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November 30, 2010

Power & Expectations


Politico's Ben Smith writes that American power ain't what it used to be:

"The impression is of the world's superpower roaming helpless in a world in which nobody behaves as bidden," wrote Sir Simon Jenkins in the left-leaning Guardian, one of the publications that were given the documents.

And while his assessment of the documents themselves may be too harsh, the massive leak drives home yet again the limits of any American ability to control events around the world.

I think the problem here is the view that the U.S. - or any country - can "control events around the world." Shape? Yes, to a degree. Influence? Sure. Control? Not really. That's a rather grandiose claim and one that, as David Shorr notes, infects too much popular discourse about foreign policy - leading to unrealistic expectations. Like this:

It is certainly true that Obama inherited many of his foreign policy challenges. Iran was pursuing nukes back when he was in the Illinois state Senate, and North Korea has been crazy since before he was born. But Obama insisted that his would be the better way. Engagement, dialogue, kumbaya would all win the day.

And yet they keep losing. A month after his inauguration, the North Koreans tested a ballistic missile. Since then, they've revealed yet another nuclear program and attacked South Korea just weeks after Obama's embarrassing failure to win a trade deal from Seoul during an official visit. Meanwhile, according to WikiLeaks and other sources, the North Koreans have been selling ballistic missiles to the Iranians.

One of the very early and obvious problems with Obama's foreign policy argument dating back to the campaign was that, rather than state the obvious - that some international problems are inherently difficult and "solutions" to them are often impossible to find - he tried to sell alternatives to Republican hawkishness as more effective. As I wrote two years ago:

Any debate about national security is rooted in a perception of American interests. Yet the Obama campaign has not focused much attention on defining what America’s fundamental security interests are – but on how best to manage them. On issues such as Iran and North Korea, the signature difference between the two parties is not over the extent to which these nations represent uniquely American problems (as opposed to regional ones), but the tools with which they propose to “solve” them....

By conceding the premise of American security interests, it’s easy to see why Democrats keep losing the politics. If America is to be the world’s policeman, who is the more credible figure: the state trooper ready to club the bad guys, or the security guard at the mall, brandishing a walk-talkie?

Thus, the baseline for judging the Obama administration remains unreasonable - he hasn't talked Kim Jong-Il out of booze and porn! - and more modest but respectable achievements (imposing sanctions on Iran, improving ties in South Asia) look paltry in comparison. That's not to say the administration has done everything right or that breakthroughs are impossible, just that the talk of American decline often rests on an unrealistic view of what America could achieve even at the apex of her power.

(AP Photo)

Does WikiLeaks Confirm Linkage?

There's many in U.S. foreign policy circles who believe that solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is the key to making America's life a lot easier - both in the Middle East and with the broader war on terror. Since the conflict is "linked" to the region's ills and to the broader threat of terrorism, it's imperative for the U.S. to try and solve it. Jennifer Rubin thinks the WikiLeak cables prove that "linkage" theory is bunk:

Recall that the Obama team over and over again has made the argument that progress on the Palestinian conflict was essential to obtaining the help of the Arab states in confronting Iran’s nuclear threat. We know that this is simply and completely false.

The documents show that the Arab states were hounding the administration to take action against Iran. The King of Bahrain urged Obama to rec0gnize that the danger of letting the Iranian nuclear program come to fruition was worse than the fallout from stopping it....

In short, there is zero evidence that the Palestinian non-peace talks were essential to obtaining the assistance of the Arab states on Iran.

Matt Duss argues that the case for linkage is more modest than Rubin claims, highlighting this quote from Dennis Ross as being the crux of the "real" linkage argument:

Pursuing peace is not a substitute for dealing with the other challenges… It is also not a panacea. But especially as it relates to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, if one could do that, it would deny state and non-state actors a tool they use to exploit anger and grievances.

He then notes several cables showing how Arab states, aside from asking for military action against Iran, were also privately urging on peace talks and arguing that a resolution to the conflict would help them and help stabilize the Middle East.

Much of this debate hinges on what you think the real linkage argument consists of - the more sweeping one that Rubin thinks is debunked by the cables, or the more modest one that Duss believes is bolstered by them.

But even accepting that the "modest" linkage argument is the real one, I'm not sure how this helps the administration. Bringing an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems like an awful lot of work for such a small payout.

Too Many Secrets

David Rothkopf looks on the bright side of WikiLeaks:

Yet to prevent further security breaches of this sort, the administration must address their attention not to a single misguided enlisted man, or to a mercurial Internet gadfly. Rather, they must recognise that there cannot be true secrecy in a system in which over 3m people have security clearances.

This is a system in which millions of documents each year are unnecessarily classified – even though, as a top general once asserted to me, well over 95 per cent of the information being classified is already publicly available. In shining a light on this, WikiLeaks fully reveals the perverse and flawed information culture within US government.

The secret to keeping secrets is to have fewer of them, shared among fewer people. And a massive, comprehensive review and reform of how America keeps, shares and thinks about its secrets is one of the few benefits this unfortunate incident could produce.

November 29, 2010

WikiLeaks: China and North Korea


There's been a good deal of "nothing to see here" world weariness among commentators assessing the WikiLeaks document dump. But this seems rather significant to me:

Senior Chinese officials have said the Korean peninsula should be reunified under Seoul's control, according to leaked classified US diplomatic cables.

They are said to have told an ex-South Korean minister China placed little value on the North as a buffer state....

Mr Chun said the Chinese officials "were ready to 'face the new reality' that the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] now had little value to China as a buffer state - a view that since North Korea's 2006 nuclear test had reportedly gained traction among senior PRC [People's Republic of China] leaders."

"Chun argued that in the event of a North Korean collapse, China would clearly 'not welcome' any US military presence north of the DMZ [Demilitarised Zone]," the ambassador's message said.

"The PRC would be comfortable with a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the United States in a 'benign alliance' - as long as Korea was not hostile towards China," it added.

If true, that seems to be an important shift and holds open the possibility of U.S.-China cooperation toward reunification, something I didn't think was all that probable, especially if it entailed a U.S. military presence remaining on the peninsula. Obviously we don't yet know the full story, nor is it clear whether enough of the Chinese leadership feels strongly enough about dumping North Korea as a buffer to actually effect change in North Korea. But still, it holds out an encouraging hope that South Korea, the U.S. and China can reach a modus-vivendi in the event the North collapses.

This is also a pretty interesting case for the utility of secrecy: is it better, or worse, from a U.S. standpoint, that the North Koreans hear about this?

Update: Drezner says not so fast:

I don't doubt that Chinese officials said everything reported in the documents. I do doubt that those statements mean that China is willing to walk away from North Korea. It means that Chinese diplomats are... er.... diplomatic. They will tell U.S. and South Korean officials some of what they want to hear. I'm sure that they will say somewhat different things to their North Korean counterparts.

The key is to determine whether China's actions reflect their words. And over the past six months, China has not acted in a manner consistent with Tisdall's claims.

Fair point, although I do think that China's tipping of the hat that they would be OK with a reunified peninsula still bound to the U.S. military is a significant move - although it's obviously unclear how widely that view is shared within China.

Why Obama's Iran Engagement "Worked"


The New York Times unearths some insights, via WikiLeaks, on how the Obama administration set in motion its Iran policy:

When Mr. Obama took office, many allies feared that his offers of engagement would make him appear weak to the Iranians. But the cables show how Mr. Obama’s aides quickly countered those worries by rolling out a plan to encircle Iran with economic sanctions and antimissile defenses. In essence, the administration expected its outreach to fail, but believed that it had to make a bona fide attempt in order to build support for tougher measures.

Matt Duss draws a lesson:

That last point is key, as some have tried to argue that Obama only turned to the pressure track after the engagement track failed. The truth about Obama’s Iran policy, and this is something Obama was quite clear about even during the presidential campaign, is that not only do engagement and pressure work together, engagement itself can be a form of pressure, as it has been with Iran.

There's two things to note about this. The first is that it disproves a widely circulated talking point about the Obama administration's Iran policy - that it was some kind of naive foray, all carrot and no stick. Second, and relatedly, it also confirms the point that the Leveretts have been making about Iran - that the Obama administration's engagement was a lot less than met the eye and was clearly connected to punitive measures. Mind you, I don't believe, as the Leveretts do, that some kind of break-through was there for the taking if the Obama administration had simply approached Iran in a spirit of good faith. But Iran's behavior toward the Obama administration's attempts at engagement makes a little more sense when it's understood that Obama's "open hand" was clasping a pair of poorly concealed brass knuckles.

(AP Photo)

U.S. Less Pessimistic About Afghan War


So says Gallup:

Forty-five percent say things are going well for the U.S. there, the highest percentage since July 2009, and one of the more positive evaluations in the last four years. Still, the majority of 54% believe things are going badly for the U.S....

More generally, 44% of Americans say they approve and 49% disapprove of the way Obama is handling the situation in Afghanistan. That is up from 36% approval in late July/early August, when support for the war dropped after there were leaks of classified military documents detailing some troubling accounts of the U.S. conduct of the war on an Internet site called WikiLeaks. But Obama's Afghanistan approval rating is down slightly from the 48% registered in February, the first measurement after Obama's new Afghanistan policy was announced.

WikiLeaks: The Arab World's Reaction


One facet of the WikiLeaks document dump that has garnered several headlines is the not-very-surprising revelation that Arab autocrats say one thing publicly and another thing to U.S. officials in private. Marc Lynch wonders what impact this double-talk will have when (or if) it's reported on in Arab media:

So here's the million dollar question: were their fears of expressing these views in public justified? Let's assume that their efforts to keep the stories out of the mainstream Arab media will be only partially successful -- and watch al-Jazeera here, since it would traditionally relish this kind of story but may fear revelations about the Qatari royal family. Extremely important questions follow. Will Arab leaders pay any significant political price for these positions, as they clearly feared? Or will it turn out that in this era of authoritarian retrenchment they really can get away with whatever diplomatic heresies they like even if it outrages public opinion? Will the publication of their private views lead them to become less forthcoming in their behavior in order to prove their bona fides -- i.e. less supportive of containing or attacking Iran, or less willing to deal with Israel? Or will a limited public response to revelations about their private positions lead them to become bolder in acting on their true feelings? Will this great transgression of the private/public divide in Arab politics create a moment of reckoning in which the Arab public finally asserts itself... or will it be one in which Arab leaders finally stop deferring to Arab public opinion and start acting out on their private beliefs?

I find it hard to believe that any Arab ruler will pay a price for privately urging on the U.S. to attack Iran. What, exactly, would that price be? Will people be storming government offices on behalf of Iran's nuclear program? The more interesting question, as Lynch notes, is whether now-exposed Arab leaders continue to talk out of both sides of their mouth - and whether the U.S. will continue to define its interests in the region based on the security these incumbent autocrats.

(AP Photo)

Has WikiLeaks Gotten Someone Killed?


A common refrain among critics of WikiLeaks is that their various revelations could get people killed. My question - have they? It's been several months since the publication of Afghan documents and some cursory research shows that while the Taliban had expressed interest in hunting down informants named in those documents, it's not clear if they succeeded or even tried. Ditto for the Iraq document dump, it doesn't appear that anyone's been physically harmed by them. But I genuinely don't know and neither, I suspect, do the people making that accusation (although I'll gladly stand corrected).

That doesn't make WikiLeaks right for releasing this information - I don't believe they are, in part for reasons elucidated by Daniel Drezner here.

Update: Just found this:

But despite similar warnings ahead of the previous two massive releases of classified U.S. intelligence reports by the website, U.S. officials concede that they have no evidence to date that the documents led to anyone's death.

(AP Photo)

November 28, 2010

WikiLeaks and American Leadership in the Middle East

We've heard a lot in recent months how "American leadership" in the Middle East has been called into question. David Ignatius put the conventional wisdom best when he wrote that "U.S. power in the region is perceived to be weakening." Senator Joseph Lieberman devoted an entire speech to the subject.

To understand what this actually means, it's useful to review some recently disclosed information:

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has repeatedly urged the United States to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear programme, according to leaked US diplomatic cables that describe how other Arab allies have secretly agitated for military action against Tehran.

The revelations, in secret memos from US embassies across the Middle East, expose behind-the-scenes pressures in the scramble to contain the Islamic Republic, which the US, Arab states and Israel suspect is close to acquiring nuclear weapons. Bombing Iranian nuclear facilities has hitherto been viewed as a desperate last resort that could ignite a far wider war....

Leaders in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt referred to Iran as "evil", an "existential threat" and a power that "is going to take us to war".

Now, we learn something else from these cables, namely:

Saudi donors remain the chief financiers of Sunni militant groups like Al Qaeda, and the tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar, a generous host to the American military for years, was the “worst in the region” in counterterrorism efforts, according to a State Department cable last December. Qatar’s security service was “hesitant to act against known terrorists out of concern for appearing to be aligned with the U.S. and provoking reprisals,” the cable said.

There may be good reasons for the U.S. to use force to delay Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon, but to do so because the chief financiers of al-Qaeda asked us seems like a pretty lousy one to me. So the next time you hear some pundit or politician moan about American power or leadership in the Middle East, or how our "allies" are doubting our resolve, this is what it's about: having American men and women die on behalf of decadent monarchs and presidents-for-life who are unwilling to fight their own battles.

November 27, 2010

The Next WikiLeak

Via Mike Allen:

ADMINISTRATION PREPARES FOR WIKIDUMP OF STATE DEPT. CABLES, possibly Sunday – Could be seven times the October release – Jim Miklaszewski, on “NBC Nightly News”: “U.S. officials tell NBC News that the upcoming document release from the website WikiLeaks contains top secret information so damaging it could threaten Senate ratification of the START nuclear arms control treaty with the Russians. According to the officials, the information contained in classified State Department cables reveals secrets behind the START negotiations and embarrassing claims against Russian leadership – information that could provide ammunition to Republican opponents of the treaty on Capitol Hill. …. There’s also serious concern that some of the leaks could threaten U.S. counterterrorism operations on two fronts, Afghanistan and Yemen. In Afghanistan, where President Hamid Karzai has already come under fire for Afghan corruption and questions about his mental stability, U.S. officials say the secret cables reveal new and even more embarrassing claims about his personality and private life. Perhaps more troublesome, the leaks reportedly include top secret information about U.S. military and intelligence operations against al Qaeda in Yemen and some critical dispatches about Yemen’s President Saleh.”

November 25, 2010

Holiday Blogging


Blogging will take a Tryptophan-induced hiatus today and will be light over the holiday weekend.

(AP Photo)

November 24, 2010

U.S. Views on Aiding South Korea


Rasmussen Reports has a new survey out on U.S. attitudes toward assisting South Korea:

Forty-six percent (46%) of voters believe the United States should provide military assistance to South Korea if it is attacked by North Korea. Twenty-nine percent (29%) disagree and say military assistance should not be provided, while another 25% are not sure....

The United States still has roughly 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea, but just 33% of voters think additional troops should be deployed there if South Korea is attacked by its neighbor to the north. Thirty-nine percent (39%) oppose the deployment of additional American soldiers to assist South Korea if it is attacked. Twenty-eight percent (28%) are undecided.

(AP Photo)

A Taliban Peace

My first reaction to hearing that the Taliban had apparently sent out an imposter to negotiate with NATO over a peace settlement was that it poured a decent amount of cold water over those who think that a "political settlement" is really possible. If the Taliban really wanted to explore a deal, they wouldn't be duping us. Michael Cohen sees it differently:

What is lacking is a recognition that the Taliban (who are certainly bad guys) will likely have a long-term role to play in Afghanistan's future - and that this is something that all sides in the conflict, particularly the US, are going to have to accept. Now in an ideal world, the Taliban wouldn't play much of any role in Afghanistan's future - but we don't live in an ideal world and we are far past the point where it's even possible for the US to dictate the terms of Afghanistan's future. We have neither the time nor the resources nor the inclination nor the knowledge to do such a thing.

I agree with the last part - about time and resources - but I'm not sure putting our faith in a political settlement is really feasible at this point. A political settlement implies that there's going to be some kind of agreed-upon equilibrium in the country, even if that means the Taliban rule over portions of the country. Is that likely, given that we can't even sit down with, you know, actual Taliban? How can you even discuss the contours of post-war settlement if your interlocutors aren't real?

UPDATE: Thinking a bit more about this, it often seems that the term "political settlement" serves the same totemic function for progressives that the word "victory" does for conservatives - an aspirational goal that starts to fall apart the minute it's subjected to serious scrutiny. What's frequently meant by the term political settlement is to have U.S. and NATO forces leave Afghanistan and let the chips fall where they may. But rather than defend that argument, it's couched in terms that make it more palatable to the public.

After all, it's not like both Bush and Obama administrations have not been seeking a political settlement or actively engaging regional stakeholders. It's just that those regional stakeholders have conflicting ideas for what an ideal post-war Afghanistan looks like and so those efforts tend to run aground.

At root, both the case for "victory" and the case for a "political settlement" in Afghanistan rest on a kind of evasiveness about the truly limited ability of the U.S. to orchestrate the fates of millions of people and multiple governments half a world away. Obviously, both outcomes are possible. The U.S. has won military victories before just as it has played a role in forging political settlements between warring parties. But in the case of Afghanistan what we seem to have among elite opinion is a group that wants to stay and a group that wants to leave, and both are groping for whatever arguments buttress that case.

Did an Israeli Referendum Kill the Peace Process?


In a recent column, Jackson Diehl mocked the Obama administration's supposedly retrograde fixation on stopping Israeli settlement building on behalf of the peace process:

The same might be said about Obama's preoccupation with stopping Israel's settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem - a campaign that even Palestinian and Arab leaders have watched with bafflement. True, almost everyone outside Israel regards the construction as counterproductive, and only a minority supports it inside Israel.

But that is just the point: The dream of a "greater Israel" died more than 15 years ago. Even the Israeli right now accepts that a Palestinian state will be created in the West Bank.

Perhaps, but the Israelis don't appear particularly eager to negotiate over annexed territory:

The Knesset passed the National Referendum Law during a late-night session Monday, approving legislation that will fundamentally alter Israeli negotiators’ ability to offer concrete peace deals involving the Golan Heights or east Jerusalem.

The law, which was approved by a vote of 65-33, will require either a Knesset super-majority or a national referendum in order to hand over any annexed territories as part of a future peace deal.

This law does not implicate the West Bank, so technically it's not aimed at protecting "Greater Israel" from whatever form of sovereignty the Palestinians are eventually granted over the remaining territory. But no country - including the United States - recognizes the annexation of either the Golan or East Jerusalem and the referendum is explicitly designed to forestall a settlement of those issues. Several commentators have argued that this vote has essentially killed the two state solution. I'm not sure, I think it effectively died when Hamas took over Gaza. But in any event, it would be wise for the Obama administration to dramatically rethink it's approach, as neither party to the conflict appears ready, willing or able to make peace.

(AP Photo)

Brzezinski on Korea


Writing in the Financial Times Zbigniew Brzezinski offers some advice to President Obama:

The president has to take the initiative. Provocation of this kind cannot be dismissed lightly or left in the hands of diplomats. He should call President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea to reassure him personally and directly of US support. Then he should call President Hu Jintao of China and express serious concern. He should call Prime Minister Naoto Kan of Japan, as America’s prime ally in the Pacific and given its proximity to the Korean conundrum. He should also call President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia. Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, should then follow up on these calls and set in motion convening the United Nations Security Council.

Reaching out to China and the relevant players here is a good idea, but there's a danger in taking "presidential ownership" of a problem of this kind. Like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which the president is currently struggling with, it is unsolvable.

(AP Photo)

November 23, 2010

Ignoring the Uranium in the Room


The exchange of artillery has understandably over-shadowed the other major development on the Korean peninsula - the revelation that the North Koreans had a far more sophisticated Uranium enrichment capability than previously believed. The revelation has sparked criticism inside Korea:

“Since 1998, working-level South Korean officials have been aware that North Korea got its hands on uranium enrichment equipment, but denied this knowledge in 2002 because of the political judgment of higher authorities,” a senior government source said yesterday.

The George W. Bush administration accused Pyongyang in 2002 of operating a clandestine enriched uranium program in violation of its international commitments. But the accusation was challenged in the past by liberal South Korean officials.

“When the United States accused the North of pursuing a highly enriched uranium (HEU) program in 2002, officials of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations argued that it was a fabrication by the neoconservatives in Washington,” Chung Jin-suk, President Lee’s senior political affairs secretary, said yesterday.

“Those who sided with North Korea must come clean and apologize,” he said.

There were several U.S. analysts who also were skeptical of the Bush administration's Uranium allegations.

(AP Photo)

China's Influence on North Korea

Not so much:

China’s influence is rising steadily around the world. But the problem of how to manage its Communist neighbor and one-time ally appears to befuddle China’s leaders, who stumble from indulging the North to sending occasional signals of pique, all without making the country adopt a path toward greater openness or stability.

“At the moment China has limited influence,” Cai Jian, a professor of Korean studies at Fudan University, said in a telephone interview. “On one hand it’s unhappy with North Korean actions and its provocative behavior, but on the other hand it still has to support North Korea.”

It's possible for China to really pressure the North by cutting off aid, but, as Jian notes, fears of a refugee flood and the prospect of an American military presence directly on their border has thus far stayed China's hand.

Obama and Missile Defense

Michaela Bendikova doesn't want the Obama administration to put its faith in arms control treaties but instead to trust in conservative nostrums:

Arms control treaties should be negotiated from a position of strength. After all, Ronald Reagan’s “Peace Through Strength” maxim brought about the end of the Cold War. This enduring principle suggests an alternative path to New START. Pursuing nuclear disarmament in a proliferated world without employing missile defense and maintaining credible nuclear deterrence increases instability, which can lead to nuclear war.

The Obama administration is employing missile defenses. It was literally the headline news out of the NATO summit. And they are maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent: when (if) the New START reductions occur, the U.S. will still have enough nuclear weapons to utterly destroy the capitals and industrial centers of basically any conceivable combination of adversaries. And that's before you account for America's overwhelming advantage in conventional arms.

Israel's Preemptive Strike?


I think the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg may need to revise his prediction that there's a 50 percent chance that Israel will bomb Iran in the next twelve months:

Iran's nuclear program has suffered a recent setback, with major technical problems forcing the temporary shutdown of thousands of centrifuges enriching uranium, diplomats told The Associated Press on Monday.

The diplomats said they had no specifics on the nature of the problem that in recent months led Iranian experts to briefly power down the machines they use for enrichment — a nuclear technology that has both civilian and military uses.

But suspicions focused on the Stuxnet worm, the computer virus thought to be aimed at Iran's nuclear program, which experts last week identified as being calibrated to destroy centrifuges by sending them spinning out of control.

North Korea might want to remove the USB ports from any computers inside their uranium enrichment facility.

(AP Photo)

Easier Said than Done

The last thing Washington should do now is resurrect the failed six-party talks or start bilateral negotiations with the North. Instead, serious efforts need to be made with China on reunifying the Korean peninsula, a goal made ever more urgent by the clear transition of power now underway in Pyongyang as Kim Jong Il faces the actuarial tables. North Korea's threat will only end when it does, and that day cannot come soon enough. - John Bolton, Los Angeles Times

This was written before the exchange of artillery fire, so it's possible that Mr. Bolton may revise this view in light of recent events. That said, it's not clear how - or why - China would want to work with the U.S. to reunify the peninsula. If the North's artillery barrage presages some kind of broader military attack, there may well be the opportunity for China and the U.S. (and South Korea) to plan for a post-Kim North Korea, but barring that it's hard to see how the U.S. can push China to advance our goals.

November 22, 2010

Capitalism 101

But even as Europe moved to avert this latest debt crisis, economists and policy experts are increasingly debating whether it would be better, and fairer, for the Continent’s weakest economies to default on payments to lenders.

Many experts now say that bailouts only delay the inevitable. Instead of further wounding their economies with drastic budget slashing, the specialists assert, governments should immediately start talks with bondholders and force them to accept a loss on their investments. - New York Times

Aren't bondholders supposed to take losses on bad investments?

FARC's Leader's Final Speech

Mono Jojoy, also known as Jorge Briceño, whose real name was Víctor Julio Suárez Rojas, was the military commander and No. 2 man of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). He was killed on Sept. 21 by the Colombian military during a raid on his terrorist camp.

The Colombian authorities have released a video of Mono Jojoy addressing the FARC troops 20 days before his death at one of their main camps on the occasion of welcoming new initiates (h/t Shane). Here is the video:

My translation (if you use the translation, please credit me and link to this post):

"If the comrades Marulanda and Jacobo, for the political circumstances in this country, made the political decision to organize this guerrilla army, [it was] due to causes that justify the existence of this guerrilla.

"Because of that, being a guerrilla is the highest responsibility.

"What we do here is to shape, to improve the character, the thinking, of people coming from a capitalist society, a gossipy society. We, men and women who integrate this army, do it because we had no other opportunity, not because we are violent. We say, let's talk, but they don't pay attention. They want the peace of the kneeling, and that's not us.

"We respect ourselves to be respected. We're not going to spend 50 years to say that the armed struggle is useless.

"That's what I wanted to tell you today. Thank you comrades."

It is a very interesting speech, which casts a few revealing glimpses into the mind of a sociopath.

Fausta Wertz blogs at Fausta's blog.

American Military Spending


The Council on Foreign Relations' Geo-Graphics blog highlights the underlying factors of America's defense spending relative to the world's:

Any change in the U.S. share can be attributed to the operation of four factors: (1) changes in U.S. GDP, (2) changes in rest-of-world GDP, (3) changes in U.S. military spending as a percent of GDP, and (4) changes in rest-of-world military spending as a percent of GDP. Real GDP growth is a sustainable source of change, whereas changes in spending as a percent of GDP require painful tradeoffs and are ultimately unsustainable. Over the past twenty years, the increase in the ratio of U.S. military spending to world military spending has been driven primarily by unsustainable forces.

Fortunately, the U.S. could make defense spending cuts and still retain an edge over any potential competitor, but it cannot do so while simultaneously insisting on the same scope of commitments.

Engage North Korea?


Daryl Kimball says that the recent revelations that North Korea has a more sophisticated uranium enrichment capacity than was previously thought means the Obama administration should get back to the negotiating table:

Since there is no viable or prudent pre-emptive strike option and punitive sanctions alone cannot stop North Korea’s nuclear and missile buildup, the latest crisis requires a renewed diplomatic push, led by Washington, combined with the implementation of more effective economic, military, and political sanctions that have the full support of North Korea’s main trading partner, China.

Containing combined North Korean plutonium AND uranium enrichment programs will likely be even more difficult this time around. North Korea’s leadership is difficult to deal with for sure. But it is imperative that U.S. leads talks aimed at freezing and then verifiably dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program without further delay.

There's nothing wrong with re-engaging North Korea per-se, but is it really possible, in 2010, to believe that said talks would lead to the freezing, much less dismantling of the North's nuclear program? During arguably the most fruitful years of diplomatic engagement - President Clinton's Agreed Framework - the U.S. was able to slow, but not stop, North Korea's nuclear pursuits. Now, slowing down North Korea is a very good idea vs. a policy of doing nothing (or relying solely on sanctions and "strategic patience") and watching them gallop along toward a larger and more sophisticated nuclear arsenal. But all too often proponents of engagement tend to fall prey to the same temptations that more hawkish commentators do in overselling the virtues of their preferred solution.

As for China, they have not been all that enthusiastic about putting the screws to North Korea. And that was before President Obama's containment tour Asian tour.

(AP Photo)

Economic Optimism, Indian Edition

According to Gallup, economic optimism is on the rise in India:


Standard of living perceptions have also been boosted - 44 percent of Indians say their standard of living has improved vs. 32 percent in 2009.

Gallup and RCW surveyed the top five most economically optimistic countries here.

The World Map - By Population


Courtesy of Strange Maps, an interesting experiment:

What if the world were rearranged so that the inhabitants of the country with the largest population would move to the country with the largest area? And the second-largest population would migrate to the second-largest country, and so on?

The result would be this disconcerting, disorienting map. In the world described by it, the differences in population density between countries would be less extreme than they are today. The world's most densely populated country currently is Monaco, with 43,830 inhabitants/mi² (16,923 per km²) (1). On the other end of the scale is Mongolia, which is less densely populated by a factor of almost exactly 10,000, with a mere 4.4 inhabitants/mi² (1.7 per km²).

Click on the photo for a larger-sized map.

November 19, 2010

Iran's Rap Sheet


A consistent criticism of the Obama administration is that they has failed to robustly support Iran's pro-democracy dissidents. It's a charge voiced by, among others, Senator John McCain and scores of pundits and analysts.

Implicit in this condemnation is the notion that should Iran's Green Movement come to power, it would shift the country's nuclear policy in a direction amenable to the United States. This outcome seems to hinge on two assumptions. First, that any Green movement regime would be better than the current leadership and two, that U.S. support for Iranian dissidents wouldn't reduce their domestic credibility or backfire in any other unforeseen way, as previous American attempts to steer Iran's internal politics have.

To understand, however, the scope of what any putative Green movement regime would have to do to satisfy Washington's demands, it's useful to read this piece from Michael Singh. In it, Singh catalogs a laundry list of Iranian malfeasance, such as pervasive weapons smuggling and support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Singh concludes:

And it calls for realism, because it demonstrates that even a resolution of the nuclear issue would only begin to address the far broader concerns about the regime and its activities, making a true U.S.-Iran reconciliation far away indeed.

So for any Green-movement figure to come to power, they would not only have to make substantial changes to the country's nuclear program but reverse considerable swaths of the country's foreign policy to satisfy the demands of the United States. Is that realistic?

(AP Photo)

Counterinsurgency 101

“Why do you have to blow up so many of our fields and homes?” a farmer from the Arghandab district asked a top NATO general at a recent community meeting.

Although military officials are apologetic in public, they maintain privately that the tactic has a benefit beyond the elimination of insurgent bombs. By making people travel to the district governor’s office to submit a claim for damaged property, “in effect, you’re connecting the government to the people,” the senior officer said. - Washington Post

China's 'Crazy Bad' Air

The language of environmental diplomacy:

Air pollution in Beijing was so bad Friday that the U.S. Embassy, which has been independently monitoring air quality, ran out of conventional adjectives to describe it, at one point saying it was "crazy bad."

The embassy later deleted the phrase, saying it was an "incorrect" description and adding that it was working to revise the language to use when the air quality index goes above its highest point of 500, which means the air is considered hazardous for all people by U.S. standards.

November 18, 2010

Defending Europe


Ian Brzezinski thinks President Obama should reject calls to draw down military forces from Europe:

Heeding those calls would be a mistake. Moving military forces based overseas to facilities at home involves high near term costs, including building of new infrastructure. The long term savings are marginal at best. Second, once basing privileges in another country have been terminated, it is never easy to regain them.

Most importantly, the United States would deny itself a critical force multiplier. U.S. troops based in Europe provide the most effective way to develop and sustain allied forces that are truly interoperable and ready to fight side by side with us. This is a critical and challenging necessity. U.S. military units that visit Europe once or twice year can in no way match the levels of joint training and exercises currently available to those stationed in Europe.

Accordingly, at Lisbon, Obama should announce a decision to keep U.S. forces stationed in Europe at their current levels. That would be a strategically serious and politically needed demonstration of U.S. commitment to the transatlantic alliance.

So what, then, would be a European demonstration of their commitment to the transatlantic alliance? Maybe not slashing their defense budgets so steeply? Maybe footing some of the bill - estimated to be in the billions - for retaining U.S. forces in Europe? Or does it not matter at all whether Europe holds up their end of the bargain?

I think we also need to differentiate between pulling up stakes completely in Europe - a root and branch removal of every last military base and soldier - and bringing current force levels down from the 80,000 there now to something lower than what is presently stationed in Korea (roughly 28,500 to defend a significantly more volatile strategic position). Is it not possible for the U.S. to maintain a greatly reduced military footprint in Europe while staying true to its Article 5 committments under NATO? Obviously it is - the nuclear umbrella alone ensures that. The U.S. could sustain a "tripwire" commitment of conventional forces that would be a down payment on a larger influx should the security situation on the continent deteriorate (an unlikely but not completely implausible scenario).

Europe is not under threat from any nation state that its own armed forces could not dispatch. What's more, it's not clear why Brzezinski is so dismissive about the costs of these garrisons. The U.S. Army was already in the process of consolidating its European bases and drawing down brigades - a process that the Obama administration has halted, at a cost of billions of dollars to the taxpayer.

What's more, if the U.S. reduces the overall size of the Army, rather than just relocating it out of Europe, there would be further costs savings as well.

Again, there are policy options between disbanding NATO and pulling out of Europe and sustaining (or doubling down on) the costly Cold War-era status quo. Europe is a secure and prosperous continent that is signaling quite clearly with their own defense budgets how they view their strategic environment. At a time when the U.S. is going to face some form of fiscal retrenchment and the potential for increased security demands from Asia, Europe seems like a logical place to pare back.

(AP Photo)

Karzai's Pandering


John Guardiano thinks that Hamid Karzai's criticisms of U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan isn't terribly significant because Karzai is a "politician pandering to both his domestic political base and his political paymasters in Washington."

I'm not sure how this is supposed to ease people's concerns. In fact, the way in which Mr. Karzai chooses to pander to his domestic base is precisely what's alarming. Notice what Karzai thinks will sell to the Afghans. It's not "I'm hoping Petraeus helps hunt down and destroy the last of the Taliban." It's pointed criticisms of American and NATO forces. Guardiano is right to note that Karzai is simply playing politics, but in this case the politics of Afghanistan cut in favor of trashing the U.S. and NATO. Which is something of a problem.

(AP Photo)

Hard Labor for a Tweet

Be careful what you tweet in China:

Amnesty International today urged the Chinese authorities to release a woman sentenced to a year in a labour camp for retweeting a supposedly anti-Japanese message.

Chinese online activist Cheng Jianping was sentenced to one year of ‘Re-education Through Labour’ on Monday for “disturbing social order”, having retweeted a satirical suggestion on October 17 that the Japanese Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo be attacked.

Obama in Space

The Union of Concerned Scientists is, well, concerned about the Obama administration's space policies:

“As space gets more crowded, risks to satellites are growing,” said UCS Global Security Program Senior Scientist Laura Grego, one of the report’s authors. “And increasingly, insecurity about space activities and the motives behind them are creating friction among spacefaring countries. Unfortunately, the response from the international community, including the United States, has been inadequate. If the Obama administration adopted our recommendations, it could help defuse these tensions and ensure a more secure future in space.”

As David Axe explains, one of the key sources of "friction" is the Air Force's X-37 "space plane" - an unmanned, stealthy vehicle currently orbiting the Earth.

Putin's Puppy


We're used to seeing Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shooting whales, soothing polar bears or riding shirtless across Russian streams. But while in Bulgaria, Putin had a chance to show off his warm and fuzzy side when he was given a Bulgarian shepherd dog by Bulgaria's president (he also pocketed a gas deal). Now Putin is asking Russians to help name the pup. Given that Putin's other dog is named "Connie" it's not clear that the name has to be hyper-masculine, although it probably wouldn't hurt.

(AP Photo)

Nation Building in Afghanistan


Supporters of nation building in Afghanistan frequently argue that such a strategy was never actually tried during the Bush years and that attempting to do strictly "counter-terrorism" operations in the country would just repeat the mistakes of the Bush administration. This defense never struck me as very plausible, because while the Bush administration may have under-resourced their nation building effort, they had more ambitious goals for Afghanistan than simply driving out al-Qaeda.

This is now confirmed by none other than President Bush himself:

In his memoir, one chapter of which is devoted to Afghanistan, Bush writes that "Afghanistan was the ultimate nation building mission. We had liberated the country from a primitive dictatorship, and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better. We also had a strategic interest in helping the Afghan people build a free society," because "a democratic Afghanistan would be a hopeful alternative to the vision of the extremists."

It's impossible to understand why the U.S. has found it so difficult to achieve 'victory' in either Iraq or Afghanistan without understanding the role that lofty and unachievable goals have played in bogging us down.

(AP Photo)

November 17, 2010

Bin Laden & Our Junk

Somewhere in Waziristan, I have to think Osama bin Laden is getting a chuckle out of this.

UPDATE: And this.

The Odd Death of New START

I have been trying to wrap my head around why such an anodyne arms control treaty is provoking such opposition from the GOP. When you have wall-to-wall support in the U.S. military for the treaty and massive public support (including majority support from self-indentified Republicans), it just doesn't seem to make sense. Daniel Larison draws a lesson:

The death of New START is a useful lesson in just how irrelevant public opinion is to the shaping of foreign policy and national security. Relatively small numbers of activists that are better organized, more engaged and more intense in their views can wield disproportionate influence on policy debates. When they are allied with the relevant interest groups and some members of Congress, a small number of dedicated activists can determine policy to a remarkable degree, especially when their opposition is disorganized and largely passive. The side of the debate that has greater intensity and organization will certainly prevail when their opponents simply trust that the inherent worthiness of the initiative or policy will somehow trump political calculation and influence.

The Will to Power

What does it mean for global order when the world figures out that the U.S. president is someone who's willing to take no for an answer?

The answer is that the United States becomes Europe. Except on a handful of topics, like trade and foreign aid, the foreign policy of the European Union, and that of most of its constituent states, amounts to a kind of diplomatic air guitar: furious motion, considerable imagination, but neither sound nor effect. When a European leader issues a stern demarche toward, say, Burma or Russia, nobody notices. And nobody cares.

If the U.S. were to become another Europe—not out of diminished power, but out of a diminished will to assert its power—there would surely never be another Iraq war. That prospect would probably delight some readers of this column. It would also probably mean more fondness for the U.S. in some quarters where it is now often suspected. Vancouver, say, or the Parisian left bank. And that would gladden hearts from the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side. - Bret Stephens

There's a few points to make here. The first, and most obvious is that it is because of Iraq that U.S. power (let alone "will") has taken the kind of hit that Stephens finds so objectionable. Champions of that war - far more than the Obama administration - are responsible for any declines in American power. I can't speak for the Parisian left bank, but for someone who wishes to see the U.S. retain its power long into the future, avoiding peripheral wars of choice that degenerate into trillion dollar boondoggles seems to be a prerequisite.

But what of Stephens' core charge - that Obama has embraced "multipolarity" as the organizing principle of the world and is thus ceding the globe to disorder and insecurity as the U.S. pursues a "European" foreign policy? First, it rests on fantasied rendering of American power and second, a caricature of the current administration.

Stephens would have us forget the years 2004-08, but none of the Bush administration's various diktats were met with sharp salutes and dutiful obedience from international miscreants like Iran and North Korea. The U.S. took "no" for an answer from all the same corners that the Obama administration is taking "no" from - not because of incompetence or lack of will, but because their objectives were difficult and because they had dug themselves a deep hole in Iraq.

As for the Obama administration, it's not clear that they've become "European" in their foreign policy outlook - if by European Stephens means dovish. They've escalated both the wars in Afghanistan and the aerial war inside Pakistan and they are extending America's counter-terrorism campaign inside Yemen. This may be insufficiently robust for Stephens but any honest reading of the record wouldn't confuse this with "European" passivity (incidentally that charge is somewhat slanderous in its own right considering how many Europeans are dying alongside Americans inside Afghanistan).

Countries at Risk from Water Stress


The risk consulting firm Maplecroft has released an index measuring the countries most at risk from water stress:

The index is calculated by evaluating the ratio of a country’s total water use, from domestic, industrial and agricultural use, to the renewable supply of water from precipitation, streams, rivers and groundwater.

At a national level, the Water Stress Index identifies the Middle East and North African countries of Egypt (1), Kuwait (2), UAE (3), Libya (4) and Saudi Arabia (5) as exposed to the most overall risk. Water stress in this region is not surprising as it only receives 1% of the world’s precipitation, of which 85% is lost, for example through evaporation. However, the key economies of Australia (19), India (29), China (40) and USA (51) have all been rated as ‘high risk’ due to massive ‘extreme risk’ areas of water stress, where demand is exceeding 80% of total renewable water resources.

November 16, 2010

China in the Middle East

In the LA Times, David Schenker & Chirstina Lin argue that we should be concerned about China's relationships in the Middle East:

Given China's extensive presence throughout the world — attributable at least in part to the fact that its foreign policy is devoid of moral concerns — it is unrealistic to expect that Washington could have somehow excluded Beijing from the Middle East. Indeed, the very absence of considerations other than national interest makes China an appealing partner to states in a region where authoritarianism is rife. Some Mideast states also likely view China as useful counterbalance against the West.

That first sentence is odd, no? If China's growing global role is at least partly attributable to a lack of "moral concerns" what do the authors think about the considerably larger U.S. global role? They continue:

What is of concern, however, is that the rapid rate of Chinese progress occurs amid a growing regional perception that the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East.

Although China holds a significant portion of U.S. debt, and trade relations are strong, at the end of the day the two nations are competitors — both strategic and economic — with profoundly differing worldviews. It may be that this great game will end with Washington and Beijing as allies. More likely, though, a modus vivendi will emerge between the two powers. Until then, Washington should work to strengthen its remaining regional allies and reestablish a presence in the region.

Unfortunately the piece ends there, so it's not clear what's entailed by "reestablishing" a presence (add more military bases, reoccupy Iraq?). It's also a bit ironic, given how the authors castigate China for being "devoid of moral concerns" in its foreign policy to then urge the U.S. to reinforce ties with "regional allies" in the Middle East. Those allies, with the exception of Israel, are uniformly autocratic, when they're not tyrannical. Of course, we can't boost ties with democratic Turkey because the authors spend the beginning of the piece bashing "Islamist" Turkey for partnering with China.

The more important question is why, exactly, we should worry about what China's doing in the Middle East. The authors advance the idea that the U.S. and China are competitors, so presumably we would guard our position in the Middle East to exercise some kind of leverage over China. But in reality, it doesn't work that way. We're the ones begging Beijing to sign onto our sanctions against countries in the region. If push came to shove, the U.S. could halt or massively disrupt oil shipments from the Middle East - but that would not only hurt China but every oil-importing country in Asia and beyond.

It seems to me that China has a logical strategy with respect to the Middle East - let the U.S. pick up the cost of stationing forces in the region and exhaust itself waging various wars and hatching clever "containment" schemes to manage this or that political actor it disapproves of while China makes deals and gets access to needed energy resources.

U.S. Views on Trade

According to Pew Research, Americans are taking a dimmer view of free trade:

Most Americans say that increased trade with Canada, Japan and European Union countries -- as well as India, Brazil and Mexico -- would be good for the United States. But reactions are mixed to increased trade with South Korea and China.

More generally, there is increased skepticism about the impact of trade agreements such as NAFTA and the policies of the World Trade Organization. Roughly a third (35%) say that free trade agreements have been good for the United States, while 44% say they have been bad for the U.S.

Support for free trade agreements is now at one of its lowest points in 13 years of Pew Research Center surveys.

China's State Capitalism


The Wall Street Journal takes an in depth look at how "state capitalism" works in China:

Central to China's approach are policies that champion state-owned firms and other so-called national champions, seek aggressively to obtain advanced technology, and manage its exchange rate to benefit exporters. It leverages state control of the financial system to channel low-cost capital to domestic industries—and to resource-rich foreign nations whose oil and minerals China needs to maintain rapid growth.

China's policies are partly a product of its unique status: a developing country that is also a rising superpower. Its leaders don't assume the market is preeminent. Rather, they see state power as essential to maintaining stability and growth, and thereby ensuring continued Communist Party rule.

The article notes that Japan pursued a similar strategy during its economic ascendancy, so it's too soon to worry that the sky is falling. If Chinese growth stalls (and you have to imagine at some point it will), they may be forced to rethink some elements of "state capitalism."

(AP Photo)

November 15, 2010

Helsinki, Human Rights and the Green Movement


Ray Takeyh believes it's high the West linked human rights to Iranian nuclear negotiations:

As part of any negotiations with the West, the Islamic Republic should be asked to amend not just its nuclear infractions but also its human rights abuses. This entails releasing political prisoners, lifting the restrictions on civil society groups and allowing publication of banned newspapers. Unless Tehran accedes to such measures, it must continue to confront economic pressure and political isolation. Should the United States take such an unequivocal stand as part of its diplomatic outreach, it can further stimulate domestic dissent in Iran. In the meantime, an isolated, weakened regime faced with economic decline, political ferment and international ostracism maybe tempted to offer important concessions to escape its predicament. The path to disarmament and democracy lies in making common cause with the Green Movement and making Iran's behavior toward its citizens a precondition to its reintegration in the community of nations.

This is all well and good, but how exactly - assuming the Green Movement is indeed as viable and organized as Takeyh asserts - do you get profligate human rights abusers such as China to go along with such preconditions? Sanctions will only work so long as Tehran runs out of markets to run to, and China will have to play a big part in the enforcement of such restrictions. (Getting Beijing to play ball on this has already proven difficult, and that's without the human rights language proposed by Mr. Takeyh.)

He goes on to cite the 1975 Helsinki Accords as an historical example of human rights-linked diplomacy, but I fail to see the parallel. Iran, needless to say, is not the Soviet Union, nor does it present the same imperative threat to the Western world as did the Soviets. The Helsinki Accords were a multilateral effort to prevent a world war over borders and sovereignty; a cartographic crisis plan, of sorts.

The situation in Iran simply isn't the same, and I don't know that leaders in Beijing, Moscow or even Brussels feel the same sense of urgency and danger as the key players in Helsinki once did.

(AP Photo)

How to Survive a Pirate Hijacking

The European Naval Force for Somalia has released a helpful brochure in the event that you find yourself captured by Somali pirates. The advice is here. (pdf) Among its many recommendations:

Be aware that the ransom payment process is very stressful for the pirates and they may be more agitated than normal. Try to avoid contact with the pirates at this time. Confine yourself to established routines and behaviour patterns so as not to attract unnecessary attention on you. It may be some days after payment before you are released. Do not expect to be released immediately....

Khat is a common drug used in the Somali region. If the pirates onboard your vessel use this or other drugs, you should be careful to avoid any confrontations whilst they are under the influence of such substances. You should not be tempted to take drugs, other than for legitimate medical conditions, whilst in captivity. The taking of drugs may offer temporary relief, however the negative effects of withdrawal symptoms and increased tension due to cravings could result in unnecessary violence from your captors.

[Hat tip: Danger Room]

Who's Running Afghanistan?


Over the weekend, Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave an interview to the Washington Post where he decried American military raids in the country. Today, the Post reports that he's been scolded by General Petraeus:

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the coalition military commander in Afghanistan, warned Afghan officials Sunday that President Hamid Karzai's latest public criticism of U.S. strategy threatens to seriously undermine progress in the war and risks making Petraeus's own position "untenable," according to Afghan and U.S. officials.

Officials said Petraeus expressed "astonishment and disappointment" with Karzai's call, in a Saturday interview with The Washington Post, to "reduce military operations" and end U.S. Special Operations raids in southern Afghanistan that coalition officials said have killed or captured hundreds of Taliban commanders in recent months.

Then there's this, from an unnamed NATO official:

"I think it's [Karzai's] directness that really sticks in the craw," another NATO official said. "He is standing 180 degrees to what is a central tenet of our current campaign plan."

"It's pretty clear that you no longer have a reliable partner in Kabul," the official added. "I think we tried to paper it over with [Karzai's] Washington visit" in May. "But the wheels have becoming looser and looser . . . since that."

What do Western officials expect to happen when they turn things over to Karzai in 2011, 2014 or whenever?

(AP Photo)

10 Centuries of European History

In five minutes:

Defending Stasis


Gary Schmitt and Thomas Donnelly take a look at the Simpson/Bowles deficit cutting proposal:

No, what ultimately drives their push for defense cuts is the idea of, in Bowles and Simpson’s phrase, “rethinking our 21st century global role.” This is shorthand for a reduced American role in the world. What the libertarian right and liberal left want, in other words, is nothing short of a reversal in America’s six-decade-long strategic posture.

America certainly faces a budget crisis. And to the degree that economies can be found in the Pentagon budget, they ought to be found. But people should not kid themselves: Proposals for treating defense as if it were on an equal footing with the Department of Education are not about getting America’s fiscal house in order. They are back door efforts to reduce America’s global leadership role.

The funny thing about this argument is that it contains the seeds of its own refutation. We have, as the authors admit, a strategic posture that dates back sixty years, back when the world was a considerably different place. Why wouldn't you want to rethink that posture in light of both America's budgetary capacity and the geopolitical circumstances?

(AP Photo)

Trade Objections

For years, Democrats have insisted that they support free trade provided there were labor and environmental protections baked into any deal. Yet it appears that's not quite the case, at least when it comes to the environment:

Korea used to be one of the most protected automobile markets in the world. But it has gradually done away with most of the high tariffs and import restrictions that shut out foreign cars and trucks. An 8 percent tariff on cars and a 10 percent tariff on trucks remain, but the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement would remove them immediately with respect to U.S. cars and trucks. As for our own markets, the ratification of the agreement would require us to immediately remove a 2.5 percent tariff on Korean cars, but would give us ten years to phase out a 25 percent tariff on Korean trucks. So it seems like Detroit is getting the better of this deal. What’s not to like?

Here’s the punch line: U.S. automakers, their unions, and their allies in government -- including most Democrats and Barack Obama -- think Korea’s fuel-economy and environmental standards are too high. They are arguing that these standards act as a non-tariff barrier to cars and trucks made in U.S. factories, because, gosh darn it, we just don’t make cars and trucks that clean and green over here.

You can read background on the U.S.-Korea trade negotiations here.

Britain Readies 'Happiness Index'


The British government is readying a new measurement of national performance:

The UK government is poised to start measuring people's psychological and environmental wellbeing, bidding to be among the first countries to officially monitor happiness.

Despite "nervousness" in Downing Street at the prospect of testing the national mood amid deep cuts and last week's riot in Westminster, the Office of National Statistics will shortly be asked to produce measures to implement David Cameron's long-stated ambition of gauging "general wellbeing".

Countries such as France and Canada are looking at similar initiatives as governments around the world come under pressure to put less store on conventional economic measures of prosperity such as gross domestic product.

If nothing else, it might be a useful way to mask declines or poor performance in more traditional economic indicators. Or it might serve to establish a strongrt connection between those indicators and national happineness.

Jim Jubak has a good primer on GDP vs. GNH (gross national happiness).

(AP Photo)

Countries Most at Risk from Terrorism


The risk consulting firm Maplecroft has released its Terrorism Risk Index for 2010, which tracks the frequency and intensity of terrorism attacks around the world. The most dangerous countries from a terrorism perspective are:

1. Somalia
2. Pakistan
3. Iraq

The firm ranks a total of 16 countries as being under "extreme risk" - a list that includes Colombia, Thailand, Philippines, Yemen, Russia, and Israel.

Greece has moved the most in the index, from 57th on the list to 24th and is now considered the European country most at risk from a terrorist attack. The U.S. is ranked 33th.

(AP Photo)

November 14, 2010

Georgian-Russian Tensions Still High


Modern weapons of war are becoming more and more commonplace in all conflict theaters around the world. Russian "Interfax" news agency reports that an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle flew over the break-away province of South Ossetia and retreated after the South Ossetians opened fire. The break-away province complained that there have been many such flights over its territory originating from Georgia. Another former Georgian province, Abkhazia, also faces repeated surveillance by the Georgian UAVs.

Meanwhile, the spy row between Georgia and Russia shows no signs of abating. Last week, the Georgian government announced the arrest of 13 "Russian spies," many of whom were Georgian citizens allegedly spying for Moscow. This week, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili addressed the nation on television. "Operation "Enveri" is the first stage in a massive counter-intelligence operations. There are many spy groups in Georgia still," said the minister. "But it's not the only operation currently conducted by the Georgian Counterintelligence services. At least three Russian spy agencies operate on the territory of Georgia - FSB, SVR and GRU - and each has its own networks."

Merabishvili also offered his thoughts on why the official reaction in Moscow to "spy scandal" was rather muted. According to him, in 2006, when Georgian authorities arrested four Russian soldiers and dozens of Georgian citizens in a counter-intel sweep, "Moscow still thought we were its satellite . . . And Moscow was psychologically wounded that a state it considered as unimportant was actually taking some action. Since then, much time has passed, and Georgia's image has changed. So now Russia's reaction was adequate, similar to the one when its spies were discovered in Europe. When we will identify Russian spies for the third time, there may not be any reaction from Russia at all."

For its part, Moscow considers the latest Georgian spy operation as a provocation and a "political farce."

(AP Photo)

November 12, 2010

American Exceptionalism, Ctd.

And as officials frenetically tried to paper over differences among the Group of 20 members with a vaguely worded communiqué to be issued Friday, there was no way to avoid discussion of the fundamental differences of economic strategy. After five largely harmonious meetings in the past two years to deal with the most severe downturn since the Depression, major disputes broke out between Washington and China, Britain, Germany and Brazil.

Each rejected core elements of Mr. Obama’s strategy of stimulating growth before focusing on deficit reduction. Several major nations continued to accuse the Federal Reserve of deliberately devaluing the dollar last week in an effort to put the costs of America’s competitive troubles on trading partners, rather than taking politically tough measures to rein in spending at home. - New York Times

What's all the fuss? President Obama's just being exceptional!

Obama in Iraq


Since shortly before the Iraqi elections nearly eight months ago, there has been a low but steady chorus urging the Obama administration to micromanage Iraqi politics to ensure an outcome favorable to U.S. interests. The conceit - as espoused by people like the Brookings Institute's Kenneth Pollak - was that the U.S. could (quietly, of course, and oh-so-cleverly) help to pick and choose political winners inside the country to ensure Iraq developed in a way favorable to the United States.

The president apparently took that advice to heart:

Last Saturday, Mr. Obama phoned Mr. Talabani and asked him to give up the seat he has held since 2005 so that Mr. Allawi could be Iraq's president, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials familiar with the diplomacy. Mr. Obama on Saturday also urged the president of the Kurdistan region, Massoud Barzani, to accept Mr. Allawi in the role of the presidency.

Since late summer, U.S. officials had been trying to get Mr. al-Maliki and Mr. Allawi to share power in the government because neither man's party won the majority of votes. But Mr. al-Maliki's Rule of Law party ultimately formed an alliance with the Kurds and another Shiite bloc with ties to Iran known as the Iraqi National Alliance.

Qubad Talabani, Mr. Talabani's son and the Washington representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government, said the Kurds were disappointed with the United States.

"As the deadlock continues, Iyad Allawi has said the only post he wants is prime minister or president. The Americans have come to us and have asked us to step aside and relinquish the post of president to Iraqiya and specifically to Iyad Allawi, which we find very disappointing," he said.

The Kurds are generally regarded as the most pro-American faction inside Iraq, and if they're not interested in helping out the U.S. then it's safe to conclude that no one else will either.

(AP Photo)

November 11, 2010

Musharraf Attempts a Comeback


There was an interesting event yesterday on Capitol Hill with former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, hosted (oddly) by former Republican Senator Rick Santorum and the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The former general and former coup architect seems hellbent on a return to political leadership, and took the time to, among other things, criticize President Obama for visiting India but not Pakistan on his recent four-nation trip:

"One would have preferred that he should have gone to Pakistan to give due importance to Pakistan, which is fighting extremism and terrorism in a lead role and being a strategic partner with the US on this issue," the Daily Times quoted Musharraf, as saying.

The former President further said that Obama's support of India's bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) would not be viewed favorably in Pakistan.

Musharraf also emphasized that the ongoing drone strikes in Pakistan risk destabilizing the country.

"I don't think Pakistan is the problem, but there is no doubt there is terrorism and extremism. The centre of gravity of all of this is Afghanistan. Pakistan is the victim of all this. We need to see Pakistan sympathetically," Musharraf said.

While he had some other critiques for India, Musharraf saved some of his toughest criticism for the question and answer period, where he bristled at our questions regarding his prior tenure - particularly those questions regarding Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. "Three hundred ISI operatives have died, but we think they are cooperating?" he said, without denying that much if not all of the ISI supports the Taliban. In another DC appearance, he called for slow-playing any restrictions on the radical Islamic group Lashkar-e-Taiba:

"You can't rock the boat so much that the boat capsizes," Musharraf, a military ruler who stepped down in 2008 and is attempting a political comeback, said at the Atlantic Council think-tank in Washington.

"While these things have to be done, allow piecemeal, gradual action through a well thought-out strategy which does not disturb the entire law and order situation in Pakistan," Musharraf said.

Musharraf acknowledged that Lashkar-e-Taiba and like-minded groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad were "involved in terrorism in Pakistan" but said they have been "very popular" for fighting Indian rule in divided Kashmir.

"Since they were going to Kashmir and fighting the Indian army, it went along with the psyche of the people of Pakistan -- with everyone," Musharraf said.

There are certainly countries that promote men like Musharraf, and it's possible he could mount a political comeback - but so few are able to apply authoritarianism correctly, if there is such a thing. If Musharraf has no plans to push back against these internal forces, his usefulness to America seems minor at best. When nearly every Pakistan province currently has an active separatist movement, effectively turning a nation-state into a conglomeration of the ISI and a core group of Pakistani-nationalist elites, it is perhaps time to ask whether Pakistan would be better served by just becoming part of India.

In all seriousness, I also asked what Musharraf thought would happen if the Americans leave Afghanistan as scheduled in 2011. He dodged the question, maintaining that it would be a positive development as long as their goals on the ground were met. He also made sure to refer people to his Facebook page, where he has hundreds of thousands of fans.

(AP Photo)

Is Bibi Screwing Up?


Jeffrey Goldberg thinks he might be:

On a related subject, the building of new apartments in the settlement city of Ariel only underscores another central fact of the conflict, that settlements are in many ways a diversion from a more basic issue, which is the issue of borders. Instead of talking about settlements, the parties should be talking about the future borders of Palestine. The borders will define which settlements remain, and which ones have to go. This is why it was a mistake of the Obama Administration to fetishize settlements, and make a freeze a pre-condition of negotiations. Of course, this was merely a tactical mistake. Netanyahu, I fear, is making a strategic mistake, by refusing to frame, out loud, and in a way that, yes, might threaten the stability of his governing coalition, his vision for an eventual peace. This is a mistake for any number of reasons -- his refusal to act with vision means that Israel continues to be on defensive in the court of international public opinion; it continues to create friction with the Obama Administration; it inadvertently brings the Palestinians closer to a unilateral declaration of independence; and it denies the Israeli people their right to hear their leaders speak honestly about the precariousness of their situation in the world.

I don't think any of these count as some kind of serious setback for Netanyahu. Israel has been defensive in the court of international public opinion (such as it is) for years now. Presumably it could take a few more months or years of bad press.

Creating friction with the Obama administration has been a political winner for Netanyahu. It hasn't hurt his standing at home and hasn't harmed Israel's relationship with the U.S. The aid, and diplomatic support, will continue to flow no matter how peeved some officials inside the Obama administration get. There have been a number of Israeli commentators urging Netanyahu to become even more intransigent with Obama now that the GOP has control of the House. This does not bespeak a strategy that is failing.

(AP Photo)

Internal Strife in Malaysia

There's a good deal of domestic political strife going on at the moment in Malaysia, most of it coming in the form of a movement to "oust Anwar," targeted against Pakatan Rakyat leader Anwar Ibrahim.

I've mentioned in the past my opinion that Anwar's views get a far friendlier airing in the Western press than they deserve, perhaps because of his (legitimate) victimhood in the past as the target of political and legal smears. Yet such a victim status shouldn't make the Wall Street Journal editorial page ignore his intonations about "the Jewish lobby" and support for the Israel-bashing International Institute of Islamic Thought. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the right decision, in my view, to just call Anwar during her recent Malaysia visit after a planned sit-down meeting raised a few eyebrows. But regardless of any external critiques, Anwar's role as the head of the opposition (Pakatan Rakyat consists of a coalition of three parties, the PKR, DAP and PAS) has not been an item of significant disagreement in the past.

You can read this piece by Lim Sue Goan to see several reasons why this has changed. Internal battles and fractures have emerged within his constituency - Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, who's called for Anwar and Azmin Ali to step down, is now bent on challenging him for leadership of the PKR, and the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition won two by-elections last week.

In response, Anwar has promised to field younger candidates in the elections anticipated early next year, in an attempt to bolster the pro-reform branding of his coalition. This may work as a play to younger voters, but, on the whole, it seems a weak response to "the biggest crisis the party has faced since its inception in 1999." In any parliamentary system, this kind of upheaval is not what you want to see in the lead up to an election where voters must have confidence in your leadership abilities.

How the Pentagon Will Fight China


David Axe gives us a glimpse of the AirSea Battle concept:

It seems AirSea Battle mostly involves better communications and command procedures for integrating ships and planes into the same task forces. But there’s at least one new piece of hardware: a new, more deadly anti-ship missile. On Wednesday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded Lockheed Martin a 3-year, $160 million contract to develop the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile. The goal is for LRASM to give Navy ships “the ability to attack important enemy ships outside the ranges of the enemy’s ability to respond with anti-ship missiles of their own.”

LRASM must fit into the Navy’s existing vertical-launch cells and should rely less on “off-board” targeting — drones, planes, satellites — than current weapons. In other words, the LRASM must have its own, smart sensors. That would allow even isolated or electronically-jammed American ships to sink enemy vessels.

It's good to see the Department of Defense finding inspiration in old Atari games. More, in a serious vein, here.

(AP Photo)

A Nation Building Army?

Matt Duss isn't impressed with Dominic Tierney's effort to cast nation-building as a Jeffersonian pursuit:

Tierney’s attempt to rope in Thomas Jefferson, specifically, seems especially questionable given the huge debts that the U.S. has racked up to pay for our current foreign nation-building efforts. Jefferson’s opposition to saddling one’s descendants with debt is well-known (even if he failed to meet this standard in his personal affairs). In 1816, Jefferson wrote, “The principle of spending money to be paid by posterity under the name of funding is but swindling futurity on a large scale.” In 1820 he added, “It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world.” And on and on.

China's Growth


The Conference Board's Global Economic Outlook claims that the "emerging markets" are going to be the drivers of global economic growth through 2010. At such time, the Board says that China may have a larger GDP than the U.S. in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) by 2020.

Through 2015, the Conference Board expects U.S. GDP to putter along at 1.8 percent growth while China hums along at 9.2 and India follows behind at 8.3. The Board sees China's growth rates cooling a bit on the back-end of the forecast: down to 8.6, while both the U.S. and India make growth gains. Meanwhile, in Europe

In short, the Board argues that "we are seeing unprecedented shifts in the distribution of global output."

Derek Scissors says we should be skeptical of these numbers because the price of goods in China is likely to increase, which would impact the PPP comparisons considerably.

(AP Photo)

Saudi Arabia: Bastion of Women's Rights

It really is hard to take the UN very seriously, isn't it:

Iran failed yesterday to secure a seat on the board running the new UN super agency for women in the face of a fierce diplomatic onslaught against its rights record.

But Saudi Arabia, criticized for refusing even to let women drive, got an automatic seat and rights groups said they will now seek to throw the spotlight on the kingdom's record.

November 10, 2010

Iraq's War on Christians


In 2003, President Bush argued that "the establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution."

Unfortunately, it hasn't quite turned out that way:

This morning, the terrorists who had killed 44 of Baghdad's Christians at their place of worship, came hunting them once more – this time in their homes.

They struck 10 times just after 7am in six different places in Baghdad, almost all of them Christian houses.

Mortars damaged two homes in the south. Improvised bombs damaged four in the north of the city and four in the east. A total of four people were killed and 25 injured. Worse was the effect on the city's already traumatised Christian minority, which now seems more fearful than ever – and potentially poised for another mass exodus.

The more acts of violence like this occur, the more it looks like Iraq is sleep-walking back into a blood-drenched nightmare. And taking the U.S. with it.

(AP Photo)

Chinese Views on Island Disputes


A new poll finds that about a third of Chinese think China should use force to back up its territorial claims in Asia:

The Global Times newspaper said more than 90 percent of the Chinese responding to the poll are concerned about territorial disputes between China and Japan and Southeast Asian countries but do not view the issue as a national priority.

A vast majority of the respondents, 76.3 percent, reject the idea of the United States acting as a mediator in China's territorial disputes and 40 percent suspect Washington is instigating an "anti-China alliance" over the territorial issues....

The poll results show that 39.8 percent of the respondents believe China should fight for its territorial claims, while 35.3 percent favor "putting disputes aside and developing (the islands) jointly while insisting on our sovereignty," the newspaper said.

The Global Times is affiliated with the official Communist party newspaper, the People's Daily so caveat emptor on the poll results.

(AP Photo)

No Plan B


It's difficult to know what to make of this news:

A White House review of President Obama's Afghanistan strategy next month will judge "how this current approach is working" but will not suggest alternatives if aspects of the policy are found to be failing, a senior administration official said Tuesday.
So if a policy is deemed to be failing in Afghanistan, the administration plans to continue that policy regardless?

(AP Photo)

U.S. Leadership in Asia

According to Gallup, American leadership polls favorably to China's or India's in many Asian nations:


November 9, 2010

Open-mindedness in Southeast Asia


Whenever the president travels overseas, journalists tend to be surprised by at least one or two things they find in the nations they visit. No matter how cosmopolitan the observer, there always seems to be an anecdote or moment from a presidential visit that gives professional journalists pause, usually buried in the middle area of an article. Oftentimes it's an indication that a perceived third world country is more progressive than they had thought - such is the case today in the New York Times concerning their report from Indonesia, which contains this surprising note:

[Obama's] nanny was an openly gay man who, in keeping with Indonesia's relaxed attitudes toward homosexuality, carried on an affair with a local butcher, longtime residents said. The nanny later joined a group of transvestites called Fantastic Dolls, who, like the many transvestites who remain fixtures of Jakarta's streetscape, entertained people by dancing and playing volleyball.

Matt DeLong notes this item with a degree of surprise. While I can't speak for Indonesia, nations like Malaysia have an interesting and surprising feel, without being overtly westernized in the way of, say, Singapore. Of course, this also leads to clashes between the old Muslim guardians of culture and a community that is by its nature more multi-ethnic and relaxed - but the good news is that the theocrats, for the time being, are getting the short end.

In any case, "surprisingly open minded" is a positive phrase to use when applied to Muslim countries, especially as the mix of culture with Hindus and Christians reaches a point where the minorities hold positions of authority.

(AP Photo)

Islamic Finance and Microfinance

My RCW colleague Kevin Sullivan sent along this interesting China Post article concerning the rise of Islamic finance:

Will Islamic finance be a serious challenge to traditional Wall Street finance? That is a question that deserves a good answer.

First of all, thanks to the good work of Bank Negara Malaysia and the Gulf central banks, the infrastructure for Islamic finance has been laid, with the establishment of the Accounting and Auditing Organization for Islamic Financial Institutions (AOFFI), the Islamic accounting standards authority, the Islamic Financial Services Board (IFSB), the international Islamic financial regulatory standard-setting organisation and the Institute for Education in Islamic Finance (INCEIF). The International Shari'ah Research Academy for Islamic Finance (ISRA) also provides an invaluable website that is increasingly the transparent source for shari'ah interpretations on what is considered acceptable under Islamic law.

For people unfamiliar with Islamic finance, the basic principle of Islamic banking is the sharing of profit and loss and the prohibition of usury. Simply put, interest is prohibited, but profit sharing is not. A cynic can say that with zero interest rate policies adopted by advanced country central banks today, they are also practicing Islamic banking.

I am a bit skeptical about these conclusions. As a general principle, Islamic finance is illiquid and overpriced, primarily because it's not a large market. The people who make use of this financial source tend to be those who have no alternate choice, for sociocultural reasons, and anybody who does have a choice doesn't bother with it. And while some European banks have gotten into Islamic finance on the sell side, they're only doing so because there's a profit opportunity.

This does, however, raise another finance item for consideration.

As you may know, and as recent editorials in the Financial Times and elsewhere have noted, the world of microfinance is becoming a profound disappointment, and rapidly turning into a debt trap for the rural poor, leading nations that had embraced the practice, such as Bangladesh, to announce rate caps. An internal announcement from SKS Microfinance today of interest rate cuts is hardly a permanent improvement, as the WSJ reports:

The microfinance industry has virtually ground to a halt in Andhra Pradesh following moves by the government to protect borrowers from high interest rates and heavy-handed recovery agents, which officials say have triggered more than 70 suicides in the state.

Microfinance companies lend small amounts—usually less than $200—to poor people who use the money to start or expand small businesses such as vegetable stands or bicycle repair shops.

But interest rates can be exorbitant, from 25% to 100% a year.

This compares with rates of between the high single digits and the low double digits that banks charge for loans to retail customers, depending on factors such as the product, maturity and loan size.

I'm not about to suggest Muhammad Yunus' approach is wrong, and a firmer policy of “one loan, one client” may result in some positive ramifications. But the point here is that microfinance has its own set of negatives, and that more solutions are needed given the social and economic instability which can result from situations like this.

China and the U.S. Navy


Alvin Felzenberg and Alexander Gray make the case for bolstering the U.S. Navy to contain China:

Actions such as these suggest that the people formulating current U.S. military posture may have forgotten a vital lesson of the Cold War: that perception can often be just as important as reality. It was America’s unprecedented investments in rebuilding and protecting Western Europe through the Marshall Plan and deterring an outside threat against it through NATO that demonstrated to the Soviet Union America’s commitment to defending the West against aggression. But for the perception that the U.S. was willing to go to war to protect democratic countries on that continent, the history of the last half-century would have been the story of either the loss of freedom through accommodation to Soviet aggression, or war.

The trouble with this version of Cold War history is that it leaves out a rather important fact: the U.S. fought two massive wars - at a cost of over 100,000 lives - to sustain the "perception" that we were willing to stand up to Soviet Communism. Are the authors suggesting that the U.S. embark on similar endeavors to impress upon the Chinese leadership our seriousness?

They continue:

Absent an overwhelming superiority in naval strength to back up trade and other negotiated agreements, President Obama’s efforts to re-engage in Asia will be worthless. China respects power and will adjust its foreign policy to the realization that the interests of America and its allies are both immutable and capable of being defended. That is the true path to an enduring peace.

I think it's correct for the U.S. to sustain a good deal of military power in Asia, of which the Navy plays a huge role. But this kind of advice really, really falls apart without a clear definition as to the American interests that are supposed to be "immutable." It's particularly important to spell out which of our allies' interests we are expected to treat as immutable and worthy of dying for.

(AP Photo)

American Leadership

David Schorr thinks that, contrary to my assertion, American leadership really does stand between a civilized world order and Hobbesian chaos:

Check my logic here:

1. The biggest items on the agenda -- disequilibrium in the global economy, climate change, and nuclear proliferation -- are on a negative trend line, stemming directly for a shortfall in international cooperation.

2. These items are high on the agenda because the stakes are high and the consequences dire.

3. Diplomatic and political impetus from the United States is a critical factor in spurring a more serious collective international response. We don't have all the answers, but we're taking the questions seriously; if America pulls back, things will continue along their downward slide.

Chaos? Economic imbalances will eventually go completely out of balance. Ten nuclear-armed nations becomes 12, 15, 20... Violent political predators from Sudan to Zimbabwe go unchecked. Oh, and remind me what happens when the global average temperature reaches four plus degrees over pre-industrial levels? I don't think chaos overstates the case.

The real point is that the United States cannot by itself ward off this Hobbesian future. This is an appeal to other governments to join Washington as global leaders who step up to their responsibilities to deal with these challenges.

Jacksonians & Afghanistan

Michael Gerson sees "Jacksonian" Republicans making trouble for President Obama's foreign policy:

Even without a developed tea party foreign policy, the center of gravity on Capitol Hill is likely to shift in a Jacksonian direction. Historian Walter Russell Mead describes this potent, populist foreign policy tradition as "an instinct rather than an ideology." Today's Jacksonians believe in a strong military, assertively employed to defend American interests. They are skeptical of international law and international institutions, which are viewed as threats to American sovereignty and freedom of action. Jacksonians are generally dismissive of idealistic global objectives, such as a world free from nuclear weapons. Instead, they are heavily armed realists, convinced that America operates in an irredeemably hostile world. In particular, according to Mead, Jacksonians believe in wars that end with the unconditional surrender of an enemy, instead of "multilateral, limited warfare or peacekeeping operations."

But then he writes:

But the largest test case will be Afghanistan. Here Obama faces a rare challenge. His base of support for the Afghan War lies mainly in the opposing party, making Republican attitudes toward the war decisive. As Obama's July 2011 deadline for beginning the withdrawal of American troops approaches, any hint of civilian-military divisions on strategy could dramatically erode Republican support. Jacksonians like to win wars. But if Obama appears reluctant, they could easily turn against a war the president does not seem determined to win.

This doesn't make sense. In the prior graf, Gerson insists Jacksonians don't like "multilateral, limited warfare or peacekeeping operations." That's precisely what we're doing in Afghanistan. If anything, a spike in Jacksonian sentiment would lead to an erosion in support for an open-ended commitment to nation-building in Afghanistan, which is what the conservative defense establishment believes is necessary to secure American interests.

Indeed, a Jacksonian turn in the GOP would probably horrify Gerson who, along with his former boss, President Bush, is a purveyor of "idealistic global objectives" such as ridding the world of tyranny.

Afghanistan: View from the Ground


The Asia Foundation has released a comprehensive survey of Afghan public opinion. Some key findings:

In 2010, 47% of respondents say that the country is moving in the right direction.

Insecurity (including attacks, violence and terrorism) is also identifed as the biggest problem in Afghanistan by over a third of respondents (37%), particularly in the South East (51%), West (43%) and South West (42%).

Unemployment remains the second biggest problem, mentioned by 28% of respondents. Corruption is identified by 27% of respondents making it the third biggest problem in 2010, and marking a significant increase from 2009 when it was mentioned by 17%. A poor economy
(11%), lack of education (11%) and poverty (10%) also continue to be identified amongst Afghanistan’s biggest problems.

Support for the Government’s approach for negotiation and reintegration of armed opposition groups is significantly higher in 2010 than in 2009. Eighty three percent of respondents support the government’s attempts to address the security situation through negotiation and reconciliation with armed anti-government elements, compared to 71% in 2009. Support is highest in the East (89%), South East (85%) and North West (85%) and lowest in the Central/Hazarajat region (78%).

Full survey here. (pdf)

November 8, 2010

India on the Security Council


President Obama's declaration that India should have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council is being hailed as an overdue move to modernize an institution that has labored to reform itself to better reflect late 20th and early 21st century power realities. It's also, as Mark Leon Goldberg points out, not gonna happen anytime soon, if ever, thanks to China. Which just goes to show that the Council isn't a very effective body to begin with and will be seen as increasingly irrelevant by rising powers who are being excluded from the club.

In fact, this may already be happening. Eric Voeten argues that the G20 is becoming the forum dejour for today's great powers:

There is some evidence that the G-20 is increasingly becoming a place where security issues are discussed. The G-20 does not vote on resolutions with legally binding effects but it may increasingly become the place where the actual bargaining is done. If this practice evolves, then the pressures for reform could evolve with it.

(AP Photo)

American Exceptionalism


Andrew Ferguson argues that Republicans should cloth themselves - ala Marco Rubio - in the language of American exceptionalism. Daniel Larison isn't so sure:

If all that Americanists meant by American exceptionalism was that our political values and constitution are distinctively ours, I wouldn’t object. The trouble is that this is not all that they mean by it. They clearly mean to say that America is not simply unique and has distinctive political values, but that America is markedly superior to and significantly different from all other nations in terms of economic dynamism and political freedom. That is partly what Marco Rubio means by it, and from the praise he heaps on Rubio I assume this is what Ferguson thinks American exceptionalism means.

There was a time when this was true, or at least partly true, but over the last half century America and “the rest of the world” have changed enough that we cannot claim to be the most free or most economically dynamic country in the world. If all that Rubio wanted to say was that the U.S. ought to be the most free and most economically dynamic country, and that he believes that current policies are preventing that from happening, he could say that. Instead, he subscribes to the claim that America is the “greatest nation in all of human history.” Unless this is being measured in the crudest terms of global power, I’m not sure how one would substantiate such a claim, and even then I’m not sure that the claim would hold up.

We track a lot of global rankings and lists around here and it’s hard to identify many that place the U.S. at the top. It’s not the best place to start a business, not the most entrepreneurial, doesn’t have the best health outcomes, isn’t the least corrupt, isn’t the most prosperous, and on and on.

That's not to say America is unexceptional - it has the world's largest economy and the world's most potent military. It has helped create and lead a number of global institutions that have shaped the world's economic and security policy. It has played an undeniably unique role in world affairs since 1945. And, as Larison notes, it has a distinct and estimable constitution and set of political values.

But this is really kind of besides the point, I think. The purpose of the exceptionalist rhetoric is to serve as campaign agitprop. Indeed, Ferguson notes at the end of his piece, it "sounds like a campaign theme." The unstated but clearly intentional purpose of which is to cast opposing policies into the realm of the un-American, or even anti-American. The other purpose - one advanced more by intellectuals than politicians - is to safeguard the idea that because America is uniquely superior to the rest of mankind, its global role as guardian and protector of the world must be safe-guarded.

This view may actually collide with the politicians intent on restoring America's economic health by paring back some American military commitments and spending. But for now, the two seem to be co-existing just fine.

(AP Photo)

November 7, 2010

Foreign Policy After the Midterms, Ctd.


Senator Lindsey Graham gets the ball rolling:

If President Barack Obama "decides to be tough with Iran beyond sanctions, I think he is going to feel a lot of Republican support for the idea that we cannot let Iran develop a nuclear weapon," he told the Halifax International Security Forum.

"The last thing America wants is another military conflict, but the last thing the world needs is a nuclear-armed Iran... Containment is off the table."

The South Carolina Republican saw the United States going to war with the Islamic republic "not to just neutralize their nuclear program, but to sink their navy, destroy their air force and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard, in other words neuter that regime."

And it's quite possible that were the current administration to heed Graham's advice and deliver a comprehensive bombing campaign against multiple Iranian targets beyond the country's nuclear weapon program, that they would "neuter" the country's capacity to wage a conventional war. Then what?

Some Sunday Fun with Maps

1) Go to Google Maps.

2) Click on 'get directions.'

3) Type in 'Japan' as the start location.

4) Type in 'China' as the end location.

5) Go to direction #43.

6) Laugh, dammit!

Russia Buying Indigenous UAVs

It looks like domestic pressure has finally gotten to the Russian military - recently, the Ministry of Defense tested 22 models of indigenous-produced UAVs and decided to purchase some of them for use in the armed forces. This does not impede Russia's earlier commitment to international UAV purchases, especially from Israel.

Meanwhile, Kazak firm Kazakhstan Engineering and French firm Sagem recently signed the memorandum of understanding to jointly produce UAVs.

November 5, 2010

Man of Mystery

This story is pretty amazing:

Canadian authorities are investigating an "unbelievable" incident in which a passenger boarded an Air Canada flight disguised as an elderly man, according to a confidential alert obtained by CNN.
He popped out of disguise mid-flight, only to be detained upon landing. Be sure to hit the link for the before and after photos - truly stunning.

November 4, 2010

The U.S. and Israel


Andrew Sullivan has an extensive post on how the U.S. should push Israel to make a settlement with the Palestinians to head-off the threat from Iran and to safe-guard U.S. interests, which Sullivan argues are endangered by the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I'm skeptical about this "linkage" argument and think that even if there was a kind of comprehensive peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians, al-Qaeda-style terrorism would remain a potent threat and the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq would continue to bedevil the United States.

But let's say, for the sake of argument, that you accept, as Sullivan does, that linkage exists. Here's his proposed solution:

My own view is that, under these circumstances, if Israel continues to refuse to budge on the West Bank, US interests are affected enough to lay out its own preferred final status boundaries and conditions for a Palestinian state, and press forward on those lines at the UN, regardless of the position of the Israeli government. At some point, the U.S. has to stand up for itself and its own interests if an ally refuses to be reasonable in lending a hand.

Isn't this a bit circuitous? The basic problem here isn't that the U.S. has a huge stake in who lives where in the West Bank. It doesn't. The problem seems to be that American interests are endangered by Israeli behavior. But America is only implicated in Israel's behavior because of its generous financial, military and diplomatic support for the country. If you insist that this behavior is endangering American interests, and previous efforts to stop that behavior have failed, why not cease subsidizing it?

It's easier (in theory, at least) for the United States to change its own policies than to have the United States try to change another country's policy.

Again, I'm not saying I endorse cutting off aid, but just that this seems to be the logical denouement of Sullivan's argument.

(AP Photo)

The Most Powerful People on Earth

Forbes has a list of their choices for the Most Powerful People on Earth. The list is capped at the top 68. Coming in at number one is China's President Hu Jintao (Obama is number two). Coming in at 68, Julian Assange, the creator of WikiLeaks.

(AP Photo)

Georgia's Drift?

We're used to a lot of hand-wringing regarding Turkey's outreach to Iran and how such moves are indicative of Turkey's march away from the West. So it will be interesting to see what reaction, if any, this news garners among Turkey-bashers:

Georgia and Iran on Wednesday hailed deepening economic ties as pro-Western Tbilisi cultivates its relationship with Tehran despite its close links with Washington.

On the first day of a two-day visit to the ex-Soviet republic, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the two countries were restoring "historic traditions" of close ties, including by signing a deal to lift visa requirements on both sides.

Why al-Qaeda Is Getting Tougher

They've learned from their mistakes in Iraq:

Whereas Al Qaeda in Iraq has been led in the past by foreigners, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is led by locals, Saudis and Yemenis who share a common culture. Although Abu Musab Zarqawi, the late Jordanian mastermind of Al Qaeda's Iraq branch, alienated the tribes, the militant group's Yemeni offshoot is cultivating them.

State Department Issues Iraq Warning


The AP reports:

The Obama administration could be overstating what U.S. diplomats can do to contain Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian tensions without U.S. military forces, a State Department audit concluded Tuesday, raising fresh concerns about the planned pullout of American troops next year.

The auditors also questioned whether American diplomats who remain behind will be adequately protected against insurgent violence, and their report faulted Washington for its planning of the transition from a U.S. military-led mission in Iraq to one run by American civilians in 2011.

The audit’s findings echo worries expressed by some U.S. defense analysts and former diplomats. They say hard-won security gains in Iraq could crumble if U.S. forces leave on schedule.

Security inside Iraq collapsed when there were almost three times the current troop level, so there's no guarantee whatsoever that merely postponing the U.S. withdrawal will have the effect of stabilizing the country. It would ensure, however, that the U.S. is yoked to the country's fractured politics for decades to come.

(AP Photo)

November 3, 2010

Will Congress Support America's Wars?


Kori Schake believes the Obama administration will find at least some support for its war policies in the newly empowered GOP:

But the president is not going to carry liberal Democrats on the wars whether or not he sticks to his politically-driven 2011 drawdown. "Ending combat operations" in Iraq has not been the improvement in security the president promised, as Tuesday's bombings sadly illustrate, and the president can ill afford such an outcome in "the good war." Liberal disaffection was less a problem for Democrats than the stampede of independents to the right; moderating his timeline to achieve the objectives of the war would likely appeal to them.

I'm not so sure that's the case. The war in Iraq has been deeply unpopular with a majority of Americans for years now, including independents. Support for the war in Afghanistan is similarly declining and there's no indication that independents would welcome a presidential commitment to never leave the country victory.

Indeed, while the conservative defense establishment remains enthusiastic about the prospect of transferring more American wealth to Hamid Karzai and his various hangers-on, any serious effort to repair the American balance sheet will have to take a cold, hard look at the scope of the commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps that's why the GOP's Pledge to America eschewed any high-sounding rhetoric about winning in Iraq and Afghanistan.

(AP Photo)

Foreign Policy and the Midterms

Daniel Larison and Marc Lynch have batted around some of the possible foreign policy implications of the GOP takeover of the house: the holding up of Ambassadors to Turkey and Egypt, spiking the New START arms control treaty and the possibility of an "Iranian Liberation Act." All plausible outcomes, but I think the most immediate and pressing foreign policy implication will stem from domestic politics:

As Republicans prepare to assert new authority in the U.S. Congress following the midterm elections Tuesday, the United States’ allies overseas are concerned that the political upheaval in Washington may pose fresh challenges to the global economy.

Despite pledges to curb government spending and the huge U.S. budget deficit, Republicans are expected to address anxiety over unemployment and flagging growth by pushing hardest for an extension of the income tax cuts for everyone, including the rich that were passed during the presidency of George W. Bush — a move that would add to the deficit and, by extension, further weaken the U.S. dollar.

Somehow I doubt that the GOP, including its supposedly fiscally conservative Tea Party candidates, will cut government spending in any meaningful sense. If Republicans didn't curb spending when they controlled all the levers of government (indeed, they increased it) it's rather a stretch to think they'll take an ax to the deficit this time around, particularly when at least some of those cuts will have to come from the Pentagon. This isn't inevitable - President Clinton and the Republican Congress were able to balance the budget and even produce a surplus. Will we have a repeat of that performance? I'm doubtful.

Which means that the persistent weakness of the U.S. economy and the U.S. dollar will continue to erode American strength internationally.

November 2, 2010

The World's Challenges

Polling firm Ipsos MORI asked over 7,000 adults in eight countries to identify the biggest threats facing the world, and the biggest threats facing their country. Global warming and war/terrorism tied for the top challenges facing the world, while the economy and poverty topped the list of internal challenges facing the individual countries surveyed.

You can see the survey results here. (pdf)

Can Obama "Go Small?"


If he's smart on this one (and I think he is), the president will keep his head, his rhetoric, and his ambitions small. He isn't going to find much solace and refuge in the world of Hamid Karzai, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or Hamas and Hezbollah. He can't (and won't) withdraw from this world, but he now also knows he can't remake it either. Gone are the transformational ambitions of nation-building, grand bargains, and comprehensive peace. What's left are more in the way of downsized transactions: managing, not resolving conflict; contracting, not expanding the U.S. role in them; and just plain getting by, or in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, getting out. - Aaron David Miller

There's some indication that Miller is onto something. It can be found in an admission in this piece by C.M. Sennott from the State Department's Anne Marie Slaughter: "What's unique about this approach is that it starts with domestic strategy ... We have to rebuild our own foundation ... We believe passing health care legislation is as important as prosecuting the war in Afghanistan."

The administration has talked itself into rhetorical knots a bit - proclaiming at every turn that it is still devoted to the Cold War-era ideal of American global leadership while subsequently trying to define that leadership down. Unfortunately, the administration can't "go small" (in Miller's words) if it continues to endorse the idea that only America stands between an orderly world and Hobbesian chaos.

(AP Photo)

U.S. Policy in Asia-Pacific

As Secretary Clinton continues her swing through the Pacific Islands, it's worth checking out this testimony from Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs on U.S. policy toward the region:

The U.S. defense relationships in the Asia-Pacific, which form a north-south arc from Japan and South Korea to Australia, depends on our strong relationship with the FAS, which along with Hawaii, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa and the smaller U.S. territories comprise an invaluable east-west strategic security zone that spans almost the entire width of the Pacific Ocean. The Freely Associated States contribute to U.S. defense through the U.S. Army base on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands that houses the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense test site, an important asset within the Department of Defense. Furthermore, the FAS’ proximity to Guam is important to US defense interests as the United States has a vital interest in maintaining the ability to deny any hostile forces access to sea lanes that protect our forward-presence in Guam and beyond. Our relationships with the FAS allow the United States to guard its long-term defense interests in the region.

Moreover, while the FAS do not maintain their own military forces, under the terms of our Compacts their citizens are eligible to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. Micronesians, Marshallese and Palauans volunteer to serve in the U.S. military at a rate higher than in any individual U.S. state. We are grateful for their sacrifices and dedication to promoting peace and fighting terrorism.

November 1, 2010

Energy Security


Robert Bryce's piece on the newly launched RealClearScience on the "Looming Rare Earths Train Wreck" is worth a read. While the piece is ostensibly aimed at shooting down the hype over electric cars, it can also be read as an antidote to concerns about nascent "Iranian hegemony" over the Persian Gulf:

The diversity and size of the global oil market provides the U.S. with real energy security. The numbers tell the tale. In 2009, the U.S. imported an average of 11.7 million barrels per day of crude or refined oil products from 82 different countries while it exported – yes, exported -- an average of 2 million barrels per day to customers in 83 countries.

And here’s even better news for energy security: domestic oil production is increasing. In 2009, America produced an average of 5.3 million barrels per day, the highest level since 2004.

Obviously, Iran has the potential to cause oil prices to spike temporarily, causing serious economic pain to consuming nations in the short term. But the U.S. has a lot more energy security than all the worrying about the Persian Gulf would suggest.

(AP Photo)

Criticizing China

After linking to a rather gruesome story of Chinese human rights violations, Jay Nordlinger writes:

Meanwhile, remember that the policy of the entire world — with the exception of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, oddly — is never, ever, ever to cause the dictatorship in Beijing the slightest discomfort, ever.

Obviously, this is hyperbole, but it's wrong nonetheless. Nations may be wary about wading into China's domestic politics, but they're not interested in making the world an overly comfortable place for Beijing.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: GOP Powerbroker?


Last week, Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy published a top ten list of the new Republican powerbrokers in the wake of tomorrow's anticipated U.S. election. I could spend time quibbling with the list - many of the powerbrokers he lists are not new at all, and given that the U.S. Senate is unlikely to change hands, it is hard to see how Sens. Lugar, Kyl, or McCain have any different roles on Wednesday than they do today. But that's beside the point.

If there is one Republican on the list who stands out as someone who will actually, in Rogin's words, "stand between Obama and the world," it is Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida. Ros-Lehtinen, who stands to take over the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was born in Havana, and her views on Cuba mark a significant departure from the administration's approach. The Miami Herald thinks her rise to the chairmanship effectively ends any talk of easing in relations with the current Cuban regime, and they're likely right:

Her ascendancy could also spell doom for Berman's bill on foreign-aid reform. She argues often for more vetting of foreign aid in the hope of finding cuts, and she has also introduced legislation to cut U.S. funding for the United Nations and the Palestinian Authority. She is also highly skeptical of the civilian nuclear agreements that the Obama administration is negotiating with Vietnam and Jordan. A vocal critic of what she sees as the Obama team's cool approach to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ros-Lehtinen could use the committee as a sounding board for those who want changes in the Obama administration's approach to Middle East peace.

Her actual voting and co-sponsorship record on a host of issues is quite moderate, even liberal by current Republican Party standards. But Ros-Lehtinen has already earned a reputation as a tough operator, and when it comes to clashes with the White House's views, I expect she'll prove to be the kind of politician who doesn't back away from public confrontation on the issues.

(AP Photo)

Yemen Threat


It was inevitable that al-Qaeda's failed bomb plot would provoke cries of "send in the drones." And, according to the Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration is considering just that:

The foiled mail bombing plot by suspected al Qaeda militants in Yemen has added urgency to an Obama administration review of expanded military options that include putting elite U.S. hunter-killer teams that operate secretly in the country under Central Intelligence Agency authority.

Officials said support was growing both within the military and the administration for shifting more operational control to the CIA—a move that would allow the U.S. to strike suspected terrorist targets unilaterally with greater stealth and speed.

Allowing the U.S. military's Special Operations Command units to operate under the CIA would give the U.S. greater leeway to strike at militants even without the explicit blessing of the Yemeni government. In addition to streamlining the launching of strikes, it would provide deniability to the Yemeni government because the CIA operations would be covert. The White House is already considering adding armed CIA drones to the arsenal against militants in Yemen, mirroring the agency's Pakistan campaign.

The question with drone strikes is not whether the U.S. will launch them into Yemen (it's been before and will almost certainly be done again) but the scope and pace of the campaign. The desire to hit al-Qaeda has to be weighed against the prospect that an intense campaign of drone attacks will destabilize an already weak government and multiply the number of people with blood feuds against the U.S.

UPDATE: Andrew Exum has some worthwhile thoughts on the matter:

You'll remember that last week, concerning Central Africa, I wrote that policy-makers should ask four questions -- in sequence -- before considering an intervention:

1. Will an intervention make the situation better, or worse?
2. If better, should the U.S. government participate in this intervention?
3. If yes, should the U.S. government lead this intervention?
4. If yes, what should the U.S. government do?

Reading the Wall Street Journal on the way into work this morning, I could not help but notice the focus has been almost exclusively on Question #4. Typically, we Americans are always asking ourselves, What is our government doing? (And why isn't it doing more!)

Though I am not a Yemen expert, I have spent more time in 2010 elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula than in any other year, including two trips to Saudi Arabia and one to the UAE. I got the opportunity, during both of these trips, to speak to a variety of policy-makers in each country, and one of the things I wish U.S. reporters would do more of is ask some of Yemen's neighbors how they would solve the problems of Yemen. This latest plot was apparently tipped off by Saudi intelligence (BTW: shukran, ya ikhwani) and involved bombs passing through both Qatar and the UAE. So the other nations in the region have a bigger interest than we do in shepherding the demise of AQAP.

(AP Photo)

Proposition 19


Most American ballot measures don't attract much international attention, but California's Proposition 19, which would allow the state to regulate and tax marijuana consumption, has garnered a good deal of scrutiny. Proponents of Prop 19 have argued that loosening restrictions on marijuana would help de-fang Mexico's violent drug cartels, while opponents maintain it would have little impact.

Given that America's prohibitionist policies have had international ramifications - particularly in Latin America but also in Afghanistan, where curbing the country's opium production became an important priority - it's not unreasonable to assume that relaxing those policies would likewise have consequences beyond America's borders. But there's good reason to believe that cartels, like terrorist networks, are resilient and adaptive and will find other profitable ventures if running marijuana into the U.S. becomes less lucrative. And in any event, that debate seems rather tangential to the basic question at the heart of Proposition 19: what consenting adults in a free society are or aren't allowed to do.

(AP Photo)

Hillary Clinton Heads to Malaysia


While her husband and many of her administration colleagues are out on the campaign trail, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on the other side of the world on Monday, beginning a three day visit to Malaysia - the first bilateral visit to the nation in fifteen years.

A number of issues will be on the table during her time there - not the least of which, of course, is China and America's interests in the region in the wake of the ASEAN summit. Clinton has specifically denied to the local press that the U.S. seeks to "contain" China, but it never hurts to reach certain understandings.

Besides the normal security discussions, economic interests will also be a prominent concern. As the Wall Street Journal recently noted, the rebounding export market and domestic consumption have outpaced expectations, and the key now is to reinvigorate private investment - which Malaysia can probably attract via continued transparency reforms, anti-corruption efforts and moving the oft-cited affirmative action policies toward a merit-based solution. Attracting more private investment doesn't require these steps, but they'd grease the skids.

Yet Clinton's visit also brings up a broader signal as well as a need for engagement in the context of more long-term interests. Robert Kaplan raised a similar issue in a Los Angeles Times piece last week concerning the effects on Islam of market globalization:

Yet this new, postmodern Islam with a hard Middle Eastern edge is ramming up against another import: the glitzy materialism that in Malaysia and Indonesia is associated with nominally communist China. This is the real "clash of civilizations" going on. Americans thought they owned the face of global capitalism after the collapse of the Berlin Wall; it turns out that in Islamic East Asia, the Chinese do. Ethnic Chinese own many of the spanking new malls packed with Louis Vuitton, Versace and other designer stores, the places to observe women in the most fashionable silk jilbabs and the most revealing, sophisticated dress. In Muslim Southeast Asia, modesty often stops at the neck.

Malaysia's path as a developing nation is one that seems all the more important in the context of the continued clash around the world concerning our views on radical Muslims and the pursuit of true moderates. The recent arrest of the would-be Metro bomber in Northern Virginia, the UPS plane bomb threat and other incidents are all present in the minds of many American voters this week. That is, sad to say, the face of Islam for many Americans.

If U.S. engagement with moderate Islam is to have a future, that future may well be in Malaysia and other pockets of the Muslim world that have turned to embrace global capitalism. And if the face of Islam in America is going to become more moderate and approachable, then I suspect it will take more than just bilateral talks once every decade and a half.

(AP Photo)

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