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August 31, 2010

A Few Forgettable Points from Obama's Speech

President Obama's speech last night will not be quoted anywhere. It was neither memorable nor newsworthy, it made no grand point, and it was constructed in such a way as to be dismissed by both the right and the left. In fact, it's a reminder that the statements Obama has made in his first term have thus far been, on the whole, completely forgettable to the average American. For a man so lauded for his speaking ability and the craft of his writers, the memorable lines are few and far between: his oft-repeated stump-speech on health care probably contains the lines most Americans know, since they included a raft of promises. Looking back, it is his speech in Cairo and his speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize which most commenters would probably consider the critical remarks from this term.

Yet in taking the opportunity to share a few thoughts with us on Iraq - to "turn the page" as he said - the president left us wanting. For the right, he highlighted his insistent wrongness on the tactical response to the Iraq War during his brief tenure in the Senate; for the left, he highlighted what they believe to be his insistent wrongness in applying a similar tactical response to the war in Afghanistan. So both sides complain, no one cherishes, and a key foreign policy moment is passed by - the big news story from the White House today was all about the president speaking from an Oval Office with a fresh coat of beige, not the remarks. It is, in my view, a missed opportunity.

The way the White House presented the speech was schizophrenic to begin with - another communications failure in a long stream of misread optics and poorly chosen words. Robert Gibbs provides an example of how to fail to properly represent the Commander in Chief - clearly the weakest member of Obama's internal team, and one I fully expect to be gone in the aftermath of the midterm elections, Gibbs flailed mightily today, misquoting his boss's views from 2007 and ignoring questions about Obama's shift in opinion on strategy. He urged reporters to check out the facts about what Obama had said in the past, perhaps without checking them himself (Obama in January 2007: "I don't know any expert [who believes surge] is going to make a substantial difference." Obama in June 2007: "Here's what we know: the surge has not worked.") -- or if he did check, it was blatant incompetence to make such a claim of consistency.

Politicians never like to say they're wrong about anything, and never like to admit they've changed their views. But when that mistake is so apparent and evident, it's silly to be stubborn about it. Obama's perspective on foreign policy has clearly shifted over the past two years, and he should readily admit that fact. Because he refuses to, it creates scenarios like this, a year and a half ago:

Q: If you had to do it over again, knowing what you know now, would you support the surge?

Obama: No. Because, keep in mind that —

Q: You wouldn’t?

Obama: Keep in mind, these kind of hypotheticals are very difficult. You know hindsight is 20/20. But I think that what I am absolutely convinced of is at that time we had to change the political debate because the view of the Bush administration at that time was one I just disagreed with.

President Obama's approach to foreign policy has been better than many on the right expected, and has improved in several areas since he made those remarks. Great leaders recognize their own errors as they come, and respond to them by learning and adapting, not fighting the battles of the past. Obama had been a senator for barely 12 months when he spoke out so forcefully against the surge - in his role now, and going forward, Americans need to be confident he has learned from the experiences of the recent past, and takes that knowledge with him as he faces challenging decisions. They need to know he approaches policy with a clear vision about what he wants to achieve -- that he is not just, as Greg put it, hedging his bets.

It is one thing to be wrong about a strategic policy when you are just one senator out of a hundred. It is another when you are the one man who matters, and the lives of a great many American soldiers hang in the balance.

Benjamin Domenech, a former speechwriter for Tommy Thompson and Sen. John Cornyn, is editor of The New Ledger and a research fellow with The Heartland Institute. He writes on defense and security issues for The Compass.

Why Isn't It a "Mission Accomplished" Speech?


It seems that the spin from the Obama administration is that tonight's Iraq address won't be akin to President Bush's now infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech delivered a few months after the Iraq war began. While it's understandable why the president would want to distance himself from that bit of botched political theater, I'm not clear why the administration is making this instance. (Actually, I know why they're doing it, to please a constituency, but I don't see the logic in it.)

Without knowing the full text of the address, you can say for certain that the president is not making good on his campaign pledge to "end the war." The troops being left behind in Iraq to "advise and assist" will take casualties. If the president insists that he will withdraw all "advise and assist" forces after 2011, irrespective of conditions on the ground, then you could say that the administration is making good on its pledges. But during the campaign, Obama insisted that the U.S. would be as careful leaving Iraq as we were careless getting in - and indication, to me at least, that he's hedging his bets.

So I have a hard time believing that the president is going to truly withdraw forces from Iraq in 2011 "come what may" which makes tonight's speech, if not dishonest, than less-than-forthright. But I could be wrong, and President Obama could insist that no matter what, U.S. forces will be removed from Iraq in 2011. Such a stance wouldn't necessarily be a bad idea (that's a debate for another day), but it would mark a sharp departure from conventional thinking with respect to U.S. interests in the Middle East. And the president hasn't really demonstrated that he's truly "thinking outside the box" when it comes to those strategic issues.

(AP Photo)

The Two Sides of China


Evan Feigenbaum observes that while China's military leaders are feeling confident, its economic leaders are not so blustery:

For some in China’s strategic class, the crisis reinforced breathtaking conclusions about China’s “rise” and American “decline.” It fed sweeping (and exaggerated) conclusions about shifts in the balance of power. But for China’s economic managers, this crisis has been deeply unsettling: Domestic and household consumption are up; but they aren’t rising fast enough to replace global demand as a source of new economic growth. China is exiting its $586 billion stimulus. Planners worry about asset bubbles in the property market. And, despite efforts to “rebalance” the Chinese economy, China ended July with a $29 billion trade surplus. China’s strategic class may preen, then. But those who focus on China’s economy, society, and politics increasingly emphasize difficult challenges and tough questions: Where will sustained and robust growth come from if global demand remains slack? Can China manage the political implications of slower growth? Can China continue to protect its exporters in the face of growing international pressure on the value of its currency?

This is a useful reminder that while concerns about an emerging security competition in Asia are valid, it's not the only lens through which to view the rise of China. If concerns about growth and development continue to trump expanding regional ambitions, I suspect China will be far more hesitant to challenge the status quo.

(AP Photo)

Gas Attacks in Afghanistan

I don't believe that the fate of Afghan women should be used as a moral cudgel against those who object to the current U.S. strategy. That said, this is disgusting:

Blood tests have confirmed that a series of mysterious mass sickenings at girls’ schools across the country over the last two years were caused by a powerful poison gas, Afghan officials said Tuesday.

The sickenings had long been officially dismissed as episodes of mass hysteria, caused by the frequency of arson and acid attacks directed at schoolgirls by the Taliban and other extremists who oppose their education.

How the gas was delivered — and even whether the poisonings were deliberate — remained a mystery, the officials emphasized. There have been no fatalities, and no one has ever claimed responsibility for the episodes. But the cases have been reported only in girls’ schools, or in mixed schools during hours set aside only for girls.

Iraqi View of their Government

Gallup asked Iraqis how they feel about their leaders, and America's:


The survey was taken in March, before the Iraq elections and the ensuing deadlock.

The View from the Anglosphere


Angus Reid asked Britons and Canadians what they think of President Obama:

Seven-in-ten Canadians believe the American president deserves to be re-elected in 2012, but under half of Britons agree.

Canadians hold a much more positive view of United States President Barack Obama than Britons, a new two-country Angus Reid Public Opinion poll has found.

In the online survey of representative national samples of 1,010 Canadian and 2,012 British adults, 61 per cent of respondents in Canada say Obama’s performance so far has been just what they expected. Fewer people in Britain agree (51%).

In Canada, 14 per cent of respondents say Obama’s performance has exceeded their expectations, while 18 per cent say they have been disappointed by it. In Britain, these perceptions sit at 13 per cent and 23 per cent, respectively.

Three-in-ten Canadians (30%) say the American president has accomplished much since his term started in January 2009. But only 12 per cent of British respondents agree with this assessment. And while only 15 per cent of Canadians think Obama has achieved little, this proportion rises to 25 per cent in Britain.

A large proportion of people in both countries (CAN 48%, BRI 54%) say it is too early to judge Obama’s accomplishments.

I'd certainly endorse that last sentiment.

(AP Photo)

The Iraq Gamble


Nearly everyone who had a hand in championing the Iraq war is urging the administration to renegotiate the Status of Forces Agreement so that U.S. forces can remain inside Iraq past 2011. This appears to be the new conventional wisdom in Washington: that whatever you thought about the war in Iraq, you should be able to see the strategic necessity of keeping large numbers of U.S. troops inside the country for decades to come.

There are any number of ways such a long-term presence could play out. The best-case scenario is the one Paul Wolfowitz suggested: that, much like in Korea, the U.S. presence will be a stabilizing force that helps keeps the peace and improves America's geopolitical position.

There are, however, ample reasons to question the Korea analogy. The most obvious, of course, is that U.S. forces in Korea were designed to defend the country from an external enemy across a clear border. That's not the case in Iraq, where the major threats are internal. Despite the reduction in violence, the surge failed to fully route al-Qaeda in Iraq and the sectarian fault lines that spurred the country to bloodshed still exist. And unlike North Korea, America's internal enemies in Iraq have no qualms about attacking the U.S. troop presence there.

The other scenarios for a long-term U.S. troop presence in Iraq are less than ideal, including a resumption of violence. In such an instance, U.S. troops would almost certainly be called in to stamp out the fighting. But there will be far fewer of them in 2011 and beyond than in 2007. So any decision to renegotiate a U.S. troop withdrawal is potentially a decision to continue a counter-insurgency war in the country en-perpetuity.

Few of the analysts stumping for a long-term troop presence seem to want to grapple with the possibility of a resumption of large-scale violence - it's a specter they invoke to justify why troops should stay but not something they appear to think will actually happen on any large scale. Which is curious, frankly. It's worth remembering that 130,000 U.S. troops could not stop Iraqis from slaughtering each other in a brutal wave of sectarian violence. It stands to reason that 50,000 U.S. troops, along with Iraqi forces, would similarly be unable to stop a determined upswing in insurgent violence.

(AP Photo)

Debating Tea Party Foreign Policy


Will the Tea Party movement redefine the right's foreign policy priorities in the same way it has redefined their domestic policy priorities? That seems to be the question Greg poses here, following on remarks by Gideon Rachman, in response to this weekend's festivities in Washington, D.C. (the rally was designed around Glenn Beck's views on faith and the need for an American spiritual revival, and therefore far more religious than political - something which won't be true at the Tea Party movement's 9/12 march.)

Others have raised similar questions. Beck is a canny entertainer, but his focus, at least as a television host, has almost entirely been on American domestic policy - when he's wandered into other areas, such as Puerto Rican statehood, he's latched onto storylines that don't quite fit. Instead of adopting neoconservative views, or more traditional Republican views, on foreign policy issues, Beck has wavered.

In this uncertainty, Beck is perfectly representative of the average member of the Tea Party movement. Keep in mind this is a political faction that hinges on a core set of economic issues, with a focus on fiscal and government reform, along the lines of the political upsurge that made Ross Perot a factor in the early 1990s. As such, they're quite dangerous and difficult for Republicans to control - being, as many of them are, fiscal conservatives and entrepreneurs who were as frustrated by George W. Bush's second term as they presently are with Barack Obama's first.

Research by the Chicago-based Sam Adams Alliance found that "in 2004, 96.9 percent of Tea Party activists surveyed said they voted for George W. Bush," however, "in late summer 2010, only 50.7 percent say they now affiliate themselves with the Republican Party," and fewer than half view Bush favorably today in line with the population as a whole. So I doubt you'd see the divided Tea Party embrace Bush's foreign policy wholesale, any more than they would his other policies.

Beck won't determine the direction on any of these matters, mostly because it doesn't play to his strengths in front of the audience, and because he's smart enough to know that. This is a policy debate that will play out over the course of the next two years, with the various potential 2012 Republican candidates as proxies for factions within the Tea Party and the right as a whole. We could be seeing the first incident in this coming clash in today's interview with Ambassador John Bolton (who's reportedly considering a 2012 run himself) at the Daily Caller, where he notes:

“In the sense that I want to make sure that not only in the Republican Party, but in the body politic as a whole, people are aware of threats that remain to the United States. You know, as somebody who writes op-eds and appears on the television, I appreciate as well as anybody that…there is a limit to what that accomplishes,” he said. “Whereas, some governor from some state in the middle of the country announces for president they get enormous coverage even if their views are utterly uninformed on major issues.”

One wonders if Bolton was thinking of Mitch Daniels or Tim Pawlenty, neither of whom have found their voice yet on foreign policy issues. In any case, this should be an interesting debate to watch.

Benjamin Domenech, a former speechwriter for Tommy Thompson and Sen. John Cornyn, is editor of The New Ledger and a research fellow with The Heartland Institute. He writes on defense and security issues for The Compass.

August 30, 2010

Malaysia and the Middle-Income Trap

Michael Schuman of Time recently returned from a trip to Kuala Lampur, the capital of Malaysia, and he brings up a fascinating point about how the nation exemplifies the problem of the "middle-income trap," which lies within the development process.

It's a term you're probably familiar with, but if not, Schuman does an excellent job of summarizing the problem. Essentially, it's a challenge that emerging economies deal with as they rise out of poverty. The elements that have to be present in order to move from a middle-income to a high-income economy are far more challenging than those of moving from a low to a middle-income economy -- think of it as a massive marginal tax on growth. It's easier, and sometimes more appealing, for nations to stay where they are -- to avoid innovation and economic growth -- and in so doing, they get stuck in the trap.

As Schuman writes, "Every go-go economy in Asia has confronted this 'trap,' or is dealing with it now. Breaking out of it, however, is extremely difficult." Success stories include South Korea and Taiwan, but Malaysia is still facing significant challenges. While it has an economy that has performed well, and achieved positive effects for citizens (the poverty statistics are a particular positive), Schuman believes that they're caught in the trap -- destined to be surpassed by other nations in the region unless economic reforms are put in place:

How can Malaysia achieve that? The World Bank report has pages of recommendations. The basics include slicing apart the bureaucratic red tape that stifles competition and suppresses investment, bolstering the education system so it can churn out more top-notch graduates, and funneling more financial resources to start-ups and other potentially innovative firms. To its credit, the government of Malaysia is fully aware of what it needs to do. In March, Prime Minister Najib Razak introduced a reform program called the New Economic Model. You can read the initial report here. The NEM shows that Najib realizes that excessive government interference in the economy is dampening investor sentiment and holding back Malaysian industry. All eyes now are waiting for the more detailed policy recommendations for the NEM (though it is not clear when those might appear).

The report Schuman cites acknowledges this fact:

Malaysia’s economic engine is slowing. Since the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998, Malaysia’s position as an economic leader in the region has steadily eroded. Growth has been lower than other crisis-affected countries, while investment has not recovered ...

Doing business in Malaysia is still too difficult. Cumbersome and lengthy bureaucratic procedures have affected both the cost of investing, and the potential returns on investment. Malaysia’s place within the Global Competitiveness Index dropped to 24th in the 2010 report from 21st previously, indicating that the country is losing its attractiveness as an investment destination.

This kind of clarity shows that at the very least, the drafters of the NEM have a clear view of what's wrong, and the approaches they outline deserve further study. The entire report is worth reading here, or at the very least, the Executive Summary.

One final note: a persistent problem that will have to be resolved if Malaysia is to make their way forward is the politically divisive New Economic Policy -- an affirmative action program designed to benefit local Malays at the expense of the immigrant population. Indeed, Schuman's blog led to a series of comments with contesting views about the effect of the policy on Malaysia's culture and economy. The NEM addresses this issue partially, but more work may be necessary on that front -- it strikes me as exactly the sort of policy which tightens the grip of the trap.

Benjamin Domenech, a former speechwriter for Tommy Thompson and Sen. John Cornyn, is editor of The New Ledger and a research fellow with The Heartland Institute. He writes on defense and security issues for The Compass.

Glenn Beck's Foreign Policy


Gideon Rachman ponders what it would look like:

But I do think that the easy assumption that the Tea Party’s foreign policy would simply be George W.Bush on steroids may well be wrong.

As this interesting piece on the Foreign Policy web-site makes clear, there is a deep division on foreign policy within the Tea Party movement. On the one hand, Sarah Palin clearly has embraced the musucular militarism of the neo-cons. On the other hand Ron and Rand Paul, who are also idols of the movement, are basically old-fashioned isolationists, whose talk of an “American empire of more than 700 military bases in more than 120 countries” could easily come from Noam Chomsky or Chalmers Johnson.

That’s a pretty important division. And, interestingly, Glenn Beck seems to be moving gradually away from the neo-cons and towards the isolationists. In fact, he has called for American troops to move out of Korea, Japan and Germany.

I honestly don't know anything about Glenn Beck's preferred policies, foreign or domestic, so instead I'll pick a very inconsequential but still irksome nit with Rachman's argument: the equation of military footprint with international engagement. I mean, would we call China "isolationist" because it has not built a series of military bases across the globe? Obviously not. So why - all else being equal - would changing the number of U.S. forward deployments and overseas military bases immediately qualify as an "isolationist" foreign policy?

(AP Photo)

Help Is on the Way

Alas, any renegotiation of that December 31, 2011 date requires a new Iraqi government—and there is no sign of one emerging. That is the second and bigger serious problem. Much of the challenge is due to a constitutional conundrum that we helped create. Iraq’s presidency is too weak, and is also up for grabs right now. Because it is weak, neither Mr. Allawi nor Mr. Maliki sees it as an acceptable consolation prize in their pursuits of the prime ministership. Because it is up for grabs, the Iraqi president cannot discipline the political process as parties seek to form a governing coalition. For example, he cannot give each major party two to three weeks to form a coalition, before retracting the offer and sequentially moving to the next party in the queue—as might happen in a different type of parliamentary system.

My colleague Ken Pollack recommends making the Iraqi president commander in chief of the security forces by constitutional review. That makes sense to me. If the constitution could be revised in the same voting process that codified a new coalition government, and accorded the presidency to whichever top Iraqi leader did not become prime minister, we might have a solution. Another approach, if the above proves too ambitious, is to create a “friends of Iraq” contact group that could temporarily (perhaps under UN auspices) play the role of referee in the coalition formation process temporarily—not because Iraqis are inherently incapable of doing so, but because we saddled them with an electoral system that is in need of emergency repair to get through this current growing crisis. - Michael O'Hanlon [Emphasis mine]

Does anyone else find this less than reassuring? We're in a mess of our own design, but no worries, the same people who engineered the mess know just how to fix it. What could possibly go wrong?

When Is "Realism" Bad?

James Kirchick thinks I'm missing the point by highlighting what I took to be his somewhat inconsistent views on when public opinion should be heeded and when it shouldn't:

But Scoblete is mixing unrelated points, akin to comparing watermelons (a staple of Kyrgyzstan) and pistachios (for which Iran is famous). In his view, you either follow the dictates of “global publics” — an approach to which Scoblete seems to subscribe — or ignore them in the pursuit of some wicked, unilateralist, neocon agenda.

A brief examination of the substantive issues being polled would be useful. With respect to Kyrgyzstan, the US policy of near limitless support for Bakiyev directly harmed American national interests. In the aftermath of his ouster, we are left with a country led by former opposition figures rightly wary of American intentions, because America did little as they were being persecuted by a kleptocratic regime. Never mind the immorality of propping up a loathsome autocrat; the five years of American support for Bakiyev will redound harshly against “hard” American interests like bashing rights.

As for Arab public opinion on the Iranian nuclear program, there is widespread consensus, across the political spectrum in America (and the rest of the free world), that Iran should not have one.

A few points. First, Kirchick is right that these issues should be examined and judged on their specific merits and not necessarily on the basis of any general principle. I'd also agree that on the issue of Iran's nuclear program, we shouldn't be overly solicitous of Arab views, but that's also because I suspect no one in the non-elite swath of the Arab world cares much about it one way or another and certainly not as much as their own lack of political liberty and economic opportunity at home.

But I wonder then why Kirchick insists (frequently) on criticizing "realism" (the word typically accompanied by derisive quotations) when it appears that he's comfortable with its various Faustian bargains when it comes to U.S. policy in the Arab world.

And I should clarify that I don't think U.S. policy should be crafted by the "dictates of global publics" but on the basis of national interest. And on those grounds, it's difficult to see why currying favor with the autocratic rulers of Kyrgyzstan to secure continued use of the Manas airbase constitutes a grave blow to U.S. interests (we haven't lost basing permission) while the practice of coddling Arab dictators and monarchs to maintain America's defense posture in the Middle East isn't. Maybe Kirchick believes that both practices are indefensible and should be scraped, although it's hard for me to see how you formulate any robust plan to deal with Iran's nuclear program that doesn't involve coddling Middle Eastern autocrats.

Either way, I'd say that until the disaffected citizens of Kyrgyzstan form a transnational terrorist organization dedicated to killing Americans on U.S. soil and driving them out of Kyrgyzstan, I'll maintain that the coddling of Arab dictators is doing more harm to American security interests than our (admittedly morally dubious) policy of coddling whatever autocrat currently lords over Bishkek.

The War Over the War in Iraq


Michael Young thinks critics of the Iraq war are acting in bad faith:

The withdrawal of American combat forces from Iraq last week brought muted reactions from those who had opposed the invasion of the country in 2003. This was partly understandable, since the United States will continue to exert considerable influence in Baghdad. But there was also discernible bad faith in the critics’ refusal to acknowledge that Iraq had entered a fundamentally new phase.

Perhaps that was because the template of disapproval when it comes to American behaviour in Iraq has for so long been framed in the narrowest of terms: that George W Bush’s administration organised an imperial war on Iraq (not “with” Iraq or “over” Iraq, or heaven forbid “for” Iraq), and this war had as its overriding objective the imposition of American domination of the Middle East – with Iraq and its natural resources as the cornerstone of the grand scheme.

And indeed, as Young documents, there was plenty of boorish and absurd criticisms of the Iraq war along "anti-imperial" lines. Of course, many supporters of the war framed pro-war arguments in terms of the importance of Iraq's oil, strategic position and sustaining American preeminence of the Middle East. But these war supporters didn't march around, wear goofy costumes or draw ridiculous and offensive posters so perhaps we shouldn't demand mea-culpas of them.

But beyond that, there were objections to the Iraq war which weren't grounded in a crude Chomksyism but on more pragmatic concerns: that such an endeavor was unnecessary and would prove to too costly. And lo and behold:

A $40 million prison sits in the desert north of , empty. A $165 million children's hospital goes unused in the south. A $100 million waste water treatment system in has cost three times more than projected, yet sewage still runs through the streets.

As the U.S. draws down in, it is leaving behind hundreds of abandoned or incomplete projects. More than $5 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds has been wasted on these projects — more than 10 percent of the $53.7 billion the US has spent on reconstruction in Iraq, according to audits from a U.S. watchdog agency.

Empire or not, a boondoggle is a boondoggle.

(AP Photo)

Japan Rethinks Defense Posture


A national security advisory committee to Japan's Prime Minister has apparently made some radical suggestions about reforming Japan's defense posture. Among them: rethinking the basic concept of Japan's military as a defensive force, rethinking the ban on nuclear weapons entering the country, and easing the nation's ban on weapons exports. The Asahi Shimbum writes:

Ever since the National Defense Program Guidelines were established in 1976, the premise was one of restraint--the nation would "not directly confront a threat, but maintain a bare minimum defense force so that it would not become a destabilizing factor itself."

However, the report, in a drastic policy switch, says Japan should become a country that confronts threats.

What has changed?

The report points to the waning of U.S. military supremacy, the modernization of China's military and North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile development.

Japan's status as a great economic power without a military to match was useful during the Cold War but it's increasingly untenable in an area of emerging great Asian powers.

(AP Photo)

August 25, 2010

They're Just Not That Into Us


One of the most frequently asked questions in popular media since the 9/11 attacks is some variant of "Why do they hate us?" It's a question I dislike, not just because it leads to trite and overly simplistic answers ("because of our freedom"), but because it ignores the real point of understanding the West's conflict with radical Islam: that it's not about hating us.

Lee Smith, the author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, has an interesting passage in his book on this topic: "Maybe the question is not what went wrong with the Islam and the Arabs," he quotes a friend, "but what went right with the West."

To ask what’s wrong with the Arabs is to take the West as the historical norm, and imagine that its progress is a trajectory that all societies must inevitably follow, leading towards freedom, democracy and respect for the inherent dignity of the individual human being. But since we have been handed all of these things for free, it is easy to overlook the sacrifices many generations made in blood along the way. Likewise, to forget how we got here is to trivialize the efforts of others elsewhere who strive for the same ideals, but met with little or no success, like the Arab liberals.

As we seek better understanding of the true nature of the clash of civilizations, Smith advances the argument that the real clash we're seeing is not primarily between Islam and the West, but within Islam. And what's more, in studying history, we find that this clash is hardly new at all - though you probably knew as much - and that focused anger against America is merely the simplest and easiest way to unite warring factions and focus opponents away from their warlike, power-grabbing aims within Arab nation-states. As Smith writes in rejecting the oft-repeated line that 9/11 was born in the dungeons of Egypt:

The assumption behind this theory, and all theories purporting to explain the root causes of Islamic terror - for example, that it is the product of dire economic conditions, or is an expression of legitimate political grievances against the West - is that political violence in the modern Middle East is a deviation from the norm that requires a theory to explain it. The reality is very different. In the Middle East, political violence is not an anomaly. It is the normal state of affairs.

I spoke to Smith last week, and in the context of our discussion, I asked what he expects on the path ahead for the United States as we interact with the Muslim world. He believes that until we acknowledge the realities of conflict's essential role within Arab politics and government, the way forward is just going to be full of more disappointment. His view can hardly be called optimistic, but I think there's a great deal of merit to it. As Americans, we naturally view foreign policy through a U.S.-focused lens, and we're just not used to hearing "It's not about you." Maybe it's time we got used to that idea.

Benjamin Domenech, a former speechwriter for Tommy Thompson and Sen. John Cornyn, is editor of The New Ledger and a research fellow with The Heartland Institute. He writes on defense and security issues for The Compass.

(AP Photo)

Malaysia and the Allure of Bridge-building

In a post on The Compass last week, I mentioned Malaysia's Anwar Ibrahim as an example of a politician whose anti-Semitic views are all too quickly glossed over, when they actually deserve further attention. The aside provoked a few comments, so I think a followup is in order.

Ibrahim has a roster of politically significant defenders in America - particularly Al Gore and Paul Wolfowitz, who have lauded him on numerous occasions to the U.S. media - mostly stemming from what was fairly obviously a politically motivated series of legal attacks waged against him under the auspices of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir was, as commenters noted, both anti-American and anti-Semitic - and those weren't even his worst qualities. By comparison, Ibrahim is a charming fellow with a gift for gab, exactly the kind of personality the Western media adores.

Yet Ibrahim is also an example of the kind of political personality who displays magnificent ability to manipulate situations to his advantage, and to say one thing to one audience, and another to another. The game Ibrahim engages in is not new.

As Marco Vincenzino recently noted, Ibrahim is cut very much from the cloth of Ahmed Chalabi, whose name you might recognize as another would-be leader who wooed editorial writers and intelligence agencies with false promises and grand proclamations. As Vincenzino writes:

[Chalabi] also raised millions of dollars from American taxpayers for his Iraqi National Congress. Now back in his native-Iraq, this Machiavellian political survivor has re-invented himself as a staunch Shiite advocate and close ally of Iran. A sense of betrayal overwhelms many of his original supporters in Washington.

I recall seeing Chalabi circulating in the halls of Congress and courting powerful right-wingers months before the Iraq invasion - besides the fact that it was a policy decision I opposed at the time, I found him to be a slick and untrustworthy operator to a disturbing degree (though I am curious what his daughter's new book will reveal). Chalabi was fool's gold and, however you come down on his actions, American leaders were clearly wrong to embrace him as closely as they did.

Yet America's political leadership tends to repeat this mistake over and over again - they fall in love with the idea of bridge-building to the Muslim world, of finding moderates who maintain that they can act as go-betweens to factions many of our policymakers barely understand. This idea leads policymakers to sometimes embrace potentially disastrous figures who know how to manipulate these circumstances and desires - men like Ibrahim, who can intone about the vile influence of "the Jewish lobby" in their own countries and in their own language, but in English, charm former vice presidents and respected foreign policy leaders.

George Washington never actually warned Americans to "beware of foreign entanglements" in his often misquoted farewell address. But he did say that "excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other." If you replace "nation" with "bridge-builder," you'll find it's still accurate in today's Washington.

Benjamin Domenech, a former speechwriter for Tommy Thompson and Sen. John Cornyn, is editor of The New Ledger and a research fellow with The Heartland Institute. He writes on defense and security issues for The Compass.

August 21, 2010

Gone Fishing

I'll be on vacation through Thursday so blogging will be a little light here for the next week. Hopefully it will be an uneventful week...

August 20, 2010

U.S. View on Iraq War


Gallup released its latest findings on U.S. views of the Iraq war:

Americans are not optimistic that Iraqi security forces are up to their new task. By 61% to 34%, the public believes Iraqi security forces will be unable to limit insurgent attacks and generally maintain peace and security in Iraq.

Nevertheless, Americans prefer that the U.S. stick to its timetable for withdrawing all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. Fifty-three percent say U.S. withdrawal should proceed regardless of what is going on in Iraq at the time, while 43% think the U.S. should keep troops in Iraq beyond the deadline if Iraqi security forces cannot maintain order in Iraq.

The World's Worst Internet Censor

Which country is among the Web's most prolific censors? The answer may surprise you.

[Hat tip: Joshua Kurlantzick]

British Support for Afghan War Falls


According to Angus Reid only 33 percent of UK citizens support the war in Afghanistan while 57 percent oppose it. Support for the mission has fallen since June, when 38 percent of British respondents said they supported the effort. Among the other findings:

A majority of Britons (54 percent) believe the country made a mistake in sending military forces to Afghanistan. Less than half of respondents (46 percent) claim to have a clear idea of what the war in Afghanistan is about.

When asked about what they think will be the most likely outcome of the conflict in Afghanistan, only seven per cent of Britons predict a clear victory by U.S. and allied forces over the Taliban, and 31 percent foresee a negotiated settlement from a position of U.S. and allied strength that gives the Taliban a small role in the Afghan government.

In addition, 19 percent of respondents expect a negotiated settlement from a position of U.S. and allied weakness that gives the Taliban a significant role in the Afghan government, and 10 per cent believe the Taliban will defeat the U.S. and allied forces.

Angus Reid released a similar survey of U.S. public opinion on the war yesterday.

(AP Photo)

August 19, 2010

Americans Would Aid Israel in Iran Attack

According to Rasmussen:

Fifty-one percent (51%) of U.S. voters believe the United States should help Israel if it attacks Iran.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 35% say the United States should do nothing in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran, and two percent (2%) think America should help the Iranians.

Support for helping Israel is up nine points from two years ago when just 42% believed the United States should help the Jewish state if it launched an attack on Iran.

It's unclear, when looking at the question Rasmussen posed, what people take "help" to mean - is it intelligence cooperation, diplomatic cover or an actual joint military operation to strike Iran's nuclear facilities? I would assume it's the last one. A joint Israeli-U.S. military operation against Iran would certainly send many hearts aflutter in Washington, and enrage many in the Middle East. I'd have to think, absent an act of direct Iranian aggression against Israel (of the conventional military kind), such an outcome is all but impossible. It's more likely that the if the U.S. or Israel were to strike Iran, they will do so alone.

The Cliches of Civilizations

By Ben Domenech

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the well-respected author and Dutch politician, had a widely-linked column in the Wall Street Journal this week on the late Samuel Huntington’s old whacking stick, the so-called Clash of Civilizations. She writes, in part:

“The greatest advantage of Huntington's civilizational model of international relations is that it reflects the world as it is—not as we wish it to be. It allows us to distinguish friends from enemies. And it helps us to identify the internal conflicts within civilizations, particularly the historic rivalries between Arabs, Turks and Persians for leadership of the Islamic world.”

We all tend to make mistakes in examining politics in this rapid-fire era, particularly when elections fade so quickly from memory; political tides change so rapidly, and technology has so many ramifications (who had the best YouTube campaign in 2004? Answer: no one, YouTube didn’t exist yet). One of the most common errors is the adoption of overboard collectivist terms when speaking about what are more properly understood as individual actors, or conflating the behavior of factions with that of nation-states.

Rarely does one individual symbolize the entire direction of state intentions (this mistake is made most frequently today regarding Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), and rarer still does an organized faction behave according to the same restrictions and with the same calculating procedure as a nation-state.

In reality, of course, we can only make true predictions about the behavior of nation-states by looking at the longstanding factors informing state decision-making processes – alliances, financial concerns, internal weaknesses, external pressures and so on.

This brings us to Huntington, whose 50-point font phrase “the Clash of Civilizations” seems destined to be misapplied in perpetuity. Huntington’s view of the world was, of course, summarized in an article he published in 1993 where he predicted that culture, not interests or ideology, would account for the major conflicts of the future:

“Western individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, the separation of church and state, often have little resonance in Islamic, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Buddhist or Orthodox cultures. Western efforts to propagate such ideas produce instead a reaction against 'human-rights imperialism' and a reaffirmation of indigenous values.”

Huntington defined these “civilizations” in the broadest possible terms – there are eight, according to his reasoning. Rejecting the idea that the nation-state is the fundamental international actor as a “western interpretation of the world,” Huntington assumed that there was a single set of dominant economic, religious and cultural values for each respective “civilization” – Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and African.

Huntington’s prediction fails the empirical test, particularly when it comes to Islam, a far-from-monolithic faith which has a lengthy history of internal war and conflict (for more on this, read Lee Smith's excellent The Strong Horse). Islam comes in many flavors, from fundamentalist to secular – and to say that there is no significant difference between the different states within the big tent of "the West" is simply ridiculous. Huntington’s Islamic civilization has been full of states constantly at each others' throats; responsible for more wars within their own "civilization," between one Islamic state and another, than for war with any other group.

The fact that America was attacked and continues to be attacked by radical Islamic terrorists - not a radical Islamic state – further serves to undercut Huntington’s predictions. The distinction is important: despite his theory, the U.S. was also immediately able to form alliances with Islamic states in order to respond. In Huntington’s world, there is no distinction between Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and heading in different policy directions is the exact opposite of his prediction of “unified civilizations” doing battle across land, sea and air on the basis of culture and religion over economic interests and security concerns.

Ali paints with an equally broad brush in her WSJ piece. To take just one of her examples, she glosses entirely over the current conflict between Najib Razak and Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia, as if it does not matter to her argument which side wins. But accepting her approach requires that it does matter, particularly when Ibrahim plays anti-Semitic blame games against Israel and the United States. Of course, assuming Ibrahim’s comments are indicative of the whole of Malaysian politics would be in error – as Reinhard Meyers once explained the false lessons of World War II's inception:

“The actors in the drama appear only as personified images, no longer as real persons. Those men with the stiff collars appear as the embodiment of character–types reflected in a momentous spectacle — the man of Munich, who confronts the armed might of Germany with an umbrella, draws back in terror and gives way, because he lacks courage and determination ... The drama has a villain (Hitler) and a sinner (Chamberlain) — what more does one need to explain the outbreak of war in 1939, especially when the supporting roles are played by lesser villains such as Mussolini and Stalin, and lesser sinners like Beck and Daladier?”

We cannot understand the world without understanding that culture is just one among many motivations, and that in a global economy, factions and individuals push for the goals of commerce and liberal democracy against the short-sighted aims of the warrior-state. But individuals, nearly all of them motivated by self-preservation, have far less force and will than nation-states, and Huntington's thesis predicted a specific kind of clash occurring at a much larger level, involving unified groups of nation-states, and begetting a specific kind of conflict - one that has not occurred.

Are there cultural clashes going on in the world today? Yes, absolutely, and particularly on the individual and factional level. Perhaps this serves as a motivation for accepting Huntington's brand of false homogeneity, which promises simplicity and anecdote instead of complexity and data. Yet considering his predictions are undercut both by history and by the lessons of the present day, let's agree that we’d be better off examining the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.

Benjamin Domenech, a former speechwriter for Tommy Thompson and Sen. John Cornyn, is editor of The New Ledger and a research fellow with The Heartland Institute. He writes on defense and security issues for The Compass.

Polling Syria


In what's being called a first-of-its-kind survey of Syrian public opinion, Pepperdine University has unearthed Syrian attitudes about their government. As you might expect, Syrians don't appear to be thrilled:

* A majority of Syrians believe that the political and economic situation in Syria is poor, and worse than it was five years ago.
* A majority has little faith in the Assad government’s ability to confront the country’s problems.
* A substantial majority believes that corruption is widespread.
* A substantial majority believes that the State of Emergency in Syria should be lifted.

Asked to define the "most critical issue the country is facing today" 22.9 percent said "political freedom" followed by 20.3 percent said "corruption."

The full study can be found here. (pdf)

(AP Photo)

Surge Lessons for Afghanistan

If the purpose of the surge was to create a space for political reconciliation and a reduction in sectarian violence, which would in turn lead to the creation of a strong and stable government in Iraq that was capable of balancing against Iran and otherwise serve as a bulwark in the region, and if neither of these things have happened, then how can we call the surge a success? And if the surge is not the great success that the advocates of the surge would have you believe, then how much confidence should we have in their advice as it pertains to Afghanistan? - Christopher Preble

General Petraeus conceded on Meet the Press that the success of the Iraq surge has yet to be determined, which doesn't exactly augur well for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. And again, it goes back to the fundamental question: what does the U.S. buy if the surge "succeeds" in Afghanistan? Are we demonstrably safer from international terrorism? Will the gains be worth the costs?

U.S. Support for Afghan War Falls


According to a new poll from Angus Reid, 47 percent of Americans support the mission in Afghanistan, down from 54 percent in February of this year. More than half (52 percent) of respondents said they had no "clear idea" what the war was about and 65 percent are not confident that President Obama will "finish the job."

(AP Photo)

Arms for Sale


The prospect of prolonged unemployment in the U.S. combined with slow economic growth and the continued expansion of the Chinese economy has thrown the costs of America's global foreign policy into sharp relief. Lawrence Korb and Loren Thomson argue that the U.S. can retrench from its over-extended posture by arming allies:

For example, the Pentagon needs to build weapons that are affordable and appropriate for its partners. Nobody can afford the new $3-billion destroyer the Navy has developed — Gates canceled the program — but many countries can afford the faster, more agile Littoral Combat Ship. Similarly, the $150-million price tag on the Air Force's twin-engine F-22 fighter is too high for allies, but if the single-engine F-35 can be fielded for less than half that cost, it will have major export potential.

The White House has already embarked on a series of initiatives to engage allies in more robust security roles while loosening the export restrictions that impeded arming them. These steps may have trade benefits for America, but their real significance is that America's eroding economic might makes unilateralism too costly to be feasible. Washington needs to help overseas friends play a bigger security role so it can concentrate on rebuilding its economy.

The trouble with this approach is that the U.S. can't catalyze greater allied burden sharing simply by selling weapons. First, it's not clear that America's European allies are all that eager to go on a military shopping spree. National budgets are under tremendous strain and the push for greater austerity will likely pinch defense spending still further. Second, for those allies in Asia that are likely to pay up for U.S. arms to offset a rising China, America is only redoubling its commitment to their security.

The U.S. can only achieve needed cost-savings in the national security arena if it selectively disgorges some of its defense commitments and redefines what it sees as core national interests that need to be protected with armed force. If Washington continues to insist that it's a global power with the world as its sphere of influence, than the U.S. is going to find itself perennially over-stretched no matter how many F-35s we sell.

(AP Photo)

August 18, 2010

U.S. Views on Nuclear Weapons

President Obama may wish for a world without nuclear weapons, but according to a new poll from Rasmussen Reports, Americans want their nukes:

A new Rasmussen Reports telephone survey finds that 77% believe the U.S. nuclear weapon arsenal is at least somewhat important to the country’s national security, including 51% who say it is Very Important. Just 15% think it is not important to national security, including four percent (4%) who think it is Not At All Important.

Most adults (57%) also say the United States should not reduce the number of nuclear weapons in its arsenal. One-in-four adults (27%) disagree, saying the country should reduce its number of these weapons. Another 16% are not sure. These numbers have changed little since April, just after President Obama agreed to a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.
But then 55% of Americans think it is unlikely that other countries will reduce their nuclear weapons arsenals and development if the United States does so. Only 37% think other countries are likely to follow America's example. This includes 13% who say other countries are Very Likely to cut back on nuclear weapons and 14% who say they are Not At All Likely to do it. These statistics, too, show little change from April.

Forty-six percent (46%) of Americans, in fact, believe the United States should continue developing new nuclear weapons. Thirty-one percent (31%) think the country should halt development of new nuclear weapons, and 24% are undecided.

British Coalition: The First 100 Days


Ipsos Mori compiles polling (pdf) on the UK coalition government at its 100 day mark. Some highlights:

* The government has the highest ‘100th day’ rating of any since 1979, except for Blair’s Labour government in 1997;

* David Cameron is more popular than the government as a whole, while his partner, Nick Clegg has seen his approval fall;

* The British public appears to have more confidence in the Coalition’s economic policies than they had in Labour’s approach to managing the economy;

* Roughly half of Britain thinks David Cameron's "Big Society" program will benefit them and their communities.

(AP Photo)

Germany Rising


Germany provoked the ire of many left-of-center economists for its embrace of fiscal austerity during the global downturn. Yet having just notched record GDP growth, the Germans are feeling their oats:

The battle over how to navigate the financial crisis helps display Germany’s emerging post-cold-war identity as a country less tolerant of foreign demands and lecturing, one with a tenser relationship with European partners. Though Germany has plenty of problems to grapple with at home, it has also become less obsessed with its historical crimes and more enthusiastic about its economic model, its culture and its improved standing in the world.

Jenny Wiblishauser, 33, a single mother in the southern town of Memmingen, said Germany’s financial prudence — and its willingness to ignore foreign criticism — made her proud. “Before, the Greeks would call us Nazis, and we would act vulnerable,” she said. “Now one says, ‘Well, I’m not driving there for vacation.’ ”

Some critics in Europe say that confidence veered toward hubris in the contentious debate this year over shoring up the Greek government and restoring confidence in the troubled euro. In particular, the venomous contempt in the German news media directed at Greece raised significant concerns among allies that a more assertive Germany had emerged, said Thomas Klau, an expert on European integration at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“That was like a wake-up call to the rest of Europe that something had changed in Germany,” Mr. Klau said.

Does this new confidence in the economic realm augur a more assertive Germany in the security realm? Not quite: the Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is backing a plan that would halve the number of German ground troops and battle tanks.

[Hat tip: Scott Bleiweis]

(AP Photo)

Japan: Losing That 'Hungry Spirit'


Yoree Koh reports that the Japanese couldn't care less that the Chinese have vaulted ahead of them as the world's second largest economy:

Japan is taking the demotion with a shrug.

“It can’t be helped,” said Koichi Matsubara, 36, who works in real estate. “Business has been drifting overseas, our population is shrinking. We’re a small island, and given the size of our country, we were perhaps at the top longer than expected. I think we will continue to lose ground.”

But the fall is more often attributed to Japan’s lack of fighting power compared to the days of post-World War II yore when it was chasing after its more developed European rivals.

“Japan lost its momentum,” said Kazuyoshi Ono, a 58-year-old former banker. “The thinking in the past was, ‘If I work hard, the harder I work the more likely I’ll succeed,’ but we’ve lost that hungry spirit.”

China's Nuclear Weapons

Analyzing the Pentagon's latest report on Chinese military power, the Strategic Security Blog sees some setbacks in China's nuclear weapons programs.

August 17, 2010

Kaplan Is All Wrong About Gates

By Benjamin Domenech

Slate's Fred Kaplan is not particularly impressed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates' approach to budgetary decision making, pronouncing it "crafty but inadequate. ... Much of what he wants to do seems the sort of thing somebody should have done years ago," Kaplan writes, and on that point, he's right - yet minimizing the importance of what Gates is doing here seems foolish upon closer inspection.

Gates isn't just providing a model for how you can achieve responsible Pentagon cutbacks - he's doing so in a time of war; a profoundly difficult political reality for any Secretary of Defense to confront. The truth is that there isn't anyone else who could be in Gates' role who would even attempt this kind of reform.

As Kaplan concedes, there is "an interlocking web of officers, bureaucrats, corporations and legislators, all of whom have an interest in their survival." This is hardly unique to the Pentagon - in fact, survival is the primary motivation of any bureaucrat. But it is made all the more challenging within the defense policy sphere, where Gates is essentially announcing he's stealing cookies from powerful general officers and members of Congress - and they all have a sweet tooth.

Consider for a moment how unprecedented this is within Washington: a secretary of a department telling his underlings to expect modest growth at best, and putting the pressure on the services to make cuts in order to keep their babies. While Kaplan mocks the idea slightly, this is the real innovation within Gates' approach - the reason many of these bloated programs get kept at all is that the individual services simply want to defend their territory, and keep the money they now view as their rightful possession.

Gates is essentially giving the services a chance to cut fat out of the system without risking their overall budget numbers - he's manipulating the love for the pet programs in the military culture, and using it to force cuts in bureaucracy. This is an ingenious bit of Winston Wolfe problem solving, the sort for which Gates is already well known.

Of course, Kaplan is right to say more cuts need to be made within the acquisition world - but the argument that the services need to look at how many ships, planes and tanks they really need is something Gates has stressed repeatedly. How can Kaplan possibly complain about insufficient dedication to acquisition cuts from a defense secretary who was willing to speak so bluntly just months ago on the need for such overhauls?

We have to take a hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious landing again - especially as advances in anti-ship systems keep pushing the potential launch point further from shore. On a more basic level, in the 21st century, what kind of amphibious capability do we really need to deal with the most likely scenarios, and then how much?

Second: aircraft carriers. Our current plan is to have 11 carrier strike groups through 2040, and it's in the budget. And to be sure, the need to project power across the oceans will never go away. But, consider the massive over-match the U.S. already enjoys. Consider, too, the growing anti-ship capabilities of adversaries. Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one? Any future plans must address these realities.

"Do we really need this many [blank]?" isn't something you should expect any cabinet secretary to say more than once in your lifetime, especially when the blank in this scenario is "aircraft carriers." Gates' remarks didn't go over well with the Navy, of course - and remarks aren't a substitute action, despite what the White House seems to believe in so many other areas of foreign policy.

But you have to start somewhere, and while a broad overhaul of the acquisition program is a needed reform, cutting the fat at the top is the quickest, most efficient and most politically feasible way to get back 2 percent of your budget. Closing JFCOM is going to raise the most hackles, but it's become an elephant's graveyard for four stars. And minimizing what Gates is doing in areas like this is foolish, ignoring his tendency to anticipate and make internal cuts before the pressure is on from the White House or Congress, when he can set priorities as opposed to react to the priorities of others.

In the context of the news this week - surprising to few who know him well - of his intention to retire in 2011, it's clear that reforming the defense budget is what Gates sees as his legacy. His activity on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are important, and while he would never downplay those efforts, it's fairly obvious Gates views these wars as being won by the generals and troops he supports. What's more, he's smart enough to recognize the unique opportunity he has to make these budgetary changes while maintaining the current defense level and supporting two wars. These cutbacks don't just respond to the current desire to give in to American voters' demands for smaller government, but are a significant first step toward increased efficiency.

This is a political opportunity that may not present itself again, and Gates is taking it. Kaplan may think his approach is inadequate, but unlike more sweeping, blunt reforms, Gates' strategy has the advantage of being workable and achievable in the real world. As author John Nagl told Politico last week: "No one has gotten rich betting against Bob Gates. This is not a man to be trifled with."

Benjamin Domenech, a former speechwriter for Tommy Thompson and Sen. John Cornyn, is editor of The New Ledger and a research fellow with The Heartland Institute. He writes on defense and security issues for The Compassy.

The Iran Threat


In the course of arguing that we shouldn't be surprised if President Obama starts a war with Iran, Elliott Abrams writes:

So if the president means what he has repeatedly said about world affairs, what is at stake is whether he leaves a legacy of disaster -- again, in his own eyes. In my eyes, he would be right in so concluding: the real issue in the Middle East today is whether we, the United States, will remain "top country" in the region or will allow Iran to claim some form of hegemony.

This is a useful reminder that for most of Washington - even in its most alarmist corners - the real threat from Iran is not nuclear bombs going off in Western cities, the wiping of Israel off the map or anything close to that. It's the possible threat Iran poses to America's "top country" status in the Middle East.

Wars have frequently been waged for balance-of-power concerns, but in this case, how significant would the balance of power shift out of America's favor? Pakistan has nuclear weapons and is not the top country on the subcontinent - it can barely curtail its own home grown insurgency and it was threatened/cajoled by the U.S. to allow us to bomb portions of the country almost at will. North Korea has nuclear weapons and you'd be laughed out of a room if you suggested they had anything resembling "hegemony" in Asia.

Iran with a crude nuclear weapon would still be poor, weak and surrounded by unfriendly states. The U.S., by contrast, would not be.

UPDATE: Karim Sadjadpour looks at the politics of Abrams' argument (that an attack would benefit Obama domestically) and finds it wanting:

On the basis of this information, I would conclude that, whereas Iran now has a seemingly negligible impact on daily American life, an attack on Iran -- which would cause oil prices to skyrocket to unprecedented levels (perhaps $200 barrel) -- would have a significantly adverse impact on the daily lives of Americans.

At a time when the unemployment rate is above 10 percent and economic recovery is tenuous, I can't image that $5-per-gallon gasoline would auger well for Obama and the Democrats.

If I were Plouffe or Axelrod, my sense of urgency about taking action against Iran would be further tempered by the facts that: a) the centerpiece of Obama's foreign policy has been an effort to stabilize Afghanistan and draw down troops in Iraq, and bombing Iran would make both tasks doubly difficult; b) one of the reasons why Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in the primaries was his opposition to, and her support for, the Iraq war, and bombing Iran would alienate, rather than energize, the Democratic base; and c) by all accounts, Iran does not have the wherewithal to develop and test a nuclear bomb before November 2012 (assuming that it wants to).

(AP Photo)

Europe & the Entrepreneur

According to Gallup, Europeans don't see their education system as conducive to producing entrepreneurs, unlike Chinese or Americans:


A Hollow Military?


Arthur Herman is worried that Secretary Gates is poised to "re-hollow" the U.S. military. The piece is anchored in a somewhat odd conceit:

In a world in which the use of conventional armed force is no longer the last resort but instead an almost unimaginable option (unless the law of inertia is involved, as it was in Obama’s decision to continue in Iraq and Afghanistan), it’s no wonder that the Pentagon’s fleets of warships, tanks, fighters, and bombers have come to seem an expensive luxury—not to mention this nation’s overwhelming nuclear arsenal. Obama foresees a steadily shrinking role for American military force, and Gates finds himself cast as the man to make it happen.

I'm not sure what world Herman is talking about, because in the real one the use of armed force by the United States is a common place. As John Mearsheimer noted in his lecture about the rise of China, "America has been at war for 14 of the 21 years since the Cold War ended. That is 2 out of every 3 years."

Far from a last resort, the military is a tool that has been used routinely since the fall of the Soviet Union. And this is what's troubling about the Gates' cuts - not that they'd leave the U.S. dangerously exposed (they won't) but that Washington will make cuts while simultaneously insisting on maintaining an activist foreign policy, with an unnecessarily sweeping view of what America's core interests are. That would indeed attenuate our strength at a time when we should be shepherding it.

(AP Photo)

August 16, 2010

Japan & China: Still Wary


A new survey shows that negative impressions between Japan and China run deep in both countries:

About 70 percent of Japanese and 60 percent of Chinese have negative impressions of each others' countries on food safety, historical differences and a bilateral dispute over resource development, according to the results of a poll released Saturday....

The annual survey found that while the ratio of Japanese who view China negatively was nearly unchanged from the previous year, the proportion of Chinese with negative feelings toward Japan fell by more than 10 points, apparently reflecting more positive coverage of Japan through the Chinese media.

(AP Photo)

The Defining Challenge of the 21st Century?


John Mearsheimer has an interesting lecture (pdf) on the emerging competition between the U.S. and China:

I expect China to act the way the United States has acted over its long history. Specifically, I believe that China will try to dominate the Asia-Pacific region much as the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere. For good strategic reasons, China will seek to maximize the power gap between itself and potentially dangerous neighbors like India, Japan and Russia. China will want to make sure that it is so powerful that no state in Asia has the wherewithal to threaten it. It is unlikely that China will pursue military superiority so that it can go on the warpath and conquer other countries in the region, although that is always a possibility. Instead, it is more likely that Beijing will want to dictate the boundaries of acceptable behavior to neighboring countries, much the way the United States makes it clear to other states in the Americas that it is the boss. Gaining regional hegemony, I might add, is probably the only way that China will get Taiwan back.

A much more powerful China can also be expected to try to push the United States out of the Pacific-Asia region, much the way the United States pushed the European great powers out of the Western Hemisphere in the nineteenth century. We should expect China to come up with its own version of the Monroe Doctrine, as Imperial Japan did in the 1930s....

And what is the likely American response if China attempts to dominate Asia? It is crystal clear from the historical record that the United States does not tolerate peer competitors. As it demonstrated over the course of the twentieth century, it is determined to remain the world’s only regional hegemon. Therefore, the United States can be expected to go to great lengths to contain China and ultimately weaken it to the point where it is no longer a threat to rule the roost in Asia. In essence, the United States is likely to act toward China similar to the way it behaved toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

I think there's a lot to this analysis, particularly the inevitability of some kind of Cold War-style standoff, albeit one that's less intense than the conflict with the Soviet Union. But unlike the Cold War, there's much less of an ideological component to U.S.-China security competition. And if China can't be portrayed as revolutionary power bent on global domination, it will be a lot harder for Washington to justify the costs and risks of an Asian containment scheme.

[Hat tip: Stephen Walt]

(AP Photo)

China, Space Polluter


China has reportedly skipped ahead of Japan as the world's second largest economy, but according to a study produced by the Russian space agency Roscosmos the country has already claimed the top spot in a somewhat less prestigious indicator:

Who’s the biggest space polluter on the planet? Why that would be China, a relative newcomer to the space age, which now tops the list of countries contributing to space debris, according to a study by the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.

China accounts for 40 percent of the space debris, followed by the United States, which produces 27.5 percent and Russia, with 25.5 percent, the study showed.

(AP Photo)

Turkey: Between al-Qaeda and a Hard Place


Al-Qaeda's not happy:

An audio tape purportedly from Al-Qaeda's second-in-command, Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahri, has been posted on Islamist websites....

The speaker chastises Turkish authorities who "appear to sympathize with the Palestinians through statements and by sending some relief aid, but it actually recognizes Israel, engages in trade, carries out military training and shares information with it."

Neither is the U.S.:

U.S. President Barack Obama has warned the Turkish prime minister that his country's strained ties with Israel and increasing support of Iran could hinder an arms deal between Ankara and Washington, the Financial Times reported on Monday.

“The president has said to [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan that some of the actions that Turkey has taken have caused questions to be raised on the Hill [Congress] . . . about whether we can have confidence in Turkey as an ally," one senior administration official told the Financial Times.

You can't please all of the people, all of the time but I suspect that the later message will have far more resonance than the former. But I wonder, as far as the Middle East is concerned, if being slammed by both the U.S. and al-Qaeda isn't something of a regional sweet spot.

(AP Photo)

How Tough Are Iran Sanctions?


Not very, says Jerry Guo:

In reality, multinationals with American ties are now forbidden from making investments of more than $20 million, down from $40 million, hardly a game changer. The same bill retains a loophole that gives Obama the right to issue waivers for companies from allied countries.

It’s doubtful Washington will enforce the new sanctions. An administration official recently admitted he didn’t know what punishment, if any, had been meted out to seven foreign companies—including Danish shipping giant Maersk—that hold $1 billion in U.S. government contracts alongside investments in the Iranian energy sector. Sanctions approved by the EU in July do not even cover energy, and firms like Germany’s Thyssen-Krupp and Linde Group continue to service Iran’s natural-gas and refinery projects.

(AP Photo)

August 13, 2010

The Football

Last summer, I met with a special ops officer who compared America’s relationship with Pakistan to the recurring “Peanuts” gag in which Lucy offers to hold a football so that Charlie Brown can kick it. “Every time Charlie Brown thinks she’s going to hold the football still, and each and every time, she pulls it away just as he’s about to kick,” he said. Shaking his head incredulously, he added: “And then he just lines up to try and kick it again and again.” That some observers, including myself, had begun to believe that Pakistan had reformed its behavior in early 2010 now seems preposterous. - Nicholas Schmidle
The U.S. military has stopped lobbying Pakistan to help root out one of the biggest militant threats to coalition forces in Afghanistan, U.S. officials say, acknowledging that the failure to win better help from Islamabad threatens to damage a linchpin of their Afghan strategy.

Until recently, the U.S. had been pressing Islamabad to launch major operations against the Haqqani network, a militant group connected to al Qaeda that controls a key border region where U.S. defense and intelligence officials believe Osama bin Laden has hidden.

The group has been implicated in the Dec. 30 bombing of a CIA base in Khost, a January assault on Afghan government ministries and a luxury hotel in Kabul, and in the killing of five United Nations staffers in last year's raid on a U.N. guesthouse.

But military officials have decided that pressing Pakistan for help against the group—as much as it is needed—is counterproductive. - Barnes, Gorman & Wright

On the bright side, when you stop trying to kick the football, you won't look the fool.

How a War with Iran Would Diminish American Power

Jennifer Rubin wants a war with Iran:

But the emphasis on the existential threat to Israel ignores a more basic issue for Americans to ponder: a nuclear-armed Iran represents a dagger at the heart of America and an existential threat to our status as a superpower and guarantor of the West’s security. As to the former, Iran is pressing ahead with its long-range ballistic missile program. First the Middle East and Eastern Europe, then all of Europe and, within a matter of years, the U.S. will be within range of Iranian missiles. If those are nuclear and not conventional, what then? We’re not talking about whether Iran is going to be “merely” a destabilizing factor in the Middle East or whether it will set off an arms race with its neighbors or imperil Israel’s existence. We’re talking about whether America will then be at risk (and lacking sufficient missile-defense capabilities if we continue to hack away at our defense budget). The argument about whether mutual assured destruction can really work against Islamic fundamentalists who have an apocalyptic vision becomes not about Israel’s ability to deter an attack but about ours. Those who oppose American military action have an obligation to explain why America should place itself in that predicament.

I would argue that any obligation to present an explanation lies with those whose disastrous policy prescriptions with respect to Iraq lead America into the worst strategic blunder in the country's recent history. That aside, note the blind faith in the power of the military to actually achieve its ends. The recent history in Lebanon is instructive on this point: Israel attacked Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 with an eye toward seriously degrading the group's ability to endanger Israel. And it worked - for a bit. Now, in 2010, Hezbollah is reportedly even better armed than before the war began. And this is a group that relies on outside aid crossing international borders to resupply itself. It can't call on vast oil reserves or the full resources that a state can muster.

Now imagine bombing Iran's nuclear facilities. At best, as with Hezbollah in Lebanon, a wide-ranging attack on Iran would delay its acquisition of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. But it would surely impress upon Iran the need to redouble its efforts to seek those weapons. When those are rebuilt - as they would be - there would be almost no question that Iran would seek to actually "weaponize" its nuclear program and not merely have the ability to do so when it wants. What's more, any hope that Iran's citizens would look approvingly at the West when they eventually slough off the clerical regime would presumably take a severe hit. We would deal America's long-term prospects with Iran and the Iranian people a damaging blow and still have failed to achieve the ends we desired.

But Rubin makes a more sweeping point, that the U.S. must fight a war to maintain its imperial vanity:

And then there is the broader issue of America’s standing as the sole superpower and the defender of the Free World. Should the “unacceptable” become reality, the notion that America stands between free peoples and despots and provides an umbrella of security for itself and its allies will vanish, just as surely as will the Zionist ideal.

I can't speak for the Zionist ideal, but the concern about America's standing as a sole superpower strikes me as a terrible casus belli. First, it's simply wrong. China, India and Pakistan went nuclear, and America didn't tumble from its superpower perch. Whether or not Iran has one or two crude nuclear bombs has next to no bearing on America's superpower status relative to questions about the health of the American economy.

The second, more fundamental, problem with Rubin's analysis is that a war with Iran would actually accelerate America's fall from super power status. The war with Iraq dealt American power and strategic position a huge blow, with costs that vastly outstripped the gains, but a war with Iran could potentially deal an even greater jolt.

The major failure of the war against Iraq was the inability to articulate - let alone achieve - specific political goals for the post-war environment. We knew we wanted Saddam gone but we didn't know what would take his place or how we'd get from point A to B in post war Iraq. So it is with Iran. Commentary has devoted a lot of time to explaining why we should bomb Iran but has devoted almost no attention to the question what we do after we've attacked them. As with Iraq, concern for any post-war phase in Iran is simply glossed over, if it's dealt with at all. In theory, one should be expected to learn from their mistakes, not ignore them.

The U.S. military may know how to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, but it has demonstrated in two successive military conflicts that it cannot manage the post-war aftermath, let alone put in place political institutions that will serve America's needs (this is no knock on the military, this stuff is almost impossible to do). Neither can Washington's civilian bureaucracy, which can barely staff itself in Iraq. It beggars belief that Washington could cope with the aftermath of a war against Iran.

To insist that this is not relative to any conflict with Iran because we'd simply bomb them from afar implies that the aftermath of such a conflict is knowable or that the threat from Iran is so urgent and so imminent that it overwhelms our capacity for reasonable planning.

Neither of those positions strike me as true.

The Evolving Terror Threat


Paul Rogers analyzes the recent terror attack against a Japanese oil tanker in the Persian Gulf:

Now, after the attack on the M. Star, the activities of the United States navy in both the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz will almost certainly be expanded. But the full implications of the operation are far from being met by this likely military response.

These can better be grasped by putting three developments that mark the current situation into a common frame:

* the re-emergence of al-Qaida affiliates in Iraq

* the increasing influence of the movement in Yemen

* the attack on the M. Star itself - which was most likely mounted from yet another state.

The emphasis of many counter-terror analysts on events in Afghanistan and Pakistan - including the revival of the Taliban and its broadening Pushtun and/or nationalist appeal, and the impact of drone-attacks in killing or disabling al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan - has tended to reinforce the argument that the core al-Qaida movement is in decline.

The flaw in this perspective is that it ignores the larger lesson of the evolution of al-Qaida over a decade: that the movement is less a tightly organised and rigidly hierarchical group cohering around a clear and unified strategy, and much more a loose cluster of like-minded networks in many different countries, linked by a shared worldview and by diverse financial, technical and human connections.

If this is indeed the case, someone should ask the Obama administration why a massive counter-insurgency directed at Afghanistan is the proper antidote to the terror threat.

(AP Photo)

Obama & Lebanon's Army


Janine Zacharia reports that growing calls in Congress to cut aid to Lebanon's army are putting President Obama in a tight spot:

"From Congress, I think this is a classic mistake," said Paul Salem, an analyst who heads the Beirut office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "You have some misgivings about the Lebanese army so you strengthen Hezbollah and you make things much worse."

While saying it wants to bolster the army's capabilities, the United States has still remained queasy about supplying Lebanon, technically at war with Israel, with advanced weapons. The bulk of U.S. assistance, besides training for officers, is non-lethal equipment like body armor, boots, uniforms, and Humvees.

The Lebanese army's weakness was on display when it sought to dismantle an extremist Sunni group in 2007. During the army's operation in a Palestinian refugee camp, 168 Lebanese troops died, many from friendly fire, amid severe weapons shortages.

I think it's premature to conclude that American aid to Lebanon's army has "backfired" but this incident raises questions about just how promiscuous the U.S. should be in lavishing weapons and support around the world and particularly in a region as volatile as the Middle East. It also raises questions about just how effective we are at picking winners and losers inside Lebanon. In the grand scheme of the U.S. budget, the $700 million that the U.S. has thus far invested in Lebanon isn't much - but it is apparently not enough to make the army a viable counterweight to Hezbollah. Which presents an obvious choice: either raise our investment and commitment to the country or stop wasting money on ineffective meddling.

(AP Photo)

Mexicans Support Drug War


New figures from Pew Research indicate that while 79 percent of Mexicans are deeply unhappy with the direction of the country, they continue to support using the army to fight drug gangs:

Fully 80% of Mexicans support using the army to fight drug traffickers, essentially unchanged from 83% in 2009. Opposition to using the army has increased only slightly, from 12% to 17%.

Just over half (55%) of Mexicans say the army is making progress against the traffickers, while only 22% think it is losing ground and 21% believe things are about the same as they have been in the past. However, assessments have become somewhat less positive since last year, when 66% felt the army was making progress and only 15% said it was losing ground.

Majorities in Central (60%), North (56%) and South (56%) Mexico believe the army is making progress, while residents of Mexico City (45%) are somewhat less likely to offer a positive assessment.

A survey of Mexico by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project, conducted April 14-May 6, also finds continuing support for American involvement in the battle against drug cartels -- at least in terms of training and financial support.1 Fully 78% favor the U.S. providing training to Mexican police and military personnel, unchanged from the 2009 poll.

A smaller majority (57%) favors the U.S. providing money and weapons to Mexican police and military personnel, down slightly from 63% last year. Meanwhile, the share of the public that opposes this idea has grown from 28% to 37%. Opposition to the deployment of U.S. troops in Mexico has also increased, from an already high 59% last year to 67% in the current survey.

(AP Photo)

August 12, 2010

When Does Public Opinion Count?

Writing on the recent unrest in Kyrgyzstan, James Kirchick ruminated on the dangers of over-looking the people in favor of the autocrats who lead them:

Nonetheless, the most important lesson to be learned from the events in Kyrgyzstan this past week is that supporting authoritarianism, no matter how valid the excuses, comes with a cost. This is something that everyone, especially "realists" who say that regime type should be irrelevant in the determination of foreign policy, ought to acknowledge. Soft-pedaling criticism of dictators who assist this or that American foreign policy objective, ­whether it be hosting a military base or supplying us with oil, may bring promised "stability," but it is always illusory. As the behavior of Kurmanbek Bakiyev demonstrated, authoritarians are by their nature irrational and unpredictable. Worse, when an authoritarian regime falls, the people who take over naturally feel resentment toward anyone who supported those who oppressed them.

Sounds reasonable to me. Only here's Kirchick on a Brookings Institution study of Arab public opinion concerning Iran's nuclear weapons program:

Last year, I wrote an essay for Commentary called “What Price Popularity,” which argued that the United States has and always will be reviled by many people around the world (particularly Muslims), that the reasons for this resentment are often quite complex and beyond our control, and that, rather than fret and complain about this phenomenon, policymakers would do well to pursue what they believe to be in the nation’s interest, regardless of what foreigners think. This latest poll simply underscores the irrationality, paranoia, and ignorance underlying Arab public opinion — and why we should stop obsessing over it, if not ignore it entirely.

Got it: we should worry about the trade off between authoritarian dictators and their put upon citizens unless those citizens happen to be Arabs, whose views are irrational, paranoid and ignorant and should thus be ignored.

The Politics of Emotion

Daniel Drezner on the move to withhold aid from the Lebanese army:

Now, I understand the Congressional impulse to do something here -- I really do. What I don't understand is how Congress thinks that withholding aid from the Lebanese military will weaken Hezbollah. Congress seems to think that anything that aids the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) will concomitantly aid Hezbollah. The latter group, however, has independent sources of financial, political and military support. It's better to think of the LAF as a competing power base than as a conduit to Hezbollah. Anything that weakens national institutions in Lebanon empowers the groups that can survive in a more anarchical environment -- and gee, whaddaya know, that would include Hezbollah.

It's possible that these thoughts have passed through the staff of Berman, Cantor, Lowey and McKeon. It's also possible that these staffers simply sad "f*** it, this will look like our member of Congress is doing something." I can certainly respect the raw political calculation involved here. But it's a stupid, counterproductive move in terms of the national interest -- and they should know better.

Yes, but how many times does the national interest win when it clashes with "raw political calculation?"

Canadians Oppose Afghan Mission


A new poll from Angus Reid shows that a majority of Canadians (53 percent) oppose the mission in Afghanistan. That's down from 47 percent from a similar survey taken in February of this year.

Among the poll's other findings: 43 percent of Canadians think it was a mistake to send troops to Afghanistan in the first place, while 44 percent don't have a clear idea of what the war is about. Canadians don't have much faith in President Obama to "finish the job" (only 32 percent think he will).

(AP Photo)

Iraq Revisionism


Reading the Guardian report on the defection of the Sons of Iraq, Marc Thiessen writes:

The rise of the Sons of Iraq is one of the great success stories in the war on terror—and thanks to America’s success in encouraging and nurturing this movement, President Obama inherited a strong hand in Iraq. It would be a tragedy if, in his eagerness to withdraw, Obama squandered that success through a policy of neglect.

I suspect this an argument we're unfortunately going to be seeing a lot more of in the coming weeks and months. The notion that President Obama "inherited a strong hand" in Iraq is questionable, to say the least. The Bush administration set fire to Iraq and was able to tamp down what was, by 2006, a raging inferno into something resembling simmering kindling when it came time to hand off the problem they created to another administration. This is not the kind of achievement I'd be particularly eager to brandish.

(AP Photo)

U.S. Views of Obama's Foreign Policy, Ctd.


Following up on yesterday's Zogby Interactive poll, Gallup has released a new poll that reaffirms that foreign policy remains one of the president's stronger issues (and by strong I mean, not as weak): 44 percent of respondents approved of the president's handling of foreign affairs vs. 48 percent who disapproved. Much like the Zogby poll, disapproval was sharper on the specific issue of Iraq (41 approve vs. 53 disapprove) and Afghanistan (36 approve. vs. 57 disapprove).

(AP Photo)

Contain What?

Indeed, I would argue that because Sunni Arabs from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Egypt perpetrated the attacks of September 11, 2001, and because Sunni hostility to American and Israeli interests remains a conspicuous problem, the United States should theoretically welcome a strengthened Shiite role in the Middle East, were Iran to go through an even partial political transformation. And demographic, cultural, and other indicators all point to a positive ideological and philosophical shift in Iran in the medium to long term. Given this prognosis, and the high cost and poor chances for success of any military effort to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program, I believe that containment of a nuclear Iran is the most sensible policy for the United States.

The success of containment will depend on a host of regional factors. But its sine qua non will be the ability of the United States to underline any policy toward a nuclear-armed Iran with the credible threat of military action. As Kissinger told me, “I want America to sustain whatever measures it takes about Iran.” As he writes in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, “Deterrence … is achieved when one side’s readiness to run risks in relation to the other is high; it is least effective when the willingness to run risks is low, however powerful the military capability.” - Robert Kaplan

I think Kaplan has it right in the first graf, but I'm not so sure about the second (even if he does invoke the Godfather of Realism himself). The fundamental problem with any containment analogy and Iran is the question of what we're supposed to contain. With the Soviet Union it was clear enough: we were checking Russia's expansion and blocking the spread of communist governments worldwide.

It's unlikely that Iran is going to physically invade any of its neighbors - with or without a nuclear weapon. Iran can achieve some measure of regional power through the use of its proxies, but that's something it's been doing for years now. It's not clear to me what containment has to do with that (or how, frankly, it could stop it). So what are we containing?

The View From China

The U.S. is building an "Asian NATO" to encircle China, according to Dai Xu, a Chinese military strategist.

August 11, 2010

The Sons of Iraq Turn Again?


A disturbing report in the Guardian:

Al-Qaida is attempting to make a comeback in Iraq by enticing scores of former Sunni allies to rejoin the terrorist group by paying them more than the monthly salary they currently receive from the government, two key US-backed militia leaders have told the Guardian.

They said al-Qaida leaders were exploiting the imminent departure of US fighting troops to ramp up a membership drive, in an attempt to show that they are still a powerful force in the country after seven years of war.

Al-Qaida is also thought to be moving to take advantage of a power vacuum created by continuing political instability in Iraq, which remains without a functional government more than five months after a general election.

Sheikh Sabah al-Janabi, a leader of the Awakening Council – also known as the Sons of Iraq – based in Hila, 60 miles south of Baghdad, told the Guardian that 100 out of 1,800 rank-and-file members had not collected their salaries for the last two months: a clear sign, he believes, that they are now taking money from their former enemies.

Is it me, or is there an odd disconnect between stories like the above and this one, where we're already discussing the "payoff" of the war in the form of an Iraq that is a democratic ally in the Mideast giving us access to its vast oil reserves. Are we really out of the woods in Iraq?

(AP Photo)

The Other Weak Case for Attacking Iran


Jeffrey Goldberg's article on the chances of an Israeli attack on Iran is worth reading, as is Flynt & Hillary Leverett's rejoinder:

In other words, Israeli elites want the United States to attack Iran's nuclear program -- with the potentially negative repercussions that Goldberg acknowledges -- so that Israel will not experience "a dilution of quality" or "an accelerated brain drain." Sneh argues that "if Israel is no longer understood by its 6 million Jewish citizens, and by the roughly 7 million Jews who live outside of Israel, to be a ‘natural safe haven', then its raison d'être will have been subverted."

To be sure, the United States has an abiding commitment to Israel's security. But, just as surely, preventing "dilution of quality" or bolstering Israelis' perceptions regarding their country's raison d'être can never give an American president a just or strategically sound cause for initiating war. And make no mistake: Bombing Iran's nuclear facilities would mean war.

None of this means that Israel shouldn't (or won't) attack, but it is a reminder that the U.S. and Israel have significantly different exposure to the Iranian nuclear threat (should it evolve).

This reminds me of another terrible argument for a U.S. attack on Iran: that the Arab states in the region are too scared to do it themselves. This is the upshot of the leaks issuing forth from the region that the Arab world would quietly cheer a U.S. attack. We're told it would be a sign of renewed "American leadership" which usually, in this context, means that other states reap the benefit while the U.S. taxpayer reaps the blowback.

(AP Photo)

Finding a New China Strategy


Thomas Wright suggests that the Obama administration start thinking about what it can salvage from the decline and fall of Pax Americana:

The Obama administration should continue to engage emerging powers, but it now needs a new strategy of preservation to ensure the current international order can withstand external pressures and function effectively, even if a major power, such as China, decides to undermine it. To do this the US needs to build new geopolitical partnerships and alliances; Indonesia and India are good candidates. It must seek European support for core principles of openness, including freedom of the seas, space and cyberspace, to be upheld even if China and others encroach upon them. It should give more influence to nations willing to take on greater responsibilities in tackling shared problems – including South Korea, and on certain issues Vietnam and Turkey – and pressure those who do not.

If the administration wants to preserve an international environment that values "openness" it will need more than new alliances with emerging Asian powers - it will need an economic and trade agenda to match.

(AP Photo)

China Beats U.S. in Mobile Internet Use


A larger proportion of Chinese mobile phone users are accessing the Internet via their phone than their counterparts in the U.S. The Nielsen Company reports:

In a short amount of time, mobile consumers in China have surpassed their American counterparts when it comes to using the devices to access the Internet (38% of Chinese mobile subscribers compared to 27% of American mobile subscribers), despite less advanced networks. Whether it’s kids in Beijing downloading games or adults in Shanghai requiring real-time information about the stock market and the ability to act on it on the go, the mobile Web is becoming an integral part of Chinese life....

Today, there are 755 million cell phone subscribers in China – more than half of the population. That makes China the world’s largest mobile device market....

In China, the vast majority of mobile consumers (87%) use pre-paid plans. In the U.S., less than 20% of mobile consumers use them, as most Americans prefer subscribing to post-paid plans. Even though Chinese have less 3G network coverage and own fewer smartphones, they tend to use their mobile phones to access the Internet while on the go more than Americans (38% vs. 27%). Chinese also texted (86% vs. 64%), and instant messaged (23% vs. 16%) more often. Meanwhile, Americans used their mobile devices more than Chinese for e-mail (25% vs. 8%) and picture messaging (37% vs. 22%).

You can find a list of the most wired countries in the world here.

[Hat tip: ICT Newslog]

Putin's Katrina?


Simon Shuster thinks the wildfires crippling Moscow could spell political trouble for Vladmir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev:

According to opinion polls, however, the Russian public is not nearly so eager to pat its leaders on the back. In the last two weeks of July, state-run pollster VTsIOM reported that approval ratings for both Putin and Luzhkov had fallen to their lowest levels in more than four years, while Medvedev's numbers were at one of their lowest points since he took office in May 2008. At the same time, more Russians have started clamoring for the return of gubernatorial elections, which Putin canceled in 2004 when he handed the Kremlin the right to appoint regional leaders. In a survey released August 6 by the independent Levada Center, 59% of Russians now want to choose their own governors again, up by 5% since January.

But Michael Stott says that Russia's media manipulation will be able to overcome any short-term damage done:

Popular apathy, control over the media and a lack of potent opposition will ensure that Moscow's ruling duo do not suffer seriously from disastrous summer fires as president George W. Bush did from his administration's slow response to catastrophe.

Although a record-breaking summer heatwave found Russia's authorities ill-prepared to fight the fires and slow to react to the smoke pollution that has crippled Moscow, analysts said Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev would ensure that others took the blame.

Sounds like business as usual for a politico.

Personally I think the most absurd vignette of the entire Moscow fire was undoubtedly this, from Shuster:

But perhaps the most blatant attempts to downplay the disaster have come from the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov. As the fires around his city choked the skies with smoke last week, Luzhkov was away on holiday. "What's the problem? What, do we have some kind of emergency situation, some kind of crisis situation? What's the problem in Moscow?" the mayor's spokesman told the LifeNews agency on August 6. Three days later, LifeNews reported that Luzhkov, an avid beekeeper, had ordered his prize-winning hives to be evacuated away from the smog. All the while, he has refused to declare a state of emergency for Moscow's human inhabitants.
(AP Photo)

U.S. Views of Obama Foreign Policy


Zogby Interactive's newest poll won't provide much comfort for the administration. Obama gets his best grade in foreign policy (40 percent positive vs. 51 percent negative and 8 percent 'fair'). Nothing to crow about, of course, but it does call into question why conservatives feel foreign policy is the president's weak spot considering it's where the public has the least negative views.

On one of his major foreign policy challenges, Afghanistan, the numbers are worse: 25 percent have a positive view of the president's performance vs. 40 percent who have a poor view and 34 percent who have a fair view.

August 10, 2010

Democratic Capitalism

Dani Rodrik pushes back against the argument that autocratic systems make for good capitalism:

Democracies not only out-perform dictatorships when it comes to long-term economic growth, but also outdo them in several other important respects. They provide much greater economic stability, measured by the ups and downs of the business cycle. They are better at adjusting to external economic shocks (such as terms-of-trade declines or sudden stops in capital inflows). They generate more investment in human capital – health and education. And they produce more equitable societies.

Authoritarian regimes, by contrast, ultimately produce economies that are as fragile as their political systems. Their economic potency, when it exists, rests on the strength of individual leaders, or on favorable but temporary circumstances. They cannot aspire to continued economic innovation or to global economic leadership.

At first sight, China seems to be an exception. Since the late 1970’s, following the end of Mao’s disastrous experiments, China has done extremely well, experiencing unparalleled rates of economic growth. Even though it has democratized some of its local decision-making, the Chinese Communist Party maintains a tight grip on national politics and the human-rights picture is marred by frequent abuses.

But China also remains a comparatively poor country. Its future economic progress depends in no small part on whether it manages to open its political system to competition, in much the same way that it has opened up its economy. Without this transformation, the lack of institutionalized mechanisms for voicing and organizing dissent will eventually produce conflicts that will overwhelm the capacity of the regime to suppress. Political stability and economic growth will both suffer.

This is the basic message of Ian Bremmer's book, the somewhat erroneously titled The End of the Free Market. Bremmer argues that despite the threat posed by autocratic capitalist systems, they'll ultimately be undone by their own shortcomings. It might be hard to imagine after the recent debacles of democratic capitalism, but I suspect it's true.

[Hat tip: Nick Schulz]

Afghans, Pakistanis See Terror Fight Lagging

According to Gallup, neither Afghans or Pakistanis have a high view of their country's efforts against terrorism:


Pakistanis aren't much happier: 44 percent of adults say Afghanistan isn't doing enough to control cross-border terrorism while 41 percent say their own country's efforts fall short.

The Worst Place in the World to Die


The Economist Intelligence Unit ranked end-of-life care in 40 countries. India came out the worst. The UK came out of the best. See the full results here.

(AP Photo)

Downsizing or Rightsizing?

Michael Mandelbaum sees a cash-strapped America as dangerous for the world:

Here the impact of the coming economic constraints on foreign policy will differ from the effects of the downsizing of the financial industry. Reducing the size of banks and other financial institutions will have benign consequences, reducing the risk of a major economic collapse, limiting economically unproductive speculation, and diverting talented people to other, more useful, work. By contrast, the contraction of the scope of American foreign policy will have the opposite effect because the American international role is vital for global peace and prosperity. The American military presence around the world helps to support the global economy. American military deployments in Europe and East Asia help to keep order in regions populated by countries that are economically important and militarily powerful. The armed forces of the United States are crucial in checking ambition of the radical government of Iran to dominate the oil-rich Middle East. For these reasons, the retreat of the United States risks making the world poorer and less secure, which means that the consequences of the economically-induced contraction of American foreign policy are all too likely to be anything but benign.

Mandelbaum skips over the context of those military deployments: the Cold War. But luckily for us, it's over. The consequences of an American military withdrawal from Europe is significantly less risky for the world in 2010 than it would have been during the Cold War. Second, in some regions of the world that are volatile, such as the Middle East, the U.S. military is arguably doing more harm than good. Large scale military deployments to keep the peace in the Persian Gulf after ousting Saddam from Kuwait only catalyzed a worldwide terrorist movement against the U.S. and ultimately drew the U.S. into a second, more costly, war in the region that did huge harm to the U.S. economy with no commensurate benefits. A similar gambit aimed at containing Iran may not end much better.

The exception to this dynamic, I would argue, would be Asia, where the U.S. does face a potential challenge in China - a country that could do serious harm to American economic interests (although shows no signs of doing so at the moment). But there's no reason to fear "down-sizing" in America's foreign policy if it's done in a manner that moves American forces from where they're no longer needed to ensure they can afford to stay where they are required.

The bigger danger is that policymakers will refuse to try to make considered cuts and adjustments. They will try to "do more with less" instead of "doing less with less."

August 9, 2010

Terrorism in Hormuz


I'm surprised this hasn't caught a lot of attention:

Investigators from the United Arab Emirates have determined that a Japanese oil tanker damaged in the Straits of Hormuz last month was struck by an explosive-filled boat in an act of terrorism, the Emirati state news agency WAM reported Friday.

“A responsible source at the UAE Coast Guard said that investigations and an examination carried out by specialised teams had confirmed that the tanker had been the subject of a terrorist attack,” WAM writes.

The report came after an al-Qaeda-linked group, the Brigades of Abdullah Azzam, claimed responsibility on its website for the suicide attack, the AP reports.

Al-Qaeda hasn't had too much luck pulling off a successful attack recently, but a few more stabs at blowing up an oil tanker in Hormuz and insurance rates on shipping through the strait are going to increase, which means additional pressure on the global economy and potentially greater energy prices. Two things we don't exactly want right now.

(AP Photo)

The Iraq Conversation We're Not Having

Daniel Serwer and Sean Kane offer some advice on how to manage Iraq:

For the time being, the 50,000 U.S. troops still provide some check on Iran's influence in Iraq as well as insurance against the unlikely events of a military coup or the outbreak of Arab-Kurdish conflict in Iraq's volatile north. But with these troops scheduled to withdraw, the U.S. should focus on putting substance in the new paradigm of a civilian-led mission by looking for complementary diplomatic tools to guarantee the continuation of Iraq's nascent democracy. It is far more important to get this right than to get a government right away.

The United States has in the past extended implicit guarantees to help end conflicts and maintain stability in other countries. Washington witnessed the signing of the Dayton accords that ended the war in Bosnia and joined the Peace Implementation Council, thus underwriting the Dayton constitution. In order not to arouse understandable Iraqi concerns on sovereignty, the approach in Iraq would necessarily be more subtle. Instead, ways have to be found to condition things Iraqis want from the U.S. on Iraqi maintenance of a representative democracy that satisfies the existential concerns of all the major communities.

There is such a mechanism available. It is based on a bi-lateral U.S.-Iraqi agreement which was an Iraqi idea and which Iraqis requested of the U.S. during the 2008 troop drawdown negotiations. The Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) aims to lay the foundation for a long-term U.S.-Iraqi relationship in the economic, cultural, political, and security arenas. Iraqis value the SFA as a means for attracting badly needed U.S. private investment and know-how.

The authors believe that the SFA can be leveraged to build a stable Iraq without obligating the U.S. to pick specific political winners and losers or mediate between Maliki and Allawi, but what's worrisome is the nagging question of what the U.S. does if this doesn't work.

Despite our best laid plans, violence could once again convulse Iraq. As the Commander of U.S. Special Forces told the Washington Post, extremists groups, while not as potent, are still alive and kicking in Iraq. So what is the Obama administration's view of Iraq's importance to U.S. security? Is the country so vital that we will not, under any circumstances, allow it to descend back into a violent maelstrom? Or is it more important to remove U.S. troops from the country, come what may?

France a Mideast Favorite


Looking through the full release of the 2010 Arab Opinion poll published by Brookings, it seems that France comes out pretty highly regarded. When asked which country they would like to see be the world's only superpower, 35 percent of respondents said France. China followed with 16 percent, Germany with 13 and Britain with 9.

When asked which country they would like to live, 51 percent of respondents choose France, followed by Germany with 17 percent and Britain, with 10 percent. France is also seen as playing the most constructive role in the Middle East, ahead of Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Berlusconi Declining


Adrian Michaels may not be ready to write off Italy's Prime Minister, but Italians look poised to:

Few people in Italy want Silvio Berlusconi to finish his current term in office, according to a poll by Digis. Only 28 per cent of respondents want the prime minister’s government to stay in place until the end of the term.

Conversely, 42 per cent of respondents would prefer to form a Grand Coalition government, and 30 per cent would choose to hold a snap general election.

(AP Photo)

August 6, 2010

On to November?

Is Wyclef Jean the answer in Haiti? Not everyone is convinced:

Jean, 39, might need to do more convincing among members of the intellectual and political class, many of whom are skeptical that he could legally qualify as a candidate, much less govern this country.

"First, he doesn't know how the state works," said Laennec Hurbon, a prominent Haitian sociologist. "He hasn't any knowledge of the political parties. This is not a good thing for democracy in Haiti."

The power in Haitian government resides with the prime minister, appointed by the president and ratified by both houses of Parliament. The prime minister can be fired by Parliament, which has been a persistent source of instability in the country. Preval, as shrewd a politician as any in Haiti, was stymied repeatedly in his choices for the position in his second term — two of his prime ministers were fired.

And it's probably a bad sign when a former bandmate endorses your opponent.

August 5, 2010

Arab World Down on Obama, Up on Iran's Nukes

The Brookings Institution is releasing a new survey of Arab public opinion today. Some of the findings (pdf):

Early in the Obama Administration, in April and May 2009, 51% of the respondents in the six countries expressed optimism about American policy in the Middle East. In the 2010 poll, only 16% were hopeful, while a majority - 63% - was discouraged.

On Iran's potential nuclear weapons status, results show another dramatic shift in public opinion. While the results vary from country to country, the weighted average across the six countries is telling: in 2009, only 29% of those polled said that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would be "positive" for the Middle East; in 2010, 57% of those polled indicate that such an outcome would be "positive" for the Middle East.

That's a pretty large swing on the Iran nuke question. Could it be that as more and more Arab leaders come out publicly against Iran's nuclear program, more of their citizens start to support it?

Obama's No-Win Iraq Policy


Peter Feaver writes that President Obama churlishly denied giving credit to Bush for the surge. Obama, writes Feaver, "could have shown real statesmanship by acknowledging he was wrong about the surge." Then he writes this:

Adverse developments in Iraq will be (and will look to be) increasingly a function of the Obama Team taking their eye off of the ball and rushing to declare mission accomplished. Yes, in such a scenario the Iraqis should bear most of the blame, but the part that is due to U.S. action or inaction will be Obama's responsibility.

In other words, when it becomes undeniable that the surge has failed to produce anything other than momentary calm in Iraq, it will become Obama's fault. Convenient, isn't it?

(AP Photo)

August 4, 2010

Tight Race in Australia


The Australian election is in full swing, and according the latest polling from Newspoll (pdf) the race is tight with Labor at 43.3 and the Coalition at 42.1. You can follow the Australian election on our Australia page.

(AP Photo)

August 3, 2010

Keeping Japan On Side

This is an interesting approach:

In an attempt to get hip with Japan’s younger generations, the U.S. military is turning to manga to teach the importance of the half-century-old security alliance between the two countries.

A cover shot of the new Japanese-language comic book series published by the U.S. military to teach the importance of the U.S.-Japan security alliance. The first issue will be released online Wednesday.

The U.S. military is releasing the first issue of a comic book series entitled “Our Alliance — A Lasting Partnership” online Wednesday in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the security treaty. The first publication also comes on the eve of the 65th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. A U.S. representative will be attending the annual peace ceremony in Hiroshima for the first time this year.

The U.S. military said it decided to publish the text in the manga format because of its wild popularity among young adults.

Who needs an arms race when you can win them over with manga?

Britain's Best Prime Ministers

Via Anthony Wells, the Financial Times asked 100 academics to rank the top post war British Prime Ministers. Drum roll please (from best to worst):

1. Attlee 2. Thatcher 3. Blair 4. Macmillan 5. Wilson 6. Churchill 7. Callaghan 8. Major 9. Heath 10. Brown 11. Alec Douglas-Home 12. Eden

I don't have a dog in this particular fight, but you're urged to disparage these picks in comments.

American Views of Afghan Draw Down

A fresh poll from Zogby International tackles President Obama's Afghan policy:

A plurality of likely voters (45%) say President Obama should carry through on his plan to begin troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2011, with 35% saying he should not.

In the same Zogby Interactive poll of 2,389 likely voters conducted from July 27-29, 2010, 32% say the military operations to defeat the Taliban and strengthen the Afghan government are going poorly. A combined 20% give positive grades (2% excellent, 17% good) to these military operations, and 44% rate them as fair.

They also asked voters about military spending: 36 percent felt the U.S. spent too much, 30 percent said too little, and 24 percent said just right.

American Views of Afghan War

New polling from Gallup indicates that a majority of Americans (62 percent) think the war is going very or moderately badly. Americans are also questioning whether we should have invaded in the first place:


I think it's less a question of whether we should have attacked al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after 9/11 (obviously we should have) but whether after we had successfully driven them out, it was a good idea to stick around and try to defend the institutions of a new Afghan state.

An Asian Arms Race

Michael Auslin disagrees with my blase attitude about an Asian arms race:

Greg writes that “uncertainty isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it catalyzes an arms race in Asia” and that “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?”

In a word, yes. I’m not in favor of any more arms races in Asia, since they by nature change the status quo, insert new levels of uncertainty and anxiety, and can give a mistaken and tragic sense of bravado to countries with both legitimate and made-up dissatisfactions. Undoubtedly, part of the secret to Asia’s general success the past decades has been some sense of boundaries that the United States would not allow to be transgressed (think 1955 Quemoy and Matsu, continued presence of U.S. troops in Japan and South Korea, and the 1996 Taiwan Straits incident). We have no way of knowing what the effects on state competition and rivalry would be from losing that sense of ultimate security, no matter how instinctual and undefined.

Japan (and other liberal nations) should certainly be increasing its naval and airpower capabilities, and purchasing more submarines is an important first step. However, I’m less comfortable that a desired outcome (i.e., more submarines) is resulting from an undesirable condition (less confidence in U.S. capability and will). It would be far preferable for Japan to decide to purchase more subs in conjunction with the United States, so to speak, than to be doing so in order to hedge its bets.

I'd agree with this but here's the rub - how to incentivize our allies to bolster their own defenses without cutting them completely loose (which I don't think we should do). This is easier said than done. Take Europe, where defense budgets fall irrespective of Washington's beseeching.

An Asian arms race obviously isn't an ideal scenario, but the other scenario, having the U.S. taxpayer foot the bill so that the wealthy economies in Asia don't have to, strikes me as an equally bad deal, especially now, when America's balance sheet is in such disrepair. I guess I might be more sympathetic to the notion that America has to play the hegemonic stabilizer in Asia if it was understood that we would do so with the cost savings accrued by abandoning that role in the Middle East and Europe. But somehow I don't see that happening.

August 2, 2010

Suckers at the Great Game

This double game goes back to 9/11. That terrorist attack was basically planned, executed and funded by radical Pakistanis and Saudis. And we responded by invading Iraq and Afghanistan. Why? The short answer is because Pakistan has nukes that we fear and Saudi Arabia has oil that we crave....

Is there another a way? Yes. If we can’t just walk away, we should at least reduce our bets. We should limit our presence and goals in Afghanistan to the bare minimum required to make sure that turmoil there doesn’t spill over into Pakistan or allow Al Qaeda to return. And we should diminish our dependence on oil so we are less impacted by what happens in Saudi Arabia, so we shrink the funds going to people who hate us and we make economic and political reform a necessity for them, not a hobby.

Alas, we don’t have the money, manpower or time required to fully transform the most troubled states of this region. It will only happen when they want it to. We do, though, have the technology, necessity and innovators to protect ourselves from them — and to increase the pressure on them to want to change — by developing alternatives to oil. It is time we started that surge. - Thomas Friedman

Here's a question: are the Chinese offering security guarantees to the various countries they buy oil or natural resources from? Yes, they sometime run interference for states like Sudan or Iran at the UN, but is China as heavily invested in the security of any foreign regime from which it has energy deals as the U.S. is in the Gulf? Why not take a page out of their play book?

Rethinking Deterrence

Mary Ann Sieghart offers advice on how the UK can pare back defense spending without sacrificing their nukes:

What deterrence needs is ambiguity. We don't know much about North Korea's nuclear capability, but we're certainly not going to risk nuclear annihilation by taking them on, even if the risk were 50 per cent, 25 per cent or just 10 per cent. That's why Israel is so sensitive about its nuclear secrets being revealed. The less other countries know about your nuclear capability, the more effective will be its deterrence.

The trouble with Britain's is that, when it's not at sea, it's highly visible. Every time a Trident submarine comes back to dock, the local residents around Faslane know about it. So if all the Trident subs were there at once, it would theoretically be possible for an adversary to launch a surprise attack and destroy them all. That was the worry during the Cold War, which led to the Continuous At Sea Deterrence (CASD) policy that we've adopted ever since.

Even in those days, the chances of the Soviet Union launching a first strike against Britain were vanishingly small. Now they're imperceptible. Our main enemy now is not even a state – it's organisations such as al-Qa'ida, whose foot soldiers are British citizens with rucksacks. If they use weapons of mass destruction on our soil, we're hardly going to launch a nuclear attack in response. Where would we send it?

Our nuclear deterrent is only of use against state enemies. And if tensions were to rise against – say – Russia or China, we would have plenty of warning. This is the premise of a paper written by Professor Malcolm Chalmers for the Royal United Services Institute, published last week. He argues that we don't prepare our conventional forces for a surprise attack by another state against the UK, so we shouldn't do the same for our nuclear forces. It's our insistence on CASD for Trident's replacement that is making it so expensive. Instead, he says, we could reduce the number of submarines from four to three or two.

Makes sense: it preserves the UK's status as a nuclear power, gives it a credible deterrent against its potential nuclear adversaries while helping trim costs.

Cameron, Clegg Approvals Hold Steady


A new poll from Angus Reid shows David Cameron's approval holding relatively steady at 53 percent for the month of July, down one point from June. His coalition partner Nick Clegg dropped a bit, down three points to 47 percent for July.

(AP Photo)

Obama & Iraq


The news out of Iraq of late has certainly been troubling: July was the most violent month in the country since 2008 (although the U.S. disputes this claim), the country's electrical system is still a shambles, and there's no government in sight.

This is, in other words, not exactly the time to take a victory lap. And yet, that's what President Obama appears to be doing with a speech planned for today:

“As a candidate for president, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end,” Mr. Obama says in remarks prepared for delivery Monday to the Disabled American Veterans in Atlanta. “Shortly after taking office, I announced our new strategy for Iraq and for a transition to full Iraqi responsibility. And I made it clear that by August 31, 2010, America’s combat mission in Iraq would end. And that is exactly what we are doing — as promised, on schedule.”

None of this would be problematic except for the decision to leave 50,000 U.S. troops behind to "advise and assist" Iraq's security forces. But what happens if things go south? It's not like the situation in Iraq can't deterioate right under our noses. That makes the current "hands-off" approach taken by the administration all the more confounding: if you're going to keep U.S. troops inside the country, shouldn't you at least devote more diplomatic capital to moving Iraq's parties into forming a government? And if the U.S., with tens of thousands of troops inside the country, has no leverage over the political parties - why, exactly, are we keeping our troops around to "advise and assist" them?

UPDATE: You can view the State Department's latest Iraq Status Report here. (pdf)

(AP Photo)

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