforming its people. And who knows, maybe that idea was completely untenable and wouldn't have facilitated a smoother American exit from Afghanistan than the nation building approach embraced by the Bush administration.

But now it turns out that an effort is underway to bring the Taliban on board, with the endorsement of both Secretary Gates and General McChrystal. The difference now, of course, is that we're in a dramatically weaker position now than we were in 2001. And the Taliban? Much stronger.

(AP Photo)

Tony Blair's 9/11 Defense


Appearing before the Chilcot Inquiry, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair defended his decision to join the U.S. invasion of Iraq:

Looking greyer than when he was in office, Blair told the inquiry that the British and American view changed "dramatically" after 9/11.

"Here's what changed for me: the whole calculus of risk," he said. "The point about this terrorist act was over 3,000 people had been killed, an absolutely horrific event. But if these people, inspired by this religious fanaticism, could have killed 30,000, they would have [done].

Blair went on to argue that Saddam's WMD program was an intolerable risk after 9/11. This is a fairly common line of argument regarding Iraq but it doesn't hold up logically. What 9/11 demonstrated was precisely the opposite - that no state would dare run the risk of attacking the United States directly, or providing aid to a terrorist group with the purpose of striking such a blow. The only government al Qaeda could count on for any official support was the Taliban and to call them a government is a fairly charitable description.

Al Qaeda proved to be such a lethal menace precisely because it had no state sponsor and no territorial vulnerability. The idea that 9/11 proved that deterrence was futile is erroneous, if anything, 9/11 confirmed that deterrence is still a viable concept, at least when dealing with states.

But there is also an element of the absurd in pointing to Iraq as a potential source of WMD for al Qaeda. Shortly after 9/11, we learned that Pakistani nuclear scientists had met with bin Laden. We learned further that Pakistan's chief nuclear engineer had created an extensive black market peddling nuclear material and blueprints for constructing nuclear weapons. We knew for a fact that Pakistan was a nuclear weapons state, while no one seriously believed that Saddam had a nascent, let alone functional, nuclear program.

If there was any state where one could make a plausible claim about the potential for WMD to be slipped to al Qaeda, it would have been Pakistan, not Iraq.

(AP Photo)

Honduras: Zelaya Leaves


Following Pepe Lobo's inauguration yesterday, ousted president Mel Zelaya left the country and landed on the Dominican Republic.

Leaving his tin foil-lined room at the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, Zelaya flew to the island with Dominican president Leonel Fernández. The Dominican Republic made available two airplanes for Zelaya, his family, and several of his associates.

Zelaya plans to move to Mexico and take part in the Central American parliament (Parlacen).

Before departing Honduras, he swore, "I shall return."

Noticias 24 has a timeline of events (in Spanish) after Zelaya's ousting.

January 28, 2010

Video of the Day

Yemen has gotten a lot of attention since the 'Panty Bomber' set his nether regions aflame and admitted to receiving training there. However, some Yemeni's are not all that thrilled about it:

No one should be surprised that people do not like outsiders interfering in the national business. Nevertheless, powerful states will always protect their interests, often at the expense of weaker states sovereignty. Sometimes there is a causal relationship, such that weak states are the target for groups like Al Qaeda, and since Al Qaeda threatens powerful states, the weak state is subject to powerful state influence. Regardless, complaints about outside interference are almost always a hallmark of weakness in a given area. Nobody ever really interferes in internal U.S. matters because that is a good way to get a non-humanitarian visit from the U.S. military.

For more videos, be sure to check the RCW video page.

QDR Leaked

Speaking of national security, Inside Defense has gotten their hands on a leaked copy of the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review, which is the road map by which the U.S. guides its defense posture and spending. Laura Rozen reprints some of the themes of the Review:

The Defense Department is abandoning an explicit requirement to be able to simultaneously fight two major conventional wars -- a keystone of defense planning since the fall of the Soviet Union -- in order to prepare the services for a wider and more complex array of security challenges, according to Pentagon officials.....

This paradigm shift does not mean the Defense Department is shedding capabilities needed for such large-scale engagements. Rather, it codifies that DOD is broadening its operational plans -- and the range of investments necessary to execute them -- to deal with a more diverse portfolio of contingencies.

Two Visions of National Security


Brian Katulis posts at Democracy Arsenal, reflecting on President Obama's State of the Union speech:

What we saw last night was the unveiling of the first 21st century foreign policy framework - one that no longer divides the world between good and evil, but instead recognizes that our fates at home are inextricably linked to what happens overseas, now more than ever and vice versa. It’s a message Obama outlined in his speech to the United Nations last fall, and it’s one that will continue, even as our political debates shift even more inward this coming year.

And over at the New Atlanticist, Bernard Finel, commenting on Yemen:

In Yemen, our use of force now is creating the antecedent conditions that will later on justify more and deeper intervention, in part because by allying ourselves with the Saleh government we both make all of his enemies our enemies and we also because we are extending a tacit offer of protection because at some point, someone will argue, “we have to back Saleh, otherwise other Muslim leaders won’t be willing to side with us.”

But if we step back and think about end states — i.e. begin a process of strategic assessment — isn’t it obvious that the goal for the United States ought to be disentangle itself from politics in a place like Yemen and seek to insulate ourselves from disorder that may arise there? There is no coherent U.S. interest in support of mediating the various internecine disputes on the Arabian peninsula, is there?

Finel chalks up this state of affairs to a lack of strategic thinking, but I believe it's quite the contrary. There is a strategic concept in action, and it's the one Katulis and the President have endorsed above: everyone, everywhere matters a great deal to the United States.

The real curiosity is why progressives are scratching their head over the Obama administration's refusal to cut the defense budget. With their vision of America's security interests, how could you?

(AP Photo)

Afghan Strategy in Focus


With world leaders meeting in London today to hash out a unified approach to Afghanistan, the Daily Telegraph's Con Coughlin thinks the strategy is doable:

Given that most of the support for the Taliban comes from Pashtun tribesmen, who previously dominated the country’s political institutions, the challenge it to persuade the more moderate Pashtun leaders to switch their support from the Taliban to the democratic process. One of the objectives of today’s conference is to raise the funds to pay “compensation” to those Taliban elders who can be persuaded to renounce the fight.
Dexter Filkins reports today that we have won over a major Pashtun tribe:
The leaders of one of the largest Pashtun tribes in a Taliban stronghold said Wednesday that they had agreed to support the American-backed government, battle insurgents and burn down the home of any Afghan who harbored Taliban guerrillas.

All it cost was $1 million in "development aid" routed directly to the tribe instead of the Afghan government.

(AP Photo)

State of the Union

I think Max Boot is right to bemoan the lack of foreign policy focus in President Obama's State of the Union address. To me, the portions on foreign policy seemed scatter-shot and ad-hoc.

That said, this from the National Review doesn't seem right:

This is an administration that has turned its back on inconvenient victims from Tehran to Tibet to Israel. An administration that has climbed on board the U.N. Human Rights Council, despite its being a tool of Islamic states for defeating rights. And yet the president disingenuously lectured: “America must always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity.”

I hate to break it to the National Review, but every presidential administration turns their back on victims of oppression and injustice worldwide. Such is the way of things. There is, alas, no shortage of international injustices and only so much the president can do. President Obama is, after all, President of the United States. As a partisan cudgel, this tact just seems silly.

"Growing Consequences" in 2010


I was somewhat surprised by how little attention was paid to Iran in the president's State of the Union Address. In a speech that was over 7,000 words along, the word "Iran" was only said, by my count, three times. This doesn't come as a total shock however, as every wonk and his mother predicted this speech would be heavy on domestic policy (Max Boot notes that foreign policy accounted for just 13% of policy items covered in the speech).

This doesn't necessarily mean a whole lot, because if the amount of time a topic received during the SOTU were in any way approximate to the amount of governing and legislation it earned, we'd all be powering our cars and homes on switchgrass by now. But what last night's cursory take on Iran does tell me is that the administration still hasn't found a way to reconcile its policy of engagement with the unrest in Iran. Supporting "the human rights of the women marching through the streets of Iran" is not only vague, but it may contradict the president's promise of "growing consequences" should the Iranian regime continue to snub the dictates of the international community in 2010. If those consequences are sanctions - be them "crippling" or targeted - they will very likely hurt poor and working-class Iranians - including those women marching in the streets.

And while I appreciate the president's effort to wed his Iran policy to nonproliferation - an argument I've in fact made here in the past - you have to set and stick to deadlines in order for that to be a viable pairing, otherwise the message the international community sends to other would-be nuclear powers is one of disorganization and weakness.

(AP Photo)

January 27, 2010

Live Blog Recap: State of the Union Address

We broke down his speech, its substance and peculiarities, as well as the response offered by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.

View the SOTU

For those who somehow have no access to either TV or Radio, but do have access to a computer or the internet, you can watch the State of the Union live, at whitehouse.gov.

Off Shore vs. Counter-Insurgency


The Washington Post reports:

U.S. military teams and intelligence agencies are deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops who in the past six weeks have killed scores of people, among them six of 15 top leaders of a regional al-Qaeda affiliate, according to senior administration officials.

The operations, approved by President Obama and begun six weeks ago, involve several dozen troops from the U.S. military's clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), whose main mission is tracking and killing suspected terrorists. The American advisers do not take part in raids in Yemen, but help plan missions, develop tactics and provide weapons and munitions. Highly sensitive intelligence is being shared with the Yemeni forces, including electronic and video surveillance, as well as three-dimensional terrain maps and detailed analysis of the al-Qaeda network.

This is, in rough outline, what George Will, Robert Pape and others had advocated for Afghanistan as an alternative to nation building. I guess we're going to get a real life experiment in which is the most effective.

(AP Photo)

Is Obama Doing Iran Right?


CAP's Matt Duss thinks President Obama's policy on Iran is unsettling the leadership:

Looking over President Obama’s evolving Iran policy over the last year, I don’t think the president and his team have gotten nearly enough credit for how they’ve calibrated an approach, especially in the wake of the June 12 elections, designed to undercut both the Iranian regime’s international and domestic propaganda, by insisting on the possibility of a deal, and the effect that his has had of exacerbating divisions among Iran’s ruling elite.

One of the reasons I think the administration is not getting credit is that the stated goal of its Iran policy is not to produce divisions among the leadership but to convince them to abandon their nuclear weapons program. Perhaps these divisions are a necessary precondition to that end, although they don't appear at the moment to have measurably improved our chances of a negotiated settlement.

If the Obama administration had set its sights lower, it would likely be able to claim some credit for unnerving Iran's senior leadership. But since they themselves set the benchmark, it's against that standard that they will have to be judged.

(AP Photo)

January 26, 2010

Video of the Day

Vice President Biden seems to think he knows something about Middle Eastern politics. Iraqi's apparently disagree:

Some will view this as another rejection of the Obama administration, but primarily it is a demonstration of the fierce independence that most Arabs and Iraqis have with regards to their own affairs. It is possible that this disagreement could devolve into violence, but there does not seem to be much that the U.S. could do to stop it. It's disingenuous however to represent the Iraqi government as currently divided with "pro-" and "anti-" U.S. branches. Clearly there are going to be factions within any democratic government, but since Iraq is a partial parliamentary system, the parliament chooses the president, and therefore minimizes the differences across branches.

For more video on Iraq check out the RCW Videos page.

Tweeting Obama's SOTU

In addition to live blogging tomorrow night's State of the Union Address, the RCW editors will also be tweeting the evening's events alongside our blog. You can follow Greg Scoblete and yours truly on Twitter throughout the night for our pithy thoughts and 140-character conjecture.

You can also follow the best and brightest journalists, analysts and orgs from all over the foreign policy Twitterverse on RealClearWorld's Twitter hub page.

Whither the Green Movement?


Michael Slackman reports that Mohammad Khatami and Mehdi Karroubi - two key actors in the Iranian opposition movement - have accepted the results of the country's June 12 election:

The statements from Mr. Karroubi, a former presidential candidate and speaker of Parliament, and Mr. Khatami, a former president, follow the lead of Mir Hussein Moussavi, another opposition leader, who on New Year’s Eve criticized the government but offered a prescription for solving the political crisis that for the first time did not include holding a new vote.
The letter, like Mr. Moussavi’s New Year’s Eve statement, called on the government to end the political crisis by releasing political prisoners, opening the political process and battling extremism.

It's unclear what kind of impact this will really have on Iran's so-called Green Movement. One problem, as Patrick Clawson recently outlined, is that one of the binding grievances shared by protesters was the question of Ahmadinejad's legitimacy as Iranianian president. Now that the Green Movement's three figureheads have all ceded that key issue, where will the opposition turn? Will it splinter as a result, or evolve?

I think there's a case to be made for a viable, long-term Iranian reform movement without the likes of Khatami and Karroubi. These men are ultimately survivalists who have happily fed off the Islamic Republic as it presently exists, and the repeated pressures and threats they've very likely received from the police state probably played a role in their acquiescence.

But if Iranian reform is a ticking clock, then this surely gives the regime more minutes to work with. Without Mousavi, Khatami and Karroubi the Greens lack institutional credibility. Any future unrest or violence in the name of the Islamic revolution will henceforth be dismissed, as every relevant member of the old guard slowly drags their feet back to the Supreme Leader's tent.

(AP Photo)

Bin Laden & the Palestinians


Osama Bin Laden's recent invocation of the Palestinian's plight has led a number of people (Bruce Riedel, Marc Lynch, Daniel Larison, among others) to argue that this underscores the need to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a conclusion and deny al Qaeda a potent propaganda tool. Here's Matt Duss:

Failure to move the parties toward a just resolution hurts U.S. credibility in the region, and constantly refills a propaganda well from which our enemies continue to draw.

And Andrew Sullivan:

It would not remove or emasculate the more irredentist factions, the Qaeda core, the Saudi nutjobs, and the Mumbai maniacs. But it would help shift the paradigm in which they can use the daily humiliations of Arabs in the West Bank or the horror of the Gaza attack as ways to move the Muslim middle.

There are numerous problems with this approach, starting with the pretty obvious point that none of the relevant parties are interested in making peace. The U.S. has demonstrated, for decades, that it is unable (or unwilling) to bring the two parties to a settlement and the Obama administration has just provided us with a case study in the futility of trying. No matter where you place blame for this state of affairs, the fact of the matter is that the U.S. has not been able to bridge the gap between the Israelis and Palestinians and nothing about the current peace process overseen by George Mitchell should give us any confidence that this is about to change.

But I think the focus on trying to end the conflict is looking at the problem the wrong way. For the United States, the basic issue is not the lack of peace - there are lots of places around the world that are not at peace but are nonetheless not a source of anti-American propaganda and jihadist recruitment. Rather, it is our involvement in the conflict that is ultimately the issue.

At the end of the day the U.S. has a limited ability to control what the Israelis and Palestinians do. But we can control what we do. If we are seriously concerned that sustained hostilities pose a direct threat to our security (and many people obviously don't believe this), then it seems to me the more sensible thing to do is to disentangle ourselves from the mess and not try in vain to clean it up.

(AP Photo)

The Scott Heard 'Round the World?


Over on Real Clear Politics, there has been plenty of speculation on the effect Scott Brown's election has had on domestic politics. However The Hindu reports that shock waves may be felt as far away as India. Both India and China are allegedly rethinking their decision to sign the Copenhagen Accord:

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has written to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon seeking a number of clarifications on the implications of the accord that India -- with five other countries -- had negotiated in the last moments of the Copenhagen climate summit in December, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“That letter, and the defeat of the Democrats in the Massachusetts bypoll, has forced the UN to postpone the deadline indefinitely,” an official said. “With the Democrats losing in one of their strongholds, the chances of the climate bill going through the US senate have receded dramatically.
“So if the US is not going to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent, which was a very weak target anyway, why should we make any commitment even if it does not have any legal teeth?” the official said.

I'm a treaty skeptic, especially of ones as difficult to enforce as carbon emissions. It seems highly probable that the Massachusetts Republican's victory is just an excuse for India and China to withdraw and blame it on a faction in the United States. Oddly, this could be a sign that China and India at least take these treaties seriously, since they are unwilling to sign if it would actually put them at a relative disadvantage to the United States.

(AP Photo)

The Greatest Threat to Israel


According to their Defense Minister Ehud Barak, it's undefined borders, not Iran:

Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday said that Israel's failure to strike a peace deal with the Palestinians was a greater threat to the country than a nuclear Iran, Army Radio reported.

"The lack of a solution to the problem of border demarcation within the historic Land of Israel - and not an Iranian bomb - is the most serious threat to Israel's future," Barak told a Tel Aviv conference.

It doesn't seem like his boss agrees.

(AP Photo)

The Eikenberry Cables


The New York Times has gotten its hands on the cables that U.S. Amb. to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry sent to the Obama administration warning them off a full scale counter-insurgency. You can read the cables here. He cites the weakness of President Karzai and the lack of an Afghan ruling class with a coherent national identity as reasons for skepticism, among others.

Will these things change dramatically between now and 2011?

(AP Photo)

January 25, 2010

Putinisms, Updated


"On the Internet 50 percent is porn material. Why should we refer to the Internet?" (Source)

Click here for more Putinisms.

On a more serious note, the source of the quote noted above is from a speech Putin delivered on Friday regarding government reform in Russia. Radio Free Europe's Power Vertical blog dissects its implications.

(AP Photo)

British Film to Mock Suicide Bombers

This has the makings of another Danish cartoon brew-ha-ha:

It's from the film Four Lions, about a hapless group of British suicide bombers. The Guardian has a review.

Tourism Boomed in Africa in 2009

While the rest of the world suffered through the Great Recession, Africa enjoyed a booming year in tourism:

Africa witnessed a tourism boom in 2009, while the tourism industry suffered a general decline amid the economic slowdown, according to the UN World Tourism Organization (WTO).

The latest edition of the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer said that growth returned to international tourism in the last quarter of 2009 contributing to better than expected full-year results.

International tourist arrivals for business, leisure and other purposes are estimated to have declined worldwide by 4 per cent in 2009 to 880 million.

The full report from the UN World Tourism Organization can be found here.

Video of the Day

That China and Google are still in the news tells you that this story is more significant than perhaps originally thought:

Part of the reason this story may have such long legs could be the fact that Google is such a powerful corporation. However, more tellingly, instead of backing off and denying everything, the Chinese Communist Party has decided to double down on their control of the internet. This is potentially significant for two reasons: 1. the party views its control of the internet as critical to its survival, meaning that China may not be as stable as many currently perceive, or 2. China now believes that its power vis-à-vis the United States is great enough that it can forge its own path in the international community,meaning that China's heretofore peaceful rise may have been ephemeral.

For more videos on international subjects check out the RCW Videos page.

CIA Factbook Draws Chavez's Ire


By David D. Sussman

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is a fan of some books, and an opponent of others. In April of last year he made a very public presentation of Eduardo Galleano’s Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, gifting it to President Barack Obama at the Summit of the Americas. On the other hand, the annual CIA World Factbook is now a book that draws the Venezuelan leader’s ire.

Chávez criticized the latest addition of the World Factbook, focusing on its statement that his government “purports to alleviate social ills while at the same time attacking globalization and undermining regional stability." In his response he declared that indeed, his goal is to weaken the hegemonic influence of the United States in the region. Chávez considers the World Factbook’s comment a “declaration of war," once again drawing attention to the high level of tension in the region.

As an aside, the CIA World Factbook is published annually and provides detailed information about the people, economy and political situation of each country. Originally, it arose out of the National Intelligence Survey, a publication intended to systematize intelligence information following World War II. The Factbook was a summary published in classified form in 1962 and publicly in 1975. Interestingly, as evidence of the Cold War’s influence on the Factbook, until around 1990 there was a specific section among the country descriptions that focused on the status of the Communist party.

Speaking of books, the Venezuelan administration restricts imports of some foreign texts. It also established a series of government-sponsored bookstores that are known for their sale of left-leaning and revolutionary texts, and for their low prices. Upon entering one such store I found shelves covering Che Guevara and others dedicated to socialist principles. Alternative viewpoints did not exist – the bookstores appear to be yet another means of controlling information available to the general public.

Like this topic? Read more at FPA's Venezuela Blog.

(AP Photo)

On China, U.S. Values Rights Over Economy


An interesting finding from Angus Reid:

People in the United States want their government to take human rights and minority rights into account when it deals with China, according to a poll by Angus Reid Public Opinion. 51 per cent of respondents feel this way, while 21 per cent would prefer to focus on the trading relationship.

The full poll on China is available here. (pdf) Among its other notable findings:

Half of Americans (50%) think their country should do less business with China; 28 per cent say it should maintain the current amount of business, and only one-in-ten people (10%) say it should increase trade ties with the Asian country....

The implications of doing less business with China would almost certainly mean more poverty in China. And that wouldn't exactly help much in the human rights department.

(AP Photo)

Justice, Saudi Style

Via the Gulf Blog, another example of Saudi justice:

An overseas Filipino worker launguishing in a Saudi Arabian jail suffered miscarriage and now fears getting a hundred lashes before finally being freed.

Camille (not her real name) has been in prison since August last year after her employer turned her over to authorities because she got pregnant out of wedlock by a co-worker who raped her.

January 24, 2010

China's Growing Clout in Japan


The New York Times' Martin Fackler had a good article over the weekend about China's increasing clout with Japan:

Indeed, political experts and former diplomats say China has appeared more adept at handling Japan’s new leaders than the Obama administration has been. And former diplomats here warn that Beijing’s leaders are seizing on the momentous political changes in Tokyo as a chance to improve ties with Japan — and possibly drive a wedge between the United States and Japan.

“This has been a golden opportunity for China,” said Kunihiko Miyake, a former high-ranking Japanese diplomat who was stationed in Beijing. “The Chinese are showing a friendlier face than Washington to counterbalance U.S. influence, if not separate Japan from the U.S.”

Some conservative Japan experts in Washington have even warned of a more independent Tokyo becoming reluctant to support the United States in a future confrontation with China over such issues as Taiwan, or even to continue hosting the some 50,000 American military personnel now based in Japan.

This is not an "either/or" problem for the U.S. or Japan. The Japanese are already economically intertwined with China and so naturally, good relations with China is a key interest. They are also in our interest as it lessons security concerns between two historic enemies.

The basic reality of China's rise is that it is going to come with more influence in Asia and it is going to lead to a decline in America's influence relative to its former position. This isn't irreversible - China's economy could collapse, it could suffer internal revolts that erode its power, or it could behave in such as fashion as to galvanize surrounding nations to balance against her (pushing them into a tighter embrace of the U.S.). But barring that, China's influence in Asia is going to expand.

In such a circumstance, I think taking a "wait and see" attitude is better than panicking at every diminution or diplomatic slight. Even reducing America's military footprint in Japan isn't the end of the world, especially if it's coming at the behest of the Japanese.

(AP Photo)

How the U.S. Can Extend Her Primacy

Daniel Larison picks up on the Hachigian piece from the weekend:

What Kagan omits in his complaint is that the last two administrations blithely assumed that they were not elevating America over the rest of the world (they were providing “leadership”!), and they also assumed that they were pursuing policies that served the interests of all. Antiterrorism, nuclear proliferation and democracy promotion have been the triad of issues that Clinton, Bush and Obama all agree on in principle, and all of them take for granted that the first two are global threats that require coordinated international responses. Where Obama differs from them, or where Clinton and Obama differ from Bush, is in the execution. Moreover, all of them believe, or claim to believe, that American “leadership” is necessary to address every global issue of importance, which means that they understand the exercise of U.S. primacy as something that benefits the entire world.

The belief in Pax Americana was very real to Obama’s predecessors, as it is real for him, and this belief easily reconciles the perpetuation of U.S. primacy (or hegemony) with a conviction that nations have shared interests and should be engaged in cooperative action. Pax Americana is supposed to make competition between states, especially security competition, unnecessary and redundant.

As Larison alludes to at the end of his post, the goal of U.S. foreign policy should be to preserve American primacy. For me, at least, the problem with the primacy debate is not really what it seeks, but how it proposes to achieve it.

What we have seen since the unrivaled emergence of the United States as the world's preeminent power is a (quite natural) effort to entrench that status - with conservatives seeing an ever-widening military footprint and an absurdly long set of "vital interests" to defend as key to preserving American superiority; and progressives advocating a "lite" version of this military expansionism coupled with a more aggressive effort to knit together the world in a series of legalistic norms and institutions - to "lock in" an American led (or heavily influenced) global institutionalism.

Both efforts, I think, are doomed to failure, although the conservative vision promises a much faster and potentially more painful denouement than its liberal counterpart. The trouble for the progressive strategy is not only that it hinges on China accepting the role they have laid out for it, but that states' interests are too widely divergent to ultimately be subsumed under anything but the most meaningless and toothless international laws.

There is, however, a third way - a strategy that promises to extend America's strength relative to the rest of the world, while avoiding the pitfalls that the prevailing orthodoxies are leading to. That is a strategy of off-shore balancing. It has many advocates in the academic and realist policy realm, and there is no single formula for how it's accomplished, although the basic outline would pull the U.S. out of its role as the front line defender for other states and instead hold out U.S. power as a "last resort" if any state threatens a regional power balance in a manner that would harm American interests.

Off shore balancing retains the conservative ideal of hording a preponderance of military power with the liberal internationalist ideal of working, wherever possible, through multilateral institutions without elevating either as the sine qua non of American policy. It is, fundamentally, a conservative approach that argues for husbanding resources instead of squandering them in the pursuit of Utopian schemes. Perhaps that's why it's so unpopular...

January 23, 2010

Are We Pushing Pakistan Too Hard?


On Dec. 30, an al Qaeda terrorist walked into a CIA base in the Afghan city of Khost and blew himself up, killing 7 CIA agents and a member of Jordan's intelligence service. Shortly thereafter, the perpetraitor of the attack was shown in a video with the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud.

It looks like the CIA is pissed:

Since the suicide bombing that took the lives of seven Americans in Afghanistan on Dec. 30, the Central Intelligence Agency has struck back against militants in Pakistan with the most intensive series of missile strikes from drone aircraft since the covert program began.

Beginning the day after the attack on a C.I.A. base in Khost, Afghanistan, the agency has carried out 11 strikes that have killed about 90 people suspected of being militants, according to Pakistani news reports, which make almost no mention of civilian casualties. The assault has included strikes on a mud fortress in North Waziristan on Jan. 6 that killed 17 people and a volley of missiles on a compound in South Waziristan last Sunday that killed at least 20.

Personally, if you're going to wage a war on terrorism, drone attacks seem preferable to nation building. Even if we rebuilt Afghanistan, we've seen clearly al Qaeda's capacity to reconstitute itself in another country (Yemen) and actually launch a (thankfully failed) attack on the U.S. On the whole, a limited use of drone attacks against high-level al Qaeda targets seems a viable alternative to decades-long state building. Still, the drone strikes are not without risk, especially since they range a lot further than high-level al Qaeda terrorists:

If the United States expands the drone strikes beyond the lawless tribal areas to neighboring Baluchistan, as is under discussion, the backlash “might even spark a social revolution in Pakistan,” Mr. Arquilla said.

So far the reaction in Pakistan to the increased drone strikes has been muted. Last week, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani of Pakistan told Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration’s senior diplomat for Afghanistan and Pakistan, that the drones undermined the larger war effort. But the issue was not at the top of the agenda as it was a year ago.

Hasan Askari Rizvi, a military analyst in Lahore, said public opposition had been declining because the campaign was viewed as a success. Yet one Pakistani general, who supports the drone strikes as a tactic for keeping militants off balance, questioned the long-term impact.

“Has the situation stabilized in the past two years?” asked the general, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Are the tribal areas more stable?” Yes, he said, Baitullah Mehsud, founder of the Pakistani Taliban, was killed by a missile last August. “But he’s been replaced and the number of fighters is increasing,” the general said.

The number of terrorist attacks inside Pakistan have increased too, with the Taliban taking the fight into the heart of Pakistan. Drone strikes are intended to cripple al Qaeda, but if they cripple the Pakistani state along the way and precipitate some kind of collapse of the government, that could potentially be a far worse situation than a low level guerrilla war against the Karzia government in Afghanistan.

It doesn't appear to be the case the Zardari government is collapsing under the weight of drone strikes (corruption is another story). But it's clear they're unhappy, as this Times story recounting Secretary Gates' recent trip makes clear.

(AP Photo)

Obama Hearts Hegemony

Nina Hachigian has a piece in World Focus that makes the following argument:

To understand this yearning for American policy of yore, you have to remember that American foreign policy leaders during the Bush administration clung to the false promise of primacy, the belief that the lynchpin of American security was for it to remain more powerful than all other countries by a huge, fixed margin.

Hachigian goes onto to argue that this is both a uniquely neoconservative phenomena that reached its apex during the George W. Bush administration and that President Obama has rejected it. Both contentions are wrong.

You know they're wrong because President Obama - despite what his neoconservative critics assert and his progressive boosters hope - is not interested in dismantling this definition of American primacy. Sure, his rhetoric might pay greater lip service to a multi-polar world, but his actions to date are not indicative of someone about to seriously roll back America's dominant position in the world.

Consider: he will not pull U.S. troops from their forward deployments in Europe, South Korea or Japan (indeed his administration is locking horns with Japan to keep a basing arrangement in place). He is not vowing to pull the U.S. out of its mutual defense treaties with partners such as Taiwan or Japan, or withdraw the U.S. from NATO, which entrenches U.S. power in Europe. He is strengthening America's military presence in the Gulf to contain Iran. He increased the Pentagon's budget. These are the engines of American primacy, in the military realm at least, and none of them are on the chopping block.

And need we forget that it was under the Clinton administration that the "primacy project" became the dominant post Cold War paradigm for U.S. foreign policy. NATO was expanded up to Russia's borders, military force was employed unilaterally or without UN sanction against multiple states, and a certain senior official boasted of America's indispensability.

The signature difference in the policy realm between progressives and neoconservatives is that the former wants to make American primacy more palatable to the rest of the world by binding it in some international laws and restricting our freedom of action at the margins, while neoconservatives want to ram American superiority down the throats of the rest of the world. A significant difference, to be sure, but not a fundamental paradigm shift.

Could the WTO Tear Down China's Great Firewall?

Reuters reports that the United States Trade Representative (USTR) is "mulling" (great word!) a challenge to China's internet restrictions - the humorously-named-but-not-actually-funny-at-all "Great Firewall of China":

U.S. trade officials have asked for more information as they weigh whether to pursue a case against Chinese Internet restrictions that impede Google and other companies, an attorney for a U.S. free speech group said on Friday.

"They've asked us for more detail about it. We are trying to put that together right now," said Gilbert Kaplan, a partner at King and Spalding, which represents the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group...

The U.S. free speech group, known then as the California First Amendment Coalition, first approached the U.S. Trade Representative's office in late 2007 with the idea of challenging China's barriers to Internet access at the World Trade Organization.

It gave the trade office, run at the time by the Republican administration of former President George W. Bush, "a very extensive white paper, or memo, describing the WTO violations that the 'Great Firewall' caused, and that were actionable in our view under the WTO, and a request that USTR begin a WTO case against China regarding the Firewall," Kaplan said.

Although no case was filed, Kaplan said U.S. trade officials never ruled out that possibility.

"We're continuing to request that they start that case. That dialogue is continuing," Kaplan said.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. trade representative's office had no immediate comment.

A study by the Brussels-based think tank ECIPE in November called government censorship the biggest trade barrier that Internet companies face.

Many countries censor the Internet for political or moral reasons. China has developed one of the most pervasive methods. In Cuba, all unauthorized surfing is illegal, while many Western countries limit access to child porn sites.

A WTO case could help "clarify the circumstances in which different forms of censorship are WTO-consistent," ECIPE said....

China agreed as part of its commitments to join the WTO in 2001 that U.S. service companies would have the same access in China as their own companies.

"We believe that applies to the Internet and Internet companies," Kaplan said.

China's web restrictions in effect force U.S. Internet companies to "put servers and hardware in China, rather than doing what they do everywhere else in the world, which is use their U.S. base," Kaplan said.

"If we try to serve the Chinese market from the U.S. or anywhere outside the Great Firewall, our Internet access is so slow that no one will use our sites," he said.

WTO rules also require countries to follow transparent and understandable procedures, he said.

Instead, China "is very randomly stopping our Internet companies and our Internet access with no prior notice and no set of regulations," Kaplan said.

The free speech group's 2007 white paper is here, and they state that China's internet restrictions violate a whole host of WTO rules, including GATT Article III (national treatment), China's services commitments under the GATS and China's WTO Accession Protocol. 

There's certainly not enough information in the white paper to judge whether these allegations are really solid, but even if they are, there are several reasons to doubt that USTR will end up bringing a WTO complaint against the Great Firewall:

  • From a basic legal perspective, the white paper does not preemptively address or rebut China's inevitable claim that, even if the Great Firewall violates some WTO rules (and I'm not saying it does or doesn't), it's still permissible under the general exceptions of GATT Article XX - particularly GATT Article XX(a) which exempts from WTO disciplines "illegal" trade measures that are "necessary to protect public morals."  The standards for applying any Art. XX exception are very high, but one must wonder whether a WTO panel or the Appellate Body would really be willing to rule against China's Art. XX(a) claims, regardless of their strength or weakness.  (This is especially true considering that the WTO implicitly advocated deference to countries Art. XX defenses with respect to potentially protectionist climate change regulations.)

  • I also wonder whether USTR and the White House will be willing to bring the case given the potentially serious diplomatic concerns surrounding it.  This is one hot diplomatic potato, and China would not take kindly to such a public and direct challenge to its sovereignty.  Instead, might the White House prefer to resolve Google's complaints through quiet diplomacy rather than WTO litigation?  A case like this would no doubt dominate the headlines and could force China's discolsure of sensitive information, thus potentially salting the already-strained US-China relationship.  As such, the diplomatic route appears more likely.

  • Finally, I question whether China would comply with any WTO ruling against the Great Firewall, and wonder whether the United States really wants to deal with the damaging repercussions of any such non-compliance for a WTO that's already reeling from a messy and comatose Doha negotiating round.  As the US is well-aware (see, e.g., internet gambling or cotton subsidies), compliance with adverse WTO rulings is discretionary (Members can choose to be hit with retaliatory tariffs instead), so the chances that China accepts a WTO ruling and changes its internet systems seem slim.  Non-compliance seems more likely, and that would open up yet another can of worms.  Indeed, I don't know that China would even comply with the WTO's informational requests on this issue (it often refuses in US trade litigation).  Would the United States really want to instigate a case that it knows China will never abide by?  Would that really be good for the multilateral trading system?  It seems to me that the answer to both of these is "no."

Then again, USTR chose the passive route in 2007 - for either diplomatic or legal reasons - and look where that got us.  So maybe this White House thinks that the risks are worth it.  I doubt it, but I'm obviously not at USTR or advising the White House, and I definitely haven't analyzed the legality very closely.  So maybe I'm missing the airtight legal arguments or some important diplomatic angles.  Only time will tell, I guess.

Needless to say, this is one potential case that I'll definitely be watching.  And for once, I'll probably not be the only person (or one of the only ten people) keeping an eye out.

Final note: I should be clear here that I'm in no way opposing a WTO case against, or any other legitimate challenge to, Chinese censorship.  It would be a fantastic thing for liberty - and the Chinese citizenry! - if the US could somehow find a "soft" way to reduce China's strict informational controls.  I just think that USTR will end up passing on this case, and that this announcement is more a PR/diplomacy move than realistic challenge.  But, hey, maybe I'm wrong.  Wouldn't be the first time.

Iran's Not-So-Foreign Policy


Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy writes:

In Iran, discontent over the economic situation, restrictions on social and cultural life, and corruption and favoritism are much more on the minds of ordinary Iranians than the nuclear issue. Indeed, there is little reason to think that ordinary Iranians care very much at all about the nuclear issue. As for Iran’s leaders, they have a long record of caring first and foremost about holding on to power. Faced with an opposition that they perceive—correctly or not—is a mortal threat to their grip on power, they base their decisions on all issues, foreign and domestic, on what they think will best reduce that threat. One analyst even claims that Iran has no foreign policy; instead, its domestic political disputes periodically affect how it acts toward the rest of the world.

This shouldn't come as much of a surprise, as foreign policy is often a reflection of the domestic priorities or environment in a given country. This is especially true however in Iran, where the use of conflict abroad has been used as a purging mechanism at home on several occasions.

This brings me back to an exchange I had with Daniel Larison and Andrew Sullivan over the linkage between the Green Movement and the nuclear weapons program. These issues are not mutually exclusive in Iran, and the more radical and militant elements within the regime want nuclear weapons, as Clawson goes on to explain, in order to fend off any kind of western invasion or alleged meddling in Iran's domestic matters.

This is why North Korea can kill and suppress its own dissidents with hardly a word form the international community, and it's also why any form of condemnation is considered a big deal when a relevant actor actually does says something. It's the same reason the Burmese junta would logically pursue such weapons in defiance of international dictates. Nuclear armed nations are simply treated differently on the global stage. Their possession of nuclear know-how alone makes them an automatic proliferation threat, and so it becomes imperative to contain their activity abroad and worry about their domestic wrongs later. But later rarely seems to come in the case of North Korea, and it may never come for Iran's reformists should the regime acquire nuclear arms.

(AP Photo)

Chinese Space Ships Racing Past Russia's

This article from December 2009, published in "Nezavisimoye Voeyynoe Obozreniye" offers a strong critique of the Russian space program. The author states that a successful public relations campaign by the Russian government and the Russian space agency hid the actual technological deficiencies of the domestic space industry. "For example, the funds currently spent on planning a new "Vostochniy" space port and launching facility could be better spent developing innovative technologies and for the speedy entry of "Angara" rocket into regular use ("Angara" was developed as an ecologically clean alternative to the existing "Proton" rocket.) All television coverage and articles pointing to Russia's leading role in the number of space launches hide the fact that our carrier rockets - Proton and Soyuz - are entering the fifth and sixth decade of use, respectively."

The article draws attention to China, which is emerging as a serious competitor to Moscow in space exploration and space technologies. "... Our international partners took our best technologies and reverse-engineered them. We, however, have remained on the same development level, where our partners no longer need us. Russia's new piloted space craft, slated to enter service in 2020, could essentially "lose out" to the Chinese "Shenzhou" craft, which, by that time, will be in use for about 17 years - while the Russian craft will have to prove its reliability and effectiveness from the very beginning. Moreover, if it actually puts its own orbital station in orbit, China will, by 2010-2011, achieve actual parity with Russia in the quality of piloted space travel."

These are indeed strong words - China's quick emergence as the third country able to put a human into space makes Russia very uncomfortable. Both as a matter of personal pride and driven by the need to achieve fiscal responsibility for its massive investments into space industry, Moscow views China's steady progress as a challenge to its own place as the planet's primary space power. With the possible weaponization of space already on the agenda following successful anti-satellite tests by Washington and Beijing, Russia may feel compelled to achieve a massive breakthrough, or risk sliding further back behind the other space powers.

January 22, 2010

Video of the Day

Russia has a new reason to feel insecure; at least it thinks so:

If there were ever a country that embodies the security dilemma as described by John Mearsheimer, it is Russia. Every increase in capabilities by near or not-so-near countries causes them to feel threatened. It is worth noting that the Patriot Missile system is primarily defensive, and Russian airspace is well out of range when deployed 100km from the border. Nevertheless, the tension in the U.S.-Russian relationship highlights the strange dynamic of nuclear politics where increases in defensive capabilities also increase first strike incentives.

For more videos on subjects from around the world, check out the RCW Video page.

Terror From Above


Rediff is reporting that Pakistani terror group Lashkar-e-Tayiba has stocked up on paragliders from Europe to launch an aerial assault on India:

The IB says that there is a growing concern over the Lashkar's ability to launch an attack from the skies. It appears that the terror outfit is trying newer techniques to step on to Indian soil since they are finding it hard to infiltrate through land and sea owing to stepped up vigil.

From the looks of the paraglider above it seems logistically challenging to use it for a terror assault, to say the least. Rediff notes that Indian authorities see the move more as a sign of desperation than a menace, but it's a reminder, as we contemplate expensive full body scanners at airports, that terrorists will find ways around, or above, passive defenses.

(Photo via Wiki under a GNU License)

Are Rich Nations Shafting Haiti?


That seems to be Peter McCawley's thesis. First he runs the numbers:

* 50,000 to 100,000 people: the likely death toll in Haiti.
* US$1.2 billion: the amount of international assistance pledged to Haiti so far.
* US$14 billion: 2009 bonus payments, US investment bank, Morgan Stanley.
* US$20 billion: 2009 bonus payments, US investment bank, Goldman Sachs.
* US$45 billion: total bonuses paid by major Wall Street banks in 2009.

We could doubtless go on, but the picture is pretty clear. Bonus payments to a relatively small number of rich bankers in the US are a factor of 20 or so larger than international aid pledges to Haiti.

What do we make of this? First, we should obviously take statements by the leaders of rich countries about their concern to respond to the disaster in Haiti with a grain of salt. By their actions we shall know them. And their actions are rather puny.

Second, the people of Haiti are essentially on their own. At the end of the day, they will get little help from rich countries. Response to the terrible disaster, and recovery, is basically in their own hands. The crumbs from the tables of rich countries will help, it is true, but only a little.

I don't think you can actually draw any real conclusion from those numbers - it's completely apples to oranges. That bonus money is private capital, it's not as if the U.S. treasury paid those bonuses and then decided to scrimp on aid to Haiti. (Yes, yes, without the Treasury there would be no bonuses but I don't think that point is relevant for this discussion).

If McCawley wants to bemoan the fact that the U.S. spent more money to bail out its financial institutions than to rescue Haitians, fine. But what a private company does with its own money isn't really a good proxy for what the U.S. government does with its taxpayers'.

(AP Photo)

Power From Which Gun Barrel


According to the Washington Post, Karl Eikenberry, U.S. Ambassador in Afghanistan is pushing back against a plan from the military that would arm local Afghan militias:

Eikenberry's unease about the program as it was structured by the military also reflects a broader difference of opinion at the highest levels of the U.S. military and diplomatic headquarters in Kabul about new approaches to combating the Taliban insurgency. While military commanders are eager to experiment with decentralized grass-roots initiatives that work around the ponderous Afghan bureaucracy in Kabul, civilian officials think it is more important to wait until they have the central government's support, something they regard as essential to sustaining the programs.

Eikenberry's concerns are valid - if you look at the unease surrounding how a similar program has progressed in Iraq, there's a real concern that a failure to integrate armed groups into the central government ultimately lays the ground work for a civil war, or fragmentation (see here too). The Post pieces also notes that we don't really have good intelligence regarding the allegiances of these local groups. The U.S. could be sucked unwittingly into siding with unsavory characters in their local disputes.

But on the other hand, Eikenberry's objections are predicated on shoring up the central government, and there are plenty of people who think we need a more decentralized approach to the country. Arming friendly tribes may work to undermine Karzai, but if they can effectively keep the Taliban at bay, they may pave the way for a faster U.S. exit.

(AP Photo)

Saudi Prince Missing

The London Review of Books blog says that a Saudi prince has gone missing:

Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, has disappeared. In the absence of any official news about his health or whereabouts, the rumour mill has been working overtime. As is often the case with Saudi affairs, the truth is elusive. Those who know won’t talk and those who don’t know talk a lot.

Last August the Iranian media reported that Bandar had been put under house arrest, allegedly for plotting a coup to try and ensure the Kingdom would continue under the rule of the Sudairi branch of the Al Saud family. But Iran isn’t the most reliable source: al-Arabiya, Saudi Arabia’s news network, gibes Iran hourly over its ongoing political turmoil; Iran’s al-Alam and Press TV hit back at Saudi Arabia whenever they can.

Others say that Bandar is depressed or has been ordered by King Abdullah to keep a low profile because he meddled in Syrian affairs, trying to stir up the tribes against the Assad regime, without the king’s approval.

According to Saudi opposition sources, Bandar is now in Dhaban Prison, in north west Jeddah, a high security jail where terrorist suspects and political opposition figures are held. Bandar is said to be in a special wing where the other prisoners are four senior generals: one from the army, one from the royal guard, one from the national guard and one from internal security. Bandar’s lawyer in the US denies he is in prison and says he has been seen out and about recently, although he wouldn’t divulge when, where or even in which country.

If you're interested in learning about the succession struggle in Saudi Arabia, the Washington Institute published a good study on it here.

January 21, 2010

The Year of Bushehr

This ought to make things more interesting:

The chief of Russia's state nuclear corporation said on Thursday that the country would start up the reactor at Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant by the end of this year.

"2010 is the year of Bushehr," Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko told reporters after a cabinet meeting in Moscow.

We may well see if an operational Iranian nuclear power plant is a red line for Israel.

Internet Freedom as a Human Right?


The Obama administration has come in for its fair share of criticism regarding its stance on human rights. Much of that criticism is grounded in partisan axe grinding, but it's going to be interesting to see reaction to Secretary Clinton's speech today on Internet Freedom (video here):

In the last year, we've seen a spike in threats to the free flow of information. China, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan have stepped up their censorship of the internet. In Vietnam, access to popular social networking sites has suddenly disappeared. And last Friday in Egypt, 30 bloggers and activists were detained. One member of this group, Bassem Samir, who is thankfully no longer in prison, is with us today. So while it is clear that the spread of these technologies is transforming our world, it is still unclear how that transformation will affect the human rights and the human welfare of the world's population.

On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world's information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it. Now, this challenge may be new, but our responsibility to help ensure the free exchange of ideas goes back to the birth of our republic. The words of the First Amendment to our Constitution are carved in 50 tons of Tennessee marble on the front of this building. And every generation of Americans has worked to protect the values etched in that stone.

Clinton goes on to note what substantive steps the administration is taking:

We are making this issue a priority at the United Nations as well, and we're including internet freedom as a component in the first resolution we introduced after returning to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

We are also supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship. We are providing funds to groups around the world to make sure that those tools get to the people who need them in local languages, and with the training they need to access the internet safely. The United States has been assisting in these efforts for some time, with a focus on implementing these programs as efficiently and effectively as possible. Both the American people and nations that censor the internet should understand that our government is committed to helping promote internet freedom.

We want to put these tools in the hands of people who will use them to advance democracy and human rights, to fight climate change and epidemics, to build global support for President Obama's goal of a world without nuclear weapons, to encourage sustainable economic development that lifts the people at the bottom up.

It sounds to me like the administration is laying the groundwork for a real high-wire act with respect to China. It's also clearly paving the way for a more robust role inside Iran.

(AP Photo)

Obama on Mideast Peace: "Expectations Too High"


President Obama gave a candid assessment of his administration's failed stab at Mideast peace:

"Both sides ... have found that the political environment, the nature of their coalitions, or the divisions within their societies were such that it was very hard for them to start engaging in a meaningful conversation," Obama told Time.

"And I think that we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that," Obama said. "From Abbas' perspective, he's got Hamas looking over his shoulder and I think an environment generally within the Arab world that feels impatient with any process."

"And on the Israeli front, although the Israelis I think after a lot of time showed a willingness to make some modifications in their policies, still found it very hard to move with any bold gestures," the president said.

I suspect this is not going to dissuade them from trying again, but with so many other vastly more urgent matters on his plate, it's hard to see why forcing these two parties to the table is a top priority.

(AP Photo)

Video of the Day

On the RCW video page we will periodically host interviews and speeches. Today we have Joseph Stiglitz:

Regardless of how many Nobel's someone has, one should never accept what they say uncritically. Nevertheless, Joseph Stiglitz is probably the most important critic of unchecked free markets in the west today. In academic circles, one would likely describe him as an opponent of the Chicago School, however in popular parlance, both Stiglitz and the Chicago School often devolve to parodies of themselves. One can see in this interview that Stiglitz may favor a second stimulus, but he is also concerned about deficit spending.

How the Post-Communist Generation See Things


Pew Research's Juliana Menasce Horowitz sees positive signs in the attitudes of young people in post-Communist societies:

In every Eastern European country surveyed, the post-communist generation is much more supportive of the move away from a state-controlled economy than are those who lived as adults under communism. As is the case with opinions about the change to democracy, the generational divide is greatest in Russia; about six-in-ten (62%) Russians younger than age 40 say they approve of their country's change to capitalism, compared with just 40% of those in the older age group.

A double-digit gap also exists in Ukraine, Slovakia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Poland, and a smaller gap is evident in Lithuania and Hungary. In Ukraine, where the overall level of support for the change to a market economy is lower than in any other country surveyed (36% approve of the change), nearly half (47%) of those younger than age 40 say they approve of the economic changes their country has undergone; just 28% of those 40 or older share that view.

The entire study is worth a read. Of note, Ukraine, which just concluded a first round of presidential voting, has the lowest approval when it comes to a country's move to multi-party elections.

(AP Photo)

Argentina: Cristina Against Everybody Else?


Having asked Central Bank director Martin Redrado to resign (which he didn't do, and then he appealed to the courts and congress), Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is now picking a fight with vice-president and head of the Senate Julio Cobos

On Tuesday, the president said she has postponed a trip to China - one of her most important overseas visits this year - because she cannot trust the vice president to run the country while she's away.
She asked that a committee debate Redrado's decree, and that Cobos resign,
Cobos, who as head of the Senate cast a deciding vote against a Fernandez plan to change farm taxes in 2008, has said Congress should debate the decrees.

The former governor was picked by Fernandez from the opposition Radical Civic Union party in 2007 and has said he plans to run for president in 2011.

“He has the right to be a member of the opposition, to disagree with the policies of the executive branch, but not from the post of the vice president,” Fernandez said.

The Globe and Mail reports that it's all about the debt:

Argentine debt tiff shines light on rebel VP

The turmoil at the central bank has heightened political tensions in Latin America's No. 3 economy and raised doubts about the cash-strapped government's plan to launch a $20 billion debt swap in the coming weeks.

Ms. Fernandez hopes the swap of defaulted bonds will allow Argentina to return to international credit markets eight years after a massive default.

Mr. Cobos, a 54-year-old civil engineer from the wine-making region of Mendoza, is under pressure to resign as vice president from some opposition leaders, who question him for remaining in the government.

The dispute over the reserves plan is testing Ms. Fernandez just as politicians in the divided ruling Peronist party and the opposition jostle for position ahead of next year's election.

While asking to use $6 billion of foreign reserves to cover debt payments, Fernandez insists that this dispute with the Central Bank will have no effect on the upcoming swap of $20 billion in defaulted bonds.

Arab League Views of U.S.

Mohamed Younis at Gallup surveys Arab League opinion of U.S. leadership:


Younis concludes:

While approval ratings of U.S. leadership alone cannot serve as a proxy for evaluating U.S.-Arab world relations, Gallup's latest polling in the Arab world suggested some improvement at the time of the survey. Surprises were found in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories, where opinions improved for the first time since the Bush administration. However, in Saudi Arabia and Algeria, no statistical change in approval ratings of U.S. leadership took place between the two polling periods in 2009. While the president's focus on outreach to the Arab and Muslim worlds may have had a positive effect on the attitudes of many, his ability to follow through on many of the proposed programs for cooperation and development will be crucial to adding more Arab countries to the list of those where a majority approve of the leadership of the United States.

Clinton on Internet Freedom

The State Department will live-stream Secretary Clinton's address on Internet freedom here.

In an interview with NPR, Alec Ross, Clinton's point-person on tech issues at the State Department, said that Internet freedom is going to be "on the table" in various U.S. bilateral relationships. Not sure how that will pan out in practice, but it's looking like cyberspace is integral to geopolitics in increasingly significant ways.

January 20, 2010

The Index of Economic Freedom

The Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal recently released their Index of Economic Freedom for 2010. In their own words:

Economic freedom is the fundamental right of every human to control his or her own labor and property. In an economically free society, individuals are free to work, produce, consume, and invest in any way they please, with that freedom both protected by the state and unconstrained by the state. In economically free societies, governments allow labor, capital and goods to move freely, and refrain from coercion or constraint of liberty beyond the extent necessary to protect and maintain liberty itself.

There is a lot of data there, and undoubtedly people will make of it what they will. Moreover, these indices are fairly subjective, based upon the criteria selected for the creation of the index. Nevertheless, these indices can be good measures of what certain groups think of certain things.

In other words, if you care about what the Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation cares about, then this index tells you a lot. zdgs

U.S, Japan and an Obama Doctrine


A favorite past time of pundits and analysts is the attempt to divine an "Obama doctrine." And while the focus has mostly been on his speeches and his position on America's adversaries, I think a more telling clue lies with how the administration treats U.S. allies, specifically Japan. Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of the U.S-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security and it's a fine time to revisit the foundations of the alliance.

Here's Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department, answering questions from reporters about how ties between the two allies have been strained of late:

This is nothing in comparison to what we faced in 1995 and 1996. Let’s keep in mind a few basic things. In the last several weeks, we have seen opinion polling in Japan about the United States and the U.S.-Japan alliance which are the best polls in history ever taken, with support in Japan of the United States in the 80 percentile, 85-86 percent – just enormous – and 70s for other aspects of our alliance. And so if you compare and contrast that with 1995 and 1996, after the tragic rape of the young schoolgirl in Okinawa, when most of Japan had deep, serious, and sustained questions about the viability of the U.S.-Japan alliance, I would argue with you that we are in a much stronger, very stable, and ultimately strong position for the continuation of the U.S.-Japan security relationship.

And it is also the case that as an alliance, it has demonstrated enormous adaptability. It has gone from a situation where it was originally aimed at fears of Soviet expansionism and adventurism in Asia, now it is basically aimed at no specific or particular nation. It serves as the foundation to bring a degree of confidence to the Asia-Pacific region. It’s been enormously successful in this regard. And no, the challenges we face today aren’t – I mean, there were times where we were in offices in the 1990s where people were worried that the entire fabric of the alliance was coming apart. We do not face challenges like that today. This is a process that many have called for, for years, that democratization of Japanese foreign and security policies, a need to explain more clearly to the Japanese public about the choices and challenges that Japan faces, not only in the region but working with the United States. And I think we’re very confident we’re going to get through this and, at the end of it, be stronger because of the process.

A key plank of American national security policy has been to keep allies from re-nationalizing their security policies. Dependency on the U.S., not self-sufficiency, was the watchword. Such a posture was naturally unsustainable, it's hard to imagine nations like Japan and Germany not eventually trying to carve out greater freedom of action for themselves. It's also clearly unnecessary. The Soviet threat that precipitated the strategy is gone and the idea that Eurasia will suddenly become inhospitable to American commerce seems a stretch, since we're already doing a brisk trade with the one nation - China - that could potentially pose a problem in that regard.

The key questions seems to be not whether the Obama administration will let Japan chart a more independent course, with the corresponding reduction of American influence over her national security affairs that entails. It's happening whether they want it to or not. But how they react, and whether they can institutionalize a new, more flexible relationship that affords Japan more freedom of action while still sustaining a strong alliance will be critical to watch. It could be the template for a major restructuring of America's relationship with the rest of the world - one that puts us on the glide path toward sustainability, not over-stretch.

See also: The U.S. and Japan issued a joint statement on the anniversary of the defense treaty, which can be read here.

(AP Photo)

A War with Iran


Via Justin Logan, the Heritage Foundation's James Phillips makes the case that the U.S. should go to war with Iran on behalf of Israel:

Wash­ington should not seek to block Israel from taking what it considers to be necessary action against an existential threat. The United States does not have the power to guarantee that Israel would not be attacked by a nuclear Iran in the future, so it should not betray the trust of a democratic ally by tying its hands now...

Given that the United States is likely to be attacked by Iran in the aftermath of an Israeli strike anyway, it may be logical to consider joining Israel in a preven­tive war against Iran. But the Obama Administra­tion is extremely unlikely to follow this course. However, the Administration must be ready to respond to any Iranian attacks. It must prepare contingency plans and deploy sufficient forces to protect U.S. military forces and embassies in the Middle East; defend allies, oil facilities and oil tanker routes in the Persian Gulf; and target Iranian ballistic missile, naval, air force, and Rev­olutionary Guard forces for systematic destruc­tion. In the event of a conflict, Iran's nuclear facilities should be relentlessly targeted until all known nuclear weapon-related sites are destroyed completely.

Perhaps not surprisingly, while Phillips spends a lot of time in a very long report arguing for why and how the bombs should fall on Iran, and why the U.S. must fight for Israel, he writes not a single sentence - not one - discussing what steps the U.S. should take after it subjects Iranian sites to "systematic destruction." Instead we're treated to the potential for Iranian retribution and why the U.S. must subject itself to such reprisals for Israel's sake and because a nuclear Iran would be a worse outcome than having both Iraq and Afghanistan destabilized, more U.S. troops killed, and a potentially recession-inducing naval showdown in Hormuz.

But I'm more interested in what happens after America attacks Iran. What if the government collapses? Do we occupy the country? Do we allow a power vacuum? Do we let a Revolutionary Guard commander assume control? A cleric? Could we exercise any control in Iran following an attack? And if the current regime hangs on and then redoubles their nuclear efforts, do we subject them to another pounding five years hence? As a famous general once observed, "tell me how this ends?"

We know from our rueful experience in Iraq that conservative defense intellectuals don't pay much attention to the immediate aftermath of a conflict (with the exception of Max Boot). It's apparently sufficient to start a war and then let the chips fall where they may. Not that we should have too much confidence in their predictive abilities on that front either, but it would be nice if those clamoring for a war with Iran could provide us with just a scintilla of analysis regarding U.S. policy in the aftermath.

(AP Photo)

January 19, 2010

Do We Need to Nation Build?


Max Boot says we do, and do it better:

This isn’t a matter of do-goodism run rampant; it’s a matter of self-preservation. Because as we are now seeing in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, among others, countries lacking effective governance — especially countries of large, discontented Muslim populations — can pose a direct national-security threat to the United States. After the early setbacks in Iraq, it was generally acknowledged that there was a need to boost our capacity in this regard but remarkably little has been accomplished outside the military...

I can't say I find the national security rationale for nation building all the persuasive. First, "self preservation" is an enormous stretch. The U.S. is in absolutely no danger of national extinction if it fails to nation build in any of the aforementioned countries. Hyperbole aside, it's worth clarifying what threat nation building is supposed to alleviate - principally we're talking about terrorism.

It seems obvious to me that there's a huge mismatch between means and ends there. Terrorism is a relatively small problem that's of particularly urgency now. Nation building is a long-term, hugely expensive endeavor that has almost no bearing on whether a jihadist will strap a bomb to his privates and board a domestic airliner. Consider the number of jihadists that were born and raised in non-failed states. The top leadership of al Qaeda hails from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Our erstwhile Christmas Crotch Bomber was raised in Nigeria and educated (and possibly radicalized) in London. Not a single 9/11 hijacker came from what we would call a failed state. Pakistan, the epicenter of jihadist terrorism, is not a failed state (at least, not yet) and certainly wasn't a failed state in 2002-2003, when al Qaeda took up shop there. Iran, the leading state sponsor of terrorism, is not a failed state.

Second, may I suggest to Boot that the absolute quickest way to ensure that countries with "large, discontented Muslim populations" become national security threats is to insert large numbers of American soldiers and bureaucrats in there offering their services and advice on how to run their political institutions.

Now, of course, the argument goes that these failed states provide a safe haven for terrorists. Which is true. But that doesn't mean that equipping a "Colonial Office" (Boot's words) is the right answer. First, it would take decades, and billions if not trillions, of dollars to effectively shore up a failed state like Afghanistan or Yemen. None of that alleviates the terrorist threat today, nor would it stop terrorists from leaking out into other failed states. It also has no impact whatsoever on whether Western Muslims become radicalized and launch attacks on their own.

It's hard to see what good, from a national security perspective, improving our nation building capacity would actually do. And I suspect that many hawkish nation building advocates would blanch at the notion of taking a significant chunk from the Pentagon's budget and giving it to the State Department for shoring up their civilian nation building capacity. Which tells you all you need to know about how urgent a national security priority this really is.

Here's Boot again:

Congress deserves a fair share of the blame for not adequately funding these desperately needed capacities and for yielding to lawmakers’ knee-jerk revulsion against “nation building.” They seem to imagine that if we don’t develop these capacities we won’t be called upon to undertake missions that are never popular on the home front. Unfortunately, as events from Haiti to Yemen show, there is and will continue to be a high demand for the U.S. government to provide these services. The only choice we have is whether we will perform nation-building badly or well.

First, I'm not sure that sending aid and support to Haiti during this unprecedented disaster is unpopular. It seems pretty popular to me.

But more importantly, the notion that America has "no choice" but to do "x" is false and frankly pernicious. The U.S. always has a choice. In 2003, for instance, we could not have invaded and occupied Iraq. Presto - no nation building problems.

(AP Photo)

Video of the Day

Haiti is having the same problems that occur in the wake of many natural disasters.

Most people may remember that there were significant problems in the wake of Hurricane Katrina with the rule of law. Even without the problems of natural disaster, Haiti has had problems. Of course, many of these looters are probably just doing what it takes to stay alive, but as the rebuilding of the infrastructure drags on it would be unsurprising if we see many more casualties from lack of supplies and violence. Of course, there are always those, who wish to ignore that reality.

For more videos on subjects from around the world, check out the RCW Video page.

Ayatollah Khalaji Update

The father of Washington Institute Senior Fellow Mehdi Khalaji has reportedly been moved to Evin Prison. From WINEP's media desk:

Officials of the Special Court of Clerics in Tehran have transferred Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Khalaji to solitary confinement in Evin Prison, where he is being interrogated. The Special Court informed Ayatollah Khalaji's family not to expect any contact with him until the interrogation is over; no timetable was provided. In addition, it is now known that Iranian intelligence agents raided the ayatollah's daughter's house three nights after his arrest, confiscating personal documents and warning the family that they too will be arrested if they contact the media outside Iran.

For more background on the arrest, read here. You can also follow Mehdi on Twitter for all of the latest news and updates.

Spying on the Arctic


By Mia Bennett

The CIA is restarting a mission squashed during the Bush administration’s early days: sharing satellite imagery of the Arctic ice cap with climate researchers. From 1992 to 2001, scientists involved with the Medea program (Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis), spearheaded by former Vice President Al Gore, tried to see if any classified intelligence could be used for environmental analysis. Gore successfully convinced CIA head Robert Gates to begin the program. Now that Gates is back in a prominent political role as Secretary of Defense and Gore has successfully won Congress’ approval, the program is back in action. Still, the images have been slightly blurred to hide the actual capacities of the reconnaissance satellites. About 60 scientists have access to the imagery, and all have security clearances.

While there has been some opposition to using intelligence and defense resources for scientific and environmental purposes from the right, with Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), saying that the CIA should be “combating terrorists, not spying on sea lions,” Medea seems to be an efficient use of government resources. (Note: sea lions are rarely spotted in the Arctic). Terrorists aren’t hiding in the melting ice cap, so the imagery itself isn’t necessarily sensitive. Satellites fly over the North Pole on a daily basis, so someone might as well look at the photos already being taken to see if they can be put to good use. And, if climate change is regarded as a national security threat, as the Pentagon and CIA are likely to do, the government might as well attempt to get the ball rolling with scientists understanding how global warming is affecting the Arctic. In fact, in October, the CIA set up the new Center for the Study of Climate Change, so the efforts of scientists and intelligence analysts seem to be dovetailing nicely.

Read more at the Foreign Policy Association's Arctic blog.

(AP Photo)

Russia in the Far East

The daily Nezavisimoye Voyenno Obozreniye - Independent Military Review - published a scathing assessment on the state of Russian Army preparedness in the strategically-important Far East.

The data is crucial for several reasons: 1. The Russian military establishment views "eastern direction" as a source of potential threat (read, China, but don't say it aloud, as is the current modus operandi in Moscow); 2. Russia just inaugurated a major oil pipeline to feed much-needed energy for China's ever-increasing demand. Defense of energy networks that now criss-cross Eastern Siberia and the Far East are key to Russian economic security; 3. the criticism of the Russian military preparedness are becoming more and more public across the Russian Federation.

"Last week the MOD Commission checked the status of combat training in the Far East. The preliminary results are disappointing. According to the First Deputy Defense Minister of the Russian Army General Nikolai Makarov, the combat training of troops in the Far Eastern Region (DVO) and the Pacific Fleet (TOF) is assessed as unsatisfactory. Meanwhile, Far East and the Pacific Fleet in combat power and the number of troops make up almost 40% of the capacity of the Russian Army and Navy. General Makarov said that the final conclusions on the audit readiness of troops in the region will be made by the end of January. However, he said that during this test, "the high demand placed on a new image of the troops and their leaders do not allow individual military units and commanders to deliver a positive evaluation."
General Makarov, the second highest-ranked person in the military, released the assessment last Friday, the day after Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov confidently reported to the Supreme Commander in Chief - President Dmitry Medvedev - about the success of Russian military reform. Makarov said the main purpose of checking the military readiness in the Far East was to determine the preparedness of troops to carry out tasks in the new organizational structure and three-tier system of governance, into which the armed forces were transferred after December 1, 2009. In this review, the troops in the Far East and Pacific Fleet forces "were supposed to be brought to the highest degree of combat readiness with the full range of relevant activities, verified by the Defense Commission." This commission, which included the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, as well as several leaders of the main and central directorates of the Defense Ministry, is headed by First Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Alexander Kolmakov.

Independent military experts likewise commented on the large gaps in the army and navy readiness during this inspection. Thus, according to Deputy Chairman of the Duma Defense Committee Mikhail Babich, "almost all scrambled troops - including landing assault and mechanized infantry brigades - were not battle-ready. A complete zero - from manning and finishing equipment readiness, to the ability of maneuvering in the designated area, to the availability of mechanics and drivers to exploit their own military equipment."

Babic's findings largely coincide with the views of military experts, who know firsthand about the situation in the army. For example, Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, who long headed the Directorate for International Military Cooperation, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that he was "very concerned about the current state of Russia's army." The army, in his opinion, "would not be able to fend off against those new military threats, which are defined in the new draft military doctrine of Russian Federation." The General also believes that the current head of the Defense Ministry (Serdyokov) has surrounded himself with inadequately-competent "associates" from St. Petersburg, who, "except the destruction and chaos, brought nothing to the armed forces."

Track the Twittersphere


RealClearWorld is excited to unveil a new, uh, New Media tool for our readers. Just like our colleagues over at Politics, RCW has launched its own Real Clear World Twitter page that aggregates and organizes all of the best and breaking tweets from around the foreign policy Twittersphere.

So whether you're a Twitter vet or newbie, check out RCW's new Twitter feature and keep up to date on all of your favorite wonks, writers and journalists.

And if you think we're missing any good Twitter accounts, please shoot us a line and offer your recommendations and feedback (shameless self-promotion is fine).

UPDATE: Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments, too.

All Politics Is Local


Daniel Larison offers his thoughts on the Ukraine election:

Late last year, a survey of post-communist countries showed that Ukrainians were one of two nations with abysmally low levels of support for democratic government and capitalism. Given the dire financial straits in which Ukraine finds itself and the disastrously dysfunctional government they have had over the last five years, it is not surprising that Ukrainians have soured on both. The absurdly high and unrealistic expectations for internal reform and charting a “pro-Western” course following Yushchenko’s victory have been dashed, and Ukrainians appear to be experiencing the acute disillusionment with Western models that Russians experienced during the 1990s. There is not much reason to expect that the regional and personal antagonisms that have done so much to cripple effective government in Ukraine will go away, but the good news is that tensions with Moscow are likely to be reduced and any disputes over gas pipelines, Crimea or the Black Sea Fleet are less likely to escalate into a crisis.

Interestingly, we haven't heard much from the "we're all Georgians now" crowd about the Ukraine election. Maybe they're not paying attention, or maybe they haven't figured out how to blame Obama for the results.

See also: Katya Gorchinskaya at the Kyiv Post offers a more succinct take on the Feb. 7 runoff in Ukraine.

(AP Photos)

French Claim U.S. Occupying Haiti

No good deed goes unpunished:

The French minister in charge of humanitarian relief called on the UN to "clarify" the American role amid claims the military build up was hampering aid efforts.

Alain Joyandet admitted he had been involved in a scuffle with a US commander in the airport's control tower over the flight plan for a French evacuation flight.

"This is about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti," Mr Joyandet said.

Well, the French would know.

NIE Redux

I don't have much to add to what Matt Duss and Steve Hynd have already said about the reports of a revised National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran. I have my points of disagreement, and anyone interested in my lengthier thoughts can go back and read what I wrote at the time. My thinking on the matter is mostly the same, although I would now add that an additional two years of defiant non-compliance on its nuclear program - not to mention the addition of an ever-evolving domestic opposition - has made the regime's nuclear program the most pressing matter of them all.

Many analysts on the right and the left politicized the 2007 NIE to fit their own frame on Iran, rather than taking the report for what it was: a sweeping, aggregated estimate of information from multiple government agencies and departments. Iran was either a week away from the bomb or had no interest in the bomb, depending on how you read the report and your preconceived understanding of the regime. It's frankly not that simple. Duss explains:

Whether one terms them “Talmudic” or just “appropriately rigorous given the stakes,” these kinds of distinctions — research vs. development, design vs. build, nuclear weapon vs. weapons capability — will be really important to the debate going forward. As there was with Iraq, there is a highly organized movement afoot to pretend that none of this matters, that “the mullahs” have always intended to get their hands on a nuke, and that we should therefore prepare to bomb the hell out of Iran do what is necessary.

"What is necessary" is too ambiguous, but Duss is right to pick on those who will no doubt use a revised NIE to beat the war drums. That said, Iran remains in violation of multiple UNSC resolutions and has defied the IAEA - albeit in a measured, calculated fashion - time and time again. Tehran is making a mockery of the nonproliferation regime, and the very bad joke is on us all if the international community doesn't make Iran comply. I obviously prefer those measures of compulsion to be engagement coupled with sanctions - incentives coupled with consequences - but all options, as the saying goes, should remain on the table.

But distinctions and timing matter, and as Duss notes, it'll be important to remove ourselves from a debate - do they or don't they, will they or won't they - that has been rather bipolar to date.

January 18, 2010

RCW Video of the Day

It seems that the Taliban may be hoping for their own Walter Cronkite moment.

While in retrospect we know that the Tet Offensive was a complete disaster for the Viet-Cong, it was a turning point in the Vietnam war, in no small part because it led to Walter Cronkite's famous editorial, declaring the war unwinnable. The political success of Tet led many who oppose the U.S. to believe that all that was needed was a well timed coup de grace to win. If this is what the Taliban were trying to do, it failed, in part because they seem to have failed to hold any area, and in part because the soldiers fighting them are Afghans.

(For more videos, check out the RCW Video page.)

Taliban Attack Kabul

Reuters caught some extraordinary video here:

Oil & State Failure


To continue with a theme from yesterday, the Center for American Progress' Rebecca Lefton and Daniel Weiss have issued a report, with the map above, showing American oil imports from "dangerous and unstable countries." The authors argue that American oil consumption helps to prop up unfriendly or even dangerous regimes and that it's time to invest that money on renewable sources at home.

Let's imagine that the authors get their wish and the U.S. finds a way to end its reliance on oil as a fuel (presumably we'd still need oil to lubricate machinery and as a feed stock for chemicals, but let's assume we can meet that need indigenously). What happens to the various "dangerous and unstable" countries once we deprive them of their major revenue source? Maybe they respond by adopting liberalizing reforms. Or maybe these nations join Yemen on the list of states teetering on the verge of collapse. And how secure would that make the U.S.?

I do think it would make more sense for the U.S. to invest its time, attention and resources in developing a less oil-intensive economy rather than trying to finesse the politics of the Middle East. At a minimum, such a development would help insulate our economy from major price swings and give us strategic resilience in the face oil-dependent powers. If such a move precipitates the collapse of various basket-case states, then that's a problem, but not necessarily an American problem. That's my view at least, but I was very much under the impression that the Center for American Progress believed that failed states represent a danger to the United States. I'm not clear why they'd want to produce more of them.

[Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan]

Ukraine Votes


While the foe of the Orange Revolution Viktor Yanukoyvch won the first round of Ukrainian elections, analysts don't see him prevailing in the Feb. 7 runoff with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Either way, it seems that Ukraine is going to be reorienting itself geopolitically:

Despite sharp differences and personal animosity, Tymoshenko and Yanukovych share a similar view of Ukraine's relations with Russia, its giant neighbor to the east, by far Ukraine's biggest trading partner and the region's dominant military power.

In the future, NATO membership is out. There will be no more Kremlin-bashing in Kiev, and relations with Georgia will not be nearly as close as they were under Orange President Viktor Yushchenko, who was trounced in Sunday's ballot, getting just 5.5 percent of the vote.

Five years ago many Orange protesters dreamed of breaking Ukraine's historic dependence on Moscow and becoming part of Western Europe.

But they've had a rude awakening, in the form of a battle with Russia over energy prices, the 2008 Russia-Georgia war and one of the worst recessions in Europe.

All seemed to demonstrate that like it or not, Ukraine couldn't get along without good relations with Moscow, its historic ally.

None of this is necessarily bad news for the U.S., provided we're willing to accede to Ukraine's wishes and table the NATO talk.

(AP Photos)

Iraq: Another Mess on Obama's Plate


It's been clear since the campaign that President Obama has tried to have it both ways with Iraq. He campaigned on a pledge to see the Bush-era Status of Forces Agreement through to a full U.S. withdrawal in 2011, but has also sprinkled enough caveats into his Iraq rhetoric as to leave open the possibility that the U.S. will stay behind in the event of an emergency. In other words, the decision to leave Iraq remains a hostage to events in Iraq.

It's too soon to tell if the election spat inside Iraq has the makings of such an emergency, but it's definitely unsettling:

More than a week after Iraq’s Accountability and Justice Commission first announced that it had disqualified at least 15 parties to run for Parliament, it remained unclear how many candidates out of more than 6,000 who have registered would be excluded — and which ones had been..

On Thursday, Iraq’s election commission announced that 499 were disqualified, but it postponed the publication of a list on Sunday, saying that still more names would be added Monday.

Far from dissipating, the political turmoil caused by the accountability commission — a little-known government agency headed by an official who until August was in an American prison on charges of orchestrating a 2008 bombing in Baghdad that killed two American embassy workers, two American soldiers and six Iraqis — only worsened over the weekend.

Maysoun al-Damlouji, a member of Parliament from Mr. Bolani’s bloc, compared the swirl of events to watching a Bollywood movie from India — in Hindi, without subtitles.

“We don’t know what’s going on,” Ms. Damlouji said.

The disqualification of so many candidates threatened to undermine a national election that has widely been cast as another test of Iraq’s nascent democracy. According to many lawmakers and experts, Iraq appears to be failing, raising fears of violence rather than political reconciliation as American troops steadily withdraw, nearly seven years after the American-led invasion that toppled Mr. Hussein.

Among those known to be disqualified is Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni leader of a broad secular coalition that also includes a former Shiite prime minister, Ayad Allawi. The coalition, known in Arabic as Iraqiya, is widely seen as the most formidable challenger to Mr. Maliki’s bloc and a second, largely Shiite alliance.

Given the raft of international challenges facing the administration, the absolute last thing it needs is for Iraq to fall apart. Again.

Update: Marc Lynch offers his take:

How significant is all this? I don't think that it shows a military "unraveling" as chronicled in Tom Rick's eponymous never-ending series, but rather the political problems which the "surge" never really resolved. And those go deep, and should not be a surprise. Major political legislation intended to overcome sectarian and institutional complaints has been stalled or ineffective. Crucial Arab-Kurd issues remain unresolved. Tensions between centralizers and federalists remain unresolved. The Awakenings remain largely unintegrated into the state. Last year's provincial elections generated excitement at the time and some political fluidity but have had only a limited impact on the wider environment and many of the new councils have proven disappointing. The Iraqi refugees and internally displaced remain a persistent, gaping hole in the state. Now the upcoming elections, along with the occasional bursts of horrific violence and rumours of coup attempts and foiled plots of various kinds, has generated a feverish political environment and ramped up uncertainty about the future.... which this move only feeds.

That said, even if the ban on Mutlak and the others stands, I doubt it will lead to an across the board 2005-style Sunni boycott. Iraqi Sunni politics remain intensely fragmented and wracked by internal competition, as they have been for years. The same fragmentation and divisions which make it difficult for the Sunnis either to form a workable electoral coalition or to rekindle the insurgency will probably make it impossible for them to coordinate or enforce a "Sunni" boycott. Mutlak's list has plenty of ambitious Sunni rivals who will be only too happy to take advantage of its boycott to grab some extra power for themselves.

(AP Photos)

Chinese Bombs and Chinese Aid

(AFP Photos)

The past week's headlines are significant for highlighting the two potential manifestations of China's growing global clout. First, China announced that it had successfully tested anti-missile technology. Four days later, after Haiti was devastated by a magnitude-7.0 earthquake, China announced that it would provide $4.4 million worth of aid to support the global effort.

China watchers, for at least a decade now, have been arguing over the path that China will ultimately traverse in international relations. Will it develop into a responsible member of the international community, or will it eventually decide to take on U.S. military dominance in hopes of controlling the international system?

The events of the last seven days suggest an ambiguous answer to that question.

On the one hand, the PRC sent significant aid -- the amount noted above plus another $1 million via the government-controlled Red Cross Society of China -- and personnel to assist one of only 23 countries that still recognize Taiwan as an independent nation. In the past, China established the pattern of not dealing with or assisting nations that recognized Taiwan. And if the Chinese tried to sign an agreement with one of these states, then it usually stipulated a breaking of diplomatic ties with Taipei. Therefore, China's quick response to Haiti's disaster without any strings attached, despite Haitian recognition of Taiwan, signifies a PRC that is more concerned with playing its part and building confidence with the international community.

On the other hand, on Jan. 11, China publicly announced the success of a missile test in which it shot down another missile in mid-flight while it was in space. This is something that, until now, only the U.S. has successfully achieved, making it a significant step in military development. Moreover, this is evidence that China's pumping increasingly more money into the military -- particularly its maritime, space, and electronic -- capabilities is paying off in quality, not just quantity. Certainly, if it were planning on a purely cooperative future, China wouldn't need such capabilities, defensive or not.

These two futures are not mutually exclusive, of course. Conceivably, the PRC could be showing the world that it wants to be constructive while simultaneously hedging its bets on a world that, largely, does not trust its military intentions. But how much does such a strategy reinforce doubts amongst some in the international community?

Yet, it is not a Catch-22. What China needs to do is to use -- and please excuse the cynicism -- crises, such as Haiti, as opportunities for much more significant confidence building. With all of its foreign reserves and new military wherewithal, China could be playing a much more significant role in international humanitarian efforts, particularly during disasters, in which politics can usually be evaded. Imagine if China were to have sent $50 million and 1,000 aid workers to a country with which it didn't even have diplomatic relations. This would have been a clear sign that China is here to play a positive role in the world.

As it uses its newfound power to make more significant contributions, the PRC doesn't necessarily have to stop developing defensive capabilities. (America certainly does both.) But without matching the growing might of its military arsenal with diplomatic and humanitarian might, to many around the world, China's intentions will remain in doubt.

Kevin Slaten was a junior fellow in the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Now, he lives in Taiwan on a Fulbright Grant. His opinions in no way reflect the views of the State Department or Foundation for Scholarly Exchange. He blogs at www.kevinslaten.blogspot.com.

January 17, 2010

Thomas Friedman's RX


Thomas Friedman has taken it on the chin of late, but I thought today's column was quite on the money. But this isn't right:

Frankly, if I had my wish, we would be on our way out of Afghanistan not in, we would be letting Pakistan figure out which Taliban they want to conspire with and which ones they want to fight, we would be letting Israelis and Palestinians figure out on their own how to make peace, we would be taking $100 billion out of the Pentagon budget to make us independent of imported oil — nothing would make us more secure — and we would be reducing the reward for killing or capturing Osama bin Laden to exactly what he’s worth: 10 cents and an autographed picture of Dick Cheney. [emphasis mine]
Thomas Friedman wrote a book about globalization, so I don't presume to lecture him on how it works, but surely he knows that "imported oil" is not the problem here. Our two main suppliers are Canada and Mexico, although our consumption does sustain high prices which helps the bad actors who export everywhere else. But that's the point. Getting off "imported oil" is not simply impossible, our participation in the oil market in any context enables those countries we don't like to continue to profit from oil. That's how a global commodity works.

To shelter America from the adverse consequences of oil consumption would entail ending our use of oil, period. That's significantly harder than just getting off imports. And as RCW contributor Daniel McGroarty has pointed out, the U.S. imports a lot of strategically vital minerals - including many that would be needed for alternative energy projects - so even if kicked our "oil addiction," we'd still be dependent on resource-rich but politically dubious nations for raw materials. That's the world.

But it's also not the real problem here. The problem with oil is that it has compelled us to meddle in the Middle East. Friedman thinks that if we got off the stuff, we'd be free to disentangle ourselves from the region. But we don't need a crash program seeded with $100 billion in Pentagon cash to stop meddling. Last time I checked, the region wasn't doing a brisk business in semiconductors, off-shore accounting or biotechnology. It sells oil, or it has no income. That's a dynamic we could leverage to our advantage without having to base a single soldier in the area.

(AP Photos)

Ideology & Security

Jamie Kirchick reads the 2010 Freedom House report and concludes that freedom is no longer on the march:

When President George Bush left office with the lowest approval ratings ever recorded, it appeared that his "Freedom Agenda" would go down the tubes with him. Bush committed the United States, at least rhetorically, to the cause of global democracy promotion more explicitly than any of his predecessors. Whatever the faults of his administration's execution of these policies, it would be foolhardy to distance the United States from the cause of democracy, not only because doing so would be inimical to our values, but because totalitarianism overseas inevitably threatens our own security.

This is an interesting claim - that totalitarianism "inevitably" threatens American security. Looking at Freedom House's own rankings in map-form here it sure doesn't look like that. There's unfree Africa, not posing much of a threat. And parts of Southeast Asia, not free and not particularly threatening. There's the unfree Middle East, populated mostly with U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Jordan. All not free. There's unfree China, which isn't exactly an ally of the U.S., but it's not an overt threat either. There's unfree Russia, which is contesting American influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, but is pale shadow of the Cold War threat to American interests it once was.

Indeed, scan the list of unfree countries and quite a few of them pose no threat whatsoever to the United States. Far from being an inevitable threat, the existence of political repression appears to be just what it always was, an unfortunate expression of man's inhumanity to man.

The question isn't whether we'd like the map to be all green, but the extent to which the U.S. federal government and the American taxpayer can be the engine of that transformation. And while I think there is a role for democracy promotion in American foreign policy, it's the patient work of decades and is ultimately up to the host nation itself to embrace and cultivate. Kirchick acknowledges that President Bush committed himself "rhetorically" to the cause of freedom, but also notes that during Bush's tenure, freedom retrenched. So what practical good did that "rhetorical" commitment produce?

The U.S. has survived and thrived as a free nation when most of the world was unfree and she surely can survive in today's freer world just as well. American liberty is secured at home and by ensuring that the productive, industrial centers of the world remain basically friendly to the U.S. The universalist conceit that we'll never be safe until the world orders its affairs according to our designs is a recipe for destroying the domestic freedom that should be our first priority.

(As a side note, be sure to check out the main Freedom House 2010 report page. Chock full of interesting data.)

January 15, 2010

India Goes for Russian Fifth-Generation Fighter

According to the daily "Izvestia", India is planning to purchase 250 Russian fifth-generation fighters, PAK-FA. The Russian equivalent to the American F-22 will be designated by the Indians as "FGFA."

Russian "United Airspace Company" (OAK) and India's Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) are currently moving closer to the memorandum of understanding for the production of the aircraft for the two nations' air forces. In November 2007, both nations signed an agreement to jointly produce this jet fighter, but it took two years to resolve questions regarding intellectual property rights. The total cost of this deal is valued between $8 and $10 billion. Russia is expected to receive the new fighter in 2015, India will get it in 2017.

North Korea - What Next?


Oh, North Korea, so predictably unpredictable:

North Korea, denouncing the South for drawing up a contingency plan to deal with the potential collapse of the North’s government, said on Friday that it would cut off all dialogue with South Korea and exclude it from all negotiations concerning the security of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea will also wage a “pan-national holy war of retaliation to blow away” the South Korean government, said a statement from the North’s highest ruling agency, the National Defense Commission, which is headed by the national leader, Kim Jong-il.

The threat was surprising less for its stridency, which is not unusual in diatribes against the South and the United States, than for its timing. Only Thursday, North Korea had proposed holding talks with the South on reviving joint tour programs, which have been stalled for more than a year over the shooting death of a southern tourist and the North’s anger over Seoul’s policies.

The American Interest has a good round table on North Korean policy. The upshot seems to be that most analysts think that regime change is not only the optimal outcome but essentially an inevitable one - Kim Jong Il won't live forever and what comes next could be quite chaotic if it's not handled correctly by all the parties involved.

Unfortunately, as the news today demonstrates, any efforts to think about this problem publicly tend to provoke tirades from the North. But let's hope that privately, contingency planning among China, the U.S. and South Korea is ongoing...

(AP Photos)

Why Did China Spy on Google?


The New York Times' David Sanger and John Markoff report that the U.S. is keeping mum on the Google/China dust-up in part because of the severity of the cyber-intrusion that sparked Google's decision:

Last month, when Google engineers at their sprawling campus in Silicon Valley began to suspect that Chinese intruders were breaking into private Gmail accounts, the company began a secret counteroffensive.

It managed to gain access to a computer in Taiwan that it suspected of being the source of the attacks. Peering inside that machine, company engineers actually saw evidence of the aftermath of the attacks, not only at Google, but also at at least 33 other companies, including Adobe Systems, Northrop Grumman and Juniper Networks, according to a government consultant who has spoken with the investigators....

...Besides being unable to firmly establish the source of the attacks, Google investigators have been unable to determine the goal: to gain commercial advantage; insert spyware; break into the Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents and American experts on China who frequently exchange e-mail messages with administration officials; or all three. In fact, at least one prominent Washington research organization with close ties to administration officials was among those hacked, according to one person familiar with the episode.

There is growing body of argument (see Jordan Calinoff in FP today) that the Google contretemps is the culmination of a Chinese policy to make the country less hospitable to foreign corporations. That may indeed be the case, but this particular incident sounds more like run-of-the-mill spying to me, not industrial policy.

(AP Photos)

January 14, 2010

RCW Video of the Day

In a day dominated by grim news out of Haiti, we bring you an interesting interview from Al Jazeera with a form CIA officer.

For more videos on the latest issues from around the world check out the RCW video page.

Can Gordon Brown Learn from Dominos?


Alex Massie looks to pizza for guidance in rejuvenating the beleaguered British Prime Minister:

And remember, Domino's don't have to make great pizza, they just need to make pizza that is competitive with, or no less unpleasant, than that offered by Pizza Hut and their other competitors. In the political arena, Labour don't need to be good, they just need to be competitive with the Tories (aka Pizza Hut).

Granted, slamming and then reinventing your own brand is a last-ditch strategy. But it's not as though Labour have many attractive options.

Pizza is an endless font of wisdom.

(AP Photos)

Haiti - The View from France

The Global Post finds Haitians in France anxious for news about home:

Obama on Haiti

President Obama issued the following statement this morning on the relief efforts in Haiti:

Good morning, everybody. I've directed my administration to launch a swift, coordinated and aggressive effort to save lives and support the recovery in Haiti.

The losses that have been suffered in Haiti are nothing less than devastating, and responding to a disaster of this magnitude will require every element of our national capacity -- our diplomacy and development assistance; the power of our military; and, most importantly, the compassion of our country. And this morning, I'm joined by several members of my national security team who are leading this coordinated response.

I've made it clear to each of these leaders that Haiti must be a top priority for their departments and agencies right now. This is one of those moments that calls out for American leadership. For the sake of our citizens who are in Haiti, for the sake of the Haitian people who have suffered so much, and for the sake of our common humanity, we stand in solidarity with our neighbors to the south, knowing that but for the grace of God, there we go.

This morning, I can report that the first waves of our rescue and relief workers are on the ground and at work. A survey team worked overnight to identify priority areas for assistance, and shared the results of that review throughout the United States government, and with international partners who are also sending support. Search and rescue teams are actively working to save lives. Our military has secured the airport and prepared it to receive the heavy equipment and resources that are on the way, and to receive them around the clock, 24 hours a day. An airlift has been set up to deliver high-priority items like water and medicine. And we're coordinating closely with the Haitian government, the United Nations, and other countries who are also on the ground.

We have no higher priority than the safety of American citizens, and we've airlifted injured Americans out of Haiti. We're running additional evacuations, and will continue to do so in the days ahead. I know that many Americans, especially Haitian Americans, are desperate for information about their family and friends. And the State Department has set up a phone number and e-mail address that you can find at www.state.gov -- www.state.gov -- to inquire about your loved ones. And you should know that we will not rest until we account for our fellow Americans in harm's way.

Even as we move as quickly as possible, it will take hours -- and in many cases days -- to get all of our people and resources on the ground. Right now in Haiti roads are impassable, the main port is badly damaged, communications are just beginning to come online, and aftershocks continue.

None of this will seem quick enough if you have a loved one who's trapped, if you're sleeping on the streets, if you can't feed your children. But it's important that everybody in Haiti understand, at this very moment one of the largest relief efforts in our recent history is moving towards Haiti. More American search and rescue teams are coming. More food. More water. Doctors, nurses, paramedics. More of the people, equipment and capabilities that can make the difference between life and death.

The United States armed forces are also on their way to support this effort. Several Coast Guard cutters are already there providing everything from basic services like water, to vital technical support for this massive logistical operation. Elements of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division will arrive today. We're also deploying a Marine Expeditionary Unit, the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, and the Navy's hospital ship, the Comfort.

And today, I'm also announcing an immediate investment of $100 million to support our relief efforts. This will mean more of the life-saving equipment, food, water and medicine that will be needed. This investment will grow over the coming year as we embark on the long-term recovery from this unimaginable tragedy.

The United States of America will also forge the partnerships that this undertaking demands. We will partner with the Haitian people. And that includes the government of Haiti, which needs our support as they recover from the devastation of this earthquake. It also includes the many Haitian Americans who are determined to help their friends and family. And I've asked Vice President Biden to meet in South Florida this weekend with members of the Haitian American community, and with responders who are mobilizing to help the Haitian people.

We will partner with the United Nations and its dedicated personnel and peacekeepers, especially those from Brazil, who are already on the ground due to their outstanding peacekeeping efforts there. And I want to say that our hearts go out to the United Nations, which has experienced one of the greatest losses in its history. We have no doubt that we can carry on the work that was done by so many of the U.N. effort that have been lost, and we see that their legacy is Haiti's hope for the future.

We will partner with other nations and organizations. And that's why I've been reaching out to leaders from across the Americas and beyond who are sending resources to support this effort. And we will join with the strong network of non-governmental organizations across the country who understand the daily struggles of the Haitian people.

Yet even as we bring our resources to bear on this emergency, we need to summon the tremendous generosity and compassion of the American people. I want to thank the many Americans who have already contributed to this effort. I want to encourage all Americans who want to help to go to whitehouse.gov to learn more. And in the days ahead, we will continue to work with those individuals and organizations who want to assist this effort so that you can do so.

Finally, I want to speak directly to the people of Haiti. Few in the world have endured the hardships that you have known. Long before this tragedy, daily life itself was often a bitter struggle. And after suffering so much for so long, to face this new horror must cause some to look up and ask, have we somehow been forsaken?

To the people of Haiti, we say clearly, and with conviction, you will not be forsaken; you will not be forgotten. In this, your hour of greatest need, America stands with you. The world stands with you. We know that you are a strong and resilient people. You have endured a history of slavery and struggle, of natural disaster and recovery. And through it all, your spirit has been unbroken and your faith has been unwavering. So today, you must know that help is arriving -- much, much more help is on the way.

Afghan Optimism Improves

The BBC reports:

Most Afghans are increasingly optimistic about the state of their country, a poll commissioned by the BBC, ABC News and Germany's ARD shows.

Of more than 1,500 Afghans questioned, 70% said they believed Afghanistan was going in the right direction - a big jump from 40% a year ago.

Of those questioned, 68% now back the presence of US troops in Afghanistan, compared with 63% a year ago.

For Nato troops, including UK forces, support has risen from 59% to 62%.

Given that Western counter-insurgency efforts rise and fall on the outlook of the Afghan people, this is good news. Let's hope these positive trends continue.

January 13, 2010

Mehdi Khalaji's Father Arrested

The father of Washington Institute Senior Fellow Mehdi Khalaji, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Khalaji, was arrested in Qom yesterday by Iranian Ministry of Intelligence agents:

The family has no information about where Ayatollah Khalaji is being held, and Iranian officials have not provided any further information about his arrest or detention. Ayatollah Khalaji and his wife, with Mehdi's daughter, were planning to depart Iran for Dubai to seek visas to visit the United States in March.

Ayatollah Khalaji, sixty-one years old, was once arrested by the shah as a revolutionary agitator and, following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, welcomed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Qom -- the heart of Iran's religious clerical establishment -- on behalf of the city's residents. Recently, Ayatollah Khalaji had been deeply concerned by the violent clashes occurring in his country and had advocated a peaceful resolution of conflict between the Iranian regime and domestic protesters. Although a prominent cleric and influential orator across Iran, he has never held an official position in the Islamic Republic.

RealClearWorld has enjoyed a close relationship with the Institute, and Mehdi did us the honor of speaking on a panel we co-sponsored with WINEP back in June prior to the post-Iranian election turmoil.

Our thoughts, prayers and support go out to Mehdi and his family.

Disastrous Earthquake in Haiti


Yesterday a category 7.0 earthquake, the most disastrous in Haiti's history, hit the country at 4:53 p.m. and was centered about 10 miles west of the capital, Port-au-Prince. The director of the Salvation Army's Disaster Services in Haiti gave this eyewitness account:

Words cannot begin to describe the devastation that has taken place in Port au Prince, Haiti.

I am the Director of Disaster Services for The Salvation Army in Haiti, and I am from the United States. My wife and I have been in PAP since April, and have fallen deeply in love with the country and its people.

When the earthquake struck, I was driving down the mountain from Petionville. Our truck was being tossed to and fro like a toy, and when it stopped, I looked out the windows to see buildings “pancaking” down, like I have never witnessed before.

Traffic, of course, came to a stand-still, while thousands of people poured out into the streets, crying, carrying bloody bodies, looking for anyone who could help them. We piled as many bodies into the back of our truck, and took them down the hill with us, hoping to find medical attention. All of them were older, scared, bleeding, and terrified. It took about 2 hours to go less than 1 mile. Traffic was horrible, devastation was everywhere, and suffering humanity was front and center.

When we could drive no further, we left the truck parked on the side of the street, and walked the remaining 2 miles to get back to the Army compound. What I found was very sad! All of the security walls were down. The Children’s Home itself seems pretty intact, but our quarters, which is attached, are destroyed. Unliveable. The walls and ceiling are still standing – but so badly compromised that I wouldn’t even think of trying to stay there. All of the children, and hundreds of neighbors, are sleeping in our playground area tonight. Occasionally, there is another tremor – another reminder that we are not yet finished with this calamity. And when it comes, all of the people cry out and the children are terrified.

As I am sitting outside now, with most people trying to get a little sleep, I can hear the moans and crys of the neighbors. One of our staff went to a home in the neighborhood, to try to be of assistance to the woman who lived there. But she was too late.

The scene will be repeated over and over again. Tomorrow, we will begin the process of assessing damage, learning about casualties, and preparing for the future.
God bless Haiti.

Bob Poff
Divisional Director of Disaster Services in Haiti
The Salvation Army

This afternoon Le Monde reports (link in French) there are over 100,000 dead, in a country with a population of some 10 million people, and there are roughly 3 million people in need of aid.

The American Red Cross and the Salvation Army are already doing relief work in the country. You can donate here:
Salvation Army:

The Salvation Army is accepting monetary donations to assist in the effort via:

• Their paypal account.
Online Credit Card Donations

• 1-800-SAL-ARMY

• postal mail at:

The Salvation Army World Service Office

International Disaster Relief Fund

PO Box 630728

Baltimore, MD 21263-0728

(*designate checks and money orders to ‘Haiti Earthquake’)
American Red Cross:
12:30am (1/13/2010) You can text “HAITI” to 90999 to donate $10 to American Red Cross relief for Haiti.

or through their International Response Fund.

Haiti is the poorest country in our hemisphere. They do not have the resources to bury 100,000 dead.

White House Statement on Haiti

The White House released the following statement regarding the devastating earthquake in Haiti:

Good morning, everybody. This morning I want to extend to the people of Haiti the deep condolences and unwavering support of the American people following yesterday’s terrible earthquake.

We are just now beginning to learn the extent of the devastation, but the reports and images that we’ve seen of collapsed hospitals, crumbled homes, and men and women carrying their injured neighbors through the streets are truly heart-wrenching. Indeed, for a country and a people who are no strangers to hardship and suffering, this tragedy seems especially cruel and incomprehensible. Our thoughts and prayers are also with the many Haitian-Americans around our country who do not yet know the fate of their families and loved ones back home.

I have directed my administration to respond with a swift, coordinated, and aggressive effort to save lives. The people of Haiti will have the full support of the United States in the urgent effort to rescue those trapped beneath the rubble, and to deliver the humanitarian relief — the food, water and medicine — that Haitians will need in the coming days. In that effort, our government, especially USAID and the Departments of State and Defense, are working closely together and with our partners in Haiti, the region, and around the world.

Right now our efforts are focused on several urgent priorities. First, we’re working quickly to account for U.S. embassy personnel and their families in Port-au-Prince, as well as the many American citizens who live and work in Haiti. Americans trying to locate family members in Haiti are encouraged to contact the State Department at (888) 407-4747. I’m going to repeat that — (888) 407-4747.

Second, we’ve mobilized resources to help rescue efforts. Military overflights have assessed the damage, and by early afternoon our civilian disaster assistance team are beginning to arrive. Search-and-rescue teams from Florida, Virginia and California will arrive throughout today and tomorrow, and more rescue and medical equipment and emergency personnel are being prepared.

Because in disasters such as this the first hours and days are absolutely critical to saving lives and avoiding even greater tragedy, I have directed my teams to be as forward-leaning as possible in getting the help on the ground and coordinating with our international partners as well.

Third, given the many different resources that are needed, we are taking steps to ensure that our government acts in a unified way. My national security team has led an interagency effort overnight. And to ensure that we coordinate our effort, going forward, I’ve designated the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Dr. Rajiv Shah, to be our government’s unified disaster coordinator.

Now, this rescue and recovery effort will be complex and challenging. As we move resources into Haiti, we will be working closely with partners on the ground, including the many N.G.O.’s from Haiti and across Haiti, the United Nations Stabilization Mission, which appears to have suffered its own losses, and our partners in the region and around the world. This must truly be an international effort.

Finally, let me just say that this is a time when we are reminded of the common humanity that we all share. With just a few hundred miles of ocean between us and a long history that binds us together, Haitians are neighbors of the Americas and here at home. So we have to be there for them in their hour of need.

Despite the fact that we are experiencing tough times here at home, I would encourage those Americans who want to support the urgent humanitarian efforts to go to whitehouse.gov where you can learn how to contribute. We must be prepared for difficult hours and days ahead as we learn about the scope of the tragedy. We will keep the victims and their families in our prayers. We will be resolute in our response, and I pledge to the people of Haiti that you will have a friend and partner in the United States of America today and going forward.

May God bless the people of Haiti and those working on their behalf.

Google Threatens China Pull-Out


By Patrick Chovanec

An important news story is unfolding today in China. In the wee hours of this morning (Beijing time), David Drummond, Google’s Senior Vice President for Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer, posted a statement on his blog. The gist of that statement is a business bombshell: Google, faced with what it sees as an intolerable level of censorship and harassment, has effectively decided to pull the plug on its China operations.

Drummond begins by describing the incident that immediately sparked this decision:

In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google. However, it soon became clear that what at first appeared to be solely a security incident … was something quite different … we have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

Although Drummond does not explictly point the finger at the Chinese government as the perpetrator, it’s hard to read his words as implying anything else.

He goes on to note that when Google entered the Chinese market in 2006, it believed that the potential benefits outweighed some of the uncomfortable compromises it was forced to make. If this proved mistaken, the company pledged, it would reconsider its strategy. The recent cyberattacks, Drummond concludes, combined with China’s tightening controls over Internet access, have tipped the balance. As a result:

We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

I hear from reliable sources that, as of this morning, Google.cn has unilaterally lifted all of its censorship blocks and is running unfiltered in China. (A more recent report says that the famous “tank man” photo can be accessed, a major no-no as far as Chinese censors are concerned).

Tellingly, Drummond notes that Google’s decision was made in the U.S. “without the knowledge or involvement of our employees in China” — an effort, no doubt, to shield them from retaliation. In light of China’s arrest of four Rio Tinto employees last year on espionage charges following a series of commercial disagreements, Google’s concern is certainly understandable.

Although its statement is couched in diplomatic and open-ended language, make no mistake: Google has crossed the Rubicon. In the U.S., a statement like this might be just a tough-talk negotiating tactic, to see if the other side will blink. But in China, nobody issues an ultimatum — especially not to the government — unless they are fully expecting a final and irreconcilable break. As long as you have some hope of a favorable outcome, you bite your tongue. That’s precisely why Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have uttered not a word of complaint, even as a six-month ban on accessing those sites has left their Chinese market share in ruins. Google’s decision to publicly throw down the gauntlet — a move sure to be seen by the Chinese government as a virtual declaration of war — is a sign the company has already written off China and is ready to pack its bags.

Some observers wonder whether Google is just using “human rights” as an excuse to fold a failing business, noting that its main Chinese competitor, Baidu, has built up a 75% market share, leaving Google with just 18%. It’s certainly true that striking such a pose would win the company kudos from Congress, which was sharply critical of Yahoo when it handed over information to Chinese police that resulted in the arrest of a journalist.

Still, a company with Google’s resources doesn’t just abandon a huge market like China — even if it ranks a distant #2 — without good reason. There’s widespread feeling among foreign companies in China that the issues Google is complaining about are real, and serious. A senior person with a leading global tech company here in Beijing who I talked to described Google’s announcement as “unprecedented,” and said it will make everyone rethink the way they do business in China. A diplomatic contact told me that the privacy and security issues raised were so serious that “the U.S. government’s response, or lack of response, will send a profound message” not just to China, but the entire world. Already, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is demanding an explanation from China for the alleged cyberattacks.

If it does leave, to my knowledge Google will be the first major U.S. company to quit China explicitly for reasons of political interference — and that marks a very significant development. China has always operated on the assumption that, no matter how they might grumble, foreign investors will ultimately accept whatever strictures China dishes out because nobody, in the end, is willing to walk away from the Chinese market. Google’s decision seriously undermines that assumption. There is a breaking point.

Update: The latest news I'm hearing over Twitter is that

1. Google is alternatively denying that you can access "tank man" photos through its Chinese site, or saying you always could, while some are reporting it has turned its censoring filters back on again
2. China has had a remarkably cautious initial response, saying it needs "to study" the Google allegations. I can confirm that, at this moment, Google.cn and Gmail.com are still accessible from China, which really surprises me.

These developments raise two possibilities I did not previously entertain. The first is that Google has the unique size, visibility, and prestige to really play hardball with China, and that turning its censorship filters off and on again was a way to send a message to China that it is willing to hit the "nuclear" button, but is open to talking. The second is that the Chinese government is not completely unified on this issue, that the elements that (allegedly) attacked Google have created an unwelcome mess for other elements concerned that China's business reputation would be damaged if Google picks up its toys and goes home. It is quite possible that both scenarios are true, or neither. The story unfolds ... and is well worth monitoring closely. How it plays out will shape business-government relations in China in significant ways.

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

RCW Video of the Day

On the heels of this post on European defense spending, comes a report out of Great Britain:

If Great Britain does cut its troop levels to 140,000 it would mean that fewer that 2 out of 1000 people in their country would be under arms. Perhaps more importantly, such a low troop level will make it likely that one of the United States closest allies would be unable to support more than one small contingency operation at a time, outside its own borders.

For more videos on the latest issues from around the world check out the RCW video page.

Reaction to the China/Google Dust-up


The Atlantic's James Fallows, who has spent I believe the last three years living in and reporting on China, offers his thoughts on the news:

But there are also reasons to think that a difficult and unpleasant stage of China-U.S. and China-world relations lies ahead. This is so on the economic front, as warned about here nearly a year ago with later evidence here. It may prove to be so on the environmental front -- that is what the argument over China's role in Copenhagen is about. It is increasingly so on the political-liberties front, as witness Vaclav Havel's denunciation of the recent 11-year prison sentence for the man who is in many ways his Chinese counterpart, Liu Xiaobo. And if a major U.S. company -- indeed, Google has been ranked the #1 brand in the world -- has concluded that, in effect, it must break diplomatic relations with China because its policies are too repressive and intrusive to make peace with, that is a significant judgment.

Ryan Tate, however, smells something fishy:

The timing of Google's aversion to censorship is telling. As admitted in Drummond's post, Google has bowed to the censorious demands of the Chinese regime for years, reasoning (conveniently) that the Chinese people were better off with Google than without it; Google even allowed its own censors to be profiled in the New York Times.

Only now, amid executive turnover at Google China and a continued failure to best their state-sponsored competitor there, and after Chinese hackers have endangered the company's interests globally, does Google get firm on the issue of human rights. It's a clever way to dress up a security breach — and an embarrassing attempt to partner with China's authoritarian leaders — as an act of nobility and courage.

It would be grievous indeed if Google is trying to turn an act of corporate CYA into an international rebuke of China. Even Hillary Clinton is weighing in on this now.

Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph's Peter Foster reports from Beijing that many Chinese bloggers would be upset at the loss of Google.

(AP Photos)

Disarming Iran, North Korea

Christian Whiton is alarmed at President Obama's "profound weakness" with respect to the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran. He then advises:

We need a defense posture based on strategic deterrence, conventional military counterforce, economic pressure, information warfare and political subversion. This should include fielding a countervailing nuclear force adjacent to Iran and North Korea, reversing Mr. Obama’s cuts to missile defense, running intelligence operations that are not paralyzed by risk-aversion, and realizing we will need ample conventional forces based in East Asia and the Middle East indefinitely.

I'm not sure how stationing nuclear weapons adjacent North Korea and Iran is going to constitute a disincentive for them to abandon their own deterrent. If anything, it will reinforce the rationale for acquiring one. (Although to be fair, they're going ahead whether we put nuclear weapons on their doorstep or not.) Nor is it all clear that the current administration has abandoned deterrence with respect to either country. As for "political subversion," that's a non-starter in North Korea as it would require both the cooperation of South Korea and China, and obviously unnecessary in Iran (as they're subverting themselves just fine).

But the last bit of advice is the most troubling. Is it really wise to station military forces in the Middle East indefinitely?

January 12, 2010

Is Europe Free-Riding on U.S. Defense Spending?


As someone sympathetic to the argument that they are (or at least were, during the Cold War) the Economist's Democracy in America blog sets the record straight:

Defence spending by Britain and France is around 2.5% of their GDP, which is about the world average. This is interesting in that neither Britain nor France, nor any other country in Western Europe, faces any conceivable territorial military threat. German defence spending is considerably lower, but (as Charlemagne noted in a 2008 column) it still fields the only other serious expeditionary force in Europe. In any case, Germany faces no military threat either, nor has there been any serious likelihood of military conflict anywhere in the region since the Yugoslavian wars wound down. The only European countries that face any risk of military conflict in the coming decades are those that border Russia, and indeed the Baltics are increasing their military spending; one could vaguely imagine Poland getting into a dicey situation someday (a blow-up involving Estonia's Russian-speaking minority leads to Russian intervention and Warsaw begins feeling the heat, or something), but it's a stretch, and Poland, too, is increasing its military spending to almost 2% of GDP.

America, for its own reasons, has decided to spend 4.7% of its GDP on its armed forces and on warfighting. But why should Europe match that? For the sake of comparison: India and Pakistan are actual nuclear-armed enemies with disputed territorial claims and huge armies facing each other across a hostile border. Each country is fighting active counterinsurgency campaigns inside its own territory. Yet Pakistan spends 3% of GDP on its military, while India spends just 2.5%, about as much as France. The world abounds in countries that enjoy no American security guarantees, yet spend no more than France does on defence: Brazil, Chile, Vietnam, South Africa, Nigeria, Ukraine, even, by some accounts, Iran. These countries are clearly not "free riding" on America; why should Europe be?

A fair point indeed. I think the GDP gap we see between the U.S. and other states is what we could probably call the "hegemony gap" - America spends nearly double what other industrial powers spend to sustain superiority around the world. Where the "free riding" claim comes in is not simply that we're spending extra money but that we're putting our military to use doing things - like keeping sea lanes open - that others benefit from but do not pay for. I think this claim about providing global goods as a justification for our large defense budget doesn't hold nearly as much water as it used to. And in any event, as the world's largest economy, it's in our over-riding interest to keep commerce flowing.

So the Economists' fundamental point strikes me as valid: the U.S. could spend less on defense and still be quite safe.

(AP Photos)

RCW Video of the Day

News that probably will not get a lot of play but may have far reaching consequences:

It is worth noting that Bangladesh is a primarily Muslim country, which actually used to be known as Eastern Pakistan. It was able to break away from that country as a result of Indian intervention which was part of the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971. It may be significant that India is able to warm ties to an Islamic country in South Asia.

For more videos on the latest issues from around the world check out the RCW video page.

Arabs Step Up Cold War Against Iran


The Gulf Blog reports:

Two of the Arab world’s biggest satellite broadcasting companies, Nilesat and Arabsat, have taken the Iranian channel Alaam of the air for breach of contract. Needless to say, no specific, verifiable breach has been mentioned. It doesn’t take much of an imagination or much understanding of the Middle East to believe that this was done for political reasons and that this ‘breach of contract’ business is but the laziest of covers. Hezbollah, for example, Iran’s proxy, have come out and decried this change, citing political pressures.

In numerous fields, Arab Sunni states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia have, for years now (or for centuries in different ‘formats’), been engaged in what can broadly be described as a cold conflict with Iran/Persia. Occasionally this conflict bubbles to the surface in, say, the form of the Iran-Iraq war or even verbal jostling as to the name of the Gulf separating the Arabian Peninsula from modern-day Iran. Alaam must be seen in this context.

And one wonders why the U.S. insists on thrusting itself in the middle of this. And on the side of the rulers who promulgate the Sunni radicalism that inspired 9/11 no less...

(AP Photos)

How Does This End?


The Cable's Josh Rogin passes along a report from the State Department that warns that Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria could be the next terrorist safe haven:

As the United States widens its understanding of the terrorism threat to include countries like Yemen and Somalia, its neighbor across the Gulf of Aden, the State Department inspector general's office is warning about another potential breeding ground for insurgents: Nigeria.

Of course, the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab hailed from there, but his case is seen as an aberration because he grew up in the most advantageous of circumstances. But according to a new report made public Monday, Nigeria is at risk of becoming the same type of breeding ground for violent extremism that America is now battling in so many other places around the globe.

As many people have said repeatedly, you could break the back of al Qaeda in Af-Pak and still have a global terrorism problem on your hands.

Perhaps more importantly, as Matthew Yglesias intimates, we've now defined our national security interests in such a way that we cannot feel secure in the world so long as their are pockets of insecurity anywhere. That is not a rational view of defense but paranoia. Unfortunately, it's a view promoted as assiduously by progressives - including the Obama administration - as neoconservatives.

It's also worth asking just how much more expensive it would be to eschew global nation building and instead invest the money in developing an energy economy that does not rely overwhelmingly on petroleum.Having influence over the Middle East is great and all, but in a world where the U.S. economy wouldn't grind to a halt without oil, I don't see a lot of downsides to letting China enjoy the fun of wielding influence in the region.

(AP Photos)

Radical Islam as New Left Protest

Commenting on the banning of UK Islamist group Islam4UK, the Daily Telegraph's Janet Daley observes:

The tactics of these fundamentalist organisations have more in common with the New Left protest groups of the 1960s and 70s than they do with moderate Islam: their strategy is to provoke the state into “revealing” its totalitarian imperatives by creating social disorder and gratuitous offence. Even their tendency to proliferate under different names – Islam4UK was already banned under its other incarnations of “al-Ghurabaa” and The Sacred Sect – are similar to the old Leftwing tradition of creating “front groups” to disguise their origins and make the movement seem more multi-faceted.

The New Left was quite a bit before my time so I can't pass much judgment on the accuracy of that analogy. My question is, from the standpoint of Western security, is it a good or bad thing if these groups borrow tactics from the radical left. After all, they didn't make that much headway, did they?

(AP Photos)

January 11, 2010

Kabuli Conversations

The number of journalists at a typical Kabul dinner party is only surpassed by the number of story suggestions proffered to said journalists. Still being a newcomer, these pitches are most appreciated.

One such story idea was to delve into the world of Afghan conspiracy theories.

Conversations between Westerner and Afghan can quickly devolve into the foreigner refuting accusations that their home government, still clinging to imperial designs, are fighting the Taliban insurgency with one hand while supporting it with the other. Dig deeper and one learns that, despite horrendous losses in both blood and treasure, Western forces are, in fact, actively working against themselves to keep Afghanistan in a state of instability.

Unfortunately rumors of Western forces paying off the Taliban help to connect the conspiracy dots. And in some instances these allegations aren’t that far off. From this point of departure it isn’t difficult to follow how an illiterate society—where hearsay is the primary conduit of information— that (through its own painful experiences) has developed a understandable distrust of government can make the necessary leap in logic to conclude that the only reason that after eight years of war the American army of bunker busters and stealth fighters hasn’t bombed a bunch of Islamist hillbillies from their mountain redoubt is not simply because they’ve chosen against it but that they are actually arming and protecting Mr. Mullah Omar, commander of the Taliban faithful.

From here conversations veer towards motivations: what on earth does could justify such high economic, political and moral costs? The answer is usually: Realpolitik and serious cash. In the know Afghans will explain that an unstable Afghanistan—nestled tightly between Iran, Russia, China and Pakistan—provides the perfect pretext to station troops in a region of extreme strategic importance. Along with an opportunity for power projection, Afghanistan also offers mineral wealth. And when hard pressed, the perennial fallback of a war against Islam comes in handy.

At this point the speaker usually lets out a deep sigh before confiding "at least when the Soviets came to fight a war they weren't pretending to be our friends."

Alim Remtulla

Applying COIN to the Global War on Terrorism


In an interview with Der Spiegel, General Stanley McChrystal lays out the general theme of counter-insurgency:

At the end of the day, a counter-insurgency is decided by people's perceptions and by how people feel. I think any war like this is not a battle between material. It's not about destroying the enemy's cities. It's not even about destroying their army, their fighters. You have to weaken the insurgency. But it's really about convincing the people that they want it to stop and they ultimately will. The most effective way for us to operate is to be really good and effective partners with our Afghan counterparts, because it's not a technical problem, it's a human problem.

I think McChrystal is correct here. But what's troubling is that Washington has not extrapolated this understanding to the global war on terrorism. After all, al Qaeda is reportedly in 60 countries. The failed Christmas Day bomber was a Nigerian, schooled in London and equipped in Yemen. The threat we face is global in nature and while we've embraced counter-insurgency doctrine in one theater, we seem to be indifferent to its precepts in others:

For now, however, the U.S. has chosen to meet the global threat of Islamic radicalism with what some would dub (in the Afghan context) a "narrow counter-terrorism" approach. We use intelligence to pick off al-Qaeda operatives on the battlefield, or police and investigative work to derail plots already set in motion, while mostly ignoring the psychological and political milieu from which radicalization occurs. To date, though, such an approach has been fairly effective. Terrorists have managed to kill scores in Europe (Madrid and London) but have yet to reprise a 9/11-scale atrocity inside the United States.

While al-Qaeda is infamously known for spacing its attacks out over several years, it has also been faced with unprecedented pressure since 9/11. U.S. and allied efforts may have permanently crippled al-Qaeda's ability to launch mass casualty attacks on American interests. (Of course, if that's true, it would severely undermine the counter-insurgent's case for a stepped up commitment to Afghanistan). On the other hand, we may simply be in a lull before the next massacre.

Unfortunately, we won't know until it's too late.

What we do know is that technology will only advance, allowing smaller groups of individuals to perpetrate ever more lethal attacks. The Internet ensures that even if physical safe havens such as Afghanistan become inhospitable, like-minded holy warriors can still find support and perhaps technical training in "virtual safe havens." We know too that while targeted military action and investigative work can yield tactical successes, America could well remain behind the strategic curve if broad swaths of the Middle East or pockets of Western Europe's Muslim community remains sympathetic to bin Laden's narrative.

Ironically - while there is a broad cross-section of elite opinion willing to countenance a truly massive investment in Afghanistan to win ordinary Afghans away from the Taliban - there is scant discussion, much less the political will, to embark on a strategic reorientation of America's Middle East policy and apply some basic precepts of counter-insurgency to that wellspring of jihadism.

(AP Photos)

Is Iran Pre-Revolutionary?


I'm a little late in getting to it, but this piece by Steven Kull from the ever-useful WorldPublicOpinion.org brings some internal Iranian polling to bear on the question:

A new WorldPublicOpinion.org poll of Iranians--conducted by native Farsi speakers calling into Iran, thus bypassing any possible government controls--reveals that large majorities continue to support the Iranian system.

Naturally this raises the question of whether people are answering honestly in an autocratic environment where people are being imprisoned for protesting against the government. But we can focus just on those who were brave enough to say that they did vote for the opposition candidate Mousavi. Presumably they are being frank in response to other questions as well....

...More important, they express support for the Iranian system. Fifty-three percent say that a body of religious scholars should have the right to overturn laws they believe are contrary to the Koran. Two thirds say they trust the government in Tehran to do the right thing at least some of the time. Majorities say they have some confidence in the Guardian Council (55%) and the President (62%).

Furthermore, even if these people were to have a powerful influence over Iranian foreign policy it would not signal a transformation of US-Iranian relations. Only 35 percent say they trust Obama, and majorities have pernicious assumptions about US goals such as the belief that the US is hostile to Islam (68%). Like the rest of the sample, less than half say they oppose attacks on US troops in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.

Perhaps most significant, only 43 percent say they would be ready to give up enriching uranium in exchange for removing sanctions.

One of the problems I have with Andrew Sullivan's analysis of the Green Movement is that it seems to discount how the U.S. actually engages with the Middle East. A revolution, should it occur, would only occur in Iran, not the United States. We would continue to hold the same set of interests in a post-revolutionary Iran as we have in a pre-revolutionary one. Ambivalence about the prospects of a Green Revolution has nothing to do with frissons but the simple reality that, when it comes to the Middle East, Washington only cares about a country's geopolitical orientation, not the form of its government.

Is that going to change should the Green Wave wash the Supreme Leader & Company out to sea? I'm doubtful.

An Iran run by the prospective leaders of the Green Movement would still have to renounce terrorism against Israel, stop aiding Hezbollah and Hamas, forswear nuclear weapons, end arm shipments to sympathetic Shia groups inside Iraq and generally accommodate itself to American and Israeli primacy in the Persian Gulf in order to meet the standard for good relations set by Washington.

Perhaps Washington would respond to a less authoritarian Iran by moderating (or at least, placing on the back burner) some of its demands, and trying to find a modus-vivendi that does not require Iran to completely reorient its entire foreign policy in one fell swoop. But I don't think it very likely. Instead, as in Russia, the euphoria of a democratic transition will collide with the grim reality of conflicting strategic interests.

Update: Daniel Larison studies the WPO findings as well:

The detail that even a majority of admitted Mousavi supporters does not endorse the key claims of the Green movement is remarkable, and so it will probably be dismissed out of hand by pro-Green enthusiasts. If that figure is correct, however, it makes the breadth and depth of the Green movement’s support even more questionable. It would mean that most of the people who are willing to identify themselves as supporters of the leading opposition figure do not accept even the most basic critiques of the election and Ahmadinejad that were at the heart of the movement that claims to represent them.

The bottom line right now is that we're trying to construct a puzzle without all the pieces and without a clear picture of what the end design is supposed to look like. In such an environment, it's hard to fault the administration for not running in guns blazing.

(AP Photos)

Views on Cameron, Sarkozy


Angus Reid passes along the latest polling:

Few adults in France are expressing positive views on their president, according to a poll by TNS-Sofres published in Le Figaro Magazine. 32 per cent of respondents have confidence in Nicolas Sarkozy to face France’s problems, down seven points since October.

In addition, 37 per cent of respondents have confidence in French prime minister François Fillon.

Across the Channel, things look better for David Cameron:

Two-in-five Britons choose a positive word to describe the leader of the Conservative party, according to a poll by Angus Reid Public Opinion. 42 per cent of respondents think David Cameron is intelligent.

Conversely, 48 per cent of respondents think current prime minister Gordon Brown is out of touch, and 46 per cent deem him boring. In addition, 28 per cent of respondents consider Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg as intelligent, and 22 per cent believe he is open.

Personally, I think "boring" isn't necessarily a terrible quality to have in a leader.

(AP Photos)

January 9, 2010

The Path to Tehran


I think Daniel Larison does a fine job of addressing one of Andrew Sullivan's readers regarding the Iranian Green Movement's future, so I would rather address some of the other points made by Sullivan in the same post. He writes:

It's a funny thing. Some neocons seem almost ambivalent about a revolution in Iran because it might lead to a nuclear-armed Iran not led by theo-fascists - which would complicate Israel's diplomatic and military position in the region. And many realists don't see a revolution because they remain wedded to the idea of the Iranian red staters rallying to their fundies the way Southerners rally to Cheney and Palin. Or perhaps because there's some kind of realist super-frisson in negotiating with the likes of Khamenei. I don't know. Skepticism is totally valid; but the measure of assurance that nothing has changed strikes me as off-base.

Dictionary.com tells me that frisson means "a sudden, passing sensation of excitement." I don't know that this is how I would describe the cold reality of negotiating with a regime's obvious leader -- much as we do with every other undemocratic or outright oppressive regime -- but how others get their kicks is really none of my business.

Moreover, is it a "realist super-frisson" when the United States does business with and/or engages China, Egypt, Russia, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Georgia and so on?

And who exactly are these neoconservatives doubting the spirit and efficacy of the Green Movement? Name names, please. As far as I can tell, most if not all of the leading neoconservative intellectuals and opinion makers have at the very least listed the unrest in Iran as one of several reasons for not engaging the Iranian regime. Their rhetoric sounds very similar to Andrew's, only we know what the former's intentions are: Regime change, be it through the support of revolution or outright attack.

But what does Sullivan hope to see in Iran? He goes on:

For what it's worth,I believe that a democratic revolution in Iran is both possible and would be the single most transformative event in global politics since the end of the Cold War. Especially for the US. I sure don't believe we should take it for granted; but I also see what is in front of us.

I happen to agree, but unlike Sullivan, I don't believe American policy toward Iran should be dramatically affected by the ebbs and flows of Iranian unrest. I've made the case before, so I'll keep it shorter here: if Iran gets the bomb I believe it will enable the regime to crackdown on dissidents with never before seen impunity. Thus, to accept a nuclear-armed Iran and hope for the best, as Andrew seems resigned to doing, strikes me as wrongheaded and harmful for everyone invested in a better Iran--both inside and outside of the country.

Meanwhile, we get a lot of pomp and punditry on Iran's pending Prague Spring, but few substantive policy suggestions for the United States. And I fear what we are seeing here is a repeat of the kind of rhetorical buildup that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Many well-intentioned analysts and foreign policy wonks made strange bedfellows at the time with a longstanding neoconservative agenda to topple Saddam Hussein, thus providing cover for Democrats and otherwise skeptical officials to support the invasion.

I think what The Daily Dish has done to educate its many, many readers on Iran's rich history, culture and politics is an overall good thing (this, in part, is also why I believe it makes sense to engage him on the topic so often--if you care about Iran, Andrew Sullivan matters). My hope though is that they can temper some of that enthusiasm in 2010 with a more sober debate on American policy alternatives, and not, as Laura Rozen recently noted, enable a war policy concocted in part by those with the best of intentions.

(AP Photo)

January 8, 2010

Yemen's Attitude Toward the West

Yemen has been much in the news lately and Gallup's Julie Ray has some data on how Yemenis feel about relations with the West:

A majority of Yemenis (53%) interviewed in early August through early September 2009 told Gallup they believe greater interaction between the Muslim world and the West is a benefit, which may provide a foundation for Western nations and Yemen to build on in the days ahead. This percentage is lower than the median (62%) for the Middle East/North Africa region, but statistically, it is not any lower or higher than sentiment in a host of other majority Muslim countries, including Iraq (56%), the Palestinian Territories (56%), Syria (55%), Turkey (52%), and Algeria (50%).

Further, nearly 6 in 10 Yemenis (59%) also say the quality of the interaction between the Muslim world and the West is important to them. This number is about average for the Middle East/North Africa region, where the median percentage who believes the quality of the interaction is important is 60%. Yemenis, interestingly, are slightly more likely to share this point of view than Iraqis (54%) or Palestinians (53%).

The entire report is worth a look.

What Is Russia?


By Vadim Nikitin

This week was the Russian Orthodox Christmas. Twenty years after Communism and somewhat at odds with the newfound Christian ardour of Russia’s elites, it’s not a big stand alone holiday, falling relatively quietly in the middle of the 10 day vacation starting with the big Soviet milestone of New Year’s.

Yet at the same time, Russians are also not celebrating the centeniary of Leo Tolstoy’s death partly because, according to Luke Harding in The Guardian, “the writer’s criticisms of Orthodox religion and authority make him a dangerous figure for those in power – both in Tsarist Russia and also today."

The question of what to celebrate and why exposes a crucial open sore: After a decade of Yeltsin and a decade of Putin, Russia is still struggling to find an identity.

This unresolved issue has seriously harmed the country’s international standing.

“Today, Russia’s brand is quite negative," recently wrote an American and Russian academic in the Moscow Times. Their survey of Berkley students’ responses to what the word ‘Russia’ connotes was striking: “Their associations for Russia were overwhelmingly negative; communism (28 percent), cold (13 percent), vodka (7 percent) and corruption (7 percent) dominated the responses and placed Russia far behind the other four countries included in the survey (the United States, China, Italy and Britain)."

The professors advice Russia to get a brand makeover, and suggest the following new (and rather implausible) buzzwords: Multicultural Russia, Eco Russia and Resilient Russia.

However, any such brand makeovers are meaningless without a fundamental settlement of the identity question.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Alison Smalere counts what Russia means for some of its younger generation:

“This New Year, I spent a couple of evenings in the company of Natasha, mid-20s, just back from four years of study in London. Why return? “Because,” she said, “I wanted to be able to dance on tables.” Britain, she opined, was just too smooth and boring."

But apart from this vague sense of difference, today’s Russia can boast only a rather directionless modernisation: “Walking down Kutuzovsky Prospekt in west-central Moscow, I see the Escada shop and the sushi restaurant of the present."

Certainly, some academics, like SV Kortunov, think that Russia “can achieve more than merely modernization, a national state, and a materialistic civilization: it can be a country that combines the latest Western ideas (meritocracy, post- industrialism, etc.) with the traditions of Russian development, including Soviet traditions, and the achievements of Russian philosophical thought."

But as of now, even 20 years after the end of the USSR, the talk remains “of victory, and starting over — what the popular journalist and author Yulia Latynina calls “news in the future tense.”

Read more at the Foreign Policy Association's Russia blog.

(AP Photo)

The Garrison State


David Shorr makes a good point regarding President Obama's insistence that America won't "hunker down" in the face of the jihadist threat:

The policy questions have to do with the dangers of making ourselves a garrison state; as a matter of political worldview, it has to do with how the terrorists ("THEM") loom in our consciousness. When it comes down to it, the essence of Cheneyism is that you can never overstate the threat from the terrorists, never be too dark in your assmptions, never do too much to counter them.

What's interesting here is that for decades now, Washington has (at least partially) justified an interventionist foreign policy as vital to avoid turning America into a garrison state. The idea was that we would erect a "defense in depth" and intervene abroad to forestall developments which could, eventually, close off the world to the United States and thus force a change in the American way of life.

But now a lethal, transnationalist terrorist group is bringing us the Garrison State through the back door.

When an earlier era generation of policy-makers were confronted with the prospects of the Garrison State, they oriented American foreign policy in such a way to avoid that. Clearly, the threat today pales in comparison to the international threats of the 1930s and 1940s, so a similarly sweeping change is almost certainly not going to happen.

Instead, as Shorr implies, we're going to have to learn to live with terrorism as a persistent feature of our society.

(AP Photos)

January 7, 2010

RCW Video of the Day

It looks as though the game is afoot in London:

Even though they were beaten back, internal troubles like these are similar to the announcements of retirement in the United States. It seems to signal that an election is likely to be called and how the election will play out, especially given that the Tories are already running campaign ads.

For more videos on the latest issues from around the world check out the RCW video page.

H/T-ing Our Way to Yemen

Judah Grunstein offers some clever and insightful thoughts on blogging Yemen.

January 6, 2010


As Greg pointed out, nuclear weapons are going to be a major point of discussion over the next few weeks because of the upcoming posture review. However, while most people are aware of nuclear weapons, I think many people have lost the sense of their destructive power, with wild over and underestimations of the strength of nuclear weapons. Fortunately, there is the World Wide Web to help. There are three easy to use resources I like:

The Federation of American Scientists has a wonderful site on all WMDs which unfortunately does not currently have funding for maintenance, but nonetheless still has excellent information.

CDI maintains a database of current world arsenals, grouped by delivery system. It is admittedly imprecise, but fairly clearly illustrates the nuclear world we live in and the level of threat that is out there.

Finally, if you even wondered if there was a nuclear bomb dropped on your city who would survive, then HYDESim, is the site for you. The link will show you the blast radius of an average thermonuclear device detonated in Grant Park, Chicago, but you can play with it to make it fit an area you are familiar with. I find most people greatly overestimate the destructive power of nuclear explosions. What this map doesn't show is nuclear fallout, which would vary wildly based on atmospheric conditions, and blast altitude.

Will the Green's Win?


To circle back to a point Kevin raised earlier today, about what we expect from Iran's Green Movement, Radio Free Liberty has an interview with U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iran John Limbert, who was one of the Americans taken hostage after the Islamic revolution:

RFE/RL: You witnessed the events of 1979 and the Iranian Revolution. How do the events in recent months in Iran -- street protests and violence -- compare to those of 30 years ago?

Limbert: In my opinion there are many similarities. I think it's very hard for the government to decide how to react to the legitimate and lawful demands of the people. The more violence it uses, the more it will hurt itself in the end.

RFE/RL: Where do you see these protests going?

Limbert: I'm not a fortune-teller.

RFE/RL: I'm asking your opinion of where this is going based on your knowledge of Iran, the Iranian people, and Iranian leaders.

Limbert: In our line of work, one must always remain optimistic. We're hoping that after these problems, the people of Iran will finally have a government that they deserve, a government that treats them humanely.

None of that, however, implies an Iran with a remarkably different set of strategic interests.

(AP Photos)

Three Tough Questions


I take issue with bits from this New York Times op-ed by Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, but I nonetheless think they're asking the right questions:

Those who talk so confidently about an “opposition” in Iran as the vanguard for a new revolution should be made to answer three tough questions: First, what does this opposition want? Second, who leads it? Third, through what process will this opposition displace the government in Tehran?

In the case of the 1979 revolutionaries, the answers to these questions were clear. They wanted to oust the American-backed regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and to replace it with an Islamic republic. Everyone knew who led the revolution: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who despite living in exile in Paris could mobilize huge crowds in Iran simply by sending cassette tapes into the country. While supporters disagreed about the revolution’s long-term agenda, Khomeini’s ideas were well known from his writings and public statements. After the shah’s departure, Khomeini returned to Iran with a draft constitution for the new political order in hand. As a result, the basic structure of the Islamic Republic was set up remarkably quickly.

The column eventually pitter-patters into the usual Leverett jargon, but on those three specific questions I'm in agreement.

Robin Wright attempts to supply the answers to those questions in referencing this manifesto from exiled Iranians such as Abdolkarim Soroush and Akbar Ganji. But these Iranians in exile are in exile for a reason; most of what they suggest is far more radical than anything being presented by Mousavi or other Green Movement figureheads. While they talk of freer elections, free press and the removal of the military community (i.e. the IRGC) from all realms of politics and economy, Mousavi modestly asks for electoral freedoms, freer press and freer speech.

One plan transforms Iranian society, the other brings it closer to the Iran of President Khatami. The difference is crucial, as the former is both ideal and unlikely, while the latter still allowed the regime to develop its nuclear weapons program.

UPDATE: I would add that while it's easy to poke holes in the weaker arguments in the Leverett op-ed, it might make for a more solid analysis if their critics would actually answer the three questions posed.

UPDATE II: The Leveretts respond to Dan Drezner.

(AP Photo)

Talking About Nukes


The Obama administration is reportedly locking horns with the Pentagon over the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review - which will spell out the administration's nuclear doctrine. On the one hand, we have the White House pushing to enshrine President Obama's goal of reducing and ultimately eliminating nuclear weapons from the world vs. the Pentagon's desire to maintain a viable deterrent.

So much of the debate over nuclear weapons has an "angels on the head of a pin" quality to it, with people agonizing over the subtle meaning of words about weapons that have a very, very low likelihood of ever being used. But since this nuclear philosophizing remains an important element in global security, it's worth doing right. Jeffrey Lewis offers his thoughts:

As a result, I tend to think talking about why we have nuclear weapons is a better approach than trying to find a phrase, such as “existential threats,” that explains when the President might use nuclear weapons. The “existential threats” formulation, in particular, will baffle foreign audiences, who in turn will ask what precisely threatens the existence of the United States and others. This discussion can only go badly. For example, are we saying we would forswear nuclear weapons in the event of a limited nuclear attack that didn’t threaten the existence of the United States? Would a North Korean biological attack threaten the existence of Japan? No good can come of answering such questions, yet declining eliminates much of the advantage in making the commitment in the first place.

I think the less we say, the better.

(AP Photos)

Fighting the Last War

On December 21, 2009, the Government of Australia officially recognized (PDF) Vietnam as a "market economy" for purposes of administering the Australian antidumping law. In doing so, Australia joined India, the ASEAN nations, New Zealand, and several others - 23 in all - that have graduated Vietnam from non-market economy (NME) status to market economy status in national trade remedies (antidumping and countervailing duty - AD/CVD) investigations.

I'll spare you and not get into the weeds here on the difference between market economy and NME status for countries whose imports are being investigated under national trade remedies laws.  (Cato's Dan Ikenson lays it all out here, if you're interested.)  But here's the basic gist: AD/CVD tariffs imposed on imports from an NME country will (almost always) be higher than tariffs on the very same imports if that country were designated a market economy.  Even simpler: inflated tariffs for the very same imports - just by changing the "market economy" designation.

NME designation is a vestige of the Soviet era as a way for market economies to value costs of imports from old school, command-and-control-style economies (think Romania), and only a few countries remain "NMEs," including most notably China and Vietnam (who agreed to the treatment in their WTO accession protocols).  But whether to "graduate" a country from an NME to a "market economy" is completely within the discretion of the investigating country.

As noted above, 23 countries have exercised this discretion and now chosen to designate Vietnam a "market economy."  Thus, they've noticed a significant change in Vietnam's economy that warrants the change, and/or they simply want to remove a significant potential market barrier to Vietnamese imports.  And they're using the leeway afforded to them under their national laws and WTO rules to make that happen.

One country, however, appears to be moving in the opposite direction with Vietnam - the United States (shocking, I know). 

In September 2009, the U.S Department of Commerce determined to apply the U.S. Countervailing Duty (CVD) Law to Vietnam in an investigation of Vietnamese plastic bag imports.  In so doing, DOC (i) reaffirmed that Vietnam was an NME and that DOC could apply U.S. CVD law to NME imports; and (ii) utilized the controversial CVD/NME calculation methodology - overruled (in part) by the U.S. Court of International Trade only a couple weeks later and challenged last year at the WTO - that it used for Chinese imports.  DOC's final decision in the Vietnam CVD case is due in mid-March, and the chances of there being a significant change with respect to the "new" U.S. approach to Vietnam appear slim.

So while 23 countries have recently chosen to treat Vietnam as a market economy and thus lower barriers to Vietnamese imports in their markets, the United States is doing much the opposite by developing new tools to impede trade with Vietnam.  Those 23 countries will reap the benefits of increased trade and investment, while the United States will - once again - be left fighting the last war.

The trade volumes here are nothing to get too worked up about (only about $16 billion in 2008), but the broader lesson here is both troubling and quickly becoming the norm: those betting that the United States will soon regain the mantle of the world's free trade leader need to cut their losses.  Now.

(Final note: I'd be remiss to ignore the fact that, while the Obama administration initiated the first CVD case against Vietnam, the Bush administration really started the CVD/NME ball rolling with a landmark case against Chinese coated paper in 2006-07 - one that I litigated (and won!).  It was there that DOC reversed a 20-year old policy of not applying the U.S. CVD law to NMEs.)

America Fail

The Atlantic's James Fallows talks about the historical roots of American worries about its place in the world:

British Tories Look to the Wisdom of Crowds

A friend of mine once floated an idea about using the Internet to generate serious policy proposals outside the corrupted (or at least, special interest-influenced) environment of Washington, D.C. Well, it looks like David Cameron's Tories will give it a go:

The prize is an impressive £1 million pounds. But the competition is suitably difficult: the Conservatives want “the best new technology platform that helps people come together to solve the problems that matter to them.” So, they’re after a new online network – a political Facebook – which will supposedly work on a national and a local level, helping people to share ideas about anything from “tackling government waste” to “avoiding roadworks“.

The proposal is a neat one and – being philosophically Conservative – should appeal to traditional Tory supporters. But how on earth to put it into practice? Team Cameron is certain that the internet will play a crucial role in the decentralisation of power. Yet, as Jeremy Hunt (Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport) recently said, “there are currently no technological platforms that enable in-depth online collaboration on the scale required by Government.” He says the million-pound prize “is a good and cost-effective way of getting one”. Let’s just hope it doesn’t signal a brick wall.

An interesting idea.

RCW Video of the Day

On Monday, the United States joined South Korea in allowing HIV-positive people to visit and immigrate to their countries:

While this story has been up against a lot of domestic and international issues in the news cycle, I am surprised that outside of a few AIDS advocacy groups and the United Nations, almost nothing has been said on the topic. The closest we got was this report by ABC.

For more videos on the latest issues from around the world check out the RCW video page.

A Pox on All Their Persians

Reihan Salam writes:

Even if the Iranian unrest promises some broader shift, Iran's deeper problem is a paranoid political culture that emphasizes conspiracies over structural problems. Given that Iran is ruled by a series of overlapping conspiracies, this paranoia is excusable. Yet obsession with the corruption of an individual like Rafsanjani is a distraction from the deeper corruption of a highly illiberal, statist regime that systematically favors clerical favorites and the military over Iran's impoverished majority.

Well, first off, just a cursory glance at Persian history throughout the 20th Century would validate much of that paranoia.

Secondly, I believe skepticism directed toward Rafsanjani and his ilk shows a kind of sophistication on the part of Iranians. They know that, for the most part, the kabuki show of 'pragmatists' vs. 'principlists' has really been a meaningless one for them.

And it raises some good questions: where is the Green Movement going? If it were to supplant Khamenei's police state, what would replace him? Can it rely on old hardliners like Mousavi and Rafsanjani to free and reform the country?

Keep in mind that Khomeini's revolution involved a variety of liberals, academics and democrats, but in the end, they were mostly purged from the leadership. If the Green 'revolution' is no more than a game of musical chairs involving the same corrupt actors, what good would that do?

As Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett point out, it remains unclear as to what the actual end-game is here. The Green Movement lacks a clear guiding philosophy, and for now, I think that's perfectly alright. It's my sense that what we're seeing are the foothills of a revolutionary movement rather than its mountainous peaks. But only when the movement sheds the skin of the previous regime entirely will something akin to revolution, in my mind, begin to ferment.

Cuban Democracy Promotion: Helping or Harming?


By Melissa Lockhart

After the detention in Cuba last month of a U.S. government contractor distributing cell phones and laptops, Congress has called new attention to the secretive pro-democracy program that ballooned under the George W. Bush administration and funded this contractor’s mission on the island. House Representative Howard Berman (D-California) and Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) in particular have brought the program under heat, calling for a review of its management and effectiveness.

Indeed, a full review is in order. The program budget increased more than tenfold between 2000 and 2008, from $3.5 million to $45 million. Use of program funds has oftentimes been sketchy: audits have revealed questionable expenditures and even embezzlement. Under the Obama administration support has more than halved for the pro-democracy Cuba program, to $20 million in 2009 and 2010, but a better monitoring mechanism is needed for as long as funding continues.

The program’s effectiveness in achieving U.S. goals of democracy on the island is up for grabs. Although blogs, Twitter and other Internet resources are expanding their reach and having an effect (as the Washington Post put it, these are “cracking the Cuban government’s monopoly on information“), U.S. government support for bloggers and dissident groups can be the kiss of death for some. Cuban law states that collaborators with the program can be punished by up to 20 years in prison. Some scholars, like Ted Henken of Baruch College, point out that the program undermines U.S. efforts to build trust with the Cuban government while tainting opposition groups on the island. Instead of credible voices of opposition, they are seen as traitors, mercenaries… U.S. puppets. And as the detention of the still-unnamed U.S. contractor illustrates, pro-democracy work is dangerous both for those that carry it out and for those who receive assistance from it.

Last week, by the way, U.S. diplomats were allowed to visit and speak to the detained U.S. contractor in Cuba. His name has still not been provided, and it is not clear what the future holds for him. (Will he be unilaterally released? Will he be used as a negotiating tool? Will the United States use his detention as reason to turn its back again on Cuba? I tend to lean toward number two.)

Read more at the Foreign Policy Association's Cuba blog.

(AP Photo)

January 5, 2010

Shoulder Shrug Brigade

Count STRATFOR among the incredulous:

In Iran, we have seen no concrete evidence that the opposition is willing or able to co-opt Iranians of different ideological leanings. As long as this aspect is missing, security elements will refuse to negotiate with the opposition since they will perceive the regime as still having an upper hand. Furthermore, security elements will ultimately not switch sides if they don't have assurances that in the post-clerical Iran they will retain their prominent place or at least will escape persecution. This was the "deal with the Devil" that the Serbian opposition was ready to make in October 2000. But in Iran, at this moment, a deal with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and their paramilitary Basij forces is not possible.

The French Empire


The Times reports on how the French have held onto pieces of their empire:

Napoleon described the outre-mer slightingly as “this confetti of Empire”, but France is determined to hang onto its imperial remnants in a quasi-Napoleonic manner which far outstrips the post-colonial politics of other western nations. If you live in the outre-mer, you are French to your core, no matter what your skin colour, your maternal language, religion or background. You carry a French passport and, in theory, the French state will support you...

...This is how life goes on in one of the Départements et Territoires Outre-Mer, or Dom-Toms. The Dom-Toms are distant, isolated, extremely expensive and produce virtually nothing of any use. Their only role is to promote the continuing glory of the French Republic.

Evidently even post-colonial, vanity empires are a boondoggle.

(AP Photos)

January 4, 2010

Admitting You Have a Problem


Stephen Walt sounds off on the crotch-bomber:

Second, most of the commentary about the attack focused on the breakdown in security procedures and possible intelligence failures, but for me the real issue is to ask why groups like al Qaeda want to attack us in the first place. With a few exceptions, this is a question that rarely gets much scrutiny anymore; pundits just assume "terrorists" are inherently evil and that’s why they do evil things. (And some American extremists recommend that suspects like the Gitmo detainees be summarily executed without trial. I kid you not). But we really do need to spend some time asking why terrorists are targeting us, and whether we could alleviate (though not eliminate) the problem by adjusting some aspects of U.S. foreign policy.

In particular, I'm struck by the inability of most Americans to connect the continued risk of global terrorism with America's highly interventionist global policy. One can have a serious debate about whether that policy is the right one or not; my point is that we are kidding ourselves if we think we can behave this way and remain immune from any adverse consequences.

This is a point I've harped on as well and it's important to emphasize that the "most Americans" Walt refers to also includes senior officials in the previous and current administrations responsible for counter-terrorism policy. From Peter Baker's big piece in the Times today:

And so perhaps the biggest change Obama has made is what one former adviser calls the “mood music” — choice of language, outreach to Muslims, rhetorical fidelity to the rule of law and a shift in tone from the all-or-nothing days of the Bush administration. He is committed to taking aggressive actions to disrupt terrorist cells, aides said, but he also considers his speech in Cairo to the Islamic world in June central to his efforts to combat terrorism. “If you asked him what are the most important things he’s done to fight terrorism in his first year, he would put Cairo in the top three,” Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, told me....

....Yet even some of the Bush appointees were ready for change, appealing to Obama to revamp the struggle. “Mr. President-elect, we’re doing things very well, but we’re losing the messaging war,” Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told him a week after the election, according to an official informed about the session. A significant share of the global population thought America was at war against the rest of the world, Leiter maintained. “You have an opportunity to change that message, to change how the struggle is perceived,” he said.

Obama was receptive to that mandate. “We’re going to do that,” he replied....

The entire subtext of the Obama administration argument is that the principle U.S. policies that catalyze Islamic terrorism were implemented circa 2001. True, those policies poured gasoline on the fire, but the fire was burning before George W. Bush took office. The kindling was American support for autocratic Middle Eastern governments, its support for Israel, and stationing of combat forces in the Middle East. Combine that with Islamic fundamentalism and you have the combustion that is the global terrorist threat. It is frankly delusional to think that a mere speech, however well intentioned, can suppress these flames.

The basic problem, as Walt eludes to, is that Washington has zero interest in re-examining these policies in light of the terrorist threat associated with them. And so instead we pretend that the two are fundamentally disconnected. It's not a matter of American policy making people angry, the Obama administration seems to be saying, it's a matter of them not understanding American intentions. We're "losing the messaging war" - and so a good speech can shore things up.

This mindset is not only patronizing to its intended subjects in the Arab and Muslim world, it's patronizing to Americans.

What the Obama administration cannot, apparently, do, is have an adult conversation with the American people about U.S. policy in the Middle East. Why not simply say that on balance the threat from international terrorism is a small price to pay to maintain American hegemony in the Middle East? It's what they obviously believe. And not without merit - American hegemony not only contributes to oil's safe transit to world markets but ensures that other states - particularly potential competitors such as China - have to rely on America to keep the flow going, thus giving us crucial leverage in the zero-sum world of international politics. They could argue that the costs imposed on the U.S. by terrorism are less than those that would result from a policy change in the Middle East. Given the mix of motivations that propel someone to actually become a terrorist, they could also argue that the causal links between American policy and Islamic terrorism are so diffuse (and the problem already so widespread) that an American policy change at this late stage wouldn't even work to reduce the threat.

None of that would be very difficult for President Obama, who is, if nothing else, an effective communicator. But instead, this is all ignored in favor of a self-serving and infantilizing narrative that it's all a big misunderstanding - that we have a "communications" problem.

(AP Photos)

Gush Watch: Iran Revolution Edition

Laura Rozen with some sound advice for those predicting the rapid demise of the Iranian regime:

A dose of skepticism may be in order. It's worth remembering that Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi conned an awful lot of the Western press and public to believe some phony Iraqi National Congress "defector" Adnan Ihsan al-Haideri, whom he made available "exclusively" to gullible journalists in Bangkok before the Iraq invasion, with bogus tales designed to appeal to the Western policy narrative. And it's worth remembering such moments are fraught with the risk of exploitation by opportunists of various stripes who have an agenda they would seek to impose, including on those inside of Iran actually risking their lives, without outside support, interference or taint.

Add Rozen to the list of shoulder shruggers, I guess.

Through a Partisan Haze

Former Bush administration homeland security official Frances Townsend offers her take on how to handle the burgeoning jihadist threat from Yemen:

The Obama administration needs to take a clear, tough line with Yemen: Take care of the terrorism problem within your borders so you are no longer a threat to the United States and our allies in the region, or allow the international community to come in and clean it up for you. The time for polite diplomacy is long past.

Matthew Yglesias isn't impressed:

But is excessive politeness really the reason Barack Obama hasn’t threatened a full-scale invasion of Yemen unless the Yemeni government undertakes unspecified measures to “take care of the terrorist problem”?

It seems to me that just 18 months ago the President was one George W Bush, a discredited and unpopular figure who liked to go out of his way to be rude to foreign countries, and even there these tactics weren’t being employed. Why? Well because when the right was in power a “Yemen hawk” inside the administration would have had to say what, exactly, she wanted done and what the risks and tradeoffs might be. But from an out of power perspective, it’s party time. On to Yemen!

While this is unquestionably true, I don't think sketching out maximalist "solutions" has anything to do with being a "hawk" per-se but being a partisan operative. If you are primarily motivated by a desire to wound political opponents, position yourself for a future job in an administration or protect your legacy, you will make arguments in the fashion that Townsend does above. (And in her defense, the format was not the place for a long discourse on "what should be done with Yemen." Perhaps her specific ideas have a lot more merit than a few paragraphs can reveal.)

We saw this with much of the Democratic party and Afghanistan in the 2008 election. There was a lot of enthusiasm for fighting on the "central front" of the war on terrorism when it was convenient to burnish Obama's Commander in Chief credentials. When it came to actually making the decision, there was considerably less enthusiasm for a troop surge. Ditto Sudan, where there was a lot of tough talk before the Obama administration took office about stopping the genocide, and not much since.

Partisanship puts demands on our foreign policy debate that are hard for the subject to bear: it reduces complexities to Manichean certainties and it offers easy solutions to problems that can't be solved - and that's when it's not being blatantly dishonest. There's no escaping it, it's just the way the political incentives work.

January 3, 2010

Drive-by Economics

Perhaps realizing that he hadn't filled his monthly quota for columns bemoaning Chinese monetary policy and mercantilism, Paul Krugman published yet another one on New Years Eve  - just under the December wire!  The details of Krugman's latest New York Times column need not be discussed in this blog post, as it's pretty much identical to its October and November brethren, and I've already said my peace on those.  But Krugman's December China currency column still warrants mention here because in it he reaches a new low when covering a subject over which his expertise should be unquestioned - international trade.  In the middle of his column, Krugman unleashes this doozy (emphasis mine):

Meanwhile, that [Chinese] trade surplus drains much-needed demand away from a depressed world economy. My back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that for the next couple of years Chinese mercantilism may end up reducing U.S. employment by around 1.4 million jobs.

Maybe because people ignored his October and November hysteria on China's currency policies, Krugman felt the need to amp it up a notch by putting a zany job-loss number in the middle of his monthly China regurgitation.  Maybe Americans just don't get too agitated by warnings of "global imbalances," and - let's face it - everybody knows that "jobs" are 2010's super-sexy-it-word.  I dunno.  But what I do know is that not a single word before of after the passage above explains how Krugman came to this eye-popping "back-of-the-envelope" statistic.  Indeed, we don't even know if he was using one of those small envelopes that come with grocery-store floral bouquets, or one of those huge envelopes that we lawyers use to serve confidential 500-page documents to our adversaries (hey, maybe it was the envelope in which his Nobel Prize Certificate was mailed).  Krugman never says.  Instead, he just spits out the stat and then keeps rambling on about China's mercantilism, the obvious wisdom of Keynesian economics, etc.

My only guess is that Krugman derived the "1.4 million" number using the flawed, completely debunked method - founded by the union-sponsored protectionists at the Economic Policy Institute - that mindlessly translates bilateral trade deficit figures into "lost job" numbers (down to the ridiculous decimal point!).  That would be a really bush-league move, even for Krugman, but who knows?  It's certainly simplistic enough for an envelope-doodle. But the fact that only Krugman knows how he came up with his new "statistic" exposes it as absolutely, completely worthless for public consumption or discussion.

Yet there it is, and I'm left wondering how many times I'm now going to have to hear (and rebut) this fake number - "1.4 million 'Merican jobs!" - over the next few months as politicians and career protectionists demagogue away on the evils of China's trade and currency policies.  Unfortunately, once these stats - especially those originating from a Nobel Laureate and liberal icon like Krugman - are irresponsibly strewn across the interwebs, they never, ever go away, regardless of their actual veracity.  (Indeed, those EPI numbers have been proven worthless for years now, and yet politicians still campaign on them.  Good ol' Public Choice Theory!) 

And considering how important and delicate the issue of US-China trade relations will be for 2010 and beyond, Krugman's nonchalant insertion of this fake statistic onto the pages of the New York Times and lord-only-knows-how-many other websites and blogs is the height of journalistic - and economic - malpractice.

Hugo Chávez: Now It's Time to Annoy the Dutch

Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen

Not satisfied with saying that the U.S. is going to invade Venezuela from Colombia, Chávez is now saying the Arubans are in on it, too:

Venezuela says U.S. drug-hunting flights violating airspace from Curacao

Venezuela's government said Thursday that U.S. military counter-drug flights from nearby Dutch islands are violating its airspace in preparation for an attack. A U.S. official denied the allegation.

A Venezuelan Foreign Ministry statement listed no examples of such violations, but it accused the United States of using "the colonial territories of Aruba and Curacao in preparation for a military aggression against Venezuela."

Chávez, while at the Copenhagen Climate conference claimed that the islands are in Venezuelan territorial waters, ignoring they are part of the Netherlands.

The Netherlands Rejects Venezuelan Accusations, and asked Chávez to explain the spying claims.

By the way, the U.S. has been using Aruba and Curacao for years as bases for unarmed drug surveillance flights. This is not a new development.

Expect more of the same nonsense out of Hugo as the Venezuelan economic situation worsens in 2010.

The Point of Terrorism


Mark LeVine reminds us that terrorism is asymmetric warfare:

Think about it. One angry young man with about three ounces (around 80 grams) of explosive material, $2,000, and a pair of specially tailored underwear has completely disrupted the US aviation system.

It does not even matter that he failed to blow up the plane.

The costs associated with preventing the next attack from succeeding will measure in the tens of billions of dollars - new technologies, added law enforcement and security personnel on and off planes, lost revenues for airline companies and more expensive plane tickets, and of course, the expansion of the 'war on terror' full on to yet another country, Yemen.

And what happens when the next attacker turns out to have received ideological or logistical training in yet another country? Perhaps in Nigeria, which is home to a strong and violent Salafi movement, or anyone of a dozen other African, Gulf, Middle Eastern or South East Asian countries where al-Qaeda has set up shop?

Will the US ramp up its efforts in a new country each time there is an attempted attack, putting US "boots on the ground" against an enemy that is impossible to defeat?

Such a policy would fulfill al-Qaeda's wildest dreams, as the US suffers death by a thousand cuts, bleeding out in an ever wider web of interconnected and unsustainable global conflicts.

If the Obama administration wants to win the war on terrorism, it seems a good first step is to not play into our enemy's hands.

(AP Photos)

January 2, 2010

Putting War in Context

One of the truly unfortunate tendencies in contemporary punditry is the reflex analogizing of any foreign threat to Hitler and the casual, mindless, invocation of World War II as a source of guidance for current policy. But as Richard Overy reminds us, the real thing is quite a bit removed from our current experience:

The two devastating world wars are remembered as symbolic reference points in support of national myths of triumph or victimhood; the suffering is memorialized or commercialized. Children visiting museums are invited to enjoy the “blitz experience” or the “trench experience” (though neither is in fact experienced at all). But the raw reality of what happened in Europe and in Asia almost defies the modern imagination. How would the modern world cope now with the World War II death toll of 55 million (or more) and the tens of millions of displaced, disabled, psychologically damaged and homeless people who stood among the ruins of their cities in 1945?

Worth keeping in mind when someone dubs a loosely knit terrorist group living in the world's poorest countries an "existential threat." Could they exact such a toll in Europe and Asia?

January 1, 2010

A Virtual Safe Haven


The New York Times' Eric Schmitt and Eric Lipton examine the role of charismatic Imams using the Internet to lure Muslims to the jihadist cause:

American military and law enforcement authorities said Thursday that the man accused in the bombing attempt, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, most likely had contacts with the cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, whom investigators have also named as having exchanged e-mail messages with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an American Army psychiatrist charged with killing 13 people in a shooting rampage in November at Fort Hood, Tex.

Speaking in eloquent, often colloquial, English, Mr. Awlaki and other Internet imams from the Middle East to Britain offer a televangelist’s persuasive message of faith, purpose and a way forward, for both the young and as yet uncommitted, as well as for the most devout worshipers ready to take the next step, to jihad, officials say.

“People across the spectrum of radicalism can gravitate to them, if they’re just dipping their toe in or they’re hard core,” said Jarret Brachman, author of “Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice” (Routledge, 2008) and a consultant to the United States government about terrorism. “The most important thing they do is take very complex ideological thoughts and make them simple, with clear guidelines on how to follow Islamic law.”

The events of the last two weeks - both the Christmas bomb plot and the emergence of Yemen as a terror safe haven (and a reminder of London's role in the radicalization process), have cast the argument that it's vital to state-build in Afghanistan to defend the U.S. from jihadist terrorism in a new, and unflattering, light. At a minimum, it puts the question of just how many of our counter-terrorism eggs we need to be putting in the AfPak basket vs. other theaters.

(AP Photos)

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