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February 28, 2010

Health Care and American Power, Ctd.

Last week, Kevin began to debunk two recent articles - one by the Times' Anatole Kaletsky and the other an article on recent statements by Sec. Hillary Clinton - which boldly argue that the death of current U.S. health care legislation will mean the inevitable death of America's influence around the world.

Clinton's argument is that ObamaCare's failure will signal to the rest of the world that American government is broken, and that this perception will adversely affect foreign countries' views on whether America still has the capacity to "move forward" and lead on international issues.  Money quote: "Their view does color whether the United States — not just the president, but our country — is in a position going forward to demonstrate the kind of unity and strength and effectiveness that I think we have to in this very complex and dangerous world."

Kaletsky takes an even harsher line and argues that the demise of ObamaCare will dismantle the American economy, and by extension, America's influence in the world.  He writes:

If nothing is done to change the US healthcare system, it can be stated with mathematical certainty that the US Government and many leading US companies will be driven into bankruptcy, a fate that befell General Motors and Chrysler largely because of their inability to meet retired workers’ contractually guaranteed medical costs....

Gridlock over healthcare would imply similar stalemates on taxes, public spending, the budget, macroeconomic stimulus and financial reform.  As a result, an active response to any future financial crisis might become impossible.  Even worse, any important action to control US government borrowing could be ruled out.

Alrighty then.  Kevin did a great job dismantling these arguments from the foreign policy angle by providing some excellent historical perspective on the issue, so I'm just going to weigh in from the international trade and economics angle.

My conclusion in short: Clinton's and Kaletsky's arguments are nonsense.

  In particular, I see three major problems with them:

(1) Basic factual errors.  Kaletsky argues that a failure to enact ObamaCare will lead to a rash of domestic bankruptcies like those of GM and Chrysler because of companies' failure to meet rising health care costs. This is dead wrong for two reasons.  First, the idea that GM and Chrysler are the paradigms for the modern American company is silly.  Those companies died because they (i) made crappy cars for decades and (ii) long ago ceded control of their economic fates to their unions (through insane labor contracts which guaranteed pay and benefits far above what the market could bear).  The result of these bad labor deals disadvantaged Big-3 automakers vis-a-vis their U.S.-based foreign competitors by about $2000/car - a recipe for immediate economic oblivion. : Kaletsky mentions these bad labor deals ("inability to meet retired workers’ contractually guaranteed medical costs") but bizarrely assumes that most U.S. companies have them.  They don't.  Indeed, only 7 percent of the private workforce in America is unionized.  Thus, the idea that "many leading US companies" will succumb to the same union-caused fate as GM and Chrysler defies reality.

Second, for those few U.S. companies that do have serious problems with union labor contracts, bankruptcy (i.e., Chapter 11 reorganization), merger or acquisition will be a blessing, not the death knell for the American economy.  Reorganization will allow these companies to dump their loser labor contracts, ditch inefficient capacity and again become globally competitive.  Indeed, this is precisely how the U.S. Steel Industry became healthy again in the 2000s - bankruptcies, mergers and streamlining of their workforce and production. This process turned a moribund industry of almost 50 inefficient players into an efficient and profitable sector with under 10 major producers.  As such, the "bankruptcies" that Kaletsky describes would actually allow the U.S. economy to become stronger and more efficient. (Assuming, of course, that the United States government didn't stupidly bail-out every sector like it did with GM and Chrysler.)

(2) A disconnect between the current health care "solutions" and the "crises" described.  Just as importantly, Kaletsky's and Clinton's statements suffer a tragic disconnect between the problems they describe and their only solution - passing ObamaCare.  Kaletsky first claims that the Democrat health care bills (or some mythical other version of health care reform supported by the President) must be passed because a failure to reform the health care system would cause the bankruptcy of the American government and many leading companies.  While it is certainly true that America's current health care entitlement programs are crippling state and federal budgets, and that rising costs are harming American businesses, none of the president's current health care plans would actually do anything to solve these problems.  On the budget, the bold claims that any of the Democrat health plans actually decrease the budget deficit rely on the smarmiest of budget trickery.  And while health care costs are indeed an issue for American businesses, the latest estimates are that ObamaCare will increase burdens on U.S. employers, not reduce them - hence why both the Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Business vehemently oppose the current bills (and why Wal-Mart sneakily supports them). 

Clinton, on the other hand, seems to believe that the success of her party's health care agenda will somehow end the gridlock that pervades America's political system (or at least the world's perceptions of that gridlock).  Leaving aside the fundamental question about whether political immobility is actually good or bad for the economy, anyone who has spent more than a few years in Washington knows full well that partisan gridlock isn't going anywhere, regardless of what happens with health care (or which political party is in power).  And as Kevin ably pointed out last week, "little-d" democrats in most other countries, not just Iran and Russia, would "love to have our tedious deliberation and onerous amounts of free speech in their respective countries." So it's quite doubtful that foreign perceptions of American governance will be greatly harmed by the current health care morass.

(3) The mistaken belief that only ObamaCare's passage will enable the United States to advance international economic policy.  It is certainly true that foreign countries are watching the United States, and that they do care about the American health care drama.  But it's wrong to assume that just because foreign countries are paying attention that they'll react differently based on whether ObamaCare succeeds or fails.  In fact, most foreign countries couldn't care less about whether the drama ends with success or failure.  They care only that it ends, and thus that the Obama administration will finally cease subordinating international economic matters to securing passage of health care legislation.  This is especially true on trade, where the White House has refused to engage in any major trade liberalization efforts out of fear of angering congressional protectionists and their anti-trade supporters (domestic labor unions, environmentalists, etc.).   This disengagement has led to complete paralysis - pending U.S. FTAs with Colombia, Panama and Korea remain untouched, the WTO's Doha Round negotiations remain comatose, and bilateral trade conflicts (like the ban on Mexican trucks) remain unresolved - despite our trading partners' loudly pleading for the United States to get back in the game.

Given this reality, ObamaCare's failure would not, as Kaletsky and Clinton claim, lead to stagnation and impotence on trade and other international economic matters.  Indeed, failure would actually liberate U.S. policymakers to once again act beyond the narrow interests of securing a few rust-belt votes.  As such, failure would mean exactly the same thing to America's trading partners as would passage - that the paralysis caused by the health care debate would finally end.  America's trading partners are dreaming for that day, and when it finally comes, they'll welcome us back with open arms.

The Leveretts, Ctd.

Having just read Michael Crowley's New Republic piece on the Leveretts - let me offer a slightly different take from the views expressed by Kevin and Larison.

What Crowley is clearly fishing for throughout the piece is an indication that the Leveretts are disgusted with the Iranian regime - and they wouldn't give it to him.

Larison says they were right not to:

What is the point of Crowley’s question? To establish that we are all capable of meaningless moralizing about a foreign leader? If the Leveretts refused to be pulled in by this, so much the better for them. This is more of the same tired personalization of foreign policy. If we obsess over a foreign leader as an embodiment of villainy, it will keep us from having to think rationally about real policy options, and it will absolutely prevent the consideration of any sort of sustained diplomatic engagement. The only purpose for this obsession with Ahmadinejad that I can see is to make it easier to advocate confrontational and aggressive policies against Iran. It is a way of substituting emotion and passion for critical thinking about the potential for improved U.S.-Iranian relations. It is mostly a way of striking the right pose for lack of anything else to contribute to the debate. Iran hawks may have nothing but terrible ideas, but at least they have sufficient hate for Ahmadinejad!

And in a perfect world (or the blogosphere!), we can have a rational discussion about all these issues. But that is, alas, not the world we are operating in and what's more, the Leveretts must certainly know that.

So let's pretend you're the Leveretts and here is Crowley angling for some expression of disgust with the Iranian regime. Yes, it's childish, but being veterans of Washington, you understand that the fastest way your (already unpopular) line of analysis can be discredited is if it is shown that you harbor real sympathies for the current crop of Iranian rulers, and not just an unsentimental view of engagement or a hyper-skeptical view of the Green Movement.

Do you play the game or not? Does it really cost you or your views of engagement anything to say you find the regime's anti-Semitic rhetoric vile and insulting?

Americans See China as Long-Term Threat

Rasmussen Reports notes that the public views China as a "long-term threat" to America:

Half the nation’s voters (50%) view China as a long-term threat to the United States, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. Fueling this sentiment is concern over how much U.S. debt China now owns and the expectation that China will use that debt against the United States at a later point in time.

Just 21% do not believe China is a long-term threat, but another 29% are undecided.

Eighty six percent (86%) of voters are at least somewhat concerned about the level of U.S. debt now owned by China, including 62% who are very concerned. Just 11% voters are not very or not at all concerned about how much U.S. debt China now owns.

Seventy-three percent (73%) believe it is at least somewhat likely China will use this debt against the United States in some fashion within the next five years. That number includes 45% who believe it is very likely. Only 16% say China is unlikely to use the debt against America, but that finding includes just two percent (2%) who say it's not at all likely. Twelve percent (12%) are undecided.

February 26, 2010

Leverett Bashing

I'm admittedly somewhat puzzled by Michael Crowley's TNR piece on Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett. It's not so much that I disagree with all of his points, just that I wonder about the article's purpose and eventual conclusions.

I've never met the Leveretts, nor have I ever spoken with them about Iran. I have at times found their analysis on the post-June 12 upheaval a bit exaggerated, biased and even downright peculiar. That said, I think Crowley undermines his own article with this acknowledgment of their work:

It’s not obvious that this analysis is wrong--especially in the wake of disappointing Green turnout last week on the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian revolution--although, in a state willing to beat, arrest, and even kill protesters, gauging the popular mood is never simple.

OK, fair enough. But flip this around on those who have been cheer leading for the so-called Green Movement, and the same criticism applies. Analysts and experts - clearly wearing their green hearts on their sleeves - have been repeatedly proven wrong about the size and capabilities of the Green Movement, yet no one suspects these well-intentioned partisans of nefarious, or even treasonous ties to agents or officials inside Iran (and if you think the Green Movement is somehow operating outside of Iran's inner-circle you simply haven't been paying attention). While I reserve my own criticisms of the Leveretts, I find the very personal and often malicious attacks on them to be really uncalled for, not to mention a distraction from the debate at hand. (incidentally, the Leveretts have written a brief and fair response to some of the nastier charges levied against them.)

I believe Tim Fernholz basically gets it right:

To me, it seems the reason that the Leveretts are so keen to engage the Ahmadinejad regime is that they are realists. They have made the calculation that the Green movement is not likely to overthrow the government soon and that America's near-term interests are more important than supporting human rights abroad. That's not a liberal foreign policy, but it also doesn't require some malign affection for a dangerous theocrat.

Indeed, but I'd take it a step further: understanding the nature of Ahmadinejad's very real base of support doesn't make one a traitorous Ahmadinejad supporter, it makes them balanced. Other Iran analysts, such as Hooman Majd, have made essentially the same argument.

For my money, if you can't properly answer the three very reasonable questions posed by the Leveretts last month - yet still you resort to repeated character assassination - then you do so from a position of intellectual weakness, and I have to question your own motives and intentions regarding Iran.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, I am not accusing Crowley of unfair character assassination here, but I suspect those I am alluding to will take his piece and run with it.

Case in point.

New Iran NIE Soon?


Josh Rogin reports:

The new NIE has been expected for a while, but now seems to be close to release, perhaps within two weeks or so, according to the pervasive chatter in national-security circles this week. In addition to the expectation that the new estimate will declare that Iran is on a path toward weaponization of nuclear material, multiple sources said they are being told there will be no declassified version and only those cleared to read the full 2007 NIE (pdf) will be able to see the new version.

The Obama administration finds itself in tough situation as it pursues new sanctions against Iran both at the United Nations and using domestic levers. Many feel the administration needs to correct the record by somehow disavowing the intelligence community's controversial 2007 conclusion: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program."

Multiple Hill aides said they expect only a classified version with no public document; the 2007 estimate included an unclassified version. They see that move as an effort by the Obama administration not to have the new estimate unnecessarily complicate the ongoing negotiations to seek new sanctions against Iran at the U.N.

While the curious Iran-ophile in me would love to read the document in full, I can see why the administration would seek to avoid the 2007 hubbub. The intent and purpose of that report was often contorted through the eye of the beholder, confusing what is really nothing more or less than a summary of opinions from across several intelligence agencies. Using it to slam dunk or deny that Iran has done or continues to do anything definitively is of little value to anyone.

(AP Photo)

Health Care and American Power

In response to my post from yesterday, our friends over at the sans-green Daily Dish send along this Times piece by Anatole Kaletsky. In it, Kaletsky argues that the future of the American economy - and thus, American leadership around the world - rests on the results of yesterday's health care summit in Washington:

If nothing is done to change the US healthcare system, it can be stated with mathematical certainty that the US Government and many leading US companies will be driven into bankruptcy, a fate that befell General Motors and Chrysler largely because of their inability to meet retired workers’ contractually guaranteed medical costs.

Today’s summit represents Mr Obama’s last chance to find a way forward, either by shaming some Republicans into supporting him or by embarrassing his own perennially divided Democratic Party into uniting around a single plan. If he is unable to do this, he will have almost no chance of passing any significant legislation on any other issue—– not on energy, budgetary responsibility, macroeconomic management or even on such seemingly popular issues as bank regulation and jobs.

In short, Mr Obama has staked his entire presidency on today’s summit.

I don't know that this passes political or economic muster. I am no economist, so all I'll add here is that, to my knowledge, the largest economy in continental Europe, Germany, has been dealing with an aging and entitled work force for years. While economic discontent at home can of course impact all forms of policy - including foreign - I don't know that it has had any effect at all on Germany's role in Europe and around the world, respectively. On the contrary, Angela Merkel seems to have become more globally assertive in the face of Western financial crisis.

As for the politics, I believe the general consensus is that yesterday's summit moved no one and only further entrenched actors and voters in their respective camps.

Kaletsky goes on:

Gridlock over healthcare would imply similar stalemates on taxes, public spending, the budget, macroeconomic stimulus and financial reform. As a result, an active response to any future financial crisis might become impossible. Even worse, any important action to control US government borrowing could be ruled out. If the financial markets seriously reached this conclusion, all the debates about government debt and public spending in Britain, Greece and other countries would be a waste of breath. A genuine loss of confidence in America’s fiscal outlook would create a financial crisis so horrific that actions by the British or European governments would be swept away like beach huts in a tsunami.


Did the United States not fight and win a world war in the face of economic depression and peril? Did economic ebb and flow affect the way in which the world perceived American leadership during the Cold War, or during the current War on Terrorism? Perhaps it did, which is why I open the floor up here to trade and economy wonks to fill in the gaps.

But I remain incredulous.

"The Charisma of a Damp Rag"

South Carolina representative Joe Wilson got a bit of attention for shouting "you lie!" during President Obama's address to Congrees. But the UK's Nigel Farage gives EU President Herman Van Rompuy the tongue-lashing of a life time:

Nothing Dumb About It

Walter Russell Mead picks up on the Gallup poll we highlighted yesterday on America's rising sympathy for Israel. Given that I highlighted Mead's piece in Foreign Affairs to further buttress my view that American support for Israel is broad and bi-partisan, I'm generally sympathetic to the case he makes. But in the spirit of bloggy garrulousness, let me take issue with this:

This brings us to a problem: why do so many people, especially self-described ‘realists’ when it comes to Middle East policy, find it mysterious that American foreign policy supports Israel? Surely in a democratic republic, when policy over a long period of time tracks with public sentiment, there is very little to explain. American politicians vote for pro-Israel policies because that is what voters want them to do. Case closed, I would think. Late breaking news flash: water runs downhill.

Here's another newsflash: the public does not write legislation. Lawmakers do. I'm fairly confident that Mead does not mean to suggest that the current policy status quo on Israel or any issue under the sun is simply the undiluted transmission of the public's collective will through the legislative body.

But I think Mead is badly mischaracterizing the realist position with respect to Israel. Indeed, I think Mead does realists a disservice by suggesting that they're confused by America's support for Israel when most realists themselves support an alliance with Israel. They just do not support the way the relationship is currently configured. Surely Mead is not suggesting that America's current policy status quo is the only possible "pro-Israel" policy the U.S. could formulate?

February 25, 2010

Ahmed Chalabi, Ctd

Max Boot semi-defends my imputation that Ahmed Chalabi played a significant role in luring neoconservatives into believing things about Iraq that turned out to be disastrously wrong but were nonetheless convenient in selling the Iraq war to the American people.

For the record, here is my post in its entirety:

Many neoconservatives are demanding that the U.S. throw its full weight behind the Iranians in their pursuit of freedom. On the surface, this is obviously a noble idea, but it’s worth remembering that the very people making confident predictions about the predilections of the Iranian people were duped by an Iranian stooge.

Then Boot writes:

But I also believe Greg Scoblete is wrong: First place, the Green movement in Iran is not a figment of some exile’s imagination. Second, simply because Chalabi is now an Iranian stooge does not mean he was one in 2003. My read is that he is an opportunist, out to grab power for himself, who will make use of whatever allies he finds helpful.

First, yes, obviously the Green Movement is real. Second, I don't know if Chalabi was on Tehran's payroll in 2002 but I do think Boot's take rings true. That does not change the basic premise of my post, which was admittedly not spelled out very clearly in those three sentences. To wit: there is a tendency, especially among those prone to foreign policy activism, to assume the best.

My interview with Robert Kagan was illustrative of this mindset I think. Kagan admitted he wasn't quite sure where we'd end up with Iran's Green Movement but that we should just "press all the buttons" with Iran and see what happens. The default assumption, as it was with Iraq in 2002, is that it is preferable to plunge ahead even when it is honestly acknowledged that we do not know what we're doing or where we're going because doing anything is better than doing nothing.

We see a protest movement in Iran demanding democracy and assume that should it take power, things would be better. This assertion is rife throughout Contentions. But what's the basis for this assumption? The only comprehensive study of Iranian attitudes, that I'm aware, shows that the Green Movement is a lot less influential than we'd like it to be. Nor is there any data, that I'm aware, that indicates that if the Green Movement or its representatives were to take power, that there would be a monumental shift in Iran's appetite for nuclear development, regional stature, or any systemic changes in its foreign policy interests. Maybe this is analysis is way off the mark, and if there's data that contradict it, I'd gladly post it and acknowledge it.

The broader point is that foreign policy activists spend inordinate amounts of time worrying about the hypothetical danger of inaction and almost no time contemplating the possible negative consequences of their proposed solutions. (See Heritage's James Phillips for Exhibit A). With Iraq, they pooh-poohed those who warned of the consequences of an invasion and drew erroneous conclusions about the capacity of Iraq's middle class to reconstitute itself and for oil wealth to pay the way during reconstruction, because such a theory helped sell a desired activism.

And so we turn to Iran's Green Movement, upon whose backs our hopes for regime change now rest. We hear endless calls for throwing the full weight of American support behind her based on assumptions that such a course can't do much harm and could possibly redound to our benefit. We're even told that they'd welcome a bombing campaign!

To my mind, the burden of proof should no longer be on those advising a "wait and see" attitude toward issues like Iran and on those who make grandiose claims on behalf of the potential of the Green Movement or America's ability to shape events in Iran to our liking. Especially after the manifold failures of prediction and analysis that marked the run-up to the Iraq war.

Is Health Care Reform Hurting America Abroad?


Hillary Clinton goes there:

"We are always going to have differences between the executive and legislative branch, but we have to be attuned to how the rest of the world sees the functioning of our government, because it's an asset," the secretary told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on state, foreign operations and related programs.

"People don't understand the way our system operates. They just don't get it," she said. "Their view does color whether the United States — not just the president, but our country — is in a position going forward to demonstrate the kind of unity and strength and effectiveness that I think we have to in this very complex and dangerous world."

"As we sell democracy — and we are the lead democracy of the world — I want people to know that we have checks and balances, but we also have the capacity to move," she said.

This is a peculiar line of thinking from the secretary and, as my colleague Greg put it in private conversation, a rather "Cheney-esque" sort of comment to make.

I just finished watching all 19 hours of today's health care summit, and the feelings I'm left with resemble something closer to boredom, exhaustion and irritation; fear and despair haven't quite sunk in yet, at least not the kind that legitimate democrats (with a little 'd') like those in Russia and Iran must deal with on a daily basis. I'm guessing they'd love to have our tedious deliberation and onerous amounts of free speech in their respective countries.

Seems like little more than an inappropriate political jab by Clinton.

(AP Photo)

Ask Foreign Affairs

Reidar Visser of the Norwegian Institute will be answering questions about the upcoming Iraqi elections and Iraq's political future in a Foreign Affairs Web-event. RealClearWorld readers can submit a question for consideration by emailing it to us with "FA Question" in the subject line. We'll select the best and send them to Foreign Affairs.

How Not to Win Friends and Influence People

If you recall a bit earlier into the Greek financial crisis, they were requesting a bail-out for inventing democracy. Now, the line has shifted a bit:

Theodoros Pangalos, deputy prime minister, said Germany had no right to reproach Greece for anything after it devastated the country under the Nazi occupation, which left 300,000 dead. "They took away the gold that was in the Bank of Greece, and they never gave it back. They shouldn't complain so much about stealing and not being very specific about economic dealings," he told the BBC.

Twisting the knife further, he said the current crop of EU leaders were of "very poor quality" and had botched this month's crisis summit in Brussels. "The people who are managing the fortunes of Europe were not up to the task," he said.

One banker said the situation was surreal. "How can they call the Germans incompetent Nazis and still expect a bail-out?"

Mr Panagalos has gone even further than premier George Papandreou, who said Greece had become a "guinea pig" for squabbling eurocracts playing power games.

Somehow I see that line gaining even less traction.

Japan Regains Title as "America's Top Banker"

The Wall Street Journal and other news outlets reported earlier that China, after selling off significant US Treasury holdings at the end of last year, is no longer the biggest holder of US debt:

China sold a record amount of its U.S. Treasury holdings in December, ceding its place as the world's biggest foreign holder of U.S. debt to Japan.

The move triggered concerns about China's continuing appetite to loan money to the U.S. amid a mounting budget deficit here and tensions between Washington and Beijing.

China pared its Treasury holdings by $34 billion to $755.4 billion in December, placing it second behind Japan, with $768.8 billion, according to U.S. Treasury estimates. For the first time since August 2008, Tokyo took over the top spot after steadily increasing its purchases of Treasury debt over the past several years....

Chinese officials have begun expressing "worries" over its significant holdings of U.S. government bonds and concern about the U.S. budget deficit, which is expected to hit $1.6 trillion....

However, China's sales of Treasurys don't necessarily translate into a loss of confidence in the U.S., many analysts said, noting that Beijing's moves in December could simply indicate steps toward diversification. Market observers said the Chinese may simply have moved their money into other dollar-denominated assets, such as corporate debt or private equity.

The increase for Japan appears to have come from private financial institutions shifting investments out of risky, high-yielding foreign financial products into safer assets such as U.S. Treasurys, analysts say....

The Japanese government itself hasn't acquired Treasurys in recent years. However, it may soon ramp up purchases, as officials at the huge government-run postal-savings system have said they are looking to diversify assets away from Japanese government debt and into U.S. government debt.

"The U.S. is having difficulty due to a lack of funds," Shizuka Kamei, the cabinet minister overseeing Japan Post, told reporters recently. "It's only natural that we should support the U.S. when it is weak."...

The rest of the article is well worth reading, and I'll leave the serious monetary analysis to the experts.  But two rather noteworthy things struck a layman like me about this big news. 

First, other reports confirm that China's not really backing out of the United States - it's simply diversifying from short-term Treasury debt into long-term debt and other US assets (and also masking short-term purchases through offshore buyers).  So if this move is a Chinese "message" on US fiscal policy to President Obama, it's a subtle one, and one that's only targeted at the United States' (read: the White House's) short-term economic policies.  The Chinese still seem quite bullish about the US economy long-term.  Now, whether that commitment is by choice or necessity remains to be seen.

Second, I'm left wondering where's the public hysteria about Japan dramatically ramping up its purchases of US debt over the last few months to once again hold the title of "America's Top Banker."  As you may recall, when China took over the number one spot in the Fall of 2008, commentators on the right and the left were beside themselves with the news.  And the media reports were even more breathless.  For example, when the news was announced in 2008 the Washington Post wrote (emphasis mine):

China passed Japan to become the U.S. government's largest foreign creditor in September, the Treasury Department announced yesterday, reflecting the dramatic expansion of Beijing's economic influence over the American economy.

China's new status -- it now owns nearly $1 out of every $10 in U.S. public debt -- means Washington will be increasingly forced to rely on Beijing as it seeks to raise money to cover the cost of a $700 billion bailout....

The growing dependence on Chinese cash is granting Beijing extraordinary sway over the U.S. economy. Analysts say a decision by China to move out of U.S. government bonds, for economic or political reasons, could lead a herd of other investors to follow suit.  That would drive up the cost of U.S. borrowing, jeopardizing Washington's ability to fund, among other things, a stimulus package to jump-start the economy.  If China were to stop buying or, worse, start selling U.S. debt, it would also quickly raise interest rates on a variety of loans in the United States, analysts say.

Ominous!  On the other hand, a quick bit of Googling shows that yesterday's big announcement prompted zero commentary about "growing dependence on Japanese cash" or a future "decision by Tokyo to move out of US bonds."  The answer for this difference is simple: China is today's economic bogeyman, and thus everything it does is blown way, way, WAY out of proportion.  Thus, China's commercial decisions to buy US debt in 2008 were met with dramatic wailing and gnashing, while Japan's purchases of the same type of debt in 2009 (also for commercial reasons) receive none of the attendant commentariat angst.  News about China's economic moves elicits ridiculous reactions/predictions like those of the Post only 18 months ago (Beijing's "sway" over the U.S. economy over since 2008 hasn't been "extraordinary," and none of those scary things - "spiking" interest rates and fleeing "herds" of investors - has happened as China's debt purchases have stalled.)  Yet when Japan regains the "number one spot," the only commentary is about whether the Japanese government will invest in more US debt. 

Shocking, I know.

What I find most interesting about US journalists' and politicians' disparate treatment of China and Japan today is that Japan - today's economic pussycat - was America's big bogeyman only 25 years ago.  For example, here's the Amazon summary of a typical Japan-hysteria book from the 80s:

A Washington business consultant and former government trade negotiator, [Clyde] Prestowitz here analyzes economic and cultural differences underlying our trade deficit with Japan and the U.S. decline in international markets. He also examines efforts to resolve our free-trade dilemma.  Japan is a close-knit, exclusionary society, notes Prestowitz, with no room for U.S.-style individualism and little understanding of "fair" competition. Highly personalized Japanese companies with lifetime-employment policies cooperate as cross-shareowning groups to common advantage. By contrast, argues the author, when rival giants IBM and AT&T cautiously held back, independent young physicists and engineers "the small and the swift" created a spectacular global electronic industry, which Japan's government and industry, acting in concert, proceeded to preempt through investment, imitation and intense product development. Near-dominance in the American market ensued. What to do?

Yes, whatever shall we do?!  The Japanese government, with its complicit, productive and innovative  corporate conglomerates and its omnipresent trade surpluses just dominated us!  Damn that "free trade dilemma!"

Oh, wait.  (Sounds familiar, no?)

It's perspective like this that is utterly lacking from today's journalism and a key reason why all of the current hype and hysteria surrounding China's trade and monetary policies should be treated with serious skepticism. 

Despite what all of those "experts," "consultants," "officials" and "analysts" are telling us.

Americans See Chinese Century

A new Washington Post/ABC News poll takes stock of American attitudes on China:

Asked whether this century would be more of an "American Century" or more of a "Chinese Century," Americans divide evenly in terms of the economy (41 percent say Chinese, 40 percent American) and tilt toward the Chinese in terms of world affairs (43 percent say Chinese, 38 percent American). A slim majority say the United States will play a diminished role in the world's economy this century, and nearly half see the country's position shrinking in world affairs more generally.

The poll also found an America more or less resigned to playing a more reduced role in world affairs. 40% said it was neither good nor bad that the U.S. would play a smaller role in the world economy (vs. 15% who said it was good and 43% who said it was bad). The same 40% expressed ambivalence about the U.S. playing less a role in world affairs.

Gallup: U.S. Support for Israel Nears Record High

At a time when the Israeli political leadership has locked horns with America's, the American people are expressing near record high support for Israel, according to Gallup.


This is ultimately why talk about lobbies ultimately misses a deeper truth about American politics (one Walter Russell Mead addressed at length in Foreign Affairs). There is broad, bipartisan support for Israel in the United States.

None of that necessarily implies that the current arrangement is optimal, for either party, but it does suggest that the status quo can be sustained for the foreseeable future.

February 24, 2010

Livni to Australia: Drop Dead

Clearly another bunch of cynics subjecting Israel to an unreasonable double standard.

Douglas Feith Responds

In response to this post, Douglas Feith writes:

Like so much that has been written on the subject, your February 17 RealClearWorld blog post entitled "Paging Douglas Feith" was far off base.

Ahmad Chalabi's role in Bush administration Iraq policy is discussed extensively in my book, War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism. Interested readers may want to read, in particular, pages 254-257, 242, and 383.

A mythology has developed about how administration officials, especially in the Pentagon, related to Chalabi and to the Iraqi National Congress, which he headed. Part of that mythology is an overblown notion of their importance as a source of intelligence about Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Another part is the allegation that Pentagon officials aimed to favor or "anoint" Chalabi as the leader of Iraq after Saddam.

It is clear that that mythology was believed by many journalists and various officials within the Bush administration saw benefit in propagating it. But it is false.

Chalabi and the INC provided information to the U.S. government about Iraq before and after Saddam's overthrow. They were among numerous sources of such information. Like the other sources, they provided some information that was accurate and some that was not accurate. That is typical with intelligence sources. Readers interested in the details of Chalabi's role in providing intelligence to the U.S. government about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (biological weapons, in particular) may want to read the Silberman-Robb Commission report (March 31, 2005), available at http://www.gpoaccess.gov/wmd/pdf/full_wmd_report.pdf.

There was no "anoint Chalabi" policy. As I said in my book, there is no memo, strategy briefing or other piece of paper that I know of that supports the "anoint Chalabi" charge. And the two people who would have had to implement the plan, if there were such a plan - General Jay Garner and Ambassador Jerry Bremer - have both clarified publicly that they were never asked to favor, let alone anoint or appoint, Chalabi as the leader of Iraq.

My book challenged anyone who had actual evidence that contradicts me to bring it forward. In the almost two years since my book was published, no one has produced any such evidence.

Facts matter, and I hope you'll run a correction. I would appreciate your helping to set the record straight.

Video of the Day

If Hugo Chavez was not a virtual dictator of an important country in Latin America, I would say that he would be one of the funniest comedians in Latin America:

There is so much to chuckle about here, including addressing the Queen as if she controls British policy. Just in case you were wondering, though, the last time Argentina had any settlements in the Falklands was the 1830s. Now it is basically a huge sheep farm, with a population of about 3,000, all of whom speak English. So why care about the Falklands? You guessed it: Oil.

For more videos from around the world, check out the Real Clear World videos page.

Young People Will Save U.S.-China Relations

Recently, Gallup surveyed Americans on their views of other countries. Some of the results have been mentioned already on this blog.

The results are particularly notable for the age-group breakdown.


A solid 62% majority of 18 to 34 year-old Americans had a favorable view of China at the beginning of February. Compare this to the general population: 42%. At the same time, in a 2007 survey (PDF) by the Committee of 100, 69% of Chinese 18 to 29 expressed a positive view of the U.S., where the general population was at 60%.

In general, younger people in both surveys are more likely than their older countrymen to throw love at other nations. But this doesn't make the results less significant. Rather, young people might be more internationally-oriented than previous generations.

More than their parents, young people in America have traveled to China, watched Chinese movies, and etched Chinese character tattoos on their arms -- whether or not they know the meaning. In China, youth have increasingly lived or studied in the U.S., learned English, and, as a result, watched a daily assortment of American TV shows and movies. This is all good for future U.S.-China cooperation.

Unless, of course, you're over the age of 34. In your case, those damn kids don't know anything.

Kevin Slaten was a junior fellow in the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He now 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.

Hamas Leader's Son - an Israeli Spy

The Mossad's been getting beat up these past few days but this is pretty astounding:

The son of one of Hamas’s founding members was a spy in the service of Israel for more than a decade, helping prevent dozens of Islamist suicide bombers from finding their targets, it emerged today.

Codenamed the Green Prince by Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of Hamas co-founder Sheikh Hassan Yousef, supplied key intelligence on an almost daily basis from 1996 onwards and tracked down suicide bombers and their handlers from his father’s organization, the daily Haaretz said.

There was a piece in the Atlantic a while back on British efforts to penetrate the IRA that had similar high-level double agents.

Targets and Tactics, Ctd.

Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni on the Dubai hit:

“Every terrorist must know that no one will support him when a soldier, and it doesn’t matter what soldier, tries to kill him, whether it is in the Gaza Strip, Afghanistan or Dubai,” Livni said. “I don’t expect the world to welcome the killing of terrorists, but I do expect the world to not criticize it.”

Livni said she did not know who was responsible for the killing of Mabhouh. She mocked the criticism Israel has taken from the international community for the assassination.

“What was disproportionate this time?” she asked. “Was there a disproportionate use of passports?"

And were every terrorist of equal value or consequence, Ms. Livni might have a valid point here. But as Larison explained a few days ago, Hamas is in fact a political reality that Israel must accept. If this assassination actually brought Israel closer to a political resolution in Palestine, then I'd say the consequences of stealing passports and carrying out a hit with total disregard for its allies were well worth it for Israel.

But what has this assassination actually accomplished? Will it deter Iranian weapons sales to Hamas? Not likely. Does it deter Hamas? Not likely. Has it created yet another martyr for Hamas to parade around the Gaza Strip? You bet.

George Friedman of STRATFOR explains:

We are not writing this as pacifists; we do not believe the killing of enemies is to be avoided. And we certainly do not believe that the morally incoherent strictures of what is called international law should guide any country in protecting itself. What we are addressing here is the effectiveness of assassination in waging covert warfare. Too frequently, it does not, in our mind, represent a successful solution to the military and political threat posed by covert organizations. It might bring an enemy to justice, and it might well disrupt an organization for a while or even render a specific organization untenable. But in the covert wars of the 20th century, the occasions when covert operations - including assassinations - achieved the political ends being pursued were rare. That does not mean they never did. It does mean that the utility of assassination as a main part of covert warfare needs to be considered carefully. Assassination is not without cost, and in war, all actions must be evaluated rigorously in terms of cost versus benefit.

In short, actions have consequences, and thus the benefits of those actions had better outweigh the consequences. I see no evidence that this murder, while no doubt gratifying, has actually gained Israel much of anything.

But then again, Washington is as much to blame for this, as we provide no serious oversight or regulation to go along with the tremendous sums of money and military aid we provide to Israel. The cost/benefit of leaving one terrorist dead in Dubai likely never factored into the calculation, because why should it? Who cares what the United Arab Emirates thinks? The UK? Whatever, they'll fall in line.

Of course, a truly global war against asymmetric enemies indifferent to borders and conventional conflict cannot be prosecuted in this fashion. If this is, as Ms. Livni argues, all one big war of good against evil, then the good guys need to talk to each other. They need to trust each other. They need to grow their own ranks. None of that was accomplished in Dubai.

A true War on Terror requires allies and principles. The United States learned this lesson the hard way in Iraq, but it's one Israel refuses to ever learn.

And if Iraq Unravels?


Thomas Ricks argues that prolonging America's stay in Iraq may be the best possible remedy to a return to civil war:

But I think leaders in both countries may come to recognize that the best way to deter a return to civil war is to find a way to keep 30,000 to 50,000 United States service members in Iraq for many years to come.

These troops’ missions would be far narrower than during the surge era; their primary goal would be to train and advise Iraqi security forces and to carry out counterterrorism missions. (It is actually hard to get below 30,000 and still have an effective force; many troops are needed for logistics, maintenance, medical, intelligence, communications and headquarters jobs, and additional infantry units are then needed to protect the people performing those tasks.)

Such a relatively small, tailored force would not be big enough to wage a war, but it might be enough to deter a new one from breaking out. An Iraqi civil war would likely be a three- or four-sided affair, with the Shiites breaking into pro- and anti-Iranian factions. It could also easily metastasize into a regional war. Neighboring powers like Turkey and Iran are already involved in Iraqi affairs, and the Sunni Arab states would be unlikely to stand by and watch a Shiite-dominated regime in Baghdad slaughter the Sunni minority. A regional war in the middle of the world’s oil patch could shake the global economy to its foundations and make the current recession look mild.

Ricks is perceptive critic of the Iraq war and knows much more about Iraq than I do, but I think he's suffering here from the same bit of hubris that swayed Washington before and in the immediate aftermath of the war - the idea that we can fine tune Iraq's development with a dollop of military power here, a dash of diplomacy there. Yes, maybe. Hopefully! But what if it doesn't work? What if the small force is not enough to "deter" a civil war from breaking out?

When the U.S. left forces behind in South Korea, they were a "down payment" on a much larger force which was to come to their aid in the event of a North Korean invasion. It was a signal of a much more significant American commitment - it was not the entirety of the commitment. So what are these 30,000-50,000 troops we're supposed to leave in Iraq? Ricks is a bit vague here but it's really the whole ball game - are these forces supposed to do what they can and not expect reinforcements if the situation in Iraq really gets bumpy again? Or do they signify an American commitment to send in even more troops should Iraq unravel?

If it's the later, than we are poised to seriously and in my view dangerously tie our hand to an unstable government.

In Ricks world - as in Obama's - if Iraq backslides, we're still on the hook. We're still living in Pottery Barn, red faced and guiltily holding the broken shards of Iraq for 60 or 70 more years. Resources which could be far more productively engaged elsewhere will be expended for the sake of policing a centuries long sectarian rivalry, settling tribal blood feuds and political squabbling.

The U.S. had close to 140,000 troops in the country and couldn't stop a civil war from breaking out. Why would 30,000 deter a civil war this time? It's true that Iraq's security forces are more developed, but if the war starts to pull ethnic and sectarian groups together, will the Iraqi forces not splinter as well?

The fact is we're dealing with too many variables to confidently predict Iraq's trajectory, as Ricks acknowledges, and in any event it's the wrong frame of reference. The question is what's in the best interest of the United States. America's policy in Korea worked because American forces deterred a rival state against a clearly delineated border. A similar trip wire inside Iraq seems much more likely to be tripped than not. Do we really want to tie ourselves to Iraq en-perpetuity?

(AP Photo)

Will Europe Defend Herself?

Not, according to Judah Grunstein, if we keep treating her like a teenager:

this is akin to repeatedly insisting to a lazy teenager that he has to help out around the house. No matter how many times or how loud you say it, it just doesn't work. In fact, the more and louder you say it, the less it works. On the other hand, greeting him at the door with two suitcases packed with his affairs and asking him whether he's found a place to stay for the night is more likely to get his attention. Europeans will never adequately provide for their own defense so long as the moral hazard for not doing so is generously covered by the U.S.

Another reason it's unrealistic is that, despite the "forward defense" consensus among Western strategic planners, and notwithstanding the fact that NATO's next Strategic Concept is likely to extend the alliance's out-of-theater role for another 10 years, this is a posture that will exist on paper only. Politically speaking, Europe is finished with the kind of nation-building/counterinsurgency intervention represented by Afghanistan. In fact, the only way that European opinion was sold on the Afghanistan war was because it was passed off as the kind of humanitarian, peacekeeping and post-conflict stabilization mission that Europeans are comfortable with.

As I noted earlier, the idea that Secretary Gates sketched out, of collective sourcing - where Europe maintains a Europe-wide defense establishment that doesn't duplicate equipment and capabilities - makes sense. But Gates sees this as a handmaiden of helping Washington pacify Central Asia and the Middle East. It seems more plausible that Europe develops this kind of military establishment as a means to consolidate the defense of European territory more efficiently (and cheaply) and beg off following Washington on its counter-insurgency crusades.

Was Milton Friedman Right About the Euro?

Desmond Lachman thinks he was:

At the time of the euro’s launch in January 1999, Milton Friedman famously observed that the euro would not survive the first major European economic recession. The sovereign debt crisis presently engulfing Greece, Spain, and Portugal in the wake of the “Great Recession” would suggest that, in the end, Friedman will prove to have been right. It does not seem too early for U.S. policy makers to start pondering the serious international economic and geopolitical ramifications that would flow from any eventual breakup of the euro.

The main motivation for the euro’s creation was political rather than economic. It was thought that creating a single European currency would advance the dream of an integrated Europe that could rival the United States on the international stage. While it was recognized that the euro rested on the shakiest of economic fundamentals, it was hoped that the single currency would force economic change on its wayward Mediterranean member countries. It would do so by requiring those countries to undertake deep structural economic reforms and to abide by the strict Maastricht Treaty rules for individual member countries’ budget policies.

U.S. Embassy in London, Now with Moat


This is a kind of sad testament to the modern world, isn't it:

A moat 30 metres (100ft) wide and rolling parkland will separate the building from the main road, protecting it from would-be bombers and removing the need for the blast barriers that so dismayed the people of Mayfair.

The State Department sought to play down the cost of security measures, noting the expense of London building work. But the price puts the London embassy above the US’s most fortified missions, including the Baghdad embassy, which cost $600 million (£390 million) but required a further $100 million of work on air conditioning, and the Islamabad embassy, still under construction, which has cost more than $850 million.

No word on whether the moat will be populated with alligators (though it obviously should).

(AP Photo)

February 23, 2010

Something Not Rotten in Denmark

The Wall Street Journal profiles how Denmark, despite suffering some of the highest casaulties per capita of the NATO coalition, has sustained public support for the war:

The Danes, meanwhile, have largely maintained support, selling the mission as a humanitarian effort rather than simply protection against a terrorist threat, and building consensus among political parties. They have reaped the benefits of a largely supportive media and the country has, to some degree, rediscovered its pride in an active military.

"The key to sustaining public support is an elite consensus that includes politicians in government and opposition as well as key opinion leaders: influential intellectuals, academics and columnists," says Dr. Peter Viggo Jakobsen, a security expert at the University of Copenhagen.

For more polling from allied nations in the Afghan war effort, just hit our "polls" tab and scroll away.

NATO Succeeded Too Well


The problem is not just underfunding of NATO. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO and national defense budgets have fallen consistently - even with unprecedented operations outside NATO's territory over the past five years. Just 5 of 28 allies achieve the defense-spending target of 2 percent of GDP.

These budget limitations relate to a larger cultural and political trend affecting the alliance. One of the triumphs of the last century was the pacification of Europe after ages of ruinous warfare. But, as I've said before, I believe we have reached an inflection point, where much of the continent has gone too far in the other direction. The demilitarization of Europe - where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it - has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st. Not only can real or perceived weakness be a temptation to miscalculation and aggression, but, on a more basic level, the resulting funding and capability shortfalls make it difficult to operate and fight together to confront shared threats. - Defense Secretary Gates

This is a pretty obvious example of how the U.S. security partnership with Europe is creating a Europe unable (or unwilling) to underwrite her own defense - or at least, do so at a level we find sufficient. U.S. policy-makers tried to walk a fine line during the Cold War: they wanted Western Europe to rebuild and rearm enough to pose a credible threat to a Soviet advance, but they wanted Western Europe to define her security interests through a U.S. led institution with the expectation that the U.S. was immediately on hand to protect them. The fear in the early days of NATO wasn't just the Soviet Union, but also Germany, which had to be kept from renationalizing her security policy lest it set off another round of European power politics and arms races.

Now we have the opposite problem - a Europe that won't engage in an arms build-up even though we need and want them too. Gates does intimate that a solution could lie in even more denationalization:

This may require developing new ways to maintain capabilities through multinational procurement, more common funding, or reallocating resources based on collective rather than national priorities - as the Danes have done by eliminating their submarine fleet in order to double their expeditionary forces. At a time of financial scarcity at home, increased reliance on collective efforts is one way to do more with less.

This would move much closer to the creation of a European military force and I wonder, with the Euro undergoing its worst stretch ever, if there is much appetite for this kind of project.

The problem for Gates and the U.S. in general is the incentive structure. Years of jawboning haven't nudged European defense budgets. We've made clear we view NATO as vital to our own defense, which means we will remain Europe's protector. Outside an event that forces a reappraisal in NATO capitals about threats to their security, why should they pony up? The American taxpayer is doing it for them. Calls for Western solidarity are all well in good but the bottom line appears to be that Europe understands where it can afford to scrimp and where it can't. Unless we can alter that cost/analysis, we shouldn't expect more defense investments anytime soon.

(AP Photo)

Clash in Cancún


Tensions are flaring down south. Roger Noriega describes the scene:

In a private luncheon at a regional summit in Cancún yesterday, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe took his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chávez to task for imposing a de facto embargo on Colombian trade and investment. The Venezuelan dictator—who is known for his own bombastic declarations and wild accusations against Colombia—took offense when Uribe compared Chávez’s hostile treatment of Colombia with the embargo on Cuba. Chávez accused Uribe of dispatching assassins to kill him, and he threatened to storm out of the summit. According to diplomats who witnessed the event, Uribe then shouted at Chávez, “Be a man! You’re brave at a distance, but a coward face-to-face.” The Venezuelan responded by telling Uribe, “Vete al carajo!” the most polite translation of which is, “Go to hell!”
Ironically, this confrontation came at a summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders intended to launch a “regional mechanism” that might serve as an alternative to the Organization of American States (OAS). Apparently, Latin and Caribbean diplomats think that a new forum—minus the United States and Canada—might advance their common interests more effectively. However, it is clear from the showdown in Cancún that Chávez is the problem.

(AP Photo)

The Reason for Foreign Policy Minimalism


It's an oft-recounted story but one that appears to need frequent retelling. In the immediate aftermath of the worst terrorist massacre in this country's history, U.S. forces swept into Afghanistan and quickly pushed the Taliban and al Qaeda into neighboring Pakistan. Having failed to kill the leader of either the Taliban or al Qaeda, and unsure about the relative strength of the group following initial combat, the Bush administration nonetheless shifted its focus, intelligence assets and diplomatic attention to launching a war against Saddam Hussein.

Throughout the years of that conflict, the Bush administration spent most of its energy and attention trying to fix the mess it had made in Baghdad, all the while the Taliban crept back into Afghanistan, ramping up its insurgency. It's not that the Bush administration wanted an insurgency in Afghanistan to rear its head - but it had a much more pressing problem (entirely of its own making) in Iraq.

Now the Obama administration faces the opposite problem. Iraq is relatively stable, Afghanistan is a mess. So naturally, the administration is focusing on Afghanistan. But it's not like things in Iraq are on a sure-fire path to success and we're hearing an increasing number of warnings that the Obama administration is "ignoring" Iraq. Some of this is just partisan positioning - so that if Iraq falls apart, the surge advocates who spent so much time trumpeting victory have an easy scapegoat when the wheels come off. But some of it, like Peter Feaver's post here, seems born of a genuine desire not to see a hard fought stability vanish in Iraq.

And it is a legitimate and important question: what should America's relationship be with Iraq? But implicit in many of the voices raising this question is the assumption that America must take an active role in shaping Iraq's political evolution.

Unfortunately, the government has only so many hands on deck and not many of them possess the unique skills and ability to micro-manage the political evolution of Iraq to our liking. If such a capacity was available in the United States, one wonders why it was not pressed into service in the years circa 2003 - 2008. But more importantly, this underscores a very important and what I took to be conservative maxim that the government should not endeavor to do too much.

(AP Photo)

Conflicted U.S. Views on Afghanistan


It has been a good few weeks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the arrests of major Taliban figures and the start of the Obama administration's troop surge. Angus Reid finds more Americans are optimistic about the mission:

More adults in the United States are now in favour of the ongoing military operation in Afghanistan, according to a poll by Angus Reid Public Opinion. 54 per cent of respondents support the mission involving American soldiers, up five points since December.

In addition, 52 per cent of respondents think the federal government has provided too little information about the war in Afghanistan.

Rassmussen has picked up a different vibe:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 47% of voters now believe it is possible for the United States to win the war in Afghanistan. That’s down from a high of 51% in early December following President Obama’s announcement of his new strategy for the war. Just prior to that speech, however, only 39% thought a U.S. victory was possible.

Thirty percent (30%) now say a victory is not possible and 23% are not sure.

Personally, I'm in the slightly more optimistic camp now that it appears that Pakistan is finally taking the fight to the Afghan Taliban. If Pakistan is genuinely cooperating in squelching the Afghan Taliban threat (instead of nurturing it), it means the U.S. could actually leave Afghanistan sooner rather than later.

(AP Photo)

February 22, 2010

The S-300 Shuffle


By Ed Stein

Just as the IAEA released yet another report declaring the potential presence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, one story seems to be sneaking under the radar. This past week brought yet more signs of a growing rift in Russian-Iranian relations surrounding Iran’s illicit nuclear program. As Russia seems to be opening to the possibility of additional sanctions, it sent another resounding shot across the bow to Iran when it delayed, again, its delivery of S-300 air defense missiles. This decision followed a meeting between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which the Russian president reportedly acquiesced to Israel’s request to do just this.

According to Alexander Fomin, first deputy director of the Russian Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation, “There is a delay due to technical problems,” and “the delivery will be completed when they are solved.” In a response that could only further point out the obvious, Vladamir Kasparyants, head of the Russian arms company which manufactures the S-300s, responded, “there are no technical questions. It’s a political issue.” Thanks, Vlad. The S-300 issue has been at the top of the bilateral agenda between Israel and Russia for quite some time now, in addition to the believed subject of secret meetings between the two countries. And it’s no wonder: the presence of such a system would make much more difficult any military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites.

We should not be too quick, however, to conclude that Russia has fully come around on the Iranian nuclear issue, as this may be the result of some backroom horse-trading. According to the Russian press, Israel recently stepped-up its arms sales to Georgia, expanding beyond UAVs to include a variety of conventional arms, and already there has been speculation that the S-300s have been linked to Israeli-Georgian arms deals. Indeed, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has assured the world that the delivery will eventually be made: "There is a contract to supply these systems to Iran, and we will fulfill it.”

It has been hypothesized that an actual Iranian acquisition of S-300s could be an Israeli red line leading them to strike Iranian nuclear targets. One Russian analyst even went so far as to “give it a 100 percent possibility that Israel would strike Iran at the news of the S-300 delivery.” As enrichment continues, confrontation grows and the Iranian domestic crackdown intensifies, one has to wonder whether the moment of truth will come in the form of an IAEA report, or a ship carrying S-300s.

(AP Photo)

Video of the Day

It seems universally true that a problematic few cause problems for all, and this is no more true than in Iran:

Iran has a long and justifiably proud history of scientific research, and it is impressive to see them pressing on in the face of sanctions and isolation. The saddest part is that there are probably many scientists caught in Iran who only want to advance their science, but are being inhibited because most of the world is concerned that their government is going to develop WMDs. It's possible that even some of the scientists working on the nuclear program feel that way.

For more videos on issues from around the world, check out the Real Clear World videos page.

Targets and Tactics


Max Boot writes:

Funny how no one seriously objects when U.S. Predators carry out similar hits on al-Qaeda operatives but the whole world is in uproar when the Israelis target members of Hamas — an organization that is morally indistinguishable from al-Qaeda. The Dubai uproar only highlights once again the double standard to which Israel is constantly subjected. But Israel cannot and should not use that double standard as an excuse to avoid taking vital action in its self-defense. The leaders of terrorist organizations are legitimate military targets, and Israel should spare itself the agonizing and hand-wringing over this targeted killing.

Daniel Larison pounces:

As atrocious and appalling as their past and present conduct is, Hamas still retains in much of the non-American West some minimal legitimacy as a major faction in Palestinian politics. Hamas and Al Qaeda may be morally indistinguishable, but politically they have very different standings in the eyes of many other states. Israel’s major regional ally Turkey has a ruling party that is somewhat sympathetic to Hamas, while it is resolutely hostile to Al Qaeda and its affiliates. These are rather obvious political distinctions that Boot ought to understand, and the Israeli government must also understand these things. It is pointless to pretend that these distinctions don’t exist and to complain that the different reactions to drone strikes and the Dubai assassination prove a double standard. Whether or not there should be a double standard, Israel’s government has to take for granted that there is one. If Israel’s patron and the global superpower can get away with something, however misguided it may be, it does not always follow that it can act with the same impunity.

Well put, but let me take it a step further and dismiss the notion that any double standard exists at all in this case. It's a convenient rhetorical crutch I suppose to scream hypocrisy every time a critique is made of Israeli behavior, but this time around it just doesn't pass muster.

Since he doesn't say, I'm left to assume Mr. Boot means predator strikes in Pakistan, and not Afghanistan. These strikes are the product of U.S.-Pakistani coordination spanning two administrations and two regimes in both Washington and Islamabad, respectively. The predators are likely based inside Pakistan, and the strikes are carried out with approval - albeit quiet and reluctant - from Islamabad.

Larison disapproves of the drone strikes, and I certainly won't deny him that right. Personally, I consider them the least bad alternative to a bad policy of prolonged regional occupation. If we're going to maintain a military presence in the region, then we should be targeting specific al-Qaeda-Taliban operatives and taking them out with limited civilian casualties. The drones accomplish this, which is why Pakistani concerns have been less about the civilian casualties involved and more about who gets to pull the trigger.

And there certainly has been debate in the West over these attacks, both public and private ones within the administration itself. Moreover, I cannot think of one pro-drone argument in the last two years that didn't involve a kind of resigned acceptance of the program's relative effectiveness. Who are these predator pom-pom wavers Boot alludes to? Name names, please.

One could go on at length about the differences between drones and Dubai, but let me try to sum it up in one word: sovereignty. What actually makes the drones controversial is the political backlash they create for our allies in Pakistan. Our presence in the country is a shadowy one, and the cost/benefit balance is rather sensitive. Washington views Pakistan as an important ally in an important war, and thus can't do too much to create domestic tensions for said ally. But these are considerations made in conjunction with that government, just as the strikes are ultimately approved and enabled by that government. Just imagine how much harder it would be if Western operatives went into Pakistan, unapproved, and carried out such strikes. The backlash would be both tremendous and justified. Now imagine how the UAE must feel.

The targets in each case may be "morally indistinguishable," but the tactics are not, and that's why Israel - if responsible - is in the wrong here.

(AP Photo)

February 19, 2010

Fire on a Russian Nuclear Submarine

A fire on a nuclear submarine K-480 "Ak Bars" (project 971) in the dockyard "Little Star" in Severodvinsk has been localized, but is still burning for more than seven hours as of Friday night.

Fire on the sub started about 3 p.m. Friday, when its cables ignited. RIA Novosti news agency reported that the submarine hull will be opened in order to alleviate pressure inside the ship. At this point, 70 firefighters are trying to put out the blaze. There is no nuclear fuel on board the submarine, according to the official sources, and no radiation hazards are expected.

What's America's Favorite Country?

According to Gallup, it's Canada:


I want to know what the other 6 percent have against the place?

Marines Make Sales Pitch to Japan


In an effort to shore up Japanese public support for the controversial Futenma air base in Okinawa Japan, the Marines are launching a PR blitz which argues, in effect, that the Japanese are incapable of weighing the strategic grounds of the Japanese-U.S. partnership:

Lt. Gen. Keith J. Stalder, Commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific, said in an interview that while the Japanese are well aware of the direct military threat of North Korea missiles, they may not fully share the U.S. view of the broader "regional threat" that could undermine their nation's trade and economic activities.

To reach out more directly to the Japanese public, he said, the Marine Corps will roll out Japanese-language sites for the Web and cellphones—the preferred mode of information gathering for many Japanese.

"I think one of the things missing in the appreciation of regional security in the Pacific is an understanding how connected all these countries are, economically, financially and in other ways," Lt. Gen. Stalder said during his visit to Tokyo. "There is nothing that happens in the region that will not affect Japan in a very negative way if it's not contained quickly or prevented."

Is it possible that the Japanese are capable of understanding that and still don't want the air base? I'm not sure why the presumption is that they can't grasp their regional environment better than we can....

(AP Photo)

The Dubai Hit, Ctd

Writing in the National Post, Tom Gross asserts that Israel could very well be the victim of a set-up over the assassination of a Hamas commander in Dubai:

The governments of Jordan and Egypt (where Mabhouh previously spent a year in prison in 2003) have sought Mabhouh for some time. Some Arab media have reported that the operation against Mabhouh may have been carried out by a rival Palestinian group and the photographed individuals have nothing to do with it.

What is true is that someone is making increasing moves against operatives connected to the Iranian regime. In recent years, senior Iranian officials linked to the intelligence services or nuclear program have disappeared quietly, the latest one while on pilgrimage to Mecca. Perhaps the Saudis were responsible.

Perhaps multiple Mideast intelligence services are cooperating against Iran. Still, the idea that this is some kind of set up to make Israel look bad strikes me as unpersuasive.

February 18, 2010

Has Obama's Engagement Flipped China?


David Shorr at Democracy Arsenal thinks I'm preemptively stealing the Obama administration's thunder by crediting Saudi arm twisting for getting China to sign onto Iran sanctions (if they do):

I can understand the argument that the Saudis get credit for pushing the sanctions across the finish line, but this analysis applies a pretty steep discount to all the earlier diplomatic work.

A fair point and I should clarify that if we define "engagement" to mean realigning the material incentives that confront the nations considering sanctions against Iran, then yes, the administration will deserve credit for effective diplomacy if China signs onto tough sanctions.

But if we define engagement to mean what I took the administration and its supporters to mean, that President Obama's efforts to improve America's image abroad have made cooperation on Iran sanctions more probable, than I'm not convinced. First, it posits a relationship between global public opinion and the decisions of leaders of autocratic states that I do not believe exists. Second, it holds that all that was missing on the part of the U.S. was a "good faith" effort to engage the Iranians to show China and Russia that Iran was truly intransigent.

But were China and Russia really holding off on sanctions because they felt the U.S. was insufficiently sincere in its efforts to reach a negotiated settlement? Or did they take a look at what they stood to gain and lose and decided they had more to lose through sanctions and then used whatever excuse was handy to gum up the works?

Shorr believes that the Saudis are dragging China across the finish line, as if this is a final nudge before getting them on board. I don't think that's right. Dennis Ross, who is the White House point man on Iran, laid out his plan in Myth, Illusions and Peace for how to leverage the Saudis against China. Here's what Ross wrote:

China may seem to be a difficult case because it does receive about 13 percent of its oil from Iran. But make no mistake, if the Chinese had to choose between Iran and Saudi Arabia, they would choose the Saudis. They have massive new investments in Saudi petro-chemicals and are jointly financing new oil refineries, and the Saudis have agreed to fill a strategic petroleum reserve for China. Business is business, and the Chinese have a higher stake in Saudi Arabia than in Iran.

If Saudi Arabia is indeed cooperating with the U.S. in threatening China's economic interests in the Kingdom, and China relents, that is carrying them a considerable distance. And it has zero to do with how many people love America around the world or how sincere we were in dealing with Iran's clerical rulers.

But Shorr also holds out a more intriguing message that the U.S. should deliver to China - it is their responsibility to help the U.S. hem in Iran's nuclear ambitions in the name of regional stability:

The United States' strategy should be for all major powers to be status quo powers -- influential nations that share the responsibility for essential stability and a basically functioning world, as opposed to a more chaotic one.

I generally agree with this position but I worry about how it looks the more the relative balance of power shifts, as it is expected to do. We want China to be a "status quo" power because the present status quo is overwhelmingly favorable to us - it is one that we have shaped and led. Makes sense for us, but why is this a compelling message to China? And how much can we make it "worth their while" without starting to surrender important parts of that system?

As I understand it, the present status quo posits that the U.S. has a right to establish a worldwide constellation of military bases in the name of securing the global commons. As China's military capabilities improve, would we afford it room to do some of this policing, or view these moves as threatening our interests?

The U.S. has a right to travel halfway around the world to knock off a leader it objects to, without UN Security Council approval. Does China? The U.S. has the right to declare the Non Proliferation Treaty sacrosanct with respect to Iran, but not India. Does China get to carve out exceptions too? We can sell arms to autocrats in the Persian Gulf, who torture, decapitate, lash and crucify people, but China is being "irresponsible" in dealing with Africa's thuggish leaders. We can proclaim loudly and repeatedly that we have devised the best system of government and will see to it that it is spread everywhere - for the sake of our very security. China, presumably, enjoys no such missionary mandate.

Having China enhance the world's stability means that they'll embrace Washington's policy goals, something they appear less inclined to do by the day. And while I think the "responsible stakeholder" rhetoric is a wise tact for the U.S., it's important to acknowledge that the idea of "international responsibility" - where responsibility is defined as signing onto the U.S. or Western agenda - is a conceit. We need to ask why, as she grows ever more powerful, would China want to lock in an arrangement where they are the junior partner in Washington's world order? If the shoe were on the other foot, would we be so satisfied?

(AP Photo)

Would Doha's Demise Take the WTO With It?

India's Business Standard reports on something that most of us have known for months now - the WTO's Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations isn't getting completed in 2010:

Indian trade negotiators are of the view that the failure to close gaps in trade talks, coupled with minimal participation from the US, has killed the prospects of meeting the 2010 deadline for closing the Doha round. Analysts and trade experts said the failure to meet the deadline would put a question mark on the relevance of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as a global trade body....

According to trade analysts and think tanks, the 2010 deadline is not achievable mainly because the US has not been engaged and there is insufficient political will on trade issues. “The main argument advanced by the US is that it needs real new effective market access for its exporters in order to win the support of the Congress for the trade deal and this could be delivered only by the sectoral agreements. Developing countries have resisted the proposal on the ground that the understanding from the outset has been that, as in the past, members would have the option to join sectoral agreements on a voluntary basis,” said Anwarul Hoda of Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER).

For readers of this blog and most other people paying attention to the Doha Round, the missed 2010 deadline is hardly news.  The Business Standard article also rightly demonstrates how, without serious changes from the US and other WTO Members (but especially the US), Doha's long-term prospects are equally bleak (something that I've been saying for a while now).

On the other hand, one must really question whether, as the unnamed "analysts and trade experts" say, the collapse of the Doha Round would really mean the end of the WTO.  In fact, there are several reasons to doubt this conventional wisdom. 

First, existing WTO rules are deeply ingrained in Members' domestic laws and would be difficult, if not impossible, to undo.  In the United States, for example, implementation of the WTO's Uruguay Round in 1994 required massive changes to domestic law through the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (something critics bemoan, by the way).  The US tariff schedule was changed.  Domestic trade remedies laws were overhauled.  Copyright laws were amended.  (And so on and so on and....)  Moreover, 15+ years of agency regulations and procedures, domestic court cases and international arbitration proceedings, bilateral trade agreements and investment treaties, and private commercial practices have evolved from the WTO Agreements, as well as the URAA and its counterparts.  Thus, it seems highly unlikely that the Doha Round's collapse would unravel all of that.

Second, the economic crisis of 2008-2009 has clearly demonstrated Members' commitment to the international trading system and, by extension, existing WTO rules (even as many have distanced themselves from Doha).  Sure, nations haven't been perfect (far from it), but dramatic backsliding into a tit-for-tat protectionist abyss simply hasn't occurred over the last two years.  And WTO disciplines have certainly played a part in that.  For example, even though I'm hardly a fan of the Stimulus* Bill's Buy American provisions, they were most likely enacted - at least by the letter of the law - consistently with WTO rules (after a lot of domestic and global kvetching about America's "international obligations").  And as I've noted several times, countries' resistance to (or hesitance to impose) carbon tariffs has stemmed, at least in part, from concerns that such measures would violate WTO rules.  These cases - and many, many others like them - make clear that existing WTO rules discipline nations' actions in even the darkest economic times.  Yet during the same period, the Doha Round's conclusion was never in sight.

Third, the WTO has become an indispensable adjudicating body for international trade disputes.  Since the multilateral trade body's founding in 1995, there have been over 400 disputes brought to the WTO, involving billions and billions of dollars in total trade.  A vast majority of those cases were resolved through either consultations or Members' implementation of WTO panel or Appellate Body rulings.  Admittedly, some of those rulings have been ignored, but so far, such non-compliance is rare - a particularly impressive thing when one considers that the WTO has no formal enforcement authority.  Furthermore, dispute settlement activity has remained steady over the last several years, even as the Doha Round itself has sputtered.  Since the end of 2005 (when the last serious, formal negotiating proposals were circulated by WTO Members) there have been almost 70 disputes filed at the WTO, and there have been 25 new cases since the Round's near-collapse in July 2008.  Clearly, nations' lack of confidence in Doha hasn't led them to abandon the WTO's dispute settlement body.

Finally, the Doha Round itself might be unnecessary as a necessary trade liberalization tool.  As Cato's Dan Ikenson pointed out several times, countries are liberalizing unilaterally as the benefits of doing so - particularly in today's world of multinational supply chains and globalized investment flows - have become readily apparent.  Indeed, even the breathlessly pessimistic article quoted above notes that "In India, peak industrial tariffs have been brought down from 35 to 10 per cent ever since the beginning of the talks in Doha in 2001."  Moreover, even if unilateral liberalization (while ideal) is beyond the political pale for some countries, the huge proliferation of bilateral and regional trade agreements (while far from ideal) demonstrates that nations simply aren't waiting around for over 150 other countries to get their collective act together and conclude a final Doha Round Agreement.

All of these instances provide a clear picture of a Doha-less world with a robust WTO - one in which (i) WTO rules establish a baseline of global trade liberalization, (ii) nations pursue "WTO plus" commitments through unilateral liberalization (best route) or bilateral/regional trade agreements with other willing partners (meh route), and (iii) many large trade disputes are adjudicated through the WTO's dispute settlement body.

Indeed, it's not really a bad future when you think about it, nor is it too difficult a scenario to imagine considering that it's exactly what's happening right now - but for occasional, fruitless meetings of distraught WTO negotiators and endlessly-delayed "final" Doha deadlines, of course.

Then again, all of this talk of the "end of the WTO" does make sense from one perspective: without the Doha Round negotiations, a few hundred international bureaucrats would be out of a job.  But while it would certainly stink for these folks to have to give up their posh Geneva apartments and expensive, taxpayer-funded travel stipends, that's hardly the "end of the WTO," now is it?

Well, at least for the rest of us.

[Final note: although I don't think that the WTO's fate rests in Doha's hands, I do see a much more significant threat to the global trading system: countries' refusal to implement adverse dispute settlement rulings.  More on that here.]

Should Greece Go to the IMF?


Simon Johnson thinks so:

This is not an anti-Greek suggestion. The IMF has changed a great deal over the past 10 years – learning lessons and developing new ways of thinking. (For more detail, see my current Project Syndicate column.) Today’s IMF would give Greece a much more reasonable deal than would the EU acting alone.

But the main reason to approach the IMF is that this, if done properly, would drive the EU nuts in a most productive manner.

The Germans really do not want more IMF pressure to ease up on European Central Bank monetary policy or – heaven forbid - to engage in some fiscal expansion (or other increase in domestic demand). The Germans want to export their way out of recession, and the devil take the hindmost.

And President Sarkozy absolutely does not want the current IMF Managing Director - Dominique Strauss-Kahn - to do anything that can be presented as a statesman-like contribution to the world. Strauss-Kahn is a contender for the French presidential election in 2012, so you can see how that works. (Aside: strictly speaking, according to IMF rules, Strauss-Kahn should step down from the Fund; but he is too wily a politician to let anyone push him out at this moment.)

You can track the European debt crisis in our new Eurozone page here.

(AP Photo)

Fighting & Fanning the Flames of Terrorism

Is the Obama administration working at cross purposes in its battle with Islamic terrorism?

On the one hand, we have U.S. forces battling the Taliban in Helmand Province as part of an overall strategy to stabilize Afghanistan before a U.S. draw down begins in 2011. Thus far, the operation appears successful and is being complimented by a number of high-profile Taliban arrests in cooperation with Pakistan. India and Pakistan are engaged in peace talks. By all appearances, the administration's approach to South Asia is bearing (provisional) fruit.

Yet move to the Middle East and the position looks quite different. The administration failed - spectacularly and publicly - in its early efforts to jump start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. More importantly, it is moving to bulk up its forward military forces in the region in an effort to contain Iran.

It is a well documented fact that the presence of foreign military forces in the Middle East is a driver of terrorism. American forces stationed in Saudi Arabia to contain Iraq were a staple of al Qaeda propaganda throughout the 1990s so much so that former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (hardly one to "blame America") cited their removal as one of the salutary effects of the Iraq invasion (never mind that that move injected orders of magnitude more troops into the region). It would be foolish to believe that the U.S. could undertake a similar buildup to contain Iran and not court the same wrath. But that is what the Obama administration is doing. It is fighting and hopefully winning a tactical battle in Afghanistan (and perhaps more if it does reorient the geopolitics of Pakistan and India) while entrenching the dangerous status quo in the Middle East that has driven Arab jihadists into the Pakistani hinterlands in the first place.

Hopefully the terrorist threat is now small enough that even with the negative dynamic in place in the Middle East we can contain it through intelligence work and homeland security. But such a reactive posture is bound to fail on occasion.

(AP Photo)

Live Stream: Iraq's Elections & Iraq's Future

The Carnegie Endowment will be hosting Ad Melkert, the United Nations Secretary-General's Special Representative for Iraq, to discuss Iraq's upcoming elections and the outlook on the country's political future.

The event will run from 12:15-2:00 EST and will be live-streamed below.

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February 17, 2010

Video of the Day

This is a topic that we have covered elsewhere on this blog, and yet a possible Mossad assassination is just too good to leave alone.

While there have always been conspiracy theories, the Internet has given them a home they never had. To be sure, there was a conspiracy here: to kill a Hamas commander. It succeeded, and maybe someday we will know who and why. In the mean time there will be a ton of speculation. Just for fun, kick in your conspiracy theory in the comments. I found it interesting that the conspirators apparently used the identities only of Europeans who speak Arabic.

For more videos on issues around the world, check out the Real Clear World Videos page.

What the Mullah Baradar Arrest Means

Cato's Malou Innocent writes that while important, the arrest of Taliban second in command Mullah Baradar will only bear fruit if the U.S. can ease tensions between Pakistan and India. Steve Coll suggests that the Obama administration just might be having success there:

I would guess at a more subtle motivation, one that might suggest a favorable pattern now emerging in the Obama Administration’s and Central Command’s approach to Pakistan’s role in the Afghan conflict. Over the last few months, by multiple means, the United States and its allies have been seeking to persuade Pakistan that it can best achieve its legitimate security goals in Afghanistan through political negotiations, rather than through the promotion of endless (and futile) Taliban guerrilla violence—and that the United States will respect and accommodate Pakistan’s agenda in such talks. Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban, especially in recent years, was always best understood as a military lever to promote political accommodations of Pakistan in Kabul. Baradar, however, has defiantly refused to participate in such political strategies, as he indicated in an e-mail interview he gave to Newsweek last year. The more the Taliban’s leaders enjoying sanctuary in Karachi or Quetta refuse to lash themselves to Pakistani political strategy, the more vulnerable they become to a knock on the door in the middle of the night.

I admit I was skeptical that the Obama administration's efforts to ease Pakistan and India tensions would work (at least if the U.S. tried to press hard on the Kashmir issue). And while it's still too soon to tell if it has, I'm hoping to be proved wrong.

Dan Twining raises some less optimistic interpretations:

What if Washington has cut a quiet deal with Pakistan's military high command, granting them a disproportionate role in determining Afghanistan's future in return for help facilitating the withdrawal of Western forces? In return for Pakistani cooperation over the next 18 months -- including Pakistani military offensives against violent extremists in its tribal regions, joint intelligence operations like the one that netted Mullah Baradar, delivering elements of the Afghan Taliban for serious talks on reconciliation with the Afghan government, and continued Western use of Pakistani territory to supply Western forces fighting in Afghanistan -- one could imagine a private U.S. understanding with Pakistani armed forces commander General Kayani that, once Western forces withdraw from Afghanistan, Pakistan can enjoy a free hand to resume its special relationship with the country's post-Karzai leadership in its continued quest for strategic depth against India.

Israel's Hamas Hit: The Controversy Continues


Con Coughlin:

I fully accept that al-Mabhouh was a bad man with Jewish blood on his hands who was no doubt up to no good procuring weapons from Iran for use by Hamas against Israeli citizens. But that does not excuse Israel – if indeed this turns out to be the case – using British passports as cover for their assassination operation.

Britain is a close ally and supporter of Israel in the war on terror, and in return deserves some respect from the Israeli government. An operation like this would have been personally authorised by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and if did so then he has committed a grave insult to his British allies. At the very least the assassins could have used false British passports, rather than those of genuine citizens. As a result the personal security of British citizens living and travelling in the Middle East has been seriously compromised.

I think Coughlin has it right. The issue is not whether al-Mabhouh deserved to be strangled to death, but whether it's right to use the identities of innocent people to carry out such an attack. Again, though, these are all provisional judgments. We don't yet know the full story.

(AP Photo)

Paging Douglas Feith


Many neoconservatives are demanding that the U.S. throw its full weight behind the Iranians in their pursuit of freedom. On the surface, this is obviously a noble idea, but it's worth remembering that the very people making confident predictions about the predilections of the Iranian people were duped by an Iranian stooge.

(AP Photo)

Iraq in the Balance

With eyes turning to China and the potential for increased great power tensions in Asia, it's important to remember how weak the U.S. will be in such a circumstance if we can't disentangle ourselves from playing referee inside Iraq. To that end, Leila Fadel's report in the Washington Post is worrisome:

A senior U.S. military official who has spent years in Iraq said he fears that as the drawdown begins, American forces are leaving behind many of the same conditions that preceded the sectarian war.

"All we're doing is setting the clock back to 2005," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a stark assessment. "The militias are fully armed, and al-Qaeda in Iraq is trying to move back from the west. These are the conditions now, and we're sitting back looking at PowerPoint slides and whitewashing."

If violence begins to ramp up, what will the Obama administration do?

February 16, 2010

Dubai Releases "Hit Squad" Video

Two weeks ago a Hamas commander was killed in his hotel room in Dubai. Now the authorities have released CCTV video showing the assassins tracing the man's movements:

The assassins had passports from a variety of European countries and now that their faces have been plastered all over Dubai, the awkward diplomacy begins. Here's the Daily Telegraph:

The Foreign Office was investigating how the identities of six innocent Britons — at least three of whom lived in Israel — came to be used by the alleged hit team...

As police in Dubai released CCTV footage of the suspects yesterday, some of the Britons whose identities were stolen voiced their anger after waking up to discover that they had been named in the plot.

"I have not left Israel for two years and I certainly have not been to Dubai recently," said Kent-born Paul Keeley, 42, a builder who has lived on a Kibbutz in northern Israel for the past 15 years.

"When I first heard about this I immediately looked to make sure my passport was still there and it was. It has not been stolen, so I don’t know what on earth has happened.

I'm obviously in no position to tell what's going on, but it does strike me as extremely problematic to steal an innocent person's identity to carry out an assassination. Of course, there's almost certainly a lot more to this story.

Terrorism, Iran Top Critical Threat List

Americans view terrorism, Iran and North Korea as the top military threats facing the country according to a new Gallup poll:


There is an age gap when it comes to Iran, with Gallup noting that older Americans are more likely to view Iran as a threat and Americans 18-29 considerably less concerned. Gallup doesn't ask, but it would be nice to dig a bit deeper and ask what people think Iran is likely to do. Being a "threat" is a fairly amorphous thing.

U.S. Wants Multilateral Action Against Iran

Rasmussen Reports is out with a new survey on U.S. attitudes toward Iran:

With China still blocking UN efforts to impose meaningful sanctions on Iran, 29% of U.S. voters now think the United States should talk action alone against the rogue Islamic nation.

But a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that nearly half of voters (49%) disagree and oppose unilateral U.S. action against Iran. Twenty-two percent (22%) are not sure....

Forty-three percent (43%) of voters believe President Obama has not been aggressive enough in supporting the reformers in Iran, who are protesting the extremist government now in power. However, 39% say the president’s response has been about right. Just five percent (5%) say he has been too aggressive.

Looking at the questions, the issue of what "action" the U.S. is supposed to take against Iran is not clearly defined, but earlier surveys have shown the public is willing to countenance a war with Iran, so perhaps that and/or sanctions is what they're thinking.

Ignore Iran?

That's Robert Baer's advice:

Don’t do anything about Iran. No statements out of the White House. No support for the opposition. No covert action. If we could get the press to stop covering it, that would be all the better....At the end of the day, the regime in Tehran, properly ignored, will fall under its own weight.

Other security experts weigh in here.

Paul Pillar's contribution is also worth highlighting:

The prime defect of the debate is not only that it has focused myopically on Iran’s nuclear program and even more narrowly on the issue of uranium enrichment (despite a modest amount of broadening since the stolen Iranian presidential election), but also that it presumes prevention of an Iranian capability to produce a nuclear weapon to be a sine qua non. We hear otherwise serious people saying that if diplomacy failed to prevent such a capability, then we would have no choice but to resort to military force. Nonsense. We would have just as much choice as at previous junctures in the history of nuclear proliferation, when the proliferators included Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, and the producer of the first “Islamic bomb,” Pakistan. To contend that something is fundamentally different in the case of Iran is to say that the principles of deterrence somehow do not apply in the Persian Gulf or that the leaders of the Islamic Republic are uniquely suicidal in a way that none of those other regimes—or any other regimes in modern times, for that matter—have been.

Video of the Day

If Secretary Clinton's portrayal of the administration's view of Iran is accurate, then it has a very peculiar view indeed:

This characterization is interesting, as it presents the current government in Iran - or in the recent past - as a legitimate one, just as the election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is being challenged.

For more videos on topics around the world, check out the Real Clear World Video Page.

How Americans Think the World Sees Them

According to Gallup, Americans are feeling positive about their position in the world:

After five years when fewer than half of Americans believed the United States was seen favorably in the eyes of the world, Gallup's decade-long trend lines on this measure have again crossed. Fifty-one percent now say the U.S. is viewed favorably, up from 45% a year ago.

Interestingly, while President Obama is credited with reversing America's poor image abroad, the trend lines below seem worrisome:


The Limits of Bush Bashing


The Obama administration has done its fair share of blame shifting during their first year in office. And it's true that they have inherited a range of problems from their predecessors, but Iran isn't really one of them. The Bush administration's policy of empty threats and hands-off diplomacy toward Iran wasn't productive, but as we're discovering with the Obama administration, engagement isn't working either.

Here's Helene Cooper in the New York Times:

At a news briefing on Thursday, the White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, presented this latest metamorphosis of the administration’s thinking: that engagement is not necessarily about the two adversaries, but rather, about the worldview on America. The White House, he said, is trying to get Russia and China to join the United States, Britain, France and Germany — a group referred to in diplomatic circles as the P5+1, for the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany — in imposing harsher sanctions against Iran for its pursuit of a nuclear program. While it remains unclear whether the effort will succeed, Mr. Gibbs said Mr. Obama’s outreach to Iran had paved the way for a united Security Council resolution.

There is no evidence that I'm aware of that but for global opinion of America, countries that were reluctant to levy sanctions against Iran have suddenly become more open to the idea. This is an especially odd view given that Russia and China aren't exactly marching to the beat of their citizens' wishes. Still, the Obama administration may produce enough pressure on both countries to levy sanctions, but that's likely to be the result of Saudi arm-twisting, not a recognition of American beneficence.

(AP Photo)

February 15, 2010

U.S. Public Supports Dalai Lama Meeting


Angus Reid finds that despite Chinese protests, most Americans support President Obama's decision to meet with the Dalai Lama:

In the online survey of a representative national sample of 1,004 American adults, 64 per cent of respondents agree with President Obama meeting the Dalai Lama in the U.S. Clear majorities of Democrats (65%), Republicans (59%) and Independents (63%) are in favour of this meeting....

Almost three-in-five Americans (57%) believe the U.S. should provide an official welcome to the Dalai Lama similar to the welcome offered to other religious leaders.

Full results here (pdf).

(AP Photo)

Leverage, What Is it Good For?

To pick up on Kevin's point below, one of the rationales for sustaining American predominance in the Persian Gulf is to preemptively thwart a similar bid from China. If we are the arbiters of oil security, the theory goes, the Chinese will be reliant on the U.S. as she becomes ever more dependent on the stuff for her economy.

With Secretary Clinton's swing through the Middle East, we're calling in those chips:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to the Gulf on Sunday to seek oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s help in pressing China to join the US drive for sanctions against Iran, aides said. The US chief diplomat’s three-day trip to Qatar and Saudi Arabia is also aimed at enlisting broader regional support, including Turkey’s, in a drive to stop Iran’s sensitive nuclear work, her aides told reporters.

Note that we're not using our leverage over the region's oil producers to actually weaken China. Instead, we're cashing in our leverage in the Middle East in a desperate bid to.... maintain our leverage in the Middle East. We are, in effect, asking China to support an American policy designed, at least in some measure, to keep China in a state of strategic dependency vis-a-vis the United States. I guess we're about to see whether the Chinese value the emergence of another power in the Middle East or whether they like seeing America bogged down "policing" the place.

Mo Hegemony, Mo Problems

Blake Hounshell writes:

First, let's get one thing straight: There will be no tough sanctions. As FP's Colum Lynch has reported, China doesn't even have a go-to Iran hand right now, and has shown little interest in damaging relations with a country that supplies 11 percent of its oil imports. Beijing will see to it that whatever sanctions do pass the U.N. Security Council are toothless, as the Chinese have done on all previous occasions. They'll give just enough to allow the Obama administration to say it passed something, while wringing concessions out of Washington that we may never know about.

Hounshell makes a fair point, although I'd imagine Washington's sales pitch will go something as follows: OK, that's where you get 11 percent of your oil, but where's the other 89 percent coming from these days? While Beijing worries about easy access to 11 to 14 percent of its oil, the West could attempt to make getting the other 80 to 90 percent more difficult. Faced with that option, perhaps China yields. Who knows. China has done a lot of prospecting and signed a lot of dotted lines in Iran, but questions remain - mostly due to preexisting sanctions - over whether or not heavier long-term investment in Iran will go smoothly. China is sitting on all these oil and gas exploratory contracts, fully aware that they lack the full tech and know-how to actually extract it all.

But there's another argument to be made, and I believe we're now hearing it from Secretary Clinton, who recently said:

"China will be under a lot of pressure to recognize the destabilizing impact that a nuclear-armed Iran would have in the Gulf, from which they receive a significant percentage of their oil supply."

Hint, hint: the more you invest in the Middle East, the more you have to invest in keeping the region safe and secure. Or, in short, the Biggie Smalls Doctrine. See U.S. foreign policy (1980 - present). Does Beijing wish to embed itself in the region as the United States has? Does China want its consumption costs tied to that instability? Washington, in making a kind of anti-hegemonic appeal, might be hoping the trouble is more than China's willing to endure.

February 12, 2010

Green End Game?, Ctd.

Juan Cole:

Some Green Movement supporters objected to my characterization of Thursday as a 'failure to mobilize,' saying that I wasn't taking into account the sheer brutality of regime measures. But it is a given that this regime is brutal. It was brutal on Ashura (Dec. 27, 2009), but the Greens nevertheless managed to make an impressive showing, and despite regime foreknowledge that it would be a flash point.

And there are, unfortunately, shades of brutality. As Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett were quick to point out today, the level of brutality and oppression we are seeing today pales in comparison to what the Shah and his SAVAK intelligence arm did to Iranian dissidents. It also pales in comparison to the actions of post-revolutionary Khomeinist Iran (which the Leveretts, somewhat peculiarly, fail to mention).

Cole goes on:

Ahmadinejad has his Alliance of Builders in Tehran, and is backed by the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij paramilitary, and other security forces. Musavi has the little flashmobs who couldn't, at least on Thursday.

And as I noted on Wednesday, the considerably larger public demonstrations in 1977 and 1978 were accompanied by nationwide strikes. What have we seen in Iran today, other than the defacing of banknotes? We may yet see debilitating strikes across vital national industries, but so far, the movement has been relegated to, as Cole puts it, "little flashmobs."

It cannot be said enough however, as Matt Duss rightly points out, that this isn't, as Cole argues, checkmate for the Greens so much as it is a check - the movement is in a corner, and now it must carefully decide its next move (my title being a chess allusion, this only seems fitting). The movement will continue to evolve and adapt with experience and age, and now that they've acquired a taste for dissent it will likely stick with them. This, as Hooman Majd reminds us, is a different kind of movement than Khatami's of the late 1990's. The people on the streets - most of them the nation's youth - are asking fundamental questions about the nature of their country and the regime which rules over them. They have, at times, challenged the legitimacy of the Supreme Leader. This is a positive direction, and it may lead to a more targeted campaign against the specific governmental factions controlling their society.

But the Green Movement must decide the direction it will go in in this game of tug of war. In other words, can they pull more middle and upper-class Iranians - members of the business community, the elites, the opinion makers, members of the security forces, and so on - over to their side of things, or will the movement simply splinter and dissolve as some moderate and others radicalize? The regime no doubt believes it can expedite the latter process, as demonstrated this week through its blatantly obvious attempt to splinter the protesters with promises of nuclear grandeur. The strategy may have paid off.

The Ivory Tower and Policy: China Edition

Harsh Pant in the Japan Times gets hyperbolic about China's building of bases overseas, and claims that this is a sign that Beijing is going to pursue an aggressive foreign policy:

Now, however, one of the most prominent foreign policy thinkers in China is suggesting that establishing bases overseas is a Chinese right that the government cannot ignore. Shen Dingli, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, asserts that "it is wrong for us [China] to believe that we have no rights to set up bases abroad."

Dingli argues that it is not terrorism or piracy that poses the greatest threat to China's interests, but rather the potential of other states to block China's trade routes. To prevent this from happening, China, according to Dingli, needs not only a blue-water navy but also "overseas military bases to cut the supply costs."

There are plenty of reasons to believe that China is not a benign actor within the system, anyone who doubts this needs look only at the reaction China had to the Google 'incident.' Nevertheless, pointing to an article by a professor at a university only serves to muddy the waters. While Fudan University (复旦大学) is one of the top schools in the country, there is no reason to believe that Prof. Shen has any additional influence in government than any other professor. Moreover, part of the academic job description is to propose and debate ideas, whether they are realistic or not.

In the end, governments do what they want to further their interests as they see fit. While China did mull the idea, it was already ruled out before Prof. Shen published his paper. When looking at policy, we should do well to remember that academics' direct influence on foreign policy is generally low. After all, many of the top 'foreign policy thinkers' in the United States, of all political stripes and ideological persuasions took out an ad opposing the Iraq War, and we all know how that turned out.

Ukraine's Post-Election To-Do List


By David J. Kramer

KYIV, Ukraine—Contrary to earlier polls, Ukraine’s presidential election turned out to be much closer than expected. After the run-off held on February 7, opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych claimed victory over Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko—at last count, he had a 3 percent lead—but Tymoshenko was not ready to concede. She is expected to file court challenges over claims of fraud in individual poll­ing stations, but international observers across the board, including the delegation I led for the International Republican Institute, deemed this election generally free and fair and any problems not to have been systemic in nature.

Tymoshenko, of course, has every right to pursue her legal options, but it would be unfortunate if her efforts led to weeks of squabbling and political paralysis. Ukrainians have had enough of that over the past few years, when they grew disillusioned with those associated with the 2004 Orange Revolution. Based on the preliminary assessment of foreign observers, neither problems that may have occurred on Election Day nor a controversial change made to the electoral law three days before the election had an appreciable impact on the election itself.

Barring the unexpected, Ukraine will see Yanukovych assume the reins as presi­dent. There are some in the West who will be unhappy with the election outcome. They will see Yanukovych’s victory as the final nail in the Orange Revolution’s coffin and will want to keep their distance from Ukraine. This would be exactly the wrong approach to take. Leaders in the West need to engage the new president and his team immediately after he as­sumes office. Here are some things they should do in the near term:

* Invite Yanukovych to the West. U.S. President Barack Obama will be hosting a nuclear security summit in April, and Yanukoych’s participation in that would be a good start. EU countries should also reach out to him out of recognition that Ukraine is a vital neighbor.

* Visit Kyiv. Western leaders should make Kyiv a key place to visit, not on the way to or from Moscow but on its own.

* Strengthen bilateral commissions on a level comparable to what Obama established with Russia last year. Dealing with Ukraine can be frustrating, but the alternative of keeping a distance is even worse, especially when Moscow will be reaching out aggressively to the new government in Kyiv.

* For the European Union, move forward on finalizing a free trade agreement with Ukraine and visa liberalization. It should stress that future membership in the European Union, while not in the offing in the near-term, is a possibility. The door to the European Union must remain open to Ukraine if it undertakes the necessary reforms over the next few years.

* Avoid pressing on membership in NATO, especially since the majority of Ukrainians do not support NATO membership at this time. Injecting this issue into the political debate in Ukraine now would be distracting and counterproductive, but NATO should keep its door open, too.

* Push for resumption of International Monetary Fund (IMF) lending if Ukraine’s parliament and leaders stop their inflationary and unaffordable budgetary and fiscal policies.

For Yanukovych, he should:

* Appoint people to government positions based on experience and talent, not solely as payback for political favors, and include individuals from Tymoshenko’s bloc. Choosing a replacement for Tymoshenko, should she leave or be voted out by the Parliament, will be especially important. After experiencing a nearly 15 percent drop in GDP last year, Ukraine cannot afford continued delays in fixing the economy.

* Keep people who work well in the West, such as Ambassador Oleh Shamshur in Washington, in their positions. Continuity in personnel wherever possible will have a reassuring effect on the West.

* Visit Brussels and Washington sooner rather than later. There is a caricature of Yanukovych as the pro-Russian candidate. Visiting Western capitals would go some distance toward disabusing those suspicious of him.

* Pursue improved relations with Moscow, which deteriorated under outgoing President Viktor Yushchenko, but protect Ukraine’s interests on issues concerning energy security and the Black Sea Fleet. Similarly, reject Russian pressure to recognize the separatist Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

* Avoid divisive issues like making Russian the second official language. This will cause a nasty debate in the Parliament and unnecessarily distract from issues like economic reform. Focus on urgent needs, including paying gas bills to Russia and resuming IMF assistance based on fiscal discipline.

* Avoid a push for early parliamentary elections. Some in his party see this as a way to increase their control over the legislature. The last thing Ukraine needs is another election—the people here, despite impressive turnout numbers (68%) on Sunday, want to see their leaders govern effectively, not engage in endless electoral campaigns.

Ukraine, a country of 46 million people strategically located between Russia and countries of the European Union, has enor­mous potential to contribute to European stability and security. It is important in its own right, not only through a Russian prism. It just held yet another election, following parliamentary elections in 2006 and 2007 and the re-run of the 2004 election, which passed international standard—no small accomplishment in this part of the world. Whatever they think of Yanukovych, Western leaders need to get over their “Ukraine fatigue” and engage the country, its leaders, and its people more than they have in the past.

David J. Kramer is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) focusing on issues related to Russia, Eurasia and wider Europe, as well as democracy and human rights.

(AP Photo)

Video of the Day

Sometimes people forget that China remains an authoritarian regime, but unfortunately, they cannot go long without reminding us:

It is strange to me that Liu Xiaobo has not received the attention that other causes celebres do. If there is any modern analog to Ghandi, or Martin Luther King, it is probably Liu Xiaobo. Poignantly, he is only accused of signing the Charter 2008.

For more news on issues from around the world check out the Real Clear World videos page.

Next Stop: Tehran

William Kristol thinks Obama would be wise to take up the regime change mantle for Iran:

Perhaps embracing the concept of "regime change" spooks the Obama administration. It's awfully reminiscent of George W. Bush. But one great failure of the Bush administration was its second-term fecklessness with respect to Iran. Bush kicked the Iran can down the road. Does Obama want an achievement that eluded Bush? Regime change in Iran -- that would be an Obama administration achievement that Joe Biden, and the rest of us, could really celebrate.

This is the last graf of Kristol's column, which is unfortunate because he doesn't really explore the question of why Bush was "feckless" with respect to Iran in his second term.

Maybe - just a guess - it had something to do with the previous regime change operation?

Senate Human Rights Bill Targets Iran (But No One Else)

Several Senators are putting forth a bill to bring freedom and democracy to Iran. Jennifer Rubin has a nice write up on the particulars in Commentary.

Rubin then goes on to note:

It will be interesting to see the Obami’s reaction to this piece of legislation. Are they interested in aiding democratic activists, or are they committed to not rocking the boat? Do they have the nerve to document the specific Iranian human-rights atrocities, or would they prefer to say as little as possible?

One basic problem with using human rights as a geo-political cudgel is the obvious cynicism of it - a cynicism that does more to undermine the cause of those rights than its boosters care to admit. We are willing to stand on the moral high ground vis-a-vis Iran, but not with Saudi Arabia? Or Egypt? Or Jordan? Why not? If we only believe in human rights for our enemies but not our friends, then we really don't believe in human rights, do we? Because I don't see too many elections in Jordan, much less protest movements. As far as women's rights go, you'd be much better off living in Iran than Saudi Arabia.

Realists take a lot of abuse for supposedly not supporting American values. But who is doing those values the most harm? Those who proclaim them loudly only when it's geo-politically convenient. Or those unwilling to preach what they won't practice?

Goldman Sachs Hid Greek Debt

In the event you needed another reason to be angry at Goldman Sachs, Der Spiegel reports:

Goldman Sachs helped the Greek government to mask the true extent of its deficit with the help of a derivatives deal that legally circumvented the EU Maastricht deficit rules. At some point the so-called cross currency swaps will mature, and swell the country's already bloated deficit.

The "Lord's work" indeed.

Charlie Wilson's Legacy


Charlie Wilson, the Texas Congressman who spurred the U.S. to step up aid to Afghan Mujahadeen during the Soviet invasion, has passed away. Many people are hailing his life and his supposed prescience that the U.S. should have stayed committed to Afghanistan after the Soviet defeat.

Joshua Foust wrestles with his legacy and wonders whether the U.S. would have been better off not getting involved in Afghanistan in the first place. It's an interesting argument. Clearly a lot hinges on the question of how decisive Afghanistan was to the fall of the Soviet Union. Very decisive, and I think the case for U.S. aid is strong. Not very decisive, and the case collapses. I'm not sure how big a role it played. So to you, wise readers, was Afghanistan instrumental in destroying the Evil Empire?

(AP Photo)

February 11, 2010

China's Preparing for Oil Scarcity, But Is America?

The economic recession is now out of its most acute phase, but the systemic damage and slow recovery will be felt for years in many Western countries, particularly the U.S. Conversely, China grew at about 8% last year and a top Chinese think tank has predicted 10% growth in 2010. As China roars into its year of the Tiger, America will be dealing with high unemployment and low single-digit growth for half a decade or more.

If we were to deem 2010 as a starting point for evaluating future economic prospects, China obviously has a leg up over the U.S. from the get-go, in terms of growth potential.

But which country is better positioning itself for long-term growth? Two decades from now, the gears of national economies will be churning without the last century's most popular lubricant: oil. In a future of oil scarcity, will the U.S. or China be more prepared?

If you travel around China, palpable is the massive infrastructure investments being injected into every major city. Guangzhou, Xi'an, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Fuzhou, along with many other first- and second-tier Chinese cities, have plans to begin or expand subway and high-speed rail systems as quickly as possible. This is part of the government's $350 billion investment to build 20,000 kilometers of new rail in the next three years.

While the Chinese have now clearly passed Americans in auto sales, the PRC government is constructing a modern mass transit network because it knows that the future -- 20 years on -- includes severe oil scarcity. So it is providing the links for citizens and businesspeople to easily traverse China's vastness in the future, when most people won't be able to afford the expense of autos. (And the oil cost associated with a car is not only in the gas needed for daily driving; it also includes road materials, building the car, and road tolls. For much more on this, see $20 Per Gallon.) Moreover, the Chinese government is structuring incentives in its economy so that businesses and people choose more efficient and less petroleum-reliant modes of transport. For example, a vehicle emission tax is being formulated that will make all autos -- but especially the most energy intensive -- more expensive to own.

Across the Pacific, the U.S. is a different story. Its economy is now, like the Chinese, still dependent on oil, but the government is doing little right to prepare for the slow decline into crude oil scarcity. The people of California, if they can get beyond their budget crisis, have called for a high-speed railway that would link its most important commercial hubs, yet in the rest of the nation, the collective mindset and, thus, Congress's focus is far from the future of national transportation. Despite the warning signs of rapidly increasing gas prices, Americans haven't realized the salience of world-class public transport in a not-too-far-off future where cars and plane tickets are luxuries.

This evaluation of economic prospects is complicated, however, by the costs of international transport. Currently, global supply chains are dependent on cost-effective transport to every corner of the world -- made possible by cheap oil. Trading over long distances by air, sea, and land will all become less-sensible for businesses in the future; trade will necessarily become more local unless international transportation can find a viable non-oil alternative. So while the Chinese are building their infrastructure, the trade and export growth that fund these projects will be threatened. So the potential for China to capitalize on its current infrastructure investments will depend on a larger chunk of its annual growth being domestic rather than foreign consumption.

For the U.S., expensive oil and reduced international trade could be a huge boon to its low growth numbers. The necessity to produce goods closer to the point of consumption will both bring millions of jobs back to America and help reduce America's trade deficit and debt. But this benefit is contingent on the U.S. finding the resources and will to build a massive railway system on which to transport these goods. When automobile and air transportation becomes ridiculously expensive, at $10 or $14 per gallon, rail will be critical to keep products moving at low costs across America. Without an effective rail system, goods will simply be more expensive, thereby raising prices and damaging consumption.

And then there's the "why." Why does the U.S. have such a hard time investing in critical long-term infrastructure projects while the Chinese can quickly construct a massive national transportation network backed by piles of money? Surely, the political systems play no small part. A centralized one-party state has few barriers to ramping up national plans, for better or for worse, than a staunchly partisan democracy.

Ultimately, the "why" is less important than the "how" for America. Despite the apparent righteousness of scapegoating on a democratic system, without greater preparation, the U.S. economy could be left uncompetitive or worse in the approaching oil-starved world.

Kevin Slaten was a junior fellow in the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He now 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.

Ali Alfoneh: Khamenei Is No Khomeini


Ali Alfoneh is a visiting research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He has written extensively on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Basij militia. We spoke with Mr. Alfoneh today about Iran's various power-brokers, and what the regime's founding father might think of his Islamic Republic were he alive today. This interview has been edited for sake of length and clarity:

RCW: The White House announced new sanctions yesterday on Gen. Rostam Qasemi of the IRGC. You’re very familiar with the Guards Corps, do you think this is a step in the right direction from Washington, or does it not go far enough?

Alfoneh: By targeting Khatam al-Anbia Construction Base of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Brigadier General Rostam Qasemi, its Chief, the Obama administration has sent an important signal to the Iranian public: The United States is not an enemy of the Iranian people, but targets the leadership of the IRGC which suppresses democratic aspirations of the Iranians, and whose nuclear ambitions exposes Iran and Iranians to diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions. However, Khatam al-Anbia only constitutes a small part of the economic empire of the IRGC, and the United States government should also prepare sanctions against credit and financial institutions of the IRGC and the Basij such as Sarmayeh-Gozari-ye Mehr-e Eghtesad-e Iranian, Moassesseh-ye Mali/Eghtesadi-ye Mehr, Bonyad-e Ta'avon-e Basij, Bonyad-e Ta'avon-e Sepah and Moassesseh-ye Mali/Eghtesadi-ye Ansar.

RCW: You’ve also written extensively on the Basij. Do you think the Green Movement will need to split the ranks of the IRGC and the Basij in order to advance its cause?

Alfoneh: The Basij has shown a relatively poor performance during the post election crisis, in part due to the structure of the Basij as a neighborhood and university based vigilante organization. As Basij members failed to show up to beat up their own neighbors and fellow students the IRGC was forced to mobilize Basij members from the outskirts of major population centers to suppress urban unrest, and on October 5, 2009 the Basij changed command and was formally integrated within the organizational framework of the IRGC Ground Forces in order to secure greater efficiency. More intelligent and efficient opposition communication to the Basij members would leave the 125,000 strong IRGC the last bastion of the regime in case of continued revolutionary activity.

RCW: Ayatollah Khomeini has been dead for over twenty years now. On this 31st anniversary of his revolution, do you think he would be able to recognize the fruits of his labor? Would he approve?

Alfoneh: The late Grand Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini ruled the Islamic Republic of Iran with the ruthlessness of a devout man convinced of his own rectitude. Vindictive and merciless, Khomeini massacred thousands of political opponents "to the greater glory of God," in an attempt to "eradicate those spreading corruption upon earth," and by "saving the misled from eternal damnation and tortures in hell" by torturing them in his own prisons. Therefore, Khomeini would be disappointed by the fact that his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has not managed to terrorize the public into submission and has betrayed the divine republic by being indecisive.

RCW: Regardless of what happens today, where does the Iranian Green Movement go from here? Can there be compromise with the current regime?

Alfoneh: Khamenei does not know his Khomeini, or his Machiavelli for that matter. He desires to be both popular and feared and does not realize that he has to choose one of the two in times of crisis. Therefore, Khamenei is likely to further alienate the Green Movement and more than half of the political elites of the Islamic Republic without terrorizing them into submission. Such indecisiveness is bound to be exploited by the opposition unless the IRGC leadership forces Khamenei to make a choice and take responsibility for harsh repression of the protesters.

RCW: Giving it your best guess, what does Iran look like in five years?

Alfoneh: Any student of political science and history knows that prediction of political revolutions is almost impossible, while social revolutions are more easily detectable. Iran has been going through a social revolution for the past one hundred years, which on two occasions led to political revolutions: The constitutional revolution of 1906 and the revolution of 1979. The ability of the Islamic Republic to suppress the democratic opposition in times of weakness in order to fend off regime collapse - and reversely to give considerable concessions such as political liberalization in more stable periods - could secure survival of the Islamic Republic. Unfortunately, the Iranian leadership does not seem to have learned many lessons from the past, it commits mistakes of His late Imperial Majesty the Shah and will therefore sooner or later suffer the destiny of the imperial regime.

(AP Photo)

Green End Game?


From Tehran Bureau:

Everyone we have spoken to so far this morning has said about the same thing -- in a word or two: "A big anticlimax," "defeat," "An overwhelming presence from the other side. People were terrified."

In fact, it appears that the regime was so confident, it did not feel the need to disrupt cellphone or messaging services, or even the internet for that matter.

One of the pitfalls in analyzing the ebb and flow of a reform movement by crowd size and exuberance is that you end up with rather bipolar measurements for success and failure. For instance, Greece is teetering on the brink of total economic meltdown, and nationwide strikes have shutdown large swaths of the public sector, yet no one is doing up-to-the-minute live blogging on that looming catastrophe. But if I had to put my money on a regime falling tomorrow, it would be Greece - not Iran.

And I understand why one is sexier than the other, but that's also why it becomes all the more imperative for knowledgeable people - academics, journalists, and policy wonks - to try their best to divorce emotions from the subject and relay what's going on with as much sobriety as possible.

Whatever happens today will not change the fact that Iran is changing. But how it's changing, and at what pace, is where people in-the-know must fill in the gaps.

[h/t Andrew Sullivan]

(AP Photo)

Understanding Iran's Bomb


Writing in the New Republic, Matthew Kroenig offers one of the sharper takes I've read on the strategic implications of an Iranian bomb and why those implications mitigate against Chinese and Russian cooperation with the U.S.:

The United States’ global power-projection capability provides Washington with a significant strategic advantage: It can protect, or threaten, Iran and any other country on the planet. An Iranian nuclear weapon, however, would greatly reduce the latitude of its armed forces in the Middle East. If the United States planned a military operation in the region, for example, and a nuclear-armed Iran objected that the operation threatened its vital interests, any U.S. president would be forced to rethink his decision....

Some analysts argue that we shouldn’t worry about proliferation in Iran because nuclear deterrence will work, much like it worked during the Cold War. But from Washington’s point of view, this is precisely the problem; it is more often than not the United States that will be deterred. Although Washington might not have immediate plans to use force in the Middle East, it would like to keep the option open.

This is, in a nutshell, the threat from Iran. Few people seriously believe Iran is going to use a nuclear weapon, but it is very reasonable to think that the strategic fallout from an Iranian bomb would be less American freedom of action in the Middle East. But is that conventional wisdom correct? Consider Pakistan. They have nuclear weapons and we nonetheless threatened them after 9/11 and invaded a neighboring country to depose a government Pakistan was allied with. Russia and China have nuclear weapons, but that has not stopped the U.S. from moving into Central Asia.

A nuclear weapon is certainly invaluable for saving your own skin (see North Korea), but it's not worth much to other countries unless you're willing to explicitly extend them the benefits of your nuclear deterrent, like the U.S. has done with some of its allies. Looking at the Middle East, there aren't too many likely recipients for an Iranian nuclear umbrella (and developing the capabilities to credibly offer one is extremely expensive). So about the best a nuclear bomb would do for Iran is prevent U.S. military action directly against them. (And consider too that the first Gulf War against Iraq saw the U.S. attack a country with WMD.)

In other words, it's likely that the U.S. would still be able to project power in the Middle East with an Iranian bomb. In fact, a nuclear Iran would almost certainly see a sharp increase in American power in the region (as we have already seen) as the U.S. moves to contain Iran.

But this just underscores the difficulty in enticing China and Russia to help: we can't tell them that a nuclear Iran is a threat to them, because it isn't. We can't say that a nuclear Iran would prevent their freedom of movement in the Middle East, because that's not something we want either. We can't tell them a nuclear Iran increases the prospect for regional instability, because from Russia's perspective, anything that puts pressure on oil prices is a good thing. We can't threaten military force because from Russia and China's perspective, the more we're bogged down policing the Mideast, the less we're paying attention to them.

Alireza Nader: Two Sides in a Historic Struggle


RAND Corp. international affairs analyst Alireza Nader recently coauthored a must-read report on Iran's internal power structure entitled Mullahs, Guards, and Bonyads: An Exploration of Iranian Leadership Dynamics. We spoke with Nader about Iran's leadership, and what its prospects for survival look like on the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. This interview has been edited for sake of length and clarity:

RCW: You argue alongside Trita Parsi this week that the Obama administration should target specific individuals in the regime for sanction. The administration appears to agree, as it just yesterday imposed sanctions against IRGC Gen. Rostam Qasemi. Is this a step in the right direction, or must these sanctions go further?

Nader: The new sanctions on the Rev. Guards are a step in the right direction, although additional senior members of the Guards will also have to be designated. However, additional sanctions are only one aspect of an effective U.S. strategy toward Iran, as outlined in the FP piece. Sanctions by themselves will of course not lead to a solution to the nuclear program.

Sanctions targeting individual Guards commanders involved in the nuclear program may increase pressure on the Iranian government without undermining the Iranian opposition, although it is difficult to judge whether these sanctions will be enough to change Iran's thinking on the nuclear program, which has become an issue of immense factional competition and national pride.

RCW: Many have compared today's Green Movement to the 1979 revolution. Do you agree? How are they similar, and how do they differ?

Nader: Both encompass broad sections of the Iranian population and cut across socio-economic classes. However, the Shah did not maintain much popular support toward the end of his reign, whereas the Islamic Republic (Khamenei et al.) is still supported by a significant segment of the elite and the Iranian population. Moreover, the Green Movement itself is divided, with [some] elements desiring a complete end to the Islamic Republic, as opposed to those seeking political and even religious reformation of the system.

RCW: How can the growing and evolving Green Movement factor into an already convoluted Iranian system down the road? Do you see an increasingly powerful IRGC ceding power to the reformers?

Nader: The June 2009 presidential election effectively pushed out a broad sector of the political elite, including reformists and pragmatic conservatives such as [Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani. The Islamic Republic has historically functioned as a system that represents various factional viewpoints; Khamenei's support for Ahmadienjad and the rise of the fringe right, especially within the Revolutionary Guards, have disturbed this system of factional politics. The vitality of the Green Movement has also led to discord within the conservative and "principlist" political groups that have traditionally supported Khamenei. Many of these elite may now view Khamenei and Ahmadinejad as having endangered the Islamic Republic.

RCW: Where does this leave the Green Movement? What's the endgame?

Nader: The two sides are locked in a historic struggle, but it is not clear which one will emerge victorious. Out of this struggle may emerge a more democratic Iranian government, or a militarized political system under the dominant control of the Revolutionary Guards.

(AP Photo)

President Ahmadinejad's Speech

I hope you've practiced your Farsi:

(h/t Enduring America)

Iranian Tautology

Pushed to its logical conclusion, the dove position is an irrefutable tautology: If we are willing to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon, and we should be, then we can have a grand bargain with Iran and we can put this matter behind us. Like the Ungame, we only need to focus on moving our pieces and listening to others. Provided we don't really care about "winning," then the game is really quite simple.

If you do care about winning, where winning is defined as "Iran abandons its nuclear weapons program," then the game is better viewed as multilateral chess -- strategic interaction along several vectors with multiple players holding conflicting interests. - Peter Feaver, Foreign Policy

The rest of Feaver's post goes on to describe how the U.S. should try to use the various conflicting pressure points to bring about the desired U.S. outcome but never actually gets around to addressing the central question: is war preferable to a nuclear Iran?

The Iran "doves" -to use Feaver's phrase - have concluded it is not. But where does Feaver stand?

Here is how he sees the threat of military force:

The challenge, therefore, is to convince the Russians and the Chinese that if they cooperate in imposing multilateral pressure on Iran, thus giving diplomacy a chance, they can help forestall a resort to force; but if they do not, they increase the likelihood of a U.S. (or an Israeli) resort to force. Hence the need to keep the military option on the table while also demonstrating a credible desire for a non-military solution. Structured this way, Russian and Chinese cooperation buy a peaceful resolution and Russian and Chinese free-riding hastens an undesirable military outcome

This sounds plausible enough, but there is a huge downside to this approach. Structured this way, it puts the U.S. on a sure-fire path to war with Iran or a humiliating climb-down. Surely Feaver can't believe that the administration should commit itself to a course of war with Iran if it does not, in fact, desire one? And this is the problem with the "Iran hawk" position: there is no credible way to threaten to use military force against Iran unless you are really willing to use military force against Iran.

And in this way, at least, the Iran "dove" position is intellectually coherent. They have concluded that a war with Iran is costlier than a nuclear Iran, and so can structure their policy accordingly. The hawks either believe that war is the lesser evil, or they have a naive faith that they can structure a too-clever-by-half means to convince Iran we're carrying a big stick when they actually have no intention of swinging it.

Hooman Majd: Iran's Reformers, Then and Now


Iranian-American writer and journalist Hooman Majd was gracious enough to talk with RealClearWorld today about the past, present and future of the Iranian reform movement. Majd - whose work has appeared in several publications, such as GQ, Newsweek, The New Yorker and the Financial Times - is author of the book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran. This interview was edited for sake of length and clarity:

RCW: You recently argued in the pages of Foreign Policy that the Iranian Green Movement is a civil rights movement rather than a revolutionary one. Keeping that in mind, what kind of concessions will the regime have to make in order to appease the Greens?

Majd: If we're talking about the leadership of the Green Movement, then I think the system would have to concede at least that political prisoners will be released (not necessarily those with proven ties to the MEK), that the next elections will be independently monitored (outside of the Guardian Council), and that political parties will be free to form and be active. The Green Movement now encompasses many groups and many individuals with varying demands, as both Mousavi and Karroubi have acknowledged, but I still believe that the majority of Green sympathizers (if not outright supporters) look to the leadership - which includes [former Iranian President Mohammad] Khatami and sometimes [former President Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani as well - to fight for reform rather than an overthrow of the system. Without these revolutionaries and loyal Iranian politicians, fringe groups have little hope of attracting the general population (which is religiously conservative) to their side, or even some of the security forces who may be disillusioned with the brutality of the crackdown on dissent. It's impossible to say whether the Supreme Leader will ever agree to concessions, but the good news is that some conservative loyalists believe he should. Hard-liners are pushing for a complete obliteration of the reform movement, but as long as conservatives such as [Tehran Mayor Mohammed-Baqer] Qalibaf and [Majlis Speaker Ali] Larijani still hold sway, there might be chance for some kind of compromise.

RCW: The word ‘paradox’ is often associated with Iran. For instance, there’s the Iran of the North Tehrani youth, and then there's the Iran of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For various reasons, the former has become the hero of the narrative, while the latter has become the villain. Do you think that’s fair? Who makes up Ahmadinejad's base?

Madj: I don't think it's fair. I think we see the hero/villain context only in the West, whereas in Iran it's not quite so simple. Ahmadinejad (and his ilk) still have considerable support - perhaps not a majority of the population - among the working class and outside of the big cities. He is not a villain to those who believe him to be an incorruptible and regular guy; one of them who understands their problems. There is a tremendous amount of resentment towards some of the old guard of the revolution, such as Rafsanjani, who are perceived to have enriched themselves and have engaged in nepotism. To some Ahmadinejad represents a break from the corruption of the past. He has also not been particularly vocal - as the Revolutionary Guards and some hard-line clerics have been - in denouncing protesters. He often says he is unhappy people are in jail and that "we are all Iranians," which plays well amongst his supporters who may not be supportive of the brutality of the crackdown. There is no doubt, of course, that the middle and upper-class youth who are protesting and getting arrested, beaten or killed are heroes to their peers and to Iranians outside Iran, but I'm not sure that Iranians in general, inside Iran, are viewing the issue in those terms. Society has become more polarized, and within families even there are those who support the Green Movement and those who support Ahmadinejad.

RCW: You're related to former President Khatami. How does this reform movement differ from the reform movement that coalesced around Mr. Khatami in the late 1990’s?

Majd: In 1997 the very idea of reform was new, and there was suddenly a hope - much like there was in the U.S. in 2008 with Obama - that there might be real change in Iran. There was change, of course, but probably not enough for many Iranians who became disillusioned with the political system, particularly after the student protests of 1999. Those Iranians essentially stopped participating in the political process, which is why turnout for the presidential election in 2005 was twenty points lower than in 2009. I witnessed the hope again last year, as we got close to the election, and I think this time people somehow sensed that the reform movement was going to be on their side all the way, that it wouldn't back down in the face of hard-liners threats, and that change was again possible (of course that may be why the conservative hard-liners couldn't abide a Mousavi or Karroubi win). It was for this reason, I believe, that people came out onto the streets in June in the numbers they did. Since then, the reform movement has morphed somewhat, and as a civil rights movement rather than just a group of political parties, is unlikely to give up on its goal or be silenced. It may take some time, but it seems to me that the basic demands for reform will eventually have to be met, whereas in the Khatami era, it didn't seem as though anyone was going to fight - or have the ability to fight - to ensure that change would come in the Islamic republic.

RCW: What might a deal or power sharing arrangement look like, if one can be reached between the factions?

Majd: There are all kinds of rumors, none of which can be confirmed. But I expect that any compromise won't really involve power sharing so much, but a more open atmosphere for the opposition to operate. It may be that a few of Ahmadinejad's ministers might be replaced (such as [Iranian FM Manouchehr] Mottaki), or that [Iranian nuclear negotiator] Saeed Jalili is replaced with someone less ideological, but it is unlikely that Ahmadinejad would agree to real power-sharing. It is also possible that the Expediency Council could be given greater oversight (it was given more in 2005, but hasn't been able to exercise power over Ahmadinejad). Rafsanjani, Rezai, and even Mousavi are members of the Expediency Council, and if that body became more active in exercising control over the government and its ministries, that might a potential compromise for the reformists. I don't think anyone believes that compromise will look like anything that might show the regime to be weak; it will have to be subtle for the Supreme Leader to even consider it.

February 10, 2010

Greece's Bailout Plea

Greece, as you likely know, is in some deep trouble financially. Now, they want a bailout from the EU:

“We feel humiliated and we understand that things cannot remain the same as they were before,” said Vasiliki Revithi, 56, a biochemist at the National Organization for Medicines, noting that a monthly cut of about $950 to her salary would mean no new car and cheaper makeup. “But we gave the world democracy, and we expect the European Union to support us.”

Certainly a creative pitch, if nothing else.

Paris Activists Paint Iran Embassy Green

[Hat tip: RFL/RE]

Reform vs. Revolution in Iran


Ervand Abrahamian explains why the unrest in Iran falls short of a full revolution:

"The shah had very little legitimacy -- he was brought to power by a foreign-inspired coup," he added, noting that Pahlavi was restored to power after a coup led by Britain and the United States ousted nationalistic Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. The shah had previously fled Iran after Mossadegh and his supporters challenged Pahlavi's control.

"The present regime, even though it lost a lot of legitimacy with the irregularities of the election and the refusal of allowing the public to express itself -- that aura of legitimacy is still there."

Abbas Milani makes a more macabre observation:

Today's opposition leaders are "nominal leaders, put there by the people -- but none of them are willing to risk people's lives," said Milani. "If Moussavi was as reckless with people's lives as Khomeini, he could have challenged this regime much more."

I honestly don't know what tomorrow's anniversary of the Islamic Revolution is going to look like. My fear isn't so much that the Green Movement won't show; I trust that they will. But the combination of large crowds of anti-government protesters and pro-government loyalists, Basijis and thugs is a recipe for something far worse. Reza Aslan explains:

the regime has promised to organize its own “counterdemonstrations,” busing in supporters from distant rural villages to take on the protesters. It will be the first time that pro- and anti-government demonstrations will be going head-to-head since last summer. With neither side backing down, there is every reason to expect a violent clash. Whether that could augur a civil war in the country remains to be seen.

Thus the difference between revolution and reform movement may simply come down to the numbers. Many are quick to forget that the 1979 revolution - along with demonstrations numbering in the millions - was accompanied by general strikes across the country, including the crucial oil industry. The revolutionaries declared economic warfare on Pahlavi, and they had the numbers and the will to back it up.

The Greens may yet, or they may just be an incremental reform movement - both are praise worthy, however each holds different policy implications for Washington.

(AP Photo)

Hanson vs. Bacevich

A few weeks ago Andrew Bacevich wrote a piece for the American Conservative arguing that the U.S. hasn't had a stellar track record when it comes to winning wars since 1945. Today in the National Review, Victor Davis Hanson argues that, to the contrary, the U.S. has succeeded in winning the same wars Bacevich dubbed defeats and is in fact winning the war on terrorism. You can read both and decide which is the more persuasive take, but I part company with Hanson as he edges toward drawing parallels with contemporary experience:

In other words, while particular wars in any age may not end in victory or defeat for either side, the concept of such finality is very much possible for either, given their shared human nature. In short, if a war is stalemated, it is usually because both sides, wisely or stupidly, come to believe victory is not worth the commensurate costs in blood and treasure — not because victory itself is an anachronism.

Hanson believes our goals are sufficiently modest that we can win in Iraq and Afghanistan:

In the latter two instances, we are fighting second wars in which victory is defined as ensuring the survival of successive consensual systems under the countries’ elected governments.

So far, we are winning both. Victory is definable: when these states are able to stay autonomous largely through their own efforts — with the understanding that Europe, for 65 years, and South Korea, for 60, have both required American military support to ensure their independence.

There are a few things wrong with this assertion. The first is that the goal of sustaining consensual governments is ancillary to the core purpose of both wars: which is to safeguard the U.S. from acts of Islamic terrorism. If we "won" by Hanson's definition in either country, but suffered further assaults from terrorists based elsewhere or saw no significant diminution of the terrorist threat worldwide, it would be difficult to justify the enormous expenditures in either theater. (Hanson later says as much.)

But notice what else is wrong here. In both the cases of South Korea and Europe, the U.S. role was to provide defense against external enemies, not internal ones. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. is laboring to defend countries from mostly indigenous insurgencies, not external, nation state enemies. That transforms the role the U.S. is expected to play in both countries significantly. Given this difference, the lessons from past conventional wars don't offer much guidance. And you can see how it leads one astray:

That there was no visible German opposition to Hitler in 1939 and no visible support for him in April 1945 was due both to overwhelming Allied power and to the knowledge that a magnanimous reconstruction was possible. That we will be unmerciful to radical Islam and quite benevolent to those who reject it — that is the proper message.

The U.S. and its allies killed an estimated 6-to-8 million Germans (of which perhaps as many as 2 million were civilians) and completely, purposefully devastated entire cities in a campaign of total war to break the will of the German state. I would love to know why Hanson thinks this is a proper prescription for "radical Islam" which consists of scattered cells of terrorists throughout the globe, in possession of no country to speak of (except Iran, only we're not at war with Iran and not even those commentators who think we are at war with Iran wouldn't - I hope - advocate the wholesale slaughter of Iranian civilians to collapse the regime). We can indeed be "unmerciful" toward these terror cells, killing them wherever we find them, but that is only one element in a successful strategy.

Consider what has just occurred in Pakistan over the past few months. In August, the U.S. killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud. A few weeks ago, we killed his successor. Now the AP reports that there's a mad scramble among the Pakastani Taliban as people vie to take his place.

I don't know about you, but if my previous bosses kept getting whacked, angling for the job wouldn't be a top priority, and yet there is no apparently no shortage of people who want the job. (Ditto Hamas, which, while not as visible after Israeli assassinations still manages to fill its leadership ranks.) I think it's necessary to kill these people, but it's not sufficient, as insurgencies are fueled by a number of factors and overwhelming military force isn't enough to bring them to heel. And it would be positively insane and counter-productive to embrace a "total war" ethos with respect to an insurgency (especially a global one).

UPDATE: To see what metrics would be appropriate in judging a counter-insurgency see Tom Ricks and David Kilcullen.

February 9, 2010

Video of the Day

It seems as though Iran really enjoys stirring up trouble with the west:

For those who are not familiar, 20% enriched uranium is called Highly Enriched Uranium, and is a higher grade that what you find just lying around, or than what is commonly used for experiments at universities and so forth. It is still well short of the 90% enriched uranium necessary for weapons, but getting to 20% is the hard part. Once a country can create HEU, it is a relatively small step to weapons grade. For a reference on uranium enrichment, check out the Federation of American Scientists page on enrichment.

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

U.S Losing Ground in Defense?

Homeland Security News Wire reports that the U.S. global dominance of the defense industry is eroding, with Russia and China encroaching on formerly assured markets, while South Korea, Australia, Pakistan, and India will emerge as strong competitors in the industry. This worrying overview was featured today on UPI.com.

According to the industry study, Russia, China and other nations are making inroads into the defense industry that is currently dominated by the United States, and the defense industry will be reshaped by 2020 "as both Russia and China encroach on formerly assured markets,” the consulting firm said in a statement. South Korea, Australia, Pakistan and India, according to the study, will emerge as strong competitors in the industry “and challenge the established producers from the West.”

“The defense trade relationships of the past two decades were very much shaped along Cold War lines. Those certainties are evaporating,” said Guy Anderson, editor of Jane’s Industry Quarterly. While Russia moved into the market in part by using “sovereign debt forgiveness” as a bargaining chip, “most importantly, there is a willingness (on Russia’s part) to use arms sales … to secure access to energy fields around the world,” Anderson said.

Established arms exporters deal with other hurdles. “Western firms," Anderson gos on to argue, "in many cases find themselves hampered by the presence of arms embargoes … the need to align the strategic objectives of national government with the wishes of shareholders.”

Chinese Military Destroying Chinese Economy?

China and the U.S. have a very special relationship based around the tremendous debt that the Chinese hold from the United States. Apparently, the PLA believes that gives them leverage. Reuters reports:

Senior Chinese military officers have proposed that their country boost defense spending, adjust PLA deployments, and possibly sell some US bonds to punish Washington for its latest round of arms sales to Taiwan.

The calls for broad retaliation over the planned US weapons sales to the disputed island came from officers at China's National Defence University and Academy of Military Sciences, interviewed by Outlook Weekly, a Chinese-language magazine published by the official Xinhua news agency.

This would definitely be bad for China. Much of the Chinese economy is based upon a low labor price which allows export prices to remain artificially low vis-á-vis the U.S. If the Chinese were to sell off a large portion of American debt, they would put pressure on their own currency. Moreover, while the sudden increase in U.S. securities on the market might make securing new US debt expensive, ultimately the change in the currency rates might encourage a re-balancing of the trade balance, which ultimately benefits the United States.

All this might be immaterial, insofar as the Chinese seem to realize this, even if the PLA doesn't.

Al-Qaeda, Yemen

An unfortunate name for one village in Yemen.

World More Approving of U.S. Leadership

Some more polling from Gallup, this one on world views on U.S. leadership:


See here for the full results. The big gains come in Europe and the largest swings in approval come in Asia. Gallup's Queue blog has more as well.

The Geopolitical Fallout from Ukraine

Walter Russell Mead takes stock of the post-election landscape:

The eclipse of the US project (based on NATO expansion that is no longer realistic) and the EU project (based on expansion) leaves the Russian project of re-integrating the Soviet space looking better, and there is hope in Moscow and fear elsewhere that the Empire of the Czars is once more on the march. It’s more of a lurch than a march; even with its oil and gas wealth, Russia isn’t rich enough to build a new empire where the czars and the commissars ruled. Russia’s influence in Ukraine will surely grow now, more because of commercial relations and deals as because of geopolitical power. But even if EU membership is a long way away, Europe is a much more attractive market than Russia and Ukraine’s new government is not going to give up the hope that trade with Europe can promote Ukraine’s recovery and growth.

And, from a US standpoint, there is not much that Russia can do in Ukraine that seriously threatens American security or vital interests. A Russian military takeover of all or part of Ukraine (Crimea is the most likely target) would not threaten the balance of power in Europe and, by forcefully reminding countries like Poland how much they need that NATO umbrella, would probably drive Europe as a whole toward a closer relationship with the US. Despite its new feistiness under Putin, Russia remains a country in decline. It’s population is declining; it’s economy isn’t gaining ground; and its relative position compared to the Chinese superpower in the east is getting dramatically worse. In the next few years Russia is much more likely to be worried about growing Chinese influence in Central Asia and the continuing Islamic insurgencies in the Caucasus than it will be busy plotting the entrance of its tanks into Kiev.

I think Mead identifies the important point, which is that we need to distinguish between Russian actions that we disapprove of (exerting influence beyond her borders) and Russian actions which pose a real threat to the security or economic well being of the United States. One of the dangers with the pursuit of global (or even just Eurasian) hegemony is that it is impossible for many people to actually make such a distinction, with the end result being that anything that offends our sensibilities is a wrong we must address or suffer a devastating loss of face.

Poll: Obama's Handling of Foreign Affairs

Gallup's Frank Newport sees a slight uptick:


When it comes to specific issues such as Iraq, terrorism and Afghanistan, the public is basically split. The one issue where there seems to be a clear sentiment is the president's handling of Iran, where 50% disapprove and 42% approve.

U.S., UK Views on the Iraq War

As Britain's Chilcot Inquiry examines the country's participation in the Iraq war, Angus Reid surveyed opinion on both sides of the Atlantic on the conflict (full results here, pdf). Some of the key findings:

62% of Britons and 48% of Americans think the U.S. government made a mistake in launching military action against Iraq in 2003

55% of Britons and 69% of Americans think removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right thing to do, even if his regime did not possess weapons of mass destruction

One-in-four Britons (24%) believe that the world will look back on the war in Iraq in twenty years and brand it as a defeat for the U.S. and its allies, while 11 per cent claim it will be regarded as a victory. Americans are almost evenly divided in their assessment (18% defeat, 19% victory).

Another interesting finding is people's recollection of where they stood on the war when it began. Angus Reid asked if they supported the war at the time and found that on net, a majority of Americans now claim they were opposed to the war. That certainly doesn't jibe with how I recall public sentiment at the time.

The poll also found that while Americans claim that it was right to remove Saddam Hussein from power, 48 % of respondents told pollsters the war was a mistake vs. 35 % who thought it was not. That seems just a bit contradictory to me.

February 8, 2010

DADT and the GWAT

Danny Kaplan, writing on Israeli policy in the pages of Foreign Policy, is puzzled by the American debate over gays in the military:

In Israel, military authorities have kept gay enlistment a minor concern by sticking to a minimal strategy: officially acknowledge the full participation of gays and at the same time ignore them as a group that may require special needs. Gay soldiers do not receive, and do not expect to receive, any special treatment in combat settings. It is simply a non-issue. If the U.S. government will adopt a similar course, it could enjoy not only a more liberal military, but also, perhaps, a more combat-effective one where the focus is on defeating the enemy rather than questioning fellow soldiers.

At a time when Americans are attempting to lead a campaign against terror and foreign dictatorships in the name of democracy, they should be more apprehensive of what is happening in their own military backyard.

I'd rather leave the domestic components of this debate to the Politics side of things, but I can't help but feel that DADT proponents are missing a great opportunity to accentuate the values Americans are fighting for in the so-called Global War Against Terrorism. If such a war does exist on a global scale, and it's indeed a societal conflict, what then does a stated policy of hiding gay servicemen and women say to our enemies about the sincerity of Western values? If radical Islamists advocate the torture of homosexuals in public squares, what then is the Western response?

Does Mating Competition Drive China's Savings Rate?

By Patrick Chovanec

Here’s a thought for Valentine’s Day:

Wei Shangjin, a professor at Columbia Business School, proposes an intriguing new theory in Forbes to account for why the Chinese save so much. Conventional explanations of China’s high savings rate focus on high out-of-pocket expenses for health care and education, the absence of a social safety net, and an undervalued currency that makes exports cheap and imports expensive. But in Wei’s view, it all boils down to sex — the gender ratio, that is, and the competition it causes in the marriage market.

In China today, he notes, there are 122 baby boys born for every 100 girls. Given China’s one-child policy, most Chinese parents, especially in low-income rural areas, have a strong preference for having a boy to carry on the family line (in my own observation, residents of high-income cities like Beijing, in contrast, seem to actually prefer girls). Even though it’s technically illegal under Chinese law to tell an expecting couple the sex of a fetus (for precisely this reason), many find out anyway and will abort a girl in order to try again for a boy. The result is a lopsided demographic with a lot more boys than girls.

China’s one-child policy was instituted in 1979, so that means there’s been plenty of time for those baby boys and girls to grow up and start looking for mates. And when they pair off, there aren’t enough girls to go around. According to the numbers, one out of every five young men will be unable to find a partner. Which means, if you don’t want to end up the lonely heart, you better have a plan to impress the ladies. For families with boys, Wei believes, that means saving up to buy housing and other accoutrements of wealth that will help attract a mate (in fact, in some parts of China, bachelors and their parents have resorted to forking over a cash “bride price” that can go as high as US$5,000, a payment that represents several years’ income for a farming family. The lucrative practice has given rise to organized scams involving “runaway brides” who take the money and disappear. For a rather eye-opening read on this topic, check out this recent Wall Street Journal article).

Wei’s theory, that mating competition drives high savings rates in China, is an interesting notion, one he tries to back up with hard data. He reports:

In our study we compared savings data across regions and in households with sons versus those with daughters. We found that not only did households with sons save more than households with daughters on average but also that households with sons tend to raise their savings rate if they happen to live in a region with a more skewed sex ratio.

Even those not competing in the marriage market must compete to buy housing and make other significant purchases, pushing up the savings rate for all households.

The effect is significant. The household savings rate in China rose from about 16% of disposable income in 1990 to over 30% today, which is much higher than most countries. (The comparable rate in the U.S. was about 3% before the crisis, and 6% in recent months.) About half of the increase in the savings rate of the last 25 years can be attributed to the rise in the sex ratio imbalance.

When I read Wei’s article, it immediately called to mind a joke one of my Chinese students told me. My wife and I had just had our first child — a boy — this past October, and he was quick to congratulate me on this, for most Chinese, highly enviable outcome. I remarked, though, that my wife’s parents would actually have preferred a girl. He said that this was a common attitude in Beijing, unlike the rest of the country. A boy, he said, is like China Construction Bank. You must save and save in order to afford and buy a house. A girl, on the other hand, is like CITIC (China’s first financial institution set up to raise foreign investment) because she will bring in money from outside. It’s a very Chinese analogy — I didn’t quite get it at first — but it captures an outlook that would seem to back up Wei’s theory.

Demographics certainly have a big impact on saving and spending patterns, but the usual focus is on age, not sex. I don’t know whether Wei’s theory is correct — I still think saving to pay for out-of-pocket health care is a key factor — but it certainly presents food for thought. If it is true, even in part, it suggests that the Chinese preference to save rather than spend may go far deeper, and prove far less tractable, than many economists believe.

(In any event, China has certainly come a long way from 1973, when Mao allegedly made Kissinger a bizarre offer to send 10 million “excess” Chinese women to the United States. Don’t take my word for it, check out the BBC and AFP).

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

Video of the Day

It looks like Sherman was right:

It is apparent to me that Al Jazeera is attempting to paint the U.S. in a negative light with this video. While U.S. soldiers are in vehicles, who do you suppose delivered (and secured) those supplies? Nevertheless, this video highlights the Catch-22 that many Afghans feel they are in now.

For more videos on issues around the world, check out the Real Clear World Video page.

Iran's Iconoclast Obsession

A video snippet from last week's panel hearing before the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia offers us some interesting insights on what an internal compromise could look like in Iran:

The exchange between Rep. Fortenberry (R-NE) and the panel experts (which included, among others, WINEP Senior Fellow Mehdi Khalaji) is a valuable one, but we get to brass tacks around the 3:50 mark, when Fariborz Ghadar outlines what a power-sharing deal may entail. Those items, in short, are:

- A Reduction of the Supreme Leader's power.

- More opposition members in the Majlis.

- Ayatollah Rafsanjani assuming more power and serving a more "active" role as mediator.

While I do believe such a hypothetical compromise would require fewer ballot restrictions, I find the other two items rather unlikely. For one, Rafsanjani is already serving as a governmental mediator on the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts. Unless a compromise were to somehow grant more authority to those bodies, I simply don't see how he could be any more of a balancing figure in the already inefficient and dysfunctional Iranian government. Plus, Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad, to my knowledge, despise each other. You can't really be a mediator if you can't stand to be in the same room as those you're attempting to temper.

Truth is, the Iranian government has been trying to figure out a way to streamline its decision making for years now. The solutions tend to be what we in the West call 'Big Government' ones; if one government institution isn't working, just create another one! The result is a layer cake of councils, committees, assemblies and so on which overlap and obstruct the other like the design of a plaid sweater. The system is a check upon a check upon a check, with everyone stalemating each other into irrelevance.

The other problem, perhaps needless to say, is Ahmadinejad himself. He is the crux of the Green Movement's ire; the tie that binds. Anything that might validate his authority and position will likely be deemed unacceptable by the opposition.

There is, however, a way to neuter the presidency, and that's by strengthening - and diversifying - the Majlis, or parliament. Khamenei could do this by weakening or calling for a national ballot initiative on the Guardian Council. Weaken or eliminate that body altogether, and the Majlis could become more diverse and serve as a true check against the president, the supreme leader and, perhaps, the IRGC. This would by default strengthen the position of speaker, making yet another perfunctory executive role for Rafsanjani or whomever unnecessary. Again, Iran's problem isn't a dearth of deliberation, but its gluttonous surplus of it.

It may better serve the Green Movement to distance itself from Mousavi et al. and become a faceless movement, but targeting various executives for national ills only further panders to the notion that everything will improve if only so-and-so were deposed, or if so-and-so had won the presidency. The country's history is a connect-the-dots of iconoclasts: Pahlavi, Mosaddegh, another Pahlavi, Khomeini, Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and so on. We are all guilty at times of viewing history (and progress, for that matter) through the lives and actions of the individual. Iran's time line is no different. But a focus on legislative reform could set Iran on a wiser path toward more thorough constitutional reform, and hopefully a freer and more democratic society.

(h/t K-Lo)

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished (Haiti Edition)


One would think that, whatever your views on various U.S. military interventions abroad, saving people from a major disaster would be fairly uncontroversial. You would be wrong:

It seems very clear that the US government is controlling Haiti to ensure that its own interests are paramount in the rebuilding process.

That's from Mike Gonzalez, writing in the Guardian. And what interests would those be? Apparently it's getting Haitians back to work:

The coup in Honduras, the recent agreement on extending military bases in Colombia and now Haiti recall Obama's concern, expressed during the election campaign, that "we are losing Latin America". It also interlocks very conveniently with US economic interests in the region and in Haiti in particular. Food and water may be scarce, but some of the factories in the so-called export processing zones, where Haitians labour in sweatshop conditions, have managed to get their machines working again. Yet there is still no electricity in the areas where people are surviving in makeshift camps or under plastic sheeting in the streets.

Much better for Haitians not to work, I suppose. Alex Massie finishes Gonzalez off.

(AP Photo)

Ukraine Election, Reaction


If the results of Ukraine's election hold, it appears that Viktor Yanukovych will be the next President.

Here's a look at some international reaction:

Adrian Karatnycky:

Indeed, the signals emanating from Mr. Yanukovych's closest aides, as well as key leaders from the Our Ukraine coalition with whom I met last week in Kyiv, suggest the new president and the government he will try to bring into office will likely represent a broad-based mix of longtime Regions party officials, and competent financial and economic technocrats and market reformers—including some from the former Yushchenko team. For instance, there is a good chance that banker Serhiy Tyhypko, who finished a strong third in the presidential race, will be offered the prime minister's post rather than Mr. Yanukovych's longtime ally and campaign director, Mykola Azarov, who is also under serious consideration. The odds of a broad-based coalition are reinforced by the modesty of Mr. Yanukovych's victory, clear-cut though it was.

All this means that, should the political coalition under discussion take root, Ukraine will at last achieve an interval of political stability and economic policy consensus. Ironically, that means Mr. Yanukovych's presidency may move further toward fulfilling the promises of the Orange Revolution than the fractious rule of Yushchenko-Tymoshenko ever did.

The Economist:

Moscow is likely to celebrate a victory for Mr Yanukovitch as a belated vindication of Mr Putin’s backing five years ago and as a victory over the West. In fact, Mr Yanukovich is sympathetic to large industrial groups and will guard their business interests more zealously than Ms Tymoshenko may have done. The relationship with the Kremlin will improve, but none of Ukraine’s mainstream politicians or tycoons sees any future in a political or economic union with Russia.

In any event, this election was not about geopolitics but about Ukraine’s own governance and economy. The choice of Mr Yanukovich as president would be neither a disaster nor a breakthrough for Ukraine’s oligarchic political system. He would inherit a country with weak institutions, a struggling economy and a disillusioned population. He may not be able to deal with those. But at this stage it is less important than having a clear winner.

Colin Graham:

A particularly tiresome event has occurred again and again ever since the Berlin wall came down. Leaders feted by the west as representing a radical fresh outlook for their post-communist, eastern European countries have generally turned out to be little different to their predecessors. In 2004, it was often conveniently forgotten that Yushchenko had at one stage been an integral part of the political establishment he was then seemingly trying to oust. The departing president at the time was the much-denounced Leonid Kuchma who had appointed Yushchenko as his prime minister five years before the "orange revolution".

Andrew Wilson:

By the end of the day, almost all the votes should be in. Turnout didn't quite reach over 70% - it is estimated at 69.1%, which was only 2.4% up on round one, and therefore another disappointment for Tymoshenko.

This means that the temptation to contest the outcome is still there, but depends on finding convincing evidence of significant fraud. The vote ‘against all' is confirmed at 4.4% and invalid or spoiled ballots at 1.2%. The abstainers did more than apparently defeat Tymoshenko; if Yanukovych wins it will be with less than 50% of the vote - which will be a less than ringing endorsement of his new presidency.

Benjamin Bidder:

Once again, it looks as though Ukraine is headed for political stalemate. For years, the country has been divided between those, like Tymoshenko, who would maneuver the country toward the European Union and NATO, and those like Yanukovych who prefer a more cautious approach to the West. Sunday's election did little to resolve the tension -- and a court case could inject even more bitterness into the rivalry.

(AP Photo)

Iran Demonstrates the Limits of Smart Power


Shortly after Secretary Clinton appeared on CNN hailing the virtues of smart power, Iran announced it was going to enrich more Uranium. Said Clinton:

But the fact is, because we engaged, the rest of the world has really begun to see Iran the way we see it. When we started last year talking about the threats that Iran’s nuclear program posed, Russia and other countries said, well, we don’t see it that way. But through very slow and steady diplomacy, plus the fact that we had a two-track process – yes, we reached out on engagement to Iran, but we always had the second track, which is that we would have to try to get the world community to take stronger measures if they didn’t respond on the engagement front.

The basic trouble for the Obama administration with respect to Iran and engagement is that the time tables aren't synced. If engagement is expected to change Iranian behavior, it must do so over the long term. Depending on which estimate you believe, Iran may achieve its nuclear goals in the short-to-medium term.

If we assume that Iran is essentially hell bent on some nuclear weapons capability (a functional weapon or the ability to quickly assemble one) than engagement is probably not going to stop them. Sanctions may not either, because again, Iran may be close enough to its nuclear goals that it can outlast the pinch of sanctions (but Iran may also be much further away than we assume). Nor is it at all clear, despite what Secretary Clinton asserted, that the U.S. has convinced other countries to view Iran the way do. China has just openly rebuffed (again) American calls for sanctions and it remains to be seen whether Russia will ultimately opt for them (especially since China gives them cover).

But the real trouble for the Obama administration is that it has set its goal as an Iran without nuclear weapons. Affirming this goal is obviously essential for diplomacy or sanctions to have any chance of working, but you can see how it boxes the administration into a corner. If their preferred tactics fail, they will either be left with a humiliating climb-down as Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, or be forced to take military action, with all of its attendant consequences.

(AP Photo)

What Matters with China?


The subject of U.S.-China ties is hot now and no wonder, with so many divisive issues on the agenda. The question is, which issues should matter to the U.S. and which ones should we let slide? Max Boot offers his cheat-sheet:

That doesn’t mean we should engage in needless and self-destructive confrontations with China over global warming and currency, but that also doesn’t mean we should mindlessly kowtow to China’s every whim. As I argued in this Weekly Standard article in 2005, we should pursue a balanced approach to China, tough on security and human-rights issues but accommodating on trade and currency policy.

The interesting thing to note about Boot's preferences is that his points of emphasis (human rights and security) are the matters that don't actually impact American lives, while the things he wants to let slide (especially currency) are Chinese policies that do have a good deal of impact on the lives of Americans. China's human rights record is an internal matter, whereas her currency valuation is an international matter of fairly large significance for the U.S. economy. Why, I wonder, does one trump the other?

(AP Photo)

Can America Learn from the Byzantine Empire?

James Rubin, a former Assistant Secretary of State in the Bush administration, writes in the New Republic:

Ironically, the net effect of the Bush years may have not only been structural economic damage caused by an unexpected explosion of trillions of dollars of debt due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and attendant military spending, but also the damage done to perceptions of American military superiority caused by the difficulties in achieving victory in Iraq, not to mention the very real strains on the military services. In short, American dominance is a lot harder to envisage after the Bush administration than it was before President Bush took office—a time when France’s foreign minister was describing the United States as the world’s “hyperpower.”

While I would quibble with the notion that our ballooning debt was "unexpected" (what else do you expect when you cut taxes, expand entitlements and wage war in two countries?) I think Rubin's point is spot-on. In their zeal to use and demonstrate American power, the Bush administration ultimately wound up exposing its limits and doing serious, objective damage to American power. By every measure - economic, military, geopolitical - America was a weaker country in January 2009 than it was in January 2000.

And this is what is ultimately distracting about the debate over "American decline." Those who seem to take the most umbrage at the concept are the ones who would likely champion the very policies that would continue to accelerate America's decline. And while there are no doubt critics who relish the thought of American decline, or who advocate simply accepting its inevitability, others are using the loss of American power as a sign that a course-correction is needed to put the U.S. on a more sustainable path to retaining great power status.

And here's where the U.S. might learn from the Byzantine Empire. Strategist Edward Luttwak, who wrote the Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, argues that their template for preserving great power has a lot to recommend it. He expands on the concept at length here:

One striking point that Luttwak makes (at around the 44:30 minute mark) was that the rulers of the Byzantine Empire took the view that they were preserving the strength of their system for centuries against all rivals. They avoided burning themselves out fighting war after war to destroy enemies and instead sought to use containment and deft diplomacy to manage their many enemies. And they succeeded, in Luttwak's view, in creating the longest running empire in the history of the world.

Obviously, we live in a different world, but the basic guiding principles that Luttwak elucidates in a short piece in Foreign Policy, still strike me as reasonable.

Georgia Hires Gephardt

Republic of Georgia continues to spend big money on lobbying for its interests in the United States. The Hill reported that the small Caucasus country has signed former House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) to lobby for her in Washington. Gephardt Group Government Affairs signed a one-year contract worth more than $430,000 to represent Georgia. Gephardt, the former Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, heads the group. The firm will “provide lobbying and government relations services to Georgia,” according to the contract filed with the Justice Department.

According to The Hill, "Gephardt’s ties to Democrats and the Obama administration could be helpful to the Georgian government, which wants U.S. support for its effort to join NATO and U.S. support against Russia. The two countries fought a short war in 2008." Georgia is also hedging its bets with both political parties, and in November 2009, the country’s national security council signed Orion Strategies to a three-month, $10,000 contract. Orion is run by Randy Scheunemann, a foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign.

The question remains on the effectiveness of such lobbying by Georgia. American interests in the former Soviet Union walk the fine line between cordial and friendly relations with Russia and support for small, vulnerable states like Georgia - especially if they present geopolitical advantages in the form of pipeline routes or proximity to areas of intense interest to Washington (Middle East, Iran, Iraq, etc.).

For Georgia, which offers small-scale assistance to the U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, membership in NATO is a major policy goal as a way to break free of Russian influence. For its part, Russia considers such NATO expansion as a threat to the state and voices strong opposition to the expansion of the Western alliance that will include countries in Moscow's "traditional sphere of influence." Gephardt's group is not the first firm retained by Georgia since the 2008 war with Moscow - and it probably won't be the last if not enough progress is made on the NATO issue, for example.

Ultimately, such lobbying efforts boil down to a zero-sum game against Russia's interests - and while the United States has been able to maintain its influence in the Caucasus, it has also tried hard to keep its relationship with Moscow on the level. So the question is - which lobbying firm will get Georgia's contract next year? The field is wide open at this point.

Russia to NATO: We Want to Tango, Not Lambada

Russian political establishment continues to criticize NATO's current stance and views NATO's possible eastward movement with concern. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen believes that the new Military Doctrine of Russia, in which the expansion of NATO to the East is cited as a threat, does not reflect the reality, and "is a contradiction to our attempts at improving our relations."

However, Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of Russian Security Council, responded that while Russia was not going to attack anyone, it wasn't going to fully renounce nuclear weapons either. For his part, Dmitry Rogozin, Russian Permanent Representative to NATO said: "NATO says that in a true partnership, it takes two to tango. And here it turns out that while we offer to dance tango, we are offered to dance lambada."

Earlier this Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking at the Munich security conference, presented his country's concept of the Treaty on European Security. At that time, Lavrov stressed that Russia still considers as unacceptable the expansion of NATO to the east.

Moscow does not understand "how the NATO base, located in the newly adopted countries - members of the alliance, could strengthen Russia's security. "How, for example, NATO forces in the Black Sea will enhance our security?" questioned Lavrov.

Secretary Patrushev, in commenting on the new doctrine on Saturday, stated that the military concepts laid out by the Russian government allow his country to defend itself by all available means - including nuclear weapons, which are a means to deter potential adversaries. "We do not intend to attack anyone! But if Russia's existence as a state is questioned under threat of an attack, then, of course, we have no choice. We will conduct a peaceful policy, but at the same time, we will defend our national interests and will defend ourselves by any means at our disposal."

Patrushev also hinted that Russia will not wait until a strike is launched against her. "In view of the weapons that are now available to some countries, we will not be able to respond with a retaliatory strike. So, naturally, we will work hard to get information about any plans against Russia, and, naturally, we will work to ensure that no strike is carried out against my country."

February 7, 2010

Nuclear Weapons = Not Safe

Think U.S. nuclear weapons are secure? Think again:

[Hat tip: Kelsey Hartigan]

Palin on Iran

Governor Palin certainly isn't the first to suggest a strike on Iran, so that's not really news. But there's a puzzling flippancy in the governor's foreign policy rhetoric that I think deserves some more nuanced attention.

I think - and hope - the governor will expand upon her foreign policy vision in the coming weeks and months, especially if she's truly considering a presidential bid in 2012.

(h/t Think Progress)

February 5, 2010

Russia's Fifth-Generation Fighter Jet Finally Takes Off

On Jan. 29, Russia officially tested its fifth-generation fighter plane - T-50 PAK FA. The video of the flight shows that the aircraft bears a strong resemblance to the American F-22 stealth aircraft. Russian official sources stated that it would take additional 4 to 5 years to finally test the plane before it would be in service by the country's air force.

Alexander Golts of Russia's "Yezhedenvniy Zhurnal" offers a stinging critique of what appears to be Moscow's slow path towards high-tech air force parity with the United States.

Meanwhile, Russia does not seem to have any luck trying to get its domestically-produced UAV's off the ground - its new plane, dubbed "Aist" - Flying Crane - could not take off properly during its flight test and crashed. "Aist" was supposed to be the base model for the creation of "Julia-E" UAV that would have provided data and information to the "Iskander" missile complex. At this point, any further development of the military "Julia" UAV is postponed indefinitely.

The article nostalgically points out that "30 years ago, USSR was an undisputed global UAV leader, having produced almost 1,000 Tu-143 "Reis" UAVs between 1972 and 1989."

Russia Cites NATO as Its Biggest Threat

On Feb. 5, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made public his country's new military doctrine, where NATO is listed as the chief adversary. The doctrine cites growing proximity of NATO military infrastructure to Russia's borders as a threat to the country.

Some of the threats cited in the doctrine include basing of international military contingents on the territory of certain countries, as well as the basing of the ballistic missile defenses, which Russia sees as undermining its nuclear parity with the West. Other threats listed in the doctrine include attempts at a coup d'etat, violation of the country's territorial integrity and threats posed by the information warfare. The new doctrine is envisioned through 2020.

Should Russia Join NATO?

Robert Coalson at Radio Free Europe's Power Vertical blog takes a look at the arguments, pro and con.

Video of the Day

The wide world of weird nuclear politics raises its head again:

It is interesting that a system completely incapable of withstanding a concerted assault by Russia should be so important not only to Russia, but to states like Romania and Poland. In this case it is not because of the capabilities, but the symbolism of the system. Eastern European states view the missile system, and presumably the troops that comes with it, as a clear signal of U.S. commitment in the region. Based on the reaction from the Kremlin, the Russians apparently agree - and they do not like it.

For more videos on topics throughout the world, check out the Real Clear World video page.

What Larison Said...Sort Of

Daniel Larison on Iran:

The danger in thinking that the regime’s fate is “sealed” and believing, contrary to evidence, that Tehran is isolated in the world is that it encourages misguided policy decisions. If one believes that Tehran is extremely isolated, pursuing sanctions of one kind or another might seem much more practical. It is only when we recognize that Tehran is not isolated and has many partners and allies around the world that we see the futility of going the sanctions route. If one assumes that the regime’s fate is “sealed,” and we just need to wait and watch the collapse happen, that militates against negotiations and engagement, and it encourages hawks to lobby for increased pressure and confrontation to try to push the regime over the edge. Such policies will not only work to the detriment of the people risking their lives protesting against the regime, but they will almost certainly not achieve anything that Washington wants. If we fail to see what is actually happening in Iran because we would prefer to see something else, our government is going to pursue the wrong policy options that will not serve U.S. interests or the interests of the Iranian people.

I don't agree entirely with Larison here, as I happen to think some type of sanctions regime - coupled with engagement and genuine incentives for Iran's cooperation with the international community - is a smart way to go, especially if said engagement goes nowhere. He and I hold different view points on the matter of sanctions, and anyone interested in those differing views can read them here, here and here. I also don't share the same amount of faith as he does in the recently published World Public Opinion survey of Iranian public sentiment. I'm skeptical of any poll taken in police states such as Iran, and one rule of survey research I had drilled into me was to never attempt or take too seriously an assessment of public mood when that public is under a constant level of duress or panic. I'd say Iran qualifies as one of those, if not both, since June 12 of last year.

With all that said, I still think Daniel makes an incredibly valuable point, and I think it's this in short: Don't assume Ahmadinejad lacks a sizable base in Iran just because he's wrong or bad. Wrong and bad people have enjoyed popular support throughout history, and they will no doubt continue to do so until the end of time.

This doesn't make the Green Movement irrelevant or wrong, it simply makes it the minority - for now. And that's OK. Reform movements have to start somewhere, and the protesters have already demonstrated that a vibrant, vocal and organized minority can impact government behavior. But it would be disastrous for Washington to lasso its hopes on every opposition movement around the world. Diplomacy cannot function at such a level, and the West should assume that the bosses are the bosses until proven otherwise (and I find the argument that the Green Movement, were it to seize power tomorrow, would grudgingly shun the United States for having recognized the Khamenei regime rather unconvincing).

Muslim World's View on Hamas and Hezbollah

Pew Research has a new study on the attitudes of majority Muslim nations on Hamas and Hezbollah:

Four years after its victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections, Hamas receives relatively positive ratings in Jordan (56% favorable) and Egypt (52%). However, Palestinians are more likely to give the group a negative (52%) than a positive (44%) rating. And reservations about Hamas are particularly common in the portion of the Palestinian territories it controls -- just 37% in Gaza express a favorable opinion, compared with 47% in the West Bank.

A survey conducted May 18 to June 16, 2009 by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project also finds limited support for the Lebanese Shia organization Hezbollah.1 While most Palestinians (61%) and about half of Jordanians (51%) have a favorable view of Hezbollah, elsewhere opinions are less positive, including Egypt (43%) and Lebanon (35%). As with many issues in Lebanon, views of Hezbollah are sharply divided along religious lines: nearly all of the country's Shia Muslims (97%) express a positive opinion of the organization, while only 18% of Christians and 2% of Sunni Muslims feel this way.

Meanwhile, Turks overwhelmingly reject both groups -- just 5% give Hamas a positive rating and only 3% say this about Hezbollah. There is also little support among Israel's Arab population for either Hamas (21% favorable) or Hezbollah (27%).

Perhaps more important from a U.S. perspective, the nations polled by Pew don't have a very high regard for Iran's leadership. No majority in any Muslim country had a high confidence in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the best he did was 45 percent in the Palestinian territories (and this data was generated before the June 12th election dispute). If Iran desires regional hegemony it appears there will be significant push-back from all of her neighbors.

Big Government Foreign Policy


As I understand the domestic debate around spending programs, the conservative position is typically not that social programs should be expanded to meet the needs of more and more people, but that their scope be dialed back to improve the government's balance sheet. When confronted with the dynamic of "spend more to do more" vs. "do less and spend less" the conservative position is to "do less and spend less." (That's the theory at least, it didn't quite work that way when Republicans controlled the purse strings.)

But when it comes to the largest government bureaucracy, up becomes down. Despite the fact that the Obama administration is proposing in its newest budget to increase defense spending, conservatives are insisting (with good reason) that it is simply not enough to meet the military's current and future needs. Nation building is expensive, after all. As Michael O'Hanlon noted, the U.S. has defense treaties or obligations with nearly 70 countries. Defending all those countries isn't cheap. But rather than argue that the U.S. should take a harder look at its defense priorities and "do less to spend less" conservatives have embraced big government. Here's the Heritage Foundation defense analyst Mackenzie Eaglen:

Ultimately, the persistent underfunding of defense plans cannot be solved without a sustained commitment by Congress to increase the core defense budget at a rate that takes defense cost inflation, which outpaces the general economy, into account. Adequately funding Pentagon plans would stop the bleeding in many defense modernization programs. The steady erosion of modernization plans only makes it more expensive to purchase new equipment when the older systems have worn out.

To address these concerns, the Congressional Budget Resolution should grow the defense budget at least 5 percent above inflation in FY 2011 and beyond in order to address the Pentagon's underfunded plans and remedy many cuts from last year's inadequate defense budget. This would allow more robust procurement, increased build rates, greater economies of scale, enhanced contractor competition, and a healthier defense industrial base.

But why not produce defense savings by making changes in our military posture, reducing the load on the military by eschewing manpower intensive counter-insurgencies? Eaglen notes that manpower is one of the largest drivers in defense spending. If we continue to use the military to police Baghdad and Kabul (and possibly Yemen and Somalia) not to mention all its other deployments, the costs are going to outpace our ability to pay for them.

Drones, good intelligence collection and a change in our foreign policy with respect to the Middle East would reap savings which could be directed toward sustaining a highly modernized military force capable of deterring major nation state rivals.

(AP Photo)

Everything You Wanted to Know About British Sentiment

Dying to know how Brits feel about their two major political parties? The firm Ipsos-MORI has assembled and studied a year's worth of polling data to give us a sketch of Britain's political leanings:

Over 2009, the Conservatives maintained a comfortable lead over Labour, averaging a 42% share among those certain to vote, compared to Labour's 26% and the Liberal Democrats' 19%.These figures are closely in line with the average of the 128 published polls conducted by all the polling companies in 2009, which found an average share of 41% for the Conservatives, 27% for Labour and 18% for the Liberal Democrats.

Just over half the public, 51%, said they would be absolutely certain to vote in an immediate general election, but Conservative supporters were more likely to be certain to vote (66%) than those supporting Labour (52%) or the Liberal Democrats (59%). It is this turnout advantage that provides much of the Conservative lead: taking the views of all those who expressed a voting intention regardless of their likelihood of voting, the Tories' lead over Labour was only 37% to 30%, with the Liberal Democrats on 19%.

Does not bode well for Gordon Brown.

Iran Is Not Isolated


One of the Obama administration's contentions about Iran is that their diplomacy has succeeded in isolating Iran. But with Russia promising to follow through on their 2007 contract to sell surface to air missiles to Iran, China rejecting additional sanctions and states like India, Turkey, Brazil and Qatar engaging with the regime, it's difficult to take such a claim seriously.

This is ultimately why it's difficult to see how sanctions are going to stop Iran's nuclear program, much less change the regime.

(AP Photo)

February 4, 2010

Is Georgia Worth Fighting For?


Politico's Ben Smith takes us inside the Bush administration during the Russia-Georgia war. We learn, not surprisingly, that they contemplated using military force to aid Georgia but wisely rejected it. Smith then brings up the debate over whether the Bush administration should have pushed harder to get Georgia into NATO. Georgia's NATO bid was ultimately back-burnered during a summit in Bucharest because of European reticence, but not after the U.S. signaled its strong support for Georgia. Smith reports:

The message out of the NATO meeting in Bucharest was "as good a deterrence message as voting them into” a formal path to membership, said Hadley. Vladimir “Putin was under no illusions about our commitment to Georgia and our commitment to Saakashvili. We’d been sending Putin a message about Georgia ever since Saakashvili was elected president."

Let's unpack this a bit. First, we know from Smith's report that the Bush administration, including its most hawkish hawks, decided that Georgia was not worth fighting a war over. Yet despite the fact that Washington had no interest in courting World War III over Georgia, it nonetheless pushed to admit the country into NATO which would have legally obligated the United States to go to war over Georgia if they were attacked.

Am I the only one confused by this?

Now implicit in Hadley's quote is the idea that the very act of being admitted into NATO would have stayed Russia's hand. It's obvious that Hadley was wrong in his statement above, there was no deterrence for Russia after Bucharest (and perhaps just the opposite). Instead, they attacked.

This not only demonstrates the lack of understanding regarding Russia's intentions, but a casual, indeed reckless, disregard for the seriousness of NATO. We know, contrary to Hadley's erroneous belief, that Russia was not deterred by Washington's high-minded expressions of support for Georgia. But what if Russia was not deterred even after Georgia had been granted a path to formal NATO membership? What if Russia decided to roll the dice even after Georgia was admitted into the alliance?

We would then be in the crazy position of either having to fight Russia over Georgia for the sake of NATO credibility, or stand down and watch a 60 year old alliance crumble over a single foolish decision. You don't enter into mutual defense treaties because you're just hoping it will all work itself out and that you'll never be called on it. You forge them out of strategic necessity.

And indeed, the Russian invasion laid bare the cynicism and sheer recklessness of even contemplating NATO membership for Georgia. It was a cynical gesture because it subverts the original intention of NATO - which was to provide common defense for Western Europe and to give the U.S. a strong role in Western European security affairs. It's clear neither consideration led the administration to strongly push for Georgia's inclusion in NATO, but nonetheless, they used Georgia's membership as a means to hem in Russia.

It's reckless because it's obvious no one believed Georgia was vital to the security interests of the United States or even the West, and yet there were people who wanted to put the alliance's credibility (and the lives of NATO members) on the line on a gamble that Russia would grudgingly swallow Georgia's entry into NATO just as it put up with earlier rounds of alliance expansion. But it's worse than that: Either the Bush administration did not seriously discuss Georgia and its value to the United States before they publicly proclaimed support for the country (convincing its leaders and its people that Washington had their back when we clearly didn't), or they just didn't think they'd ever be called to account for their rhetoric.

(AP Photo)

Without Moscow, Ukraine's Election Goes Unnoticed


Ukrainian voters go back to the polls this Sunday for a runoff election between Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovych.

Andrew Wilson at the European Council on Foreign Affairs looks at the hurdles facing Tymoshenko:

Firstly and most urgently, she has not been able to win the public backing of any of the major candidates knocked out in round one. At the moment, she has about as many friends as the troubled English footballer, John Terry. Arseniy Yatsenyuk (who won 7%) is still bridling at the way Tymoshenko trampled on his corpse when his campaign faltered in the autumn, and is urging his supporters to vote ‘against all'. President Yushchenko's ongoing vendetta against Tymoshenko has not been interrupted by his miserable 5.5% in the first round. Yushchenko is still determined to make waves; by making Stepan Bandera, the most controversial figure of Ukrainian nationalism's controversial 1940s, a ‘Hero of Ukraine', and encouraging lose and delusional talk of prolonging his rule if the elections results in deadlock.

Meanwhile, Tymoshenko has been threatening another "Orange Revolution" if Yanukovych attempts to rig the vote. Unlike 2004, the Russia vs. the West storyline in the Ukraine vote is considerably more muddied, with both candidates professing a desire for warmer ties with Moscow. Which probably explains why so few people are paying attention.

(AP Photo)

U.S. Views on What Causes Terrorism

Pollster James Zogby takes to the pages of Forbes to highlight some recent data:

Our questions about the motivations of terrorists to attack the U.S. found the right and left with very different perceptions on all of the choices we offered except one, our support for Israel. Fifty-eight percent said it was a significant factor in terrorist motivation, and that percentage varied little across all demographic groups, including political ideology. It was cited somewhat more by First Globals (69%).

Support for Israel ranked third among the seven possible motivations. Here are the results for how many overall thought each was a significant factor:

69% - Resentment of Western power and influence;

58% - Making Islam the world's dominant religion;

58% - Support for Israel;

34% - Death and damage caused by the U.S. military;

32% - Western freedoms;

27% - Poverty;

19% - Psychological disorders.

12% - Others

Zogby goes onto note how widely divergent the views are between Democrats and Republicans:

For example, making Islam dominant was called significant by 84% of Republicans, but only 35% of Democrats. On the impact of casualties caused by our military, 52% of Democrats said it was significant, compared with 11% of Republicans.

It's pretty shocking how widely divergent and politicized these views are. Personally, I don't understand why people insist on creating an "either/or" dynamic with respect to what's driving Islamic terrorism. It's a complicated problem. Why can't it be driven by both a desire to spread a fundamentalist religious belief and as a reaction to military actions that kill Muslims? The interplay of both issues, I think, is at the root of the problem.

Defense Reviews Overseas

Tis the season for deep think defense analysis, not just in the U.S. but overseas as well. The International Institute for Strategic Studies has released its 2010 report, Global Military Balance, which examines, well, the balance of military power across the globe. It's not free, but you can find associated resources for the report, a summary and links to past versions here.

Meanwhile the British government has released a defense green paper (pdf) outlining the direction of the UK military. The 54 page document is supposed to be a prelude to a more wide ranging strategic defense review after the British elections. It promises, in the words of the green paper, to fundamentally reassess Britain's role in the world. It also echoes some of the language of the U.S. defense review, urging the need for a more flexible and adaptive force to handle the various counter-insurgencies Britain is confronting with the U.S.

February 3, 2010

Ahmadinejad Blinks, Ctd.

Scott Lucas weighs in:

it remains to be seen why Ahmadinejad made his move (and note that he made it in a hastily-called interview on national television), as well as signaling that there was talks about trading three US detainees for Iranian prisoners held abroad. The immediate speculation would be that there have been behind-the-scenes talks with brokers such as Turkey; the International Atomic Energy Agency and the US had both signaled in recent days that a deal was still on the table. At the same time, although the President is staying clear of the internal crisis in his public comments and actions, I have to wonder if he has also made this unexpected move to try and grab some “legitimacy” before 11 February.

Now, however, Ahmadinejad may have renewed the fight, but with “conservatives” within the establishment. It was the challenge of high-profile politicians like Ali Larijani that derailed the President’s autumn efforts at a nuclear deal to shore up his position. So keep eyes wide open as to how Larijani and his Parliamentary allies react and even if the Supreme Leader offers any signals.

Video of the Day

Gordon Chang is extremely well known for being bearish on China, and so represents only one side of the scholarly debate on China and Chinese policy. Nevertheless, he points out something that is very interesting, and is often overlooked when dealing with U.S. and Chinese relations. Often people seem to think that the U.S. needs China because China has a huge market, but the trade balance shows that really it is China which needs the U.S. market. The only thing China buys in large quantities is U.S. debt, which I think most Americans would happily quit exporting.

For more videos on world events, check out the Real Clear World Video page.

Afghan Views of the U.S.

With the U.S. and the UK poised to launch a major offensive against the Taliban, Gallup's Julie Ray and Rajesh Srinivasan have released some polling on Afghan's attitude toward the U.S. over 2009:


The authors conclude:

In the most recent survey, Afghans' opinions of the United States, as a nation, were the lowest Gallup has measured to date. Asked to rate the extent of their favorability on a 5-point scale, where 1 is very unfavorable and 5 is very favorable, a majority of Afghans (52%) rated the United States very (24%) or somewhat unfavorable (28%).

Keep in mind that these polls were taken at what we can only hope was the height of the Taliban insurgency. If coalition forces are able to suppress the insurgency, I would expect Afghan views of the U.S. to improve.

New America Panel on Iran

Live Broadcasting by Ustream

The New America Foundation is hosting a great panel on Iranian public opinion. Moderated by Steve Clemons, panelists will include Steven Kull, Barbara Slavin, Flynt Leverett and (the great) Hooman Majd.

You can watch right here on The Compass, or check it out (with full agenda) right now over at The Washington Note.

UPDATE: You can check out the World Public Opinion report referenced by Steven Kull here.

Ahmadinejad Blinks?


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been quiet, relatively speaking, since his contested reelection on June 12 of last year. Most Iran analysts and experts believe the regime's various power players to be torn over how to handle western rapprochement alongside internal unrest. One theory, articulated here (PDF) by Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute, is that the nuclear negotiations offer Ahmadinejad a platform from which he can strengthen his own credibility and simultaneously deflate the Green Movement. Any deal brokered by Ahmadinejad - or his hand Saeed Jalili - will be viewed as a feather in the president's cap, and thus hurts the Iranian opposition's ability to challenge his legitimacy. The longer Iran delays such a deal, so the theory goes, the more time the Green Movement has to marginalize Ahmadinejad and threaten his position.

With large protests expected next week, it looks as though Ahmadinejad may be feeling the heat:

The deal, which Iran formally rejected weeks ago, would swap low-enriched uranium for fuel for a research reactor that produces medical isotopes. "If we allow them to take it, there is no problem," Ahmadinejad said on state TV. "We sign a contract to give 3.5 percent enriched uranium and receive 20 percent enriched ones after four or five months."

U.S. officials reacted cautiously to Ahmadinejad's remarks, which came a day after France assumed the presidency of the U.N. Security Council. France, along with the United States, Britain and Germany, are pushing hard for additional Security Council sanctions against Tehran for failing to agree to talks on its nuclear ambitions; any sudden interest in diplomacy by Iran might be intended to persuade China, a skeptic of sanctions, to block them, diplomats said. U.S. officials had viewed the proposal involving the research reactor as a test of whether a broader diplomatic deal could be broached on Iran's nuclear programs.

Several things could be at play here. Just yesterday, Green figurehead Mir-Hossein Mousavi appeared to up his rhetoric on the government's behavior, calling its crackdown of predominantly peaceful protesters dictatorial. Tehran may also assume that the slightly shifting environment at the UN could work against them, and the deal presently on the table may be the best they're going to get on the LEU.

But as State Dept. spokesman P.J. Crowley noted, Iran has said yes to a deal in the past, only to recant. It also remains unclear if Ahmadinejad even possesses the authority to approve this deal.

We'll see. Even if this nuclear fuel swap were to (finally) go down, it's just the tip of a large diplomatic iceberg in need of addressing with the Islamic Republic.

(AP Photo)

Obama's Cowboy Diplomacy?

At a time when the administration is running up against China, snubbing Europe doesn't seem like a good call:

President Obama’s decision to skip a United States-European Union summit meeting scheduled for Madrid in May has predictably upset European officials, who suggested Tuesday that the summit meeting itself would now be postponed, possibly to the autumn.

In addition to the palpable sense of insult among European officials, there is a growing concern that Europe is being taken for granted and losing importance in American eyes compared with the rise of a newly truculent China.

European Union officials found out about the decision through the news media late on Monday, senior European officials said Tuesday morning. The decision was first reported on the Web site of The Wall Street Journal.

When you try to be the jack of all international trades, you become the master of none.

Influence in Iraq, But At What Price?


Henry Kissinger's op-ed on Iraq argues that the U.S. must retain influence in Iraq even as it withdraws its troops. Sounds reasonable enough. Unfortunately, he doesn't quite say how, outside of a hinted suggestion regarding a special envoy, more high-level visits and the formulation of a strategic vision for Iraq. Nor does he say toward what end U.S. diplomacy and leverage in Iraq should be put to use, except for a vague reference to Iran's nuclear program.

I think it's clear that the U.S. is going to retain some leverage over Iraq for the next few years and there's no reason why the U.S. shouldn't work overtime to keep relations with Iraq friendly. But the situation inside Iraq is very fluid at the moment: the government has been preoccupied with domestic affairs and shoring up its own, very fragile, institutions. No clear picture has emerged yet on where the country sees itself geopolitically in the Middle East.

But Kissinger's piece is also a harbinger of Washington's worst tendencies. In its zeal to get Iraq onto the right side of the geopolitical scorecard, it could push the Obama administration into an even deeper role in Iraq's domestic politics with potentially disastrous results (ironically some of the same people who think the administration should govern Iraq have no faith in the administration's ability to govern America). Even before Kissinger's piece we have heard calls for the Obama administration to get more involved in micro-managing Iraq's political evolution - as if we have a long history of success in such matters, or even the wherewithal to produce an outcome to our liking, especially if we remain committed to a democratic Iraq.

Indeed, the administration's seemingly ad-hoc diplomacy toward the country may actually produce the best results. Proclaiming that we have a strategic blueprint for Iraq's development would likely set off groups inside Iraq that resent American influence and would put American-friendly leaders on the defensive politically.

(AP Photo)

February 2, 2010

What Really Matters in Arab Capitals?

Thomas Ricks writes:

I wonder if something fundamental is going on in the Middle East. That is, Iran is getting more powerful, and that scares the Arab states. So they seem to be turning away from worrying about Israel and focusing more on Iran as it moves toward becoming a nuclear power. The Bush administration actually helped strengthen Iran a lot by knocking down Iraq as the great bulwark against the expansion of Persian power westward. Also, by occupying Iraq, it effectively gave Iran tens of thousands of potential hostages, lessening Western leverage and so the West's ability to curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions. And so on.

Bottom line: Will AQ Khan and the Bush administration together inadvertently have brought Arab-Israeli peace to the Middle East?

Is this really a new trend? While it's certainly important for Arab regimes to publicly pay lip service to the Arab-Israeli conflict, I thought it was rather common knowledge that the true concern for many Arab states was the Islamic Republic. There's a reason, after all, that the GCC exists today. There's a reason these regimes backed Saddam Huessin's quasi-secular Baathist regime during the Iran-Iraq War. There's a reason Iran has at times been put in the middle of the Yemen conflict.

Iran conspired to topple several of these regimes throughout the 1980's, and a few - such as Bahrain - have their own Shia majorities to worry about. The nuclear debate is simply the latest chapter in a long geo-political tug of war in the Middle East. Some have argued that the regional power structure has already shifted, as Ricks suggests. I believe the "Shia Crescent" stuff is often exaggerated, however Ricks is right to peg the Iraq invasion as a strategic victory for Tehran.

As to whether or not this regional realignment could accelerate Mideast peace, I'm not so sure. Despite their missteps in the region, even the Bush administration understood that Palestine offered Iran a kind of public relations coup in the region - this was a driving force behind the 2007 Annapolis Conference. Iran, for its own part, always gets fidgety whenever the Arab capitals are brought together on the issue.

But these entrenched positions can only go so far. Ultimately, it's up to Israel - an Iranian enemy - and Hamas - an Iranian ally - to reach a settlement before we'll see a peace agreement of any kind. Arab input may not account for much in the end.

(h/t Andrew Sullivan)

QDR Reaction, Roundup

Analysts and think tankers have had a chance to digest the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review and here's the reaction:

Derek Reveron:

While perhaps better stated than in previous documents, it is reminiscent of the Rumsfeld strategy that called for “full-spectrum dominance.” That is, the United States will maintain the ability to go anywhere (sub-surface to outer space) and control any situation (major combat to humanitarian assistance). This ambition, un-tempered by the harsh realities the United States faces in benign environments like Haiti or hostile environments like Afghanistan, seems to undermine Secretary Gates’ goal of restoring balance.

Christopher Preble:

For nearly two decades, the United States has been the policeman for the world. If the senior civilian leadership in the White House had decided to push other countries to take responsibility for their own security, and for security in their respective regions, the QDR might have become a vehicle for responsibly shaping a smaller military that is explicitly oriented toward defending U.S. security. Instead, because the military is convinced that they will be expected to answer all of the world’s 911 calls for the foreseeable future, the Pentagon hedged its bets.

I can’t say that I blame them.

Thomas Donnelly:

Events since 9/11 have shown that size matters; the U.S. Army and Marine Corps cannot keep up with the pace of operations without mobilizing hundreds of thousands of reservists and National Guardsmen every day. The QDR caps the active Army at 45 brigades, three less than the 48 planned for at the end of the Bush administration. The Air Force fleet is smaller and rapidly aging; the Navy has fewer than 300 ships compared to the Reagan-era fleet of 600. The gap between American strategic ends and military means grows and grows.

Michael O'Hanlon:

The point is that the framework is reasonable but not provocative, solid but not innovative, cautious more than bold. It is interesting that a president who campaigned on a mantra of change would come up with this. And to my mind, it is somewhat reassuring as well. Military planning is not the place to make one's big rhetorical or symbolic mark in the world.

This is not to say that all is constant in defense circles. In fact, while the size of the military has hovered at around 1.5 million active-duty troops for nearly two decades, while big-ticket fighter jet and submarine and other aviation and shipbuilding and vehicle programs remain the core of the Pentagon's modernization agenda, lots has in fact changed. But the interesting thing about that change is that, particularly over the last 12 years or so, less and less of it begins with quadrennial review documents.

Last but certainly not least, here's a speech from Michèle Flournoy, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, at the Dept. of Defense, who led the QDR process.

The View from Asia

With the U.S. poised to sell $6.8 billion worth of arms to Taiwan, Angus-Reid passes along some polling on Taiwan's president Ma Ying-jeou:

Two thirds of people in Taiwan criticize the performance of Ma Ying-jeou, according to a poll by Global Views. 66.3 per cent of respondents are dissatisfied with the president’s leadership, up 4.1 points since December....

In March 2008, Ma won the presidential election with 58.45 per cent of the vote as a candidate for the Kuomintang Party (KMT). Frank Hsieh of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) finished second with 41.55 per cent.

Meanwhile, Gallup has an overview of sentiments in Asia toward their governments in light of the financial crisis. Despite the battering, trust in governments remains high.

Video of the Day

Relations continue to sour between the United States and China:

This could be an interesting natural experiment on the power, or lack thereof, of sanctions. While it is possible that a wobbly company might be hurt by sanctions, it seems unlikely that the economic titans that are U.S. defense contracting companies are among them. If this squabble heightens, this may finally spell the end of "Chimerica."

For more videos on the events of the world, look at the Real Clear World Videos page.

Understanding Gates' Pentagon


Secretary Gates is often described as a pragmatist. That's not a bad thing, of course, but when it comes to the business of trying to set the U.S. on solid strategic footing for the 21st century, pragmatism can be a liability, since it won't look at the underlying issues but instead tries to manage the present situation as best it can. The key to understanding Secretary Gates' strategic thinking, I think, came in a speech he gave at the National Defense University in September 2008. Gates said:

Think of where our forces have been sent and have been engaged over the last 40-plus years: Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, and more.
What's missing from this litany is obvious: any engagement with the question of whether these interventions were vital for the security of the United States. Surely Secretary Gates doesn't think American security would be intolerably threatened had we not intervened in Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo? Or do we really believe that the military had no other choice?

Unfortunately, rather than wrestle with these questions, it's simply taken as a given that this is what America must do as a global power and so it's off we go to China to borrow the money to pay for it all. That is, in a nutshell, what the current defense strategy promises. We will "rebalance" the force, cutting into the conventional platforms that give America true security to pay for the nation building/counter-insurgency in the mostly irrelevant litany that Gates highlighted.

(AP Photo)

February 1, 2010

Hezbollah Rearms


Noah Pollack Pollak sounds the alarm over Hezbollah's recent move to rearm itself with more powerful rockets and to disperse those rockets throughout Lebanon to ensure that any Israeli retaliation would drag of all Lebanon into conflict. Pollack writes:

A new war would explode the myth that Obama’s outreach to the Arabs and pressure on Israel have set the Middle East on a new path. Israeli-Arab wars, this narrative holds, were the kind of things that happened during the Bush years, when the president ignored the peace process and alienated Muslims, and neocons imperiled world peace before breakfast. To have a war unfold in the enlightened, post-Cairo speech era, after dozens of visits by George Mitchell to the region — that would be quite an embarrassment.

Indeed it would. Of course, ending all wars in the Middle East is a bridge too far for any administration, no matter how diplomatically adroit. But still, Pollak is right that such an explosion would fatally undermine the administration's case for its diplomacy. However, it's important to accurately characterize what's going on in the region. Pollak writes:

Obama hoped that tilting the United States away from Israel and toward the Arabs would transform America into an “honest broker” and, therefore, a trusted mediator. He has been fastidiously promoting a narrative of equal culpability. But as we have seen over the past year, this rhetoric, aside from its departure from reality, alienates Israelis while gaining nothing from the Arabs but a hardening in their belief that their intransigence will win out in the end.

I think the only departure from reality here is the idea that Obama "tilted" the U.S. away from Israel. In point of fact, there has been no change in America's material or diplomatic support for Israel. The administration is not threatening to reduce U.S. aid or loan guarantees, nor is it reducing intelligence cooperation. They have not abandoned Israel in multilateral forums either, as the recent lobbying against the Goldstone Report in the United Nations demonstrates.

Indeed, about the only shift the Obama administration has made toward Israel is greater rhetorical opposition to Israel's West Bank settlement activity. But surely this can't be confused with substantive policy changes in the key material planks of the U.S.-Israeli alliance.

Pollak continues:

To the extent that Obama’s evenhandedness is interpreted by Hezbollah as a sign that the risks associated with another attack on Israel have been lessened, there will be a heightened likelihood of conflict. America, as the ultimate guarantor of the regional order, has over the past few decades internalized a hard truth about the Middle East: be a strong ally of Israel and prevent conflict, or be an indecisive friend and invite conflict.

I'm not sure how this adds up. If I assume that Pollack considers George W. Bush a strong ally of Israel, than during his tenure Israel experienced: an Intifada (which began at the tail-end of the Clinton administration), a war in Lebanon against Hezbollah and a war in Gaza against Hamas. That doesn't strike me as a conflict free period by any stretch. Nor does this assertion make sense logically. The U.S. has for years been a strong ally Israel but the sub-state groups dedicated to waging war against Israel don't expect American reprisals and so America's support (as we have just seen) has no deterrent value. Consider that the Bush administration gave a good deal of diplomatic cover to Israel during its war with Hezbollah in 2006, with Secretary Rice saying it was necessary that Israel not be restrained so as not to return to the "status quo ante." And where are we now? As Pollak noted above, Hezbollah is back, armed with more powerful weapons and with a better idea of where to put them so as to cause even more destruction the next go round.

It may well be that the best Israel can hope for is to wage intermittent war with the terror groups on its borders to buy itself time before the next round. But these conflicts will ultimately be settled politically. The Obama administration clearly erred in thinking that diplomacy could unlock these political solutions in the absence of any other leverage or incentives. But that's where we are.

I'd also take a different lesson from "the past few decades" of America being the "guarantor of the regional order" in the Middle East. And that is that such a role entails huge costs to America - in the form of wars and military interventions (Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Iran), the economic costs of stationing forward military power in the region, and a huge increase in terrorism directed against the United States. And without a super power poised to wrest the region's oil off of world markets, we should be far less willing to casually immerse ourselves in the region's sundry squabbles. There are issues of far greater importance on our plate.

UPDATE: Pollak responds:

A couple of clarifications: I didn't claim that a strong U.S.-Israel alliance prevents all conflict. Rather, I said that when Israel's enemies see the U.S. wavering, they are more likely to attack. And there most certainly has been a different U.S. posture toward Israel -- so thoroughly documented by people from across the political spectrum that I don't think it needs to be recounted here.

The larger point of course is that before there was a U.S.-Israel alliance (1948-1970's), there was constant, large-scale war. 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973. These were wars that involved several nations, not just terror groups. The reason for the U.S. alliance was to put a stop to that; Israel traded its ability to engage in transformative military action, and the U.S. acquired a far more stable Levant.

Fair point, but my point is that we should look at the U.S. experience in the Middle East after 1973. A large number of Americans have been killed in military action in the region and vastly more American civilians have been killed by Arab terrorists after 1973 than before. All of this is a direct consequence of assuming the stabilizer role. You could make a strong case that these costs were worth bearing during the Cold War, but I find it much harder to justify them now.

As for the earlier point about the posture toward Israel, have there been any material changes in the U.S.-Israeli alliance? A reduction in aid, loan guarantees or military/intelligence cooperation? I don't believe there have been. But I'll gladly stand corrected if there's evidence to the contrary.

(AP Photo)

Why America Can't Defeat Rogue States


Nader Mousavizadeh's must-read piece on rogue states in Newsweek touches on what I think is the key issue confronting the U.S. - how it deals with the emergence of other powerful states that it can't control:

What Washington has failed to fully recognize is that the world that created "rogue states" is gone. The term became popular in the 1980s, mainly in the United States, to describe minor dictatorships threatening to the Cold War order. Then, after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the main challenge to American dominance came from those states unwilling to accommodate themselves to the "end of history" and conform to U.S. values. The idea of "the rogue state" assumed the existence of an international community, united behind supposedly universal Western values and interests, that could agree on who the renegades are and how to deal with them. By the late 1990s this community was already dissolving, with the rise of China, the revival of Russia, and the emergence of India, Brazil, and Turkey as real powers, all with their own interests and values. Today it's clear that the "international community" defined by Western values is a fiction, and that for many states the term "rogue" might just as well apply to the United States as to the renegades it seeks to isolate.

He goes on to state that isolating and sanctioning these rogue regimes does not work. In Burma, all Western sanctions have accomplished is to strengthen the military junta and weaken the people. Such was the outcome in Iraq and North Korea during the 1990s and will likely be the outcome in Iran this decade. There are enough states to do business with a "rogue" to undermine most sanctions regimes.

So what to do? Mousavizadeh, echoed by Daniel Larison, argue for engagement. Here's Larison:

There is an idea at the core of every sanctions regime that “rogue states” are morally tainted, impure and not to be touched. Furthermore, there is an idea that these states can somehow pass this contagion on to states that enter into normal relations with them. This idea endures despite considerable evidence that it is through diplomatic contact, normal relations and trade that “rogue states” begin to be influenced by other nations and new ideas, which can ultimately lead to regime collapse or at least some beneficial internal changes.

I do wonder to what extent regimes like North Korea and Iran actually would want relaxed restrictions on their commerce and greater interactions with the rest of the world. I tend to think that North Korea's leadership rather likes its isolation and would respond to a serious engagement overture with a nutty act of violence to push relations back into their standoffish status quo.

I also think we need to distinguish between sanctions aimed at punishing the regime for its behavior, and sanctions aimed at weakening a state's capacity to make war or build weapons. The former rarely seem to work, while the later do seem to at least slow a state's progress toward their military goals.

(AP Photo)

Did Russia Try to Sabatoge the U.S. Economy?

Via Blake Hounshell, an interesting tidbit has emerged from former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's forthcoming memoir:

Russia urged China to dump its Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bonds in 2008 in a bid to force a bailout of the largest U.S. mortgage-finance companies, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said.

China rejected the idea, but some are still calling it an alarming case of "economic warfare" considering the Russian gambit was reportedly hatched during (or just before) the war with Georgia. Daniel Drezner cautions about reading too much into it before all the facts are out.

A Map of British Military Deployments

The Times of London has a neat graphic showing Britain's current defense deployments here (pdf). Meanwhile, Gordon Brown will be upping Britain's defense spending:

Gordon Brown will put two new aircraft carriers at the heart of his vision for the military this week as he commits Labour to billions of pounds of extra defence spending.

At the same time, defence chiefs are exploring how closer military links with France and the potential benefits of an entente cordiale could tackle future dangers with limited resources.

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