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February 28, 2011

Which Democrats?

Niall Ferguson follows up on an earlier critique of President Obama's handling of the Middle East with his advice:

The correct strategy—which, incidentally, John McCain would have actively pursued had he been elected in 2008—was twofold. First, we should have tried to repeat the successes of the pre-1989 period, when we practiced what we preached in Central and Eastern Europe by actively supporting those individuals and movements who aspired to replace the communist puppet regimes with democracies.

Western support for the likes of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia and Solidarity in Poland was real. And it was one of the reasons that, when the crisis of the Soviet empire came in 1989, there were genuine democrats ready and waiting to step into the vacuums created by Mikhail Gorbachev’s “Sinatra Doctrine” (whereby each Warsaw Pact country was allowed to do things “its way”).

No such effort has been made in the Arab world. On the contrary, efforts in that direction have been scaled down. The result is that we have absolutely no idea who is going to fill today’s vacuums of power. Only the hopelessly naive imagine that 30-something Google executives will emerge as the new leaders of the Arab world, aided by their social network of Facebook friends. The far more likely outcome—as in past revolutions—is that power will pass to the best organized, most radical, and most ruthless elements in the revolution, which in this case means Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood.

The basic question here is how we know who the right local proxies are. If the 30-something Google executives don't cut it, who, exactly, would John McCain court? The Egyptian Ahmed Chalabi? And as John McCain is honing this well oiled machine of pro-Western, pro-Israel liberal democrats waiting in the wings, are the region's intelligence services providing us with more or less covert assistance?

Many commentators seem to be infatuated with the Cold War example of American aid to dissidents in Eastern Europe. But this seems completely inappropriate. During the Cold War, it's true, the U.S. supported Eastern European dissidents - but not their oppressors. In the Mideast, the U.S. has a long and very well document history of supporting the oppressors and offering half-hearted, on-again, off-again support for reforms.

I'm pretty confident that had John McCain been elected, he would not have radically overhauled America's alliance structure in the Middle East. But that's what you would have to do to repeat the success of the "pre-1989" policy.

Update: Larison has more:

If “the best organized, most radical, and most ruthless elements” will be able to exploit the situation in Egypt now, they would have been able to do so even if the U.S. had followed all of the democracy promotion advocates’ advice. Nostalgia for Cold War successes is badly misleading. Western support for eastern European dissidents was all very well, but it wasn’t what made the revolutions in 1989 a success, and it wasn’t what led to the mostly peaceful transitions to democratic government in the years that followed. Westerners very much want to take credit for 1989 and afterwards (we “won” the Cold War, after all), but the reality is that this was something that the peoples of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union accomplished almost entirely on their own.

Rolling Stone PSYOP Follow-up

Writing on Michael Hastings' PSYOP story, Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post follows up on many of the suspicions I shared last week in fantastic, and troublesome, detail if you took the Rolling Stone piece at its word. The best part, of course, is that Hastings' sole significant source on this turns out to not have been trained in any PSYOP work:

Although the Rolling Stone piece claims that Holmes specializes in psychological operations, the Army said it has no record of training Holmes in "psychological operations." Holmes said in his interview with The Post that he learned psychological operations techniques as part of his information operations training but he said he never claimed that he was psychological operations officer.

"It's stretching to say that we're the Jedi-mind-tricks guys," he said.

What's more, it seems the thin evidence in the Hastings piece regarding any inappropriate activity along these lines - beyond IO personnel handling something that a PAO ought to do - is borne out:

But the officers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the investigation, said Holmes never was asked to use psychological operations, deception or other tactics that would be illegal when applied to fellow Americans. He simply was being asked to conduct research using publicly available material, they said. They also said Holmes never attended any of the meetings with visiting members of Congress.

That last sentence conflicts with the Hastings article as well, which claimed he sat in rooms with senators and took notes. But perhaps the best (or worst, depending on your perspective) portion of the piece comes at the end:

[Holmes] said he provided information about his case to the St. Petersburg Times in Florida a few months ago. When nothing was published, he gave the material to Rolling Stone, which wrote about his case in less than a week.

This seems to bear out all our suspicions last week that Hastings' piece was a rushed story, done without due diligence, and rife with error and wild exaggerations. If he plans to be taken seriously in the future, and not just viewed as someone who lucked into a weak McChrystal moment, this Polk award winner needs to mount a defense of this piece, and soon.

China's Nuclear Ambitions

Philip Dorling reports that China has its eyes on bulking up its nuclear forces:

Top Chinese officials have declared that there can be no limit to the expansion of Beijing's nuclear arsenal amid growing regional fears that it will eventually equal that of the United States with profound consequences for the strategic balance in Asia.

Records of secret US-China defence consultations, leaked to WikiLeaks and provided to Asia Sentinel, have revealed that US diplomats have repeatedly failed to persuade the rising Asian superpower to be more transparent about its nuclear forces and Chinese officials have privately acknowledged a desire for military advantage underpins continuing secrecy.

The basic argument under-pinning the Obama administration's push to eliminate nuclear weapons is that unless the U.S. takes the lead in delegitimizing them by slashing its own arsenal, other states will naturally seek to build up their own forces. Well, the U.S. has committed to cut its nuclear arsenal and both China and Pakistan have recently indicated that their nuclear arsenals will expand.

That's not to say that the U.S. can't afford to trim its nuclear arsenal, it can. But the idea that doing so and showing "leadership" on this issue is having a demonstration effect on problem states seems unfounded. In fact, especially with respect to China's nuclear forces, the only way to prevent further nuclear weapons states from appearing is for the U.S. to reaffirm its commitment to use nuclear weapons to defend her allies in Asia.

Can America Shape the Middle East?


With the Middle East in flux, many commentators have started arguing that now is a propitious moment to begin remaking the region so that it conforms to Western universal values. The latest entry in the genre is Kenneth Pollack:

But how the Egyptian revolution defines the new Middle East is still an open question. A great many people will try to use it to impose their visions. It is a moment when the United States can and must enter the fray. It is vital that we take the lead in helping shape how Middle Easterners see the Egyptian revolution.

It is also an opportunity for the United States to overcome our past mistakes, to recognize the real grievances of the people of the region and to reexamine their conflicts and our role in them. The Egyptian revolution and the regional unrest that followed have made it abundantly clear that the vast majority of Muslim Middle Easterners want to live in modernizing, democratizing, developing nations. They want prosperity, they want pluralism and they want the better lives that we in the West enjoy.

The struggle in the new Middle East must be defined as one between nations that are moving in the right direction and nations that are not; between those that are embracing economic liberalization, educational reform, democracy, the rule of law and civil liberties, and those that are not. Viewed through this prism, the new Egypt, the new Iraq and the new Palestinian Authority are clearly in one camp. Iran and Syria — the region's two most authoritarian regimes and America's two greatest remaining adversaries there — are in the other.

It's interesting, when you think about it. The Mideast has long vexed the United States. We have been unable, and generally unwilling, to moderate its corrupt rulers, to solve its intractable conflicts and have been drawn into a "policing" role that has seen us wage wars and station military forces in the region - and with serious global consequences.

This current wave of unrest is an occasion to pause and reflect on U.S. policy and it has generally elicited two kinds of reactions. The first is Pollack's, and it's basically an argument for the status quo - but better! We'll keep meddling and interfering, but this time, we'll back the right player. The past failures can be swept away and the region can be made anew, just as Eastern Europe was brought into the fold following the collapse of the Soviet Union. This narrative, I suspect, is almost certainly going to the be one adopted by the Obama administration, as it continues to put the U.S. in the middle of the region's affairs and accords with the Iranian containment strategy the administration has put in place.

The second reaction, and one I'm obviously more sympathetic too, is Peter Beinert's argument that now is a good time to "get out" - that 400 million people aren't clay to be "shaped," and that those who can confidently declare what the "vast majority" of the Muslim Middle East desires don't really know anything of the sort.

(AP Photo)

February 25, 2011

Hastings, Caldwell and PSYOP Kerfuffle

Freelancer Michael Hastings, whose take-down of Gen. Stanley McChrystal garnered him a recent Polk award, has a piece in Rolling Stone this week that was tearing up certain portions of the blogosphere this week. It's headlined by a bold and attention grabbing claim: that a "runaway general" deployed "psy-ops" on U.S. Senators.

After a 10-story tall headline like that, the story itself is decidedly disappointing, and in some cases undercuts its case by making claims far beyond what the facts in evidence indicate.

(An aside: PSYOP is the proper abbreviation, as it is itself plural. Yet Hastings and a host of other journalists who reported on his story seem dedicated to the use of "psy-ops," a term that I've previously only heard from Hollywood. But this is Rolling Stone we're talking about.)

Hastings' target in this story is Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who is the commander of NATO training for police and soldiers in Afghanistan. Caldwell has a reputation for being a superior commander and a smart, focused leader - he's widely credited for re-energizing the training side of the mission, and is viewed as an up-and-coming general. The case against him is leveled by Lt. Col. Michael Holmes, who claims he was assigned by Caldwell and his staff to "conduct an IO [information operations] campaign against" visiting U.S. senators on CODEL (Congressional Delegation) visits to garner more support for their efforts.

In practice, this plays out more like PAO replacement activity rather than PSYOP. If this is what an IO campaign looks like, we've got some serious problems. An excerpt:

According to Holmes, who attended at least a dozen meetings with Caldwell to discuss the operation, the general wanted the IO unit to do the kind of seemingly innocuous work usually delegated to the two dozen members of his public affairs staff: compiling detailed profiles of the VIPs, including their voting records, their likes and dislikes, and their "hot-button issues." In one email to Holmes, Caldwell’s staff also wanted to know how to shape the general’s presentations to the visiting dignitaries, and how best to "refine our messaging."

I'd maintain that this isn't "seemingly" innocuous, it is innocuous. Holmes says he was asked: "How do we get these guys to give us more people? What do I have to plant inside their heads?" Yet as the Washington Post notes, "The article did not cite evidence of false or misleading information being provided to the senators and other visitors." And buried in the article, it appears that all Holmes really did was sit in on a few meetings, preparing backgrounders advising Caldwell how to be more persuasive in briefing the visitors.

This is, of course, an example of using staff to do something that's outside their focus. But there is zero evidence Caldwell's goal here was to plant misleading information or to manipulate the visitors. Doing due diligence to research members of Congress and appeal to their interests is something every agency or entity of significant size does before presenting budget requests, identifying the likes and dislikes of particular members so you can be prepared for their questions.

A CODEL is a big deal for guys on the ground; a rare opportunity to sell members of Congress on what you're doing and why you need more support. Caldwell has a reputation for being someone who likes to fully prepare before any situation arises, and while the use of someone like Holmes for this task isn't their primary focus, it could be that Caldwell was simply dissatisfied with the background material he was receiving from the public affairs folks.

So why would this article even be written? Why would Holmes and Hastings spin what is at most a benign misallocation of personnel into a grand conspiracy? Well, the answer is included in the same piece: an AR 15-6 inquiry and a disciplinary report filed against Holmes. Hastings depicts the investigation as being retribution for Holmes' claiming he was being assigned inappropriate duties, and compares the memo afterward to the Starr report - but the investigation found Holmes was drinking too much, "going off base in civilian clothes without permission," "improperly using his position to start a private business," and most significantly, "having an ‘inappropriate’ relationship with one of his subordinates."

While Holmes and the subordinate in question, Maj. Laural Levine, deny that anything inappropriate was going on (they claim they're merely working on starting that private business together), if the two had been busted for an inappropriate relationship, that is not an insignificant thing. In fact, it's grounds enough to boot them both out of the military if one of the participants is married. Cheating can and will ruin your career, and overuse of alcohol in theater is not something a mid-grade officer is going to get away with for long. Hastings claims the military is retaliating against Holmes - he quotes Levine as saying "I couldn’t in good conscience recommend anyone joining right now" - but where's the evidence for this? While these accusations may seem like small fry harassment to Hastings, the ramifications for Holmes easily could've been far more serious than a reprimand.

Of course, facing the possibility of getting kicked out of the military might be all the motivation needed to try and protect yourself by turning whistleblower and sparking an investigation. Yet Hastings ignores this apparent conflict of interest, and uses Holmes' story as an opportunity to blast Caldwell in ways that seem far beyond the scope even of his source. Andrew Exum has already noted one of the worst examples of this - Hastings claims that Caldwell "seemed more eager to advance his own career than to defeat the Taliban." Exum calls this "one of the ugliest sentences you will ever read in a piece of journalism" and describes Hastings' pieces for Rolling Stone as "poorly sourced policy papers" - but what is irritating to me is how baseless this critique is even within the context of Hastings' own article.

It takes a truly irresponsible journalist to make a claim like that about a respected senior official without some level of proof - here, even assuming everything Holmes says is true, we only have proof that Caldwell was focused on obtaining more funding for the training of Afghan police and military - how exactly does that hurt the mission? As Jack Goldsmith points out, if Hastings' only proof is Holmes' claim that Caldwell "seemed far more focused on the Americans and the funding stream than he was on the Afghans," that's an accusation without proof, leveled by someone whose motivation is at best questionable.

But this unsupported assertion, even if true, does not mean that Caldwell cared more about his career than about the Afghanistan mission. The reality is that keeping Congress informed and on board is a vital element both of American democracy and success in Afghanistan.

In all, this piece seems a rather clumsy attempt by Hastings to relive his past glory with the McChrystal affair - his profile of McChrystal online at Rolling Stone now bears the subhead, "The Rolling Stone profile of Stanley McChrystal that changed history" - and find a way to replay the attention-grabbing nature of that piece. Yet he undercuts this attempt by relying solely on the words of a mid-grade officer with an axe to grind; an officer whose claim, when boiled down, is that he sat in on a few meetings and wrote a few research memos.

Hastings closes this missive by implying the project led by a "runaway general" had some influence on the decision of Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, "one of the senators whom Holmes had been ordered to target" - something for which he offers zero proof - leaving out the fact that Levin has been a longtime supporter of this aspect of the mission. It's a fitting end to a piece that seems focused not on accuracy and well-sourced critiques of America's efforts in Afghanistan, but an abiding love forsturm und drang.

Who Depends on Libya's Oil?


Via the Economist, a look at which nations are most vulnerable if Libyan oil supplies come off market.

Interests, Values & Libyan Nukes

Elliott Abrams makes the case that interests trump values:

Our annual human rights reports told the truth, but there was no question that the Bush administration (and the Obama administration that followed) felt limited by Gadhafi's adherence to the bargain. We had not promised to be silent about human rights abuses, and we were not, but there was no real energy behind our statements. We were doing business with Gadhafi, not trying to overthrow him. The fate of Fathi Eljahmi, one of Libya's most prominent dissidents, was symbolic: Bush and Obama administration pressure was insufficient to free him from prison until just before his death in 2009.

Seen from this bloody February of 2011, the agreement with Libya was still the right policy. Gadhafi in his bunker with control over missiles, chemical weapons and a rudimentary nuclear program is a terrifying thought. So is a Libya after regime collapse with those materials available to the highest bidder.

Had we reneged—taken Libya's weaponry but then started a campaign against Gadhafi's rule—he'd have re-armed fast and gone back to terrorism. It's also not clear what more strenuous and public efforts to promote change in Libya would have achieved. It's not as if one could reason with Gadhafi.

These trade-offs aren't easy, but as I wrote earlier, I think the Bush administration made the right call. But this raises a number of questions. First, around the same time that Gaddafi was negotiating to give up his nuclear program, the Iranians sent feelers to the Bush administration regarding talks - feelers that were spurned. But wouldn't a similar "half a loaf" outcome with Iran (if it were possible) be better than the current stalemate?

And if the Obama administration had the opportunity to get a half a loaf solution to the Iranian nuclear program, would Abrams hail that as clear-eyed diplomacy or a capitulation?

Dept. of Bad Excuses

This would make the cut:

Gadhafi accused al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden of being behind the uprising in Libya, in a rambling phone call to state TV. The Libyan leader said the more than week-long revolt has been carried out by young men hopped up on hallucinogenic pills given to them "in their coffee with milk, like Nescafe."

February 24, 2011

FP's Guide to Revolution in the Arab World

The fine folks at Foreign Policy have released a new ebook on the happenings in Cairo and the fall of the Mubarak regime. It's called Revolution in the Arab World: Tunisia, Egypt, And the Unmaking of an Era, and you can hit that link to buy it on Kindle, or hit this one to buy it via Paypal.

I've got mine already. As an aside, I wish more organizations would present collections like this of their material in responding to stories of this magnitude - by the time a traditional book would go to press, much of this information would be far less useful, or lost in the shifting sands of Google searches.

Should U.S. Pursue Primacy or an "Open Door"

Thomas Barnett ponders the difference:

The pursuit of primacy as a grand strategy is completely un-American in both its conception and execution. In fact, the Bush-Cheney neocons brought us far closer to an ideological coup d'état than any previous foreign policy scandals of note, including the secret wars of Nixon and Reagan. America's clear and succinct grand strategy, first enunciated by Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt when the U.S. was coming of age as a great power, has been the "open door." Primacy was never its prize or its purpose.

Instead, the goal was to end Europe's corrupt colonialism through the extension of our model of multinationalism based on states united, economies integrated and security provided for collectively. In this model, no one state is allowed primacy over the union's other members. Conversely, no one state's economic success is viewed as a zero-sum loss by the others, for all find ultimate benefit in the shared economic connectivity....

If the "2.0 revolutions" of North Africa tell us anything, it's that America remains firmly on the side of the transformational future, unlike China and the rest of the authoritarian ranks. More to the point, America cannot be the world's most-consistent revisionist power and, at the same time, the keeper of any empire. Indeed, when it comes to the great empires of the 20th century, America played a profound role in dismantling all of them. On this score, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong combined can't hold a candle to Franklin Roosevelt.

I think this is a point that very frequently gets over-looked in the debates about American military spending and role in the world: the post Cold War defense build-up and global posture was in response to the rise of the Soviet Union and collapse of power centers in Asia and Europe. That posture and the over-sized military that sustains it was never meant to be an end in itself.

Denouncing Libya

John Podhoretz is upset that President Obama didn't thunderously denounce Muammar Gaddafi:

After days of silence, the president of the United States took to the microphone and, in a statement of almost unbelievable pointlessness, said as little as he could. He condemned the violence, said he was sending Hillary Clinton to Europe, said he had instructed his team to look at all options, and said that the “most basic aspiration” of people was (and here he quoted a Libyan) “to be able to live like human beings.” Crises either elevate leaders or make them look shrunken and unequal to the task history has assigned them. I think there’s little question which of these two categories describes Barack Obama right now.

Daniel Larison offers some needed context, highlighting how the U.S. was unable to get Libya's permission to fly U.S. citizens out of the country:

It’s almost as if the U.S. government has a greater responsibility to its citizens than it does to condemning the activities of a foreign government. In fact, it would be a remarkable display of arrogance and folly to start denouncing Gaddafi’s crimes when U.S. citizens could immediately be exposed to violent reprisals or arrest. It doesn’t seem to cross the minds of interventionists in this case that our government could imperil fellow Americans by following their advice. If official condemnations have to wait a few days or weeks until U.S. citizens in Libya are safely out of the country, that is what a responsible government should do.

Crushing the Green Movement

The failures of defeated presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi to convincingly document their assertions of electoral fraud and the Green Movement's pivotal role in the West's progressive demonization of the Islamic Republic since June 2009 have not played well with most Iranians inside Iran. That's why, for example, former President Mohammad Khatami has quietly distanced himself from what is left of the Green Movement -- as has every reformist politician who wants to have a political future in the Islamic Republic. As a result of these highly consequential miscalculations by the opposition's ostensible leaders, those who want to try again to organize a mass movement against the Islamic Republic have a much smaller pool of troops that they might potentially be able to mobilize. This is not a winning hand, even in an era of Facebook and Twitter. - Flynt & Hillary Mann Leverett

The Leveretts have been making the case for some time that the Iranian Green Movement is far less popular in Iran than many in the West believe (or assert). And there is evidence to buttress that claim. But it seems odd to make the case the Leveretts make above and not mention the regime's brutal suppression of the protesters, including a rash of executions. Surely that must play some role in the calculus of the Iranian people and elite as they weigh whether or not to throw their lot in with the Green Movement.

February 23, 2011

Americans Don't Want to Intervene in the Middle East

Walter Russell Mead doesn't think much of Rand & Ron Paul's non-interventionist foreign policy, arguing in the IHT that it won't garner favor in Washington:

The first is that the contest in the Tea Party between what might be called its Palinite and its Paulite wings will likely end in a victory for the Palinites. The Palinite wing of the Tea Party (after Sarah Palin) wants a vigorous, proactive approach to the problem of terrorism in the Middle East, one that rests on a close alliance between the United States and Israel. The Paulite wing (Rand Paul) would rather distance the United States from Israel as part of a general reduction of the United States’ profile in a part of the world from which little good can be expected.

The Paulites are likely to lose this contest because the commonsense reasoning of the American people now generally takes as axiomatic that security at home cannot be protected without substantial engagement overseas.

But on the issue of the growing tumult in the Middle East, the American people are with the "Paulites."

According to Rasmussen:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 29% of American Adults think a change of government in any of these Arab countries will be good for the United States, while slightly more (33%) feel such a change will be bad for America. Twelve percent (12%) say it will have no impact, but one-in-four (26%) aren’t sure what to expect.

However, as with the recent turmoil in Egypt, most Americans (67%) say the United States should leave the situation in the Arab countries alone. Just 17% say the United States should get more directly involved in the political situation there, but another 17% are not sure.

Americans are skeptical about the political changes that are likely to come from the growing - and, in Libya’s case, violent - protests. Thirty percent (30%) believe it is at least somewhat likely that most of these Arab countries will become free, democratic and peaceful over the next few years, but that includes just four percent (4%) who say it is Very Likely. Sixty-one percent (61%) view a democratic and peaceful outcome as unlikely, with 14% who say it is Not At All Likely.

If we're talking about common sense, not plunging the United States and NATO into an incipient civil war in a Middle Eastern country with strong tribal factions seems to qualify. Of course, this is not going to sit well with the coalition of liberals and conservatives urging the U.S. and NATO to the barricades.

America & Canada: Securing the Perimeter

It's been understandably lost in the headlines pouring from the Middle East, but the U.S. and Canada have embarked on talks about creating a "conintental security perimeter" that would shift the emphasis from stopping threats from moving between the two countries to impeding threats before they reached North America. The Globe and Mail gives a short overview:

The agreement is big on promises, although short of specifics. It said the two sides would work “together within, at, and away from the borders of our two countries” to toughen security and promote trade.

This could, for example, include creating a single border surveillance agency that transmits data on people entering the United States or Canada to both countries. It could mean joint pre-screening of cargo in European ports before it is sent to North America, or the ability to clear a container from abroad when it arrives in Halifax and send it to the United States without a border check there.

As well, a new agency called the United States-Canada Regulatory Co-operation Council (RCC), composed of officials from both countries, would seek to streamline regulations governing product safety and quality, making it easier to make goods in one country and sell them in the other.

The perimeter talks haven't evoked much debate south of the border, but in Canada, its critics are complaining about a loss of sovereignty. Still, the idea seems to have the support of both Canadian and American publics. A new survey from Angus Reid shows a majority of Americans and a majority of Canadians want the perimeter initiative to move forward:

When asked about the recent meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama to discuss the establishment of a North American security and trade perimeter, half of Canadian respondents (52%) say they support the idea, while 17 per cent oppose it. Three-in-five Americans (59%) support the perimeter while nearly a third (31%) are undecided. Support for the perimeter is highest among men (66% U.S. and 60% Canada) and those over 55 years of age (64% U.S. and 60% Canada).

Obama's Handling of Foreign Policy

The American Enterprise Institute's Political Report rounds up some of the latest polling on President Obama's foreign policy:

How the public feels about Obama's handling of foreign policy:

Jan 2011: CNN/ORC – 57% approve; 40% disapprove
Jan 2011: CBS/NYT – 46% approve; 32% disapprove
Feb 2011: Gallup – 48% approve; 45% disapprove

How the public feels about Obama's handling of the situation in Afghanistan:

Jan 2011: CNN/ORC – 51% approve; 46% disapprove
Jan 2011: AP/GfK – 54% approve; 44% disapprove
Feb 2011: Gallup – 47% approve; 46% disapprove

How does the public feel about Obama's handling of the situation in Iraq:

Jan 2011: CNN/ORC – 56% approve; 42% disapprove
Jan 2011: AP-GfK – 57% approve; 41% disapprove

Polls show that Americans are not enthusiastic about actively promoting democracy abroad. In the latest overview Americans say this about "exporting democracy":

-55% thought that helping to bring a democratic form of government to other nations is "somewhat important"
-19% thought it "very important," and
-26% thought it "not important"

Read the whole thing here.

Can Pakistan Hang Davis?

The New York Times clarifies the legal issues involved:

If Mr. Davis was listed as a technical staff member for the embassy’s diplomatic mission, then he would be covered by a 1961 treaty that gives diplomats total immunity to criminal prosecution. In that case, Pakistan should be allowed only to expel him. Victims’ families, however, might still be able to sue him for civil damages.

But if Mr. Davis were instead listed as a staff member for the consulate in Lahore, then he would be covered by a 1963 treaty that governs the rights of consular officials and that allows host countries to prosecute them if they commit a “grave crime.”

The longer this drags on, the more difficult it becomes for Zardari's government to extricate itself from the domestic firestorm this case has created.

Don't Just Do Something, Stand There


Bill Kristol wants President Obama to take action in the Middle East:

What exactly to do in each case is complicated; it depends on difficult judgments of facts on the ground. It might be that if more analysts and commentators spent more time trying to figure out what could be done, and less time thinking up clever analogies that allegedly show how things are destined to turn out, or finding ever more reasons any effort on our part is doomed to fail, we might learn that we have more ways to affect events than we now think.

But at such moments we can't depend on analysts and commentators. This is a time when one looks, necessarily, to the president. So far, one looks in vain. What has been strikingly lacking in the Obama administration's response is a sense of the possibility of the moment, a commitment to doing our best to bring that possibility to fruition, a realization that this may be an important inflection point in world history that should shake us out of business as usual.

It seems to me that if you're going to demand action but casually glide over the specifics of what you want done - it's complicated, you see - then you don't have much grounds to criticize. That's not to say there aren't grounds to criticize the administration's handling of the situation, but vague calls to "do something" aren't very convincing.

(AP Photo)

February 22, 2011

Senor and Martinez Respond


Last week, I offered a critique of an Washington Post op-ed by Dan Senor and Roman Martinez in response to Donald Rumsfeld's book Known and Unknown. Senor and Martinez were kind enough to reach out on Friday to share their views, which are included in the following email. I encourage you to read their message in full, and then I'll share a few thoughts in response:


We saw your blog post discussing our op-ed, “Donald Rumsfeld’s Iraq Revisionism,” and we wanted to send you a quick response.

We think Secretary Rumsfeld's May 13 memorandum speaks for itself. We encourage all of your readers to take a look at it in its entirety, including the sentences we quoted in our op-ed and the sentences quoted in Rumsfeld's book.

Rumsfeld's basic claim in the book is that he favored a "swift transition" of authority from the Coalition to an "Iraqi transitional government." But the May 13 memo – which elaborates twenty-six different policy guidelines for Ambassador Bremer to implement – nowhere mentions this objective. Surely if Rumsfeld had wanted Bremer to move quickly to establish an Iraqi transitional government, Rumsfeld would have told him so. Indeed, it is striking that Rumsfeld has neither produced nor cited a single document establishing that Bremer was ever given instructions to establish a fully empowered Iraqi government right away.

As you note, the May 13 memo does highlight the need to “involve” Iraqis and have them “[be] seen as” engaged in Iraq’s reconstruction. But everyone engaged in U.S. policy making on this issue (including Bremer, Rumsfeld and officials at the Pentagon, State Department and White House) wanted Iraqis to participate as quickly as possible. Our disagreement with Rumsfeld is not over whether he wanted to “involve” Iraqis, but rather over his stance (and U.S. policy) concerning a different question: whether the U.S. would swiftly establish an Iraqi government that would exercise ultimate sovereign authority.

We think that Rumsfeld’s May 13, 2003 memo shows both his clear desire to have the Coalition remain in charge of Iraq in the postwar period, and his apparent lack of interest in establishing an Iraqi government with real power early on. Among other things, the memo says that the Coalition should "assert authority over the country" and communicate with "clarity that the Coalition is in charge, with no conflicting signals to the Iraqi people." Indeed, the rest of the memo (in language we did not have space to quote in our op-ed) even goes on to say that the Coalition should “gain control over Iraqi foreign embassies,” “adjudicate property claims,” “privatize state-owned enterprises,” and “develop a plan for the Iraqi oil industry based on transparency and private ownership.” Another memo now posted on Rumsfeld’s website goes further, making clear that he wanted the Coalition to “keep the revenues from oil away from [the Iraqi] government” by setting up mutual funds to be owned directly by the Iraqi people (see here). Needless to say, it would have taken time for the Coalition to implement these far-reaching reforms, and they appear inconsistent with Rumsfeld’s assertion that in fact he wanted to rapidly hand over authority to an Iraqi government.

Your post mentions former Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith's book, War and Decision. We very much admire Feith's fair-minded and good-faith effort to explain U.S. policy making with respect to Iraq's political transition, even though we disagree with many of his specific points and conclusions. We note that Feith's book confirms that when Bremer was appointed in May 2003, Rumsfeld (for whom Feith worked) opposed handing over real power to the Iraqis on a quick timeline. According to Feith, Rumsfeld said at the time that he was "unhappy that the Iraqis were pushing so hard for power before they had expanded their leadership council" and that he "wanted to tap the brakes on the political process."

As Feith explains, "Rumsfeld opposed setting up a full-blown Iraqi government immediately," preferring instead "to take time to judge the new leaders' competence, integrity and political acceptability before the coalition gave them sovereign authority over all the Iraqi government's ministries and institutions." This description of Rumsfeld's views – which is consistent with our own personal recollection of his thinking during the relevant period – is at odds with the account Rumsfeld gives in his book.

It is true, as you note, that Rumsfeld encouraged Bremer to create an “Iraqi Interim Authority” (IIA) in the summer of 2003. But as our op-ed explains, the President and his advisers expressly concluded, well before Bremer was even hired, that the IIA was not going to be a fully empowered sovereign government. Rather, it was going to exercise limited authorities, subject to an ultimate Coalition veto. Bremer essentially implemented the IIA concept (albeit under a different name) when he announced the Iraqi Governing Council in July 2003. Rumsfeld was fully supportive of these efforts at the time.

Finally, your post says that Bremer announced in July 2003 “that a true power-sharing arrangement [with Iraqis] would not work.” We are not sure exactly what you mean by this. It is true that the Governing Council did not have independent authority to overrule the Coalition on specific decisions, but that was consistent with the Pentagon’s own assumptions concerning the IIA. Even without such authority, the Governing Council nonetheless played an enormously significant role in helping the Coalition govern Iraq during the occupation. Not only did it immediately appoint all of Iraq's cabinet ministers, but it also drafted Iraq's interim constitution, developed and approved far-reaching economic reforms, took over control of the de-Baathification process and worked closely with the Coalition to make key decisions with respect to the evolving security situation.

Although we respectfully disagree with much of your post, we do want to note our strong agreement with your statement that “it’s important to understand what was actually said at the time, and not judge it unfairly through 20/20 hindsight.” This sentiment is precisely what motivated our original critique of Rumsfeld’s book.

Dan Senor
Roman Martinez

This is certainly a thorough response, and I appreciate it, particularly because Senor and Martinez speak on this as men who were directly involved, with on-the-ground and in-the-meetings experience, during the point in question. But their defense of Bremer is also, in my view, unconvincing on a few points.

First, I think their description of Rumsfeld's "basic claim" is a bit too basic, and their representation of Doug Feith's account in War and Decision, his extremely thorough and analytical book (which ought to be on everyone's list along with Rumsfeld's), is also far from inconsistent with the overall account Rumsfeld relates. Rumsfeld's book does not indicate an endorsement of a "liberate and leave" strategy or a total and immediate transfer of power. As Rumsfeld in his book writes of the internal conversations in the NSC meetings including Richard Armitage and Vice President Cheney, Rumsfeld notes:

"no one...was pushing for a few Iraqis with Washington connections to fly in and take the reins of a nation of twenty-five million people... Only after those on the interim authority had developed and demonstrated their leadership capability would they take over key government ministries such as Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Oil."

Those who demand attention to detail should expect it as well, and I don't see a disavowal here of a transitional organization handling major responsibilities. The difference here comes in the nature of that organization, in what responsibilities and capabilities it has. Feith's book contains multiple memos outlining what the Interim Iraqi Authority (IIA) is supposed to look like, and as far as I can tell, the IGC contained only one of the IIA's several major components as listed in Appendices six, seven, eight and nine of Feith's book.

Yet Senor and Martinez write:

Bremer essentially implemented the IIA concept (albeit under a different name) when he announced the Iraqi Governing Council in July 2003.

And in the next paragraph:

It is true that the Governing Council did not have independent authority to overrule the Coalition on specific decisions, but that was consistent with the Pentagon’s own assumptions concerning the IIA.

This seems a very questionable depiction of the situation. The entire IIA concept was based on the idea that Iraqis would have an opportunity to prove themselves by taking sovereignty over certain areas within weeks, while the CPA would retain authority over the areas of greatest concern. Rumsfeld and Feith both draw distinctions here from Afghanistan - primarily because of the resources involved, but for more complex reasons as well - and Rumsfeld was opposed to any provisional government. The attempt to fashion an IIA design was, as Feith has noted, an attempt to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis.

If Martinez and Senor intend to claim IGC really does equal the IIA concept, that really seems to me to open up a larger number of questions. While the IIA was in theory composed of hundreds of Iraqis and had sovereignty over certain areas, the IGC was roughly two dozen people who reported to Bremer in every respect.

What Rumsfeld recognized is that major responsibilities needed to be transitioned over time to the Iraqis. But I would argue, and I suspect others as well, that this is not what Bremer did. In function, I share the view that the IGC was little more than a puppet body - a collection of advisers invested with no authority to control even the minor areas they supposedly headed. As Feith notes in his book, the chief problem in the summer of 2003 was lack of responsibility being assumed by Iraqis. But no one wanted to be tagged as a puppet of the Americans, and given that this responsibility came under Bremer, it was therefore far less attractive than any Iraqi politician who might care about their political future post-CPA.

A critical scene on this point comes at the end of chapter 14 in Feith's book, where Bremer doubts that the Iraqis involved are representative. While this may be true, Feith notes that it is then doubly true for Bremer himself, who lacks any mandate not derived from Washington.

This hand-holding attitude can in retrospect be viewed as a mistake. Shortly after Bremer's Washington Post op-ed on September 8, 2003, which outlined a two-year period for the CPA to continue holding authority until after a constitution and elections, the disagreement between Rumsfeld and Bremer became far more open. From Feith's end notes, via Bremer's book:

Bremer recounts that in a September 13, 2003 conversation, Rumsfeld made him "uneasy" by expressing "enthusiasm for the concept of granting sovereignty as soon as possible to the Council or some other group of Iraqis." Bremer writes that he "told him bluntly that I disagreed" and sent Rumsfeld a memo that argued "The Council is a leaky vessel. To grant them sovereignty before a constitution and elections not only mocks our avowed commitment to a constitutional process, it risks failure of that process. Left to their own devices with only the 'guiding hand' of the UN, it is entirely possible that the GC would dissolve itself, or worse, be dominated by one or two individuals." He also reports that Rumsfeld, in a note, said that he agreed with Bremer. If his story is accurate, it appears that Rumsfeld had decided to keep his misgivings about Bremer's seven step plan to himself for the time being.

"The time being" has, of course, now passed, and Rumsfeld's misgivings are now openly shared and top the New York Times bestseller list. Seeing such things is likely to provoke a response. That said, the response from Senor and Martinez is curious to me for one reason: in my view, Rumsfeld's book is far from excessively critical of Bremer.

Taken as a whole, Rumsfeld depicts a situation where he was more inclined to give Bremer the benefit of the doubt, assuming he was progressing with the implementation of agreed upon policy. Throughout the portions on the book which deal with Iraq, there is recognition on Rumsfeld's part of the incredible difficulty of the task Bremer had been handed. In truth, I have heard much stronger criticism of Bremer from my own colleagues who worked within the CPA and the DOD than I read on the pages of Rumsfeld's book; his critique seems more even-handed, relying mostly on Bremer's own words. And if the crux of this disagreement comes down to an argument about whether the IGC was a fulfillment of internal policy on the IIA or not, I believe the balance of material and evidence inclines clearly in one direction.

One final point: this is an enlightening conversation to have, and as noted before, it's important to get this history right. Yet I'd urge Senor and Martinez to consider what they achieve by taking this argument to the Washington Post in lieu of an academic forum or an open discussion or debate, which is by its nature more thorough and cordial in tone. I've seen many former Bush administration officials share critiques of past decisions in such a manner, and inevitably something shared in conversation comes across more as constructive criticism.

Perhaps all involved in this ongoing debate should consider if constructive criticism is their goal, or if it's about coming out on top of old feuds - particularly given that they're largely on the same side of the bigger issues when it comes to Iraq policy. The newspaper op-ed is a relic of the past, needlessly restricting in length and thoroughness; it's impossible to embed memos and sourcing documents, and the process involved naturally tends to incline toward one-note point-scoring rather than the teasing out of facts.

Lionel Trilling once wrote that "the ideas that can survive delegation, that can be passed on to agencies and bureaus and technicians, incline to be ideas of certain kind and of certain simplicity: they give up something of their largeness and modulation and complexity in order to survive." In the case of this conversation, I'd respectfully suggest all the players involved consider whether a debate about these kinds of ideas and this kind of delegation process is too important to be left to the vestiges of old media.

(AP Photo)

America's Role in the World


Gallup's latest World Poll figures show some decline in support for an active U.S. role in the world:

By a 2-to-1 margin, 66% to 32%, Americans would prefer that the United States be a major rather than a minor player on the world stage in trying to solve international problems. Support for the United States' having a leading or major role in this has diminished over the past two years, falling from 75% in 2009, while the percentage favoring a more isolationist stance has increased from 23%.

Bush & Libya

Abe Greenwald gives the Bush administration credit for disarming Gaddafi:

In other words, he saw that WMD, radical Islam, and Middle East autocracy were on a collision course, and that the American promotion of democracy abroad was the best chance at averting disaster. With new reports that Qaddafi has fled the capital, while his military jets fire on Libyan protestors, and that extremists from all over the region are looking to exploit new power vacuums, it’s worth considering what role Libyan WMD might have played in these events. Thankfully, that is now a question of speculation rather than observation.

And he's right, kind of. While there is some debate about how much weight should be accorded the Iraq war in spurring Gaddafi to dump his WMD (and whether that remotely justifies the war), getting him to do so was a clear policy success of the Bush administration. But it's worth thinking this through because President Bush's success with Libya had nothing to do with democracy promotion. Just the opposite: the bargain the Bush administration made to get Gaddafi to drop his nukes was to solidify his grip on the country, ease international sanctions and legitimize his regime. In other words, Bush pursued a "realist" course with Libya.

Dept. of Incoherence


While in the Middle East, British Prime Minister David Cameron said the West shared the blame for the Middle East's oppressive political environment:

"For decades, some have argued that stability required highly controlling regimes, and that reform and openness would put that stability at risk. So, the argument went, countries like Britain faced a choice between our interests and our values.

"And to be honest, we should acknowledge that sometimes we have made such calculations in the past. But I say that is a false choice.

"As recent events have confirmed, denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse."

He said that Britain's economic and security interests would ultimately be advanced by a more democratic Middle East.

And just who did the prime minister bring with him on his trip through the Middle East to signify the harmony between Britain's values and interests? Representative from Britain's arms industry.

(AP Photo)

Help Libya?


Muammer Gaddafi is not leaving the scene gracefully, using shocking violence against his own people. Naturally, the question in the U.S. is what role, if any, we should play in stopping the crackdown. The Wall Street Journal urges the U.S. to go all in:

We'd go further and tell the Libyan armed forces that the West will bomb their airfields if they continue to slaughter their people. Arming the demonstrators also cannot be ruled out. The Libyan government is already blaming the protests on foreign help, and the protesters are facing a life or death struggle. The worst policy would be to encourage the demonstrators without giving them the tools to prevail….

Is this before or after we help overthrow the Mullahs in Iran?

The Obama administration urged Mubarak to the door, so it seems at a minimum it should be calling for the same in Libya. Sanctions, too, make sense. But the idea that we should arm demonstrators and bomb airfields seems rather reckless. The question, as always, is: and then what? Help Libyans rebuild their country? Sit on the sidelines as chaos engulfs the country? Elliott Abrams, no fan of Gaddafi, describes Libya as a "shattered land with no alternative government, no real political parties, and no experience with free elections, a free press, independent courts, or any of the building blocks of democracy."

The last thing a broke United States needs is another Middle Eastern basket case as its ward.

(AP Photo)

February 21, 2011

Will Israel Strike Iran?


Not likely, according to David Gordon and Cliff Kupchan:

References to Iran as an existential threat or to the country's nuclear program as raising the specter of another Holocaust have been typical among Israeli officials. But on a recent research trip to Israel, we heard surprisingly little anxiety. No official spoke about a threshold beyond which Iran's program would be unstoppable -- a deadline that in the past was always one year off. And elites across the political spectrum for now favor sanctions and covert action, rather than military force, to deter Iran. As a result, the chance of Israeli strikes in the next eighteen months is very low.

This makes sense - given all the regional unrest, why would Israel want to change the story? And while Iran's regime may not fall in the short term, it's definitely on shaky ground.

(AP Photo)

Afghans See Gradual Improvement in Their Lives

According to Gallup, there has been a slow but steady uptick in the number of Afghans who say they are "thriving." Those thriving are still a minority, however:


The Davis Case Gets Stranger


The diplomatic standoff between Pakistan and the U.S. over the American Raymond Davis has taken a fairly odd turn. Reports Rediff:

Double murder-accused US official Raymond Davis has been found in possession of top-secret Central Intelligence Agency documents, which point to him or the feared American Task Force 373 (TF373) operating in the region, providing Al Qaeda terrorists with "nuclear fissile material" and "biological agents," according to a report.
And why, you might be asking, would a CIA official be working to give al-Qaeda fissile material? The "report" notes:
Pakistan's ISI stat[ed] that top-secret CIA documents found in Davis's possession point to his, and/or TF373, providing to al Qaeda terrorists "nuclear fissile material" and "biological agents", which they claim are to be used against the United States itself in order to ignite an all-out war in order to re-establish the West's hegemony over a global economy that is warned is just months away from collapse.

How nuking the U.S. would enable it to re-establish hegemony over the global economy is beyond me...

(AP Photo)

February 19, 2011

The Hunger Strike in Venezuela

While the U.S. goes broke and the Middle East bursts in riots, students have gone on hunger strike in Venezuela protesting human rights conditions in the country.

Noticias 24 reports that the students are dehydrated but in stable condition. The strike started on Jan. 31 at the OAS office with a dozen students but by now a total of 67 people are on hunger strike in several locations in 10 states across the country, including the Brazilian embassy in Caracas. The protesters are requesting that all political prisoners named in a list of 27 people be freed and given medical attention:

The protestors, mostly university students and youth activists, have been calling for the OAS to investigate allegations of human rights abuses in Venezuela as well as for the release of jailed opposition figures they believe are political prisoners. OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza has said that he could not meet with the protesters in Caracas without an invitation from the Venezuelan government.

Maduro said the protest should be handled internally, without the intervention of the U.S. or international organizations. He also alleged that right-wing opponents of Venezuela's socialist government were operating from Miami and playing a part in orchestrating the hunger strike.

About a dozen students and activists began a fast Jan. 31 outside the local Caracas office of the OAS. Some news reports have stated that the protest has grown to include as many as 65 protesters.

The protesters have called for the release of several jailed opposition figures, including two jailed members of the national parliament. One of the officials faces corruption charges while the other has been found guilty of being complicit in a homicide.

Bryan Llenas writes, Venezuela Student Hunger Strike Gains Momentum, Gov. Worried About a "Virtual Egypt":

On Friday, the hash tags #OperacionLibertad, and #HuelgaDeHambre saw feverish activity as tweets supporting the Venezuelan hunger strike poured into those conversations.

"#OperacionLibertad is for all Venezuelans!," Milagros González tweeted in Spanish. "They aren't in a hunger strike for nothing! They are using their bodies as a tribute to the survival of Venezuela.#OperacionLibertad," Rafael Marín wrote.

This Venezuelan social media awakening comes months after an amendment to the Social Responsibility Media law that allows the government to restrict Internet messages and access. The measure stated that the use of Facebook and Twitter to spread "media manipulation" would be prohibited.

However, Llenas's article trivializes the plight of the hunger strikers by comparing them to the University of Puerto Rico students striking over a $800/yr tuition increase. I am also doubtful that the strike will lead to Egypt-like riots at this time.

The Venezuelan situation is a lot different: Venezuela News and Views explains,

The fact of the matter here is that the regime has long ago placed human life in the bargain department. How can you explain that Chavez does not lose any sleep over the thousands and thousands of violent murders taking place every year in Venezuela? When someone has the chutzpah to say that those murders are not his responsibility then you know he is not hurting whatsoever.

Amen of those who die in Venezuelan jails shot by the other inmates as if nothing!

The way the regime has managed the natural disaster victims since 1999 is another telling sign: they are simply exploited for political purposes and real help is barred if it does not serve the regime purposes. For memory, the refusal of help from the US in 1999 or the confiscation of the relief truck of Voluntad Popular last year.

And equally as damaging if not as bloody, is the total ignorance by the regime of the brain and energy drain that Venezuela is suffering. For all practical purposes these people leaving Venezuela in search of better hopes under other skies should be also accounted with the "death toll" of the people we will never see again.

The reality here is that we are dealing with a regime who is not afraid to eliminate its opponents. It has not been that obvious so far in an era of Internet and CNN, but all the signs are there, do not be mistaken, elimination is an ever present option for these people.

The U.S. media's attention is elsewhere, which makes the possible outcome all the more unpredictable.

Cross-posted at Fausta's blog

Debating American Power

For your weekend wonkery, an interesting discussion with Joseph Nye and Gideon Rachman on American power in the 21st century.

February 18, 2011

Pakistan: Friend or Foe?


The Wall Street Journal reports that ties between the CIA and Pakistan's ISI are at a striking low point:

The state of relations, while never perfect, is now alarming counter-terrorism and military officials, who say close cooperation between the Central Intelligence Agency and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence is essential to the campaign against al Qaeda and the war against the Taliban and its allies in Afghanistan.

Behind the falling out is a series of controversial incidents starting late last year, which prompted tit-for-tat accusations that burst into the open with the December outing of the CIA's station chief in Islamabad.

More recently, tensions have risen to new highs over Pakistan's detention of former Special Forces soldier Raymond Davis, a U.S. government contractor in the city of Lahore, for killing two Pakistanis in disputed circumstances. A Pakistani court Thursday ruled to delay by three weeks a hearing on whether Mr. Davis is covered by diplomatic immunity.

Michael Cohen argues that Pakistan isn't really an ally:

Pakistan is one of America's largest foreign aid recipients and one of our supposedly most important allies in the region; just this week the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry traveled to Islamabad to try and resolve the issue - and was rebuffed; and the Obama Administration has steadily escalated the issue even threatening a downgrade in US-Pakistan relations in order to resolve the dispute.

Yet, Pakistan still refuses to release Davis. Indeed the announcement, even after Kerry's visit, that the matter will need another three weeks of consideration is a huge diplomatic slap in the face to the United States and especially this Administration.

Now I understand that the Pakistan government has some issues with anti-US attitudes in the country (clearly through some fault of their own) . . . and I know that Pakistan allows NATO supply trucks to transit the country and it allows US military drones to attack suspected al Qaeda terrorists (as well as those Pakistan Taliban groups that threaten the Pakistani state). But shall we catalog for a moment all the ways in which Pakistan is not just a lousy ally, but is actually undermining US interests.

And the indictment Cohen rolls out is indeed serious, but step back and ask yourself what other country on the planet would consent to having its territory bombed with something approaching impunity by another country?

The question is whether Pakistan would be just as uncooperative if the U.S. wasn't raining down Hellfire missiles in the tribal area - and I'd have to think they would be. Pakistan's stance toward the U.S. in Afghanistan is fundamentally driven by its concerns with India - concerns we obviously can't mollify.

(AP Photo)

Middle East Unrest: Bad for Business


The risk consultancy Maplecroft has updated their Middle East and North Africa (MENA) risk analysis, and, not surprisingly, it seems that massive upheavel and government suppression efforts make for a less-than-ideal business climate. They also single out food prices as a key cause of ongoing instability:

The susceptibility of MENA countries to food price hikes will continue to act as a trigger for social unrest and pose risks to businesses. Countries in the MENA region are particularly at risk from high global food prices and this has been the cause of much social unrest since prices began to climb at the end of 2010. Countries such as Algeria, Jordan and Egypt have been acutely affected by the sharp rise in food prices and this in turn causes disruptions which can affect the operational running of businesses. The need for the government to placate protesters through increasing subsidies for foodstuffs and oil based products such as petrol means that there is less money to spend on other areas of pressing need such as infrastructure. The importance of food subsidies can be seen in how the ruler of Kuwait, Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, has promised the distribution of US$4bn and free food for 14 months to all citizens despite not facing any direct threats to his rule.

(AP Photo)

February 17, 2011

Rejecting Middle Eastern Autocrats? Not So Fast

Josh Rogin reports:

"The old days of ‘as long as we can make a positive relationship with the autocrat who's running the place, then we are friends with the country' are dead and gone," Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) told a group of reporters over breakfast on Wednesday.

"We have to be much more interested in trying to get the actual populations in those countries to be supportive of us," Smith said. "What we have to start thinking about in the foreign policy establishment is what shifts in our foreign policy do we need to make to target the populations."

This sounds like a great headline, but is it going to happen? Color me skeptical. The U.S. didn't undertake a comprehensive rethink of its Middle East policy following 9/11, why would it do so now? Consider just how serious the changes would be if the U.S. dumped its favored autocrats in favor of newly empowered democratic governments. It would be far more difficult to keep a "cold peace" between Israel and her neighbors, something American foreign policy is currently heavily invested in. Then there's basing rights. It will be difficult to sustain a forward operating presence in a region that manifestly rejects it if that region suddenly gets a say.

As we have seen following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, American foreign policy is very, very slow to react to these kinds of seismic shifts (and let's not put the cart before the horse here, no autocracy has actually been replaced with a democracy yet). And Washington has shown zero willingness to dismantle or reject a hegemonic position in any region of the world once it's established itself, as it has in the Middle East.

Right now, we have a rather odd dynamic in the U.S. where many of the champions of American hegemony in the Middle East are urging on the very steps that would make the Middle East far more hostile to that hegemony. This is an incoherent position and if the Middle East does truly move toward democracy, and if countries like Egypt start behaving like Turkey, this incoherence will only become more obvious.

Sanctions and Wrong Lessons


Benjamin Weinthal of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies writes:

Plainly said, the European Union ought to follow Washington's lead and place Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps on the EU terror list. The guard corps helped crush Monday's demonstrations and controls Iran's military-industrial complex.

European partners like Germany must fall into line with U.S. sanction efforts and shut down Iran's main financial conduit in Europe - the Hamburg-based European-Iranian Trade Bank. A group of leading U.S. senators, including Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), issued a strongly worded letter in early February to German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle about Germany's ongoing failure to end the bank's worst practices, if not close it entirely.

In 2009, the Iranian people launched protests that shook the entire Islamic world, creating the first cracks in the dam that ultimately burst with the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Iranian democrats asked during the 2009 protests: "Obama: Are you with us or against us?"

I think, in his rush to link the two uprisings, Weinthal overlooks one key element of the Egyptian revolution: leverage.

What made the Egyptian revolution a success wasn't a speech, nor was it a summit in Washington. Egyptians succeeded where Iranians failed because the latter nation's military operates as a globally ostracized crime syndicate, whereas the former functions more like a beloved Fortune 500 company. Moreover, Egypt's military apparatus stood down, while Iran's opened fire.

American influence obviously shouldn't receive all of the credit for this, but it clearly factored into the Egyptian military's decision to comply with U.S. desires for a peaceful transition sans Mubarak.

This calls into question the efficacy of the Iran sanctions regime altogether. I'm not a fan of counterfactuals, but would the 2009 unrest in Iran have gone any differently had the U.S. more aggressively engaged Tehran in say 2001 or 2003? We'll obviously never know, but it's a question sanctions advocates (like yours truly) should probably take into consideration.

(AP Photo)

War Robots: Global Growth Industry


According to a new report from ABI Research, defense robotics is a big global business:

Between 50 and 80 countries either already utilize defense robotic systems, or are in the process of building or acquiring the technology to incorporate them into their military programs. These robots may take the form of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and even unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), but they all have in common the purpose of taking the place of, or supplementing, humans in battlefield situations.

According to a new study by ABI Research the global market for military robotics will grow from $5.8 billion in 2010 to more than $8 billion in 2016.

Monitoring Oil


Mark Thompson notes that unrest in Bahrain has some major strategic consequences for America's forward deployments in the Middle East:

The home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet -- and a recently-launched $580 million U.S. expansion effort slated to double the U.S. Navy's acreage there -- could be in jeopardy if Bahrain's monarchy falls....

The (Iran-friendly) Shiite majority, which accounts for almost 70% of the population, wants the (Saudi-friendly) king, Sheik Hamid bin Isa al-Khalifa, to rewrite the constitution to give Shiites more power and opportunity, while also seeking investigations into allegations of torture and corruption (sound familiar?).

The downside to all this unpleasantness is that Bahrain is the U.S.'s most important post in the Persian Gulf. It's ground zero when it comes to monitoring the oil flow -- nearly one gallon of every five used worldwide -- down the gulf and through the narrow Strait of Hormuz. It's also a key base from which to eyeball Iran on the other side of the gulf.

Fortunately, just when the entire Middle East seems to be fracturing under Uncle Sam's feet, Jeremy Khan writes in the Boston Globe that the basic strategic consideration supporting America's Middle East policy - the defense of oil supplies to global markets - is mostly unnecessary in the first place, given that 'oil shocks' are largely a myth and don't do nearly as much damage to the U.S. economy as is casually presumed.

That said, it's highly unlikely that anyone in Washington is going to be receptive to the argument that the U.S. doesn't have to station large numbers of U.S. troops in the region to defend the free flow of oil.

(AP Photo)

Rumsfeld vs. Bremer


This week in a Washington Post column, Dan Senor and Roman Martinez write in defense of the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, and against his depiction in the bestselling memoir of former SecDef Donald Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown. An excerpt:

According to Donald Rumsfeld's memoir, U.S. difficulties stemmed not from the Pentagon's failure to plan for the war's aftermath - or Rumsfeld's unwillingness as defense secretary to provide enough troops to secure Iraqis after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Rumsfeld pins most of the blame on the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) for its alleged mishandling of Iraq's political transition in 2003-04, which "stoked nationalist resentments" and "fanned the embers of what would become the Iraqi insurgency."

In making their case, Senor and Martinez - who both worked for the DOD and CPA under Bremer - rely primarily on a document Rumsfeld references in his book, "Principles for Iraq - Policy Guidelines".

[Note: Rumsfeld's office has done the impressive due diligence of posting nearly every document he references in his book, a daunting task of memo and report scanning, on his website, Rumsfeld.com. I encourage you to dig through them, as there are some fascinating pieces hidden within - my personal favorite is this memo to Doug Feith on September 14, 2001.]

In referencing this memo, Senor and Martinez write:

Rumsfeld's basic theme is that the CPA erred by failing to grant Iraqis "the right to govern themselves" early in the U.S.-led occupation. Rumsfeld claims that he favored a "swift transition" of power to an "Iraqi transitional government" and that the Bush administration formally endorsed this strategy when it approved the Pentagon's plan for an Iraqi Interim Authority in March 2003. He writes that the head of the CPA, L. Paul Bremer, unilaterally decided not to implement this plan.

Not true, Senor and Martinez claim. They write:

Rumsfeld's instructions endorsed the top-down approach his book condemns. The CPA should "assert authority over the country," he wrote, and should "not accept or tolerate self-appointed [Iraqi] 'leaders.' "

There should be "clarity that the Coalition is in charge, with no conflicting signals to the Iraqi people," Rumsfeld wrote. He directed Bremer to take a "hands-on" approach to Iraq's "political reconstruction," noting that "the Coalition will consistently steer the process to achieve the stated objectives" and should "not 'let a thousand flowers bloom.' " The "transition from despotism to a democracy will not happen easily or fast," he concluded, noting that "[r]ushing elections could lead to tyranny of the majority."

If Rumsfeld's goal was to quickly empower an Iraqi government, this was a strange way to communicate that objective.

If that middle paragraph seems to be jamming a lot of partial sentences in to advance their argument, it is. Upon further examination, the quotations Senor and Martinez cite seem to be awfully careful in their cherry picking. Properly understood in context, the emphasis in that sentence ought to be on the "self-appointed" portion. The actual memo includes extensive advice on this front:

8. Improve conditions; involve Iraqis. The Coalition will work energetically to improve the circumstances of the Iraqi people. It will work to achieve rapid and visible accomplishments in vital public services for the Iraqi people, and create an environment that encourages the involvement of the Iraqi people, for it is their responsibility to build the future of their country.

9. Promote Iraqis who share coalition's goals. In staffing ministries and positioning Iraqis in ways that will increase their influence, the Coalition will work to have acceptable Iraqis involved as early as possible, so Iraqi voices can explain the goals and direction to the Iraqi people. Only if Iraqis are seen as being engaged in, responsible for, and explaining and leading their fellow citizens will broad public support develop that is essential for security.

In subsequent memos, Rumsfeld clearly was pressing on the issue of forming an Iraqi Interim Authority. See this memo from June 9, 2003, where he recognized:

Their dream is a guerrilla insurgency. But guerrilla insurgencies depend on popular support. Progress toward an IIA will help neutralize if not dry up that popular support.

Rumsfeld pushed hard for Bremer to move forward in creating an IIA, which at that time had to be interpreted for the vision Bremer had laid out in a June 2, 2003 memo, where he claimed that in a meeting with Iraqi political leaders, he had "laid out our vision for establishing an interim administration (IA) in the next five to six weeks."

But Bremer never actually did this. The next month, he announced that a true power-sharing arrangement would not work. Indeed, on looking back at the record, it's Bremer's own words that are most distrustful of the people on the ground - in reference to the figurehead Iraqi governing council that Bremer indicated could become the IIA, but never, of course, did - Bremer famously claimed in his own book that "those people couldn't organize a parade let alone run the country."

This is only one of a number of lines in Bremer's book which reflect badly on him, and many of these same lines are used again by Rumsfeld in making his case. (For what it's worth, Feith had an interesting section in his book on this process as well.) But if there's an inconsistency here on Rumsfeld's part, I'm not seeing it.

As the debates hash out in the future for historians to judge what went wrong, it's important to understand what was actually said at the time, and not judge it unfairly through 20/20 hindsight. But no one's helped in gaining an accurate perception of what went wrong by cherry-picking lines from memos which, in context, clearly reflect a different view.

(AP Photo)

U.S. Sees Mubarak Ouster as Positive


According to a new poll from Zogby:

U.S. likely voters are more likely to say the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was positive rather than negative for the U.S., but 68% are either very or somewhat concerned that Islamic fundamentalists will have too much power in the new government.

The Feb. 14-16 Zogby Interactive poll also finds that 45% believe President Barack Obama's response to the situation in Egypt was "what it should have been." However, 21% say Obama should have been more supportive of "our ally" Mubarak and 15% say Obama should have been more supportive of the protestors.

Close to 50 percent of Americans thought Mubarak's ouster was a negative development for Israel vs. 28 percent who thought it was positive and 23 percent who weren't sure.

(AP Photo)

Tracking Gas Prices Globally

Via the Economist, an interactive chart which lets you track gas price movements over time.

February 16, 2011

Are All Revolutions Good Revolutions?

As other dominoes teeter in the wake of Egypt's recent revolution, U.S. officials should be prepared to respond to a rather dangerous assumption that seems to be taking hold in the media: "all revolutions are now good revolutions."

One bit of knowledge that has emerged from the Egypt storyline is a greater awareness in the West when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood as an active global force, one that is not limited in its influence to the boundaries of Arab nation states. While it's true that they're more active in places like Jordan, where the New York Times estimates they have the support of roughly 25 percent of the population (one reason why King Abdullah II met with them recently), and it's also true that the brotherhood in one nation is not necessarily as radical as it is elsewhere, the overall impact beyond the Middle East has to raise concerns.

The possibility that Brotherhood-backed political leaders will attempt to turn the Egyptian experience into a global rallying cry for revolution certainly bears watching. As we re-evaluate the Cairo Effect in light of Egypt's revolution, one question is whether the United States has devoted too much attention to our engagement with the Islamic world on the Middle East, creating a negative effect in other parts of that sphere. It's possible that President Obama's speech in Cairo had the effect of sending the message that the Arab world is the primary focus of our contacts with Muslims - a message that is unfortunate to say the least, considering that the effect here is hardly limited to the Arab world. Egypt creates an opportunity for opposition political leaders in other Muslim nations to grab hold of the revolutionary experience and deploy it as a talking point in their efforts; even if they inhabit a far more open, transparent, and democratic political system.

Speaking from New York last week, Malaysia's Anwar Ibrahim tried to do exactly this on CNN, following on his argument in the Wall Street Journal. This line sticks out to me as particularly notable on these lines - and it's consistent with the CNN interview:

The bogeyman of Islamism, the oft-cited scapegoat of Middle Eastern dictators to justify their tyranny, must therefore be reconsidered or junked altogether. The U.S., too, should learn a lesson about the myth that secular tyrants and dictators are its best bet against Islamists. Revolutions, be they secular or religious, are born of a universal desire for autonomy.

The WSJ piece is actually quite good on a number of points, but this line sticks in one's craw. It is particularly concerning to hear such rhetoric go without response - particularly given the possibility that Anwar speaks as someone who received financial support from the Muslim Brotherhood - as it tends to suggest that all political change must come in the form of take-to-the-streets revolt, not as peaceful and gradual reforms.

While I am more optimistic about Egypt in the long run, jumping to the conclusion that "all revolutions are good revolutions" now is hardly responsible. As Niall Ferguson and others have argued, citing Obama's own words from Cairo in his June 2009 speech - "America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles - principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings" - such a simplified view comes across as very naive:

Those lines will come back to haunt Obama if, as cannot be ruled out, the ultimate beneficiary of his bungling in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood, which remains by far the best organized opposition force in the country—and wholly committed to the restoration of the caliphate and the strict application of Sharia. Would such an outcome advance "tolerance and the dignity of all human beings" in Egypt? Somehow, I don't think so.

It's completely irresponsible to suggest that all revolutions, whether secular or religious, are borne out of a desire for autonomy that the United States should favor. While I expect many political opposition leaders will attempt to adopt Egypt as a symbol of their own challenge to the existing hierarchies within their nations, it's unwise for them to do so - not simply because the comparison doesn't work, but because if they have to stare into the maw of revolution at some point, they too may well end up as part of the establishment which must be overthrown.

Does the World Respect President Obama?

Yes, but not as much as it used to, according to a new Gallup poll:


Gallup's Frank Newport offers some context:

In February 2009, shortly after Obama's presidential inauguration, a soaring 67% of Americans perceived that the world's leaders respected him. That dropped to 56% last February, and is slightly lower (52%) in this year's Feb. 2-5 Gallup World Affairs survey.

Still, Obama's readings on this measure remain historically high.

A few months after 9/11, Bush received 75% and 63% readings on this respect question -- but all other readings during the Bush administration were below 50%. That includes the low point in February 2007, when 21% of Americans said world leaders respected Bush. Americans' views of world leaders' respect for Obama are also higher than two Gallup measures for Clinton, in 1994 (41%) and 2000 (44%).

Why the U.S. Needs the Nuclear Triad

By Elbridge Colby

Mark Thompson makes the case on the Time blog that the United States should downgrade the Triad of strategic nuclear delivery systems to a Dyad (or perhaps, implicitly, even a Monad) because, he argues, the modernization of all three legs is unnecessary and too costly. Quoting Jeffrey Richardson of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Thompson contends that fielding three independent methods of delivering strategic nuclear weapons reflects a way of thinking “unconstrained by fiscal resources” and dedicated to pursuit of “a risk-free world.”

Thompson is right to emphasize the importance of strategic trade-offs and cost concerns – but he’s picking on the wrong target when he goes after the Triad.

First off, while Thompson is right to underline the vital importance of deploying systems that can survive a surprise attack, he has a peculiarly complacent view of the survivability challenge. While he rightly notes that there does not appear to be a plausible near-term threat to U.S. ballistic missile submarines while on station, he neglects to mention that Navy planners have to consider how the replacement to today’s Ohio class can survive out to 2080, when the last of the replacements is scheduled to be retired(pdf). History is chock full of the introduction of transformative technologies that have rendered formerly impressive systems vulnerable, and even obsolete. Having two other legs of the Triad provides cushioning against such breakthroughs.

Furthermore, added survivability is not the only advantage the Triad offers. Fielding three legs also provides insurance against technical malfunctions in one or two of the legs and gives policymakers a menu of diplomatic signaling options, to name a couple of other virtues.

Thompson might have more of a point if these advantages had to be bought at an impoverishing price. But the fact is that the Triad – and the nuclear enterprise as a whole – are pretty cheap (at least in defense budget terms!). As Thompson himself relates, an Air Force Association report estimated that the Triad would cost $216 billion to recapitalize – over forty years. That’s about five and a half billion dollars a year, which is peanuts when stacked up against the size of the overall defense budget. To take the Administration’s FY2012 proposed budget as a benchmark, this amount would constitute 1/100th of the total base budget of $553.1 billion – not even counting the $117.8 billion war supplemental.

Even the all-in cost of the entire nuclear weapons enterprise – estimated by one analyst (pdf) to be $29.093 billion for nuclear forces in FY2008. Furthermore, the system that Thompson justifiably prefers, the SSBNs, are likely to continue to be by far the most expensive of the Triad. Indeed, maintaining a nuclear-capable bomber leg would just involve replacing the air-launched cruise missile and/or tacking a nuclear capability on to the next-generation heavy bomber the Administration plans to build anyway. And a new set of ICBMs, due to come online after around 2030, could simply be put right back in the holes that the Minutemans have been sitting in for the last few decades unless a different basing mode is decided upon. Even then, however, mobile ICBMs are likely to be a lot cheaper than the boomers.

In an age of austerity and shifting power balances, making the right trade-offs in defense programs is vital. But given that secure and effective nuclear deterrence can be bought for a relative pittance, why mess with it?

Elbridge Colby has served in several national security positions with the U.S. Government, most recently with the Department of Defense working on the follow-on to the START Treaty and as an expert adviser to the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission. The views expressed here are his own.

Was Stuxnet a Bust?


The Stuxnet computer virus that wreaked havoc on Iran's nuclear facilities may not have had the seismic impact that many thought, at least according to the Yukia Amano, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who was interviewed by the Washington Post:

How badly was Iran's centrifuge program affected by the [Stuxnet cyber] worm from 2009?

Iran is somehow producing uranium enriched to 3.5 percent and 20 percent. They are producing it steadily, constantly.

The amount of enriched uranium has not been affected?

The production is very steady.

Obviously, it's difficult to know precisely what Iran's up to, but if we assume they're determined to get a nuclear weapon (or 'break-out' capability) than they'd eventually work their way around a computer virus, no matter how devastating.

(AP Photo)

Russia & Japan Tensions


In the last few months, Russia and Japan have been trading barbs over the Kuril Islands. This follows heightened tension between Japan and China over the Senkaku Island chain. These territorial dust-ups leads J.E. Dyer to issue the following warning:

Keeping our foreign-policy thinking on autopilot leaves our spokesmen giving narrowly conceived, legalistic responses that are inadequate to a changing situation. America’s core ally in the Far East is under real territorial pressure from both Russia and China — and the reflexive assumption that any given situation will stabilize itself, with little or no inconvenience to the U.S., is increasingly outdated.

If we're speaking about 'reflexive assumptions,' lets discuss Dyer's. I'll state up front that my knowledge of both the Kuril and Senkaku disputes is pretty topical and I couldn't weigh in definitely on which country has the stronger claim (hit the links above for the Wiki-versions of both disputes). But Dyer isn't litigating the cases either, just simply assuming that the U.S. must stand with Japan. Clearly the U.S. is obligated to defend Japan, but that does not mean that the U.S. should defend Japanese claims that have no merit.

(Photo of Kuril Islands via Wikipedia Commons)

February 15, 2011

Social Engineering Is Hard

American officials say privately that corruption in Karzai’s government directly feeds the insurgency. And yet, as my piece in the magazine shows, the American response to the corruption in Karzai’s government has been one of passivity and silence. Meanwhile, American Marines and soldiers are pressing the offensive in the south, fighting and dying on Karzai’s behalf.

On corruption, the American strategy isn’t clear. The American military appears to be succeeding in clearing the Taliban from large swaths of southern Afghanistan. But then what? At some point, the Afghans themselves have to take over—that is, the Afghan government. Without a government that is legitimate—that serves the people—it’s hard to imagine that the hard-won American gains can ever stick. - Dexter Filkins

One thing that's frequently lost in the discussion of corruption in Afghanistan is that the country is surrounded by very corrupt countries. It's literally impossible for the U.S. to stamp it out fully, which is why the efforts have been lackluster or unimpressive. The basic problem for the U.S. in Afghanistan is not that Washington has been inattentive to the country's many problems, it's that we've embarked on a program of state-building that requires infinitely more blood and treasure than we're willing to devote to the task.

[Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan]

Russia's Unbelievable Alcoholism

Richard Weitz provides some hair-raising stats:

- Russians 16 and older drink the equivalent of roughly four gallons of pure alcohol per capita each year, almost twice the amount of their American counterparts.

- Russia currently has 2 million alcoholics.

- The number of Russian children aged 10-14 who drink alcohol exceeds 10 million.

- Roughly 500,000 Russians die annually from alcoholic-related accidents, crimes, and illnesses.

- Alcohol poisoning kills more than 23,000 Russians each year.

In addition to heavy overall drinking, Russians are prone to binge drinking. It is also not uncommon for Russians to consume potentially toxic substances containing high levels of alcohol -- including lighter fluid, cleaning solution and even the ethanol fuels used in vehicles -- for the simple reason that they contain greater concentrations of regular alcohol but are taxed at only one-third the rate. During the Soviet period, MiG-25 warplanes were a particularly popular source, since their de-icing tanks contained almost 5 gallons of pure alcohol.

A German Model?


Germany has been enjoying decent economic growth while other Eurozone members crash and burn, but John Vinocour writes that the German model is weaker than it may appear:

Singling out Germany (and China and the United States) by name, the International Monetary Fund warned two weeks ago of a re-emerging “pre-crisis pattern” of global imbalances. Basically, concerning Germany, that means the I.M.F. thinks Berlin has not heeded an admonition by the G-20 consultative group to reduce its export surpluses through imports and investments....

On German banks, Wolfgang Franz, the chairman of the German Council of Economic Experts, an advisory panel to the chancellor, said flatly in January, “We don’t know what skeletons they still have in their cellars.”

Rating social justice in Germany — its assumed high level is an insistent argument in support of the country’s taking of command in Europe — the Bertelsmann Foundation has issued a survey that ranks Germany — gasp — in 15th place of the 31 prosperous and democratic countries surveyed. (The United States came in 26th.)

The foundation found inequality in German income distribution over the last two decades growing "almost like no other” of the countries studied. Germany ranked next to last in long-term unemployment, it said, and reported that the effects of poverty there, particularly among children, were deeper than in Hungary or the Czech Republic.

(AP Photo)

Doing bin Laden's Work?


Michael Scheuer isn't enthused about the overthrow of Mubarak:

Bin Laden, his lieutenants, and their allies know that after the Western media returns to what it does best -- isn’t Lindsey Lohan due in court? -- Muslim Egyptians will be reaching for Allah’s rope, not Facebook’s self-deification. And the Islamists also will know the stout wall of U.S.-and-Israeli-supported Arab tyranny they have long attacked is cracking.

When the West sees pious Egyptians moving toward Islam, not secular democracy, bin Laden will have thanked God for His gifts to the mujahedin. Having designated Arab police states and Israel as Islam’s main enemies -- brain-dead America simply being in the way due to its money and guns -- bin Laden et. al. now see the ruins of the strongest Arab tyranny, as well as the most loyal, least demanding ally secured by Washington‘s relentless intervention in the Muslim world. They know whatever regime follows Mubarak will be weaker, more influenced by those demanding a form of Sharia law -- including General Clapper’s Kiwanis-in-waiting, the Muslim Brotherhood -- and, being a democracy, more representative of Egyptians’ deep, abiding hatred for Israel.

I think it's true that in the near-term, the goals of U.S. democracy promoters and bin Laden have overlapped. Both want the old Middle Eastern order swept away. Scheuer seems to think that in doing so, more of the Middle East will move in bin Laden's direction, but is that true? A Middle East that's less receptive to the U.S. and Israel is still a far cry from a Middle East that wages open war against the U.S. and Israel (which is presumably the bin Laden program).

The old order is what created bin Laden's jihad in the first place. If the Obama administration cheered on a Mubarak crack down, wouldn't that do wonders for al-Qaeda recruitment?

(AP Photo)

U.S. Views on Clinton, Gates


According to Rasmussen, Secretary Clinton is viewed favorably by likely voters:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 60% of Likely U.S. Voters hold at least a somewhat favorable opinion of Clinton, with 30% who view her Very Favorably. The ex-senator and former first lady is seen unfavorably by 35%. That’s down six points from January of last year and includes 18% with a Very Unfavorable view. (To see survey question wording, click here.)

Fifty-six percent (56%) had a favorable view of Clinton just before she assumed the secretaryship in January 2009.

Secretary Gates, who is less well known, gets a favorable rating from 44 percent of respondents and an unfavorable rating from 34 percent.

(AP Photo)

February 14, 2011

Voters Somewhat More Upbeat on Egypt

According to Rasmussen:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey conducted the two nights following Mubarak’s announcement shows that 29% of Likely Voters believe the change in the government of Egypt will be good for the United States, up eight points from a week ago. (To see survey question wording, click here.) Two weeks ago, just five percent (5%) of all Adults thought it would be good for the United States if the government in Egypt was overthrown.

Twenty percent (20%) now say the change will have a negative impact on the United States, while another 16% say it will have no impact. But 35% aren’t sure what kind of impact, if any, the Egyptian change in government will have on the U.S.

Fifty-four percent (54%) of voters believe it is at least somewhat likely that Egypt will become a free, democratic and peaceful nation over the next few years. Thirty-one percent (31%) do not see this outcome as likely, while 15% are not sure. Those results include 16% who say it is Very Likely Egypt will reach this goal and eight percent (8%) who say that’s Not At All Likely to happen.

How's Obama Handling Egypt?


Some recent polls on the president's handling of Egypt show the public mostly approves of how the administration has conducted itself. A Fox News poll showed 48 percent approval vs. 32 percent disapproval; Gallup had a 47 percent approval to 32 percent disapproval; Pew Research found that 57 percent of respondents said the administration was handling the protests "about right."

(AP Photo)

Did Obama Botch Egypt?


Niall Ferguson isn't impressed with President Obama's handling of Egypt:

The president has alienated everybody: not only Mubarak’s cronies in the military, but also the youthful crowds in the streets of Cairo. Whoever ultimately wins, Obama loses. And the alienation doesn’t end there. America’s two closest friends in the region—Israel and Saudi Arabia—are both disgusted. The Saudis, who dread all manifestations of revolution, are appalled at Washington’s failure to resolutely prop up Mubarak. The Israelis, meanwhile, are dismayed by the administration’s apparent cluelessness.

Last week, while other commentators ran around Cairo’s Tahrir Square, hyperventilating about what they saw as an Arab 1989, I flew to Tel Aviv for the annual Herzliya security conference. The consensus among the assembled experts on the Middle East? A colossal failure of American foreign policy.

I'm not clear why Ferguson is citing Saudi Arabia and Israel here. Ferguson insists in the piece that Obama should have jumped into the Egyptian revolt on the side of the protesters and the democratic wave - which is the antithesis of what both the Israelis and the Saudis wanted.

I do agree with Ferguson that no matter who "wins" in Egypt, Obama is the ultimate "loser" since the basic presumption appears to be that the president of the United States is omniscient and omnipotent - and that any outcome in another country that fails to satisfy our desires is naturally his fault.

(AP Photo)

Americans Erroneous View of China's Economy

Today, the big news out of Asia is that China has overtaken Japan as the world's second largest economy. But polls have indicated that Americans have believed, erroneously, that China has been the world's largest economy for a while now.

The most recent figures come from Gallup:


Rasmussen found that 45 percent of Americans polled knew their country's economy was the biggest. In January, Pew Research reported that 47 percent of Americans thought China was the world's largest economy, while only 31 percent correctly noted that the U.S. was still the world's largest.

Needless to say, it's difficult for policymakers to address issues surrounding China if so many people don't understand the actual dynamics of the relationship.

February 13, 2011

America's Favorite (and Least Favorite) Countries

Gallup asked Americans to rate their favorite, and least favorite, nations:


Gallup's Jeffrey Jones offers some perspective on the results:

The top- and bottom-rated countries have been fairly consistent in the 11-year history of Gallup's World Affairs poll. Canada has been the top ranked, or statistically tied for the top, in all but one year (2005, when Great Britain had the highest favorable rating). Iran has generally been the lowest-rated country each year since 2005, though it was tied with North Korea in two of those years. In 2004, North Korea was the lowest. From 2001-2003, prior to the beginning of the U.S. war in Iraq, Iraq was the lowest-rated country.

France has enjoyed a surge in popularity as well - they're back over 70 percent for the first time since 2002, according to Gallup. I guess we're over 'freedom fries' and other inanities.

February 11, 2011

Not Getting It


Charles Krauthammer lays out a series of principles he believes the U.S. should adhere to in micro-managing supporting freedom in the Middle East. The list itself is rather anodyne but the rationale looks rather problematic:

We are, unwillingly again, parties to a long twilight struggle, this time with Islamism - most notably Iran, its proxies, and its potential allies, Sunni and Shiite. We should be clear-eyed about our preferred outcome - real democracies governed by committed democrats - and develop policies to see this through.

One thing that's important to keep in mind when reading geopolitical advice of this sort is to recognize that during the 1990s, when al-Qaeda was metastasizing, Krauthammer et. al. were more concerned with Saddam Hussein. Having misread the Sunni jihadist threat in favor of a state-based menace, we're now told that Iran represents the head of the Islamist menace. And again, it's wrong.

The signature Islamist threat to the United States does not come from Iran but from Sunni groups aligned with or fighting under the banner of al-Qaeda. Those groups may or may not be helped by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but Iran is neither here nor there. It's the Sunni groups with the demonstrated willingness and capacity to travel into the United States to slaughter innocent people. They're the ones attempting to kill Western civilians with toner cartridge bombs. They're the ones attacking mosques and military bases inside Pakistan. This is not a movement controlled by Iran - it's laughable to even suggest that when Pakistan, the outright sponsors of Sunni terrorism, can't even reign in all of its various tentacles.

Yes, Iran may fund or arm portions of this movement to bloody the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq, but that's a far cry from trying to use them as the tip of a global Islamist spear against the United States. These groups view Iran and Shia Islam in general as apostate, which is why they've gone to great lengths in both Iraq and Pakistan to butcher Shiites.

Iran poses a geopolitical challenge to U.S. influence in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda wants to kill you. One can make a solid case that American foreign policy needs to be more concerned with the former, but conflating the two isn't helpful.

(AP Photo)

Wasted Youth


According to Gallup, young people in several Arab countries feel their leadership is not taking advantage of the country's human capital. During the 2010 survey, Gallup found that Egypt's youth experienced the largest declines:

Fewer than 3 in 10 15- to 29-year-olds say Egypt's leadership maximizes youth potential, down from almost 4 in 10 in 2009.
Other countries notching declines: Jordan, Sudan and Iraq.

(AP Photo)

February 10, 2011

The Secular Muslim Brotherhood?

Thursday was not a particularly good one for James Clapper, U.S. Director of National Intelligence. Speaking to a House Intelligence Committee hearing, he weighed in on his thoughts on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, describing it as a "largely secular" organization.

Even with a near-immediate clarification release from his office, Clapper's statement prompted derision of both the restrained and the angry variety. NBC's Richard Engel called it a "head snap" moment. Perhaps the mildest response I could find was Jake Tapper's comments on ABC News, stating simply: "The Muslim Brotherhood is quite obviously not a secular organization."

What we've learned over the past several months is that there is a sizable portion of people who would like to claim otherwise. Tom Joscelyn did a fairly thorough job of debunking Bruce Reidel's claims about the Brotherhood, and the Op-Ed from Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh on Wednesday has mostly fallen on deaf ears.

Let's hope the backlash against Clapper soon leads to further investigation of the Brotherhood's international presence. A recent piece in Newsweek really buried the lede on this front, as Ricochet's Claire Berlinski noticed:

Page two, paragraph four, no further elaboration:

NEWSWEEK has obtained an extensive dossier, compiled last year by Arab analysts with close ties to Saudi intelligence, that argues that a well-financed global Muslim Brotherhood network uses “moderate-seeming politicians to further its extremist agenda” as far away as Malaysia.

You think they plan to share the details of this? Or just to mention coyly that they have it?

A good catch, that. Berlinski points to the fact that a Saudi investigation previously reported by CNN allegedly turned up all sorts of signs of Muslim Brotherhood money flowing around the world to key politicians and leaders - among them Malaysia's opposition candidate Anwar Ibrahim (is it any coincidence his rhetoric has turned more strident over the past year?). The network includes legitimate charities and candidates, alongside "People close to the senior leadership of the Taliban [who] live in Saudi Arabia and send money back."

The nine-page summary of the secret report states that the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political group present in many Muslim countries, was trying "through its many affiliated charities and organizations -- often with the funding of unwitting private Saudi citizens -- to spread its influence by providing support for candidates in Islamic democracies."

Whatever lessons we take from the Egypt experience, a need for more knowledge about the Brotherhood is necessary. As I wrote last month in advance of the fracturing scene in Egypt, the triumph of fundamentalists would have an incredibly destructive effect not just on Egypt but on her neighbors and U.S. interests.

There's no question that Khaled Abu Toameh's piece from early January has to be read now in the light of a powerful prediction about Egypt's course to this moment:

Mubarak's repressive measures and the absence of a real democracy is playing into the hands of the Islamic fundamentalists, who now appear to be more determined than ever to seize control of Egypt.

The Egyptian government's clampdown on secular reformists, including human rights activists and journalists, is driving many Egyptians toward the open arms of Muslim Brotherhood and other fundamentalist groups. These extremists find fertile soil among disgruntled Egyptians and Arabs who are yearning for regime change.

The United States desperately needs people in leadership who understand the Brotherhood and other fundamentalist groups - and understanding threats, if and when they exist. Describing such groups as "largely secular" is not something even their advocates would claim. Whatever that statement is, it is not the words of someone who knows anywhere near as much as a director of national intelligence needs to know.

Reagan's Cold War Education


One of the most fascinating interviews I've ever seen Brian Lamb conduct - and there are many on C-SPAN's Booknotes - was with Kiron Skinner concerning her book, Reagan in His Own Hand. The entire interview is here, and it's well worth your time to watch it. Skinner, whose expertise as an academic is on the history of the Cold War, famously discovered an incredible archive of material written in Reagan's own hand of more than a thousand radio broadcasts, mostly delivered from 1975 to 1979, which were broadcas all around the country. Reagan would give brief three minute overviews and anecdotes, many of them very specific, with some real insight on world affairs, domestic policy and more.

Skinner's book led to a massive reconsideration of Reagan as a historical thinker when it was released - she describes him as a one man think tank, and the comparison seems apt. Yet this is not to suggest Reagan was right about everything - Skinner highlights mistakes that he made or inconsistencies with later policies, particularly toward the engagement of dictators in Africa and elsewhere.

Yet as you step back and take a measure of this time, what's intriguing about these broadcasts is that together they depict a candidate who uses his time in the wilderness - post governorship, rejected by his party in 1976, before the 1980 election and the change it brought - to better himself not just in learning about the country but also in learning about foreign policy, and in sharing what he learned with a rapt audience in unedited fashion.

The vast majority of these radio addresses focus on the world as a whole. Reagan talks not just about Communism but also about defense and intelligence policy, outreach to the Third World, treaties, diplomacy and human rights issues. He does a series on the B-52 bomber and Salt II, and hints at the policy that would later come to be known as the Strategic Defense Initiative in his criticism of the Carter administration's policies. He even devotes two commentaries to the intricacies of NSC-68, a report declassified in 1975 which sounded the alarm on the Soviet's military buildup to President Truman.

By 1976, Reagan had already succeeded as a sports broadcaster, actor, corporate spokesman, union leader and two-term governor. He had learned to adapt to the realities of the modern media, to dodge and parry in debate, to educate himself on key policy matters and to communicate them in winning fashion. Yet in the course of these radio broadcasts, you see Reagan clearly setting himself apart on matters of foreign policy, defense and the Cold War - casting off the Nixon/Kissinger approach and speaking with conviction of taking a different path.

(Quick aside: My favorite moment of the 1976 impromptu remarks Reagan gave after Ford was nominated is a shot of Kissinger in the audience, ignoring the speech entirely.)

There's a contrast here, of course - one you might have seen coming. The fans of the former Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, have made an art out of Reagan comparisons, particularly after a speech she gave last weekend at the Reagan Ranch. For my own part, by any measure other than name identification and a shared political party, this seems like so much thin ice. There is a key difference here, and nowhere do you see it more pronounced than on foreign policy. This difference has nothing to do with intelligence, in my view - it has to do with commitment and humility.

Reagan, in his time, could have adapted to the views of the establishment, but was not interested in living the life of a political celebrity. Rather, he built and focused his time on churning out content and material from his own hand with very little help; writing 15 radio broadcasts in a sitting, newspaper columns and more on the issues of the day. He was speaking not just to friendly, but unfriendly audiences; not just in controlled TV headshots and overproduced events, but in serious policy debates and discussions. Not satisfied just to talk about the Cold War in its broad strokes, Reagan aimed to read, learn, study and become a Cold Warrior with a coherent and unique commitment to the task at hand. The preparation served him well, guiding him toward solutions which he could bring with him to the White House.

There was some speculation on the left this week that Bill Kristol's recent criticism of Palin - after once being one of her chief boosters - is a sign of her diminished potential as a 2012 presidential candidate. We have no way of knowing this, and such predictions are rather silly when viewed through the lens of history, where so many personalities have been pronounced dead in politics only to revive over a weekend. Yet it's telling that Kristol's speaking out now, as someone primarily focused on foreign policy - someone who would, presumably, be aware of any efforts on Palin's part to gain in this arena of expertise. If the comparison to Reagan means anything, Palin might be expected to participate in the kind of public foreign policy debates with Kristol and others that Reagan had with William F. Buckley Jr. in 1978? If not, why?

Palin's choices make enormous sense if her aim is to be a successful political celebrity - to raise funds for her allies, glad hand and chat with friendly sources on TV; to be a powerful force for her view of what conservatism should be. Yet they make little sense for someone interested in learning and growing as a public figure, to prepare for leadership in the way that Reagan did - particularly understanding the challenges of the global sphere.

My argument for much of the past year has been that President Obama's approach to foreign policy is inconsistent and confusing at times - the White House, for instance, appears to be caught flat-footed by the events in Egypt. Yet few of the presidential aspirants on the right (and Palin is no exception) seem to be offering their own coherent alternative - the argument is left mostly to experts like Elliott Abrams and John Bolton, not to people who are presumably preparing to challenge Obama for his job. At the CPAC gathering of conservatives and libertarians this week in Washington, DC, will any of the potential 2012 candidates mention Egypt at all? It will be interesting if they do, and frightening if they do not.

The point is just this: the "Time for Choosing" Reagan is the Reagan that many on the right chose to remember and hail this past weekend. This is not a bad thing - that Reagan is fiery and committed; an ideologue and a true believer in full torrent. But the Reagan of 1964 is not the Reagan America got as president 16 years later. Tested and challenged, that Ronald Reagan had learned how to apply his policy beliefs, ran and won two challenging elections in the nation's largest state, survived a recall effort, traveled the world as an envoy and, more than anything else, absorbed a massive amount of knowledge about foreign policy and the world we lived in.

This process of learning is a natural requirement for most governors, executives who rise within a state not by knowing how the world works but typically by knowing how local politics works. The learning process required a degree of humility on Reagan's part, one that not all politicians have, but that nearly all need.

Reagan's line from his 1964 speech which still echoes most in the ears of conservatives posited two paths: "We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness." By the time he became president, Reagan knew how to take the nation down the right path - the one that led to an end to the Cold War we thought would last forever. And it's thanks to that fact that today, as my New Ledger colleague Dan McLaughlin has written, Reagan's monument is a wall that is no longer there.

(AP Photo)

America's View of American Interests

Gallup ranks countries in order of what Americans say are there importance:


From Gallup:

Americans' views of Iraq's importance have shown the greatest change over the last four years, dropping to 52% "vitally important" today from 70% in 2007, when Iraq topped the list. At that time, President George W. Bush had just announced his "surge" strategy in Iraq in response to deteriorating conditions there, and his party had suffered significant losses in the 2006 midterm elections, partly as a result of the debate over Iraq. Now, with American combat troops withdrawn from that country and attention shifted to Afghanistan and other hot spots around the world, Iraq has slipped to fifth place.

Americans also are at least slightly less likely now than they were in 2007 to say what happens in Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Afghanistan is vitally important.

Personally, I'm surprised to find Canada ranking so low. On the scale of countries which impact the United States, its security, energy policy, economy, etc., it's not even close. Canada is considerably more important than any of the states ranked ahead of it.

Poll Shows Low Support for Brotherhood


The Washington Institute has released a poll (pdf) it conducted of Egyptians during the uprising. Some key findings:

This is not an Islamic uprising. The Muslim Brotherhood is approved by just 15 percent of Egyptians -- and its leaders get barely 1 percent of the vote in a presidential straw poll. Asked to pick national priorities, only 12 percent of Egyptians choose sharia (Islamic law) over Egypt's regional leadership, democracy, or economic development. And, when asked to explain the uprising, the issues of economic conditions, corruption, and unemployment (around 30 percent each) far outpace the concern that "the regime is not Islamic enough" (only 7 percent).

Surprisingly, when asked two different ways about the peace treaty with Israel, more support it (37 percent) than oppose it (27 percent) -- although around a third say they "don't know" or refuse to answer this question. Only 18 percent of Egyptians approve either Hamas or Iran. And a mere 5 percent say the uprising occurred because their government is "too pro-Israel."...

As for Egyptian views of America, a narrow plurality (36 percent vs. 27 percent) say Egypt should have good relations with the United States. And only a small minority (8 percent) say the current uprising is against a "too pro-American" regime. Nevertheless, half or more of the Egyptian public disapprove of how Washington has handled this crisis so far, saying that they do not trust the United States at all.

While the poll gives us reason to believe that a lot of the fear about "Tehran on the Nile" is likely overheated, there are foreign policy responses that are less encouraging (from Washington and Israel's perspective). When asked about Egyptian foreign policy, 19 said their first choice would be to maintain Egypt's relationship with the U.S. and 'moderate states' while 18 percent said Egypt should tear up its treaty with Israel and join the 'resistance front.' A further 16 percent said Egypt should distance itself from the U.S. and follow an independent line like Turkey, while 15 percent said better relations should be restored with Syria and Iran to help contribute to resistance against imperialism and colonialism.

Obama's Global Zero (Not So Much)

According to proliferation expert Henry Sokolski, the Obama administration is seeking nuclear deals with Jordan and Saudi Arabia that would eschew needed safeguards:

What is truly flabbergasting, though, is the fact that the Obama administration seems willing to accede to both Jordan’s and Saudi Arabia’s demands. At almost exactly the same time Egyptian protestors were filing into Tahrir Square on January 25, a highly respected arms control news service reported that the U.S. government was discussing nuclear deals with Jordan and Saudi Arabia which would not include the “gold standard” safeguards that the Obama administration has demanded from other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to ensure that nuclear cooperation is less likely to enable nuclear proliferation. In specific, these deals lacked any requirement that Saudi Arabia or Jordan forswear making nuclear fuel or ratify a new, tougher nuclear inspections regime known as the IAEA Additional Protocol.
It's early still in the Egyptian crisis, but it's not hard to see how a democratic Egypt could potentially develop a weapon of its own on the usual grounds that it lives in a rough neighborhood with one nuclear state near its border and Iran on the cusp. As Sokolski notes, Cairo has already "made several haphazard attempts to get a bomb." Good times.

America Profits from Mideast Unrest?


There's plenty to criticize in America's Middle East policy, but this is off-base:

The flames in the Middle East serve the American economy. In this context, it is enough to mention the $60 billion arms deal signed with Saudi Arabia last year - the largest in U.S. history. The deal will provide tens of thousands of jobs within American industries.

Given this background, it is easy to understand Washington's interest in continued tension in the Middle East. The tension pushes countries to sign large arms deals, which produce tens of thousands of jobs in the United States. As such, the American interest lies in its continued policy of inflaming passions - through Al Jazeera as well - to perpetuate concern within the Arab regimes, whose existence depends on American support. Thus the United States can continue claiming that promoting arms deals with the wealthy countries of the Mideast stems from concern for the region.

$60 billion is a lot of money, of course, but it pales in comparison to the impact of high oil prices:

At $90 a barrel, Americans this year will pay $720 billion for oil. This is an increase of more than $500 billion over what we paid in 2003, equal in economic burden to a 20 percent increase in income taxes.

I think it's safe to say we'd gladly forsake the arms deals if the price of oil plummeted.

(AP Photo)

February 9, 2011

Terrorism vs. Major War

Rasmussen finds that U.S. voters fear terrorism over a major war:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 12% of Likely U.S. Voters think traditional wars are a bigger threat to the United States than terrorists. Eighty percent (80%) disagree and see terrorists as the bigger threat.

However, voters have mixed feelings about refocusing the military toward fighting terrorism. Thirty percent (30%) feel America could improve its national security by reducing the number of soldiers in uniform and focusing more strategically on fighting terrorism, but 41% oppose such a strategic shift. Twenty-nine percent (29%) are not sure which is the best course.

The Taliban and al-Qaeda


Michael Cohen isn't happy with Max Boot's brusque treatment of a recent report on the prospects of splitting the Taliban from al-Qaeda:

But the worst part here is Boot's simplistic and unsupported reasoning for why this carefully researched report is wrong. He claims there is no doubt the Taliban and al Qaeda are closely linked - but actually provides no evidence, except the bizarre notion that Taliban thinking remains unchanged over the past ten years. He bemoans the fact that Mullah Omar won't trade away the chit of collaboration with al Qaeda - but why would he do such a thing before any serious negotiations with the US and/or the Karzai government?

By this argument America's enemies are not only incapable of strategic and pragmatic behavior, but should unilaterally disarm and rely on the good graces of the United States and its allies. Lastly, is it really impossible to recognize that the Taliban might have reason to turn on al Qaeda if they are returned to power - especially since the limitations on the use of US force that existed pre-9/11 certainly do not exist today and because al Qaeda would provide almost no benefit to the Taliban. At the very least isn't this a potential cleavage that we should be trying to exploit instead confidently declaring that the relationship between two organization with very different orientations and grievance structures is inviolate for all time?

I think this question of whether the Taliban can be "split" from al-Qaeda is ultimately neither here nor there. Afghanistan and Pakistan are large countries with a lot of mountainous, rural and lawless areas. Even if the "Taliban" formerly forswears ties to al-Qaeda, it's not as if the group can't stick around under the good graces (or intimidation) of another tribe in some out-of-the-way village.

The effort to get some members of the Taliban to say publicly that they won't support al-Qaeda is fine, as far as face-saving methods of extracting U.S. forces go, but who would really believe that? And even if it were true, how could you verify that? Our government doesn't want al-Qaeda operating in the U.S. - but they do. We're talking about small groups of people here, not armed divisions.

(AP Photo)

Can Saudi Arabia Keep Up?


This is disconcerting:

The US fears that Saudi Arabia, the world's largest crude oil exporter, may not have enough reserves to prevent oil prices escalating, confidential cables from its embassy in Riyadh show.

The cables, released by WikiLeaks, urge Washington to take seriously a warning from a senior Saudi government oil executive that the kingdom's crude oil reserves may have been overstated by as much as 300bn barrels – nearly 40%.

The revelation comes as the oil price has soared in recent weeks to more than $100 a barrel on global demand and tensions in the Middle East. Many analysts expect that the Saudis and their Opec cartel partners would pump more oil if rising prices threatened to choke off demand.

However, Sadad al-Husseini, a geologist and former head of exploration at the Saudi oil monopoly Aramco, met the US consul general in Riyadh in November 2007 and told the US diplomat that Aramco's 12.5m barrel-a-day capacity needed to keep a lid on prices could not be reached.

In December, the International Energy Agency noted (pdf) that Saudi Arabia was pumping 8.6m barrels a day.

(AP Photo)

U.S. Views on Egypt

There have been several new polls gaging U.S. views on the unfolding unrest in Egypt. First, Gallup notes that more Americans now hold an unfavorable view of Egypt:


Meanwhile, Pew Research reported yesterday:

Americans do not have a clear point of view about how the massive anti-government protests in Egypt will affect the United States. More than half (58%) say the protests will not have much of an effect (36%), or offer no response or are noncommittal (22%). Of the minority that thinks the protests will have an effect on the U.S., nearly twice as many say their impact will be negative rather than positive (28% vs. 15%).

This lack of agreement notwithstanding, a majority (57%) says the Obama administration is handling the situation in Egypt about right, while much smaller numbers say the administration has shown too much support (12%) or too little support (12%) for the protestors.

Finally, Rasmussen Reports finds most Americans want to stay out of Egypt's affairs:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that only 15% of Likely U.S. Voters believe the United States should get more directly involved in the Egyptian crisis. Sixty-eight percent (68%) say America should leave the situation alone. Seventeen percent (17%) are not sure which is the best course.

February 8, 2011

Obama's Egypt Policy


The New York Times writes about the Obama administration's strategy:

But, considering it lacks better options, the United States has strongly backed him [Omar Sulieman] to play the pivotal role in a still uncertain transition process in Egypt. In doing so, it is relying on the existing government to make changes that it has steadfastly resisted for years, and even now does not seem impatient to carry out.

It seems like the administration's gambit is to move as slow as possible while still pushing for some reform. Some observers, like Max Bergmann, are less patient:

The problem for the United States is that the regime’s survival in Egypt would reinforce the central gist of Al Qaeda’s central claim against the West: that change is impossible in the Middle East because the United States will prevent it. Therefore, Al Qaeda insists that to create change in the region they must strike first at the US and the West to get them to stop interfering in the Middle East. In other words, if we are seen as culpable in killing the protests, we are playing directly into Al Qaeda’s narrative.

Maybe the negative blowback of the regime’s survival will be minimal, but it seems foolish to assume that the current unstable status quo, will be less destabilizing than a prompt transition to “real democracy.”

I actually think it's quite possible that a "prompt" transition to real democracy would be considerably more destabilizing than the status quo, if the institutions that support democracy can't handle the rapid transition. I think Bergmann is right to warn of the consequences of standing by the Egyptian regime as it comes out on top of the protesters, which is why over the medium term, the U.S. should be rethinking the gobs of taxpayer dollars it showers on Egypt in the name of keeping a peace which is in Egypt's best interest to keep anyway.

(AP Photo)

Tracking Global Obesity

I thought the word from Conventional Wisdom HQ was that a food-crisis was in the making. But according to the chart above from the Economist, we're also enjoying a bull market in obesity. There's some good news in that, as it means prosperity, like waistlines, is expanding.

Why Is America Unpopular in Pakistan?

"One year after the launch of the civilian assistance strategy in Pakistan, USAID has not been able to demonstrate measurable progress," said the report, an assessment of the program for the final three months of 2010. "We believe that USAID has an imperative to accumulate, analyze, and report information on the results achieved under its programs."

The Obama administration is hoping the aid program to Pakistan, the second-largest recipient of U.S. civilian aid after Afghanistan, will help stabilize the fragile but strategically important country and boost America's image among ordinary Pakistanis. The program is focusing on funding visible infrastructure projects like bridges, roads and power stations.

But the U.S. strategy has faced a number of obstacles, including an Islamist insurgency that has made it dangerous for U.S. aid personnel to operate in some parts of the country. The U.S. remains deeply unpopular in Pakistan, in part due to a campaign of unmanned Central Intelligence Agency drone strikes against Taliban militants on the border with Afghanistan. The strikes also have killed civilians. - Wall Street Journal

American drone strikes in Pakistan are frequently cited as a cause of anti-Americanism. But are they? In a Pew poll (pdf) conducted over the summer, only 35 percent of Pakistanis had even heard about drone strikes. Not surprisingly, the view of those strikes is overwhelmingly negative. Nevertheless, we have to wrestle with the fact that anti-Americanism in Pakistan runs deeper than the drone strikes and is probably not going to be assuaged with a few billion dollars.

U.S. Optimistic About Egypt Protests


Americans have a mostly positive outlook about the prospects for change in Egypt, according to a new survey from Gallup.

In addition, an overwhelming majority of respondents (82 percent) said they were sympathetic to the protesters vs. 11 which said they were unsympathetic.

February 7, 2011

War Gaming Outcomes in Egypt


Braver, and wiser, people than yours truly have been making predictions about how things will shake out in Egypt. Thomas Barnett & WikiStrat have been war-gaming the outcome in Egypt. Barnett seems pretty optimistic about how it will all shake out:

My hopes for Egypt are that, by 2020-2022, we're looking at a Turkey-like player with a broad and relatively happy middle class. It's got a military that's respected and still a very solid friend of the US and the US's friends in the region. It is Islamist in flavor, because that's the people's heritage and it must be respected, just like a Christian-Judeo one is in the US. But it's not unduly dominant or nasty to other faiths, because that's bad for globalization and business. It becomes a conduit for the Horn and North Africa and the PG - connecting in all directions.

And sooner than you think, it becomes the justification for similarly successful unrest elsewhere.

(AP Photo)

Democracy Promotion a Low U.S. Priority


According to Pew Research promoting democracy abroad is not afforded a high priority by the American public. Not a big surprise.

What is a bit surprising is the meme that's taken hold that somehow the protests in Egypt "prove" Bush was right about the importance of democracy promotion in the Middle East. It's surprising because, despite a few speeches, the Bush administration didn't do much to further democracy in the Middle East. (Did they condition aid to Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc. on that basis?) It's also strange because the Bush administration's true foreign policy legacy was the notion that the U.S. was justified in preemptively attacking countries on the basis of perceived threat, whether or not the threat had fully materialized. If the administration had a "big idea" with momentous consequences for its foreign policy, that was it.

Democracy as such only entered into the public discussion in a big way when the administration was casting about for a rational to continue nation-building in Iraq. It's true that, rhetorically, the administration did diagnose many of the ills that plagued the Middle East and occasionally took some blame upon itself for those ills. But giving a speech about the importance of democracy rather pales in comparison to invading a country on the basis of preemptive defense. If Bush administration officials are looking for vindication for their boss' foreign policy doctrine as it was practiced as opposed to how it was preached, it won't be found in Tahir Square but wherever those stockpiles of WMD went hiding.

Russia Builds Up Pacific Navy

One of the biggest impediments to China's rise to great power status is the fact that China is surrounded by powerful neighbors. This, for instance, is how Russia is handling it:

The Kremlin’s choice of stimulus package is a bit of a throwback, though—among other things, a new fleet of warships to challenge China. Last week Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced a whopping $678 billion package of new defense spending for the next decade, with a quarter of the money going to revamp Russia’s Pacific fleet. On the Kremlin’s shopping list: 20 new ships, including a new class of attack submarines, plus new missile subs, frigates, and an aircraft carrier.

U.S. Views on Forward Deployments

Rasmussen offers some grist for the coming austerity battle:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 49% of Likely U.S. voters think we should remove troops from Western Europe and let the region defend itself. Forty-eight percent (48%) feel the same way about Japan. However, 60% say the United States should leave its troops in South Korea....

Earlier polling found that voters are fairly evenly divided as to whether the federal government spends too much or too little on national defense, but most also appear to dramatically underestimate how much is actually spent. Removing troops from Western Europe and Japan could reduce military spending by tens of billions of dollars annually.

February 5, 2011

Understanding the Rise of China

If you need a respite from Egypt, here's Martin Jacques on China's rise.

February 3, 2011

U.S. Confident in War on Terror

According to Rasmussen:

There's little change in the number of U.S. voters who think the United States and its allies are winning the war on terror, but the number who feel the terrorists are winning has fallen to its lowest level in nearly two years.

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 39% of Likely Voters say the United States and its allies are winning the War on Terror, consistent with findings over the past couple months. Yet only 19% say the terrorists are winning that war, down 11 points from early January and the lowest level measured since July 2009. Thirty-two percent (32%) feel that neither side is winning, the highest that finding has been in several years of tracking.

Foreign Policy Credentials

RCP's Scott Conroy reports on where GOP presidential hopefuls are burnishing their foreign policy credentials:

For the prospective field of Republican presidential candidates, a trip to Israel is quickly becoming a near prerequisite as top-tier contenders with little direct foreign policy experience look to brandish their credentials on the international stage before the demands of a grueling campaign keep them tied up domestically.

It seems to me that if you were a candidate hoping to get up to speed on the country's foreign policy challenges, countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and China would top the list.

Debating Deterrence

Those interested in questions of nuclear strategy should head over to the Interpreter for a debate on the subject.

February 2, 2011

U.S. Views on Obama's Egypt Policy

Not too bad, according to Rasmussen:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 41% of Likely U.S. Voters rate the way the Obama administration has responded to the situation in Egypt as good or excellent. Twenty-two percent (22%) view the administration’s response so far as poor. ...

Most Americans expect the unrest in Egypt to spread to other Middle Eastern countries and think that will be bad for the United States. But a sizable majority also believe the United States should stay out of Egypt’s current problems.

Meanwhile in Iraq

This news is disconcerting:

Iraqi security forces controlled directly by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki continue to hold and to torture detainees in secret jails despite his vows last year to end such practices, according to a statement from Human Rights Watch released Tuesday.

It's going to be difficult for Iraq to emerge as a true democracy if its Prime Minister operates his own torture squad.

Polling Egypt


Gallup offers up some of their research findings on Egypt and the Middle East:

Egyptians' approval of U.S. leadership fell 18 percentage points from 2009 to 2010, more than in other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Gallup's global employment tracking finds 21% of residents of the Middle East and North Africa were underemployed from 2009-2010 and 10% were unemployed.

They also tracked wellbeing in Tunisia and Egypt:

Wellbeing in Egypt and Tunisia decreased significantly over the past few years, even as GDP increased. In Egypt, where demonstrations have prompted President Hosni Mubarak to give up power after elections this fall, the percentage of people "thriving" fell by 18 percentage points since 2005. In Tunisia, where mass protests toppled the country's government last month, the percentage of people Gallup classifies as thriving fell 10 points since 2008.

February 1, 2011

Security Trade Offs


One of the uncomfortable questions being raised by the protests in Egypt is to what degree U.S. and Israeli interests justify consigning 80 million Egyptians to tyrannical rule. The basic "pro-Mubarak" argument articulated by Barry Rubin and Caroline Glick is that Israel's security (and America's interest in said security) are ample justification to get behind Mubarak or a fellow strongman. The writhing mass of "rioters" (in Glick's formulation) cannot be trusted to govern themselves because they endorse, or will fall prey to, totalitarian Islam.

And they might be right! After all, revolutions often lead to worse outcomes for both their population and the world at large.

America has every right (indeed, an obligation) to privilege her interests above the well-being of people in other states when common ground can't be reached, but to the extent that defending interests entails actively aiding the repression of an entire people, that should give us pause, particularly because we're simultaneously trying to squelch a global terrorist insurgency that feeds off of just such repression.

(AP Photo)

Food Prices & Stability


One trigger of the recent instability in the Middle East is the price of food, something the Food and Agriculture Organization said hit near record levels in January. Several months ago as part of our Gallup Global Top Fives, we identified the five most food insecure countries (Egypt and Tunisia did not make the list). If the trend line above continues upward, it's possible a few more regimes will come under intense pressure from their disgruntled citizenry.

[Hat tip: Mark Leon Goldberg]

Egypt's Democratic Foreign Policy

Larison sees it veering against Israel and making things worse for U.S. foreign policy:

Invoking democratic elections is the standard answer that everyone now gives as the way to resolve the crisis in Egypt, and Prof. Walt is arguing for the same thing, but what if it really is the wrong answer? If these elections empower the opposition united behind ElBaradei, they would also empower his allies in the Brotherhood, for which ElBaradei has been making excuses since he arrived on the scene.
It's true some of those urging democracy on Egypt right now are arrogantly presuming not only that we know best, but that we can ride and steer the various currents of Egyptian society toward an end point that satisfies them, us and Israel. While that's not completely impossible, it sounds quite ambitious.

That said, is there really a "do nothing" option now? Doing nothing means that we are defacto allies of the ancien regime, one that looks increasingly likely to fall.

(AP Photo)

How Do Egyptians Feel About Democracy?

In light of recent events, Pew Research reposted some of their April 2010 polling in Egypt and the Middle East:

A 59%-majority of Muslims in Egypt believed that democracy was preferable to any other kind of government. About one-in-five (22%), however, said that in some circumstances, a non-democratic government could be preferable, and another 16% said it did not matter what kind of government is in place for a person in their situation....

By wide margins, Muslims surveyed in the spring of 2010 believed that Islam's influence in politics was positive rather than negative. In Egypt, Islam's role in politics was seen favorably by an overwhelming 85%-to-2% margin among Muslims....

Asked whether there is a struggle in their nations between those who want to modernize their country and Islamic fundamentalists, a 61%-majority of Muslims in Egypt said they did not see a struggle. Just 31% of Egyptian Muslims saw a struggle between modernizers and fundamentalists in their country. Among the seven Muslim publics surveyed in 2010, only in Jordan (20%) did fewer say they saw such a struggle.

Among Egyptian Muslims who did see a struggle, a 59%-majority sided with the fundamentalists. Just 27% of those who saw such struggle sided with the modernizers.

Obviously, views may have shifted a bit!

(AP Photo)

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