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July 30, 2010

Why We're Failing in Afghanistan


Max Boot sums it up in a nutshell:

Devine’s argument appears, on the surface, to be more hardheaded, but actually, it is almost as unrealistic — and not incompatible with Kristof’s fantasy, as I bet Kristof imagines that his “schools for all” option could be supplemented by Special Operations and CIA actions to keep the Taliban in check. Such operations worked well in the past, as Devine notes, when the CIA was helping the mujahideen resist Soviet rule and then again in 2001, when it was helping the Northern Alliance overthrow the Taliban. But there is a fundamental disparity between those situations and the one we face today. It’s much easier for a covert force to overthrow a government, especially an unpopular government like the Soviet-backed regime or the Taliban. Altogether more difficult is imposing the rule of law, extending the authority of a new government, and stamping out a tenacious insurgency. Those are the challenges that we face today in Afghanistan, and they can’t be accomplished by a handful of special operators. They require large troop numbers, and because the Afghan National Army still lacks adequate capacity to police the country, its efforts must be supplemented for the short-term by the U.S. and its NATO allies. [Emphasis mine]
Did you read anything in there about preventing al-Qaeda attacks on the American homeland? Neither did I. The Boot recipe for waging a huge counter-insurgency is only marginally related to our ability to stop al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base from which to train and plot attacks against America (and even preventing al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan would not help us against al-Qaeda attacks originating in any number of countries). Devine's argument (unfortunately behind the WSJ's firewall) calls for a mission that is targeted at the proper ends - keeping al Qaeda off balance. That does not require any of the steps Boot prescribes. Waging a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan is not only far too ambitious, it's also basically irrelevant to our security needs.

(AP Photo)

A Mystery in Hormuz


Earlier this week, a Japanese oil tanker suffered mysterious damage to its hull while transiting through the Strait of Hormuz - the critical Persian Gulf waterway through which roughly 20 percent of the world's daily oil shipments pass. There is no firm word on just what happened - some say a freak wave, others pirates or possibly an Iranian attack . For their part, the crew said they saw an explosion.

According to this report, the incident has naturally led everyone in the region into a state of high alert:

According to our sources in Washington and Tehran, while waiting for evidence, both speculate that the perpetrators may be either pirates in the pay of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or even a rogue element in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which is bent on settling scores for the latest UN, US and European sanctions against their country.

Tehran has repeatedly warned it will fight back if sanctions hurt its economy and energy supplies.

The attack on the Japanese supertanker intensified Saudi and the Gulf emirates' concerns over a possible threat to their oil exporting routes. Wednesday night, fearing an unidentified assailant may also go for their oil ports and shore installations, Persian Gulf navies, the Fifth Fleet Bahrain-based headquarters and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards naval installations at Bandar Abbas went on a high alert.

Our military sources report some 100 warships of different navies are currently present in the Persian Gulf.

Good times.

(AP Photo)

The View from Pakistan

Pew Research has released a wide-ranging survey of attitudes in Pakistan. Some highlights:

* One in five have a positive view of President Zardari

* 51 percent are concerned about an extremist takeover of the country

* Pakistanis feel less threatened by al Qaeda (38 percent vs. 61 percent in 2009) and the Taliban (54 percent in 2010 vs. 73 percent in 2009)

* Pakistanis have negative views of both organizations - 65 percent hold an unfavorable view of the Taliban and 53 percent hold a dim view of al Qaeda.

* It's a different story with Lashkar e-Taiba, with just 35 percent of Pakistanis expressing a negative view of the group. "One-in-four Pakistanis express a positive assessment, while 40% offer no opinion," Pew noted.

* Pakistani views of the U.S. are poor. Notes Pew: "Along with Turks and Egyptians, Pakistanis give the U.S. its lowest ratings among the 22 nations included in the spring 2010 Pew Global Attitudes survey -- in all three countries, only 17% have a favorable view of the U.S. Roughly six-in-ten (59%) Pakistanis describe the U.S. as an enemy, while just 11% say it is a partner. And President Barack Obama is unpopular -- only 8% of Pakistanis express confidence that he will do the right thing in world affairs, his lowest rating among the 22 nations."

July 29, 2010

Understanding Cameron


David Cameron's recent trip to Turkey and his comments regarding the flotilla incident ("completely unacceptable") and conditions in Gaza (a "prison") have provoked some push back. The central theme of the criticism seems to be that Cameron is (A) misguided; (B.) trying to bolster his politically correct bona fides.

There is another explanation, however, and that is that Cameron knew what he was doing:

Nonetheless, the very fact that the Prime Minister is prepared to set out Britain's stall as having an independent and sympathetic policy towards a Muslim country, and could go on to India to express the desire for a new, more equal relationship with the rising economies, does say something important about Cameron's confidence in his approach to foreign affairs. It also says something about the way in which he defines British interests as primarily commercial.

Plus ça change, as he might say if the language of diplomacy was still French and not English. It is now 35 years since a British Prime Minister defined "export-led growth" as the "Holy Grail of British policy".

See also this. At the beginning of the month, Cameron's foreign secretary, William Hague, laid out a vision of British foreign policy that placed the emphasis on improving bilateral ties with emerging powers in the service of boosting Britain's economy. Forging good ties with Turkey would certainly fall under that rubric.

(AP Photo)

Britain Reaction to Lockerbie

A new survey from Angus Reid shows lingering bitterness in Britain over the release of the Lockerbie Bomber:

In the online survey of a representative national sample of 1,992 British adults, three quarters of respondents (75%) oppose the release of Megrahi, a Libyan national, which was conceded on compassionate grounds by the Scottish government citing the prisoner’s poor health condition...

Many Britons (41%) believe that the Scottish government’s decision to let Megrahi out of prison has something to do with the commercial interests of the British oil company BP, which has major operations in Libya.

Live Stream: Gingrich on U.S. Security at Risk

Free TV Show from Ustream

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich will give a speech on U.S. national security at the American Enterprise Institute. It will be live-streamed here beginning at 2pm EST.

Ahmadinejad's Dislikes


The Daily Telegraph runs down Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's various dislikes. The list has one rather huge omission, I think.

(AP Photo)

Canadians Support Burqa Ban

Via the Toronto Sun:

Canada should ban burkas in public, according to more than half of the people polled exclusively for QMI Agency.

The Leger Marketing online poll found 54% of people surveyed said the government should follow France's lead and not allow women to wear burkas in public for safety and transparency reasons.

Only 20% of respondents said Canada shouldn't consider a ban because it's an issue of freedom of religion and freedom of expression, and 15% said it didn't affect them either way.

Older Canadians were more likely to agree with a ban, with 71% of those 65 years and older choosing that option. Only 40% of Canadians 18-34 years old said burkas should be banned.

Leger Marketing vice-president Dave Scholz said the poll surprised staff at the research firm.

"This is Canada -- we don't ban anything," he said.

Sentiment was particularly strong in Quebec, where the debate over reasonable accommodation for new Canadians has been raging, with 73% of respondents saying they want a ban.

July 28, 2010

David Cameron on Pakistan

The British Prime Minister continues his making friends and influencing people tour:

David Cameron today sparked a furious diplomatic row with Islamabad after accusing elements of the Pakistani state of promoting the export of terrorism.

In the strongest British criticism of Pakistan so far, the prime minister warned Islamabad it could no longer "look both ways" by tolerating terrorism while demanding respect as a democracy.

But in an angry response, Pakistan's high commissioner to Britain accused Cameron of damaging the prospects for regional peace, and criticised him for believing allegations in the Wikileaks documents published in the Guardian earlier this week.

I doubt publicly brow-beating Pakistan over their not-so-covert support for militant networks is going to work, but then again, will anything?

Turkey's AKP Trailing

Via Angus Reid:

Turkey’s governing party is not the most popular political organization in the country, according to a poll by Sonar Arastirma. 33.5 per cent of respondents would vote for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the next legislative election, up one point since May.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is a close second with 31.1 per cent, followed by the National Action Party (MHP) with 15.5 per cent. Support is lower for the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the Felicity Party (SP), the Democratic Left Party (DSP), and the Turkish Democratic Party (DP).

Strength in Weakness?

Richard Gowen sees the upside of a weakened West:

Containing new crises will be difficult. Instead of Bush-era “coalitions of the willing”, it may be necessary to form “coalitions of the weaklings”: groups of states that can’t handle international problems alone, but have sufficient leverage between them to do something.

In June, Germany and Russia proposed a new EU-Russia Security Committee – and said it should find ways to resolve the frozen conflict in Moldova. Less than two years after the EU and Moscow fell out over Kosovo and Georgia, this shows how both sides’ awareness of their weaknesses may boost security cooperation. Similarly, Russia’s sense of vulnerability has arguably helped ease diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program.

Structuring coalitions to deal with complex issues like Afghanistan is horribly hard. Yet the EU’s leaders need to recognise that weakness isn’t an excuse for inaction – it should be a stimulus for more activist diplomacy to resolve actual and potential crises now.

Certainly countries are going to be more cooperative if they think they're playing a bad hand. But shouldn't we be devoting just as much time seeking to improve that hand, than in learning how to cope?

Japan to Add Submarines


According to a report in the Japanese press:

Japan is to increase its submarine fleet for the first time in 36 years, the Sankei Shimbun reported Sunday. The plan apparently aims to counter China's naval build-up by partially filling the void created by the U.S. reduction of submarines in the Pacific area.

The paper said the Japanese government plans to increase the number of submarines from the current 18 including two trainer submarines to more than 20 when it revises its Defense Program Guidelines by year's end.

Michael Auslin sees this development as reflecting "uncertainty" about Japan's ties to the U.S. It could be. But this uncertainty isn't necessarily a bad thing if it catalyzes an arms race in Asia: front line states should be the ones that assume the lion's share of the burden and cost of their own defense.

I think the role of the U.S. as a balancer of last resort should be maintained, but we should certainly not be discouraging countries like Japan or South Korea if they want to make a more substantial investment in their own defenses. If the Obama administration is creating some uncertainty in the minds of America's Asian allies about the U.S. commitment, and that uncertainty is catalyzing greater defense expenditures on the part of our allies, is this really a bad thing?

Notice also that instead of "bandwagoning" with China, key Asian states are asserting their own interests. As the Lowy Institute's Graeme Dobell writes, China's handling of North Korea has definitely pushed the South Koreans closer to the U.S. when the conventional held that South Korea was primed to fall into China's "orbit."

(AP Photo)

Nation Building & Interventionism

Many of my non-interventionist friends see the new Republican skepticism about nation-building as a bridge that can bring hawkish conservatives more towards our view, but what keeps worrying me is that the same people who now find nation-building wasteful and futile never seem to think that far ahead when it comes to starting wars that ruin whole nations. Instead of a recognition of limits on American power, impatience with nation-building (or even with the most minimal reconstruction efforts) seems just as often to be an unwillingness to take full responsibility for the decision to use force. While this reflects a desire to minimize costs to the U.S., which is a good start, this perversely makes the decision to use force easier and less politically risky, and that in turn tends to make interventions more frequent rather than less. Becoming more conscious of the costs of prolonged wars doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be more reluctance to use force next time. All that it does guarantee is that there will be less patience with any attempted reconstruction afterwards. - Daniel Larison

This is quite true. It makes little sense to oppose nation building without also restraining the use of military power. But while there's a constituency for the former, there doesn't seem to be much of one for the later.

The Churchill Temptation


Newt Gingrich is worried:

Newt Gingrich will deliver a major national security address at the conservative American Enterprise Institute on Thursday in which he will reprimand the Obama administration's "willful blindness" to the threat of extremist Islam...

Gingrich "will warn," according to a synopsis of the event, "that now is the time to awaken from self-deception about the nature of our enemies and rebuild a bipartisan commitment, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, to defend America."

Justin Logan thinks Gingrich is in hock to Carl Schmitt. I'd add another unhelpful influence: Winston Churchill. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against Churchill. But just as neoconservatives have a tendency to view every threat through the prism of the 1930s there is also a burning desire on the part of certain politicians to be seen as the contemporary Churchill - the leader who saw and spoke out against the dangers that others didn't see or were too scared to face. This has produced a largely pernicious impact on the public debate, leading to an atmosphere of alarmism where what's required is calm rationality. As Login notes, Gingrich has suggested that the Jewish people are poised to suffer a second Holocaust yet doesn't seem too energized by this belief.

(AP Photo)

July 27, 2010

David Cameron's Views


It doesn't look like David Cameron will be winning a lot of friends on the American right:

British prime minister David Cameron, who has often described himself as a "friend of Israel," harshly criticized Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, telling a group of Turkish businessmen in Ankara that the strip was "a prison camp."

"The situation in Gaza has to change," he said. "Humanitarian goods and people must flow in both directions. Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp."

He also insisted that Turkey be admitted into the European Union.

(AP Photo)

WikiLeaks and the COIN Consensus

Andrew Exum, writing in the pages of today's New York Times, shrugs at the WikiLeaks brouhaha:

ANYONE who has spent the past two days reading through the 92,000 military field reports and other documents made public by the whistle-blower site WikiLeaks may be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. I’m a researcher who studies Afghanistan and have no regular access to classified information, yet I have seen nothing in the documents that has either surprised me or told me anything of significance. I suspect that’s the case even for someone who reads only a third of the articles on Afghanistan in his local newspaper. [Emphasis added - KS]

But is this really the case? "Move along, nothing to see here" certainly appears to be the consensus from the media and the policy community, but this is an incredibly small (albeit vocal) sample size of Americans. Broader survey data paints a slightly different picture of the American public's war understanding - one which is more confused, critical and mixed about the U.S. mission and prospects in Afghanistan.

I agree with Exum that much of the information revealed in the leaks was common knowledge to the commentariat and the think tankers, but I wonder if the same can be said so unequivocally of the greater public. Would support for the war radically change if, for instance, the American public better understood the Pakistani intelligence community's relationship with a co-conspirator in the 9/11 attacks? What about that aid package Washington just handed to Islamabad?

Exum would have us all believe that the WikiLeaks disclosures are both ho-hum and irresponsible journalism. Both may be true, but if there's been any kind of journalistic failure here it began not with WikiLeaks, but with the pundits and policy makers who have failed to enhance public understanding of the war. There was no need for such debate and education however, because a bipartisan consensus had already congealed around a counterinsurgency strategy.

Exum accuses WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange of being an activist with an agenda, which is no doubt true. But is Assange really the only one with an agenda here, or does his agenda simply not sit well will the COINdinistas?

Photo of the Day


(Russia's Vladimir Putin attends an international bikers convention in Ukraine. AP Photo)

The Tea Party's Foreign Policy

It's taking shape. Josh Rogin reports:

Almost two dozen Tea Party-affiliated lawmakers cosponsored a new resolution late last week that expresses their support for Israel "to use all means necessary to confront and eliminate nuclear threats posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, including the use of military force."

The lead sponsor of the resolution was Texas Republican Louie Gohmert, one of four congressmen to announce the formation of the 44-member Tea Party caucus at a press conference on July 21. The other three Tea Party Caucus leaders, Michele Bachmann, R-MN, Steve King, R-IA, and John Culberson, R-TX, are also sponsors of the resolution. In total, 21 Tea Party Caucus members have signed on, according to the latest list of caucus members put out by Bachmann's office....

Last week, a Tea Party-affiliated grassroots organization launched a nationwide campaign to build popular opposition to the administration's nuclear reductions treaty with Russia, called New START. The group is led by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's wife Ginny and it dovetails with similar efforts by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

The resolution also continues a theme among Tea Party leaders, such as Sarah Palin, who are seeking to separate the movement's domestic policies, which call for small government and fiscal restraint, from libertarian views on foreign policy, promoting instead an aggressive, unilateralist view of world affairs and unchecked military spending.

The cognitive dissonance of this view is staggering: you cannot have a small government at home if you insist on an interventionist, activist government abroad.

Of Realist Straw Men

Jamie Fly weighs in on the "whither the GOP statesmen" debate:

Just as Heilbrunn recasts the Republican establishment, he creates a neocon straw man. The neocons, like all conservatives supporting the president on Afghanistan, are the real internationalists of today's Republican Party. The fact is that those on the right and left questioning the current strategy in Afghanistan are the ones who would have us tread down the path toward isolationism.

Talk about straw men: unless you believe that Vice President Biden could be called an "isolationist" there is absolutely no truth to the claim that those advocating a counter-terrorist approach to Afghanistan would push the U.S. toward "isolationism."

Britons Fear Terror Attack

Via Angus Reid:

Most people in Britain think it is likely that their country will be the target of a terrorist attack in the next 12 months, according to a poll by Angus Reid Public Opinion. 59 per cent of respondents share this view, whereas 28 per cent do not think this will be the case.

July 26, 2010

WikiLeaks Observations

First the interesting, from Londonstani:

I think there is much more to this whole episode than whether or not you knew civilians were being killed in Afghanistan and former ISI officials were giving advice to insurgents in Afghanistan. This is about public opinion. Measuring what the public thinks and predicting how it might react to events is an imprecise science (much like the related fields of economics and sociology). But it's still very real. You might not know how it works but you can feel its effects when governments start clamping down on banks, launch military campaigns or pull troops out and come home.

And when it comes to public opinion, lots of vagaries start making a huge difference - like how you found out. When George Galloway suggested that British MPs were greedy, people rolled their eyes, nodded or smiled. The general thought was, "yeah. But they are politicians, what do you expect?" However, once the British MPs expenses scandal hit the headlines with details of taxpayers coughing up for duckhouses and flatscreen televisions, the result was a national political crisis.

We'll follow subsequent polling on U.S. sentiment toward Afghanistan, but I wonder: is this, as Andrew Bast wrote today, a "Pentagon Papers" moment? I lean towards "no," but we'll see.

Now the debatable, from Stephen Hayes:

Taken together, and added to what we know about support for al Qaeda and its affiliates from the regimes in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, these reports should deal a fatal blow to the stubborn claims that the jihadists at war with us operate without the backing of states. Unlikely.

So, which state is supporting the Pakistani Taliban's efforts to overthrow the Zardari government?

That aside, I think this is a bit of red herring. There are terrorists organization that are state proxies (Hezbollah) and there are terrorist organizations that take aid and comfort where they can get it but don't exist for the purpose of perpetuating the policies of a single state (al Qaeda). This strikes me as an important distinction and not one we should casually discard.

WikiLeaks and 'Unrefined' Intel

With the release of what purports to be some several tens of thousands of intelligence documents from Afghanistan, the commentariat is atwitter with the possibility that people normally excluded from the intelligence process have been granted an all access pass to the inner sanctum. While I have not yet been able to read the reports due to a clogged WikiLeaks portal, most of these rules are precisely what was taught to me and what I taught to intelligence professionals throughout the military.

1) While 90K seems like a lot, it is only about 50 reports a day over a five year period. Many individual intel teams will generate that many reports on a busy day, and it only represents a very small fraction of the total intake of intel across Afghanistan. With so few reports it is possible that these reports were cherry picked, but even without deliberate selection bias, this is hardly an accurate picture.

2) Context is everything. There are literally dozens of things that a good analyst must take into consideration before giving credence to any report. Is the source honest? Is the source well informed? Are there other confirming reports? Does this really reveal anything? Human intelligence is notoriously easy to fake, and the more well known a person is the more likely you are to get reports on that person, usually false. Similarly, if people know that you suspect someone, they are often very willing to fabricate information to confirm your suspicion. Many times sources are just looking to get paid. For this reason single reports are basically useless. In fact, any source has to be evaluated over time, and against other intelligence. Without a lot of experience and access to broad spectrum information it is very difficult to evaluate intelligence.

3) Intelligence is perishable. Things change. If you tried to get a picture of someone based upon their Facebook page from the past five years, and assumed that it was all current across the entire time, you would likely be surprised by the number of twenty-somethings who were really into Britney Spears. Drawing conclusions in 2010 from links made across five years is hazardous at best.

4) People have agendas. Sources, WikiLeaks, the analysts (including me) all have things they are trying to accomplish. You do not and will not know their motives. But every level has filtered the information how they want. In the case of these leaked documents, the information has been filtered at least four times: the original source, the reporting officer, the leaking person and WikiLeaks. In at least two of those cases we know that part of the agenda is in opposition to the U.S. war effort, but we still have no idea how that filtered the information. More obviously, most readers will not read the actual documents, and will rely on people who claim to have read the documents and are writing for other media.

5) Just because something is secret does not mean it is important. The U.S. could probably declassify 90 percent of the things that are currently classified as 'secret' without hurting the mission one bit, because that information is either not true or unimportant. People keep secrets for all kinds of stupid and not stupid reasons, but that does not intrinsically mean it has any value.

If you want more information on the U.S. intelligence procedures as followed by the U.S. Military, refer to FM 2-0 (pdf).

David Benson has spent the last ten years in the intelligence community both in the U.S. and abroad, including seven years with the Army, and three years as a civilian contractor with a DoD Intelligence agency.

Pakistan, Iran and the Limits of American Power


As Laura Rozen notes, there doesn't appear to be much in the WikiLeaks document dump that should surprise people who have been keeping up with the news on the Afghan war. Nevertheless, it serves to further confirm what the London School of Economics Study alleged earlier this year: that Pakistan is complicit in the Taliban insurgency and is actively undermining American goals in Afghanistan even while it receives billions of dollars in taxpayer money.

The revelations about Pakistan are interesting insofar as they highlight the contrast with U.S. policy on Iran. Both countries are supporting terrorist groups that have killed Americans. I would argue that Pakistan's support for terrorism is significantly more serious than Iran's because: 1. Pakistan's terror affiliates have the proven capacity and intention of striking the American homeland and killing American civilians; 2. Pakistan is facilitating the protection of the lead architects of 9/11. Nevertheless, Iran is no slouch when it comes to funding or arming terror groups.

Yet as the U.S. showers Pakistan with money and military hardware, it seeks to sanction and isolate Iran. And here's the rub: neither approach has been very effective. This is bad news for those who seek to engage Iran: the engagement with Pakistan has not convinced important constituencies in that country to cut ties with the Taliban or surrender their vision of Afghanistan as "strategic depth." It's also bad news for those who seek to get tough with Pakistan: getting tough with Iran hasn't changed Iranian behavior either.

I think a case can be made that engagement has moved Pakistan further toward U.S. goals than isolation, sanctions and belligerent threats have worked to move Iran toward U.S. goals. But the lack of progress on both fronts should serve as a reminder that there is a great distance to travel between being powerful and getting your way.

(AP Photo)

July 25, 2010

Where Is al-Qaeda Safest?

Describing Pakistan's lawless tribal belt near Afghanistan as the "global headquarters" of Al-Qaeda, top American military commander Mike Mullen has said the US believed that the terror network's chief Osama bin Laden and his deputy Aiman al-Zawahiri are in this country.

The presence of these terrorist leaders in the region is a reason why "a principal part of the overall Af-Pak strategy is focussed on elimination of safe havens" for them, Mullen told reporters in Islamabad last night.

His comments came days after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ruffled feathers in Islamabad by making a similar statement. - Hindustan Times

One recurring fear that advocates of a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan invoke to press their case is that if the U.S. changes its strategy, al Qaeda will pull up stakes from Pakistan and move into Afghanistan to reclaim their former safe haven. This doesn't make much sense on the face of it: Pakistan seems like a much safer place for al Qaeda's leadership to reside than Afghanistan. Could you imagine the top U.S. diplomat and military leader waxing so ineffectual if bin Laden was in a country we could attack with impunity?

July 23, 2010

The Opposition at Home


Earlier in the week we passed along speculation that Japan's current Prime Minister Naoto Kan may not make it a year in office. Apparently, his wife agrees:

In a new book, the wife of Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan questions whether he is fit for the nation's top job and suggests his tenure might be short-lived.

In "You are Prime Minister, So What Will Change in Japan?" which was released this week, first lady Nobuko Kan lists a host of her husband's shortcomings, from his failure to do any housework to his hot temper.

(AP Photo)

The Best Paid Heads of State

The Economist ranks the best paying heads of state by the ratio of a leader's pay to their country's per-person GDP. So which countries pay their chief executive the best: Kenya, followed by Singapore, Indonesia, South Africa and Hong Kong. The U.S. ranks 8th. The lowest paid political leader? India's Manmohan Singh.

South China Sea

During her stop in Vietnam, Secretary Clinton offered to mediate competing territorial claims in the South China Sea:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nation, or Aseans, in Vietnam, said, “The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.”

The United States, she said, was prepared to facilitate multilateral negotiations to settle competing claims over the islands — something sought by Vietnam, which has had deadly clashes with China over them. In 1988, warships from China and Vietnam traded fire in the Spratly Islands, sinking several Vietnamese boats and killing dozens of sailors.

China maritime ambitions have expanded along with its military and economic muscle. It has long laid claim to islands in the South China Sea because they are rich in oil and natural gas deposits. And it has put American officials on notice that it will not brook foreign interference in the waters off its southeastern coast, which it views as a “core interest” of sovereignty.

As Ishaan Tharoor notes, China's rise is sparking a low key regional arms race:

In the past year, regional powers such as India, Vietnam, Australia and even countries with U.S. bases such as Japan and South Korea have all taken significant measures to upgrade their navies; an Asia-Pacific arms race is on the cards. While the U.S. remains the pre-eminent force in the Pacific, Chinese officials are able to plan half a century down the line. "If it was up to the Navy, I don't think the U.S. would see any sense in conceding its hegemony in the future," says Roy of the East-West Center. "That would be the result only of a political decision." But, with American politics hobbled by recession, unemployment and wars in West Asia, it's no surprise that governments elsewhere may not be counting entirely on Washington's supremacy.

Incidentally, this is a pretty good resource delineating the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.

U.S. Public Knowledge


Pew Research finds that while a majority of Americans (55 percent) know who the U.S. commander in Afghanistan is, only 19 percent can identify the prime minister of Britain. I'm sure Compass readers could do better.

(AP Photo)

Karzai's Job Approval Sinking


According to Gallup, Hamid Karzai's approvals are slipping:

At 44%, more Afghans approve of Karzai's individual leadership than they do the nation's leadership in general. However, his approval is down from 2009, and a majority (52%) disapproves for the first time. Karzai enjoyed majority approval throughout 2009, despite the election controversy last fall. His fellow citizens are more divided now, as they were in late 2008.

Things aren't looking so good for the U.S. either:

Afghans' approval of their country's leadership fell to 33% in April -- the lowest measured since 2008. More Afghans now approve of the job performance of U.S. leadership (43%) than they do their own.

July 22, 2010

Why They Wear a Hijab (or Don't)

With the veil ban debate breaking out over Europe, Radio Free Europe asked Muslim women why they do, or don't, wear a hijab.

A Photo Finish in Australia's Election?


Not quite, argues Gabriela Perdomo:

The incumbent prime minister insists that the ballot will be close. But it might just be that she wants to downplay expectations and keep voters engaged. Surveys are already showing that Labor is gaining momentum. The latest Newspoll places the ALP ahead with 42 per cent, against 38 per cent for the conservative coalition of Liberals and National. In the two party preferred vote system, the ALP leads by five points.

An earlier Newspoll had shown that, while 47 per cent of Australians think Gillard will be a similar leader to Rudd, 38 per cent say she will be a better leader for the ALP.

One understated fact is that, despite losing his party’s support, Rudd was not as unpopular as perceived, especially not in relative terms compared to Liberal leader Tony Abbott. A late June poll showed Rudd’s popularity at 36 per cent, practically tied with Abbott’s 38 per cent—a considerable number of world leaders yearn for this rate of acceptance. The same survey revealed that Rudd was still the preferred prime minister between the two by a wide margin.

Rudd’s administration leaves Gillard in a good position to accomplish some election promises that he was not able to fulfill, such as implementing a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. His government oversaw one of the most stable economies during the global recession, as it increased trade with China, Australia’s largest trading partner. Gillard has said she will definitely pursue "putting a price on carbon" and says it is still possible to bring the budget back to surplus in 2013.

(AP Photo)

Debating New START


Jacob Heilbrunn's article in Foreign Policy on the decline and fall of the sensible, internationalist Republican old guard typified by Brent Scowcroft and George H.W. Bush has elicited some criticism from former Republican policymakers at the Shadow Government Blog (see here, here and here). The Shadow Government contributors argue that, contra Heilbrunn, there is no stifling Republican orthodoxy on foreign policy and that the internationalist mindset Heilbrunn mourns is still alive and well.

These are all valid and in some cases persuasive criticisms. I think Heilbrunn's piece sometimes conflates the un-nuanced views of popular conservatives (like Bill Kristol) with the conservatives and Republicans laboring away in think tanks who may not be as visible to the public but who are ultimately more responsible for shaping the direction that foreign policy would take under a Republican administration (in theory, at least). Read Shadow Government faithfully (as I do) and you will see that opinion is not necessarily monolithic on any subject.

But something's missing from this push-back. Heilbrunn's piece pivoted off of Mitt Romney's op-ed urging the Senate not to ratify the New START arms control treaty (calling it Obama's "worst foreign policy mistake"), despite the fact that these old guard GOP establishment types have endorsed it.

So it would be interesting to know where the once and likely future Republican policymakers contributing to Shadow Government feel about the specific question that kicked off this debate in the first place: should the Senate ratify the New START treaty? I know there's been some skepticism voiced in the past as to the merits of the treaty, but I don't recall anyone yet offering what their up or down vote would be. So, is Mitt Romney's take on New START where the rest of the current Republican foreign policy making establishment is?

(AP Photo)

U.S. Views on Mexico, War on Drugs

Via Angus Reid:

Two thirds of respondents (65%) believe the “War on Drugs”—the efforts of the U.S. government to reduce the illegal drug trade—has been a failure, while only eight per cent deem it a success....

A majority of Americans hold favorable views on Mexican food (78%) and the Mexican people (59%), while about a third provide a positive assessment of Mexican beer (34%) and immigrants from Mexico who live in the United States (32%). However, only seven per cent of respondents have a favorable opinion of the Mexican government.

It is important to note that respondents who have travelled to Mexico in their lifetime are more likely to have a favorable opinion of each one of the five entities tested than those who have never been to the Latin American country.

In all, half of Americans (49%) believe Mexico deserves most of the blame for being a major supplier of illegal drugs to the U.S. because it has allowed the drug cartels to grow and flourish. Democrats (45%) are less likely than Republicans (59%) to feel this way.

However, one third of Americans (34%) think the U.S. deserves most of the blame for this situation, for having a population that demands illegal drugs.

Full results here. (pdf)

(AP Photo)

Containing China


Daniel Blumenthal:

The Obama administration appears to have gotten the message. They did sell a much needed package of arms to Taiwan. Secretary Gates did not mince words in talking about U.S. and allied interests in the South China Sea and the administration appears to be going forward with joint anti-submarine warfare exercises with the South Koreans despite howls of protests from China.

Washington still has a strong hand to play. China is growing stronger, but, for all of its chest thumping, it pales in strength compared with the United States and its allies in Asia. And none of our Asian allies want a dominant China. Indeed, one of the untold stories in Asia is the region's military modernization. Almost all of our allies are buying advanced tactical aircraft (mostly the F-35), maritime surveillance capabilities, and diesel submarines -- to deal with a rising China. The atmosphere is ripe for us to begin creating an informal network of alliances operating more closely together, particularly since much of what our allies are buying is American equipment. Washington should start to build the institutions today that will allow the allies to train together on their fifth-generation aircraft, patrol the South China Seas, and hunt for submarines. How about announcing the creation of a fifth generation aircraft "center for excellence" in Singapore, where all allies can train?

The point is that there is still a chance to present China with a choice: act like a responsible power or face a great wall of resistance.

I think the basic contours of this sound right: China is not going to expand into a vacuum. Whereas the Soviet Union was able to march into militarily defeated territory during and after World War II to grow its power base, China has no such luxury. This puts the U.S. on rather solid footing with respect to the balance of power in Asia, but it still requires some investment and attention on our part (which is why starting a third war in the Middle East would be a significant mistake).

But as an aside, I don't quite understand Blumenthal's point about "acting like a responsible power." China has interests. Those interests may or may not conflict with America's. There is nothing inherently "irresponsible" about a country pursuing its interests, even if they conflict with ours. I imagine, were the shoe on the other foot, Blumenthal would find this kind of language from officials in Beijing rather tedious.

(AP Photo)

July 21, 2010

The Strategic Case for Israel

The Nixon Center recently hosted a debate between the Washington Institute's Robert Satloff and Chas Freeman on the question of whether Israel is a strategic asset or liability to the United States.

Only Satloff's opening remarks are available at this point (here, pdf). Satloff speaks in favor of the relationship and argues it has been a boon, strategically, to the U.S. I think Satloff skips rather lightly over the costs, and anchors his analysis in a view of American interests in the Middle East that isn't nearly as tenable (or desirable) as it was during the Cold War. Nevertheless, it's a good defense of the case on strictly realist grounds and is worth a read.

UPDATE: Freeman's remarks are here. Also worth a look.

I think the debate is a bit too "either/or" - either Israel is a strategic asset or they aren't. I think the better context would be: is Israel a strategic ally commensurate with the level of aid they receive. (Freeman and Satloff may address this in a subsequent exchange, the full transcript is not available yet.)

UPDATE II: I think this exchange, excerpted by Josh Rogin, sets the stage nicely:

RS: Do a cost-benefit analysis; I invite you to do this. Over the last 30 years, 30-plus years of the U.S. relationship with Israel and the U.S. relationship with our Arab friends in the Gulf -- what do you find? To secure our interests in the Arab-Israeli arena, the U.S. has spent $100 billion in economic assistance to Israel, plus another $30 billion to Egypt and small change to a couple of other places. Our losses in human terms: 255 Americans in the Beirut Embassy barracks bombings and a handful of others in terrorism in that part of the region. On a state-to-state basis, I would argue that investment has paid off very handsomely. Now compare that with the Gulf. Look at the massive costs we have endured to ensure our interests there.

CF: Identifiable U.S. government subsidies to Israel total in $140 billion since 1949 ... in either case, Israel is by far the largest recipient of American giveaways since WWII and the total would be much higher if aid to Egypt and Jordan, Lebanon, and support for displaced Palestinians in refugee camps and the occupied territories were included. These programs have complex purposes but are justified in large measure in terms of their contribution to the security of the Jewish state. Per capita income in Israel is now around $37,000, on par with the UK. Israel is nonetheless the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, accounting for well over one-fifth of it. Annual U.S. government transfers run at well over $500 per Israeli, not counting cost of tax breaks for private donations and loans that are not available in any other country.

Another Japanese Prime Minister?


Here's a staggering statistic: Japan has had 14 prime ministers in 20 years. And, according to Tomomichi Amono, it could have yet another in September:

Goshi Hosono, deputy secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan, left some room for speculation at a news conference Wednesday on what could happen at the ruling party’s internal election to choose its new leader in September.

Here is why we should listen to Mr. Hosono carefully. The 38-year-old lawmaker is a rising star within the ruling party, known for his expertise in economic policy issues. But more importantly, he is known as a close associate of Ichiro Ozawa, the powerful politician who presided over the DPJ’s personnel matters until he was forced to step down as party secretary general in June.

In order to stay party president, and thereby prime minister, Naoto Kan must win approval of party members in the September election. And there is speculation in the media that Mr. Ozawa and his followers may choose their own candidate to run against Mr. Kan.

Asked about pressure from within the party to make Mr. Kan step down, Mr. Hosono said he believes that DPJ members want to avoid what happened during previous governments, when the head of the state changed frequently. “There was a common understanding within the DPJ that we don’t want to do the same thing,” he said.

However, Mr. Hosono suggested a change in party leadership is possible in September. “A suitable leader emerging (as the result of the election) is not a bad thing,” he said. “It will be preferable for the DPJ if discussion is actively conducted (ahead of the elections).

RCW contributor Todd Crowell explored why Japan burns through prime ministers here.

(Current - for now - Prime Minister Naoto Kan. AP Photo)

China: World's Largest Energy Consumer


That's according to the International Energy Agency:

Back in June 2007 China earned the dubious distinction of surpassing the U.S. to become the world's top emitter of greenhouse gases. Now approximately three years later, the highly populated country has become the world's largest consumer of energy.

The news that China may now be the world biggest energy customer comes based on analysis by the International Energy Agency (IEA). According to the IEA, China overtook the U.S. in energy consumption sometime last year.

Despite having over 1.3 billion people, versus about 307 million in the U.S., China's new title may be primarily driven by the inefficient way it uses energy. While the U.S. has improved its energy efficiency by 2.5 percent per year from 2000 to 2010, China only improved 1.7 percent.

Interestingly, the Chinese have disputed the IEA's findings, claiming that America is still top dog in this category. Either way, the Chinese know how much energy the use and how much they need. The question is, will their search for resources bring greater stability or instability to the world?

Unintended Consequences

The former director of MI5 testified at Britain's Chilcot Committee investigating the Iraq war:

“Our involvement in Iraq, for want of a better word, radicalized a whole generation of young people — not a whole generation, a few among a generation — who saw our involvement in Iraq, on top of our involvement in Afghanistan, as being an attack on Islam,” said the former official, Baroness Manningham-Buller.

Whether the Iraq war radicalized Western Muslims who would otherwise have avoided terrorism or whether it simply served as a useful cause celeb isn't clear, what is clear is that the war turned Iraq itself into a huge training ground for terrorists where before it was not. The U.S. waged war ostensibly on the grounds of safeguarding itself against terror but instead inadvertently created a serious terror enclave in the heart of the Middle East. It took an enormous expenditure of blood and treasure to patch that self-inflicted wound and it's still not clear if that wound is completely closed yet.

This record of unintended consequences is worth considering in light of the continued arguments for a new U.S. war in the Middle East. We have a decidedly poor track record in this regard. I'm not sure why the third time would be the charm.

China and the Internet


The Beijing-Google row notwithstanding, Gallup notes that internet usage has surged in China:

The rise in Internet access in Chinese homes -- whether via computers or mobile devices -- may continue to accelerate not only because of increasing consumer confidence, but also because of the "network effects" of information technology. As more Chinese begin to use online communication, the value of access increases for everyone, driving demand among those who don't have it.

The potential effects are far-reaching: Chinese consumers will likely demand more digital products and content services as Internet use grows, and international corporations will have new opportunities to reach millions of consumers in rural China.

A Russian, Parasailing Donkey

No clever title necessary:

Police are apparently still looking for the donkey and its owner.

July 20, 2010

Cameron and Lockerbie - Why Now?


I admit I'm a bit mystified that one of the major issues dealt with on David Cameron's first visit to the U.S. as British Prime Minister is a decision over which he had no say and had, in any event, objected to: the release of the Lockerbie bomber. The Telegraph's James Kirkup puts it in perspective:

How can US politicians steeped in the concept of states’ rights and the limits to federal authority not grasp the concept of Scottish devolution?

Devolution means power over – and legal responsibility for – certain issues rests in Edinburgh with the administration elected by the people of Scotland. And not, repeat not, with the Government in London. One of those issues was the release of Megrahi. That’s because Scotland has its own legal system, quite distinct from that of England, and over which ministers in London have precisely no influence.

Since this point doesn’t seem to be properly appreciated in Washington, let me repeat it: the decision to release Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi was made by ministers in Scotland before the current UK government came to power.

So perhaps our American friends would do well to consider this: holding David Cameron responsible for the actions of Scottish Nationalist Party ministers in 2009 is like holding Barack Obama responsible for the actions of the Supreme Court of Texas and its Republican governor in 2007.

Al Megrahi's release was an outrage, but it's over and done with and he's not going back to a Scottish prison. The U.S. and UK have considerably more important matters to discuss.

(AP Photo)

Can the GOP Get Its Realist Mojo Back?

I ended a recent piece suggesting that Republicans would do well to "reclaim their realist roots." Daniel Larison isn't so sure:

If all that reclaiming “realist roots” accomplished was to persuade Republicans to turn against the war in Afghanistan entirely, or to settle for George Will’s preferred recipe for future blowback, what would have really been gained? It isn’t going to make them less hawkish on Iran policy, and it is hardly going to make them more skeptical about using force to solve international disputes. Indeed, rejecting a nation-building role in conflict zones will make the immediate costs and risks of military action lower than they would be otherwise. Far from making them less obsessed with the “threats” from Russia and China, it will allow them to reject the one policy where the cooperation or at least tolerance of both major powers is most obviously valuable, which will give them even greater incentives to stoke tensions with one or both.

In practice, if the GOP “reclaimed its realist roots” I wonder how much would change for the better. Republican realism sounds good by comparison with what we have had for the last decade, but most actual Republican realists, especially those in elected office, did little or nothing to challenge the endless hyping of foreign threats and the frequent recourse to military intervention abroad in the ’90s. Back in 1999, many of the defenders of the war against Yugoslavia were such Republican realists as Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar. At the time, they supported yet another completely unnecessary war for the sake of the “credibility of NATO” and, of course, regional stability, which resulted in confirming the worst Russian fears about NATO expansion and significantly destabilizing the region with a massive refugee crisis and the spread of ethnic unrest into neighboring Macedonia. How many realists not affiliated with the Cato Institute expressed serious reservations about NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia before the August 2008 war?

A good point. Realism in defense of an extravagant view of U.S. interests is still dangerous and counter-productive. In practice, especially in the short-term, a revival of Republican "realism" would still be predicated on a fairly expansive view of what America's global interests are.

The (Odd) Wilsonian Case for Bombing Iran


Walter Russell Mead believes that President Obama's Wilsonian streak will lead him to attack Iran:

If solemn treaties, sacred oaths and decades of patient diplomatic effort can’t stop the spread of nuclear weapons, what can international law really accomplish? What is the Security Council except an exalted talking shop if it can’t summon the unity and the resolve to act effectively in the face of a naked challenge to one of the foundations of international order? If global institutions can’t solve this problem, how can such weak and unpredictable organizations be trusted with any urgent and vital problem? If the treaty on non-proliferation is essentially a dead letter, what treaties still command respect? If countries only obey treaties as long as they want to, and the international system can take no effective action against those who break its most important laws, what becomes of the Wilsonian dream?

I'm trying hard to understand if Mead thinks it's a bad idea to fight a war on behalf of this starry-eyed Wilsonianism, or whether he thinks it's a good one. And in any event, this argument strikes me as rather unpersuasive. Barring a fairly dramatic turn of events, a U.S. war on Iran would not occur under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council and would not be seen by anyone around the world as an effort to uphold the strictures of the Non Proliferation Treaty. You can't have a war to uphold international law if the war itself is in violation of international law or is otherwise not sanctioned or legitimized by international bodies.

Mead is right that international legal regimes cannot prevent Iran from going nuclear. The United Nations Security Council is toothless. But unilateral military action doesn't suddenly bolster the UN or the NPT, it only emphasizes their irrelevance. Did the Iraq war suddenly breath new life into the Security Council or Non Proliferation Treaty? No. Were Obama to rest his case for a strike against Iran on the necessity of saving these various international treaties and institutions - when few other countries that are a party to them would sign on - he would look ridiculous (that's not to say he won't do it, if Wilsonianism has proven good for anything, it's for dressing up a flimsy case for war).

(AP Photo)

Wary of China's Growth


Matthew Yglesias sees the upside of Chinese economic growth:

What’s more, beyond those narrow economic considerations, growth in China is strongly positive-sum in a number of other domains. A richer China will, for its own selfish reasons, be host to increased quantities of scientific and technical research that will increase the overall stock of human knowledge in a generally beneficial way. A richer China will also produce additional works of culture that will enrich our lives over and above whatever economic value they might have. Economic growth in China and other large poor countries is one of the most promising phenomena of our times and it’s a very big problem that people don’t generally understand it that way.
From the standpoint of human welfare alone the "rise" of Asia has been hugely beneficial. However, I don't think it's a "very big problem" to be wary about the prospects of an increasingly wealthy China. Yglesias cites numbers from Pew Research's study on global attitudes and what the study shows is that a lot of countries around China - India, Japan, South Korea, etc. - are similarly concerned about its rise (conversely there are Asian countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia that are less concerned). I don't think a zero-sum attitude about China's growth is warranted, but neither is faith that the positive-sum elements are so evident as to make serious conflict unthinkable.

(AP Photo)

Should Israel Bomb Iran?

Reuel Marc Gerecht says yes, reprising the 2002-era "what me worry" neoconservative approach toward initiating a war with another country that served us so well in the recent past. That said, I do think Gerecht makes a fair point, and one I've not heard often, about the dangers of an Iranian nuclear weapon:

It’s entirely possible that even with Khamenei in control, an Iranian atomic stockpile could lose nukes to dissenting voices within the Guards who have their own ideological agendas. Now imagine the ailing Khamenei is dead, the Guard Corps has several dozen nuclear devices in its “possession,” and the country is in some political chaos as power centers, within the clergy and the Corps, start competing against each other. The Green Movement, too, will probably rise in force. The whole political structure could collapse or the most radical could fight their way to the top—all parties trying to get their hands on the nukes. Since there is no longer a politburo in Iran to keep control (Khamenei gutted it when he downed his peers and competitors), this could get messy quickly.

We face a similar, and vastly more dire, risk of this occurring in Pakistan but nevertheless, adding a second somewhat unstable country to the nuclear club is clearly dangerous. And unlike Pakistan, where the U.S. has reportedly worked with the government on nuclear chain of custody technology, we could have no such guarantee that a new and chaotic Iranian revolution wouldn't see some forces make a grab at a nuke.

One other point that Gerecht makes is less tenable - that the Khamenei regime would collapse after a strike. Matt Duss dissects:

You’ll also notice that in dismissing the conventional wisdom that a strike on Iran would Iran’s democracy movement, he doesn’t bother to include any quotes from actual Iranian democrats to this effect. That’s probably because he hasn’t been able to find any. At a recent conference on Iran in Europe, I had a chance to talk to a number of Iranian democracy activists, many of them who very recently exited Iran, and I thought it was notable that, even though there were a range of views on how best to deal with the current Iranian government, there was complete agreement among them that a strike by either the U.S. or Israel would be a death blow to their movement, and that those who support war with Iran not be allowed to pose as friends of Iranian democracy.
Israel is much more threatened by a nuclear Iran than the United States is, so they have to weigh the costs and benefits differently than we do. I don't think the Israelis care much about dashing the Green Movement's hopes if they could score a serious blow against Iran's nuclear program. The larger worry, I would guess, would be that they could not destroy enough of the program to fundamentally derail it or set it back a decade. Then, they'll have the prospect of sustained terrorist reprisals and a redoubled Iranian commitment to acquiring a nuclear weapon without the benefit of a lot of extra breathing room.

July 19, 2010

U.S. Views on Cuba Embargo


Via Rasmussen:

Thirty-six percent (36%) say the United States should lift its embargo on Cuba, but 35% disagree in a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. Twenty-nine percent (29%) are not sure what to do about the ban on economic activity between the two countries that has been in place since 1962.

Pluralities of both Democrats (38%) and voters not affiliated with either party (46%) favor lifting the ban. Most Republicans (58%) take the opposite view.

(AP Photo)

It Depends on the Meaning of Leadership


Subbing in at Andrew Sullivan's blog, David Frum gets some push-back on the notion that American world leadership be a defining characteristic of conservative politics. Frum responds:

Plaintively in some cases, ferociously in others, people asked: why should American world leadership be a goal of any kind of conservative politics?

My answer: consider the alternatives. For 60 years, the democratic countries have known ever-rising levels of affluence and security. This benign system of collective security and free trade has extended outward to encompass more and more countries: beyond western Europe to include central and eastern Europe, beyond Japan to reach the small countries of the Pacific Rim. We have not done so well in Latin America and the Middle East, but Chile at least has joined the system and Brazil likely soon will.

This construct is the work of no one country, but it ultimately rests upon the reassuring fact of American power. As Murray Kempton said of Dwight Eisenhower, it is the great tortoise on whose broad shell the world sat in sublime disregard of the source of its peace and security.

Just as even the most self-equilibriating markets need a lender of last resort, so even the most stable international system needs a security guarantor of last resort. Some describe the post-1945 system as a "democratic peace." But democracy alone did not suffice to keep the peace after 1918. It's an American-sustained peace, and should the day come when America loses the power or will to sustain it, the international system that will follow will be not only more dangerous but also less hospitable to liberal values in the broadest sense of the word liberal.

The question I'd pose is not about America's "will" but America's power. America is losing power, in part because of policies that Frum himself championed (see: Iraq, invasion of) and as a result of the economic development of China, which the U.S. has encouraged and profited from.

What does American "leadership" consist of in a world where China continues to close the power gap? A politics, conservative or otherwise, that can cogently address that question without resorting to banalities about American exceptionalism or reassuring myths about how globalization will make everyone play nice, is sorely needed.

(AP Photo)

World Views


Politico's "Power and the People" poll measures the views of "DC Elites" and the "general population." Here are some of the results when it comes to foreign policy:

* 49 percent of elites don't think we'll succeed in Afghanistan vs. 48 percent of the general population (GP)

* wars in Iraq and Afghanistan both merited "very important" consideration from 45 percent of both elites and GP

* GP was more concerned about nuclear proliferation than elites - 34 percent vs. 24 percent

You can see full results here. (pdf)

(AP Photo)

Afghan Poll: Mixed Picture


A new poll from the International Council on Security and Development found some mixed results from the Afghan people:

ICOS field research reveals a relationship gap between NATO-ISAF and the Afghan communities they are intended to protect. For instance 75% of interviewees believe that foreigners disrespect their religion and traditions; 74% believe that working with foreign forces is wrong; and 68% believe that NATO-ISAF does not protect them. 55% of interviewees believe that the international community is in Afghanistan for its own benefit, to destroy or occupy the country, or to destroy Islam.

These results are troubling, and demonstrate the mistrust and resentment felt towards the international presence in Afghanistan. Of those interviewed, 70% believe that recent military actions in their area were bad for the Afghan people, whilst 59% opposed further operations in Kandahar. According to interviewees, the Afghan government is also responsible by failing to provide good governance. 70% of respondents believe that local officials make money from drug trafficking, and an astonishing 64% state that government administrators in their area were connected to the Taliban insurgency.

On the flip side, the survey also found that 55 percent of those interviewed thought that NATO was winning in Afghanistan. Also:

Despite the 2009 presidential elections, which were marked by fraud, 40% of Afghan respondents stated that democracy was important to them, and 72% would prefer their children to grow up under an elected government rather than the Taliban.

There is some progress in women‟s rights, with 57% of interviewees supporting girls education. The field research also reveals that respondents have strong social and economic aspirations – the most popular uses for $5000USD would be establishing or expanding a business, and marriage.

The interviews also indicate that negativity is not directed solely against the international coalition, but also to other outside parties. 62% of the interviewees believe Pakistan played a negative role in their country and 56% felt negative about Iran‟s influence in Afghanistan.

(AP Photo)

July 16, 2010

Obama & Israel


Earlier in the month, a new lobbying group dubbed the Emergency Committee for Israel was organized to promote a strong U.S.-Israel partnership and attack politicians who do not show sufficient fidelity to that vision. The premise of the group is that the Obama administration is the most "anti-Israel" administration in the history of the United States.

Let's stipulate for the sake of argument that this is indeed the case. What to make of this:

This week, Israel successfully conducted a test of a new mobile missile-defense system designed to shield Israeli towns from small rockets launched from the Gaza Strip. When the "Iron Dome" system is fully deployed in the next year, about half the cost -- $205 million -- will be borne by U.S. taxpayers under a plan advanced by the Obama administration and broadly supported in Congress.

While public attention has focused on the fierce diplomatic disputes between Israel and the United States over settlement expansion in Palestinian territories, security and military ties between the two nations have grown ever closer during the Obama administration

There are several explanations for this. The first is that despite the charge against him, President Obama is not anti-Israel. He may disagree with the current leadership over how (or whether) to pursue a peace agreement with the Palestinians, and he may deny the occasional photo op in a fit of pique, but he is not changing the fundamental basis of the partnership.

The second explanation is that the president is indeed anti-Israel but dares not move against the country lest he court an electoral rebuke in November. We are told to believe on faith that deep down the president dislikes "Israel" writ-large (and not its current leadership), despite allowing his defense secretary to bolster military-to-military cooperation (with said leadership). As Congress controls the flow of funds, the president knows he'd lose a showdown over cutting military aid, and so he's decided to increase it. Diabolical!

Personally, I think the first explanation makes the most sense.

(AP Photo)

More Amiri


The story of Iranian nuclear not-a-scientist Shahram Amiri gets stranger:

The Iranian scientist who American officials say defected to the United States, only to return to Tehran on Thursday, had been an informant for the Central Intelligence Agency inside Iran for several years, providing information about the country’s nuclear program, according to United States officials.

The scientist, Shahram Amiri, described to American intelligence officers details of how a university in Tehran became the covert headquarters for the country’s nuclear efforts, the officials confirmed. While still in Iran, he was also one of the sources for a much-disputed National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s suspected weapons program, published in 2007, the officials said. For several years, Mr. Amiri provided what one official described as “significant, original” information about secret aspects of his country’s nuclear program, according to the Americans.

I can understand some bitterness from the CIA and other U.S. officials who invested time and resources in this guy, but throwing Amiri completely under the bus like this doesn't seem to benefit anyone. If the purpose of such a "Brain Drain" scheme is to attract high-level defections from Iran, then the U.S. isn't making a great sales pitch here: Tell us what you know for money; get homesick and we'll basically sign your death certificate.

And the Iranians appear to be connecting the dots:

On Thursday, even as Mr. Amiri was publicly greeted at home by his 7-year-old son and held a news conference, Iran’s foreign minister gave the first official hints of Iranian doubts about his story. “We first have to see what has happened in these two years and then we will determine if he’s a hero or not,” the BBC quoted the foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, as saying to a French news agency. “Iran must determine if his claims about being kidnapped were correct or not.”

Perhaps someone more knowledgeable about intelligence operations of this nature can explain to me the harm in allowing Amiri to say America kidnapped him. He seemingly became homesick, was worried about his family and decided to split. It's certainly embarrassing for someone, or several someones in Washington, but their attempt at C.Y.A. could cost this guy his life.

The CIA allegedly got years of intelligence out of him, and at a relatively low cost (and as Spencer Ackerman notes, Amiri, rather admirably I'd say, left that money on the table to go back). Why not let him return home to a heroes welcome and keep mum about it to the Post and Times?

(AP Photo)

July 15, 2010

The U.S. in Iraq

Jackson Diehl asks if the U.S. is playing a large enough role in Iraq. The New York Times reports that the U.S. has indeed been busy:

As America winds down its war effort in Iraq, Mr. Khalilzad is among a growing list of former American diplomats and military officials now chasing business opportunities in the oil-rich Kurdish region or acting as advisers to its government. Some visit regularly, while others call the region and its booming capital, Erbil, home. Kurds treat them like dignitaries.

The Kurdish region may be the only place in Iraq where Americans are still embraced as liberators. The authorities boast that no Americans have ever been attacked in a place that has enjoyed relative security.

Granted, this is engagement is of the unofficial variety. Diehl's point is that the Obama administration needs to be more hands on as Iraq tries to form a government:

But retaining U.S. influence, and preventing Iraq’s destabilization, may require a stepped-up effort by Washington in the next few weeks. The month-long Muslim holiday of Ramadan begins Aug. 11; if Iraq does not have a government by then, the political and security situation could start to unravel. Though it can’t impose a solution, the United States retains the power of convocation. It can call all the main players together, perhaps in cooperation with UN mediators.

The outcome that would most benefit the U.S. as well as Iraq is fairly clear: a unity coalition that includes the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties and balances their interests -- as well as those of their regional backers.

Is the problem in Iraq that the major stakeholders can't all sit around a room and hash it out? That's seems too easy.

U.S. Views on Afghanistan

From a recent CBS News poll:

Today, the poll finds, 62 percent of Americans say the war is going badly, up from 49 percent in May. Just 31 percent say the war in Afghanistan is going well.

Nine years into the war, 33 percent of Americans say they do not want large numbers of U.S. troops in Afghanistan for another year. Twenty-three percent of Americans say they are willing to have troops stay there for one or two more years.

Just 35 percent are willing to have troops stay longer than two years.

Most Americans -- 54 percent -- think the U.S. should set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Forty-one percent disagree.

Big Government Abroad

I don't necessarily agree with its conclusions, but this post from Daniel Goure is worth reading:

The last time there was a major reduction in military forces was in the early 1990s at the end of the Cold War. Then the military was reduced by nearly 40 percent. Since that time, four administrations, Democrat and Republican, have found this posture the one they required and used. In the 1990s, even before September 11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the utilization rate for the new force posture increased fourfold compared with what it was during the Cold War. The use rate has gone through the roof. This trend will, if anything, increase, given the Obama Administration’s new focus on building partnership capacity, Africa and assisting failing states.

Goure sees this as a good thing and a reason why the defense budget should not be cut. I don't, but you can certainly see how the U.S. set itself on a completely unsustainable course as it tried to cash in on the peace dividend of the Cold War's end, while simultaneously trying to take advantage of the strategic vacuum left by the Soviet collapse with a bout of mindless interventionism.

As it does with other big ticket items like entitlements, Washington has worked assiduously to hide the costs and trade-offs of the policies it has pursued, rather than address them squarely and responsibly. If you want an activist, Big Government posture abroad, then you should pay for it and be clear where taxpayer dollars are going and why. If you want to spend less, you need to do less.

July 14, 2010

Americans Not Surprised By Russian Spying

An unsurprising poll from Angus Reid:

The revelation that there are Russian spies posing as American citizens in the United States did not shock many people in the North American country, according to a poll by Angus Reid Public Opinion. 77 per cent of respondents say they were not surprised about this situation.

The poll also found that:

Half of respondents (50%) think Russia should not be singled out for its espionage because many other countries keep active spies elsewhere. One-third of Americans (34%) disagree with this view, and believe Russia should be shamed for maintaining a Cold War mentality by keeping active spies in Western countries.

Two thirds of Americans (65%) think the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) should continue to train and send American spies into other countries, while only 12 per cent believe this activity is no longer necessary.

Full results here. (pdf)

What a U.S.-Iran Detente Might Look like

I honestly don't know what the deal is with Shahram Amiri, but this Economist analysis of the Iranian nuclear scientist's strange quasi-defection/kidnapping/repatriation grabbed my attention:

How did Mr Amiri turn up at Pakistan's embassy, then? It seems unlikely that the 32-year-old physicist escaped from the CIA. This leaves the possibility that America is seeking some kind of swap. Perhaps having extracted as much as was feasible from Mr Amiri, they are allowing him to claim that he was kidnapped in order to protect his family back in Iran. If he is allowed to leave the country, America might seek the return of three American hikers Iran has been holding for a year. Iran says they are spies.

If some kind of swap takes place, the truth may never emerge. Typically, both countries involved stick resolutely with their story: that they are kindly releasing foreign spies in exchange for their innocent citizens held abroad. But if there is no talk of a swap in the works, an awkward stand-off lies ahead. Mr Amiri cannot leave Pakistan's embassy and American territory without American permission. That would further heighten the tensions between America and Iran. The case of Mr Amiri, like the recent exchange of Russian and American alleged spies, would make for great spy fiction, but the dangerous impasse between the West and Iran over the nuclear issue is all too real.

Take this a step further: anyone still holding out hope for a "Nixon goes to China" moment on Iran better not hold their breath. The Islamic Republic's very rationale for existence hinges, at least in part, on anti-Americanism. It may be too difficult for the regime to dial that back and retain its legitimacy; especially as it faces various challenges to its authority.

Thus, progress mightn't be a photo-op, but small, quiet concessions.

And the West has always talked, traded and done business with this regime in such a fashion - it's hypocritical and cynical, for sure, but it just might be what U.S.-Iranian rapprochement could look like, if ever such a thing were to happen.

UPDATE: The Post has a good summary of this odd story.

America and the World


Stephen Walt points to what he sees as the five big questions confronting international politics. The fifth question concerns whether the era of American primacy is over. Walt thinks that the U.S. will remain the most powerful state internationally but that it will face new constraints from rising powers:

To succeed, therefore, U.S. diplomacy and grand strategy will have to be more nuanced, attentive, and flexible than it was in the earlier era of clear U.S. dominance (and a rigidly bipolar global order). We'll have to cut deals where we used to dictate, and be more attentive to other states' interests. The bad news is that nuance and flexibility are not exactly America's long suit. We like black-and-white, good vs. evil crusades, and our leaders love to tell the rest of the world what to do and how and when to do it. Even worse, our political system encourages xenophobic posturing, know-nothing demonizing, and relentless threat-inflation, all combined with a can-do attitude that assumes Americans can solve almost any problem and have to play the leading role in addressing almost anything that comes up. It is also a system that seems incapable of acknowledging mistakes and admitting that sometimes we really don't know best. Leaders like Bush and Obama sometimes talk about the need for humility and restraint, but they don't actually deliver it. So for me, a big question is whether the United States can learn how to deal with a slightly more even distribution of power, a somewhat larger set of consequential actors, and a rather messier global order. It's hard to be confident, but I'm open to being pleasantly surprised.

I wonder how unique this is to America's political system, but be that as it may I think Walt is right that the U.S. is going to have to do a few course-corrections as power shifts. Even if Obama's rhetoric has keyed in on the U.S.-China relationship, I still think Niall Ferguson is right that the U.S. is far too distracted with the Middle East. When I'm in a charitable mood, I think you could interpret the Obama administration's early foreign policy moves as efforts to get some of the nagging problems confronting the U.S. in the Middle East behind him, so he can focus on more important matters. Hence the continued draw down in Iraq, the surge in Afghanistan as a prelude to a draw down in 2011 and the frenzied (but failing) efforts to bring the Israel/Palestinian issue to some kind of settlement. But none of these efforts will really allow the U.S. to disengage from the region absent a kind of over-arching argument about why meddling around in the Middle East is fundamentally counter-productive to U.S. interests in a world where Asian powers are ascendant.

The other issue that hangs over U.S. grand strategy is more fundamental: what are we trying to accomplish? During the Cold War there was at least a baseline answer that most policymakers could agree with: contain the Soviet Union's global influence. There were numerous, heated debates about just how to do it, but multiple administrations signed onto the basic paradigm. But what's the plan now? Entrench American dominance? Spread democracy? Protect and expand America's access to economic markets? Combat global warming? Create a new world order? Contain China? Fix failed states? All of the above?

I don't think the current international environment calls for a crusading mission (nor would America's budget support it) and part of me thinks an ad-hoc approach might just be best. Washington, after all, could get the new paradigm wrong and in such an event, a determined push in a specific direction could be a disaster.

(AP Photo)

Parsing Obama's Rhetoric


Using a new search engine developed by the Washington Post, Steve Clemons analyzed Obama's speeches to divine which countries get regular mention:

From January 1, 2009 until July 12, 2010, Barack Obama mentioned Afghanistan in 70 major speeches and commentaries. Afghanistan leads among all nations in the FP failed state index.

China follows with 58 mentions. Then Iraq from the failed states line-up with 54. India beats Iran with 46 mentions to 43. North Korea scored just 19 even though it has nukes, sank a South Korean ship, and tests more ballistic missiles than virtually any other country.

Pakistan, which also has nukes and ranked No. 10 on the FP Failed States Index, got 17 mentions.

Interestingly, Israel and Palestine had nearly the same number of tags in key speeches and comments - 19 for Israel and 17 for Palestine.

Clemons adds:

This quick check of Obama statements shows a President and his team mostly focused on rising powers and key problematic powers.

Overall, there is still a systemic dearth of attention to the states that are doing the worst and sliding into failure.

The distraction of Afghanistan and Iraq is palpable - while the perceived need to manage US-China relations appears paramount.

Should we care about a "systemic dearth of attention" to failed states? I don't think so, for reasons elucidated well by Paul Staniland here. There's only so much an administration can do. Better to get China right.

(AP Photo)

The Sarkozy Style


Arthur Goldhammer observes the French president during a TV interview:

Sarko seemed tense, drawn, angry at times, exasperated at other times, didactic, impatient, and rude. His voice at first was surprisingly hoarse, as if he'd been shouting for hours. Many of his familiar rhetorical tricks were on display. Questions were deflected and turned back on the questioner: What would you have me do? How could I do otherwise? All our neighbors have done X, what choice did I have? David Pujadas tried gamely to give the president the répondant he claims to want, but the president's style is designed to make follow-up seem petulant and petty. "I've already thought of everything you can possibly ask me," he seems to be saying, "and my answers are tailored for maximum efficiency. Any dawdling over details is a waste of time, and time is pressing."

(AP Photo)

Tech Issues

Due to some back-end tech issues, we are delayed this morning in updating the front page of RealClearWorld. We're working on it now however, and it should be up to date shortly. Sorry for any inconvenience, and thanks for your patience.

UPDATE: We're back!

July 13, 2010

Soft Power and Espionage

Martin Regg Cohn has an interesting column in today's Toronto Star on the fine line between espionage and soft power in Canada:

Forget the stagecraft of spy novels, or the make-believe machinations of those captured Russian sleeper agents. China targets Canadians with more mundane tactics ranging from sumptuous free lunches to package tours of China. Last month, a so-called “opinion leader” told me excitedly that he’d been invited on a tour of China. MPs go all the time. So do freelance journalists. All on China’s dime.

Call it soft power. But spying can be a deadly serious business when it tars entire communities. The canard of “dual loyalties” has dogged Canadians of Chinese, Japanese, Italian and Jewish descent over the years — with many innocent citizens unjustly detained in wartime.

It’s a mistake to single out diasporas. While the Chinese and other governments shamelessly target émigré groups to aid the motherland, they spend at least as much time and money trying to win over the “landed gentry” — the white folks who make up the Canadian establishment going back generations.

Read the whole thing here.

And if They Call Your Bluff?


Gabriel Schoenfeld is upset that senior leaders in the U.S. military are voicing their reluctance to start a war with Iran:

The West has three major pathways to stop Iran's nuclear program: sanctions, the threat of force, and the actual use of force. Time is fast running out on the first option. The second would be greatly preferable to the third. But every time Mullen wrings his hands about the "destabilizing" consequences of a strike against Iran, he diminishes the pressure on Tehran.

The trouble here is that you can't threaten force unless you're either genuinely committed to using force or don't mind looking feckless. If the Obama administration is not interested in launching military strikes to stop Iran, isn't it better not to make idle threats about force?

Consider the widely retailed incident in 2003 when the Iranians sent feelers to the Bush administration about engaging in comprehensive negotiations. The incident has been burnished by critics of America's approach to Iran as proof that the country would indeed engage the U.S., and simultaneously as proof that Iran will only make a move if it feels under immense threat.

I think the second interpretation sounds more plausible and underscores why threatening Iran without a genuine commitment to attacking them is foolish. It took an invasion of a neighboring country to make Iran feel threatened enough to talk. We have nothing approaching that kind of leverage today.

(AP Photo)

Chinese Labor Unrest: Will Politics Follow?


Andrew Jacobs has a good piece in the New York Times detailing how labor unrest in China is leading to higher wages and better working conditions for Chinese workers. The question the piece raises in my mind is whether this is a middle stage toward eventual pressure on China's communist leadership for political reform. As the Chinese win ever greater concessions and benefits from their bosses, will they then turn on their political bosses with similar demands? Or is it the opposite - high employment and rising wages will lead to a sense of contentment with the system?

(AP Photo)

Italians Distrust Berlusconi


Via Angus Reid:

Most people in Italy say they have no confidence in their country’s prime minister, according to a poll by IPR Marketing published in La Repubblica. 54 per cent of respondents distrust Silvio Berlusconi, down one point since May.

(AP Photo)

French See Pension Reform as Unfair

With Prime Minister Sarkozy proposing to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, the French are apparently not pleased:

Most people in France say a government proposal to reform the national pension system is unfair, according to a poll by CSA published in Le Parisien. 52 per cent of respondents share this opinion, while 38 per cent call it a fair reform.

Two years seems rather modest to me. AFP has more.

U.S. Views on Afghan War

Gallup offers some new polling data on U.S. views of Afghanistan and of General Petraeus:


Frank Newport offers his analysis:

Gallup finds both good news and bad news for Gen. Petraeus in this July 8-11 poll. He takes his new job as commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan with a remarkably positive image among Americans who know who he is. At the same time, Petraeus now faces the additional challenge of commanding a mission that the majority of Americans say is going badly. Americans' views of the situation in Iraq improved during and after Petraeus' tenure as commander in that country. The degree to which Petraeus will be able to shift Americans' perceptions of the war in Afghanistan in similar fashion will have important consequences in many arenas, including the politics of the war in the U.S.

I think this last line is the key to understanding the surge, which is why I don't believe we can say definitively yet whether it has worked or not. The key metric is less what it does in Afghanistan, but the impression it leaves in Washington.

July 12, 2010

Biden's Mouth and Iraq


Not for the first time, Vice President Biden's mouth may be getting him (and by extension, the U.S.) in trouble. Peter Feaver:

The situation in Iraq is quite fragile and knowledgeable insiders are worried that it might be unraveling. Biden, however, gave an exceptionally upbeat assessment. This is not the first time he has been so bullish on Iraq; he gave many of the same sound-bites back in February, of course that was before the intervening five months of political stalemate in Baghdad. I wanted to believe him then and I want to believe him now.

The Obama administration inherited a bad situation in Iraq (that it was undoubtedly improved from a significantly worse situation doesn't make it good) and a tricky one politically at home - one that the vice president, with his boasts, appears intent on making worse. If Iraq collapses, the blame will fall squarely and mostly unjustly, on the Obama administration. If Iraq continues to stabilize, how much credit can the Obama administration really claim?

(AP Photo)

Between the EU and a Hard Place

Can a regime survive without any friends? We may be about to find out in Belarus:

It’s not often that Brussels and Moscow see eye to eye on the politics of the former Soviet Union. But both want Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko gone, preferably after elections slated for early 2011. The EU has long criticized Lukashenko for abusing opposition activists and censoring local media. Now he’s alienated his onetime great protector, Russia, as well. His unpaid gas bills to the tune of $200 million led Gazprom to briefly cut off supplies last month. He called Prime Minister Vladimir Putin “the main enemy of the Russian people,” and refused to recognize Russian-occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states in defiance of Kremlin pressure. He also offered asylum to former Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, whom Russia helped oust earlier this year.

Russians Would Vote Putin


Via Angus Reid:

Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin could defeat president Dmitry Medvedev—the man who appointed him to his current job—in the next presidential election, according to a poll by the Yury Levada Analytical Center. 37 per cent of respondents would vote for Putin in the next ballot, up 10 points since April.

Medvedev is second with 17 per cent, followed by Communist Party (KPRF) leader Gennady Zyuganov with six per cent, Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky with four per cent, and Russian Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov of A Just Russia with two per cent.

(AP Photo)

Spy vs. Spy


Rasmussen Reports:

With the U.S.-Russia spy swap making headlines, 65% of voters say they are at least somewhat confident in the ability of the government to catch those from other countries who are spying on the United States.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 30% of voters lack confidence in the government’s ability to catch foreign spies.

These findings include 19% who are Very Confident in the government’s counterespionage efforts and five percent (5%) who are Not At All Confident.

Seventy-two percent (72%) regard the threat of Russian spying in this country as at least somewhat serious, with 31% who view it as Very Serious. Only 22% say it’s not very or not at all serious.

But 20% say the United States spies more on other countries that they spy on us. Seventeen percent (17%) think it’s the other way around, that other countries spy on us more than we spy on them. A solid plurality (48%), however, think the level of spying is about the same among all countries.

(AP Photo)

Business As the Continuation of Politics by Other Means


At least in Russia, as Gregory Feifer writes:

To conceal its designs, the Kremlin relies on a dizzying web of shell companies nominally owned and operated by Europeans but in reality controlled by Moscow to attack by stealth. Among them, a gas-trading company named Vemex has taken 12 percent of the Czech domestic market since its establishment in 2001 to sell Russian natural gas. Although there's nothing on Vemex's website to indicate it, the company is Czech in name only. It's actually controlled by Gazprom through a series of companies based in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, including Centrex Europe Energy and Gas, which has helped spearhead the Russian drive to buy energy assets across Europe.

Centrex is registered in Austria and, according to Gazprom's website, founded by its own Gazprombank. But the company's real ownership is impossible to trace. According to the European Commission, Centrex is owned by Centrex Group Holding Ltd., registered in Cyprus, a company controlled by Gazprom's German subsidiary, and RN Privatsiftung, a Vienna foundation whose stockholders are unknown.

Why go to the trouble of hiding the real owners of companies either already known or believed to be controlled by Gazprom? Vemex is just one of a large number of enterprises Gazprom has set up in countries across Central and Eastern Europe to jockey for stakes in European energy utilities. By disguising the real owners, Gazprom makes its actions more palatable to Europeans wary of expanding Russian influence.

Investigative journalist Jaroslav Plesl points the finger at his own countrymen for enabling Moscow. Czechs are "willing to sell anything," he says of the staggering corruption in his country, something Russian companies have been able to exploit by taking advantage of nontransparent tenders. They also lobby to prevent the development of regulations that would prohibit those kinds of activities, with the effect of exporting the kind of corruption that dominates Russia.

My question: does this kind of activity stand on its head the vision of globalization as channeling the contests between nations into the more peaceful economic realm, or confirm it?

(AP Photo)

Al-Qaeda Eyes Iraqi Green Zone

The National reports that al Qaeda has leveled a fresh threat against the government in Baghdad:

Al Qa’eda is planning to attack the Green Zone in Baghdad, in a move it believes will cripple the government as US troops prepare to draw back this summer, Iraqi security officials and analysts have warned.

Islamist militants have successfully carried out a series of deadly strikes in the Iraqi capital recently, including a prolonged raid on the heavily defended central bank last month.

Apparently the attack on the central bank has bolstered al-Qaeda in Iraq's view of what it can accomplish by striking the seat of power in Iraq.

July 10, 2010

Contain or Accommodate China?

This is a bit old, but nevertheless still relevant. It's historian Niall Ferguson discussing the shift of economic power toward the East (you can watch the full interview here). At the eight minute mark he raises a good point. The U.S. is facing, in Ferguson's words, "a genuine superpower, a real economic rival" in China, and yet we're so distracted by our "colonial wars" (his words) in Iraq and Afghanistan that we're not seriously grappling with the implications of this.

He goes on to say that there is a clear dilemma facing the U.S. - should we treat China as the British treated the rise of the United States as a world power, by accommodating it. Or do we try to balance against China, as the British balanced against the rise of Germany, through a series of alliances in Asia.

It's a good question, but I don't think the choices are that stark. I think there is a clear danger in embarking decisively down either path, in part because it's not clear what kind of "great power" the Chinese are going to be. Military power is a lot less useful to the Chinese in the 21st century than it was to the Germans in the 20th. Nevertheless, if we are overly accommodating, we could wake up to find the world a much less hospitable place for the U.S. and our economic interests. On the other hand, if we're consumed with checking Chinese power, we put ourselves on a potentially destructive collision course.

I think this is why U.S. policy towards China has been something of a muddle - some parts balancing (such as the effort to forge closer ties to India), some parts accommodation (see the relatively muted executive branch response to China's currency manipulations). I think as China becomes more powerful and more assertive, it will be increasingly harder for Washington to strike this balance, in part because there is an influential swath of opinion in U.S. foreign policy circles that views any potential strategic challenger as an inherent and intolerable security threat.

July 9, 2010

Will Israel Catch Obama By Surprise?


President Obama doesn't think so:

U.S. President Barack Obama told Channel 2 News on Wednesday that he believed Israel would not try to surprise the U.S. with a unilateral attack on Iran.

In an interview aired Thursday evening, Obama was asked whether he was concerned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would try to attack Iran without clearing the move with the U.S., to which the president replied "I think the relationship between Israel and the U.S. is sufficiently strong that neither of us try to surprise each other, but we try to coordinate on issues of mutual concern."

A lot of the advice that was offered up during Prime Minister Netanyahu's visit to the U.S. was that President Obama should affirm America's unshakable commitment to Israel's security. Only a secure Israel, they argued, would take the steps necessary to make peace with the Palestinians.

But Iran's nuclear program has thrown this commitment into sharper relief. What if Israel feels that its security needs can only be met by attacking Iran, whereas the U.S. believes that such an attack would put other American interests at intolerable risk? One party would be forced to live with greater insecurity as a result.

(AP Photo)

July 8, 2010

Merkel's Conservatives Feeling Heat


According to a new poll from Infratest-Dimap:

The popularity of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) is increasing, according to a poll by Infratest-Dimap released by ARD. 30 per cent of respondents would vote for the opposition SDP in the next election to the Federal Diet, up two points since mid-May.

The ruling Christian-Democratic Union (CDU) and its associate Bavarian Christian-Social Party (CSU) remain in first place with 33 per cent. The Green Party (Grune) is third with 17 per cent, followed by the Left Party (Linke) with 10 per cent, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) with five per cent.

(AP Photo)

Bibi in America: A View from Israel


During his recent trip to the United States, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave no guarantees that the settlement freeze would be extended in September.

According to Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, "the prime minister won't announce publicly on the resumption of construction." This seems to be the only agreement. So building is OK, so long as we (Israel) keep quiet about it.

Obama seems to have decided to go easy on Netanyahu because of upcoming November mid-term elections in the U.S. This will allow him to fend off Republicans who have accused him of being too tough on Jerusalem. With the oil spill disaster, this is one less accusation and he could do with it.

And by getting along with Obama, Netanyahu can avoid a big, messy fight with his coalition partners over extending the settlement freeze.

But this will only be temporary.

The Palestinians are unlikely to agree to talks while building continues in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Knowing Israeli politics, sooner or later, some hot shot politician is going to open his big mouth by announcing that construction has indeed restarted.

Netanyahu has to hope for a poor Obama performance in November, because a secure Obama won't be so nice after the elections.

It was, overall, a successful trip for Netanyahu. He got a good deal from Obama over the Palestinian question.

The two sides were relatively quiet however about Iran, as Obama's new sanctions against Tehran are very much in line with most of Israel's demands.

(AP Photo)

Europe Supports Veil Bans


According to a new poll from Pew Research, there is widespread support in Western Europe for banning the full veil:

A survey by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project, conducted April 7 to May 8, finds that the French public overwhelmingly endorses this measure; 82% approve of a ban on Muslim women wearing full veils in public, including schools, hospitals and government offices, while just 17% disapprove.1

Majorities in Germany (71%), Britain (62%) and Spain (59%) would also support a similar ban in their own countries. In contrast, most Americans would oppose such a measure; 65% say they would disapprove of a ban on Muslim women wearing full veils in public places compared with 28% who say they would approve.

In the four Western European countries surveyed as well as in the U.S., support for a ban on Muslim women wearing a full veil is more pronounced among those who are age 55 and older, although majorities across all age groups in France, Germany and Britain favor a ban. For example, 91% of French respondents age 55 and older approve of restrictions on Muslim women covering their face, compared with 81% of those ages 35 to 54 and 72% of those younger than 35.

In Spain, where 70% in the older group and a narrower majority (55%) of those ages 35 to 54 favor a ban on full veils, younger respondents are closely divided; 49% of those ages 18 to 34 approve of such measures and 47% disapprove. In the U.S., about one-third (35%) of those in the oldest age group say they would welcome a ban on veils that cover the whole face except the eyes, while 28% of those ages 35 to 54 and just 22% of those younger than 35 say the same.

(AP Photo)

What Norway Tells Us About Terrorism

Norway announced the arrests of three people it believes are linked to an al Qaeda plot to bomb the U.S. and UK:

Two were arrested in Norway and one in Germany. Officials would not say what country or site was the target of the latest terror threat, or even whether they believed the men had selected a target.

Those arrested in Norway included a 39-year-old Norwegian of Uighur origin who has lived in the country since 1999 and a 31-year-old citizen of Uzbekistan who had a permanent Norwegian residency permit, said Janne Kristiansen, head of Norway's Police Security Service. The man arrested in Germany was a 37-year-old Iraqi with a Norwegian residency permit, Kristiansen said.

She did not say exactly where the arrests took place but said all three men "had connections to Oslo."

It should be obvious by now that people with links to the West are vastly more dangerous than provincial Taliban militants scattered between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it will take police and intelligence work, not nation building in Afghanistan, to thwart that particular threat.

Turkey Still Sees EU Possibility


Speaking in Britain, Turkey's foreign minister affirmed the country's desire to join the European Union:

Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister, said in London on Thursday prior to a meeting with William Hague, his UK counterpart, that Turkey was continuing to work very hard on its integration into Europe. He acknowledged that Turkey's accession to the EU had been made harder by opposition from Germany and from France in particular, and by problems over the future of Cyprus, where the dispute with Greece is still very much alive in spite of optimism of a resolution in recent years.

The irony is that, economically speaking at least, Turkey is on much sounder footing than many countries in the EU.

(AP Photo)

July 7, 2010

Cosmetic Freedom


Max Fisher examines the Iranian regime's crackdown on Western hairstyles:

Demographically, Iran should be a democracy. It has high literacy and education rates, a large and vibrant middle class, independent labor and business communities, and a strong tradition of political organizing and involvement. The regime retains authoritarian rule in large part because it firmly controls so much of Iranians' public lives. The regime typically increases these controls in times of social unrest. The baseej, an informal citizen militia loosely tied to the state, can closely monitor their neighbors and brutally enforce state restrictions. Many Iranians become so consumed with navigating these complicated laws that public spaces become places of fear and self-censorship. Because phone taps are common and because your neighbor might be a baseej who closely monitors whoever enters your home, even private spaces are suffocated by state control. Regulating hair styles may not seem like it would be very effective, but this move is part of a sweeping, pervasive strategy to engineer individual freedom out of every imaginable aspect of public life.

I more or less agree with Fisher's summary of the situation, but I wonder if arguing that "even private spaces are suffocated by state control" reveals a critical misunderstanding in Western thinking on Iran's reform movement.

I don't know that this idea - that Iran is a Pyongyang-style police state - meshes with the accounts of most respected Iran scholars or analysts who have spent significant amounts of time in the country. Private life is an incredibly precious thing there, something even this dreadful regime must handle (and regulate) with care. There's a sort of unspoken agreement that the regime can put the public face of its choosing up for window dressing, but an Iranian's home is his or her own, more or less. Of course people are monitored and bugged, but I don't know that Fisher can verify just how pervasive that activity really is beyond anecdotal accounts.

I think the real point here is that the total number of those affected by these codes and regulations - which will likely be ignored by many barbers in short order - is small, and indeed reflective of the size and scope of the so-called Green Movement itself. Stories like this one captivate imaginations in the West because such regulations and restrictions ruffle our own sensibilities, as well as our own interpretations of liberalism, secularism, freedom and so on.

But most Iranians don't care about whether or not they can sport a mullet - they care more about subsidies, taxes, jobs and food. Justice and fairness - basic rights and entitlements (hoqooq) - matter far more than interpretations of secularism, liberalism, or whether or not Western fashion is permitted.

So, yes, Iran would likely look a lot different were the regime not so oppressive, but the real question is whether or not it would resemble the kind of "Western democracy" that might please, well, Western democrats. My guess? Probably not.

And to me, the real tragedy in this week's headlines is the story that wasn't: look at neighboring Turkey, and what it's doing economically in the region with its young, vibrant work force, and take pity on those young, educated - and greatly unemployed - middle class Iranians Fisher notes.

Aside from being an oppressive regime, let us not forget that this is also an incredibly inefficient, insolvent, corrupt and incompetent regime; a fact which likely keeps more than a few Iranians up at night - far more, I'd imagine, than some hairstyle guidelines will.

[h/t: The Dish]

(AP Photo)

You Say You Want a Revolution (in Iran)?

Try imposing a 70 percent income tax hike on the bazaaris - that should do the trick.

The Dangers of Democracy Promotion

Daniel Larison runs down the dangers of democracy promotion:

Another danger is that this emphasis on democracy promotion conflates U.S. interests in a region with the aspirations of other peoples to govern themselves democratically when these two may not be complementary. Most enthusiasts for democracy promotion seem rarely to contemplate the possibility of such a conflict between the political goals of democrats in other countries and U.S. policies, and there usually seems to be a casual assumption that American interests and “values” advance in tandem. Much of the sympathy for the Green movement in the U.S. is predicated on two basically false beliefs that most Green movement members want to topple their government and want to adopt policies more amenable to the U.S. Many Western sympathizers with the Green movement would suddenly start singing a very different tune if they understood that neither of these things is true.

A related problem with the discussion of democracy promotion is that it's gotten increasingly wrapped up in partisan politics. We now hear commentators routinely damn the administration for failing to vigorously spread freedom - or at least, pay obsequious lip service to the idea that that's what the president should be doing. But as a partisan criteria, it's absurd. Even if you had an administration that was seriously committed to spreading democracy, it's not something that happens overnight. I think all but the most blinkered Wilsonian will acknowledge that building a true, durable democracy takes years, if not decades, of patient institution building. Moreover it's a cooperative effort: if the "host" nation isn't interested, it doesn't matter what the U.S. federal government does.

While I don't think the U.S. should play a role in armed democracy promotion (a view that very few people actually hold), or cynically retreat to the rhetoric of democracy promotion as a cover for advancing other interests (a view with a much larger constituency), I do think the U.S. can and should lay the groundwork for a more peaceful, liberalizing international order. But as Leslie Gelb argued in Power Rules, that will be accomplished via economic integration - something where the administration's critics do have legitimate grounds to criticize.

Polling the Palestinians

Via the Jerusalem Post, a new survey of Palestinians based in both the West Bank and Gaza from the Ramallah-based Arab World for Research and Development:

Two-thirds of those surveyed believe Hamas should renew its ceasefire with Israel after it expires in September, and it should not resume use of missiles against targets in Israel. However, nearly half oppose direct talks with Israel.

Half of those polled would vote for Salam Fayyad as Palestinian prime minister, with only 22 percent favoring Hamas's Ismail Haniyeh. Similarly, 56% prefer Fatah in the Palestinian parliament, as opposed to 33.5% for Hamas.

The vast majority of Palestinians think creating jobs and fighting poverty is the most important issue facing Palestinians, with 75% saying the Palestinian economy is deteriorating.

The poll also showed that 67% of Palestinians think their society is headed in the wrong direction.

Taking the Long View on Iran


With the Obama-Netanyahu makeup tour underway, some pundits are urging the administration to make Netanyahu's priority - Iran - its own. This would be a mistake - not simply because Iran does not pose the same threat to the U.S. as it does to Israel, but because the result of such a policy would push the U.S. toward an even sharper confrontation with Iran and ultimately some form of military action.

The Obama administration has leveled sanctions against Iran and sought, with modest success, to isolate the country diplomatically. It has reassured Gulf states - verbally and through U.S. military deployments - that it intends to contain Iran on their behalf. It has worked with Israel to upgrade their own defensive capabilities and is cooperating in efforts to covertly destabilize Iran's nuclear program. There are a few more aggressive steps - like a blockade to cut off gasoline imports - that could be tried, but those would edge the U.S. much closer to a military confrontation with the country. In short, the administration has done what it can. There are other foreign policy issues on its plate besides Iran that it must attend to.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker talked about "strategic patience" with respect to diplomatic engineering in Iraq, but if there ever was a case for employing strategic patience, Iran would seem to be it. A young population that bristles against the absurd restrictions of the regime, a country with abundant natural resources and huge potential, and, lest we forget, a former ally.

The U.S. would potentially deal a massive blow to its long term position in a future liberalizing Iran with a military strike. Of course, we can't know when, or even if, Iran will shake off the Mullahs and the Revolutionary Guard. We should never discount the possibility of catastrophe or a miscalculation. But the U.S. - with its large economy, huge military, and strategic location - is well positioned to wait out Iran.

New Polish President's Foreign Policy


Sally McNamara assess the impact that Poland's new President Komorowski will have on the country's foreign policy:

Foreign policy will be deeply impacted by the new one-party government. Next July, Poland will hold the Presidency of the EU, and both Prime Minister Tusk and President Komorowski are deeply committed to further European integration. PO supports the EU’s burgeoning defense identity and is planning to take Poland into the failing single European currency as soon as possible. Whereas President Kaczynski was seen as a stalwart Atlanticist, Komorowski is seen more as a resolute Europeanist. As head of the Polish armed forces, he has stated that he wants to end Poland’s commitment to the mission in Afghanistan by 2012. His focus is also likely to fall more on warming relations with Russia, than with shoring up the Polish-American relationship.

(AP Photo)

July 6, 2010

What's Obama Biggest Foreign Policy Blunder?


Jennifer Rubin asks in the spirit of partisan attack, but I think it's a valid question on its own right. My provisional instant-answer would be his embrace of a larger scale nation building effort in Afghanistan, followed by the decision to push for a Mideast peace settlement. What does everyone else think?

(AP Photo)

Americans See Long Combat Role in Iraq

The Pentagon may call them "stability operations" but Americans apparently understand what's up:

only 33% of U.S. voters think that is even somewhat likely to happen as planned. Fifty-nine percent (59%) say an end to the U.S. combat role there is unlikely by then, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey.

These findings include 10% who say it is Very Likely the combat mission in Iraq will be over by the end of August and 20% who say it is Not At All Likely.

Voters are closely divided over whether the seven-year-old war in Iraq will be regarded in the long term as a success or a failure. Thirty-three percent (33%) say America’s mission in Iraq will be judged a success, but 36% believe it will be viewed as a failure. Thirty-one percent (31%) are not sure.

Strategic Patience

The New York Times reports on America's transitioning role in Iraq - which still involves U.S. soldiers hunting and killing insurgents and engaging in combat operations while employing some artful spin about the U.S. role in those actions. Part of the idea, it seems, is to make the U.S. presence more palatable to both Iraqi and American audiences by being somewhat vague about what that role is.

Which leads us to former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker's article in the National Interest. Crocker argues that the U.S. needs to maintain a hands-on approach with respect to Iraq's political development. While I think there's a very strong case to be made for continued diplomatic engagement with Iraq as the country struggles to regain its footing, there's a problem with Crocker's conceptual framework:

Iran and Syria have had a bad few years in Iraq, but they are willing to wait. Patience is not our strong suit. Over the years, in the broader Middle East, our allies have come to fear our strategic impatience, and our adversaries to count on it. Our disengagement from Pakistan and Afghanistan after the Soviet retreat in 1989 ultimately gave al-Qaeda the space to plan the 9/11 attacks. Now we are back; but in Afghanistan in 2002 and in Pakistan from 2004 to 2007, I found many who wondered when we would head for the exits again.

Iran and Syria are "willing to wait" because they live there. They don't have a choice. The United States, fortunately, does have a choice. Another way of stating Crocker's strategic patience argument is to simply state that countries with a deeper interest in a given situation will do more than a country that does not. Rather than acknowledge this, we're enjoined to display "strategic patience" by persisting in a given engagement simply to demonstrate to other regional actors that we have "staying power."

But in a world of limited resources, you have to make choices based on a hierarchy of priorities. In Crocker's piece he singles out two countries as evidence of American strategic impatience - Lebanon and Afghanistan - without ever arguing why they would demand pride of place among other competing interests.

The problem with this "strategic patience" argument is that the U.S. - as Crocker admits in the piece - frequently looks before it leaps with respect to its far-too-numerous military interventions. After having committed a blunder, we're then enjoined to continue our investment lest regional bad actors press their advantage.

But take the Afghanistan example above, can Crocker, or anyone, offer a remotely plausible scenario which sees the U.S. "engaged" in Afghanistan in the 1980s that prevents the rise of al Qaeda internationally? Bin Laden wasn't even in Afghanistan until 1996. As we're learning now, the problem in Afghanistan isn't American engagement or lack thereof, it's Pakistan's regional interests. Maybe there was a magical formula available to the U.S. in the 1980s that changes Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan so that it didn't use the country as a dumping ground for the ISI's fundamentalists. But I doubt it.

I think there's a great case to be made for strategic patience as a general concept, but in the Crocker formulation it seems to be a case of persisting with a military endeavor long after it's become obvious to most people that the costs have outweighed the benefits. Indeed, the time to demonstrate strategic patience is before the U.S. reaches for the military tool, not after, especially when it comes to places, like Lebanon and Afghanistan, of limited strategic value to the United States.

Cameron Approval Holds Steady


Despite announcing a pretty tough austerity budget, David Cameron is holding up in the polls:

Public support for the British prime minister has not dwindled after his first month in office, according to a poll by Angus Reid Public Opinion. 54 per cent of respondents approve of David Cameron’s performance.

In addition, 50 per cent of respondents approve of Nick Clegg’s performance as deputy prime minister, down two points in a month.

(AP Photo)

Where Is Smart Power?

Thomas Barnett makes the case for globalization:

First, we can remember that we sought this outcome -- a world of numerous great powers rising peacefully in their growing prosperity. This is why we created an international liberal trade order following World War II and defended it throughout the Cold War. No superpower before us had ever shaped and sustained a world order capable of such integration, and we should be proud of the vast peace dividend we've generated for the planet. Globalization may cause great frictions between civilizations, but it has begotten unprecedented peace among nation-states.

This is where the Obama administration and its so-called "Smart Power" diplomacy seem curiously deficient. China has just inked a major trade deal with Taiwan and Russia has concluded a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. The net result of those moves will be to peacefully extend the influence of both great powers.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has moved slowly. President Obama has only now promised to send the Korean Free Trade Agreement to Congress after the November elections, but hasn't spent much time defending it. During her swing through Latin America, Secretary Clinton promised to put her support behind the Colombia Free Trade Agreement - but both deals have been languishing for years now.

The Most Expensive Cities in the World

The annual Mercer Cost of Living Survey ranks the most expensive cities in the word:

* Luanda, Angola
* Tokyo, Japan
* N'Djamena, Chad
* Moscow, Russia
* Geneva, Switzerland

The U.S. does not surface on the list until New York pops in at 27th place.

If the BP Spill Happened in China

Gady Epstein takes us through China's rapid response.

July 5, 2010

Russia Conducts Military Exercises in Far East

Here is something that should put China on notice - Russian military just tested the possibility of non-stop flight by jet fighters from the European part of Russia to the Far East. The test was conducted as part of the "Vostok-2010" (East 2010) exercises. According to Interfax news agency, Russian Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov reported on the flight at a meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

According to Makarov, Su-24M and Su-34 fighter-bombers participated in the flight, with Su-24M needing three in-flight refuelings, while the Su-34 was refueled twice.

The "Vostok-2010" exercises, running from June 29 through July 8, are the biggest maneuvers of Russian armed forces in 2010, involving the Pacific Fleet and two military districts, bringing together 20,000 troops, more than 5,000 units of military equipment, over 40 ships and 75 airplanes and helicopters.

The exercises involve defense against massive missile and air strikes, as well as possible counter-insurgency operations. "Vostok-2010" also provides training for joint action with the FSB border forces for the protection of maritime borders, as well as anti-piracy and anti-poaching operations. President Medvedev followed the exercises from aboard Peter the Great heavy nuclear missile cruiser.

July 4, 2010

John McCain and Iran, Ctd.

Daniel Larison adds to my post on the Zakaria-Wieseltier exchange over the Iranian Green Movement:

Making something that is far-fetched and highly unlikely into the centerpiece of Iran policy is not credible, and it is certainly not realism of any kind, but that is what McCain, Wieseltier and Haass have done. In the end, Wieseltier’s response amounted to a lot of pouting that Zakaria did not confuse his sympathy for the Green movement with his estimates for their chance of success. It seems clear that the main problem Zakaria had with McCain’s speech and with his general worldview was that McCain was proposing a piece of wishful thinking as if it were a meaningful solution to disputes between the U.S. and Iran. It is just another case of fetishizing democracy and claiming that democratization has pro-Americanizing effects that there is no evidence that it has.

July 2, 2010

The Worst Traffic in the World

Via AFP:

Beijing and Mexico City have the worst traffic jams in the world, as record traffic levels take their toll on people's health, productivity and social life, a study said Wednesday.

Most of the 8,192 motorists interviewed for the IBM Commuter Pain Study in 20 cities around the world said traffic has worsened in the past three years.

Beijing and Mexico City scored 99 out of 100 in IBM's commuter pain index, trailed closely by Johannesburg, Moscow and New Delhi.

Los Angeles had the worst traffic of all US cities, scoring 25 on the commuter pain scale, and along with New York and Houston, Texas had the longest commutes anywhere in the world.

A Turning Point?

This week has brought two interesting revelations from the GOP in terms of foreign policy. The first was Representative Bachmann's claim that she didn't want to "bind the United States into a global economy." (Perhaps she's a secret devotee of Juche?)

The second, and more consequential, is this riff from Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele on the war in Afghanistan:

At a Republican Party fundraiser in Connecticut on Thursday, Steele declared that the war in Afghanistan "was a war of Obama's choosing" that America had not "actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in," in a response to an attendee's question about the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal -- which Steele called "very comical."

"The McChrystal incident, to me, was very comical. And I think it's a reflection of the frustration that a lot of our military leaders have with this Administration and their prosecution of the war in Afghanistan," said Steele. "Keep in mind again, federal candidates, this was a war of Obama's choosing. This is not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in."

I highly doubt this presages a shift in the Republican attitude toward the war. But nevertheless, there is no intrinsically conservative/limited government argument for engaging in a multi-billion dollar social engineering scheme in the Hindu Kush. If the general public turns further south on the effort, will this line of argument gain greater traction among Republicans?.

July 1, 2010

Anatomy of the Russian Spy Ring

Stratfor has a comprehensive review of what we know about the Russian spies.

Suicidal Iran


If you believe, such as I do, that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon, then you essentially have two optional schools of thought for assessing the regime's motives. One theory is that the regime is seeking the bomb in order to guarantee its own security; while, perhaps, advancing its own hegemonic desires in the Middle East.

The second, arguably less prevalent school of thought takes it a step further. This theory assumes that Iran has a demonstrated history of suicidal, nihilistic behavior, and that a nuclear-armed Iran may actually use such a weapon (possibly against Israel) in a global display of Death By Cop. Proponents of the "Suicidal Iran" theory will often cite anti-Israel comments made by President Ahmadinejad, or even older Ayatollah Khomeini lines rejecting the nation-state; others will note that martyrdom and sacrifice play a prominent role in Shiism - especially in Iran.

Which camp you fall in likely affects whether or not you believe Iran can be a nuclear 'good citizen' should it attain a nuclear weapon. Bret Stephens, entrenched, I'm assuming, in the second camp, makes the predictable argument against containment:

A credible case can be made that Communism is no less a faith than Islam and that Iran’s current leadership, like Soviet leaders of yore, knows how to temper true belief with pragmatic considerations. But Communism was also a materialist and (by its own lights) rationalist creed, with a belief in the inevitability of history but not in the afterlife. Marxist-Leninist regimes may be unmatched in their record of murderousness, but they were never great believers in the virtues of martyrdom.

That is not the case with Shiism, which has been decisively shaped by a cult of suffering and martyrdom dating to the murder of Imam Husayn—the Sayyed al-Shuhada, or Prince of Martyrs—in Karbala in the seventh century. The emphasis on martyrdom became all the more pronounced in Iran during its war with Iraq, when Tehran sent waves of child soldiers, some as young as 10, to clear out Iraqi minefields. As Hooman Majd writes in his book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, the boys were often led by a soldier mounted on a white horse in imitation of Husayn: “the hero who would lead them into their fateful battle before they met their God.” Tens of thousands of children died this way.

All this suggests that a better comparison for Iran than the Soviet Union might be Japan of the 1930s and World War II—another martyrdom-obsessed, non-Western culture with global ambitions. It should call into question the view that for all its extremist rhetoric, Iran operates according to an essentially pragmatic estimate of its own interests.

Japan is indeed a more appropriate comparison than the Soviet Union, but I think Stephens misses the more optimistic lesson in the U.S.-Japanese relationship. The Mutual Cooperation and Security treaty signed by both nations in 1960 came just fifteen years after the peak of Kamikaze attacks on American naval vessels. Japan went on to become a close U.S. ally, and today a military base in Okinawa constitutes as a "row" between the two governments.

Iranian wave attacks, while obviously senseless, wicked and inhumane, were carried out by a regime drunk with revolution, and they were carried out in reaction to Iraqi invasion. Stephens should keep in mind that it was Iraq that suffered at the hands of Iran's suicidal tendencies during that war - not Israel or the United States.

Yet today, Iran's inability to supply Basra with a sufficient amount of electricity constitutes as a "row." The two countries enjoy warmer relations, and Iranian goods flood Iraqi markets.

My point: even history's most suicidal of states can - and have - changed. Iran is already one of them. So if Iraqis can trust a once suicidal Iran, why can't Americans and Israelis?

UPDATE: My comparison has received some push back in the comments section; also worth a read.

(AP Photo)

Asia vs. the Middle East

As someone who has spent the past decade getting to know the Arabic-speaking world, I should act in my interests and claim the Arabic-speaking world to be the single most important region from the perspective of U.S. interests. But I can't do that honestly. As I read documents like the National Intelligence Council's 2025 survey, I grow to suspect that specialists of East and South Asia will be far more important to the United States than we would-be Arabists going forward. - Andrew Exum
I think this is right but I don't think we're going to see a steady, linear march away from the Middle East toward Asia. Indeed, Washington's interest in the Middle East is likely to increase over the next decade as the consequences of Iran's nuclear program become apparent and, more importantly, as the world jockeys for increasingly scare energy resources.

We will ultimately get around to giving Asia the attention it deserves in the same way the U.S. tends to handle most strategic shifts - in an ad hoc and crisis-driven manner.


China launches a 24-hour English news network.

Good Work if You Can Get It (and Live)


Michael Rubin passes on a report detailing the salary of some Iraqi officials:

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani pulls down a salary of approximately $12 million per year, and that doesn't include the money that is channeled through the Nokan Corporation, the company that handles his party's business interests. Masud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan -- which comprises Iraq's three northern provinces -- pulls in a salary of approximately $400,000 per month, and that doesn't include his extensive business holdings, the mountaintop resort he confiscated as a family compound, the public money he has absorbed from the treasury, or payments he receives from some neighboring states.

That said, being an Iraqi politician isn't all mountaintop resorts and multi-million dollar paychecks:

Some 150 politicians, civil servants, tribal chiefs, police officers, Sunni clerics and members of Awakening Councils have been assassinated throughout Iraq since the election — bloodshed apparently aimed at heightening turmoil in the power vacuum created by more than three months without a national government.

Freedom sure is untidy.

(AP Photo)

U.S. Puts Number on Al Qaeda

The New York Times reports:

Michael E. Leiter, one of the country’s top counterterrorism officials, said Wednesday that American intelligence officials now estimated that there were somewhat “more than 300” Qaeda leaders and fighters hiding in Pakistan’s tribal areas, a rare public assessment of the strength of the terrorist group that is the central target of President Obama’s war strategy.

Taken together with the recent estimate by the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, that there are about 50 to 100 Qaeda operatives now in Afghanistan, American intelligence agencies believe that there are most likely fewer than 500 members of the group in a region where the United States has poured nearly 100,000 troops.

And it's not like these 100,000 troops are dedicated to finding and rooting out the 500 odd al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. Instead, they're hunting down mid-level Pashtun Taliban commanders and attempting to extend the writ of the government in Kabul.

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