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March 31, 2010

Poll: U.S. Views on Russia

If Russian views of the U.S. haven't improved much, the latest poll from Rasmussen seems to show a little positive movement from the American side:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 31% of voters now trust Russia to honor its new agreement with the United States to reduce its nuclear weapons stockpile. Forty-three percent (43%) still don’t trust the Russians to honor the agreement which President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev finalized on Friday...

Bleak as they are, the number who trust the Russians to honor the agreement is up nine-points from July when the agreement was first announced. Thirty-two percent (32%) of voters also think the United States should help Russia fight its terrorism problem, following the homicide bomber attacks Monday in Moscow’s subway system that killed 37 people and injured another 65. But 41% say America should not get involved in Russia’s anti-terrorism effort. Twenty-seven percent (27%) are undecided.

Fifteen percent (15%) now view Russia as an ally of the United States. Ten percent (10%) say Russia is an enemy. Seventy-one percent (71%) see the former Soviet Union as somewhere in between the two.

Still, only 17% think America’s relationship with Russia will be better a year from now. Eighteen percent (18%) expect that relationship to be worse, while 57% predict it will be about the same.

Is Iran Cautious?


Writing in Foreign Policy, Bilaal Saab shares his experiences during two U.S.-government sponsored war games on Iran:

Unfortunately, there are two important challenges to Washington's effort to read Tehran. First, though U.S. intelligence on Iran is slowly improving, it remains severely lacking. Americans barely know how Iran functions in peaceful times, let alone how it would respond to an external threat it might perceive as existential.

Second, the Iranian regime is notoriously opaque and factionalized. There may be political harmony and ideological congruence between the IRGC and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but there is no reason to presume that these two central players (and that's assuming the IRGC is a homogeneous organization) have identical beliefs. This makes any attempt at deciphering the collective Iranian response to a possible U.S. preventive attack more elusive.

All participants agreed that history could serve as a useful guide to the future. The United States relied on a similar approach during the Cold War, dissecting Moscow's response to multiple crises in various theaters and concluding that its enemy was politically aggressive but militarily cautious.

Today, the United States needs that same type of strategic assessment vis-à-vis Iran, if Washington ever finds that the only way to solve the Iranian nuclear problem is through the calculated use of force. By carefully examining, for example, how Iran fought in the 1980-1988 war against Iraq, how it behaved during several military crises with the United States (the 1987-1988 and 1995-1997 ones are two examples), and how it "instructed" Hezbollah to respond to Israel during the 2006 summer war, we can very roughly deduce the following: Its messianic ideology and belligerent rhetoric notwithstanding, Iran is not suicidal.

Saab makes this point in the context of wondering whether Iran would lash out directly and forcefully against the United States if President Obama orders a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. It could also guide our thinking with respect to a possible containment regime.

(AP Photo)

Palin on Iran


The governor weighs in. Spencer Ackerman questions her political timing:

Typical misleading invective on the U.S.-Israel relationship is one thing, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton confronted at AIPAC last week. But “throwing in the towel” on Iran sanctions? Hours after Obama gave a schedule for Iran sanctions in a joint statement with Nicholas Sarzoky of France?
Palin might want to check how many billable hours her foreign policy aide Randy Scheunemann is charging her for this stuff.

I happen to agree with Governor Palin on certain sanctions concessions, specifically the removal of penalties on insurers doing business with Iran. If the West is going to pursue sanctions then those sanctions should be strong enough to actually compel behavior. Otherwise, war proponents will simply reject them entirely and instead offer the choice of containment or war (and guess which option they think will be more palatable for the American public).

I can appreciate Obama's incrementalism in dealing with China, but he's handing his political rivals their 2010 (and perhaps even 2012) message on Iran.

UPDATE: And on that note, I give you John Bolton.

(AP Photo)

Lady Gaga and Westoxification

I believe Greg and Larison both do a fine job addressing all that is wrong with Bret Stephens' recent WSJ piece on Lady Gaga and Jihadism, but this particular snippet caught my attention:

Bear in mind, too, that the America Qutb found so offensive had yet to discover Elvis, Playboy, the pill, women's lib, acid tabs, gay rights, Studio 54, Jersey Shore and, of course, Lady Gaga. In other words, even in some dystopic hypothetical world in which hyper-conservatives were to seize power in the U.S. and turn the cultural clock back to 1948, America would still remain a swamp of degeneracy in the eyes of Qutb's latter-day disciples.

This, then, is the core complaint that the Islamists from Waziristan to Tehran to Gaza have lodged against the West. It explains why jihadists remain aggrieved even after the U.S. addressed their previous casus belli by removing troops from Saudi Arabia, and why they will continue to remain aggrieved long after we've decamped from Iraq, Afghanistan and even the Persian Gulf. [emphasis added]

I can't speak in full to the really scary caliphate that guys like Stephens fear is emerging around the Muslim world, and I dare say I have not read the complete works of Sayyid Qutb. I am however a bit familiar with its Iranian counterpart, غربزدگی, or Occidentosis - better known as Westoxification. After reading and seeing the way in which he lumps Iranian anti-western ideology in with all the other disgruntled -isms of Islamism, I have to pull a Woody Allen card and question Stephens' rather cursory understanding of the issue.

In the case of Iran, western culture only came to be viewed as deleterious when Iranians had a brutal dictator imposing western culture upon them. That same dictator, incidentally, had declared a virtual war on Iranian Islam, and on Washington's dime. Iran, Tehran especially, had a large American presence by 1978, and Khomeini even spread absurd rumors about Americans colonizing Iranian cities. It therefore wasn't Western or American culture that bothered Iranians, but the fear of said culture being physically imposed upon them by the United States and the Shah.

Then you have Iran's asymmetric proxies. Here, too, the grievance is physical and territorial and, yes, that territory happens to be Israeli settlements. Groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad exist to resist Israel, and fostering that resistance offers the Islamic Republic a regional lever with which it can condemn and critique the Arab regimes aligned with the West. In short, it allows them to be a player in arguably the world's largest territorial dispute.

But remove that dispute, and you can cut the tie that binds Iran to Sunni Islamists. I don't think Lady Gaga alone could save that relationship, but a prolonged and indefinite dispute over actual land certainly will.

Abu Muqawama has a fun post up disputing some of Stephens' claims from the Arab perspective, and if you want to read something about Lady Gaga that isn't wonky and lame check out Vanessa Grigoriadis' rather definitive Gaga bio in the recent New York Magazine.

Poll: Russian Views on U.S. Ties

Via Angus Reid:

Few people in Russia want their country to seek improved relations with the United States, according to a poll by the Yury Levada Analytical Center. Only 14 per cent of respondents advocate for closer bi-lateral ties, down 10 points since March 2003.

Conversely, 40 per cent of Russians think their country should maintain the same level of relations with the U.S. that it currently has, and 36 per cent would prefer to see Russia distance itself from that country.

Eyes on the Prize

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Danielle Plekta suggests that the only choice the Obama administration faces on Iran is war or managing the risks of a nuclear Iran. Sounds about right to me. While I don't know how soon Iran will actually acquire a bomb or whether they want to create a Japan-style capacity to build one quickly if they want, I think it's reasonable to assume that this the direction we're headed.

And whichever option you favor - containment or war - the inevitable outcome is to draw the United States deeper into the Middle East. No wonder China's feeling confident.

The Emerging Markets Bubble

Simon Johnson sounds a warning:

Our Too Big To Fail banks stand today at the heart of global capital flows. People around the world – including from China – park their funds in the biggest US banks because everyone concerned believes these banks cannot fail; they were, after all, saved by the Bush administration and put completely – gently and unconditionally – back on their feet under President Obama. These same banks now spearhead lending to risky projects around the world.

What is the likely outcome?

We know that risk-management at the megabanks breaks down in the face of a boom (remember Chuck Prince of Citigroup in July 2007: “as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing”). We know there is a growing boom in emerging markets – including through the overseas expansion of would-be multinationals from those countries. This is most notably true of state-backed firms from China, but there is also a more general pattern (think India, Brazil, Russia, and more).

The big global banks, US and European, are charging hard into this space – Citigroup is expanding fast in China and India (areas where they claim great expertise); and the CEO of HSBC has moved to Hong Kong. Many investment advisors are adamant that China will power global growth (never mind that it is less than 10 percent of the world economy), that renminbi appreciation is around the corner, and that the value of investments in or connected to that country can only go up.

Iraq's Refugees


Roland Flamini highlights the persistent problem of Iraq refugees:

Eight years after the U.S.-led invasion, with the phased American military withdrawal already underway and following elections this month that the Obama administration hopes will mark the closing chapter of U.S. involvement in Iraq, there are still more Iraqi refugees leaving their country than returning to it. According to the latest report from the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, released last week, 24,000 Iraqi refugees sought asylum in the industrialized nations in 2009. But that's not counting those who crossed into Syria or Jordan, who have in the past tended to be more numerous but are not covered in the U.N. surveys. According to a Brookings Institution ongoing Iraq watch, there are now 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, and around 450,000 in Jordan.

But the number of Iraqi returnees -- a standard gauge of whether the refugee population believes official assurances that life is returning to normal -- was low last year, and remains so now. The U.N. says 20,000 Iraqis returned last year from across the border in Syria. But only 2,000 made the reverse trip from Sweden, one of the major host countries in the West.

I'm not sure how much we can read into these numbers, but if they're accurate it does suggest that a good deal of uncertainty and fear remain. Now perhaps Iraq's refugees have found a better life in their host countries, or maybe they're still waiting for a political deal at the top and a few more months of relative calm before making the trip back. Or maybe they know something that Peter Wehner and company don't.

(AP Photo)

Global Goods

At least someone's getting rich:

China has significant economic interests in Afghanistan, though its contribution to Afghan reconstruction has been well behind Western nations. The state-owned China Metallurgical Group intends to contribute US$3 billion towards the development of Afghanistan's Anyak copper mine, 30km South of Kabul.

If the mine contains the 11.3 million tonnes of copper expected by the Afghan Government, the site has the potential to deliver over US$80 billion to China based on current copper prices. The vast bulk of the military forces providing security in Logar province, where the Anyak mine is located, are American.

March 30, 2010

They Hate Us for Lady Gaga


The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens argues that Lady Gaga and America's sexualized culture are vastly more responsible for jihadism than any of this business about America's foreign policy in the region for the past thirty years.

Justin Logan objects:

Dangerously, though, Stephens veers back toward falsifiability by writing that “the core complaint that the Islamists from Waziristan to Tehran to Gaza have lodged against the West” is that we’re too sexed-up. This is, of course, not accurate. Bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa, after all, was not titled “Declaration of War against the Americans with their Supple Buttocks and Protuberant Breasts.” Instead, it was called “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.” Or you can take a look at the second fatwa, released in 1998. The three big claims made against us in there were

1. Our presence in Saudi Arabia and support for the Saudi government, which he hates;
2. Our sanctions regime against Iraq and its alleged effects on Iraqi civilians; and
3. Our support for Israel.

There’s a lot you can do with this information, up to and including supposing that bin Laden would not be satisfied even if these three conditions were somehow removed. You can also read the actual fatwas and conclude that the Israel stuff was far from the centerpiece of the argument and seemed sort of tacked on at the end for good measure. I actually think both these arguments are good ones. But actually thinking about what’s in those texts should cause you to ask why, of all the grievances he could have lodged, including our reverence for Josephine Baker, did he pick those three issues? The answer that presents itself is that he is not an idiot and he thinks the three points he made will be most effective in recruiting people to the cause. [Emphasis mine.]

Larison piles on:

The recent Moscow subway bombings are instructive on this point. The bombings are outrageous atrocities for which there is no excuse or justification, but one would have to be a blind fool to say that Chechen grievances, which outside jihadists have been exploiting for the last decade, are based in morally offensive Russian pop culture. It is acceptable for hegemonists to acknowledge this when Russia is the target of terrorist attacks, but when it comes to acknowledging U.S. and allied policies as important contributing factors we are treated instead to these sweeping cultural arguments and close readings of Sayyid Qutb.

Larison also points out the Qutb penned his anti-Western diatribes in 1948. So why wasn't the West besieged with jihadist attacks since then? The answer, of course, is that whatever inchoate loathing radical Muslims felt toward the modern West did not galvanize into a violent reaction against us until we began to move militarily into the Middle East.

Again, I don't believe this can be reduced to an either/or proposition. It's obvious that Islamic radicals have no love for democracy or any culture besides their own puritanical brand of Islam. The Bamyan Buddhas had nothing to do with American foreign policy or the West, and the Taliban blew them up anyway. No doubt there are those who would kill simply to purge the world of Western/infidel cultural influences.

But this impulse has become a mass movement (to the extent that al Qaeda can be said to be a mass movement) precisely because it has hitched itself to a set of political grievances and objectives which are held by people who don't give a fig about Lady Gaga or Brittany Spears or who have no interest in living under retrograde Taliban rule.

As Logan notes:

For example, public opinion scholars Andrew Kohut and Richard Wike drew on six years of survey data in the Islamic world and concluded in 2008 that while “America’s image in much of the Muslim world remains abysmal,” “most of the story is opposition to American foreign policy rather than value divides or religious-based enmity.” Or look at the U.S. Defense Department’s reporting on the issue: “American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies…Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies.” [.pdf] Basically everybody who’s studied this question in any detail agrees with this general argument.

(AP Photo)

Video of the Day

Our video of the day is an interview with NYU Professor Stephen Cohen on the Moscow bombings:

For a manipulatable data set on past suicide attacks you can look at the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism. There is also an old article on female suicide bombers, by Lindsey O'Rourke. (Full Disclosure: I am a fellow at CPOST, and an associate of Lindsay O'Rourke.)

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

Black Widows, Ctd.

As Russian security services hunt down the cell of female terrorists believed responsible for yesterday's metro bombings in Moscow, Brian Palmer delves a bit deeper into the role of women in Jihadist organizations:

Women in the al-Qaida family are frequently used as marriage fodder. Many top terrorists marry their daughters off to colleagues abroad as a way to strengthen ties between regional or international terrorists organizations, just as old-school European monarchs once did. Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar appear to be married to each other's daughters. Indonesian terrorist Haris Fadhilah gave his daughter to Omar al-Faruq, a major al-Qaida operative. These arranged marriages are thought to enhance collaboration and communication among terrorist groups, but there's little indication that the women wield any real power. (Many female Chechen fighters gained their status through marriage, as well. The "Black Widows" are a group of bombers who try to complete the missions begun by their martyred husbands, fathers, or brothers.)

There are a handful of role models for women looking to climb terrorism's corporate ladder, but they operated in a different era. Palestinian fighter and terrorist pin-up Laila Khaled planned and executed a plane hijacking in 1969. She captured the word's attention with her brashness, making the pilot fly over Haifa—the birthplace from which she had been exiled—and demanding that air traffic control refer to the plane as "Popular Front Free Arab Palestine" rather than TWA 840. But Khaled belonged to the Marxist-leaning Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and she didn't have to struggle with a patriarchal Islamic hierarchy to become one of the most famous terrorists of the 20th century.

Read the rest here.

Critics and Consistency


Responding to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's backhanded praise for American health care reform, Kevin Drum writes:

Sarkozy was something of a darling of the right when he was first elected, thanks to his support of laissez-faire economics and general embrace of American values. But the financial collapse of 2008 turned him into something of a regulatory hawk, and now there's this. I'll bet the American right doesn't think much of him anymore.

I'm not so sure. So long as he - or any leader of an allied country, for that matter - continues to criticize President Obama's performance abroad, I think the critics will continue to find praise, warranted or unwarranted, for Sarkozy.

I think this goes back to a point we've made repeatedly here on this blog, and that is that the president's critics have thus far demonstrated a serious lack of consistency when it comes to foreign policy. Neoconservatives in particular have been bemoaning the cultural and global decline of Europe for nearly a decade, but once administrations changed, so too did the tone.

This makes for some oddly inconsistent rhetoric, particularly from the right. So either Obama fails to meet the Sarkozy standard, or he leads a party too heavily influenced by the French. What does that even mean? Does it have to mean anything? Probably not; we're talking about the world of politics after all, where things needn't make sense in order to be repeated over and over again.

(AP Photo)

Palin for Pakistan?

Londonstani pokes fun at the governor.

Turks Favor Civilian Constitution

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has been pushing forward reforms to bring the military under tighter civilian control. His latest bid is a reform to the Turkish constitution to allow military leaders to be tried by civilian courts. The Washington Post has a write-up.

Via Angus Reid, it seems a majority in Turkey supports a civilian-oriented constitution:

Most people in Turkey think the country needs to enact a civilian constitution, according to a poll by Pollmark. 58 per cent of respondents share this opinion, while 20 per cent oppose the notion.

Poll: Ukrainian Views on NATO

Earlier in the month, Ukraine's new governing coalition said it would pass a law forbidding the country from joining military alliances, including NATO. According to Pew Research, Ukrainians don't hold NATO in high regard:

A September 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project, found that half of Ukrainians (51%) opposed their country's admission to NATO, while only 28% favored such a step. Moreover, given the opposition to membership, it is not surprising that about half of Ukrainians (51%) gave NATO an unfavorable rating.

Views of membership in NATO vary by ethnicity and region. Ethnic Russians (74%) were far more likely to oppose admission to NATO than ethnic Ukrainians (46%). In terms of regional groupings, respondents living in the East (72%) and South (60%) -- where the percentage of Russians tends to be higher than elsewhere in the country -- were more likely to oppose joining NATO than were those living in the Central region (51%). And in the West a majority (59%) favored their country becoming part of NATO.

Live Piracy Map

Piracy has fallen off the radar a bit, but it's still a menace to maritime trade. Via Malcolm Cook at the Interpreter, here's a neat live map of all recorded pirate attacks in 2010. There's historical data too, stretching back to 2005. It seems there's been a migration of piracy attacks from Southeast Asia to the Gulf of Aden, which Cook attributes to regional anti-piracy efforts.

March 29, 2010

Surge Wars: Obama vs. Bush


Stephen Walt hopes that Obama is going to follow Bush's Iraq surge script in Afghanistan:

First, announce an escalation of the U.S. effort (aka a "surge"), but set a rough deadline for it and quietly put new emphasis on "political reconciliation." (Done). Next, bombard the media with lots of evidence of progress, such as Taliban "strongholds" seized, al Qaeda leaders killed or captured, Taliban leaders arrested in Pakistan, etc., so that people think the surge is working. (Now underway). Third, arrange a diplomatic settlement that requires the phased withdrawal of U.S./ISAF troops, even if their departure is on a rather lengthy timetable. The Iraqi equivalent was the Status of Forces agreement negotiated by the Bush administration in the fall of 2008; in Afghanistan, it would probably entail some sort of negotiation between the Karzai government, the Taliban, and various other warlords (whether by a loya jirga) or some other device (Maybe underway too?). Finally, start removing the "surged" forces more-or-less on schedule-and ahead of the 2012 election cycle-so that you can claim to have avoided the quagmire that critics warned about back in 2009 (Remains to be seen).

I think this overlooks a critical component that distinguishes an Obama surge from Bush's Iraq surge. In the latter, there was an entire corps of pundits and former administration officials heavily invested in portraying the Iraq surge as a victory. Even before President Bush left office, they were proclaiming the early security gains of the Iraq surge as a historic victory. Since the gains have held, they've gone into overdrive.

In Afghanistan, there's no one to declare victory for Obama. Conservative supporters of the president's Afghan surge are on record opposing a 2011 draw-down. It's safe to assume that the country will remain violent and unstable enough in 2011 for them to renew and strengthen their opposition to any large-scale draw-down, especially since it will dovetail with the larger election-year critique of Obama as craven appeaser. And Obama doesn't have much, if any, support for an Afghan surge to his left. That leaves the administration to make the case that they've "won" in Afghanistan by their lonesome.

And 2012 works against Obama in another way. One reason I suspect that Iraq war supporters proclaimed victory with such reckless abandon was the calculation that any ensuing violence could be dumped in Obama's lap. The bigger the proclaimed victory, the harder the partisan hit Obama would take if Iraq's sectarian tensions once again erupted. At the next election cycle, the Obama administration has no one to "hand off" Afghanistan to but (it hopes) itself.

(AP Photo)

Parting Ways

The New York Times reported today that Europe is trying to woo back the U.S. and prove that it can be a credible international partner. Reading Gideon Rachman's blog leaves one with a slightly different impression:

I was struggling earlier today to understand why the French had been so reluctant to involve the IMF in the putative rescue of Greece. In my innocence, I thought it might have something to do with a French preference for a “European solution”. But then a French colleague explained to me. It’s simply that Nicolas Sarkozy sees Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF, as a potential rival in the next French presidential election. So he doesn’t want to agree to anything that might make Strauss-Kahn look good.

There is a similar ludicrous jostling going on between José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, and Herman Van Rompuy, the first appointee to the new post of president of the European Council. In theory, the two men work closely together. In practice, they are shaping up as bitter rivals. So, after today’s European summit, aides to the two presidents were busily trying to round up journalists for rival briefings - as each man jostled to show that he spoke for Europe.

Amusing EU disarray aside, I don't think the hand-wringing over the U.S. "drifting away" from Europe is really justified. Europe used to be a major global flash-point. And now it mostly isn't (Ukraine and Georgia being notable exceptions). That's a good thing for Europe and the U.S. Isn't it natural that the focus is shifting elsewhere?

(AP Photo)

Video of the Day

Today's video of the day focuses on one of the few terrorist or insurgent organizations that claims to be Christian, the Lord's Resistance Army in central Africa:

To learn more about the Lord's Resistance Army, you can read a summary of the organization, a summary of the Ugandan Civil War, a summary of the Human Rights Watch Report, and the report itself.

For more videos on topics from around the world, check out the RealClearWorld videos page.

Black Widows


Bob Ayers offers his analysis on the culprits behind today's suicide bombings in Russia:

The use of women as suicide bombers or "Black Widows," is one way in which the struggle in Chechnya is different from al Qaeda and more analogous to the military campaign waged by the IRA in Northern Ireland, says Ayers.

"This war is politically motivated, it is not about a religious ideology as in the case of al Qaeda, so everyone participates and it is ultimately irrelevant if you are a man or a woman," said Ayers.

"They are not like al Qaeda who might say women should be hidden away and have no role in attacks."

The "Black Widows" are believed to be made up of women whose husbands, brothers, fathers or other relatives have been killed in the conflict. The women are often dressed head-to-toe in black and wear the so-called "martyr's belt" filled with explosives.

The subtle distinctions and differences in the Global War on Terror will no doubt be fodder for commentary in the coming days. Stay tuned to RealClearWorld for the latest updates from Moscow, and be sure to check out our Russia homepage throughout the week for the latest opinion and analysis on the attacks.

The UK Guardian is also running a live blog on the metro bombings worth checking out.

UPDATE: Charlie Szrom of AEI adds his own thoughts on the attacks, and counters Ayers.

(AP Photo)

Poll: U.S. Views on Mideast Peace

The Economist and YouGov have a new poll out on American attitudes toward Middle East Peace:


Looking at the full top-lines, there's some uncertainty about whether the U.S. should support creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. 50% of respondents were unsure, whereas 33% were in favor and 18% were opposed to the idea.

Meanwhile, Zogby International also released some new poll data on U.S. views of the Middle East:

More than four-in-five Americans (81%) agree the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a negative impact on U.S. interests, including a majority of both Democrats (88%) and Republicans (77%), a new Zogby Interactive survey finds.

While Americans agree the conflict has a negative impact, they are split about how to deal with the situation. Fifty percent of Americans agree the Obama Administration should steer a middle course in pursing peace in the Middle East. There is a strong divide on this question with 73% of Democrats agreeing that the President should steer a middle course while only 24% of Republicans hold the same opinion. These numbers are largely unchanged from a similar survey conducted in April of 2009.

Zogby walked through the findings at a New America Foundation panel discussion.

It's the Economy, Ahmaq


Iran's nuclear program will obviously demand most of the media's ink, however there's a fascinating budgetary battle raging in the Majlis over domestic energy subsidies:

Based on the 347-billion-dollar budget, the government plans to start a major plan to scrape costly energy and food subsidies thus reducing government expenditure.

However, earlier in March, lawmakers wrapped up 14 long sessions of debate and passed the much anticipated budget bill, permitting the government to eliminate USD 20 billion worth of subsidies — half of the amount requested by President Ahmadinejad.

The Guardian Council also approved "the amendments to next year's budget bill sent by Parliament."

Recalling the Leader's support for the government, Rassai criticized Speaker Ali Larijani, who had said that "parliament would not reconsider the approved budget bill."

Lawmaker Sobhaninia also urged Parliament to support the government.

President Ahmadinejad believes a referendum is the best solution to ending the dispute over the proposed economic reform plan.

For a good primer on the subject, check out Katie Engelhart's Maclean's piece from last month.

UPDATE: Jamsheed and Carol Choksy also wrote a good piece on Iran's economic predicament for our own RealClearMarkets earlier this year.

(AP Photo)

Whither the Special Relationship?


The House of Commons report on U.S.-UK ties that Kevin linked to below is sure to generate further angst about the state of America's alliances. But, in this case at least, such angst is probably unwarranted.

You can just as easily read the report as saying "no more Iraqs." That is, the U.S. can't simply assume British support for any policy Washington endorses. This might be bad news for those pining for a war with Iran, but from a UK perspective at least, why wouldn't they want to preserve a little more flexibility? The report also states:

"We must be realistic and accept that globalisation, structural changes and shifts in geopolitical power will inevitably affect the UK-US relationship".

That sounds reasonable enough to me. It's worth remembering that there have been a number of much more serious flare-ups in U.S.-UK relations than President Obama's reported "coolness" to Great Britain (Mark Tran has a nice run down of them here). I don't think there's any reason to seriously worry about the fundamentals.

Will Inboden disagrees somewhat, saying the relationship is suffering from neglect on both sides of the Atlantic:

Yet the Special Relationship is "not dead yet." There are opportunities here for political leaders in both countries. President Obama, as I have written before, should seize the initiative and set up an official visit with whichever man wins the U.K. elections on May 6, as soon as the new Prime Minister is determined (still most likely to be David Cameron). Last Sunday, Shadow Foreign Minister William Hague and Foreign Minister David Miliband held a Sky News television debate, which revealed few substantial differences between Labour and the Tories on national security policy. Now this foolish House of Commons report offers a chance for Cameron and Hague to draw a clear distinction between their party and Labour.

I personally don't see this becoming a huge issue in British politics, but it would certainly be interesting to watch if it did.

UPDATE: Writing in the Times, John Charmley takes a more jaundiced view of the special relationship:

After being dropped straight into the guano at Suez in 1956, Eden wondered in his memoirs whether it would have served Britain better if we had taken a leaf from de Gaulle’s book and treated the Americans mean to keep them keen. Now even this committee of MPs has realised that behaving like a love-struck co-dependent only works when the object of that dependency reciprocates.

To be fair to the Americans, they have long made their attitude clear: the sudden end of lend-lease in 1945; insisting on interest on the loan Britain begged them for in 1946; leaving us and the French dangling at Suez; insisting that we should join the Common Market; and even when the Argentinians invaded British territory in 1982, President Reagan had to be pushed by his Defence Secretary out of neutrality. One might have thought then that an inability to be able to distinguish between a nasty dictatorship and an ally might have given the British Government a clue to the real nature of the Anglo-American relationship.

(AP Photo)

All Politics Is Loco, Ctd.

So last week I lamented the fact that Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds seemed to be letting his own personal dislike for a particular politician cloud his better judgment. Well that same disdain now appears to be affecting his vision.

Linking to a Times piece on a recent assessment of the U.S.-UK "special relationship," Reynolds adds, in obvious reference to the Obama administration:

Yeah, so far this “smart diplomacy” thing isn’t living up to the promises
The article is sensationally titled "It’s over: MPs say the special relationship with US is dead." It's also, seemingly, the only part Reynolds actually read. Let's see what this report - compiled by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee - has to say about Mr. Obama's foreign policy blunders. From the actual article:
The report also warns that the perception of the UK after the Iraq war as America’s “subservient poodle” has been highly damaging to Britain’s reputation and interests around the world. The MPs conclude that British prime ministers have to learn to be less deferential to US presidents and be “willing to say no” to America.

The report, entitled Global Security: UK-US Relations, says Britain’s relationship with America is “extremely close and valuable” in a number of areas, particularly intelligence co-operation. However, it adds that the use of the phrase special relationship, in its historical sense, “is potentially misleading and we recommend that its use should be avoided”.

In an apparent rebuke to Tony Blair and his relationship with President George W Bush, the report says there are “many lessons” to be learnt from Britain’s political approach towards the US over Iraq.

“The perception that the British government was a subservient poodle to the US administration is widespread both among the British public and overseas,” the MPs say. “This perception, whatever its relation to reality, is deeply damaging to the reputation and interests of the UK.”

While the relationship between the American president and the British prime minister was an important part of dealings between the two countries, the cabinet and parliament also had a role to play. “The UK needs to be less deferential and more willing to say no to the US on those issues where the two countries’ interests and values diverge,” the MPs say.

They are also critical of the US use of extraordinary rendition and torture. The report calls for a comprehensive review of the use by the CIA of British bases, such as that on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, to carry out extraordinary rendition.

So the article, citing the perception of British subservience to American interests during the Blair and Bush administrations, could just as easily have been titled "Picking Up the Pieces: Challenges Facing the Brown and Obama administrations." Obviously, for dramatic, contemporary effect, the Times went in another direction editorially.

As I noted in my first post, I'm certainly not naive to the realities of political and ideological gamesmanship, but this is still disappointing coming from a smart guy with such reach and ability to influence people.

It's also kind of sloppy. If I, for the sake of argument, were to misleadingly title a post "Glenn Reynolds doesn't read the articles he links to," and then provided an entirely different item for my evidence, I sure hope someone would read it and call me out on that.

Let's hope Reynolds updates with a correction.

March 28, 2010

Poll: The Next American Century?

Rasmussen Reports:

Just 27% of U.S. voters now think the United States will still be the most powerful nation in the world at the end of the 21st century, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. That's down eight points from the previous survey in February just after a highly-publicized U.S. military surge in Afghanistan

Thirty-nine percent (39%) say America will not be the most powerful nation at the end of the century, and another 35% are not sure.

Democrats are more confident than Republicans that the United States will still be number one. Voters not affiliated with either major political party are more evenly divided on the question.

Syria and Mideast Status Quo


Joshua Landis is perplexed by America's Mideast priorities:

For some largely inexplicable reason, Washington has decided that Iran is its greatest foreign policy challenge and a risk to world peace that must be stopped. While the fear of Iran is being ginned up, the Arab-Israeli conflict, a problem that the US can actually do something about, will be set aside and ignored.

With this speech, Assad is recognizing this state of affairs. It means that his country will likely be pushed into greater conflict with Israel and the US. In a showdown, he will stand with Iran. The Arab League will be discussing the withdrawal of the Arab Peace Initiative during its meeting in Libya this weekend. What else can the Arabs do? The vast majority of Arabs are glad that Syria is keeping the pilot light of Arab resistance lit.

So is it the sixties all over again?

[h/t FP Watch]

(AP Photo)

March 27, 2010

No Cold Turkey for Israeli Hardware

Russia has offered technology transfer and joint development of fifth generation fighter PAK-FA, also known as T-50, to Brazil, according to Alexander Fomin, Russia's Deputy Director of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation. Russia also offered to transfer to Brazil several Su-35 jet fighters, which already have a number of technologies used in the PAK-FA.

Earlier, Russia proposed similar joint development of fifth generation fighter to India. Russia's OKB Sukhoi Aircraft Company and India's Hindustan Aeronautics will participate in a joint project, the contract for which has not yet been signed.

And while Turkish political establishment may criticize Israel and give it cold shoulder, the military cooperation between the two countries continues. Israel Military Industries (IMI) delivered six Heron unmanned aerial vehicles to Turkey. Istanbul will get a total of 10 UAVs, with the remaining four Herons to be transferred before the end of April 2010. Heron UAV family includes a modification known as "Eitan", which was recently in the news for its capacity to fly as far as Iran.

No More Love for Unilateralism?

Back when the United States was an Empire that could create its own reality, allies were seen as nothing more than a hindrance to our unipolarity. Unilateralism was in vogue, with conservatives championing an America willing to break publicly with traditional friends who didn't want to follow us into battle. Coalitions of the willing would replace the more staid, formal alliances that had guided American policy for decades. We didn't need "Old Europe."

Well, that was then. Now apparently, spurning allies is bad. Robert Kagan, who once asserted that Europeans operated on a different planet than the United States, is now aghast at how the Obama administration is supposedly treating our steadfast European allies. Charles Krauthammer, who believed the U.S. could ride herd over the rest of the world with "implacable demonstrations of will" is now a shrinking violet, wringing his hands nervously over how the Obama administration is being mean and thoughtless to our good friends.

What on Earth could explain such an about-face?

All Politics Is Loco

Glenn Reynolds writes:

Possibly Obama just hates Israel and hates Jews. That’s plausible — certainly nothing in his actions suggests otherwise, really.

This debate is veering into waters we'd rather not traverse here on The Compass, but I believe this ties into my earlier post on the future of U.S.-Israeli relations. That relationship will remain substantively unchanged, and I get the sense that those lamenting a "drift" between the two countries - mostly critics on the right - are simply reaching for calamity and chaos out of political dislike for Barack Obama rather than anything truly substantive.

I don't care about that; I get it. The party on the 'outs' has to find a way to de-legitimize the party on the 'in' and justify its own message and rationale for public office. I get that. But I also think Reynolds is a smart and thoughtful guy, and this is a debate in need of smarter and more thoughtful commentary than baseless charges of antisemitism.

Other presidents have pushed harder on Israel over the same sensitive matters. Making this all about Obama for political expedience does, in my opinion, a disservice to the discussion.

[h/t the Dish]

The Transactional Special Relationship

I've said my piece on the Israel-East Jerusalem-Biden-Bibi-Obama kerfuffle, but I wanted to highlight this projection made by Peter Wehner on U.S.-Israeli relations down the road:

Because of what is unfolding, there will be significant injury to our relationship with Israel. But it is also doing considerable damage to America’s moral standing. At its best, America stands for the right things and stands beside the right friends. In distancing us from Israel, Obama is distancing America from a nation that has sacrificed more for peace, and suffered more for their sacrifices, than any other. It is a deeply discouraging thing to see. And it is dangerous, too. Hatred for Israel is a deep and burning fire throughout the world. We should not be adding kindling wood to that fire.

I'm not entirely indifferent to this argument, and a similar point was made in one of our comment threads. Perhaps it is true that critics of America's relationship with Israel have glossed over the benefits - both tangible and not so tangible - in the relationship, while at the same time placing too much emphasis on the military aid provided. Let's, for the sake of argument, grant that.

The problem however with this argument is that the United States has had diplomatic brouhahas with allies that predate the Israeli relationship; allies with which we also share democratic ideals, not to mention the sharing of intelligence and other more tangible items. We had one of these blowups with Britain just recently. But the U.S.-U.K. relationship will endure - despite any harsh words and tough rhetoric exchanged - because the inherent value and history in the relationship is stronger than any contemporary flare-ups.

What then does it say of the U.S.-Israel relationship that one side cannot endure even the slightest of criticism from its most precious and "special" ally? Why do analysts like Peter Whener consider a passing kerfuffle to be a crisis if our ideals are so in sync?

Critics talk as though Obama is the first president to tie aid and support to policy, which he most certainly isn't. And were Washington's relationship with Israel a normal, healthy one, this wouldn't be such a problem. The idea that friends and allies can critique each other isn't, as Larison notes, a new one. And it makes sense that countries will apply conditions to foreign aid that are consistent with that country's interests and ideals. America does this with its other allies, as does China. But our special relationship with Israel is different and is, as a result, far more "special" - and peculiar.

So allow me to make my own prediction: the United States will continue to provide a large and unique sum of military aid to Israel, the two countries will continue to operate in conjunction on specific threats, such as Iran, and - sadly, by my view - the status quo will remain the status quo for the indefinite future. Israel will be no more "isolated" than it already is, and Jerusalem will continue to be indifferent to this isolation so long as the United States continues to hand it unqualified military support on an annual basis.

Iran and "Red Lines"


I agree with much of what Ilan Berman has to say on containing Iran in this morning's Washington Times, but I have to nitpick one of his points:

The sine qua non of real containment is the ability of the United States to shape how a nuclear Iran behaves under any and all circumstances. Here, the comforting comparisons between the Soviet Union and the Islamic republic fall flat. During the Cold War, the U.S. government and its Soviet counterpart communicated regularly, interacted extensively and, as a result, had a clear idea of each other's political "red lines." By contrast, despite the Obama administration's best efforts at "engagement," our contacts with Iran's leadership are sporadic and ad hoc and have yielded little insight into its strategic culture.

True, however even at its worst, the Islamic Republic has had an often cynical propensity to deal with the United States when it was in the regime's own strategic interest to do so. There were "red lines" during the Geneva Contact Group meetings, when Tehran essentially aided Washington in its Afghan war planning. The two countries talked a lot - or, more precisely, talked a lot about talking - about joint activity on Iraq security. And we certainly talked during Iran-Contra. That was a "red line" of sorts. There was even a famous (or infamous) gift exchange.

I think the problem isn't that these "red lines" don't exist, but that the Iranians currently see no strategic value in forging clear "lines" over their nuclear program. To date, the strategic value in having nuclear weapons - or moreover, the strategic value in publicly "not" pursuing nuclear weapons - has outweighed the benefits in disarming and better integrating into the global economy. If the U.S. had more direct economic leverage over Iran, perhaps things would be different. But we don't.

I'm with Berman on containment; I think it would be a diplomatic and strategic failure for the United States to accept a nuclear-armed Iran. But we could accept and manage it, and I think the Iranian regime even hopes for this. A nuclear weapon doesn't just allow Iran to snub the international community; it allows the regime to talk on its own terms and timetable. The Iranian leadership is well aware that it's being talked at more than with under current circumstances, and they want to change that dynamic. A nuke would do that.

(AP Photo)

March 26, 2010

Canadians Spend More Time Online

A new poll finds that Canadians spend more time on the Internet than on the boob tube:

Respondents to the online survey, carried out by Ipsos Reid, spent an average of 16.9 hours watching television in comparison. Men are spending more time online than women, at 20 hours compared to 16.

The study also found that those aged between 18 and 34 are spending 20 hours a week online compared to 18 hours for those above 35, and that those with a university education watch less television each week compared to those without university education.

Poll: China, Iran Top U.S. Threat List

Rasmussen Reports:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 25% of voters now rate China as a bigger threat to U.S. national security than five other key nations. That’s second only to Iran, which is viewed as the number one threat by 30%....

Fifteen percent (15%) of voters now view North Korea as a bigger threat to U.S. national security than any of the other nations on the list regularly tracked by Rasmussen Reports. Rounding out the list are Pakistan (9%), Afghanistan (4%), Iraq (4%) and Russia (2%).

Welfare for Everyone But Americans

Rich Lowry follows Max Boot in warning that spending a little less on defense in favor of expanded entitlements will lead America to the blighted Hellscape that is modern Europe. Specifically, they fear that increased domestic spending will come out of the Pentagon's hide, diminishing America's global power and forcing us to behave like cowardly, cynical Europeans. That's the pitch at least, but the reality of the conservative position is a bit more nuanced. The argument, in a nutshell, is that other countries have a higher claim on American taxpayers' income than U.S. citizens do.

Of course, this isn't stated so baldly but it is the reality of the Lowry/Boot argument.

It's widely understood and indeed celebrated by conservatives that America's defense posture is a "global good" - i.e. something that the American taxpayer provides for the sake of the world (and, the theory goes, ourselves). American taxpayers sustain a military establishment vastly in excess of what is needed to defend the continental United States so that we can also defend South Korea, Japan, Europe, the Middle East, Israel, sea lanes, freedom, etc.

We cultivated these countries and regions because keeping them "open" to the U.S. economically and politically was a vital strategic interest at a time (the Cold War) when a rival power sought to close them off. And we kept Asia and Europe (and now the Middle East) open to the United States by making them dependent on the United States for that most basic of need, their security.

In the context of the Cold War superpower standoff, such a strategy made sense. They were insecure and weak, the Soviet Union was aggressive and Communism had taken root in Asia. But when the Cold War ended, we not only refused to ween our dependents, we added new ones to further the new and unsustainable ambition of global hegemony. The end result is that the American taxpayer provides the global security equivalent of welfare to countries that are, with few exceptions, wealthy, industrialized and fundamentally friendly to the United States and the current international system.

Before the health care bill was even a gleam in Obama's eye, the U.S. was shoveling over billions upon billions of dollars in welfare payments internationally even as the strategic rationale for doing so had completely dissolved.

I am very sympathetic to anyone objecting to new federal entitlements on the grounds that the country is already reeling under debt. But to say we shouldn't spend our own money on ourselves so that other countries won't have to bump up the amount of GDP they devote to their own defense budgets strikes me as perverse.

Chinese Censorship in Action

We often read or hear about the oversight and restrictions imposed by the Chinese Communist Party on Internet content in China. But amidst the fallout from the recent Google announcement to forward its Chinese searches to Hong Kong, China Digital Times translated orders that were transmitted on March 23 directly from the CCP State Council to various news outlets and websites:

All chief editors and managers:

Google has officially announced its withdrawal from the China market. This is a high-impact incident. It has triggered netizens’ discussions which are not limited to a commercial level. Therefore please pay strict attention to the following content requirements during this period:

A. News Section

1. Only use Central Government main media (website) content; do not use content from other sources
2. Reposting must not change title
3. News recommendations should refer to Central government main media websites
4. Do not produce relevant topic pages; do not set discussion sessions; do not conduct related investigative reporting;
5. Online programs with experts and scholars on this matter must apply for permission ahead of time. This type of self-initiated program production is strictly forbidden.
6. Carefully manage the commentary posts under news items.

B. Forums, blogs and other interactive media sections:

1. It is not permitted to hold discussions or investigations on the Google topic
2. Interactive sections do not recommend this topic, do not place this topic and related comments at the top
3. All websites please clean up text, images and sound and videos which attack the Party, State, government agencies, Internet policies with the excuse of this event.
4. All websites please clean up text, images and sound and videos which support Google, dedicate flowers to Google, ask Google to stay, cheer for Google and others have a different tune from government policy
5. On topics related to Google, carefully manage the information in exchanges, comments and other interactive sessions
6. Chief managers in different regions please assign specific manpower to monitor Google-related information; if there is information about mass incidents, please report it in a timely manner.

We ask the Monitoring and Control Group to immediately follow up monitoring and control actions along the above directions; once any problems are discovered, please communicate with respected sessions in a timely manner.

Addition guidelines:

- Do not participate in and report Google’s information/press releases
- Do not report about Google exerting pressure on our country via people or events
- Related reports need to put [our story/perspective/information] in the center, do not provide materials for Google to attack relavent policies of our country
- Use talking points about Google withdrawing from China published by relevant departments

This is not going to help the Chinese government's public image in the international media war over the Google spat.

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

March 25, 2010

America's European Future

Max Boot peers ahead into the dystopia that is modern Europe in the aftermath of President Obama's health care bill:

To consider the implications for defense, look at Europe. Last year government spending in the 27 European Union nations hit 52% of GDP. But most of them struggle to devote even 2% of GDP to defense, compared to more than 4% in the U.S.

When Europeans after World War II chose to skimp on defense and spend lavishly on social welfare, they abdicated their claims to great power status. That worked out well for them because their security was subsidized by the U.S.

True, but it also worked out well for them because they had one main adversary and when that adversary collapsed, nothing on par rose to take its place. So modern Europe is relatively secure from conventional military threats, key members have a nuclear deterrent and it still has a serious, albeit small, conventional military capacity. But, as Boot notes, they don't have much in the way of sustained power projection:

But what happens if the U.S. switches spending from defense to social welfare? Who will protect what used to be known as the “Free World”? Who will police the sea lanes, stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, combat terrorism, respond to genocide and other unconscionable human rights violations, and deter rogue states from aggression? Those are all responsibilities currently performed by America. But it will be increasingly hard to be globocop and nanny state at the same time. Something will have to give.

Lucky for us, the free world is considerably safer now than it was when we were sustaining massive conventional and nuclear forces to fend off the Soviet Union. And none of the specific concerns Boot cites above seem either tremendously expensive to fulfill or are even necessarily in need of a military solution.

A lot of countries are currently policing sea lanes - including Europe! The U.S. can spend less on defense and still field a capable navy. When it comes to stopping WMD, how large a role is the military really playing here? It was the CIA and other allied intelligence services that uncovered and put a stop to the AQ Khan network. The military clearly has a somewhat larger role to play in stopping terrorism, but if you don't conflate "stopping terrorism" with "nation building" this isn't hugely expensive either. We don't do a large amount of "responding to genocide" in the first place. Rogue states like Iran and North Korea tend to be regional problems with a very limited ability to strike directly at the U.S., and even a decreased defense budget would more than enable us to respond to an act of aggression from third-rate powers.

Simply curtailing our huge investments in Iraq and Afghanistan and not expanding the Army would help save the U.S. billions in defense without precipitating a wholesale retreat from our role as a global military power.

UPDATE: See also Christopher Preble. And thinking about this a little more, I'm wondering what Boot's pitch is to the people who are now going to receive health care benefits - sorry, but it's more important that the U.S. protect Saudi Arabia from Iran? And I say this as somehow who is skeptical about saddling our government with more entitlement spending....

UPDATE II: Via Matthew Yglesias, the OECD figures for health care expenditures shows that the U.S. already outspends Europe by a fairly large margin on health care while maintaining the Empire. So even with "European-style" health care expenditures, there's still plenty of slack to spread freedom and battle evil should their leaders so choose:


Poll: Palestinians Would Elect Fatah

Via Angus Reid:

Fatah remains more popular than its opponent Hamas amongst Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, according to a poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. 42 per cent of respondents would vote for Fatah in the next legislative election, down one point since December.

Hamas is far behind with 28 per cent. 30 per cent of respondents would vote for other parties or remain undecided.

The Military Option in Iran

Tony Blair goes there:

We should be clear also. Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons capability.
 They must know that we will do whatever it takes to stop them getting it.The danger is if they suspect for a moment we might allow such a thing.

Alex Massie writes:

The problem with this, however, is that it simply provides more incentives - if they needed any! - for Iran to press on with its nuclear programme to guarantee, from their perspective, their own defence.

This, I think, is likely to be true whether the US or Israel launch airstrikes or not and also true even if those strikes "work". The rational response to being attacked is to build up your defences so it won't happen again. Why should we suppose that the Iranians would react any differently?

Equally, it's not hard to see how this sort of talk and behaviour both strengthens the existing (vile) regime and makes it likely that, for reasons of national pride and honour if nothing else, any alternative, successor regime (should there be one) will also be likely to press ahead with the nuclear programme.

So what, exactly, is Blair hoping to achieve with this sort of talk?

Nothing productive. There is no way to convince Iran we'll "do whatever it takes" unless we really are willing to do whatever it takes. And clearly there are a fair number of policy-makers in the U.S. and Europe that would rather not "do whatever it takes" but rather something short of that.

Proponents of keeping the military option publicly "on the table" don't seem to appreciate the fact that the more you talk about using military force, the more you narrow your options until you have to either stand down and be humiliated or actually use force. Threats are only credible if you're actually willing to see them through, which is why they should be used exceedingly sparingly.

A "Shift in Perception"

Victor Davis Hanson writes on the East Jerusalem row:

The subsequent result is not so much a cut-off of U.S. aid as a subtle shift in perception abroad: Israel’s multiple enemies now are almost giddy in sensing that America is not all that into protecting the Jewish state, intellectually or morally. And given the nature of the UN, given the power of oil, given endemic anti-Semitism, given the collapse of classical liberal thought in Europe (e.g., Britain was far more deferential to Libya in repatriating a supposedly “terminally ill” mass murderer to Tripoli than it is currently with Israel), and given the realpolitik amorality of Russian and Chinese foreign policy, the world as a whole can now far more easily step up its own natural pressure on Israel, at just the moment when it increasingly has no margin of error with a soon-to-be nuclear Iran.

I'm really not sure if there's any serious discussion left to be had with those who make such claims. I've already addressed this argument here, here and here, so in short, I'll simply note that President Obama has done nothing to change America's strategic relationship with Israel, and no one - no one - will be allowed to militarily challenge the long-term security and health of the Jewish state. Period.

But for some reason - and you saw it even in our blog exchange with AEI's Danielle Pletka - the president's foreign policy critics continue to confuse puffery and rhetoric for substantive policy. Lacking any real evidence with which to indict him, these critics instead talk about tone, feelings and "perception," while glossing over the fact that Washington provides Israel with nearly a quarter of its annual defense budget.

So while Israel is just as militarily and strategically secure as it has ever been - if not more so - critics like Hanson worry about Israel's perceptual and "intellectual" insecurity . . . whatever that means.

It's becoming increasingly difficult to take these people seriously. Larison has more.

March 24, 2010

Bill Paying in the European Union

While the headlines are tackling debt at the government level, Gallup surveys the citizens of the EU to see how they're getting on (or not) with their own bills:


Poll: Americans Feeling Vulnerable

Rasmussen Reports has a new poll out on the war on terror:

Confidence that America is winning the war on terror is down slightly this month, and belief that the United States is safer today than it was before 9/11 has hit its lowest level ever.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 35% of voters think America is safer now than it was before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. That’s down from 39% last month.

Thirty-eight percent (38%) say the United States is not safer today, and 27% more are not sure.

Confidence has been steadily declining since the Christmas Day terrorist attempt to blow up an airliner landing in Detroit.

Is Euro-Skepticism a Tory Liability?

Daniel Larison follows up on yesterday's post on the UK elections:

...one of the common themes in a lot of Tory Euroskeptic rhetoric is that Britain should align itself more and more closely with the United States and keep its distance from Europe. This view has an intelligent, learned exponent in John Redwood and a ridiculous, ideological one in Daniel Hannan. Regardless, the most reliably “pro-American” Tories are typically the biggest Euroskeptics, and Europhile Tories tend to be more critical of U.S. policy. The question is not whether a Euroskeptic-led Britain will be “relevant” or valuable to the United States (there is far more to the relationship that London’s ability to act as go-between with other Europeans), but whether the British electorate will be satisfied with a foreign policy that tilts more towards Washington than towards Brussels in ways that most British voters don’t like and which seems to get Britain nothing in exchange.

Whitewashing Assad


Totten scratches his head over the Obama administration's apparent Syria policy:

Engaging Syria and describing Assad as a reasonable man would make sense if something epic had just happened that might convince him to run his calculations again, such as the overthrow or collapse of Ali Khamenei’s government in Iran. Otherwise, the administration is setting itself up for another failure in the Middle East that will damage its — no, our — credibility. One good thing will probably come of it, though. The naifs will learn. They’ll learn it the hard way, which seems to be the only way most of us learn anything over there. But they’ll learn.

(AP Photo)

China, Google and Rights

The differing views on the Google-China row around the world are quite striking. Most interesting is the different conception of rights, which no one seems to state, but are worth pointing out here.

In the Daily Telegraph, Shane Richmond writes:

Google has come to the right decision in pulling out of China. However, its reason for doing so seems trivial compared to the human rights abuses it ignored to be there in the first place. It leaves me wondering whether there is more to this decision than we know.

In contrast, an editorial in China Daily contends:

As we all know, each country has its own rules. There is no such a thing as absolute freedom. This Internet company, with its operation in many countries for many years, should have more than enough knowledge that there can't be absolute freedom on the Internet, either. There is also no freedom for an Internet company to upload novels without notifying the writers and paying them.

Does Google have such freedom in the United States? It certainly doesn't. Then why does this company want to have its own way in China? There is no reason for the Chinese government to allow Google to do whatever it wants to do simply because it is an American company.

Implicit in each of these viewpoints is a fundamental conflict on property rights. In the western conception, as typified by the Telegraph, property rights are a function of individuals. Information should be publicly available, and the government should not have any say in it. Also implicit is the right of a creator of information to publicize his or her creation, and the responsibility of the government to protect their rights to remuneration and creative control over that creation.

However, a striking contrast comes in the Chinese editorial, where rights are primarily vested in the state. In this conception, any restriction is a function of the state, so copyright law and censorship are both justified. It's therefore not a conflict to say that the state protecting copyright law is the same as censorship, because from the state's perspective, they are both powers of the state.

March 23, 2010



After General Petraeus testified before Congress that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was impacting American security, Abe Foxman at the Anti-Defamation League responded with a letter claiming that the General was wrong:

The assumptions Gen. Petraeus presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee wrongly attribute "insufficient progress" in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and "a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel" as significantly impeding the U.S. military mission in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and in dealing with the Iranian influences in the region. It is that much more of a concern to hear this coming from such a great American patriot and hero.

The General's assertions lead to the illusory conclusion that if only there was a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the U.S. could successfully complete its mission in the region.

Gen. Petraeus has simply erred in linking the challenges faced by the U.S. and coalition forces in the region to a solution of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and blaming extremist activities on the absence of peace and the perceived U.S. favoritism for Israel. This linkage is dangerous and counterproductive.

I also took issue with what the General said and I do think there is an unfortunate and distracting tendency to look at the peace process as the key to solving all of our problems in the Middle East. That said, there's also a bit of a two step going on with respect to the question of whether Israel is still of overwhelming strategic value to the U.S. On the one hand, we're told that Israeli behavior we don't approve of - specifically settlement activity beyond the 1967 Green Line - has absolutely no strategic impact beyond its borders and thus it's erroneous to fault Israel for harming the U.S. position in the region. On the other hand, we're told that Israel's military superiority subdues the entire Levant and reinforces a beneficial (for the U.S.) "Pax Americana" in the region.

In other words, the perception and reality of Israel's military superiority has a broad psychological and strategic impact on the rulers of Arab states and on the power balance in the region that works in our favor. But Israel's settlement activity has no psychological and strategic ramifications beyond the West Bank and certainly does nothing to hamper U.S. interests. The benefits of the partnership are cast far and wide while the downsides are confined to a handful of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Maybe I'm missing something, but that doesn't quite add up.

(AP Photo)

What Is a Humble Foreign Policy?

In Character is having a debate centered around the question of "should the United States act with humility in international affairs."

Not surprisingly, John Bolton weighs in on behalf of "no." He writes:

Assigning human characteristics to political organizations, however, is essentially false and misleading, and often dangerous. All nations have interests, and some have values, and their respective interests and values frequently conflict. Some, like Woodrow Wilson and his followers (Barack Obama comes to mind) see essentially all conflicts as resolvable through diplomatic means, essentially advocating humility as a way of international life, especially for the most powerful, like their own country. Others, notably Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, see conflict as a more inherent human quality, to be avoided when possible but accepted when the costs to core values and interests would be too high. The Wilsonians see this as the sin of pride replacing humility, with necessarily adverse consequences, although they cite no evidence that humility ever deterred belligerence. Indeed, in the international arena, humility can be fatal.

And this is the real question: both the Wilson-Obama and Roosevelt-Reagan schools want international peace and security, but they diverge significantly on methods.

I think Bolton's response captures the essence of why U.S. foreign policy has been so adrift these past 20 years: we continue to talk about means and not ends. To Bolton, humility is defined by how the U.S. pursues a set of interests, presumed to be universal and self-evident. But shouldn't humility characterize how the U.S. defines those interests in the first place?

The trouble is less that Bolton takes such a dim view of diplomacy, but that the range of nations to which diplomacy is supposedly ineffective is so large as to become unsustainable. Humility is really a question of first-order priorities, not how the U.S. decides to meet those obligations.

And as an aside, a "humble" nation with a more discrete set of interests to defend would not be averse to using force (or hording power). In fact, its threats would be more credible because the world would understand that the United States would not issue them lightly. The end result of Boltonism - whereby all potential foes are threatened with the "last resort" tool of military force - is a loss of credibility.

Does a Tory Win Spike the Special Relationship?


Max Bergmann argues that David Cameron's Euro-skepticism will hurt him with the U.S. should he prevail in the forthcoming British election:

The problem for the United States, however, is that Cameron’s anti-European stance would only serve to make Britain less relevant to the United States. The fact is that the UK is just not as relevant to the United States if it is on the sidelines of Europe.

British debates presenting UK relationships with the US and Europe, as competing alternatives offer a false and outdated choice. In case the UK hasn’t noticed, US policy toward Europe has shifted away from the divide and rule (old vs. new Europe) approach of the first Bush term. The US now wants Europe as a whole to do more globally, not less.

I'm not so sure about this. That's not to say this isn't the administration's thinking, but whether such an outlook is justified in the first place. First, I would think that the events of the last few months (hello Greece) would serve to reinforce Euro-skepticism, not undermine it. Does Europe really need another powerful voice pulling it in multiple directions?

Second, when you consider that the EU is unable to actually assist one of its own member states, I'm not quite sure how helpful the Obama administration can truly expect the EU to be particularly since, as noted above, it's consumed by its own rather significant problems.

(AP Photo)

A Coming Backlash Against China?

Evan Feigenbaum points to the signs:

First, there’s China’s sheer weight in the world, which has now grown to the point that Beijing has acquired the capacity to push back at American policies as never before. China has said “no” plenty of times in the past. But what’s new is the combination of interdependence and a more weighty China. So while the administration has met some of this pushback with American counterpressure, China’s government seems lately to be probing and testing, exploring the possibilities and limits of Beijing’s strengthened capacity to say “no” to the United States.

Second, there’s the ongoing debate in China spawned by the recent financial crisis. This has been a theme at meetings I’ve held in recent months with Chinese colleagues. Some have reached sweeping (but, I think, badly exaggerated) conclusions about shifts in the balance of power, China’s “rise,” and America’s “decline.” But at minimum, this sort of sentiment will feed domestic pressures in China. Many, both in and out of China’s government, want to test what Beijing’s growing weight might yield. They are confident of China’s growing strength. They relish the opportunity to, at minimum, make Washington work harder for Chinese support of ostensibly shared objectives. In some cases, they want to see if Washington will accommodate a wider array of Chinese interests.

Third, the domestic politics of U.S.-China relations seem to be changing. This is true on the Chinese side: Chinese exporters, for instance, are resisting calls for exchange rate revaluation, arguing that many companies will go under and China will suffer massive job losses. But it is especially true on the American side, where the old political and business coalition may be fracturing. Some of my old colleagues, I fear, may not appreciate the degree to which the politics of China policy might get away from this president and his administration.

I do think this last point is something worth watching. A number of polls show serious American concern with China (see here and here for instance). What's more, a recent Pew Research poll of elite vs. public attitudes shows a divergence of opinion, with elites less worried about the rise of China than the public at large. There's considerable room, I think, for demagogic politicians to make hay at China's expense.

March 22, 2010

Google vs. China, Round 2


The Google-China row took a fresh twist today with Google announcing on its blog a change to its China policy:

So earlier today we stopped censoring our search services—Google Search, Google News, and Google Images—on Google.cn. Users visiting Google.cn are now being redirected to Google.com.hk, where we are offering uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong. Users in Hong Kong will continue to receive their existing uncensored, traditional Chinese service, also from Google.com.hk....

...In terms of Google's wider business operations, we intend to continue R&D work in China and also to maintain a sales presence there, though the size of the sales team will obviously be partially dependent on the ability of mainland Chinese users to access Google.com.hk.

The NY Times interviews co-founder Sergey Brin who says that negotiating with the Chinese didn't produce much clarity. In a related Times news story, the Miguel Helft and David Barboza write:

The stunning move represents a powerful slap at Beijing regulators but also a risky ploy in which Google — one of the world’s technology powerhouses — will essentially turn its back on the world’s largest Internet market, with nearly 400 million Web users and growing quickly.

It remains to be seen how China will react, but Evgeny Morozov notes that while Google is backing away from China, Chinese tech firms are quietly going global.

(AP Photo)

Video of the Day

In Australia many are up in arms over the arrest of a senior executive at Rio Tinto by China for espionage and corruption.

Rio Tinto is a name many may not be familiar with, but it is a massive international mining interest and the accusation by the Chinese that several senior executives were both corrupt and spies seems a little far fetched. Many more worry that this is a signal that China is starting to close off its markets. The fact that China has a notoriously opaque criminal justice system, and that the four executives plead guilty today without a trial does not help matters.

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

China, U.S. Power, and Cyber-warfare

The New York Times is reporting today that two Chinese academics wrote a paper on a major vulnerability of the U.S. power grid. Some people did not like that much:

Larry M. Wortzel, a military strategist and China specialist, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 10 that it should be concerned because “Chinese researchers at the Institute of Systems Engineering of Dalian University of Technology published a paper on how to attack a small U.S. power grid sub-network in a way that would cause a cascading failure of the entire U.S.”

I would raise two major points of caution. The first is my normal point on Chinese academics, specifically that they really are not powerful in China. Moreover, many academics from around the world like to write papers on topics dealing with the U.S. because it is easy to get information. Pretty much everything about the U.S. that you could want to know as a scholar is online, documented, and cross-referenced, so it is easy to study. This make U.S. systems a natural workshop for scholars interested in almost anything, and offers the side benefit that pretty much every smart person in the world will look at what is happening in the U.S. and give some feedback.

Secondly, however, while it is disconcerting that the Chinese are aware of a hacking vulnerability, cascade failure of a power grid could happen naturally. Moreover, if they were really planning on attacking us that way, they probably would not publish it. It sure would have been nice if in 1939 a professor and grad student at the University of Tokyo had written a paper on the vulnerabilities of the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, including how to fix the problem, but they did not.

Wither Europe?


The Peterson Institute's Anders Aslund says the failure of the Eurozone to come to Greece's rescue shouldn't sound the death knell for European economic integration:

I do not think that the idea of a common European fiscal regime has failed. On the contrary, the recent circus shows how badly needed it is. The Scandinavian countries are doing fine since they by and large stick to the Maastricht criteria. The recent debacle should be a good reason for us Europeans to tighten and straighten our thinking. Few things are as good for progress as a total and complete humiliation—which this is.

I'm not so sure. A new FT/Harris Poll shows declining support for the Eurozone:

The latest FT/Harris poll showed 61 per cent of Germans opposed the idea of their government helping Greece cope with its budget deficit, with just 20 per cent supportive. That compared with 56 per cent opposed to helping and 21 per cent in favour in the UK. Support for Greece was noticeably higher in Spain and Italy, where 45 per cent and 40 per cent were in favour.

German resistance was especially high towards the suggestion that their government should guarantee the debts of another European Union member, which was rejected by 76 per cent of those polled. UK and French opposition to the idea was roughly equal, at about 60 per cent, but Italians and the Spanish were less hostile.

EU leaders are likely to be horrified at the level of support for the idea of breaking up the eurozone - at least temporarily. Asked whether Greece should be asked to leave the eurozone while it sorts out its finances, 32 per cent of Germans agreed. That compared with 27 per cent in the UK, 23 per cent in Spain, 20 per cent in Italy and just 19 per cent in France.

Greece's woes may also have fuelled long-running German scepticism about the benefits brought by eurozone membership by reawaking fears that the euro will not prove as stable as the postwar D-mark they surrendered in 1999.

Some 40 per cent of Germans thought they would be better off outside the eurozone, compared with 30 per cent who thought they would be worse off. In France, Spain and Italy, a larger proportion thought life outside the eurozone would be tougher than remaining inside.

What does the in-fighting among European powers tell us about the EU being a harbinger of a "post national" future? Doesn't seem too imminent now that the chips are down.

(AP Photo)

Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Iran (With Nukes)

Daniel Pipes suggests that Benjamin Netanyahu threaten to launch a nuclear attack against Iran to get the Obama administration to start its own war with the country.

That would go over well.

Lessons Learned


Rand's James Dobbins wades into the whither the Powell Doctrine debate:

Transformation, as pursued by the Rumsfeld Pentagon, had among its objectives the reduction of the size of the deployed force needed to accomplish any given task—by trading manpower for firepower, mobility, and precision. The resultant Rumsfeld Doctrine, if it may be so called, was quite effective in standup battles against less well-equipped and less well-trained adversaries in both Afghanistan and Iraq. But the slimmed-down, high-tech forces initially deployed there proved grossly inadequate to deter the subsequent emergence of violent resistance movements and to defeating the resultant insurgencies.

Both the Powell and Mullen doctrines provide guidelines of enduring value for the deployment and employment of the American military. Mullen certainly has not been arguing for the Vietnam-style incrementalism against which Powell was reacting 18 years ago; nor, one expects, would Powell argue today against the discriminate application of firepower that Mullen is advocating.

And both Mullen and Powell likely recognize that the American forces originally deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq were both too underwhelming in size and too indiscriminate in their application of firepower to achieve decisive results. From failed doctrines, at least there are lessons to be learned.

I would agree with the last line, but notice the lesson that is being learned here: that the U.S. failed in Iraq and Afghanistan because of a failed military doctrine.

But is there a military doctrine in existence that can create democratic governance and institutions in countries where none presently exist? Is there a military doctrine that can meet the ambitious state-building dreams of civilian policy-makers?

Even assuming the U.S. poured enough troops into Iraq to ensure security and keep a lid on any nascent Sunni insurgency, would civilian policy-makers have been able to construct the democratic Iraq they desired? I'm doubtful.

The lesson Washington seems to be learning from Iraq and Afghanistan is not that civilian policy-makers should set more modest goals and keep a higher-threshold on the use of military force but that next time, the military really should do a better job meeting the expansive vision of their civilian masters. And, if Admiral Mullen's speech is any indication, it seems the military agrees.

(AP Photo)

March 21, 2010

Is Obama Neglecting Asia?

The second problem is related to his first: the same commitment to a leftist agenda creates obstacles to an effective Asia policy. Even if he had made it to Indonesia and Australia, he would not have had much to offer. Obama cannot move an inch on the foreign policy agenda items that matter most to Asians: trade and security. Either he is uninterested in these issues or his party will not let him act on them. On trade, even so much as a mention of the South Korea free trade agreement resulted in severe resistance from his party. If Obama cannot ratify agreements already negotiated, how can he possibly offer a free trade, open investment vision to compete with China's more mercantilist one?

On security, Asians already know Obama will not invest in the military resources necessary to assure the region of American staying power. That too would obstruct his domestic spending agenda. This is a president who essentially asked every Department except for the Defense Department to figure out ways to spend more as part of his fiscal stimulus. He did so while America is fighting two wars and dealing with the menace of China's growing military. Some friends get the picture: Australians are already embarked on a military strategy that hedges against American withdrawal from the Asia-Pacific. - Daniel Blumenthal

I think the first point is one of the more powerful critiques you could lodge against "smart power." Expanding free trade and economic integration seems to be an essential plank in any engagement strategy and yet, as Blumenthal notes, this isn't something the Obama administration has been able to offer as part of the "smart power" portfolio. But without deepening economic ties, what else does "smart power" have to offer?

But I'm not sure about the second half of Blumenthal's argument. First, there is not going to be an American withdrawal from the Asia-Pacific and I'm surprised Blumenthal could even suggest as much given the very public brew-ha-ha over the Futenma airbase in Japan. To recap: the Obama administration wants to keep to a 2006 agreement in place to relocate a Marine airfield inside Japan while the Japanese government, responding to domestic protests, is trying to block the move. That doesn't quite square with an administration pulling away from Asia.

Second, the defense budget is increasing. We currently - and absurdly - spend more money on defense than at anytime since World War II. The real problem is that the mix of investments is shifting toward, in Defense Secretary Gates' words, "winning the wars we're in now" and not doubling down on the conventional platforms necessary to deter a rising China. If you want the U.S. to focus more on Asia (which I agree we should) the real enemy is the misguided effort to transform the U.S. military into a constabulary force to bring democracy to the Greater Middle East.

But we also need to better define the terms of our engagement. As I understand the current Washington consensus, a successful "engagement" strategy means reinforcing the Cold War-era pattern of dependencies, whereby the U.S. taxpayer foots the bill for the defense of most of Asia's major economies. This is why Blumenthal is seemingly aghast that Australia is "hedging" (read: spending more of their own money on their defense) against an American withdrawal. But notice what Australia is not doing - they're not resigning themselves to becoming a Chinese client state. Surely this dynamic, whereby our allies remain our allies while doing more to bolster their defenses against a rising China is something we should be encouraging.

Will French Politics Bankrupt Greece?

Simon Johnson walks you through the byzantine twists and turns.

March 20, 2010

China Gets Ready to Invade America

If you haven't heard yet, in November 2010, a remake of the film Red Dawn will hit theaters. In 1984, this film depicted the Soviet Union invading the U.S. This time, of course, it will be the Chinese.

I recently wrote a short piece on the ignorance imbued in a poke at Chinese history at the end of Alice in Wonderland, which was released a few weeks back. But this pales in comparison to the approaching epic compilation of substantive deficit that is Red Dawn.


You might respond: But you haven't even seen the movie yet.

True. But the premise -- a major Chinese invasion of the United States -- is so defunct of military and diplomatic reality that I really don't have to see the movie to know its factual failure.

Moreover, how does the director, Dan Bradley, and his crew feel about the potential damage this could do to civil society? A sea of American and Chinese people are already woefully ignorant about each other. Many Americans think that Chinese are brainwashed and repressed, while many Chinese think Americans are war-mongers. This movie plays squarely into this ignorance.

And although it is unlikely to set off any wars, given the sensitive balance of U.S.-China relations, this film will be, at least, unhelpful in the matter of public nationalism (or xenophobia) toward the other country.

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

March 19, 2010

(Not So) Fair and Friendly

Shmuel Rosner throws some cold water on that Haaretz poll currently making the web rounds regarding Obama's approval in Israel.

Risky America

CFR's Geo-Graphics blog analyzes IMF data on the distribution of equities in national portfolios. What they found? America has the largest appetite for investment risk among developed economies. Hit the link for a nice graphic.

China, the Realist State


Daniel Blumenthal has a good post up on Foreign Policy on what's behind the seeming shift in elite Western opinion regarding China. He then writes:

All of these pieces were published during a time of demonstrably heightened Sino-American tension. But unlike past periods of Sino-American tension, when opinion-makers blamed America as much as China for bad relations, all of these writers put the blame for tense relations squarely at China's feet. They just disagree on whether China's arrogance is based on strength or weakness. Perhaps it took the departure of Bush-Cheney, so unpopular with elites, for these writers to begin to see China for what the American people know it to be: a growing threat to the United States.

So the answer to the first question is that for a variety of reasons -- including the end of the Bush presidency, the financial crisis, and aggressive Chinese behavior -- there seems to be a trend in elite opinion towards viewing China as a problem.

But what about the second question? Why is China a problem?

I think there's an even more important question: what is the nature of the "China problem?"

Right now, China's behavior is troublesome but in a fairly non-ideological manner: they're trying to maximize their advantage, sometimes at our expense. This is felt most acutely in the economic realm, which is why many liberals (like Paul Krugman) are crying foul. In the military/security realm there's concern about China's military build-up, but mostly in the context of how that impacts America's heretofore unfettered freedom of access, not in the context of an imminent campaign of armed conquest throughout Asia.

In other words, China is behaving how many realists would expect a powerful state to behave. This doesn't preclude conflict (obviously it potentially heightens the chances of conflict) but it does present something of a rub for the United States, especially for our politicians and our foreign policy punditry. We love ideological enemies. Revolutionary regimes - be they in Moscow or Tehran - excite us in a way that grubby, material-interest seeking states do not. This, I think, explains the rather flaccid attempts to date to dress up China's fusion of authoritarianism and capitalism into some kind of looming ideological challenge to the U.S. Otherwise, China's deal cutting with third world tyrants, its military investments, its economic agenda, just doesn't pack that dramatic punch.

The U.S. itself takes a fairly ideological view toward foreign policy, if only rhetorically and inconsistently. The same officials who cannot balance a budget will frequently proclaim that they have unlocked God-given and universal truths about how humanity should order its affairs and - in the heights of excess - affirm that we have a positive obligation to further the Lord's work on Earth.

Obviously, there's very little room in such a worldview for another country to make similarly sweeping claims and China, to the extent that I am aware, has not (and if they're smart, they'll continue to stay mum). This complicates U.S. strategy, at least at the thematic level. When you strip away the rhetoric, the U.S. is no stranger to realpolitik - and that's not a bad thing! But crying "no fair" when China scoops up a good resource deal from a third world tyranny is not as morally edifying as decrying the advance of Evil Empire 2.0.

(AP Photo)

March 18, 2010

Is Clinton a Closer?

As she lands in Russia to haggle over the details of a new arms limitation agreement, Stephen Walt is not sure:

What I’ll be watching is whether Hillary can close the deal. In general, you shouldn’t send the secretary of state or the president to a big-time negotiation unless you’re pretty confident that the deal is ready and all that’s left are some minor details that will be easy to work out. You might also send the secretary if you needed someone with real status to make a final push, but you’ve got to be ready to walk away if the other side won’t play ball. Otherwise, your top people look ineffective, or even worse, they look desperate for a deal.

What worries me is the Obama team’s track record on this front. It was a mistake to send Obama off to shill for Chicago’s bid to host the Olympic games, for example, partly because he’s got better things to do, but mostly because the gambit failed and made him look ineffectual. Ditto his attendance at the Copenhagen summit on climate change. Attending the summit was a nice way to signal his commitment to the issue, but it was obvious beforehand that no deal was going to be reached and his time could have been better spent elsewhere


Video of the Day

For today, please enjoy a little intentional and unintentional humor at an international gathering, courtesy of Vice President Joe Biden:

There is so little humor in international politics, sometimes it is worth highlighting when it comes along.

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

Iran Supplying the Taliban


U.S. officials occasionally claim that Iran is backing the Taliban (or elements within the Taliban) to bloody the U.S. in Afghanistan. Now it seems further proof is emerging:

Channel 4 News can reveal the Taliban insurgency against British and American forces is being supported by Iranian weapons smuggled over the border including mines, mortars and plastic explosives.

The exclusive images and documents show, for the first time, the full extent of Iranian support for the Taliban in the shape of tonnes of weapons of the type being used against UK troops in Helmand province.

That's via a somewhat skeptical Joshua Foust who observes:

So at least based on what they have posted online, it doesn’t seem like a slam-dunk case, to borrow a troubled phrase. It is a narrative that plays to American and British assumptions of Iranian perfidy, but despite the cache of weapons on display it doesn’t directly implicate the Iranian government in any of the smuggling—any more than the Taliban operating in Waziristan directly implicates the Pakistani government (that is to say: neither government is monolithic and certainly has factions that behave semi-autonomously). If, however, the Channel 4 documents actually involve official Iranian government in shipping arms to the Taliban as part of a deliberate strategy to “bog down” the U.S., then it would be the first time concrete evidence of their involvement has been shown. And if that actually happens, then we have a rather big deal on our hands.

I'm not sure how big a deal it because it doesn't appear to be anything new (at least from the perspective of U.S. commanders in the region, who have been suggesting as much for a while now). But I think it does raise an important question about the outlook of the Iranian regime (or the faction that's shipping arms to the Taliban). Specifically, Foust notes that supporting the Taliban cuts against a number of Iranian interests and undermines the substantial investment that Iran has made inside Afghanistan. If they are willing to undermine those interests to kill a few U.S. and NATO soldiers and preoccupy America, what does this tell us about their cost/benefit analysis?

Second, the revelation, if true, underscores the problematic nature of our position in Afghanistan. When the Soviet Union stationed large numbers of troops in the country, the U.S. had a very low cost way to inflict damage on them. By staying inside Afghanistan to wage a state-wide counter-insurgency, we are quite possibly affording Iran the same opportunity. If we can achieve our counter-terrorism objectives from a few remote airfields in Pakistan and some office buildings in Virginia, does it really serve our interests to be so directly exposed to this kind of proxy violence?

(AP Photo)

Elections in Russia


Nikolas Gvosdev parses the results of Monday's regional elections in Russia where Putin's United Russia party suffered a few surprising setbacks:

So what we may be seeing is an attempt by the Kremlin to stabilize the long-term political landscape of Russia around United Russia as the dominant ruling party with three opposition parties permitted to function, to draw off steam and voter ire, and to help legitimize the system. Such an approach worked in Mexico for many decades. Will it be viable in Russia?

This seems to be the view endorsed (although not in so many words) by United Russia itself:

The speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament and top United Russia official Boris Gryzlov admitted that these local elections had been tougher than the last set of polls in October due to rises in utility prices.

"We need losses at a regional level so we recognise the causes of these losses and we correct them," he said in comments published on the United Russia website.

Of course, it's doubtful the party would countenance losses at the national level...

CIA: al Qaeda on the Ropes


CIA Director Leon Panetta gave an interview to the Washington Post claiming that the "secret war" of drone assaults in Pakistan is having a major impact on al Qaeda:

So profound is al-Qaeda's disarray that one of its lieutenants, in a recently intercepted message, pleaded with bin Laden to come to the group's rescue and provide some leadership, Panetta said. He credited improved coordination with Pakistan's government and what he called "the most aggressive operation that CIA has been involved in in our history," offering a near-acknowledgment of what is officially a secret war.

"Those operations are seriously disrupting al-Qaeda," Panetta said. "It's pretty clear from all the intelligence we are getting that they are having a very difficult time putting together any kind of command and control, that they are scrambling. And that we really do have them on the run."

Obviously the CIA has a vested interest in claiming success, but the headlines of late certainly seem to corroborate the program's effectiveness. Which again begs the question of why we're investing a considerable amount of blood and treasure trying to build a state from scratch in Afghanistan if our counter-terrorism objectives are being met more effectively over the border.

(AP Photo)

Pakistan, Afghan Views on Counter-Terrorism

Gallup reports that both Afghans and Pakistanis take a dim view of their governments' efforts to combat terrorism:


Next door, the views are not much better:


Indonesian Views of the United States

On the eve of President Obama's trip to Indonesia, Pew Research offers up some research on the country's view of the U.S. Indonesia and Lebanon are outliers in that they are Muslim-majority countries with a positive outlook toward the United States:

A 2002 poll by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project found that roughly six-in-ten Indonesians (61%) had a favorable view of the U.S., while only 36% expressed an unfavorable view.

With the onset of the Iraq war, however, ratings for the U.S. turned sharply negative. In a 2003 Pew Global Attitudes survey taken shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, only 15% of Indonesians had a positive view, while 83% voiced a negative opinion. America's image rebounded somewhat in response to U.S. relief efforts following the December 2004 tsunami. A Pew Research survey in April-May 2005 found the percentage of Indonesians with a favorable opinion of the U.S. had risen to 38%.

It was not until the election of Barack Obama, however, that positive ratings for the U.S. returned to their pre-Iraq war level. A Pew Research survey conducted in May-June of 2009 found a dramatic improvement in America's overall image -- the percentage of Indonesians with a favorable opinion jumped from 37% in 2008 to 63% in 2009, while the percentage with an unfavorable view dropped from 53% to 30%.

The U.S. received especially high marks from young Indonesians -- 69% of those ages 18-29 expressed a positive view of the U.S., compared with smaller majorities of those ages 30-49 (60%) and over 50 (57%).

March 17, 2010

Paul Krugman, Protectionist

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman published on Sunday his monthly column about China's dastardly currency policies.  The column repeats many of Krugman's earlier comments about global "imbalances" and market "distortions," as well as his not-so-subtle demand that the U.S. Treasury Department label China a currency manipulator in its semi-annual report on the subject (not coincidentally due next month).  Now, I've already expressed some serious doubts about Krugman's thoughts and intentions on the China currency issue, so I won't get into that again because, unlike PK, I can't get away with recycling my work.  Instead, I want to focus on Krugman's new and bellicose policy recommendation for solving the China currency "problem":

Some still argue that we must reason gently with China, not confront it. But we’ve been reasoning with China for years, as its surplus ballooned, and gotten nowhere: on Sunday Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, declared — absurdly — that his nation’s currency is not undervalued. (The Peterson Institute for International Economics estimates that the renminbi is undervalued by between 20 and 40 percent.) And Mr. Wen accused other nations of doing what China actually does, seeking to weaken their currencies “just for the purposes of increasing their own exports.”

But if sweet reason won’t work, what’s the alternative? In 1971 the United States dealt with a similar but much less severe problem of foreign undervaluation by imposing a temporary 10 percent surcharge on imports, which was removed a few months later after Germany, Japan and other nations raised the dollar value of their currencies. At this point, it’s hard to see China changing its policies unless faced with the threat of similar action — except that this time the surcharge would have to be much larger, say 25 percent.

I don’t propose this turn to policy hardball lightly. But Chinese currency policy is adding materially to the world’s economic problems at a time when those problems are already very severe. It’s time to take a stand.

Yes, you read that right.  Former free trade guru and Nobel laureate in trade economics Paul Krugman just strongly advocated the unilateral imposition of 25% tariffs on all Chinese imports if China doesn't respond to U.S. demands to appreciate its currency by 20%-40%.  Even I am shocked by this suggestion.  Not only does it mean that Krugman, who also recently advocated carbon tariffs as a way to force developing countries to impose development-killing climate change policies, finally needs to tear up his free trader card, but it also represents one of the more short-sighted and absurd lines of reasoning that he's ever produced.

Indeed, by my count, Krugman's arguments for this 25% tariff fail from a historical, practical and economic perspective.

(1) Krugman completely distorts (or, to be kind, misreads) history.  As Dan Drezner points out, that U.S.-Germany episode didn't quite unfold as Krugman claims:

It's certainly true that the dollar was overvalued back in 1971. What Krugman forgets to mention -- and see if this sounds familiar -- is that the Johnson and Nixon administrations contributed to this problem via a guns-and-butter fiscal policy. They pursued the Vietnam War, approved massive increases in social spending, and refused to raise taxes to pay for it. This macroeconomic policy created inflationary expectations and a "dollar glut." Foreign exchange markets to expect the dollar to depreciate over time. Other countries intervened to maintain the dollar's value -- not because they wanted to, but because they were complying with the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates. Nixon only went off the dollar after the British Treasury came to the U.S. and wanted to convert all their dollar holdings into gold.

In other words, the United States was the rogue economic actor in 1971 -- not Japan or Germany.

So the U.S. in 1971 wasn't the U.S. of today - it was China.  Minor detail!  So much for that historical and theoretical justification for angry unilateralism, huh?

(2) Krugman is oblivious to geopolitical reality.  Why on earth does Krugman think that the Chinese response to a 25% U.S. tariff will be a change in its currency policy?  If the last several years have proven anything re: China policy, it's that China will not be bullied into changing its domestic policies.  Indeed, when provoked or antagonized, the Chinese are pretty childish - almost always reacting with self-spiting stubbornness and/or direct retaliation (see, e.g., the Section 421 case on Chinese tires or the recent Google censorship case).  AEI's Phil Levy discusses this obvious reality here, and Krugman even mentions China's often-irrational recalcitrance in his new column when he discusses Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's angry response to recent accusations by U.S. politicians (and op-ed columnists) about China's alleged currency manipulation.

So does Krugman really think that a 25% tariff will lead Wen to pipe down, fall in line and quickly appreciate the RMB?  If so, Krugman just hasn't been paying much attention.  Far more likely, China will attack U.S. exports with equivalent unilateralist verve, and hello trade war!  (And I don't mean one of those fake "trade wars" that bad economics journalists have recently grown fond of writing about.  I'm talkin' about a knock-down-drag-out trade war.)

(3) Krugman's solution - and I can't believe I'm typing this - is economically illiterate.  Krugman speaks of U.S. unilateral tariffs only in terms of their affect on China's exporters, and he speaks of Chinese retaliation to this U.S. unilateralism only in terms of China dumping its U.S. debt (something that he, correctly, doesn't think they really can do).  Yet nowhere does Krugman discuss the awful economic effects that a 25% tariff on all Chinese imports would have on the U.S. economy, which, as Krugman himself admits, remains "deeply depressed."  As anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of international economics knows, such tariffs would just devastate American families and businesses because, among other things, (a) the United States imported almost $300 billion in Chinese goods last year, (b) almost 60% of all imports (not just Chinese) are capital goods and equipment used by U.S. companies in order to remain globally-competitive, and (c) trade with China has been proven to dramatically benefit lower-income American families.  In short, this ain't the 1970s anymore (thank goodness).

Indeed, we have a great modern day test case for Krugman's awesome unilateral trade prescription in the recent 35% tariffs that the Obama administration imposed on Chinese tires under Section 421 of U.S. trade law.  The results of those nasty tariffs were skyrocketing domestic tire prices (even with significant trade diversion) and severe supply shortages, with tire retailers and poor American consumers hardest hit.  And Krugman wants to repeat and amplify these protectionist harms by applying similar tariffs to all $300 billion in Chinese imports?  Unbelievable.

Now, coming from someone not versed in trade and economics, ignoring these "unseen" harms would just be stupid.  But for Paul Krugman - someone who obviously knows better - to not at least mention the obvious pain that his recommendations would impose on American businesses and families is the height of intellectual dishonesty. 

Where's the Love?


In the comments, HDarrow asked a good question a few days ago:

Which countries have we improved our relations with in the past year?

Which countries have we worsened our relations with in the past year?

Peter Feaver answers it a bit here.

My short list of countries where we've seen the most movement:

Improved Relations:
1. Russia
2. Pakistan

Worse Relations:
1. Israel
2. China
3. Japan
4. Poland
5. Czech Republic

(AP Photo)

U.S. Views on Settlement Building

Rasmussen Reports has a new poll out:

Forty-nine percent (49%) of U.S. voters think Israel should be required to stop those settlements as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 22% of voters disagree and believe Israel should not be required to stop building those settlements. Another 29% are not sure


The Strategic Logic of Terrorism

If you didn't get a chance to watch the live-streams yesterday, the New America Foundation hosted the University of Chicago's Robert Pape. Pape authored the book Dying to Win: the Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism and has just unveiled a massive database of all the suicide attacks in the world since the 1980s.

At New America, Pape presented the new database and also discussed his research into suicide terrorism. In contrast to the popular assertions that terrorists "hate freedom" or want to build a 21st century Caliphate, Pape documents the true driver of suicide attacks: to compel a democracy to remove combat forces from territory the terrorists prize and/or want to liberate. It is not primarily a function of Muslim extremism, even if Muslim terrorists have embraced the tactic. Before 2003, the largest perpetrator of suicide terrorism was the Tamil Tigers, a Marxist group. It's also used by the PKK, a Kurdish/Marxist terror outfit. Suicide terrorism is popular, Pape argues, because it is lethally effective.

This doesn't mean that terrorists don't despise Western values or don't, in their minds, hope to restore Islamic rule, it just means that those things don't matter nearly as much as is presumed and don't figure centrally into the history of suicide violence.

His entire presentation is worth a watch:

Enemies and Allies

On Monday I asked critics of Obama's policy toward Israel to show me where any substantive changes had been made since the president's election. In response, a regular reader writes:

The problem with your theory that nothing has changed is the behavior of the Obama administration. There is a limited amount of diplomatic oxygen which makes the public vituperation over a position that (a) is an Israeli position held for decades and (b) enjoys wall to wall support in Israel both substantive and regarded as an indicator of true future intentions. So exactly what did Obama, Biden and Clinton think they were going to gain from broadcasting a demand that Israel could and would never accede to? If nothing is at stake, why are these highest of officials wasting time on this?

The U.S. demanding that an ally do something which it could never do and making that the center stage issue is a substantive change because it is an exercise of that limited resource of public leadership. It is a public exercise of a sort that was not used with respect to Iran or Russia.

But Washington doesn't have the kind of influence over Russia and Iran that it should theoretically have over Israel. In the case of Russia, the United States has to deal with a nuclear-armed energy power with a permanent perch on arguably the world's most authoritative deliberative body. In the case of Iran, years of diplomatic and economic disengagement have left the U.S. with few carrots to hang over Tehran's head (this is the crux of the unilateral versus multilateral sanctions debate). Both regimes have a strategic interest in not only resisting American overtures, but even, at times, rebuffing them entirely. This in turn makes diplomacy a more difficult and, yes, finite commodity to be used with care.

It's supposed to work differently with allies however, as shared values and strategic interests should, in theory, make diplomatic cajoling, hand-wringing and arm-twisting unnecessary. If strategic interests line up, then the diplomacy should sort itself out, right? So why is it so different in the case of Israel?

The problem as I see it is that the American relationship with Israel has become something more like a security pact than a strategic alliance, with the United States serving as the guarantor of Israeli security in the region. The tangible and strategic benefits for the United States may be less than apparent, but that's okay. The U.S. supports the security and longevity of the Jewish state not for some cynical or material end, but because it's the right thing to do.

But such a strategic imbalance has to have a line, and I do believe this Israeli government may have crossed it. That the Israelis are somehow entrenched or unwavering on Jerusalem is neither true (indeed, Ehud Barak managed to move public opinion on Jerusalem to what were, at the time, unimaginable points during the Camp David process), nor is it entirely the point. The Obama administration doesn't have the luxury of caring only about public opinion in Israel, as it must also care about public opinion in Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and throughout the entire region. The opinions of a select few despots and monarchs, sadly, must also be taken into consideration by Washington.

Public opinion doesn't lead countries; leaders do. Netanyahu's government can play domestic politics with regional indifference because the region has done likewise to Israel. But the United States can only referee this squabble so long as its own interests aren't being harmed. At this point, it's unclear whether or not this current incarnation of Israeli leadership even knows what's in its own best interest.

It is, at times, a bizarre patron-client relationship, but the actual policy has not changed one bit; the United States, for better or for worse, will guarantee Israel's security through large, unique military aid packages and a regional security umbrella. And if the dialogue between patron and client suddenly seems out of whack, perhaps that's because the relationship has been a lopsided one all along.

March 16, 2010

Protests in Thailand

Joshua Kurlantzick dissects the implications:

Whether the rally succeeds in ousting Abhisit’s government or not, it marks a major milestone in the development of Thai politics. For decades, it was assumed that Thailand’s rural poor had no voice – that people from the rural areas would just accept whatever political decisions were made in Bangkok, even though the Bangkok elites comprised a small minority of the country’s population. By and large, that assumption held: The elites, working through the monarchy, bureaucracy, courts, and Democrat Party, did manipulate Thailand’s political system to ensure they stayed on top, and the rural poor simply went along with any changes. Even when the rural poor elected a leader sympathetic to their interests, elites in Bangkok could bring down the government, through a coup, maneuvers in Parliament, or street protests.

Now, the reverse has happened. The elites have their leader, and the rural poor have come to topple him.

I've haven't read a lot of U.S. commentary damning the Obama administration for not standing with the Red Shirts. Maybe they should have worn green?

What's the Point?

Jeffrey Goldberg unearth's Obama's strategy with respect to Israel:

So what is the goal? The goal is force a rupture in the governing coalition that will make it necessary for Netanyahu to take into his government Livni's centrist Kadima Party (he has already tried to do this, but too much on his terms) and form a broad, 68-seat majority in Knesset that does not have to rely on gangsters, messianists and medievalists for votes. It's up to Livni, of course, to recognize that it is in Israel's best interests to join a government with Netanyahu and Barak, and I, for one, hope she puts the interests of Israel ahead of her own ambitions.

Who Needs Peace?


David Rothkopf hits on an interesting analysis of why the Obama administration is delivering a tongue-lashing toward Israel:

Second, there is no real "or else" backing up U.S. demands for a reversal, an inquiry and the offering of a meaningful olive branch to the Palestinians. Obama, with few foreign policy accomplishments to point to thus far in his young presidency, needs the peace process at least as much if not more than Netanyahu does. Time and leverage are, for the near term at least, on Netanyahu's side ... which is one reason why the U.S. government is opportunistically trying to use this crisis as a pretext to gain concessions out of the Israelis in advance of talks with the Palestinians.

That may be the administration's thinking and it may reflect the political reality, but in the real world, it's precisely the opposite. Netanyahu and/or his coalition might not be concerned about the Palestinians and their looming demographic majority in territory under Israel's control, but ultimately it will matter a great deal to Israel. It may be politically embarrassing for a U.S. President to fail to make peace after promising to do so, but it's going to be a much larger problem for Israel if they don't come to terms with the Palestinians (and vice-versa).

Those advocating pressure on Israel tend to take a fairly condescending attitude toward the country and their ability to understand their interests and make choices on the basis of those interests without U.S. intervention or pressure. It is, alas, a view all too common among realists. Thomas Friedman's column over the weekend analogized it to not letting a friend drive drunk. But I think there's a better one: if you see a friend that insists on driving drunk after you've begged them not to, you get out of the car.

(AP Photo)

Glassman and Pape at New America

There are two great events happening today at the New America Foundation, and we have 'em both live right here at RealClearWorld.

The first event, starting at 12:15 pm EST, will be a discussion with former Undersecretary of State James Glassman on "the role strategic communications can play in helping the United States in Iran."

The second event, set to kick off at 3:30 pm EST, will be a discussion with Professor Robert Pape on the rise of suicide terrorism in Afghanistan.

Steve Clemons will be moderating the day's events, and you can watch them both at either The Washington Note or right here on The Compass following the jump:

Live Video streaming by Ustream

Happy New Year . . . You're the Worst!

Writing on this week's Iranian New Year, Barbara Slavin reports on the kind of Nowruz message the Green Movement might like to hear from President Obama:

The White House had no immediate comment on whether Obama would send a Nowruz message this year, or what it would say.

A top aide to Mehdi Karroubi, one of three candidates who opposed incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June 12 vote, said Obama should send Nowruz greetings this year. However, he argued that the message should focus on human rights and commemorate the scores of Iranians -- such as Neda Agha Soltan -- who have been killed since June by plainclothes thugs, prison torturers, and government executioners.

I think far too much thought gets put into these Nowruz messages, and using them to make subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at the Iranian regime didn't start with President Obama. Because a careful line must be straddled between attacking the regime and insulting the Iranian people (not to mention those all around the world celebrating the holiday), the message tends to be rather canned and predictable; usually something about "respecting the Iranian people, but," and so on.

Does anybody really care? Imagine, for a moment, if the Iranian government used popular Western holidays to take potshots at America and its allies. Oh, wait, it has. They're usually backhanded, they generate some buzz, and then everyone moves on. These "messages" have had very little effect on actual policy, if any, and are mostly forgotten soon after. So why exploit these holidays in the first place? We can guess why Ahmadinejad does it, but should the West play the same game?

This also touches upon a recurring pet peeve of mine: the exaggerated significance of big words and righteous statements. And since words usually get relegated to the archives, we rarely revisit them to take account and measure for actual results. These Nowruz messages - while perhaps cross-cultural, noteworthy and satisfying - don't change much, and if the White House insists on doing one, it should consider sticking to a message that doesn't transparently split Iranians into various factions.

Irony Alert

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast applauds the "soundness of the Iraqi elections."

A Set Back for the Taliban, or Karzai?


The arrest of Taliban Number 2 Mullah Baradar was hailed in the U.S. as a major success in the war against the Taliban. But, according to this AP story, it looks like Hamid Karzai doesn't see it that way:

The detention of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar — second in the Taliban only to one-eyed Mullah Mohammed Omar — has raised new questions about whether the U.S. is willing to back peace discussions with leaders who harbored the terrorists behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

Karzai "was very angry" when he heard that the Pakistanis had picked up Baradar with an assist from U.S. intelligence, the adviser said. Besides the ongoing talks, he said Baradar had "given a green light" to participating in a three-day peace jirga that Karzai is hosting next month


This raises the question of whether Pakistan's increased willingness to move against the Afghan Taliban is really an effort to sandbag the Karzai government's reconciliation efforts. The report also notes that there's a divergence between the American and British position on reconciliation, with the British pushing it more aggressively.

One of the problems with nation building is that if you're disinclined to make the country a semi-permanent ward of the United States, local stakeholders are going to cut the deals they need to make to survive and those deals may work against American interests. So it really comes down to a question of whether it's better to stay in Afghanistan for a few more decades or accommodate ourselves to a less-than-ideal outcome with respect to integrating the Taliban back into the government (if they even can be, it's not a sure thing). So what's the return on investment if we stay in Afghanistan for thirty years?

(AP Photo)

March 15, 2010

Where's the Beef's Beef?


Addressing the U.S.-Israel row, the Wall Street Journal writes:

Then again, this episode does fit Mr. Obama’s foreign policy pattern to date: Our enemies get courted; our friends get the squeeze. It has happened to Poland, the Czech Republic, Honduras and Colombia. Now it’s Israel’s turn.

Seriously, if I hear this argument one more time I'm going to lose my damn mind.

I challenge the increasingly marginal number of pundits, pols and bloggers who are blaming this incident on the Obama administration to explain to me exactly where and how Obama has changed U.S. policy on Israel in any material or substantive fashion. Joe Biden went over to Israel to make nice and say in no uncertain terms that "there is no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel's security" against the Islamic Republic of Iran. The point of the trip was to provide conciliatory rhetoric to the already ample and obvious aid and support that the United States has allocated to Israel for FY2010.

But instead, Biden got sandbagged. Bibi either knew what was coming and anticipated the diplomatic kerfuffle for domestic political gain, or he didn't and demonstrated for all the world to see that he leads an unsteady government incapable of managing even its most precious and important alliance. Either way, the blame falls solely on Netanyahu. And as Tom Friedman, Walter Russell Mead and the Jerusalem Post editorial board all noted, this move made the Israeli government look completely incoherent and incompetent. That this is something coalition saboteurs have engineered in the past should be irrelevant. As Martin Indyk pointed out, never before has it been done to such a high ranking American official, and never, I would assume, to an American public official with a legislative record so staunchly pro-Israel as Biden's.

This was in fact a direct shot at Israel's staunchest ally, during a visit from one of its most ardent supporters. Yet, for some reason which clearly escapes me, there is a faction - albeit a tiny one - pinning blame for the fallout on the Obama administration. Worse yet, this same faction for the most part believes that this event is somehow consistent with a record of disinterest or hostility toward a nation that hasn't had any aid guarantees seriously challenged since 2005, while President Bush was still in office.

Simply mind boggling.

UPDATE: Eric Cantor demands to know why "the Palestinian Authority get a pass," even though Vice President Biden cosponsored the bill labeling the PA a terrorist organization.

Once again, I must ask: where is the substance?

(AP Photo)

Israel and America: Who Blinks First?

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace, it's difficult to see what the Obama administration hopes to achieve with its harsh rhetoric toward Israel, other than set itself up for another climb down. There doesn't appear to be any indication that Netanyahu will disavow building in East Jerusalem (something no Israeli prime minister would ever do). Earlier rhetoric aimed at coaxing the Netanyahu government to toe the U.S. line have failed. So what happens next? If the Israelis don't back down and offer some kind of face-saving concession, that means the U.S. backs down. That's not a fruitful dynamic to have on the eve of indirect peace talks. The Israelis will lose more trust in their U.S. interlocutor and the Palestinians will believe that the U.S. won't be able to "deliver" Israel if negotiations advance toward settlement.

And just as a general aside, how many countries respond to public hectoring?

Paul Krugman: Neocon?

Dan Drezner makes the case.

Video of the Day

In today's video, we get to play "Spot the War Crime":

It goes without saying that Al Jazeera is often very critical of Israel, so they highlight one that implicates Israelis, but there is another war crime that the report describes and it goes completely unnoticed; or at least uncommented on.

For more videos on topics around the world check out the Real Clear World videos page.

France & Britain: The Entente Cordiale

The Financial Times' has a lengthy analysis of British and French moves to better coordinate their defense strategy and military procurements:

Geopolitics too are forcing Paris and London to think harder about their common future. Britain has long cherished its “special relationship” with the US. There is little doubt that London, in the years to come, will continue to regard Washington as its strategic partner of choice. But fears have been growing since President Barack Obama took office that the US no longer sees the relationship as so “special”, and that Washington’s security focus is moving away from Europe, which has proved too weak an ally in Afghanistan, and towards China.

France too is rethinking its alliances. “President Nicolas Sarkozy has taken France into Nato, a factor that makes co-operation with Britain easier,” says Etienne de Durand of the Institut Français des Relations Internationales in Paris. “But France is also coming to terms with Germany’s unwillingness to spend more on military capabilities. France is therefore recognising that, for now, pan-European defence structures are unlikely to do more than short-term crisis management.”

One of the central articles of faith in American security policy is that absent the overt presence, preponderance and guarantee of U.S. military power, harmful arms races will ensue. But as the Financial Times piece makes clear, the opposite is happening, at least with respect to Britain and France. Faced with budgetary constraints and evident uncertainty about America's commitment, France and Britain are exploring cooperative ways to make declining defense budgets go further while still retaining military capabilities far superior to most countries. They aren't surrendering to the enemy dejure or clamoring to piggyback with China. They're adapting.

UPDATE: The other thing to add is that Germany, far from rearming and threatening Europe (as was feared even during the unwinding of the Cold War), is doing the opposite.

A Troubling Turn in China?


John Pomfret in the Washington Post sounds the alarm on China:

China's government has embraced an increasingly anti-Western tone in recent months and is adopting policies across a wide spectrum that reflect a heightened fear of foreign influence.

The shift has accelerated as China has emerged stronger from the global financial meltdown, with a world-beating economic expansion rate and a growing nationalist movement. China has long felt bullied by the West, and its stronger stance is challenging the long-held assumption shared among Western and Chinese businessmen, academics and government officials that a more powerful and prosperous China would be more positively inclined toward Western values and systems.

While the lede sounds ominous, there's nothing in the piece to substantiate that level of alarmism. What's more, in an article purporting to show China rebuffing the West across "a wide spectrum," there's no mention of China's military or Taiwan. That seems like a pretty significant omission.

And I think it shows that U.S. policy, in a perverse way, may have thus far succeeded with China. The U.S-China competition, as noted by the piece, is purely economic. That doesn't mean the competition doesn't carry damaging consequences. The uptick in complaints about currency manipulation suggests it does. But given that some form of competition with a rising China is inevitable, wouldn't it be preferable that it occur along the economic spectrum, and not a showdown over Taiwan or another security-related issue?

Stepping back, two administrations have now premised their engagement with China along the "responsible stakeholder" paradigm. As China developed, we would afford them a greater say in the international system so long as they accepted that system as the basis for world order. But with China failing to tow the Western line on climate change and Iran (and taking a number of other countries, including democratic ones, with them) and evidence emerging that they're gaming the international economic system to their advantage, this position seems less tenable. And while the U.S. still acts as if trading off against a hierarchy of interests flies in the face of all that is good and proper, it may be the future of stable relations with China (and other emerging powers) depends on it.

(AP Photo)

Meanwhile In Dutch Politics...

Hope for humanity:

A Dutch political party formed by self-described pedophiles has voted to disband itself after failing for the second time to participate in national elections in June.

The group, which sought to lower the age of sexual consent to 12, says it could not get the 600 signatures necessary to win a place on the ballot in a country of 16.5 million. It would need 60,000 votes to win a seat in the 150-member Dutch parliament.

March 14, 2010

How Imperative Is Mideast Peace?


One of the more eye-catching incidents in the Biden-Israel fracas last week was the revelation that the Vice President told Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that Israel's settlement activity was endangering the lives of U.S. troops. Now, Mark Perry reports that this same sentiment was communicated in no uncertain terms to the administration by none other than Gen. David Petraeus earlier in the year, following an extensive CENTCOM survey of the region.

This is a provocative accusation, but it's also a self-serving one. It's true that the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict constitutes a security threat to the United States, in that it is a grievance that resonates with many in the Arab and Muslim world. The more the Arab and Muslim world has reason to dislike the U.S., the easier it is for radical movements to gain recruits. But the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a problem among many, not the problem.

Perry writes:

While commentators and pundits might reflect that Joe Biden's trip to Israel has forever shifted America's relationship with its erstwhile ally in the region, the real break came in January, when David Petraeus sent a briefing team to the Pentagon with a stark warning: America's relationship with Israel is important, but not as important as the lives of America's soldiers. Maybe Israel gets the message now.

Naturally you wouldn't expect the commander of CENTCOM to acknowledge the rather large elephant in the room here but the fact is that the larger problem is the presence of so many U.S. troops in the Middle East in the first place.

The decision to deploy military forces in the Middle East and to back-stop regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the principle political grievances of the Islamist terrorists that threaten America, a fact well documented by the University of Chicago's Robert Pape. Sorting out who lives where on the West Bank strikes me as a second-order concern.

(AP Photo)

China's Democratic Reforms

Today, the Associated Press reported on the wrap-up of China's National People's Congress. A largely rubber-stamp legislative body of 3,000 delegates, this year's Congress passed the Communist Party government's annual report with 97.5 percent approval.


Although not a central part of the story, the article goes on to state the following:

"Delegates, who include hundreds of army officers, themselves are carefully vetted by Communist Party officials and selected in a perfunctory election by lower-level committees." [Emphasis added]

It's true that most of these delegates are predetermined in the high-level politics of China, yet the abundance of reporting out of the West on the "perfunctory" processes in Chinese politics understandably skews the perception of its audiences. As much as those in America or elsewhere buy into the common narrative that China is a near-totalitarian regime, it has been experimenting seriously with inner-party democratic reform in lower level elections for over 14 years.

According to one report (PDF) by Joseph Fewsmith in the China Leadership Monitor , in 2001-02, about 5,000 of 16,000 official positions were chosen through elections, some more democratic than others. In some places, there have even been direct, competitive elections for a position, called a “public recommendation, direct election” (公推直选).

And aside from the institutionalized democratic processes, like elections, there are all types of democratic negotiating in China via social movements -- a field which I research. For example, workers might protest over nonpayment in China's southern sunbelt region and, wanting not to risk larger instability, local governments appease their demands. Democracy is more than punching a ballot.

Is China a one-party state? Yes. Is it more repressive than most states in the West? Yes.

But these facts are beside the point. Westerners, and particularly Western media and newswires, have to start seeing some of the complexity in the gigantic world of Chinese politics. As much as it confuses our worldview, we might have to decide that China is not Big Brother.

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

(AP Photo)

George Bush FTW?


Is it time for George W. Bush's victory lap? Not so fast, writes Carlos Lozada:

So, is it time to declare victory and start putting Iraq behind us? Not quite, says Dominic Tierney, the author of "Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics." In Iraq, victory won't become evident with a surrender document, a key battle or a symbolic moment, like an election, but through a series of "incremental gains," much like a war on poverty, said Tierney, a Swarthmore political scientist. "It would take years of Iraq as a stable ally in the Middle East before we can look back and say it was all worth it," he said.

Today's triumphalism could easily dissipate, Tierney fears, if U.S. casualties jump or violence rises as Iraq puts together a new government. But as the United States struggles with wars abroad and political gridlock at home, even temporary public indifference to Iraq may feel like a strange sort of victory.

I think this is basically right, however the public indifference mentioned by Lozada is really the most troubling aspect of the current Iraq debate. A very small and insulated bubble of think tankery and media continues to debate 'victory' in Iraq; meanwhile, the American people have essentially moved on to bigger issues. And while one could argue that indifference is one of the many products of victory, I'd argue that the 2008 election suggests otherwise; the last candidate standing, after all, was the one who could legitimately wash his hands of the Iraq War vote.

But there's a far bigger problem in judging Iraq 'victory' or 'defeat' by the fluctuation of violence or the frequency of peaceful and orderly elections. Joshua Keating explains:

While few are shedding tears for Saddam Hussein, there's not much evidence to suggest that his removal made the world safer -- or that ousting him in this manner was worth the exorbitant cost in blood and treasure. The other two charter members of the axis of evil -- Iran and North Korea -- are still ruled by anti-American autocrats with fast-developing nuclear programs, and Iran, if anything, has been strengthened by the replacement of its archenemy with a reasonably friendly Shiite-dominated government.
The bottom line is that thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars were spent to turn one admittedly barbaric dictatorship into a semidemocracy addled by sectarianism and extremist violence. Doesn't seem worth it.

Moreover, the metric is all wrong, and it's imperative that we continue to evaluate and judge the Iraq War not by the success of the so-called Surge or this month's elections, but by the decision to go to war in the first place. Americans might want to revisit that decision with care, because Iraq is now the great project of a generation. It is the Moon landing of the oughts; America's global contribution. You don't, as I've argued, get multiple Iraqs. Rarely is a state handed the global capital to unilaterally re-engineer an entire society based on dubious intelligence and assertions.

In other words - to tweak the Pottery Barn rule - we shouldn't judge success or failure in Iraq by how well we glued the vase back together, but why it was broken to begin with.

(AP Photo)

Homage to Casparlonia

Michael Cohen defends the Weinberger Doctrine:

Take a moment to consider what would have happened if the Bush Administration had actually considered the tenets of the Weinberger Doctrine before we went to war in Iraq? Indeed, that war violates every single principle of the Weinberger Doctrine - and the Powell Doctrine by the way. And who again was Secretary of State when the Iraq war occurred?

You can probably say some bad things about Caspar Weinberger's tenure as Secretary of Defense, but the Weinberger Doctrine is definitely not one of them.

Seeing Things Our Way

Evan Feigenbaum at Asia Unbound wonders why it's so "hard to turn common interests with China into complementary policies." His answer:

First, Beijing rarely shares American threat assessments. And China’s leaders, even when they do sense a challenge to “stability,” are far more relaxed than are Americans about the scope and nature of those threats.

This is certainly true of Pakistan, where Beijing trusts the military’s instincts and senses little threat to the Pakistani state. It’s true of Iran. And it’s true of North Korea, which few Chinese believe will collapse and where a managed transition toward Chinese-style reform is the medium-term outcome China seeks to achieve.

Second, even when Beijing shares America’s sense of threat, countervailing interests still obstruct cooperation.

In Afghanistan, for example, China certainly shares America’s core interest: a stable Afghan state that does not harbor, nurture, or export terrorism. But Chinese decision-makers become uncomfortable when told that the path to victory might require a long-term NATO presence on China’s western border, U.S. bases or other military arrangements in Central Asia, and enhanced U.S. and NATO strategic coordination with neighbors that have had difficult relations with China.

Likewise on North Korea and Iran. It may well be that China doesn’t wish for a nuclear North Korea. But its emphasis on stability over and above every other objective puts it at odds with Washington and with the present government, at least, in Seoul about how to rank that objective relative to all others.

Feigenbaum later lauds the U.S. provision of "public goods" for the international system but of course the proffering of those goods is precisely why the U.S. feels threatened by things that most countries aren't nearly as concerned with. In such an environment, why would we expect other countries to put their economic interests aside to help us?

March 13, 2010

Terror and Courage

Bill Kristol offers a meditation on courage, terrorism and U.S. debt:

By the end of the 1980s, it seemed Solzhenitsyn had been too pessimistic. In an impressive showing of moral courage and civic strength, the societies of the West confronted in that decade the threats of decadence at home and weakness abroad. Leaders like Reagan and Thatcher, John Paul II and Lech Walesa discovered reservoirs of moral virtue in their publics and rallied them to action.

The threats of 2010 are as great as those of 1980. They are intellectually different, of course—and perhaps even more complicated. But, like the threats of the Cold War, they cannot be overcome if we lack the simple and often prosaic virtue of courage."

I think the distinction between 1980 and the USSR and 2010 and the threats we face today is quite a bit more than "intellectual." One situation involved a threat capable of, in a matter of hours, leveling our major cities and industrial centers and killing tens of millions of Americans. The other doesn't.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't take contemporary threats to our security very seriously. Obviously we should. But if we're discussing this in the context of courage it would seem to me that it's the antithesis of courage to magnify what is otherwise relatively small.

The Vatican's Chief Exorcist

The Times has a profile of Don Gabriele, the Vatican's "chief exorcist." In it we learn that it is a messy job:

In many cases, he says, they vomit objects such as nails or glass. Father Amorth has a collection weighing two kilograms. “You get used to being vomited over. I once performed an exorcism on a woman who managed to hit me in the face with a stream of vomit from the other side of the room — physically impossible.”

Not that you'd expect the work to be pleasant...

The Anti-Putin Manifesto


Opponents of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have begun circling an online petition calling for his ouster. The letter, translated and reprinted at the Power Vertical blog, states in part:

We declare that no essential reforms can be carried out in Russia today as long as Putin controls real power in the country.

We declare that the dismantling of the Putin regime and the return of Russia to the path of democratic development can only begin when Putin has been deprived of all levers of managing the state and society.

We declare that during the years of his rule, Putin has become the symbol of corrupt and unpredictable country that is pitiless in its treatment of its own citizenry. It is a country in which citizens have no rights and are for the most part in poverty. It is a country without ideals and without a future.

If, as the Kremlin propagandists love to repeat, Russia was on its knees during the Yeltsin period, then Putin and his minions have pushed its face into the filth.

Robert Coalson at Power Vertical notes that by directing their criticisms directly at Putin himself, the signatories leave themselves open to a violent crackdown. While I think Russia would be better off without Putin, I for one would miss the Putinisms.

(AP Photo)

March 12, 2010

Miracle Workers

Earlier in the week, AEI's Danielle Plekta lamented President Obama's numerous foreign policy failures, which prompted Kevin to point out that the previous administration's track record was uneven as well.

In her response, Plekta admits as much but then offers this:

But one thing I’ll give the late, unlamented GWB is that he was relatively modest about his own importance to the cosmos. If he’d have told us that he was going to heal the ocean or part the sea, or whatever the heck it was that President Obama promised, he would have been laughed out of town. We’re still talking about his daft “mission accomplished” banner, for heaven’s sake.

The standards of comparison I made are to the America that this president promised us in his election campaign and his first inaugural. He has fallen woefully short, as his own acolytes would confess.

True. But comparisons with campaign rhetoric are rarely pretty are they? To wit:

"I'm worried about over committing our military around the world. I want to be judicious in its use. I don’t think nation-building missions are worthwhile." (Bush, 2000).

"I'm not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say this is the way it's got to be." (Bush, 2000)

"We don't want the 82nd Airborne walking kids to kindergarten." (Condoleezza Rice, 2000).

"The adults are in charge." - Every conservative pundit I can remember, circa 2000.

But aside from that, I think it's true that Obama over-personalizes his rhetoric, has oversold his capacity to effect change internationally and on a number of important fronts, is not succeeding. I think that's more the result of his failure to change the ends of American policy as opposed to the means, but that's a debate for another day.

Suffice it to say that when it comes to presidential hubris, while it's not parting the seas, pledging America to eliminate tyranny in the world (as GWB did in the Second Inaugural) is no mean feat. And wasn't it a Bush administration official who insisted the administration "could create its own reality?"

Democracy, WMD, Iraq

Peter Feaver has an important acknowledgment on the subject:

There were good reasons to promote regime change in Iraq and good reasons to oppose it. But the strongest case for the urgency of dealing decisively with Iraq in 2002 hinged on Iraq's WMD arsenal and its pursuit of capabilities to expand that arsenal. Had the true condition of that arsenal (limited) and the true status of the pursuit (ongoing but slower than suspected and put on a somewhat slower track deliberately pending the final collapse of the sanctions regime) been known by the Bush administration, the president's national security team would have pursued other more urgent priorities in the war on terror. And had it been known more widely in Congress, there would not have been such strong bipartisan support for the use of force resolution; all of the major Democratic senators in 2002 with ambitions for the 2004 presidential run supported the use of force resolution because they agreed with the consensus view that Iraq had a formidable WMD arsenal and was seeking to expand it still further. And had it been known more widely in the international community, the argument with our allies would have been over the existence of an Iraqi threat rather than over the best strategy for dealing with it.

I think Feaver's acknowledgment is important because it also casts the post-hoc rationalizing and exculpating that has accompanied Iraq's current stability in the proper light. None of the national security objectives of the invasion were realized, minus the "regime change" so prized by the war's most fervent supporters.

But there's a problem with Feaver's argument as well, and that is the notion that the existence of WMD would have justified a war. Here, obviously, opinions differ widely, but a large part of the WMD argument didn't simply hinge on the mere existence of weapons, but on what Saddam would do with them. We were led to believe, principally by neoconservatives analysts who didn't have much to say about al Qaeda before 9/11, that Saddam would take the unprecedented step of transferring weapons to al Qaeda for use against the U.S.

In other words, we were led into the war on the basis of a hypothetical. World War I and II, Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War, Afghanistan - these were military actions taken in response to concrete events. The second Iraq war was not. Many people were not troubled by this use of military power at the time - indeed, they pushed for war precisely because it would be a demonstration of America's willingness to use force outside of traditional norms. And I think this view informs a lot of the cries of "victory" surrounding Iraq - it's not just a rear-guard effort to rehabilitate careers and legacies. It's an effort to resuscitate the idea that military power can and should be used in this fashion.

Taliban Growing More Unpopular in Pakistan

A new Gallup poll offers some more glimmers of good news from Pakistan (despite today's horrific carnage):


More intriguing:

The Taliban lost support in every region of Pakistan. But nowhere are they more unpopular than in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), ground zero for a full-scale military offensive against the Taliban last May. In November-December 2009, 1% of NWFP residents said the Taliban have a positive influence, down from 11% in June. The percentage saying the Taliban's influence is positive in Baluchistan, which abuts South Waziristan, dropped from 26% to 5%.

Gotta Have Faith?


Laura Rozen reports on President Obama's faith-based foreign policy:

Obama's foreign policy is informed by the Catholic concept of the common good, McDonough tells Religion News Service. "'It’s a general posture of seeking engagement to find mutual interests, but also realizes that there is real evil in the world that we must confront,' he said in an interview at his West Wing office. 'The president also recognizes that we are strongest when we work together with our allies.'” McDonough, the brother of a Catholic theologian, helped vet Miguel Diaz, "a young theologian on the faculty" of his alma mater, St. John's University, "to become ambassador to the Vatican last May," it reports.

And since it's in your head now anyway, happy Friday.

(AP Photo)

The Realist Case for Israel

I was ready to put Mideast blogging to bed for a bit, but in my inbox this morning was a good piece by Martin Kramer (from 2006) that seeks to make the "realist" or purely strategic case for America's unconditional (his words) support for Israel. I had read it at the time, but it's worth bringing the arguments back to view now in light of the discussion of U.S. policy toward Israel after the Biden fracas. (Of course, 2010-era Martin Kramer has been in a bit of hot water lately over his suggestion that squeezing Gaza is helpfully reducing its supply of "superfluous young men.")

First off, it's important to recognize, as Kramer writes (and as Walter Russel Mead is explicating in a number of illuminating posts) that American support for Israel is rooted in the interplay of three major factors - religious affinity, a sense of moral and historical obligation, and strategic interests. All three pillars of support are legitimate and while I'm not particularly persuaded by arguments grounded in religious authority, I agree with the moral and historical claims* and think all three have every right, in our democratic society, to express themselves in our foreign policy. I think every "realist" recognizes (even if only to their chagrin) that U.S. policy is derived from a combination of factors and that strategic arguments alone do not always win the day in the public debate.

That said, this is a blog, and I'm not a politician . So back to Kramer's realist case for America's unconditional support for Israel.

Here's Kramer:

American support for Israel--indeed, the illusion of its unconditionality--underpins the Pax Americana in the eastern Mediterranean. It has compelled Israel's key Arab neighbors to reach peace with Israel and to enter the American orbit. The fact that there has not been a general Arab-Israeli war since 1973 is proof that this Pax Americana, based on the U.S.-Israel alliance, has been a success. From a realist point of view, supporting Israel has been a low-cost way of keeping order in part of the Middle East, managed by the United States from offshore and without the commitment of any force.
Yes, it's clear that the Pax Americana has been good for Israel, in that it shunted competition over contested territory to its weakest component (the Palestinians) and away from states. And yes, having Jordan but especially Egypt in America's orbit was also useful during the Cold War. But what about American interests in the 21st century? We need Egypt and Jordan to help on the intelligence front, but they too have a vested interested in keeping al Qaeda at bay. Which leaves us with oil. And just a few grafs after Kramer extols the Pax Americana in the Levant, he notes that the absence of a strong Israeli-like ally in the Persian Gulf has kept that region turbulent and America militarily-engaged. So by Kramer's own affirmation, the Pax Americana is not actually helping America where it counts the most: the Gulf. The fact that Jordan and Egypt are quiessecent is great, but from the realist perspective (esp. a post-Cold War perspective) so what?

And remember, before the Iraq war, Israel was the single largest recipient of U.S. aid. So for the strategic case to hold, you'd have to argue that that aid is commensurate with the strategic pay-off. I hardly think Kramer comes close to making that case.

Kramer also makes a fairly extraordinary statement toward the end of his piece:

But according to the realist model, a policy that upholds American interests without the dispatch of American troops is a success by definition. American support of Israel has achieved precisely that.

This fails on two accounts. First, I'm not aware of any plausible circumstance whereby the U.S. would have to send troops into Egypt and Jordan, whatever the relative strength of Israel. More importantly, this isn't even true. Remember Lebanon? If we endorse Kramer's strong client state thesis, it would have been useful for Israel to have tamped things down to her North. But instead we (foolishly) wound up dispatching troops there in 1983, and we all know how that ended.

All Kramer is able to prove is that America's unconditional support for Israel has been able to do is improve the security of Israel vis-a-vis Jordan and Egypt. A policy success to be sure, but hardly the pinnacle of our regional interests and of little direct relevance to our own security. Or am I missing something?

But Kramer goes further and suggests that in fact American support for Israel has no costs:

Then there is the argument that American support for Israel is the source of popular resentment, propelling recruits to al Qaeda. I do not know of any unbiased terrorism expert who subscribes to this notion. Israel has been around for almost 60 years, and it has always faced terrorism. But never has a terror group emerged that is devoted solely or even primarily to attacking the United States for its support of Israel. Terrorists devoted to killing Americans emerged only after the United States began to enlarge its own military footprint in the Gulf. Al Qaeda emerged from the American deployment in Saudi Arabia. And even when al Qaeda and its affiliates mention Palestine as a grievance, it is as one grievance among many, the other grievances being American support for authoritarian Arab regimes and now the American presence in Iraq.

I don't think that's quite right. The number two man in al Qaeda is an Egyptian who folded the terror group Egyptian Islamic Jihad (members of whom knocked off Egyptian President Anwar Sadat after he joined the Pax Americana and have tried to kill current President Hosni Mubarak) into al Qaeda. What's more, who are those "authoritarian Arab regimes" we're supporting? Well, they're Jordan and Egypt (among others). And why are we supporting them? To hear Kramer tell it, to keep them from attacking Israel and keep them in our orbit. And do Jordanians and Egyptians resent our support for their autocratic rulers and join al Qaeda? Why yes they do. So it's not clear to me why Kramer would suggest that American support for Israel is not a source of popular resentment - unless he wants to suggest that our policies vis-a-vis Jordan and Egypt have nothing to do with Israel, but that would only undermine the entire point of his argument.

I think Kramer is right to suggest that a much larger share of America's troubles in the Middle East have resulted from an ever-deepening military footprint in the Persian Gulf and not support for Israel. But most of the people championing a "Pax Americana" in the Levant also endorse that concept in the Persian Gulf, so it's not like they're particularly disturbed by the downside costs of such exposure. And just to reiterate, the "realist case" for unconditional U.S. support for Israel does not have to be airtight for it to still be compelling to the American people or even just the right thing to do. But I think any honest assessment of the strategic landscape shows that the partnership is less valuable strategically now than when it was during the Cold War.

Dave in comments has a long rebuttal of my rebuttal.

*The historical claim that Jews are entitled to a homeland in Israel - there are obviously multiple claims about precisely where the borders should be.

March 11, 2010

Foreign Policy's (and Pew's) Dubious Isolationism

Foreign Policy's latest quiz asks us to guess at how many "self-described isolationists" there are in America. Their answer, based on a Pew survey, is 49 percent.

Catchy sure, but as we blogged when that Pew survey was released, the headline "isolationist" finding was a dubious reading of the poll results, to put it charitably. First, the Pew survey does not ask people to describe themselves. It merely asks them to choose between two propositions:

"the U.S. mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own."


“the U.S is the most powerful nation in the world, we should go our own way in international matters, not worrying about whether other countries agree with us or not.”

The people who chose the first answer were dubbed isolationists. As Daniel Larison noted at the time, this is very absurd:

No doubt, there was a higher percentage that answered that the U.S. should “mind its own business and let other countries get along the best they can on their own,” but the alternative was to answer that the U.S. “is the most powerful nation in the world, we should go our own way in international matters, not worrying about whether other countries agree with us or not.” Given that choice between something that sounds reasonable and something that sounds idiotic, a great many non-”isolationists” would prefer the former response

And as I pointed out at the time, CFR's omnibus study of American public opinion showed a more subtle and, to my mind, more accurate assessment of the public attitude toward international relations. And "isolationism" was not much in evidence.

Who's Bearing the Brunt of Afghan War Casualties?

Steve Coll crunches the numbers:

Using Afghan-war fatality figures from ICasualties.org and population estimates as of July, 2009 from the C.I.A. World Factbook, and rounding up numbers, I took out my calculator this morning and came up with the following ratios of deaths-per-population among coalition countries that have fought in the Afghan war, since 2001, starting with the most burdened:

Denmark, 1 per 177,000 (31 deaths)
Estonia, 1 per 186,000 (7 deaths)
United Kingdom, 1 per 224,000 (272 deaths)
Canada, 1 per 236,000 (140 deaths)
United States, 1 per 302,000 (1017 deaths)
Latvia, 1 per 733,000 (3 deaths)
Netherlands, 1 per 810,000 (21 deaths)

Photography in Britain

For a country that has 4.2 million CCTV cameras filming its citizens every move, Richard Woods reports that Britain is becoming a very inhospitable place for ordinary photographers not associated with the state's surveillance apparatus.

Where Is the Love?


Jackson Diehl is disappointed with Vice President Biden's response to Israel's settlement announcement:

Over the years U.S. envoys from Baker to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have learned that the trick is to sidestep such broadsides, expressing disapproval without allowing the toxic settlement issue to take center stage and derail peace negotiations. After all, most Israeli settlement announcements, including this one, are pure symbolism: No ground will be broken anytime soon, and even if the homes are eventually constructed they won’t stand in the way of a Palestinian state.

By that measure, Biden flunked. Interrupted in the middle of what was supposed to be a day of love-bombing Israelis with speeches and other demonstrations of U.S. support, he kept Netanyahu and his wife waiting for 90 minutes into a scheduled dinner before issuing a statement that harshly criticized the interior ministry’s announcement. Biden chose to use a word -- “condemn” -- that is very rarely employed in U.S. statements about Israel, even though he and his staff knew that Netanyahu himself had been blindsided by the settlement announcement. So much for love bombs.

I'm sympathetic to Diehl's argument here, although I think the question then becomes why is it such the norm for Israeli officials to so blatantly sabotage diplomatic relations with Israel's most crucial ally? What does that say about the lopsided nature of America's rather transactional relationship with Israel?

Consider this: Biden flew over there, as Diehl claims, to assuage the Israelis. But of what? Has substantive, material aid to Israel changed since Obama's election? Israel is perceived as an occupier in the region, and America is often perceived as an enabler of that behavior, which makes us the target of anti-Americanism, Jihadism and terrorism. Whether those perceptions are valid or not isn't the point - they exist, and Obama will be the one left to deal with the regional fallout from the East Jerusalem announcement.

But hey, Bibi had to wait for 90 minutes.

There's another problem in the timing of the settlement expansion, as Shmuel Rosner explains:

Either one believes Netanyahu and his friends in government (saying it is all misunderstanding and bad timing). In such case, one should be concerned by Israel's chaotic decision-making process on delicate matters. Or - one might choose not to believe. One might think Netanyahu isn't telling the truth, or that Yishai is bluffing. If it's the former, one will conclude that Netanyahu has no intention of seriously exploring the just-announced peace negotiations. If it's the latter one will realize that Shas and Yishai are strong enough to toy with Netanyahu as much as they want - as much as embarrassing the American VP! - without paying a price. Not an encouraging thought.

And either way, Washington is left as arbiter of a peace plan with no willing participants. So tell me, who really needs some diplomatic love?

(AP Photo)



Danielle Pletka laments the end of American civilization as we know it:

Consider that the president’s own staff can’t gin up a single special relationship with a foreign leader and that the once “special relationship” with the United Kingdom is in tatters (note the latest contretemps over Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s bizarre intervention on the Falkland Islands); that neither China nor Russia will back the United States’s push for sanctions against Iran; that Iran, it seems, doesn’t want to “sit down” with the Obama administration and chat; that the “peace process” the president was determined to revive is limping pathetically, in no small amount due to missteps by the United States; that one of the key new relationships of the 21st century (advanced by the hated George W. Bush)—with India—is a total mess; that the hope kindled in the Arab world after Obama’s famous Cairo speech has dimmed; that hostility to America’s AfPak special envoy Richard Holbrooke is the only point of agreement between Delhi, Islamabad, and Kabul; that there isn’t a foreign ministry in Europe with a good word to say about working with the Obama White House; that there is a narrative afoot that began with the Obama apologia tour last year and will not go away: America is in decline.

Too many of these problems can be sourced back to the arrogance of the president and his top advisers. Many of Obama’s foreign policy soldiers are serious, keen, and experienced, but even they are afraid to speak to foreigners, to meet with Congress, or to trespass on the policy making politburo in the White House’s West Wing. Our allies are afraid of American retreat and our enemies are encouraged by that fear. George Bush was excoriated for suggesting that the nations of the world are either with us or against us. But there is something worse than that Manichean simplicity. Barack Obama doesn’t care whether they’re with us or against us.

And that's in just one year! Imagine how much he'll have ruined by 2012!

Needless to say, I find all of this to be a bit exaggerated, and even a bit disingenuous. Keep in mind that many once thought it cute or tough to alienate and insult allies; designating them as 'old' and 'new' Europe, for instance. When the Bush administration ruffled feathers it was decisive leadership; when Obama does it it's the collapse of Western society as we know it. Pick your hyperbole, I suppose.

After eight years in office, did President Bush actually leave us with a clear policy on ever-emerging China? How about the so-called road map for peace? How'd that work out? Did President Bush manage to halt Iranian nuclear enrichment, or did he simply leave Iran in a stronger geopolitical position vis-à-vis Iraq and Afghanistan?

Pletka attributes many of these perceived failings to "arrogance." But it has been well documented that the previous administration was also stubborn, resistant to consultation and set in its ways. How then, if Ms. Pletka is indeed correct, has this changed with administrations?

Pletka scoffs at the president's insistence that policy is "really hard," but he's right - as was George W. Bush when he said it. Perhaps, just perhaps, the problem isn't what our presidents have failed to do, but what we expect them to do in an increasingly multipolar, or even nonpolar world?

(AP Photo)

A New Plan for Somalia


Over the weekend, the New York Times reported on a covert U.S. effort to aid the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia in its battle to establish control over the country. As the fighting intensifies, the Council on Foreign Relations' Bronwyn E. Bruton has a new report out calling for a new approach. From the summary:

Bruton argues that the current U.S. policy of supporting the TFG is proving ineffective and costly. The TFG is unable to improve security, deliver basic services, or move toward an agreement with Somalia’s clans and opposition groups that would provide a stronger basis for governance. She also cites flaws in two alternative policies—a reinforced international military intervention to bolster the TFG or an offshore approach that seeks to contain terrorist threats with missiles and drones.

Instead, Bruton advances a strategy of “constructive disengagement.” Notably, this calls for the United States to signal that it will accept an Islamist authority in Somalia—including the Shabaab—as long as it does not impede international humanitarian activities and refrains from both regional aggression and support for international jihad. As regards terrorism, the report recommends continued airstrikes to target al-Qaeda and other foreign terrorists while taking care to minimize civilian casualties. It argues for a decentralized approach to distributing U.S. foreign aid that works with existing local authorities and does not seek to build formal institutions. And the report counsels against an aggressive military response to piracy, making the case instead for initiatives to mobilize Somalis themselves against pirates.

I think we need to set the bar for military support much higher, especially when it comes to civil wars in failed states. The threat of an al Qaeda safe haven is serious, but as the recent "JihadJane" revelations make clear, we're going to face a terrorist threat with or without failed states. And the rush to try and deny al Qaeda a foothold might very well create worse problems down the road, specifically new sets of enemies in the states where we're pouring in guns and enabling certain factions to prevail over others.

(AP Photo)

A Multipolar Mess?

Nikolas Gvosdev writes:

Two years ago, Washington was abuzz once again with the prospects for a “League of Democracies” that would support U.S. global leadership. But in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated Burma/Myanmar, a very clear rift opened up between the democracies of the advanced north and west, which advocated an intervention on humanitarian grounds, and the democracies of the south and east, which proved to be far more receptive to China’s call for defending state sovereignty. In the Doha round of trade talks and in the ongoing climate change negotiations, the leading democracies of the south and east—Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, India and Indonesia among them—have tended to line up with Beijing instead of joining Washington’s banner.

The entire National Interest piece is worth a read, but regarding this snippet I would argue that if it's a "League of Pliancy" Washington had hoped for, then perhaps it should start viewing the world the way Vladimir Putin does. A key tenet of President Bush's so-called freedom agenda was that a more democratic world meant a safer world. I'm sure that's true. But it also means a more pluralistic world; one with many voices, and many interests.

This world could be a great place to live, if there were actually an international system to help guide and support emerging democracies alongside the already ensconced ones. But this is one of the freedom agenda's key failings: more democracy means more interests, which of course makes it harder for countries, such as the United States, that are used to dealing with more pliant actors.

Interests and emerging democrats will continue to overlap and conflict in the coming years, which is why it's imperative that our public officials learn how to lead in an increasingly multipolar tug of war around the globe. From what we've seen so far, I wouldn't hold your breath for such nuanced understanding in 2010 or 2012.


Larison adds his own thoughts to the multipolarity vs. exceptionalism debate, and calls a bluff on Obama's neoconservative critics:

To take their criticism seriously, we would have to believe that his critics accept the reality and inevitability of multipolarity, and we would have to believe that they also accept the relative decline in American power that this entails. Of course, they don’t really accept either of these things. For the most part, they do not acknowledge the structural political reasons for resistance to Obama’s initiatives, and they recoil from any suggestion that America needs to adjust to a changing world. They locate the fault for any American decline entirely with Obama, because he fails to be sufficiently strong in championing U.S. interests. “Decline is a choice,” Krauthammer says, and he accuses Obama of having chosen it.

March 10, 2010

Would Iran Start a War with NATO?


Writing in National Review, Jamie Fly suggests that Iran is suicidal:

Another prominent missile-defense skeptic is Philip E. Coyle, III, a former Pentagon official who has criticized just about every aspect of U.S. missile-defense policy over the last decade. Mr. Coyle has been nominated by President Obama to serve as associate director for National Security and International Affairs in the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House.

Coyle made a name for himself by questioning whether missile defense is technically possible, contradicting a proven track record of repeated successes by the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency. In a 2009 Arms Control Association presentation, he described the agency’s tests as being “scripted for success.” He has also questioned whether rogue regimes are even interested, let alone capable, of attacking the United States and its allies. In testimony last year in front of the House Armed Services Committee, he stated, “In my view, Iran is not so suicidal as to attack Europe or the United States with missiles.” Given Iran’s recent tests of missiles with increasing ranges and its successful launch of a satellite into orbit, Mr. Coyle’s questioning of the intentions of rogues such as Iran is incredibly naïve.

I'm not so sure. Is there really any evidence to the contrary? I mean, we know that Iran will use terrorist proxies to strike out at opponents - including those in Europe. But that's a far, far cry from starting a conventional shooting war with NATO - which is the implication of an unprovoked missile attack against the United States and Europe. The Soviet Union, with over ten thousand nuclear weapons and multiple platforms to deliver them against the continental United States, didn't risk it. Why would Iran, a fourth rate power? Again, we have thirty years of history with the Islamic Republic, including ten years (or so) when they have possessed WMD and they have not started a conventional war with any state - let alone a grouping of the strongest states in the world.

Now, clearly Iran is developing the capability to launch such an attack. But capability is not the same as intent. Modest investments in missile defenses strikes me as a reasonable hedge against the possibility that deterrence could fail (certainly, in my view, better to invest some money there than in building up a massive constabulary force to wage counter-insurgencies across the world). But that's a far cry from believing in an imminent Iranian missile barrage.

(AP Photo)

U.S. More Concerned with China Debt Than Terrorism

Zogby has a new poll out:

More than twice as many U.S. adults (58%) say that debt owed to China is a more serious threat to the long-term security and well-being of the U.S than is terrorism from radical Islamic terrorists (27%).

Interestingly there was little variation by party identification with a majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents all agreeing that the debt owed by the United States to China poses the greater threat. Opinion was consistent across all other major demographic and political sub-groups.

While I don't think terrorism is the most serious long-term threat we face, I don't think the debt issue vis-a-vis China is a huge problem either (in fact, it could potentially stabilize the relationship in what some have dubbed a "financial balance of terror"). The problem is the debt itself, not who we owe the money to.

Just Like Syria?

A reader writes:

The Gulf States despite their endless rhetoric hold much more animus toward Iran than Israel by orders of magnitude.
2 years ago Israel took out another nuclear program in the region. Ask yourself what was the reaction? There was none. No Arab street, no Arab protestation, no Gulf outrage. All the American whipped up fears & punditry all out with a whimper. A few platitudes were issued here & there, to keep the fiddle sounding for outsiders ears.

A couple of points here. One, comparing a potential strike on Iran to the 2007 Syria strike is comparing apples and oranges. Damascus, for obvious reasons, had just as much reason to downplay the 2007 attack as Israel did, if not more so. As a result, the news trickled rather than gushing out. This allowed minimal impact on the region's economy. The same can't be said of Iran, which would likely be a protracted regional crisis played out in linear and asymmetric fashion. Under these conditions, Iran wouldn't need to 'win' in a conventional sense; not so long as it could turn off its energy spigots and hold the markets hostage during negotiations.

Secondly, I think the assumption that Arab leadership is secretly cheering for an attack on Iran is a terribly exaggerated, and often simplistic crutch relied on too heavily by Iran hawks. Would some Mideast regimes like to see the revolutionary regime in Tehran go away? Certainly, but at what cost? The Saudis might applaud, but they will not applaud an indefinite unilateral war, waged by Israel, on another Muslim country in the region. My guess is that they'd prefer the Iranian 'problem' be addressed by Washington, and not the regionally contentious and controversial government in Jerusalem. Washington can guarantee the Saudis against Iranian reprisal; Israel cannot. (Israel's ability to even attack Iran remains logistically unclear.)

Delving a bit deeper, I think there's something troubling about the idea that Israel can act with unchecked impunity throughout the region with minimal consequence. Turkey was a victim of that impunity in 2007, and its relationship with Israel has indeed taken a hit ever since. Israel needs friends in the region, and the fact that some consider this to be inconsequential should worry even its most ardent supporters.

As I've already argued, Washington in fact does a major disservice to Israel by offering so little oversight of aid and investment in the country. It's a problem if Jerusalem is as flippant about its behavior as this reader is, and that's ultimately a failure of American leadership in the Middle East.

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Walter Russell Mead has another long post up about Israel and anti-Semitism which touches on some of the questions I raised here. It's well worth reading in full and again, he makes a number of points I agree with. To wit:

I’m not trying to grade the incommensurable suffering of people around the world, but if we compare the attention and care that the international community has extended to the Palestinians with our attention and support for other victims in other places, a disturbing pattern emerges. Whatever the wrongs of Israel’s occupation policy — and I agree that there are some — the Palestinians, especially in the West Bank but even in Gaza, live much better than many people in the world whose suffering attracts far less world attention — and whose oppressors get far less criticism. I would much rather be a Palestinian, even in Gaza, than a member of a minority tribe in the hills of Myanmar, or almost anyone in the Eastern Congo or Darfur. Millions of children in Pakistan and Indonesia have less food security, less educational opportunity and less access to health services than Palestinians who benefit from UN services (to which the United States is historically the largest single contributor) that poor people in other countries can only dream of.

This is obviously true. It's especially in the Arab world, where the treatment of the Palestinians is subjected to no end of scrutiny while the grotesque human rights abuses of Arab regimes, Sudan, etc., are studiously ignored or minimized. Sri Lanka recently experienced a massive humanitarian catastrophe following a campaign against Tamil insurgents, and few people worked up much outrage about it (something that miffed Kevin quite a bit).

But I think there's a very important distinction here that Mead skips right over: by virtue of its aid and diplomatic support, the U.S. is implicated in Israel's behavior in a way that it simply is not with other countries. So one can agree with Mead, as I do, that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians does not rise to the world-historical level and nonetheless still argue that American policy toward Israel needs to be considered on the basis of that treatment (or more accurately, the ramification that that treatment has for American security).

This of course leads to the question of whether Israel's actions with respect to the Palestinians are having any negative impact on American security. This isn't physics, where cause and effect are as clear as billiard balls bouncing off one another, but there is a sufficient body of thought that does posit a direct link that it's worth taking seriously. Supporters of Israel - such as Dennis Ross and David Makovksy - acknowledged in their book that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a major grievance in the Arab world and contributes to the terrorist threat we face, which is why attempting to solve the conflict is such an urgent priority. The 9/11 Commission referenced the radicalizing effect of the conflict. Other analysts, such as Peter Bergen, who have studied terrorism have cited the existence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a contributing factor to the rise of anti-American terrorism. And clearly, the conflict is a staple of al Qaeda propaganda. To take one recent example, Humam al-Balawi the Jordian bomber who killed 7 CIA officers in Khost, Afghansitan cited the war in Gaza as a catalyst of his radicalism.

At a minimum it suggests to me that violence in the Congo - which, we all agree, is objectively worse than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of the humanitarian toll - is nonetheless not as relevant to American security as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is. And I think that fact goes much further than anti-Semitism to explain the disproportionate emphasis given to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least in the United States.

Mead has promised some further posts on the subject but he notes that:

The core points I want to make aren’t about whether American foreign policy toward Israel is a good thing or not, but this debate is so politicized that if you criticize the thesis that American policy toward Israel represents the power of American Jews people assume that you are part of the lobby.

But why exempt a critical issue here? Isn't it just as important to debate the actual merits of our policy and not only whether people hold anti-Semitic views about its origins? I agree that it's important to root out and expose anti-Semitism wherever it rears its ugly head. But as Mead acknowledged in his post, one can be critical of aspects of U.S. policy towards Israel and not be an anti-Semite. So why not address the arguments of those critics too? If all you're going to do is flag the anti-Semitic critics and arguments and pass lightly over the ones that aren't, you set up a debate that defacto paints all critics of American policy toward Israel as anti-Semites.

What Next for Iraq?


By Kirk H. Sowell

Now that Iraq has made it through another round of parliamentary elections, what next? The Iraqi High Electoral Commission (IHEC) has announced that it will release vote counts in thirds, will all votes to be officially certified by March 18, although such deadlines have been delayed in the past. Originally, the first announcement was set for this Thursday, March 11, but IHEC officials are now saying that they will try to release the first round of results tomorrow. The accelerated schedule no doubt has been influenced by the rampant leaking of partial and sometimes contradictory vote results by Iraqi websites linked to the parties. Credible reports indicate that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has won a plurality, although by how much is not yet clear.

Once IHEC has certified the results, President Jalal Talabani will have 15 days to call the new parliament into session. It then has 30 days to elect parliamentary leaders and a new president. Once the new president is sworn in, he will have 15 days to designate the candidate of the largest bloc as the prime minister-designate, and the PM-designate will have 30 days to form a government. If he cannot, then he may ask for an extension, or the president may designate another bloc leader, and the second bloc chosen does not have to be the largest. For a more detailed explanation of the process, see a recent paper by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. You may also want to check out IHEC’s website (although they don’t usually keep the English version updated very well).

Bear in mind that the parties which make up the electoral blocs are not required to vote with the leadership of their bloc. While party discipline in the last parliament was pretty strong it was quite common for parties to take positions against the blocs through which they were elected, or leave them entirely. Once the parties are seated, I expect them to realign into five groups which do not necessarily correspond to their blocs.

The first will be Maliki’s State of Law Coalition. Maliki’s bloc is the most internally cohesive, and it would be surprising of any of the parties running on it were to abandon him.

The second will be the Kurds and the most Iranian-aligned parties of the Iranian-backed Iraqi National Alliance (INA). The success of the opposition Kurdish Gorran Party will likely make them more fragmented than before, but the Kurds’ ties to the INA’s leading party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), are longstanding and welded together by a common opposition to Maliki’s centralizing drive and the Sunni Arabs and secular Shia who make up the current opposition. While this Kurd-ISCI tandem would like to replace Maliki, I don’t expect them to have the seats to do so, and they will probably negotiate a government with him.

The third will be the Sadrist parties of the INA, the Sadr Current led by Muqtada al-Sadr, and the smaller Fadhila Party of the Ayatollah Muhammad al-Yaqubi. They joined ISCI in the INA only to check Maliki, and given their long mutual enmity it would be surprising if they stayed together. Like ISCI, both Sadr and Fadhila have had past conflict with Maliki. The difference between the Sadrists and ISCI is that the Sadrists have made genuine efforts to form coalitions with Sunni Arabs. I know the Sadrists would love to exclude their Shia Islamist rivals from power, but I doubt there will be enough seats for that. They will probably end up negotiating a deal with Maliki.

The fourth group is made up of Sunni Arabs and secular Shia parties, and seem certain to be dominated by Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement. I view recent media coverage of Allawi’s success as overblown, however. Allawi’s bloc has done well in the Sunni provinces, akin to an American presidential candidate running up votes in a state his party always wins anyway. Credible estimates I’ve seen from multiple sources in the Iraqi press give Allawi only somewhat better results in Shia areas than in the past, which is not enough. They will likely end up in the opposition.

A possible fifth group might form from Sunni Arab and secular Shia groups outside of Allawi’s bloc who could end up being a kind of swing vote in parliament. The most prominent is that of Ahmad Abu Risha, whose Anbar-based party played a key role in fighting al-Qaeda during the so-called Surge. This group could also include Sunni and secular Shia elements of the INA which aren’t satisfied with whatever deal seals the new government.

Kirk H. Sowell is an independent consultant based in the Washington D.C. area.

(AP Photo)

March 9, 2010

Will Israel Strike Iran?

Steve Simon at the Council on Foreign Relations assesses the likelihood and possible consequences here. His conclusion:

Israel is not eager for war with Iran, or to disrupt its special relationship with the United States. But the fact remains that it considers the Iranian threat an existential one and its bilateral relationship with the United States a durable one, and will act if it perceives momentous jeopardy to the Israeli people or state. Thus, while Israel may be amenable to American arguments for restraint, those arguments must be backed predominantly by concrete measures to contain the threat and reaffirmations of the special relationship, and only secondarily by warnings of the deterioration of the relationship,to be persuasive.

It's interesting to note that just as Vice President Biden arrived in Israel pledging American support for Israel in no uncertain terms, he got this:

Hours after Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. vowed unyielding American support for Israel’s security here on Tuesday, Israel’s interior ministry announced 1,600 new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem, prompting Mr. Biden to condemn the move as “precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was clearly embarrassed at the move by his interior minister, Eli Yishai, head of the right-wing Shas party who has made Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem one of his central causes.

A statement issued in the name of the Interior Ministry but distributed by the prime minister’s office said the housing plan was three years in the making and that its announcement was procedural and unrelated to Mr. Biden’s visit. It added that Mr. Netanyahu had just been informed of it himself.

Mr. Netanyahu supports Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem yet wants to get new talks with the Palestinians going and to maintain strong relations with Washington. But when he formed his coalition a year ago he joined forces with several right-wing parties, and has since found it hard to keep them in line.

Leave aside the issue of settlements, what does this tell us about Washington's ability to persuade Israel to tow our line? If we can't convince them not to build a few hundred houses in a politically sensitive location, can we really convince them to live with a nuclear-armed state that they consider an existential threat?

Daniel Larison offers an answer:

That’s a fair question, but I think putting the question this way overlooks the enabling effect that the stated “no space” guarantee to Israel has on the behavior of the Israeli government. This relates to the application of the idea of moral hazard to foreign policy that Leon Hadar proposed and I have mentioned before. Many Americans might reasonably assume that by making unconditional, explicit security guarantees to Israel Washington could expect greater flexibility and accommodation from the Israeli government on points of contention, but this is not how it works. The moral hazard of unconditional backing is not only that the ally being supported will engage in reckless behavior, but that it does so knowing that it will pay no real price for this behavior as far as the relationship with the U.S. is concerned. The temptation is to focus criticism on the ally that is taking advantage of this, but the one deserving the most blame is our own government.

The Space Between


I've always operated under the impression that if push came to shove, the Obama administration would not launch military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities. I still believe that, but Vice President Biden's rhetoric in Israel does raise some important questions:

The cornerstone of the US-Israel relationship, Biden said, was America's unwavering commitment to Israel's security. "Bibi you heard me say before, progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there is simply no space between the US and Israel. There is no space between the US and Israel when it comes to Israel's security."

I think it's proper for the U.S. to offer to protect Israel in the event her security were endangered, but what if the Israelis feel that a nuclear Iran is an intolerable threat to their security requiring military action to redress and the Obama administration disagrees? What happens, in other words, if there is a divergence in our respective threat perceptions? Does the administration do as the Bush administration reportedly did, and lean on Israel not to attack? Or do we decide that our security commitments obligate us to undertake military action?

(AP Photo)

The Costs of Dubai

Bob Baer, who knows a thing or two about covert operations, weighs in on the Dubai assassination and what it may have cost Israel:

If Netanyahu authorized the hit, though, the real question is whether he really considered the strategic implications. Look at the map. If Israel goes ahead and bombs Iran's nuclear facilities, it will need over-flight clearances from the Gulf Arabs. Antagonizing the U.A.E. in this way, leaving almost no doubt that Israel was behind Mabhouh's assassination, does not seem the best way to facilitate such clearances. Nor does it help build an Arab Sunni coalition against Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hizballah.
The Islamic Republic imports about a third of its [gas] needs. And unfortunately, 75% of Iran's gasoline imports pass through the U.A.E. I would bet that, right now, Netanyahu is wishing that Mossad had been just a little better at covering its tracks.

As is Washington, no doubt. Again I ask, is this how allies allegedly fighting the same war behave?

Russia's Hollow Energy Empire


The Wilson Center's Stacey Closson argues that Russia's energy empire isn't exactly the over-powering entity many in the West fear:

Some 85 percent of the EU-12 (newer inductees to the European Union from Central and East Europe) still rely on Russian gas imports but, Closson said, this figure is misleading. While 40 percent of all gas entering Europe is from Russia, only about 6 percent of it is used for primary energy consumption. In other words, some 94 percent of European energy consumption comes from non-Russian gas.

Closson argues that Russia is not an emerging energy empire. “People may think Russia is in control,” said Closson, “but Russia depends on energy sales to Europe for more than 60 percent of its hard cash earnings, so there is a strong degree of interdependence."

There is a similar dynamic - between the anxiety of consuming countries and the perceived power of the exporting countries - when it comes to Middle Eastern oil. But in that case, the exporter's power is even weaker than in the case of Russia. Middle Eastern economies are even less diverse than Russia's, making them far more dependent on the export of oil. There's a reason why the so-called "oil weapon" was used once and never wielded again.

So much of American policy in the Middle East is predicated on the fear that the oil will stop flowing, but there's no indication that the various leaders of the Middle East want to starve. And that includes the leaders of Iran.

(AP Photo)

Can Democracy Take Hold in Iraq?


Daniel Larison takes note of Iraq's one million men under arms and writes:

...one of the last things fledgling democracies in countries with a history of authoritarianism need is a massively oversized military and security apparatus. It is often the case in developing countries that the military can serve as an institution that unites and integrates the nation. This will tend to make it the one institution most of the population trusts and respects. However, with greater prestige and respect comes a willingness to intervene in politics when the elected civilians prove themselves to be incapable of governing effectively and/or relatively honestly. When experiments in liberalism, democratization and privatization go awry or are associated with extremely negative economic conditions, public confidence in these things disappears. If democratization is followed by dysfunction, corruption, misrule and lack of basic services, military or authoritarian government becomes very attractive. Given the extent of the sectarian politicization of Iraq’s military and police that already exists, and considering the harsh and arbitrary practices of security forces right now, the differences between an authoritarian and a democratic Iraq are not nearly as great as they are supposed to be.

This is true but here's the tricky part: we need to set the bar for Iraq low because it's unrealistic and unreasonable to expect the emergence of a truly liberal, westernized market democracy to spring forth from the ruins of Saddam's bloody tyranny so quickly (with time, hopefully). As galling as a lot of the crowing about "victory" is, it is, to my mind, a good thing that Washington is going to content itself with "good enough" in Iraq.

Pointing out that Iraq is at present not very democratic, that Freedom House presently ranks it as unfree or that Transparency International ranked Iraq as the fourth most corrupt country in the world - these things could easily be turned on their head as a reason to stay in the country for an even longer stretch until we've brought it up to our standard. I think James Dobbins is right when he said the standard of any state-building exercise must be a relative one. A countries progress must be pegged to the status of its neighbors, not some absolute standard of perfection. That this nuance will be lost amidst the crowing is unfortunate, but it's the price we have to pay to reset our strategic position following the war.

(AP Photo)

March 8, 2010

Iraq Coverage

Just a reminder, in addition to the blog coverage we're offering on the Iraq elections, be sure to check out our Iraq hub page for a roundup of all the latest commentary, headlines and video on this week's vote.

Video of the Day

We thought we had this guy for a bit on Sunday:

As it turns out, we did not. I must confess that I was a little bit disappointed, because Adam Gadahn is the first person indicted for treason in years, and watching this video he is not helping his case.

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

Understatement of the Year

Laura Rozen on Vice President Biden's decision to bring MSNBC host Chris Matthews along with him on his trip to Israel:

...one wonders a bit whether Biden and Matthews, prone to sometimes say a bit too much (Biden), a bit undiplomatically (Matthews), may not be the media combination just anyone would have chosen for operation reassure and reaffirm.

Gee, ya think?

Discipline of the Sword as Foreign Policy


There isn't a whole lot I can add to Greg's excellent critique of Jonah Goldberg's latest NRO piece on the current situation in Iraq. I concur with just about everything he had to say, although I'd take said criticism a tad further and ask what I believe to be a fundamental - and often neglected - question in American foreign policy: what do we expect of government when it adventures abroad?

Aside from, as Greg already noted, the many lives lost and the trillions likely to be spent when all is said and done, there is an overarching question about the responsibility of government to do as it says it will do, and no more, while exerting American power abroad. Were this a matter of domestic spending I suspect Goldberg would agree, yet as soon as the United States leaves its own shores these principles seem to become null and void. After all, it's certainly noble to suggest that politics end at the water's edge, but should American principles as well?

I don't intend for this to be an anti-Republican, anti-Bush or even an anti-Jonah Goldberg screed. I actually read Jonah's book, Liberal Fascism, and while I disagree with several of his conclusions, I enjoyed the read overall. I especially liked the chapter on President Wilson and the Progressives, in which he writes:

Today we unreflectively associate fascism with militarism. But it should be remembered that fascism was militaristic because militarism was "progressive" at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The idea that war was the source of moral values had been pioneered by German intellectuals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the influence of these intellectuals on the American mind was enormous. When America entered the war in 1917, progressive intellectuals, versed in the same doctrines and philosophies popular on the European continent, leaped at the opportunity to remake society through the discipline of the sword.

Now, I'm in no way suggesting that Jonah Goldberg is using the Iraq War to reengineer American society, nor am I calling him a conservative fascist. I am, however, concerned that this messaging whitewash we're now witnessing only serves to further confuse the purpose of American military might.

That Iraq could possibly grow into a freer, more pluralistic and even prosperous Mideast democracy is a wonderful prospect. But it is not the reason the United States invaded Iraq, and if we don't keep that in mind every time someone such as Goldberg decides to see silver linings in the policy clouds we will only make similar mistakes over, and over and over again.

And if the purpose of American foreign policy is to liberate the oppressed peoples of the world, I would then ask, at what cost? Freedom isn't free; indeed, it apparently, as Greg noted, costs tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.

Is this sustainable? I would think not. U.S. military supremacy can either be a single tier in American foreign policy, or it can be the entirety of that foreign policy. I fear that both political parties often confuse the latter, be it deliberately or not, in order to score cheap points against the sitting president. They do this because it apparently works. Goldberg writes that the mad dash for Iraq credit "shows that America’s victories aren’t Republican or Democratic victories, but American victories. The same goes for its losses." This would be true, if ever a loss or failure abroad were admitted in Washington. But to be that introspective would equal political suicide, and thus, the victory parade must go on.

That's all well and good for legacy building and the campaigns to come, but is such a lack in retrospective criticism healthy for the country as a whole?

President Obama Polling Well on National Security


A new poll from Third Way (which bills itself as the "leading moderate think tank of the progressive movement) has some findings on how the public views President Obama's handling of national security. Overall, it looks like they're enjoying pretty solid favorable across most of the major issues. The findings show pretty strong approval for the administration's handling of national security (58% approve vs. 39% disapprove); fighting terrorism ( 55% vs. 41%), Afghanistan (58% vs. 37%), Iraq (52% vs 41%), and leading the military (57% vs. 39%).

Where they take a hit is Iran (43% approve to 48% disapprove) and interrogation of terror suspects (46% to 49%). When asked whether Obama is doing a better job than President Bush on national security, 39% said he was vs. 31% who said he was not.

Update: Should have noted this:

But those numbers were down from levels in the 60s that were recorded by the same group last May. Fewer respondents now say they view Obama's handling of national-security issues as better than that of his predecessor George W. Bush -- Obama's margin here has shrunk from 22 to just 5 percent.

That's the Cable's gloss on Third Way's read of the findings. Thanks Pat.
(AP Photo)

Admiral Mullen: We Use the Military Too Much/Not Enough


There's a curious contradiction at the heart of Admiral Michael Mullen's recent speech on American military strategy:

I've watched and advised two administrations as they have dealt with this struggle. And I've come to three conclusions - three principles - about the proper use of modern military forces. The first is that military power should not - maybe cannot - be the last resort of the state. Military forces are some of the most flexible and adaptable tools to policymakers. We can, merely by our presence, help alter certain behavior. Before a shot is even fired, we can bolster a diplomatic argument, support a friend or deter an enemy. We can assist rapidly in disaster-relief efforts, as we did in the aftermath of Haiti's earthquake. We can help gather intelligence, support reconnaissance and provide security.

Then, not a few grafs later:

U.S. foreign policy is still too dominated by the military, too dependent upon the generals and admirals who lead our major overseas commands. It's one thing to be able and willing to serve as emergency responders; quite another to always have to be the fire chief.

I wonder how these two assertions can fit together. Under Mullen's conception of how military force should be used, it's only natural that the military will continue to dominate foreign policy. If we view the use of force not as a last resort, not as something that is called upon in times of true national emergencies but as just another tool in our diplomatic kit, then by virtue of the Defense Department's huge size, it's naturally going to dominate our foreign policy. Only a very restrained view of when it's appropriate to send in the Marines will actually shift the balance of foreign policy making power back to the civilians.

(AP Photo)

Analyzing the South


By Kirk H. Sowell

Earlier today I posted a brief guide to understanding Iraq's election results along with links to a couple of Arabic websites publishing partial results, the Iraqi equivalent of exit polls. Right now the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) is publishing partial results as they come in, and while the source is partisan, the numbers seem credible and by and large indicate that they are losing to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. If you read Arabic, this is the page in which they are publishing rolling updates: Iraqi Citizens. Note that mainstream Iraqi and pan-Arab sources have only published very broad predictions, if at all, and are not publishing specific numbers yet, as the votes are counted.

This is a basic summary of the reports they are giving, last updated at 5:50 p.m. Iraq time. These provinces are all Shia provinces in southern Iraq, where the swing vote is located:

Karbala: Maliki wins seven of ten seats, the INA three.

Basra: Maliki with a huge early lead over the INA, 6,001 to 2,603, with Allawi's bloc a distant third. A later update did not give numbers, but confirmed that Maliki was ahead with the INA second.

Najaf: Maliki with "small lead" over INA. No specific numbers.

Wasit: The INA is publishing specific numbers for its own candidates by name, saying they are doing well, but says that overall results are "about equivalent" for Maliki and themselves, without giving numbers for Maliki.

Dhi Qar: The INA is publishing some specific numbers by district, but none overall for the province. The numbers cited give the INA a slight edge over Maliki, but probably within the margin of error.

The results in the ten Shia-majority provinces is key because they constitute the only real "swing voters" in Iraqi politics. The Kurds vote for Kurdish parties, the Sunni Arabs for Sunni Arab parties, but the Shia might vote for one of the competing Shia Islamist blocs or the secular Shia such as Iyad Allawi, who are running on joint slates with the Sunni Arabs. The election will thus be determined there. Not counting Baghdad, which is mixed but now predominately Shia, these five provinces account for a clear majority of the Shia seats.

Kirk H. Sowell is an independent consultant based in the Washington D.C. area.

(AP Photo)

China's Slowing Defense Expenditure


Austin Ramzey reports for Time that China has dialed back its defense outlays and seeks to explain why:

Amid those economic demands, another double-digit increase in military spending might be seen as excessive. But perhaps the most compelling reason for the slowdown in spending is that Chinese officials have become more cautious of the way the development of the People's Liberation Army is perceived abroad. Last year China marked the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic with an Oct. 1 military parade in front of Tiananmen Square. While generally a cause for celebration in China, the parade of soldiers, tanks and missile carriers was seen as intimidating by many foreign observers.
There has definitely been an uptick in commentary surrounding China's military rise and some nervous reaction, particularly from India, about the potential for a more militarily assertive China. Nevertheless, the fact that China is sensitive to this tells us one of two things: either they're cleverly pulling the wool over our collective eyes until they're fully capable of seizing a hegemonic role for themselves or China is genuinely not interested in a Cold War-style stand off with the U.S. Which is it?

(AP Photo)

Will a French Warship Boost Russia?

France's decision to sell a Mistral class warship to Russia has raised some alarm bells at the prospect of a rejuvenated Russian navy that could potentially menace nations such as Georgia. Dmitry Gorenburg says not to worry:

...the Russian Navy is declining, and the Mistral, while a fine ship, will not suddenly turn it into the most formidable force in the region. Furthermore, despite ongoing reforms, the Russian military as a whole will also get weaker before it gets stronger, in part because of deteriorating equipment, in part because of a decline in available personnel, and in part because of the retirement of well-trained officers who began their careers in the Soviet period and their replacement by officers who made their careers in the 1990s, when money for training was scarce.

Understanding Iraq's Poll Results


By Kirk H. Sowell

While partial results of Iraq's parliamentary election are now trickling out into Arabic media, they are not of sufficient reliability to make seat projections, but I have provided links to these “exit polls” below.

Iraq’s new parliament will have 325 members. Bearing in mind the ethno-sectarian breakdown of parliamentary seats is necessary to understand the country’s balance of power:

Shia: 175-180
Sunni Arab: 75-80
Kurdish: 60
Minorities (Christians, etc.): 8

I derive these figures from the provincial seat allocations set by Iraq’s electoral commission. For mixed provinces, I derived a total by using the results of the January 2009 provincial elections as a baseline. In Baghdad, for example, Shia parties won 44 of 57 seats in 2009. With 68 seats for the parliamentary elections, my estimate of Shia seats up for grabs includes about 54 from Baghdad.

Below are the major blocs and political parties. Iraq’s electoral system requires parties to have a certain threshold in order to receive any seats - depending on the number of seats in the province - but allows parties to form blocs which add up their votes in order to ensure that they meet the threshold, and then divide the seats according to party agreement. Under the “open list” system, voters are allowed to vote for individual candidates in addition to a list, but otherwise a bloc’s seats are divided according to that agreement.

State of Law Coalition (Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki)
Maliki is a Shia Islamist and his coalition is dominated by his Islamic Dawa Party, although it contains some Sunni Arab participation. Although State of Law contains about 40 parties, and has a number of prominent individuals running on it – including Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani – it is dominated by Maliki as an individual. Maliki’s political platform emphasizes Iraqi nationalism; a strong, centralized state with Shia Islamist ideology played down.

Iraq National Alliance (INA)
The INA, the formation of which was openly negotiated by Iran in 2009, is Shia Islamist and Maliki’s primary Shia rival. It is much less cohesive, with a number of important parties. The two most important are long-time rivals: the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and the Sadrist faction of Muqtada al-Sadr. ISCI was created by Iran and retains close ties to its progenitor, while the Sadrists have more nationalist roots but have accepted support from Iran in their fight against the United States. The nominal chairman of the INA is former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who split from the Dawa Party after an unsuccessful party coup attempt against Maliki in 2007. He appears to have decided to throw his lot with Iran in a bid to get back into power.

The Kurds are irrelevant in the contest between the Shia Islamists and Sunni Arabs and secular Shia during the election itself; Arabs vote for Arabs, Kurds for Kurds. But their approximately 60 seats will be important in forming a new government. The Kurds are closest to ISCI and thus the INA, and have had problems with Maliki, but their primary conflict is with Sunni Arabs.

Arab Opposition
What we may broadly refer to as the “Arab Opposition” contains an array of political blocs which contain almost all Sunni Arabs plus several secular Shia parties. As the ethno-sectarian breakdown described above makes clear, Sunnis cannot play a meaningful role in Iraq’s national government without allies who can win seats in Shia provinces. The most important of these blocs is the Iraqi National Movement led by former prime minister Iyad Allawi. While Allawi is secular Shia, his bloc is largely Sunni.

One obstacle Allawi faces is that while the Shia Islamists are divided into just two blocs, the opposition Shia parties are spread across four (including his). If Allawi fails to achieve the breakthrough in the Shia provinces he needs, this will be one of the reasons. And the Sunni Arab-Kurd conflict means that he needs to do quite well in Shia areas in order to form a government or even force Shia Islamists into a power-sharing agreement.

I will publish seat projections as data from independent sources becomes available. Reports currently published in Arab media suggest that Maliki is ahead overall and that Allawi’s bloc dominated in the Sunni provinces, but provide contradictory results from the Shia provinces. Arabic-proficient readers who want to read the partial results as they are published by partisan sources may refer to this Maliki website or ISCI’s Buratha News. I emphasize that independent sources have not yet published such precise results.

Kirk H. Sowell is an independent consultant based in the Washington D.C. area.

(AP Photo)

March 7, 2010

President Obama's Statement on Iraq Elections

Speaking in the Rose Garden, President Obama offered up a note of praise for the Iraqi elections:

Good afternoon, everybody. Today, the people of Iraq went to the polls to choose their leaders in Iraq’s second national election. By any measure, this was an important milestone in Iraqi history. Dozens of parties and coalitions fielded thousands of parliamentary candidates, men and women. Ballots were cast at some 50,000 voting booths. And in a strong turnout, millions of Iraqis exercised their right to vote, with enthusiasm and optimism.

Today’s voting makes it clear that the future of Iraq belongs to the people of Iraq. The election was organized and administered by Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission, with critical support from the United Nations. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis served as poll station workers and as observers.

As expected, there were some incidents of violence, as al Qaeda in Iraq and other extremists tried to disrupt Iraq’s progress by murdering innocent Iraqis who were exercising their democratic rights. But overall, the level of security and the prevention of destabilizing attacks speaks to the growing capability and professionalism of Iraqi Security Forces, which took the lead in providing protection at the polls.

I also want to express my admiration for the thousands of Americans on the ground in Iraq -- for our civilians and our men and women in uniform who continue to support our Iraqi partners. This election is also a tribute to all who have served and sacrificed in Iraq over the last seven years, including many who have given their lives.

We are mindful, however, that today’s voting is the beginning and not the end of a long electoral and constitutional process. The ballots must be counted. Complaints must be heard, and Iraq -- with the support of the United Nations -- has a process in place to investigate and adjudicate any allegations of fraud. A parliament must be seated, leaders must be chosen, and a new government must be formed. All of these important steps will take time -- not weeks, but months.

In this process, the United States does not support particular candidates or coalitions. We support the right of the Iraqi people to choose their own leaders. And I commend the Iraqi government for putting plans into place to ensure security and basic services for the Iraqi people during this time of transition.

We know that there will be very difficult days ahead in Iraq -- there will probably be more violence. But like any sovereign, independent nation, Iraq must be free to chart its own course. No one should seek to influence, exploit, or disrupt this period of transition. Now is the time for every neighbor and nation to respect Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

A new Iraqi government will face important decisions about Iraq’s future. But as today’s voting demonstrates, the Iraq people want disagreements to be debated and decided through a political process that provides security and prosperity for all Iraqis.

And as they go forward, the Iraqi people must know that the United States will fulfill its obligations. We will continue with the responsible removal of United States forces from Iraq. Indeed, for the first time in years, there are no -- now fewer than 100,000 American troops serving in Iraq. By the end of August, our combat mission will end. As I said last year when I announced our new strategy in Iraq, we will continue to advise and assist Iraqi Security Forces, carry out targeted counterterrorism operations with our Iraqi partners, and protect our forces and civilians. And by the end of next year, all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq.

In the weeks and months ahead, the United States will continue to work closely with the Iraqi people as we expand our broad-based partnership based on mutual interest and mutual respect. And in that effort, I’m pleased that Vice President Biden will continue to play a leading role.

On behalf of the American people, I congratulate the Iraqi people on their courage throughout this historic election. Today, in the face of violence from those who would only destroy, Iraqis took a step forward in the hard work of building up their country. The United States will continue to help them in that effort as we responsibly end this war, and support the Iraqi people as they take control of their future.

Thanks very much.

Truly Exceptional

As a coda to the American exceptionalism debate, here's a country that really is exceptional, fiscally speaking:

Scanning the latest issue’s budget-balance forecasts, it is striking that of the forty-two large economies described, all but one are likely to produce budget deficits in 2010. The exception: Norway, whose federal budget is expected this year to produce a surplus equivalent to 10.5 per cent of Norwegian GDP. This was enough to cause me to scan the rest of the country’s indicators. Current account balance, as a percentage of GDP: Plus 15.8 per cent. Trade balance, latest twelve months, in billions of dollars: 53.2. Unemployment rate: 3.3 percent. Kind of obnoxious, I would say. It goes on: Norway ranks first in the world in per-capita government aid to poorer countries, sixth in per-capita private giving, and according to an index assembled by the Center for Government that uses a blend of measures to judge which countries display the greatest commitment to global development, Norway is tied for third, with the Netherlands. Presumably it burns them that Sweden and Denmark are numbers one and two, even though they lack big fat budget surpluses.

That's via Steve Coll.

Putin's Post-Olympic Purge

Julia Ioffe takes you inside the surreal world of Russia's post-Olympic witch-hunt.

Iraq Debate: Ricks vs. Sullivan


Thomas Ricks and Andrew Sullivan have gone back-and-forth over the issue of retaining additional troops inside Iraq to keep the peace following the 2011 withdrawal date established by the Status of Forces Agreement. Ricks believes such forces are essential to maintain stability in the country and asks: "What could be more imperialistic than invading a country pre-emptively on false premises and then leaving many years later in a selfish, callous and clumsy manner?"

Sullivan counters: "Staying forever, while your own country goes bankrupt."

I ultimately believe that Ricks' argument is going to win the day, not because it's terribly persuasive on the merits, but because it operates within the conventional wisdom about how the U.S. should interface in the Middle East. As I wrote during the campaign:

To believe that Obama is serious about ending America's commitment to Iraq is to assume either that the progress Iraq has made to date is irreversible (which almost no one believes) or that he has placed the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq ahead of other regional interests. After all, it is impossible to maintain America's traditional sense of responsibility over events in the Middle East and simultaneously remove large numbers of troops from Iraq, come what may. The only way to convincingly argue on behalf of ending the war is to mount an argument in favor of fundamentally redefining America's interests in the region. Short of that, any proposal for withdrawal will be hostage to the persistent specter of regional instability.

And so it goes.

The trouble with Ricks' argument, and the course Washington appears to be on, is that it is predicated on best-case scenarios. It is, fundamentally, a gamble that nothing major will go wrong inside Iraq that 50,000 U.S. troops cannot contain. If we bet wrong, there is absolutely no rationale for not sending in even more American troops. A commitment of 50,000 troops is essentially a commitment of 150,000, to be stationed in the country indefinitely.

This argument is also predicated on what I view to be a fairly hubristic reading of Washington's capacity to micro-manage events inside Iraq to our liking. As I've said before, if we had such skills, why did we not employ them in the years 2003-2007? That the surge succeed in quelling violence is no guarantee that Washington can hit the next curve ball Iraq throws at us.

(AP Photo)

March 6, 2010

Is the U.S. Helping or Hurting In Somalia?


In Afghanistan, the United States has chosen to combat an insurgency with connections to al Qaeda with a 100,000 troop strong counter-insurgency (not counting the tens of thousands of troops contributed by NATO allies and local Afghan forces). In Somalia, the Obama administration has taken a different approach to much the same problem:

Most of the American military assistance to the Somali government has been focused on training, or has been channeled through African Union peacekeepers. But that could change. An American official in Washington, who said he was not authorized to speak publicly, predicted that American covert forces would get involved if the offensive, which could begin in a few weeks, dislodged Qaeda terrorists.

“What you’re likely to see is airstrikes and Special Ops moving in, hitting and getting out,” the official said.

Over the past several months, American advisers have helped supervise the training of the Somali forces to be deployed in the offensive, though American officials said that this was part of a continuing program to “build the capacity” of the Somali military, and that there has been no increase in military aid for the coming operations.

The Americans have provided covert training to Somali intelligence officers, logistical support to the peacekeepers, fuel for the maneuvers, surveillance information about insurgent positions and money for bullets and guns.

The Obama administration is reportedly worried about a Yemen-Somalia axis where al Qaeda fighters flow between the two countries, setting up training camps and a staging area for international attacks. It's a legitimate worry, and if the choice is between an Afghan-style counter-insurgency/nation building effort, and the kind of assistance the administration is offering, I think the Somalia template is preferable, because it puts Somalis and not Americans, on the front lines.

But we have to be on guard here as well. If we wind up enabling a government takeover, and that government is corrupt and brutal, it will not only galvanize further revolts, but it will direct the ire of Somalis against the U.S. That kind of blowback would take a bad situation and potentially make it much, much worse.

(AP Photo)

March 5, 2010

Turkey & Armenia

I've dinged Max Boot a few times in this space so I think it's only appropriate to say that I agree with him on this.

Taking Credit for Iraq

Jonah Goldberg observes that America's view, or at least the elite view, of the Iraq war is changing:

Indeed, that’s what’s so interesting about the strange turn in the zeitgeist. Many of the war’s most ardent opponents claimed that Americans didn’t like the war for the same reasons the hard Left didn’t. But all that talk about “imperialism,” “neoconservatism,” “Cheney-Halliburton blood for oil,” and the rest was not at the core of the war’s unpopularity. What most Americans didn’t like was that we were losing militarily and costing the precious lives of our troops.

I think this is half-right. Reading this, you'd think the only objections to invading Iraq concerned the leftist critique about Halliburton, etc. And sure, there was plenty of that. But the most powerful objection, made by Scowcroft and others, was the one that centered on necessity. This argument did not win the day at the time, but as the war dragged on and the costs became clearer, Americans began to reassess the fundamental question of necessity. Yes, Goldberg is right, Americans want short and victorious wars. Who doesn't? But why wasn't the Iraq war short? After all, we deposed Saddam in a matter of weeks. Why didn't the Bush administration begin a rapid draw-down of American troops after "Mission Accomplished?" Why, ultimately, did concerns for the stability of post-war Iraq keep the U.S. mired in the place for years after the initial victory over Saddam was achieved?

Part of it was clearly an egregious lack in post-war planning. But perhaps a more important issue was the war's lack of legitimacy (i.e. its lack of necessity). The failure to find WMD knocked the legs out of the national security rationale for the invasion. If the administration had nevertheless packed up and left quickly, leaving Iraq in a shambles, it would have been damned twice. So the only possible redemption for the effort lay in an attempt to rebuild the country into a pro-Western democracy.

Goldberg, in his own way, acknowledges this:

First and foremost, it’s a sign that the war in Iraq, while costly and deservedly controversial, was not for nothing. Putting Iraq on a path to democracy and decency is a noble accomplishment of which Americans — of all parties — should be proud. Even if you think the war wasn’t worth it or that it was unjustified, only the truly blinkered or black-hearted can be vexed by the fact that Saddam Hussein’s regime is gone and the country is on the path to better days.

Should this occur, it is indeed a noble accomplishment, but what of the road to get there? The path from Saddam to self-government is piled high with Iraqi dead. The rough estimates for the numbers of Iraqis killed since the invasion reaches into the tens of thousands, and possibly over 100,000.

Obviously we don't know what might have been in Iraq. Maybe Saddam and his brutal minions would have killed an equal number of Iraqis before they gave way to a new government - which may have been even worse. Maybe the country would have come apart after Saddam's death and led to an equal number killed. Maybe all possible roads that diverged from America's decision to invade involved considerably more dead Iraqis than the one we took. All of that is very plausible. But you can't ignore the fact that the road we took resulted in the death of tens of thousands of Iraqis. If Goldberg and other war supporters want to make the omelet/egg argument about their lives and the creation of a new democracy, fine. But I think it's difficult to try to take credit for the emergence of a democratic government in Iraq without simultaneously taking "credit" (or rather, responsibility) for the tens of thousands of Iraqis killed to get there.

March 4, 2010

America's Foreign Policy Status Quo

Less noticed amidst these crises, however, has been a broader shift in American foreign policy that could have equally great and possibly longer-lasting implications. The Obama presidency may mark the beginning of a new era in American foreign policy and be seen as the moment when the United States finally turned away from the grand strategy it adopted after World War II and assumed a different relationship to the rest of the world. - Robert Kagan, January 2010
Unnoticed amid the sniping inWashington over health care and the wailing about "broken government," a broad and durable bipartisan consensus has begun falling into place in one unlikely area: foreign policy. Consider the fact that on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran -- the most difficult, expensive, and potentially dangerous foreign challenges facing the United States -- precious little now separates Barack Obama from most Republican leaders in and out of Congress. - Robert Kagan, March 2010.

To March-edition Kagan, Obama's embrace of the status quo is a good thing, an indication that the administration is now more responsible and attuned to American interests. The alternatives before the president, he writes, are all non-starters:

Most Americans today simply don't believe there is safety to be found in a Fortress America. The fact that deadly attacks can be hatched in faraway places, including in failed states that many Americans can't find on a map, has discredited even more temperate calls for a retrenchment of U.S. overseas involvement. Republicans are more interventionist today than they were a decade ago. In 2000, Condoleezza Rice, then candidate George W. Bush's top foreign-policy advisor, spoke for many Republicans when she denigrated "nation-building" and complained that the 82nd Airborne should not be used to help Bosnian kids get to school. Today most Republicans support manpower-intensive counterinsurgency strategies that include nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. The difference is 9/11.

One of the problems with this is that it's pegged entirely around a false choice: the status quo or Fortress America. This ignores an entire range of policy options between the interventionism that Kagan champions and "fortress America." I take a "Fortress America" policy to mean a sharp restriction in free trade, a dramatic reduction in immigration and a complete military withdrawal from the world. That's certainly nothing I'd endorse. It's not even what arch non-interventionist Ron Paul endorsed. Many analysts who routinely warn about over-stretch and over commitment (like the good people at the Cato Institute) want open borders and even more liberalized free trade.

So the constituency for a Hermit Kingdom is imperceptible. But there alternative approaches available to the Obama administration, ones that do not see the need for complete global dominance and intrusive international meddling as essential for our security. One that wants to preserve alliances, but reform them to reflect the emergence of rising powers and stronger economies now capable of underwriting a larger share of their security. One that wants to retain some forward military power, but not in regions that clearly do not want it and are reacting violently against it (read: the Middle East). One that wants a sensible adjustment that better positions America for the 21st century, and not for 1946.

Kagan is right that the people advocating this view have been successfully run out of the Republican party and don't have much of a home in the Democratic party either. But so much the worse for both parties I say. It would be one thing to laud a bipartisan status quo if America were in great shape, but the volume of writings about American decline suggests that maybe, just maybe, something is amiss, no?

Kagan points to the existence of the status quo as if it contains a transcendent truth about American interests, but I'd argue just the opposite. Look at how frozen and wrong-footed Washington is on so many issues. It is out of step with every major power except Europe (and possibly Japan) on Iran. It is berating NATO countries to spend more on defense to join us in the hinterlands of Afghanistan while simultaneously reaffirming to these very same countries that we view NATO as ever-lasting. The result being that Europe will continue doing what it pleases with its money while we continue to defend it. We've aligned every major player in the region against North Korea and still can't get them to relent. We're having a collective freak-out over Japan's unwillingness to a host an airbase in Okinawa, going to so far as to launch a patronizing PR campaign that argues that the Japanese are unable to accurately understand the kind of security environment they live in. We've been caught in an untenable situation on Russia's borders after a hasty and ill-conceived attempt to bring NATO to their doorstep. And wouldn't it have been nice to have the nearly $3 trillion we'll spend in Iraq in the U.S. treasury right about now?

The status quo is everywhere showing signs of fraying and right now the Obama administration's response is to try in an ever-more-frantic fashion to patch it up. This is a small-c conservative response. When faced with change, it's natural to cling to old patterns of thinking. And it's not like the alternative approaches are going to usher in an international nirvana - the world will be what is always is, a place of competition and angling for power. No one can promise utopia. But just because Washington has fixed on an over-arching strategy for navigating the world that has been more or less consistent for the last three administrations does not mean that it's the right one or the one that maximizes our position.

French Still Down on Sarkozy


Via Angus Reid:

Just under two thirds of people in France are disappointed with the leadership of Nicolas Sarkozy, according to a poll by Ifop published in Le Journal du Dimanche. 63 per cent of respondents are dissatisfied with the president’s performance, up two points since January.

The past three months worth of polling data shows a pretty consistent 2/3 of French respondents saying they're unhappy with Sarkozy's leadership.

(AP Photo)

Soft Seismology

Writing this week on the devastating earthquake in Chile, Christopher Hitchens sees a soft power opportunity in Iran:

I remember sitting in one of Tehran's epic traffic snarls a few years ago and thinking, "What if a big one was to hit now?" This horrible thought was succeeded by two even more disturbing ones: What if the giant shudder came at night, when citizens were packed tightly into unregulated and code-free apartment buildings? And what would happen to the secret nuclear facilities, both under the ground and above it?
While the "negotiations" on Iran's weaponry are being artificially protracted by an irrational and corrupt regime, it should become part of our humanitarianism and our public diplomacy to warn the Iranian people of the man-made reasons that the results of a natural calamity would be hideously multiplied in their case. This, together with the offer of immediate help in earthquake-proofing, enhanced from our experiences in California, is nothing less than a moral responsibility. Together with the cross-border implications of an earthquake plus ill-maintained covert nuclear facilities, it also drives home the point that the future of Iran is not the "internal affair" of a regime that dreams luridly of one apocalypse while inviting a cataclysm of a quite different sort. Down with the earthquake deniers! Long live democratic seismology

How very Friedman-esque of Mr. Hitchens.

The Earthquake Index

KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan -- Two months ago, Haiti lost over 200,000 people to a magnitude 7.0 earthquake. Last week, Chile saw about 800 casualties and extensive from an 8.8 rumble. As I drank my coffee this morning, my apartment in Kaohsiung City, along with the rest of Taiwan, was shaken by a 6.4 quake. As of now, there are 13 people injured as a result.

Damage in Haiti (Washington Post).

The earthquake's epicenter was in Kaohsiung County, so the city was particularly susceptible. Yet students stayed in school and most businesses operated in their normal fashion -- although President Ma Ying-jeou canceled his day's schedule to respond to the quake's damage.

Despite similar seismic conditions, Taiwan fared tremendously better than Haiti. (Sure, a 6.4 is six times less powerful than a 7.0, but how many times must you multiply 0 casualties to get 212,000?) In fact, Kaohsiung even has three times the population as Port-au-Prince.

The obvious factor in the disparate outcomes is economic development, where Taiwan has had a far greater capability to prepare for such quakes -- though the enforcement of building codes has been questioned by some. Even Chile, suffering such a strong seismic event, saw relatively few deaths in the context of Haiti. To the Chileans' credit, they have also invested extensively in preparedness. Yet it is also notable that inequality in Chile is about five times greater than in Taiwan, so there are more vulnerable people in Chile during a quake.

Earthquake deaths seem to be rough, natural indicators of equitable development -- or lack thereof. You can even look at a similar region over time: compare the deaths in undeveloped California during a 1906 quake of 7.8 and a 1992 quake of 7.3. The former, in San Francisco, took 3,000 lives, while the latter, near Los Angeles, killed exactly two people.

What doesn't change with development, though, is the instant feeling of uncertainty one experiences as Earth swings your apartment building around you.

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.

What Matters in Iraq?


Peter Wehner has an interesting perspective on events in Iraq. He writes:

With the passage of time, President Bush’s decision to champion a new counterinsurgency strategy, including sending 30,000 additional troops to Iraq when most Americans were bone-weary of the war, will be seen as one of the most impressive and important acts of political courage in our lifetime. And those who fiercely opposed the so-called surge were not only wrong in their judgment; in some instances their actions were shameful.

To reframe Wehner's argument: President Bush was unhappy with his house. He had some legitimate questions about how secure the structure was and whether it was in need of some improvements. So he decided to set it on fire. He watched it burn almost to the ground (killing tens of thousands of innocent people in the process) and then decided to grab a hose and douse the flames. Despite the hosing, there are still embers everywhere that could potentially reignite. And in the process of burning down his home, his more aggressive and more powerful neighbor now has a better chance of taking over the entire block.

Wehner would have us believe not only that there are no embers (because if they reignite it's Obama's fault now) but that we should pay no mind to the fact that the "most impressive and important political acts of our lifetime" was occasioned by a much larger strategic failure that made such an act of courage necessary in the first place. Don't worry that he burned the place down, just celebrate the fact that President Bush had the wisdom to eventually decide to grab a hose.

This is an extraordinary act of revisionism. But Wehner goes further:

What America has done for Iraq, which had been brutalized for so long, may not be the noblest act in our history. But it ranks quite high. The Iraq war was, in fact, a war of liberation. And the liberation appears to be working. Nothing is guaranteed; “Everything in Iraq is hard,” Ambassador Crocker once said. But regardless of where one stood on the war and the surge, what we see unfolding in Iraq today is something to be grateful for, and to take pride in.

The emergence of a democratic government in Iraq is a good thing and indeed, we should be grateful that the Iraqis are out from under Saddam's yoke. But it's important to distinguish between things that are good, and things that are worth spending 3 trillion dollars and thousands of American lives on. The invasion and occupation of Iraq cannot be justified solely on the basis of our love for democracy. The costs must be justified by gains to the security of Americans.

I would be interested in hearing Wehner defend the proposition that elections in Iraq are moderating the Pakistani Taliban's desire to attack American troops or provide aid and comfort to al Qaeda. Or that Iraq's democracy is undermining the radicalization of Islamist militants worldwide. I would also be interested in hearing why Wehner believes that the regional empowerment of Iran and the placement of a government in Iraq that it is sympathetic (to put it mildly) to Tehran is a strategic boon to the United States. I would like to know why having tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq as a hostage to the country's potential instability positions America well against the emergence of potential great power rivals.

Again, it's not that the surge wasn't successful in tamping down violence and giving America the chance to leave Iraq in a more stable condition. It's not that the democratic process unfolding in Iraq isn't a good thing for the Iraqis (although they had to endure tremendous suffering to get there thanks in large measure to extraordinarily poor post-war planning on the part of Wehner's administration). It's that these things in and of themselves are not the determinants of success or failure in Iraq. The metric is American security and whether the gains there (if any) are commensurate with the costs.

(AP Photo)

Argentina's Angle


Today's Washington Post asks, what can Argentina gain from another Falklands dispute?

YOU KNOW that an Argentine leader must be in political trouble if the subject of the Falkland Islands has come up again. In this case the beleaguered president is Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, whose populist administration in Buenos Aires has lost the support of most of the country. Hosting Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Buenos Aires on Monday, Ms. Fernández de Kirchner requested that the United States mediate Argentina's dispute with Britain over the islands, which lie about 400 miles off Argentina's southern coast but have been governed from London since 1833.
So far so good; However, the WaPo editorial board makes a factual mistake in saying:
Ms. Clinton responded by urging the two sides to talk, while wisely sidestepping the mediation suggestion.
There was nothing wise, and there was no sidestepping. As I mentioned yesterday, Hillary played right into Cristina's hands by agreeing to the Argentinian president's position that Britain negotiate against the will of Falkland's citizens, and subject itself to the whim of UN resolutions and the Marxist-controlled decolonization committees.

The WaPo points out that:

Such studied neutrality is in keeping with traditional U.S. policy on the Falklands -- though it's worth remembering that mistaken interpretation of signals from Washington helped produce Argentina's disastrous 1982 invasion.
Hillary's "studied neutrality" may be opening that can of worms again in the region.

Hillary also arrived just in time to back the losing team: Yesterday the Kirchners officially lost the congressional majority they had had in Congress for the past seven years, when the opposition parties formed a coalition:

In this case, it's hard to see why the Obama administration should throw any lifelines to Ms. Fernández de Kirchner, who hasn't shrunk from playing to anti-American sentiment around the region.
The Obama administration's blunder on this issue has damaged the U.S.-Britain relationship by essentially selling them down the river:
Unfortunately there is no sign that the White House and the State Department understand that their reckless stance on the Falklands is significantly damaging the relationship with Great Britain. I hope they wake up before it’s too late, and realize that America has no truer friend than the British people, and that siding with Britain’s enemies is a spectacular miscalculation that is fundamentally against the U.S. national interest.
Don't hold your breath waiting that they do.

Fausta Wertz blogs at Fausta's blog.

(AP Photo)

March 3, 2010

The Divide That Matters


Patrick Appel writes:

The strongest argument against engagement with Iran is not that any individual political actor in Iran is irrational, but that the country's leadership is divided against itself and that the warring political fractions are incapable of committing to any sort of international agreement. The green movement added to this disunity.

I really think this is, in short, the biggest problem with those who took on the Green banner and championed it so unflinchingly and uncritically since last summer's protests broke out. It's worth noting that many of those who adopted the Green Movement after June 12 were the same analysts and journalists who just months prior had tried their best to put a positive face on Iranian democracy. Once that reality was shaken, and a regime most already understood to be awful actually confirmed said awfulness, many of these same analysts and journalists were left shocked and searching for an explanation.

Along came the Green Movement: a young, cosmopolitan and liberal movement rooted in justice, democracy and Islam; the kind of thing you rarely hear about when Iran hawks clamor on about Ahmadinejad and the "Mad Mullahs." Here, finally, was something even the casual Western observer could get behind.

It's a great story, and it's one that will no doubt continue to be told. But it was always a modest movement seeking electoral reparations; at best "revolutionary" only on its lesser fringes.

Thus, the problem with the Green Movement was never so much the Green Movement itself, but those in the West who were understandably compelled by months of "news, tweets, images, and videos" making the movement appear to be something it was not - not yet, anyway. The Greens became a canvass on which Westerners could paint their preferred Iranian regime, and that's a problem. When we only see the country we hope to deal with rather than the one we have to deal with, it puts us on the slippery slope toward confrontation and conflict (this is probably why so many anti-engagement Iran hawks have made common cause with the Green Movement's most ardent supporters during all these months).

The Iranian regime is always divided, and if we were to take Appel's advice, the time for engagement would be never.

Incidentally, I believe that Shadi Hamid and Larison are having the debate we in fact should be having on Iran, and I hope to see more of this going forward. The most important societal split in Iran, as far as the international community should be concerned, is not the one between the Greens and Ahmadinejad, but the split between global isolationists and integrationists. My guess is that these camps are respectively larger than the Green Movement and Ahmadinejad's inner-circle, and it's worth discussing which factions may or may not be interested in rapprochement on the nuclear question, terrorism, sanctions and so on.

I'm sure there are Greens who want nuclear weapons, just as there are no doubt "Ahmadi" supporters who'd be willing to forgo them. I think this is the relevant divide for Western observers to focus on.

(AP Photo)

Hamas Claims Jordan, Egypt Behind Dubai Hit

The Dubai hit saga has taken another interesting turn:

Hamas suspects the security forces of an Arab state were behind the assassination of a senior group operative in Dubai earlier this year, the Al-Quds Al-Araby daily reported on Tuesday.

Mahmoud Nasser, a member of Hamas' political bureau, told the newspaper that slain commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was likely being tracked by agents from Jordan and Egypt prior to the January 19 killing.

If true, than a lot of allied governments (Britain, Australia, etc.) should be apologizing to Israel. Stay tuned....

Three Roads Diverge in an Iranian Wood

China and Russia won’t play ball because they have no good strategic reason to help relieve America’s burden of global leadership. But it’s not so clear why the Obama administration is eager to participate in this charade.

There are two reasons, I think. The first is that acknowledging Russia and China’s unwillingness to help would strike the most powerful blow yet to Obama’s central foreign-policy message: that his personality and eagerness for engagement would open up doors for America that were slammed shut by the Bush administration’s alleged arrogance and quickness to go to war. Acknowledging that the Security Council will never allow strong sanctions would be tantamount to admitting that the very logic and premises of Obama’s foreign policy is flawed. Thus, this isn’t really about Iran. It’s about the politics of failure and Obama’s increasingly desperate attempt to shield his presidency from the hard realities of the world.

And there is a practical reason why Obama may never admit that the Security Council is a dead end: doing so would force him to move to a new strategy — and there is no new strategy. So instead of thinking seriously about a Plan B, the administration is simply burying Plan A in a process with no chance of success and no expiration date. This is passivity, and it puts Obama in the position of reacting to events instead of shaping them. - Noah Pollak

I think this is correct, but I think there's a different, slightly less partisan, way to understand the issue. There are basically three courses open to the Obama administration with respect to Iran. It can do the Full Leverett (drop all pretense of hostility toward Iran and engage them on all issues in the hopes of a grand bargain); it can pursue the course it's on now, a slow roll of diplomacy towards possible sanctions and international condemnation of Iran that probably won't alter their nuclear progress; or it can start a war with Iran, which may or may not fully stop their nuclear program but would open the door to a host of consequences, most of them negative.

In contrast to their neoconservative critics, the Obama administration, including senior figures in the military, apparently sees the "hard realities of the world" as mitigating against starting a third war in the Greater Middle East - even if it means conceding some nuclear weapons capability to Iran. Of course, the administration can't publicly acknowledge this, and so they have pursued the diplomatic and sanctions track, to demonstrate that they are least trying to address the problem (and sanctions could, in fact, slow down Iran's progress - as they have done with North Korea and Saddam's Iraq).

And so Pollak is right in the sense that the administration's determination to stay on the diplomatic path despite the long odds of it working is an admission that there is no Plan B - because Plan B in this view is a war with Iran. But he's wrong to suggest that the administration does not have a Plan B for when diplomacy fails (as I too expect it will). They are clearly signalling the beginning of a military containment regime for Iran.

Americans See Military Decline

To follow up on David's Video of the Day post yesterday, here's a look at Gallup's findings that America is more pessimistic about the long-term trajectory of our military power:


The survey also found that 2/3 of Americans believe the country will be in near constant military conflict for the next 20 years.

Gallup's Frank Newport writes:

Given the nature of these findings, it might be tempting to hypothesize that Americans' pessimism about the nation's military superiority is connected to their beliefs that the U.S. will be engaged in continuous combat situations over that period.

This does not, however, appear to be the case. Analysis shows that Americans who think the U.S. will be regularly involved militarily are no less likely to say that the U.S. will be No. 1 militarily in 20 years than are those who believe the U.S. will not be regularly involved in combat.

Americans may not believe that constant military conflict won't impact America's military superiority but it clearly will. It's not like this constant conflict is against another potential military superpower (so that our fighting wears them down as well). We're policing Marja Afghanistan, China is bolstering their position in space.

But I also think Gallup's findings reflect America's appreciation of the impact of China's rise to great power status (as illustrated in a recent WaPo poll). Fox News' Martha MacCallum seemed to take umbrage at the notion that Americans think their military power will be diminished in 20 years, but if you view military strength as a proxy for economic strength, such a belief isn't unfounded. China's economy is growing rapidly, ours is not. Hence China's military strength is growing. It may not be sustainable, but if current trends continue we face an inevitable erosion in our relative position.

We still have a huge lead and one we can likely maintain far into the future, but the more we spend in Afghanistan and Iraq (and Yemen, and Somalia, et. al) the less we have to invest in the types of military platforms that sustain our edge against conventional powers. Of course, big government types believe we should just apportion an ever greater share of our wealth toward the military so that we can do global policing and deter China, but the budget simply won't bear such recklessness.

The American people, as evidenced by the Gallup poll, seem to understand this. Whether it bothers them or not remains to be seen.

Is Global Democracy in Retreat?

Earlier this year, Freedom House painted a bleak picture of global democracy. Their 2010 report noted that worldwide freedom was in retreat for the fourth year in a row, especially in Latin America, the post Soviet States and the Middle East.

Now, the Bertelsmann Foundation is out with their Transformation Index, which tracks countries undergoing the transition toward democratic and free market rule. And, like Freedom House, they see democratic back-sliding:

At first glance, the results of the Transformation Index 2010 on the state of political transformation in the world point to considerable stability. Sixty percent of the countries under review continue to be ruled by democratic governments, and democracy does not appear to have lost its normative appeal.

Nevertheless, with the exception of a very stable group of top performers, the overall quality of democracy has deteriorated and – in some cases – considerably. Indeed, some of the key components of a functioning democracy, such as political participation rights and civil liberties, have suffered qualitative erosion. Of particular concern are increasing problems with free and fair elections and with freedoms of assembly and the press. In addition, in several democracies, an anemic rule of law, weak party systems and insufficient trust or limited social capital in civil society all prevent further steps toward consolidation. Over time, these developments threaten to hollow out the quality and substance of governance, which in turn undermines respect for democratic institutions.

The report's authors go on to note that they do not detect a "global shift toward autocracy" but that instead, states in transition are facing a rocky road.

I haven't dug too deeply into the Bertelsmann numbers yet (although they have a cool, down-loadable application which lets you engage with their data interactively) but I do wonder how much the post Soviet states are skewing these various indexes. Their liberation caused a huge surge in the number of nascent democracies around the world and occasioned a lot of democratic triumphalism that, in retrospect, seems premature. While central Europe solidified their democratic gains, there's been some backsliding in parts of Eastern Europe and other nations on Russia's periphery, not to mention in Russia herself.

The idea that the U.S. cannot be secure in a world that does not reflect its ideological preferences is nothing new, but the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of new democracies in its wake actually brought such a vision much closer to view. For a fleeting moment, it seemed possible that the U.S. would be able to sit atop a liberalizing globe. That moment appears to be waning. Whether temporarily or longer-term remains to be seen. The question is what role, if any, the U.S. should play in trying to reverse this trend.

Sec. Clinton vs. Great Britain


Alex Massie channels a number of British writers in deploring Secretary Clinton's take on the Falklands dispute between Argentina and Britain.

During her swing through Argentina, Clinton said:

We want very much to encourage both countries to sit down. Now, we cannot make either one do so, but we think it is the right way to proceed. So we will be saying this publicly, as I have been, and we will continue to encourage exactly the kind of discussion across the table that needs to take place.

To which Massie replies:

That may seem innocuous or a simple piece of diplomatic boilerplate. But it isn't. Hillary could, perhaps at the risk of disappointing her hosts, have said that this is an issue upon which the United States has no view. But she didn't. "Needs", for instance, is a pretty strong word.

The British position, right or not, is that there really isn't very much to talk about at all. Consequently, any American endorsement of talks is an endorsement of the Argentine position and not, however innocuous it might seem, a neutral view.

It's not clear whether Secretrary Clinton's formulation was intentional (although the State Department has said much the same thing) but hopefully they realize that it has been counter-productive. More importantly, the impulse to wade into every dispute and be ever-so-helpful is often not so helpful at all.

March 2, 2010

Video of the Day

Today's video of the day is in keeping with the question of American military decline:

While military expenditures are not perfect measures of military capability, the U.S. military budget is currently greater than the rest of the worlds military expenditures combined, meaning that there is no country, nor combination of countries that can muster the military capital to equal the U.S. That one third of the populace is confused about this is amazing.

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

Europe Backs Burqa Ban


A new poll shows strong European support for banning the burqa:

More than half of voters in four other major European states back a push by France’s Nicolas Sarkozy to ban women from wearing the burka, according to an opinion poll for the Financial Times.

As Mr Sarkozy presses ahead with plans to ban the wearing of the burka in public places, the FT’s latest Harris poll shows the move is not just strongly supported in France, but wins enthusiastic backing in the UK, Italy, Spain and Germany.

The poll shows some 70 per cent of respondents in France said they supported plans to forbid the wearing of the garment which covers the female body from head to toe. There was similar sentiment in Spain and Italy, where 65 per cent and 63 per cent respectively favoured a ban

The strength of feeling in the UK and Germany may seem particularly surprising. Britain has a strong liberal tradition that respects an individual’s right to full expression of religious views. But here, some 57 per cent of people still favoured a ban. In Germany, which is also reluctant to clamp down in minority rights, some 50 per cent favoured a ban....

In the US, concerns about the issue are far less strong than in Europe. Just 33 per cent of Americans surveyed by Harris supported a ban, a far lower figure than the 44 per cent who said they supported it.

It's clear why Europe feels this way, but I wonder whether bans will ultimately improve the issue of Muslim integration, or make it worse.

This via James Joyner who observes:

Still, it's remarkable that we're seeing such strong support for limiting religious expression in the key states of Western Europe while Americans remain so adamant in opposition.

Aside from Americans tending to be more leery of government regulation than our European cousins, I suspect this is also a function of Americans being more religious and therefore tolerant of open symbols of worship.

(AP Photo)

China in the Mideast

Dan Drezner chimes in:

1) China is cozying up to a powerful country on the periphery of the Middle East;

2) Because of its religion and periodically bellicose foreign policy, that country that is viewed as an outsider by the Arab Middle East;

3) This country is pursuing internal security policies that would generously be described as "controversial" by the rest of the world;

4) It's Middle East policy can have pronounced effects on China's own domestic politics;

5) All the while, Chinese energy dependence on the region is increasing rapidly.

Welcome to the Middle East, China!!

Indeed, although thus far that growing presence has been done on the cheap.

Nuclear Deterrence

While many commentators have focused on the headline-grabbing element in President Obama's nuclear policy - the fanciful and unrealistic goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons around the world - a more subtle debate is unfolding within the administration about how America talks about its weapons:

Some leading Democrats, led by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have asked Mr. Obama to declare that the “sole purpose” of the country’s nuclear arsenal is to deter nuclear attack. “We’re under considerable pressure on this one within our own party,” one of Mr. Obama’s national security advisers said recently.

But inside the Pentagon and among many officials in the White House, Mr. Obama has been urged to retain more ambiguous wording — declaring that deterring nuclear attack is the primary purpose of the American arsenal, not the only one. That would leave open the option of using nuclear weapons against foes that might threaten the United States with biological or chemical weapons or transfer nuclear material to terrorists.

I'm not a political scientist, but I'd be interested in hearing from some about just how effective a "declaratory policy" really is when it comes to the kind of scenarios envisioned above. We know that no state has transferred WMD to a terrorist organization for the purpose of surreptitiously striking another country. I think you could make the case that the U.S. should retain the right to use nuclear weapons against a state that facilitated a nuclear strike against the United States, but against the use of chemical or biological weapons? That just seems like, if you'll excuse the phrase, overkill.

The Erosion of America's Military Dominance


David Wood has a good article on Iranian and Chinese efforts to create "no-go zones" where the U.S. military is unable to operate with impunity:

The United States, Pentagon strategists say, is quickly losing its ability to barge in without permission. Potential target countries and even some lukewarm allies are figuring out ingenious ways to blunt American power without trying to meet it head-on, using a combination of high-tech and low-tech jujitsu.

At the same time, U.S. naval and air forces have been shrinking under the weight of ever more expensive hardware. It's no longer the case that the United States can overwhelm clever defenses with sheer numbers.

As Defense Secretary Robert Gates summed up the problem this month, countries in places where the United States has strategic interests -- including the Persian Gulf and the Pacific -- are building "sophisticated, new technologies to deny our forces access to the global commons of sea, air, space and cyberspace.''

Those innocuous words spell trouble. While the U.S. military and strategy community is focused on Afghanistan and the fight in Marja, others – Iran and China, to name two – are chipping away at America's access to the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, the Persian Gulf and the increasingly critical extraterrestrial realms.

Now some of this we can chalk up to bureaucratic spin: it's hard to get worked up about the idea that other countries would plan their defense in such a way as to blunt U.S. strengths. I mean, what else are they supposed to do?

But some of this represents a conscious choice on behalf of the United States. As Wood's piece makes clear at the end, Secretary Gates has shifted the focus in the Pentagon to "winning the wars we're in." In other words, we are going to be investing more money in weapons and technologies useful for waging counter-insurgency and correspondingly less on systems and technologies useful for great power conflict (not that those won't still be funded). Still, in a world of limited resources you have to choose. Let's hope we've chosen wisely.

(AP Photo)

March 1, 2010

China's Mideast Security Detail


Tom Barnett explains how China could reap the long-term benefits of the Iraq War:

Will the Chinese begin to assume the same kind of security role that the U.S. has historically played in the region anytime soon? Hardly. And yet China's increasing presence throughout the region already alters the correlation of forces. China's national oil company, Sinopec, is the only foreign firm to date to win oil access in both Iraq's Kurdish region and the south. Given Baghdad's ambition and Beijing's unquenchable thirst, the two are a match made in Big Oil heaven -- with Washington's blessing.

And more importantly, with Washington's security. China gets another energy source, minus the nasty byproducts and backlash that come with regional hegemony. Meanwhile, we will have spent approximately $2 Trillion to give China more markets in which they will attempt to supplant the dollar.

(AP Photo)

Cue China Freakout

No doubt there are some who will take a report via Reuters that a 'senior' Chinese military officer wants to challenge the U.S. militarily as a bad sign:

The call for China to abandon modesty about its global goals and "sprint to become world number one" comes from a People's Liberation Army (PLA) Senior Colonel, Liu Mingfu, who warns that his nation's ascent will alarm Washington, risking war despite Beijing's hopes for a "peaceful rise."

While this quote and other points may seem ominous, this is far from a clarion call, nor a shift in China's policy. First of all, this is not a new theory, and is best outlined in John Mearsheimer's The Tragedy of Great Power Politics and a position which he has taken several times since. Secondly, this is not a policy paper, but a privately published book which the author admits is his own opinion, and is probably hyperbolized to generate sales. Finally, the author is a senior colonel, which sounds impressive, and is certainly not a junior rank, but is also not in a position of any real power either. In the end, the context does not really inspire awe.

Video of the Day

While there seems to be little danger of an actual coup in Turkey at this time, past coup attempts are in the news because of a recent crackdown in the country:

Turkey has an interesting history where coups are almost always pro-liberal events. The military overthrows the democratically elected government, because the government strays too far from principles of freedom, and so far the military has always willingly returned power to the people. Coups in Turkey are therefore often an illustration of how processes (democracy) is not the same as ideology (liberalism, in the classical sense). It is also an interesting case of the difficulty of democracy in the Middle East.

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

Leverett Bashing, Ctd.

Patrick Appel responds to Larison on Iran and the Leveretts:

The Leveretts' substantive point, that we should engage with the Iranian government we have, is a serious position that deserves real debate. Arguing, without sufficient evidence, that Amadi won the election outright was not necessary to advance this position but doing so made made their position easier to defend, as did downplaying the protests and ignoring the violence. Pundits who advocate bombing Iran should address all the likely consequences of that action. Pundits who advocate engagement with Iran should recognize the crimes that the Iranian government has committed against its people.

Just because a fact is not convenient to the argument at hand does not mean you can disregard said fact. Ignoring the strongest evidence against a position opens one to charges of intellectual dishonesty and does not move the debate forward. It's intellectually lazy and it damages the discourse.

I think Appel and The Daily Dish are arguing with a quasi-straw man here. I'm not sure what would sufficiently qualify as recognizing the crimes of the Iranian regime here; the Leveretts have absolutely acknowledged the regime's brutality. Their point is not that violence hasn't occurred, but that the government has yet to crack down with the full capacity and brutality at its disposal. This isn't obfuscation, it's historical perspective. Contrary to the Dish's insistence, not every act of repressive brutality is Tiananmen Square.

But to make such an observation - like simply pointing out that Ahmadinejad even has supporters - may invite accusations of indifference or, worse yet, sympathy for the Iranian regime.

In short, it's fully embrace the Green Movement, or face the consequences. That doesn't strike me as intellectual honesty or vigor.

In an ideal world, I suppose the Leveretts would couple their analysis with lofty rhetoric about Iranian oppression and human rights abuses. Then, perhaps, our public officials would follow up with more lofty rhetoric and inspired condemnations. And in the end, we'd all feel really good about ourselves for being better than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (a rather low bar, I'd say).

So how then do we reconcile these words with actual policy? It's the policy that matters here, otherwise, it's all just puffery and empty rhetoric.

Medvedev Wants to Punish Russia's Olympic Leadership

This was coming - following Russia's poor performance at the recently-concluded Winter Olympics, President Dmitry Medvedev is calling for the heads to roll. At a meeting with the leadership of the United Russia political party, Medvedev proposed that those responsible for preparing for the Olympics should resign. "If they cannot do that, then we will help them," added the president. Experts think that this is clearly directed at Vitaly Mutko, Russia's Sports Minister, and head of the Russian Olympic Committee Leonid Tyagachyov.

"Whoever is responsible for preparing for the Olympics should be held accountable now. The responsible persons should take a courageous decision and write a (resignation) statement," said the President.

For his part, Mutko defended his actions. The Sports Minister has asked not to make loud statements about the Games and not to escalate the situation. "If we remove some official, will our skiers run faster?" However, he did add that "Vancouver painted the real picture in (our) sport." Russia spent an estimated 1 billion roubles (approximately $330 million) preparing for these games.

Given the current mood in the country after a poor showing in Vancouver, Russia intends to stop at nothing to recapture its pride at the 2014 Winter Olympics to be held in the southern Russian city of Sochi.

A Victory over the Pakistani Taliban?


The Times says that Pakistan has put the hurt on its home-grown Taliban menace in the tribal area:

Significant leaders of the Pakistani Taleban have been killed or captured in an onslaught of frontier ground and air attacks, a Pakistani general has told The Times.

“The militant command and control centres and their caches have been dismantled or captured,” said Major-General Tariq Khan, one of the country’s most experienced commanders in the frontier war with the Taleban. “The kind of hits the leadership has taken, the casualties they have taken, the TTP [Pakistani Taleban] is no longer significant,” he said. “It has ended as a cohesive force. It doesn’t exist any more as an umbrella organisation that can influence militancy anywhere.”

Given that the Pakistani Taliban are a huge menace to Pakistani society, it wouldn't make much sense for Khan to engage in empty boasting (whereas such claims made about the Afghan Taliban would have to be taken with huge grains of salt). But still, it seems a bit premature. Insurgent groups can remobilize under the radar, and how much infrastructure do the Pakistani Taliban need to carry off terrorist attacks in Pakistan's cities? Still, certainly encouraging news.

But what of al Qaeda, which is thought to be hiding in the tribal zone?

General Khan said: “There was some Arab influence in terms of resources and money. We haven’t found a dedicated al-Qaeda command-and- control centre. My commandant in Bajaur . . . says it’s like a pinch of flour in a bag of salt — you get the flavour but can’t catch the individuals.”

(AP Photo)

Can Great Powers Fix Afghanistan?


The Lowy Institute's Michael Wesley thinks they can:

But Central Asia's southern tier has benefited from no such clear thinking. Beijing's support for Pakistan has kept India strategically bottled up under the Himalayas for decades, while Indo-Pakistani hostility has led Islamabad to seek strategic depth in Afghanistan. India's response has been to try to deny that strategic depth, and China has every reason to try to block the recent countermove by New Delhi into Afghanistan. This is a complex and dangerous dynamic made chronically unstable by its cyclical structure.

To avoid the worst possible outcome, all three rivals must be engaged in the process of building a stable Afghanistan – and collectively guaranteeing it. The most realistic route is to actively involve the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in the future of Afghanistan while broadening that organisation to include India and Pakistan. This solution ties the stability of the northern and southern tiers of Central Asia to each other, thereby broadening the stakes of those involved. The one hope and one fear that bind China and Russia together are also remarkably relevant to the SCO's proposed new members.

The attractive feature of this solution is that it puts the regional powers (i.e. the major stakeholders), and not the U.S., in the driver's seat. It's unrealistic to expect a permanent U.S. presence in Afghanistan or a permanent American subsidy for Pakistan (although Egypt has been enjoying theirs for quite a while). The notion that America doesn't have an "attention span" is an obnoxious way of saying that the treasury is not an infinite well upon which other nations have an open-ended claim.

A regional solution that ties the major powers into some kind of institutional framework for stabilizing Afghanistan seems like a good alternative, especially since none of the stakeholders save Pakistan have much interest in seeing a Taliban restoration. (Of course, whether such a gambit is workable is another matter.)

(AP Photo)

Taking Exception

In their big essay in National Review on American exceptionalism, Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru assert of America:

It is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.

The Economist's Democracy in America blog takes a critical eye to that assessment and finds it wanting:

How would we truly rate democracies if we had point-by-point, careful comparisons? Well, it so happens that a Washington-based and government-funded NGO, Freedom House, rates every country on earth for "free" and "democratic" qualities. (Full disclosure; I'm an advisor to the group.) Specifically, it gives every country a rating from 1 to 7 on political rights (call that "democracy") and another on civil liberties ("freedom"). America, as a matter of fact, gets an overall 1-1 rating; so do many of the other democracies, mostly in Europe. But there are finer-grained measures—subscores on questions like "electoral process", "rule of law" and "freedom of expression" that add up to the two topline measures. Not only does America not have perfect subscores; looking at the table for the most recent year with full data (2008), we see that right next to it in the table is Uruguay, which has higher scores in several categories and thus a higher overall score. Ranking all countries on these subscores, America comes in a multi-way tie for 30th place. So according to a respected NGO often considered to be on the centre-right (though the board is politically diverse), America is not the freest country in the world, or most democratic. It isn't second or third either. It's merely in the top tier.

None of this would even be that important if most of the louder advocates of "exceptionalism" were content that America should lead by dint of her glorious example. Unfortunately, arguments grounded in exceptionalism are usually on behalf of an aggressive policy, where America's exceptional status gives her license that other states in the international system do no possess.

And so the National Review authors assert:

This national spirit is reflected in our ambitious and vigorous foreign policy. We were basically still clinging to port cities on the eastern seaboard when we began thinking about settling the rest of the continent. There never was a time when we were an idyllically isolationist country. We wanted to make the continent ours partly as a matter of geopolitics: France, Spain, and Britain were wolves at the door. But throughout our history, we have sought not just to secure our interests abroad, but to export our model of liberty.

They go on to caution that this idealism must be tempered with prudence but nothing in the piece actually provides a useful template for how a party should balance those two imperatives, other than the obligatory reminder that Obama is dangerously incapable of striking the right balance. But are Republicans? Do they strike you as a party capable of balancing prudence with idealism when it comes to foreign policy?

Berlusconi's Election List


And you thought America was ungovernable:

Silvio Berlusconi risked renewed criticism of his selection of candidates for election when he unveiled a list that included a Miss Italy contestant, a former TV weathergirl and a showgirl turned dental hygienist.

Last year the Italian prime minister hastily dropped a group of showgirls from his list of candidates for European elections after his wife said the move was "shamelessly trashy" and demanded a divorce.

But Berlusconi, 73, who describes himself as a "single man" after the start of divorce hearings, has returned to the fray before important regional elections by putting forward Nicole Minetti, 25, the daughter of an English dance instructor who settled in Rimini and married an Italian businessman, Italia Caruso, a former Miss Italy finalist, and Giovanna Del Giudice, who worked at a nightclub frequented by Berlusconi, became a weathergirl on one of his TV channels and was among the women hurriedly dropped from his list of candidates last year.

(AP Photo)

Locker Room Antics


Michael Kamber critiques The Hurt Locker:

I’ve covered a number of conflicts and Iraq was the least romantic, the one that looked the least like the war movies I grew up on. Yet Ms. Bigelow pulls one out for Hollywood. While many have praised the movie as anti-war, I believe — in a counter-intuitive way — that it glamorizes war. The Steely-Nerved-Protagonist Who Has Seen Too Much kills the bad guys in an action-packed setting and eventually signs up for more. His hard-drinking, P.T.S.D.-ravaged character becomes that much more romantic for his flaws.

I understand the argument that Ms. Bigelow and her team should be applauded for tackling certain issues and bringing the war home to Americans. Yet with so many scenes and details untrue, the actual war in Iraq becomes merely a dramatic jumping off point for the filmmakers.

(AP Photo)

Not Your Father's Taliban

Meet the new Taliban: more virgins, less killing.

A Nuclear (and Freer) Iran?

Shadi Hamid considers it:

One can envision a democratically-elected Iranian government that pursues nuclear weapons, offers rhetorical support to Hamas and Hezbollah, but also enjoys better relations with the U.S. and the international community, because democracies, all other things being equal, can be expected to be less reckless and inconsistent. In democracies, foreign policy decision-making is distributed among a larger number of people, with more veto points, and is to some degree subject to popular consent, rather than being overly dependent on one individual or a small clique of individuals as is often the case in autocratic regimes.

This is assuming, of course, that Iran's next regime is a democratic one.

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