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March 31, 2011

That Pesky Constitution

David Reiff makes a sound point about the Libyan intervention's fundamental lack of democratic legitimacy:

Why Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, or David Cameron feel that who rules Libya is any of their affair, and why they were more intent on securing the (grudging) assent of the Arab League than the assent of their own legislatures, shows just how misguided the doctrine of humanitarian intervention really is. These leaders are more intent on imposing democracy by force than in honoring the democratic judgment of their parliaments at home.

Larison goes further:

So, yes, this is an argument over “values” as well as interests, and the supporters of the war are willing to sacrifice concrete interests and jeopardize fundamental American values for the sake of intervening in another country’s civil war for what are very debatable humanitarian reasons. Americans are being asked to choose what we value more. Do we actually value self-government, the rule of law, separation of powers, checks and balances, and constitutional republicanism, or are we content to let all of those things be trashed on the whim of a relative handful of people for the sake of ideology and good intentions? Do we believe that the President must act within the law, or do we believe he is above it?

Well said.

Jimmy Carter Comes Back Empty-Handed


Remember that Jimmy Carter was heading to Cuba? He was invited by the Cuban government, and supposedly was going to get Alan Gross released.

Well, he got there, dressed like the natives, kissed up to the Castro brothers, called Fidel "an old friend" and asked the U.S. to release five convicts:

Bypassing ancillary issues such as the lack of freedom on the island and the enslavement of 11-million Cubans, Carter instead demanded that the U.S. release the Cuban 5. Those are the same five convicted Cuban spies who are serving prison time for espionage and the murder of four innocent American pilots who were shot down over international waters by Castro MiGs.

Carter also met with Yoani Sanchez, her husband, Claudia Cadelo and Laritza Diversent, though Alan Gross remains in jail:

when the 86-year-old ex-president flew off in the afternoon without Alan Gross on board, it dashed the hopes of Washington officials and relatives who had hoped Carter would be able to bring the Maryland native home.

The Obama administration missed an opportunity months ago when it eased restrictions on Cuba without demanding Gross' released.

(AP Photo)

Obama Not Moving U.S. Opinion on Libya

A Rasmussen poll finds that the public views Obama's handling of Libya favorably, although his speech on Monday didn't change many minds:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 43% of Likely U.S. Voters rate the Obama administration’s response to the Libya situation as good or excellent, marking little change from two previous surveys. Thirty percent (30%) give the administration poor marks, up from 21% earlier this month before the president committed U.S. forces to Libya.

Forty percent (40%) of voters felt at that time that the administration was doing a good or excellent job responding to the political crisis in Libya. Last week, with the U.S. military actively involved in Libya, 41% rated the Obama administration’s response as good or excellent, but 28% said it was doing a poor job.

The numbers also worsened slightly for the president from last week when voters are asked if Libya is vital to U.S. national security these days. Twenty-seven percent (27%) of voters say yes, while 48% say no, up six points from a week ago. Twenty-four percent (24%) remain undecided.

The latest survey was taken Monday and Tuesday nights, and the findings from the first night prior to the president’s speech and the second night after the speech show virtually no change on either question.

Regime Change or Bust

The president made a powerful, well-reasoned case Monday night for America’s intervention in Libya, marshaling the best humanitarian, strategic and political arguments as to why the United States could not have stood by and done nothing while Gaddafi’s forces massacred Libyan rebels. Besides, America’s closest allies were pleading for our help. But Obama did little to address the central strategic gap in his policy on Libya between its expansive goals — chiefly the ouster of Gaddafi — and its tightly defined military means. There are only two ways to close the gap — escalate the means or scale back your goals. - Fareed Zakaria

If the past history of American foreign policy is any precedent, there is always a bias toward activism, which means those urging to escalate the means will win out. We are already on the ground in Libya assessing the capabilities of the rebels and most likely paving the way for an increase in U.S. involvement in - and coordination of - their civil war. This is the logical consequence of President Obama's declaration that U.S. policy is to see Gaddafi ousted.

You can see the sequence clearly: American and Western aid tips the scales and helps the rebels oust Gaddafi. Gaddafi loyalists resort to an insurgency against whatever fragile government steps in to fill the void. There are urgent calls from the international community to stabilize the new regime which was, after all, too weak to capture Libya on its own and thus too weak to govern and provide security for the country. Then what does President Obama do? The threat to civilian lives in Libya will be no less severe in a condition of post-war anarchy. If the U.S. had a "responsibility to protect" Libyan civilians before it played any role in their endangerment, that responsibility will only increase having played an active hand in subsequent events.

March 30, 2011

Afghanistan's April Showers


The Persian new year was celebrated in Afghanistan just over a week ago. With it's passing, millions of wood-burning stoves have been relegated to storage and spring has officially arrived. Budding rose bushes and apricot trees dot Kabul courtyards.

But spring also heralds the return of the insurgent fighting season. The retreating cold releases its grip on supply routes to safe-havens across the mountainous Pakistani border, while the increasingly dense foliage provides impressive cover from NATO and U.S. fire.

There is hope, however, in both Washington and Kabul, that this spring will mark a new year that breaks the rhythm of war in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama's 30,000 troop surge, which came into place last fall, along with General David Petraeus' renewed focus on special operations and the continued enlargement of the Afghan National army have secured a handful of strategic districts in the country's restive south for the first time in years. Cricket diplomacy between Pakistan and India could pave the way toward Pakistan playing a more constructive role in negotiations with Afghanistan's Taliban. And fallout from the corruption scandal at Afghanistan's biggest bank may push forward reforms and introduce some semblance of accountability in the Karzai government. Just last fall, six in ten Afghans said the country was moving in the right direction.

Granted, expectations should be tethered. The afghan public is weary of the foreign military presence and gruesome pictures of a U.S. "kill team" do little to allay the fears of civilian casualties, which reached a high water mark last year. Moreover, this past winter proved more violent than most, a disturbing portent for the coming year. Barely a week into the new year, 300 Taliban - yes, 300 - overran an entire district in eastern Afghanistan.

Only a day before the Taliban invasion from the east, Laura King wrote this in the L.A. Times:

In addition, the spring will test a gamble by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force in eastern Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are being withdrawn from areas once described as crucial bulwarks against Pakistani-based militant groups such as the Haqqani network and the Hezb-i-Islami faction led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
U.S. troops have been "repositioned" away from former battlegrounds such as the Pech and Korangal valleys in Kunar province, where commanders said sophisticated surveillance and "intelligence-driven" raids would prevent a rush of cross-border movement.

Should old acquaintance be forgot, indeed.


(AP Photo)

Smart Power

The Obama administration is engaged in a fierce debate over whether to supply weapons to the rebels in Libya, senior officials said on Tuesday, with some fearful that providing arms would deepen American involvement in a civil war and that some fighters may have links to Al Qaeda. - New York Times

It truly beggars belief that we're even having this conversation. Read the end of the above sentence again: we're contemplating giving weapons to fighters who may have links to al-Qaeda. What could possibly go wrong?

This is the same administration that is trying to unwind a war against a group of fighters who were the recipients of American arms two decades ago!

Millennials and Climate Change

Greg Scoblete noted an interesting Brookings study of Millennials' views on foreign policy and the world. Not surprisingly, they are a bit toward the isolationist side of things. Somewhat surprisingly, they correctly identify China as a significant threat for America in the long run - I'd have thought Iran, North Korea and other nations punching outside their weight class would've been the prevalent choice.

But Greg noted one stat which surprised me even more:

Among the top challenges for the future, Millenials identified terrorism at the top (31.6 percent) followed by climate change (12.8 percent), nuclear proliferation (11.5 percent) and global poverty (10.7 percent).

I actually said "Wow" when I read this. That's incredibly low for climate change and global poverty, particularly when you consider how much talk of global warming dominated the political discussion just a few years ago. What happened? Well, the economic downturn made carbon taxes less appealing, the loss of several key political leaders blunted enthusiasm, movement leaders lost steam post-Kyoto and, of course, the number-fudging scandal in the UK (which did more damage than some in the green movement are even today ready to recognize).

I think, however, that there might be something more fundamental going on here. Katherine Miller, one of the most perceptive Millennial social critics - and happens to be an actual member of the generation (an essential qualifier) - noted in response that one shift we're seeing is that the climate issue was absorbed into a larger holistic approach which localized the issue. She maintains that the "issue went mainstream, in bite-size everyday chunks where your favorite restaurant boasts green practices," creating a positive payoff at the local and personal level.

This would be both a fascinating development and a depressing lesson for the groups who argued in favor of egregious anti-market steps at the broader level (a great example comes from this week in the UK, where the country scoffed at EU demands that they eliminate cars in all cities by 2050). I recently had a fascinating discussion with a green movement scientist working within the energy industry in Australia, and she told me the support has collapsed for incentives from the government, when just a few years ago they were being promised the moon. A major reason could be what Miller points out in this study on corporate engagement and instant gratification: why do the hard things, forced by artificial government policies, when you can instead help to save the planet by buying local? It's much easier, and has a much more immediate psychic benefit, to just buy the thing with the tree sticker on it and feel like you've made a difference.

When the green groups tried to make everyone in the West prioritize this issue, they thought they were broadening their base. It may turn out that instead, they were transforming their issue from a foreign policy issue into a cultural shibboleth.

One last note: I'd argue that, in reality, a major difficulty for the two groups (climate and poverty) are essentially at odds on policy, considering what most climate change political responses would mean for the developing world. If the factions are really that small - 12 percent vs. 10 percent - then we'll have to wait and see who gains a foothold if Millennials' see a diminished threat from terrorism in the future.

Libya and Defense Spending

Politico reports that proponents of keeping America in debt high defense spending are using Libya as an excuse to put the breaks on cuts:

The airstrikes are already being used by some in the Republican establishment to blunt momentum in favor of the cuts, long considered heretical in a town in which defense contractors constitute a formidable lobby and members of Congress view the Pentagon budget as a jobs program and fear being tagged as unpatriotic.

Squeezed by political forces to his right and his left, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) has led the charge against efforts to scale back defense spending.

“This would be one of those examples that can be used to buttress his argument that now is not the time for deep cuts in defense,” said Josh Holly, the committee’s communications director. The chairman’s concern is “not being properly positioned to deal with the contingencies that might be on the horizon, whether that be a modernizing military in China or (a military action) in Libya.”

Libya, though, could just as easily work against the argument for sustaining a huge defense budget, on the grounds that the intervention into Libya's civil war is just the kind of unnecessary policy that is weighing down America's balance sheet. Consider that Libya has cost $550 million "and counting" according to the National Journal. There are cost savings to be had in running a less interventionist foreign policy, but it appears that Washington isn't all that interested in spending restraint at home or abroad.

Support Falling for Libya War

According to a new poll:

A plurality of voters -- and a majority of independent voters -- thinks the U.S. military should not be involved in Libya right now, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday that also shows President Obama with his lowest-ever approval rating and re-elect score.

Just 41 percent of American voters say the U.S. is doing the right thing by using military force in Libya right now, while 47 percent believe that the U.S. should not be involved in the North African nation. Among independents, that support slips to 38 percent, with 51 percent saying the U.S. should not be involved.

The percentage of independents who say the U.S. is doing the right thing in Libya is lower than the percentage of Democrats (48 percent) or Republicans (40 percent) who approve of the use military force, echoing the results of two other surveys released over the last week that also showed support for the Libya mission lagging among independents.

March 29, 2011

Rolling Stone and "War Porn"

About a month ago, I shared some serious qualms I had about the veracity of a story by Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone on the PSYOP front. This month, RS is back again with more questionable coverage of the front, as Joshua Foust points out:

Reading the Rolling Stone piece, a reader walks away thinking that the killing of civilians is widespread and not at all limited to the troops associated with the “kill team.” The article paints the killings as the inevitable consequence of low morale and a rejection of counterinsurgency, and worse – it implies that murder is, in some way, a fact of being a soldier.

These sorts of implications, however, are difficult to square with the truth. Attention was first shed on the killings by fellow soldiers disgusted at the “kill team’s” alleged actions. Army rules — and U.S. law — considers such actions grievous crimes and stipulates immediate and harsh punishment for them. While the Army bureaucracy was slow to move — sadly, all too common regardless of the issue, whether an illegal killing, a problem with healthcare or even adapting to a rural insurgency in a war most people had forgotten about — that doesn’t automatically mean there is a cover up. Incompetence is a far more reasonable explanation than malice.

The point is, this is starting to turn into "war porn" - pairing shock video and images designed to create buzz. But the effect is to turn all combat deaths into murder (something that the RS author might believe, but most people don't), and murder exploited to sell magazines. Foust again:

There is a term for the sort of journalism Rolling Stone is engaging in here: war porn. In 2005, George Zornick wrote of the growing trend of many people both in and out of the military treating images of the war — weapons, death, combat and so on — in the same way one would treat pornography. The people posting these images, Zornick explained, “appear to regard the combat photos with sadistic glee, and pathological wisecracks follow almost every post.”

For just one example of the factual problems with Rolling Stone's coverage of this issue, the inclusion of one video in particular has raised the ire of prominent milblogger Michael Yon, who says the magazine has confused a combat situation with a murder scene in one of their featured videos, which depicts the killing of two alleged Taliban on a motorcycle - and that, as it happens, he was embedded with the 5/2 at the time. He accuses Rolling Stone of committing "a literary 'crime' by deceptively entwining this normal combat video with the Kill Team story":

The killing of the armed Taliban on the motorcycle was legal and within the rules of engagement. Law and ROE are related but separate matters. In any case, the killing was well within both the law and ROE. The Taliban on the back of the motorcycle raised his rifle to fire at our Soldiers but the rifle did not fire. I talked at length with several of the Soldiers who were there and they gave me the video. There was nothing to hide. I didn’t even know about the story until they told me. It can be good for Soldiers to shoot and share videos because it provides instant replay and lessons learned. When they gave me the video and further explained what happened, I found the combat so normal that I didn’t even bother publishing it, though I should have because that little shooting of the two Taliban was the least of the accomplishments of these Soldiers, and it rid the Arghandab of two Taliban.

We'll see if Rolling Stone responds - unlikely, considering the front page of their website still blares the full-of-holes "Psy-Ops" story. Of course, facts matter a lot less if your aim is more about graphic attention-getting imagery and traffic-pulling video than it is figuring out what actually was taking place on the ground.

Bin Laden on the Move

Syed Saleem Shahzad reports that Osama bin Laden has been quite mobile of late and parses the implications:

After a prolonged lull, the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has launched a series of covert operations in the rugged Hindu Kush mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan following strong tip-offs that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has been criss-crossing the area in the past few weeks for high-profile meetings in militant redoubts....

The development has fueled speculation in intelligence circles that al-Qaeda could be planning another major attack along the lines of the September 11, 2001, assault on New York and Washington, and the July 2007 foiled bomb attack in London.

However, extensive investigations by Asia Times Online, including exchanges within al-Qaeda's camps, point in another direction: given the nature of Bin Laden's meetings, this appears to be the beginning of a new era for a broader struggle in which al-Qaeda, through its Laskhar al-Zil (Shadow Army), will try to capitalize on the Arab revolts and the Palestinian struggle and also revitalize and redefine its role in Afghanistan.

The whole piece is worth a read. The upshot appears to be that al-Qaeda number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri has lost an internecine ideological battle and as a result al-Qaeda may be changing strategy. Either way, hopefully a more mobile bin Laden means a more vulnerable one.

Measuring Millenials' View of Foreign Policy

The Brookings Institution has polled (pdf) Millenials (those born between 1980 and 2005) for their views on foreign policy. The Millenials polled were student leaders and those engaged in policy internships so it reflects a rather stratified view of this age group. Here's what they found:

Isolationism, not globalism, is winning out. Fifty-eight percent of the young leaders think that America is "too involved" in global affairs and should instead focus more on issues at home. This level of isolationism, forged by growing up in the time of 9/11, Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, doubled the number recently seen in adult survey results. Indeed, contrary to the idea of young, globally minded Obamacrats vs. inward-looking Tea Partiers, young Democrats are actually more likely to hold isolationist attitudes than young Republicans.

-- China scares them. When asked to name any countries that they think will present the biggest problems for the U.S. over the next 10 to 20 years, China was listed the second most frequently, behind only Iran and ahead of nations such as North Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan and Russia. An almost even number -- 42% to 39% -- believe that China will be the most powerful country in the world in 2025, when these young people will probably start moving into power. Indeed, a majority of young Democrats and independents think China will be more powerful than the United States.

Among the top challenges for the future, Millenials identified terrorism at the top (31.6 percent) followed by climate change (12.8 percent), nuclear proliferation (11.5 percent) and global poverty (10.7 percent).

Foreign Policy Budgeting

Political capital, international support, time, military resources, and attention are all limited. Humanitarian interventionists insist that their cause should receive a large amount of all of these at a time when our government is already overburdened with commitments, but in practice they seem inclined to fritter them all away on the crisis du jour rather than conserve them and apply them to avert genuine, large-scale loss of life. If we were talking about any other area of policy, this indiscriminate and wasteful approach would badly damage interventionists’ credibility, but because it involves the exercise of American power abroad they are allowed to be as careless and wasteful as they please. - Daniel Larison

It's interesting to note that this appears to be a Transatlantic phenomena as well. The UK is undergoing a round of austerity budgeting and yet they still found enough funds between the couch cushions to sail off into Libya. On the other hand, Germany - which is being widely criticized for abstaining during the Security Council vote on Libya - has refused to participate. Perhaps it's no coincidence that they're one of the few Western nations not perilously in debt.

March 28, 2011

Obama's Speech

President Obama offered a very strong humanitarian case for American intervention in Libya. The crux:

It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right. In this particular country - Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gaddafi's forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.

To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and - more profoundly - our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.

It seemed clear throughout the speech that the president put significant emphasis on the fact that there was a coalition (however small) and UN imprimatur on America's military action. Many critics will no doubt pounce on this as proof of President Obama's one-world liberalism, but I think it's his way of wiggling out of any precedent setting doctrine with respect to Libya. It's rare indeed to have the UN and the Arab League join hands to endorse military action against a Middle Eastern state. Obama is probably betting that the multilateral stars won't align like this again, thus sparing him the need to act if other regional despots go on their own murderous rampages.

But what of American policy going forward? Here's what he had to say:

Of course, there is no question that Libya - and the world - will be better off with Gaddafi out of power. I, along with many other world leaders, have embraced that goal, and will actively pursue it through non-military means. But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.

The task that I assigned our forces - to protect the Libyan people from immediate danger, and to establish a No Fly Zone - carries with it a UN mandate and international support. It is also what the Libyan opposition asked us to do.

This is eerily similar to President George H.W. Bush's justification for not marching into Baghdad: too many risks and beyond the scope of the coalition. I think Obama is right not to send troops marching into Tripoli to unseat Gaddafi, but pledging to remove him through "non military means" sets up a possible stalemate in Libya and a long-term U.S. commitment to regime change. And the last thing a cash-strapped U.S. needs at the moment is yet another Middle Eastern regime to contain.

Sex, Lies and Videotape: Malaysia's King of Scandal

Bill Clinton. John Edwards. Larry Craig. Gary Hart. Elliot Spitzer. Mark Foley. Bill Livingston. Marion Barry. A litany of political leaders who bring to mind scandal and straying, grainy videos and uncomfortable tabloid headlines. Political scandals in America are a rich and entertaining tableau, all the way back to the era of the Founders - sometimes sad, often incomprehensible, and occasionally amusing (Craigslist, anyone?). But the names cited above are all pikers compared to Malaysian politics, where what seems like a conglomeration of all the above scandals are gathered around just one person: Anwar Ibrahim.

Like Edwards and Clinton, Anwar's scandals have put his wife, a prominent political leader, into increasingly difficult and precarious public positions. Like Livingston and Hart, Anwar's scandals have arrived at the key moments in his political career, frustrating his attempts at gaining power. Like Craig and Foley, Anwar's scandals have allegedly involved not just other women but other men - a far more controversial issue in a nation where sodomy is illegal. And like Barry, Anwar now faces a challenge involving grainy video footage from a hidden camera, which could spell the end of his career for good.

As the newspapers in Malaysia cull through the current allegations, the question is whether, like Spitzer and others, Anwar will once again endure the uncomfortable sexual nature of his scandals in the public eye -- or whether these persistent explosive situations, just one of which might have claimed the scalp of an American politician, will eventually drag him down for good.

The first scandal came in 1998, when Anwar, at the time Deputy Prime Minister, had a falling out with his political mentor, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir had spoken of Anwar as being considered his son, a rising political star and energetic speaker - but they clashed over the direction of the country and a series of policy conflicts coming out of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Where Mahathir favored price controls, Anwar favored foreign investment and privatization, and opposed bailouts of the banking system. His star was rising too fast for his mentor's liking - in 1998, Newsweek named Anwar "Asian of the Year."

The whole thing boiled over the top at the UMNO General Assembly meeting, where Mahathir released information and lists purporting to show that Anwar had improperly profited off of share allocations from the government during his privatization push. A tabloid book titled "50 Reasons Why Anwar Cannot Become Prime Minister" was distributed, claiming among other things that Anwar was homosexual - a claim he responded to by filing a defamation lawsuit. The lawsuit and the public claims prompted an investigation, a ham-handed show trial, and a verdict: guilty.

The clear lack of evidence and the political context made Anwar into an international martyr. Well-spoken and personally charming, he made political allies in the states - Al Gore, Paul Wolfowitz and others - and was defended by NGOs. Upon his release in 2004, after a panel of judges overturned his conviction based on contradictions in testimony, his path back to politics as a leader of the opposition party was certain.

In the years since, however, more scandals have emerged - all along the same lines and increasingly damaging. In 2008, a former male aide to Anwar came forward to make new allegations of sodomy. Anwar of course denied them, and plead not guilty in court - but this time, the allegations had less of the trumped up feel about them, and while it seems clear the aide was intending to trap the political leader, it's possible he walked right into that, even knowing the risks. In fact, that's exactly what Wikileaks reports that Singapore intelligence authorities believe, writing: "it was a set-up job and he probably knew that, but walked into it anyway."

Yet through all this, Dr. Wan Azizah, Anwar’s wife, has followed the American tradition, standing by her man -- which matters a great deal more in Malaysia, considering that she's president of his PKR Party (imagine if Elizabeth Edwards had been the chairman of the DNC). Even as internal strife in the party and frustration with his attitude toward victimhood caused his allies to consider pushing Anwar aside in favor of less controversial figures, his family connections and charisma have allowed him to remain in prominence. For many, he's viewed as the only person with the prominence to unite the factions of Malaysia's opposition parties to achieve any hope of victory - and as dirty as the mudslinging gets, they're unwilling to cast him off.

Last year, the trial for the second round of allegations began, at the time sparked outrage and complaints from Anwar's allies in America and NGOs. Even if it's possible these latest accusations had more truth to them than the 1998 case, the fact that he had been falsely accused in the past (and the fact that most of us in the West don't think these acts should be a crime anyway) made all the difference.

But those allies have yet to weigh in on the latest allegations, which are plastered on every front page across the country this week: a hidden camera recording which allegedly shows Anwar sleeping around yet again, this time with another woman. Like many religious countries which are normally quiet about such matters in cultural terms, the coverage has been juicier than ever, a rare opportunity to throw off the bounds of conversational restraint. The video was shown by a trio of politically connected men - one a former Anwar insider, another a politician who was himself felled by scandal - who called themselves "Datuk T" (for "Datuk Trio") to journalists and insiders, as well as a gold Omega watch they claimed was seen in the video and belongs to the politician.

Overnight, the national conversation focused entirely on the scandal: Anwar's stern denial (claiming that the man in the "porn video" has a larger belly than he), the police reports and counter-suits, talk of sending the tape to the FBI for analysis or getting local film directors to analyze it, and even claims that the timing of posts to Twitter and Facebook could be used to clear Anwar's name. The details are so numerous, every day brings new reports and topics of debate. And while the opposition claims the ruling party is behind the video scandal, the prevailing opinion among people here seems to be that they would not be surprised if Anwar, in his hubris, was the man.

What's disturbing about all this, of course, is that this martyrdom and scandal has in some ways given Anwar free rein to engage in all sorts of controversial talk and activity, which appeals to his base but would normally put one at odds with the American government. He's stepped up his appeals to anti-Semitic factions, openly intoning about the "Jewish lobby" as one of his foes, and cultivating closer relations with the Muslim Brotherhood - all facts which led Hillary Clinton to (wisely) avoid a meeting the last time she was in-country. Even as he claims Malaysia must follow the example of Egypt, denouncing his foes as entrenched Mubaraks, Anwar's public persona has become all about his scandals, nothing else. The maelstrom around him also serves as a shield, protecting him from further examination of his ideas and proposals, and distracting external groups from statements that might give them pause.

This is a fascinating moment in Malaysian politics. The ruling party is expected to call national elections soon. The opposition leader is embroiled in not one but two explosive sex scandals. For one of America's few truly moderate Muslim allies, what comes next in Anwar Ibrahim's controversial and scandal-plagued career could very well determine the nation's future in the region and the world.

If recent history is any guide, I'd expect more videotape before all is said and done.

UK Puts Aircraft Carrier Up for Sale


The UK is having an unusual yard sale:

The aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal is up for sale on the Ministry of Defence's auction website.

The Royal Navy's former flagship was decommissioned two weeks ago after 25 years in service as part of the government's defence budget review.

Proposals for it include turning it into a commercial heliport, a base for security personnel during the London Olympics, or a school and nightclub.

(AP Photo)

Map of the Year: World of Rivers


Via Flowing Data, the above map from National Geographic of every river system in the world won the annual Malofiej award for top graphics in journalism. Click the photo for a larger view. Pretty neat.

End Game in Libya


Many commentators are urging President Obama to spell out how America's role in Libya's civil war will end. The trouble is, there's no reason we should take the president seriously.

It's not that the president is going to lie about his intentions in Libya, it's simply that the administration has set itself on a course of managing Libya's internal politics that may not be so easy to steer away from. I mentioned Somalia below as one possible end-state for Libya, but the Somalia example is relevant not simply because Libya may become a failed state. Somalia was an example of a U.S. intervention that was rather quickly (though not instantly) unwound after it became obvious that the costs were not worth the benefits. It took a fire fight in the streets of Mogadishu to drive that cost/benefit calculus home, but it did occur and the U.S. has avoided intervening in the country ever since (of course, not intervening is not the same as not interfering, which the U.S. continues to do).

Unlike the first Gulf War, which morphed into a decades-long containtment regime that entailed policing Iraq's skies, occasionally bombing and eventually invading, the country, the U.S. was able to more or less "wash its hands" of the mess in Somalia.

So the question with respect to Libya is whether we're facing a situation akin to Somalia in 1993 (minus, let's hope, any U.S. casualties), where the U.S. can walk away following a military intervention and not get dragged back in, or whether the U.S. has set itself up for a second Iraq, where we are left policing and containing Gaddafi until regime change by military force becomes American policy. It may take a subsequent administration or two to reap what this administration has sown.

(AP Photo)

Libya or Somalia?

Spencer Ackerman reports that the U.S. plan for ending the Libya war is to exhort Gaddafi and his field commanders to stand down:

Whereas once the loyalists did the besieging, now they might be preparing for a siege of Gadhafi’s capitol. No wonder the call for defections is ringing out.

But that’s the only endgame that Clinton and Gates articulated. And NATO’s announcement that it’ll take over the war stopped short of measures to directly tip the military balance on the ground.

In a statement issued Sunday, NATO drew a firm line short of arming the Libyan opposition. Its efforts to “enforce the arms embargo” authorized by the United Nations will be “impartial, as the embargo “applies to all sides.” The rebels can rely on NATO planes for air cover, but nothing more.

NATO has already taken a difficult step in assuming command of the war. So it may not be surprising that it doesn’t want the mission to escalate into an effort to oust Gadhafi. But it’s an open question whether the poorly trained and outgunned rebels can defeat Gadhafi’s mechanized forces, even if they march all the way to Tripoli.

As a wise man once observed, predictions are hard, especially about the future. So I'm not going to speculate on how Libya is going to "end." I would like to pose the following question, however: would it be better for U.S. and Western interests to have a Somalia-style failed state in Libya following the violent overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi, or would it be preferable to have Gaddafi slaughter his way back to unified control over Libya?

March 27, 2011

Obama's Constitutional Libya Approach


Setting aside the policy issues involved in Libya, it's worth highlighting the legal debate on the constitutionality of President Obama's policy action. The accusations of unconstitutional activity here are overwhelmingly from non-lawyers - both from libertarians, the paleoconservative right and the anti-war left.

Many of the same factions claimed George W. Bush went far beyond the Constitution's limitations, but I think it's notable that Bruce Ackerman declares the activity unconstitutional from the left, even as he concedes that Obama is going beyond the limits of what Bush did:

The War Powers Resolution doesn't authorize a single day of Libyan bombing. But it does provide an escape hatch, stating that it is not "intended to alter the constitutional authority of the Congress or of the President." So it's open for Obama to assert that his power as commander in chief allows him to wage war without Congress, despite the Constitution's insistence to the contrary.

Many modern presidents have made such claims, and Harry Truman acted upon this assertion in Korea. But it's surprising to find Obama on the verge of ratifying such precedents. He was elected in reaction to the unilateralist assertions of John Yoo and other apologists for George W. Bush-era illegalities. Yet he is now moving onto ground that even Bush did not occupy. After a lot of talk about his inherent powers, Bush did get Congress to authorize his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, Obama is putting Bush-era talk into action in Libya -- without congressional authorization.

Ackerman mentions Yoo, who makes a strong case for the constitutionality of Obama's actions in Libya:

Mr. Obama once agreed with his Democratic colleagues, saying in 2007 that "The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." Fast forward four years: Last Monday, Mr. Obama notified Congress that he ordered military action in Libya "pursuant to my constitutional authority to conduct U.S. foreign relations and as Commander in Chief and Chief Executive."

For once, Mr. Obama has the Constitution about right. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 74, "The direction of war implies the direction of the common strength, and the power of directing and employing the common strength forms a usual and essential part in the definition of the executive authority." Presidents should conduct war, he wrote, because they could act with "decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch." In perhaps his most famous words, Hamilton wrote that "Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. . . . It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks."

The truth is that Mr. Bush's case for constitutional authority far outstrips Mr. Obama's. In 2001 and 2002, Mr. Bush won legislative approval for both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars even though he didn't need it.

There are not just legal concerns here though, but practical ones:

Congress is too fractured, slow and inflexible to manage war. Its loose, decentralized structure would paralyze American policy while foreign threats loom. The Framers understood that Congress's real power would lie in the purse. During the 1788 Virginia ratifying convention, Patrick Henry attacked the Constitution for failing to limit presidential militarism. James Madison replied: "The sword is in the hands of the British king; the purse is in the hands of the Parliament. It is so in America, as far as any analogy can exist."

Yoo plans to supplement his piece with several posts at Ricochet on the statements of the Founders on the issue. I look forward to seeing these items; I've read many of them myself, but they tend to get glossed over in these arguments (and often by those who are all about citing the Founders).

From my perspective, Yoo's arguing from a position that has a far longer historical ancestry in interpreting the constitutional role of the presidency - a view that has effectively been in place since Thomas Jefferson's war against the Barbary Pirates. The burden is on those who believe that Congress actually has a minute-by-minute, day-by-day management role to play in the realm of modern warfare, both for practical and principled reasons, to make the case for what seems to me a very different definition of the role of the Commander in Chief.

(AP Photo)

A Ground Level View from the IDF

At Coffee and Markets this week, Brad Jackson had a fascinating interview with Captain Neta Gerri of the Israeli Defense Force, who talked about the possibility of a new Gaza war, the conflict with the Palestinians and more.

Gerri is a doctor stationed within a combat unit, focused on treating Palestinians, and she has several interesting things to say. The interview starts around the 13 minute mark and is worth a listen.

March 26, 2011

Who Supports the War in Libya

Via the Economist, an interactive look at where various countries stand on the war in Libya.

March 25, 2011

False Presumptions and Obama's War


Whether you're a neoconservative or a paleoconservative opinion writer, you can easily make the same mistakes when it comes to evaluating the formation of policy - particularly if you have no background in that line of work. Such is the case this week with Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post and Daniel Larison at The Week, both of whom seem to be taking profoundly exaggerated views of the role of President Obama in shaping the current response in Libya.

Wars tend to be defined by the president who's in power at the time. But it's important to remember that wars don't merely occur at the whim of the president, nor are they always prosecuted by his design. The president is not a battlefield strategist - he evaluates the options presented to him by those who work under him (or, as one might say, "I was elected to lead, not to read"). Presidents don't answer an open-ended test in these situations - it's multiple choice, with the potential solutions outlined by those underneath them.

That's why in this case, I think the U.S. role in the conflict in Libya is not necessarily a reflection of Obama's Ivy League values or professorial attitude, as Krauthammer maintains - nor is it a purposeful "hybrid of the worst traits of the wars of George W. Bush and Tony Blair" as Larison argues. The truth of the matter is that the incoherent nature of America's policy toward Libya is not a sign of a direct fault with Obama the man. His "Ivy League values" aren't reflected in the way the United States has approached Libya any more than his knee jerk rejection of the policy doctrines of George W. Bush as a candidate have informed it.

Instead, I think those flaws are a degree away from the problems we're seeing in the administration's approach. They are weaknesses, known for some time internally, now being made apparent publicly in the inconsistent approach of the White House.

The signs are clear of an administration bickering with itself and its allies about which direction to take. As Karen Tumulty writes, "part of the confusion comes from the fact that the administration has shifted over the past weeks - from resisting military action, to leading the first assault, to positioning itself to hand over control to its partners. That seems to have left almost no one satisfied. Those who were urging Obama from the start to charge in - neoconservatives on the right; humanitarian interventionists on the left - say he dithered too long. Those who warned against yet another incursion into the Muslim world, particularly in a country where U.S. interests are limited, say he has been reckless."

Yet the distinction here is important: this halting, uncertain stumbling toward a poorly thought-through military engagement is a sign of Obama's failing as a Chief Executive, not as a Commander in Chief.

The problem here is the approach taken toward building a policy team. While Obama promised to engage a cabinet with a diversity of opinion and a broad spectrum of ideas and backgrounds, the effect of that has been to create serious factions within his administration; factions that struggle to come to agreement on the best course of action. The problem is easy to recognize, considering it's the same failing that has plagued Obama in other areas of policy, particularly when it comes to identifying the right course for economic solutions. The staff cannot agree on what's best, answers are getting more and more muddled and internal compromises and clashes are delaying the decisions the president needs to make. No matter the issue - foreign or domestic - we've seen this movie before, and we know how it ends.

The important point here, however, is to never make the mistake of thinking that a war is defined by one person's approach to strategy. It's just not an accurate approach to judging why nation-states do what they do; why some wars happen and others don't. There are always other factors involved, other individuals - and ignoring them leads to the false presumption that U.S. presidents are alone in defining what happens in the world, the champion riding at the head of the host, as if this is a conflict which pits Obama against Gaddafi, Bush vs. Saddam, Hector vs. Achilles.

This is not the way the world works. As Reinhard Meyers wrote on the false lessons of World War II’s inception:

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

Let's not make the mistake of thinking the U.S. president is the only actor who matters. While the fault may in part lie with the administration he has constructed, as eager as some people are to define everything in the world according to him, there's a lot more going on here than just Barack Obama.

(AP Photo)

How to Crawl Out of the Libyan Morass


By Elbridge Colby

It’s hard to believe but the United States is at war with yet another opprobrious Middle Eastern country – and, perhaps even more amazingly, is doing so without the clear sense of our objectives that can provide a logic for what we need to do and, more importantly, what we don’t need to do. Of course, finding such a coherent strategy won’t be easy, as the attack on Libya, lacking a concrete connection to the advancement or protection of substantial American interests, was ill-advised, as Brent Scowcroft, Richard Lugar, Richard Haass, Joe Scarborough and others have rightly pointed out. (For an unwittingly eye-opening admission of this, see Ben Rhodes’ explanation here.) But here we are, and we must make the best of it, as Scowcroft recently conceded.

So where do we go from here?

The key is to get ourselves extricated from the situation while minimizing the blow to our credibility and, to the extent practical, reducing the chances of massacres of civilians by Libyan forces. The least bad way to do this – from a menu of bad options – is for the Obama administration to switch from a policy of preventive defense and regime change to one of deterrence, focused on limiting American involvement and deterring massacres of Libyan civilians and, more importantly, attacks against U.S. and allied interests.

Currently, the administration seems to be pursuing a bifurcated policy: on the one hand, U.S. military action, as authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 1973, is designed to protect civilians from harm; on the other, U.S. policy – essentially the administration’s preference – is for Gaddafi to go. Thus the administration is using distinctly limited military means – air and missile strikes to suppress Libyan air defenses, the maintenance of a no-fly zone – to pursue what it sees as limited goals, even as it hopes and presumably uses other means to encourage him to abandon his position. (Of course in practice this distinction is murky, to say the least; witness the attack against one of the buildings within Gaddafi’s compound over the weekend.)

The problem is that, regardless of the administration’s aspirations to keep the effort limited, the inherent logic of this policy points definitively in the direction of either an escalating commitment – as we saw in Kosovo twelve years ago – or to embarrassing failure. What does it mean to protect civilians from harm? Does this mean that Gaddafi cannot use force to re-impose his authority over rebellious areas? If he is so permitted, how will the United States determine what degree of violence Gaddafi is allowed to use, let alone monitor it? And does it matter to the rebels if Gaddafi is allowed to reassert control? If Gaddafi is not to be permitted to re-impose control, on the other hand, then hasn’t the United States committed to defending a rump state, given the limited independent operating capabilities of the UK and France? And what if Gaddafi refuses to play along with the slicing up of the country – will he be allowed to remain in control? What then? Ultimately, under the current approach the President is likely to be presented with the hard choice of escalating or losing

The United States should step off this escalator. It is the responsibility of the United States not to do evil, but it is not the responsibility of the United States, nor is it within our power, to right every wrong and to stop every crime. Moreover, contrary to the hue and cry about our credibility being on the line, the United States can afford to downgrade its involvement in mistaken endeavors. The whole world knows three things very well: the United States military is exceptionally strong, the United States is willing to go to war, and the United States sometimes makes mistakes.

Recognizing that the third applies here will not really affect perceptions of the first two, which means that the global U.S. alliance structure won’t collapse like a house of cards if we back off in Libya. Indeed, making sensible choices can actually help strengthen our alliances by showing our judiciousness. France certainly got stronger after it abandoned its fruitless wars in Indochina and Algeria.

Nor is the United States reduced to fecklessness if we downgrade our commitment to what is happening in Libya. Massacres of civilians are obviously a worthy focus for the United States and other civilized nations, even if they are rarely sufficient to justify going to war. Given that we have already raised the ante in Libya, however, the United States should consider trying a different track than the one we are currently pursuing: instead of trying to prevent Gaddafi from harming civilians, a policy that will surely require our continuing involvement and may well promise to lead to deeper embroilment, we could seek to deter Gaddafi by threatening him with grave harm if he follows through on his threats. That is, if Gaddafi starts massacring civilians, the United States and its allies could threaten and, if necessary, undertake to expand their bombing campaign well beyond Libya’s air defense capabilities to encompass a broad range of targets, inflicting damage on Gaddafi and the Libyan leadership’s most prized facilities and possessions. Non-kinetic diplomatic and other efforts could also impose harm and cost on Gaddafi and his entourage, on top of the sanctions already in place.

Conversely, the United States would also withdraw its policy of active pursuit of regime change, giving Gaddafi a strong incentive not to massacre or to strike back against us with terrorist attacks, as he did in the 1980s. Should he conduct such attacks, the United States and its allies would reserve the right to punish Gaddafi further or, if necessary, remove and punish him personally. The point would be to hold out both threats and inducements for Gaddafi not to kill wantonly. (There is historical precedent for this kind of threat. The European powers often deterred or halted Ottoman Turkish abuses on their Christian subjects in the 19th century by such threats, and a softer variant of this type of threat helped convince the Soviets not to crush the Solidarity demonstrations in Poland in the early 1980s.) This could all be laid out in a forthright speech by or statement from the President, making clear what we demand of Gaddafi, what we do not demand, the consequences of violating our demands, and the benefits of complying with them.

That all said, such a deterrent policy might not succeed in all its objectives – ultimately Gaddafi might decide to follow through on his threats against civilians and simply take the punishment we mete out. But such a strategy would have the virtue of more appropriately matching the nature of our interests and the demands on our resources with our involvement and exposure to risk. Given the scope of our interests and our limited resources in a straitened era, solving Libya’s desperate problems are just beyond what the United States can or should hope to do.
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 herein are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of any institution with which he is affiliated.

(AP Photo)

Map of Allied Deployments in Libya


Via the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a map depicting allied deployments in Libya. They've also compiled a list of military assets known to be deployed to the region.

March 24, 2011

Gingrich's Flip Flop on Libya


Newt Gingrich is doing himself no favors with this flip flop on Libya, but it's an instructive moment for other Republicans on the problem with being reflexively anti-Obama. Here's the situation:

On March 7, the former Speaker of the House and likely 2012 presidential candidate told Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren that his response to Libya would be swift and unilateral. “Exercise a no-fly zone this evening,” he said.

“I mean, the idea that we’re confused about a man who has been an anti-American dictator since 1969 just tells you how inept this administration is,” he continued. “They were very quick to jump on Mubarak, who was their ally for 30 years, and they were confused about getting rid of Gaddafi. This is a moment to get rid of him. Do it. Get it over with.”

Now that Obama has taken that step and established a no-fly zone in conjunction with UN allies, Gingrich has changed tacks.

“I would not have intervened,” he told Matt Lauer on The Today Show Wednesday. “I think there are a lot of other ways to affect Gaddafi. I think there are a lot of other allies in the region that we could have worked with. I would not have used American and European forces.”

He criticized Obama for changing the designated purpose of the mission. “The president said on March 3, ‘Gaddafi has to go.’ Well they’re now saying this is a humanitarian intervention, which is nonsense. If this is not designed to get rid of Gaddafi, then this makes no sense at all.”

“This is about as badly run as any foreign operation we’ve seen in our lifetime,” he added.

Gingrich’s spokesperson Rick Tyler, explained that this was not the flip-flop that it might seem. Rather, he said, Gingrich’s response changed because Obama’s proposed mission had changed. “The Speaker has been consistent,” he told The Daily Caller. “The president has changed his mind.”

Gingrich explains his position further in a Facebook post, but I have a hard time seeing this as anything other than a flubbed situation. It's one thing to say "I support an NFZ right now, and not later, because later is too late," but that doesn't seem to be Gingrich's argument on the Today Show. Instead, the criticism seems to have shifted simply because "the president changed his mind."

I basically agree with Gingrich's latter position, as I understand it: Removing Gaddafi has to be the focus of any mission in Libya (with the U.S. in either an active or supporting role), and that a coalition-based "humanitarian involvement" is just another pointless, vague and demanding enterprise which has little promise of long term success. But if he only arrived at this position primarily because Obama shifted his own view, that's a rather dubious path to figuring out foreign policy.

(AP Photo)

Democracy, Whiskey, Sexy for Libya

Andrew Sullivan argues that boosters of the intervention in Libya, such as the New Republic's Jonathan Chait, glossed over Iraq as they stumped for a second war of choice in Libya. I've thought about this a bit and have come to the conclusion that they're not treating Iraq as if it never happened, but in fact simply have a fundamentally different view of what happened in Iraq.

To the war's critics, and to a majority of Americans, the decision to invade and occupy Iraq was a mistake. But most neoconservatives seem to sincerely believe that Iraq was a glorious victory for the United States (I don't think Chait believes that, but Bill Kristol sure does). Sure, mistakes were made - too few troops here, too much de-Baathification there - but the strategic mindset that plunged the U.S. into an eight year occupation of Iraq was, in their view, fundamentally sound. There has been very little discussion about Iraq in conservative circles since President Bush left office, especially first-order questions about whether, in the end, the war was worth fighting. To the extent anyone's paying attention to the continuing carnage and the depredations of Maliki's regime, it's to blame Obama for not meddling enough in the country's political development or to warn about leaving prematurely. (There are exceptions, such as Michael Rubin's tireless warnings about the descent of Iraqi Kurdistan.)

So it's actually no surprise that there's no humility or circumspection regarding Western military action against Libya among Iraq war boosters. And by blithely taking military action against another anti-American despot in the region, President Obama has gone a long way in validating the view that Iraq holds no useful lessons for the use of U.S. power in the Muslim world.

Because We Can, Ctd.


Earlier in the week, I highlighted Judah Grunstein's argument that the U.S. is intervening in Libya's civil war not because of immutable principles or overwhelming strategic necessity per-se but (to simplify) "because we can."

Thinking a bit more about this, and in light of Marc Sheetz' comments yesterday, it's worth pointing out that one possible consequence of embracing the "because we can" standard is that rogue regimes will work even harder to get themselves on the "can't" list. One way to do that would be to amass weapons of mass destruction. It's not an easy thing to do, of course, but if I were a despot, it would certainly be much higher on my list after Western intervention in Libya than before.

(AP Photo)

World's Top Arms Exporters


Via the Economist, a chart of the world's leading arms exporter based on recent research from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. And, if you're wondering, India takes the top spot as the world's largest importer of weapons, followed by China, South Korea and Pakistan.

Biofuels and Western Hypocrisy


Gordon Brown, the former British Prime Minister, has been raising a scare in the UK press about what he calls "the biggest environmental crime of our times" - the deforestation of Borneo, as reported by his sister-in-law, environmental activist Clare Rewcastle Brown.

Here's the interesting part - upon closer inspection, this controversy seems to be a classic example of a problem created by the West's policies toward combating global warming - and this controversy in particular is driven in part by Brown's own environmental policies as PM.

Let's step back a moment to look at the issue. Brown's claim is of extreme overuse of the Borneo rainforest in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, at such a rate that "only five percent of the primary forest is left where it was nearly 100 percent untouched in the 1960s." These are certainly scary-sounding figures - and worthy of the title of ecological disasters. Yet the whole thing strikes me as difficult to believe - a 95 percent deforestation rate? (Take a trip to Gunung Mulu in Sarawak or any of the wildlife preserves and you'll find that dubious.) Brown's claims certainly raised the hackles of local authorities, who've responded with significant criticism and pushback - the Chief Minister of Sarawak has challenged any international observers to come and verify that 70 percent or more of the rainforests remain intact.

In fact, if you compare Brown's claims to those made by Wetlands International, a Netherlands-based environmental activist group, you see that not even they claim the ludicrous figure of 95 percent reduction. Indeed, their calculations, apparently derived primarily from Google Earth satellite photography, show a 10 percent downturn over five years. In other words, even Brown's green activist allies in Europe are providing data-driven research which conflict with these claims.

But let's take these claims from the UK seriously for a moment. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that these claims are not falsehoods repeated by activists, but correct assessments of the situation. The question becomes: whose fault is it?

The uncomfortable truth for the Browns is that a primary driver for clearing land has come because of increased production of palm oil, in large part to meet Western demands for biofuels.

As highlighted in a recent special report in The Economist on the failings of biofuel policy, the ramifications of the European Union's mandated increases in usage of the stuff are widespread - particularly in raising the price of food. Environmental policy expert James Taylor, a colleague of mine at the Heartland Institute, explains it simply: if the government subsidizes something, there's going to be more of it.

"This is really quite amusing. Just a few years ago, the EU was acting environmentally holier than thou because they were using more biofuels than the U.S. As it turned out, the EU was meeting its biofuel goals because it was purchasing palm oil from places like Borneo," Taylor told me. "The palm oil, of course, was being produced as a result of deforestation. So, after creating a market for palm oil and incentives for Third World tropical nations to convert virgin forest to palm oil production, Gordon Brown now chastises these nations for producing the very palm oil that the EU was demanding and purchasing for years."

Of course, if the Browns would like to just continue the cycle of subsidization, Taylor has some advice for them: "If the EU is suddenly so concerned about deforestation, nothing is stopping them from offering Borneo incentives to forego deforestation."

Yet that's not the wisest course, either. There's little question that what Sarawak needs at the moment is progress - they're a province in need of an economic boost - and this progress demands funding from someone. Given the choice between using the resources they have (in a responsible fashion) and relying on the charity of other nations, it's little surprise they'd rather use what's available to provide schools, hospitals, roads, and energy to their people.

Taken as a whole, the Browns' response to this is an ideal example of Western hypocrisy on environmental policy. They apparently think green energy policy happens in a vacuum - particularly when it relates to the sacred alternative energy cow of biofuels. And they honestly seem to think that the jungles of Borneo need to be preserved in their original state even if that means continued destitution for the rural people involved.

This is just one more classic example of hypocrisy on the part of disengaged politicians, who never seem to think of the consequences of their actions. This is the sort of elitism that thinks there's something charming about people living in houses built out of sticks and mud, and thinks there's something bad about moving to brick and mortar.

Thankfully, in this case, the Browns seem to be wrong about the whole thing. But if they were right? They should just be pointing the finger at themselves. The developing world is not some zoo for the West to observe as an intact image of days of yore - it's full of people in need of significant help, help that's much better if it comes through internal effort as opposed to external charity.

(AP Photo)

March 23, 2011

Obama's Phony Realism

In accepting the Nobel prize, President Obama declared that military force was justified on humanitarian grounds and that the defense of human rights was in the national interest. Now he has set the precedent of waging war for third tier interests beyond the narrow scope of national security. In so doing, he has compromised the nation's security interest in non-proliferation. The key lesson that states like Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia will draw from the military intervention in Libya is to keep a nuclear development program if you have one and go get one if you do not. One has to believe that Qaddafi is now tormenting himself at night with the question: "Why did I ever agree to give up my WMD programs? - Marc Sheetz

This plus a surge of troops for nation building in Afghanistan certainly doesn't suggest an administration interested in off-shore balancing. And seemingly no amount of national indebtedness or strategic over-stretch can persuade them otherwise. Some realist.

Nation Building in Afghanistan

Paul Miller makes the case for nation building in Afghanistan:

There are no practical alternatives. Vice President Biden and a growing chorus of others believe we should give up rebuilding Afghanistan and, instead, sustain an indefinite worldwide assassination campaign against al Qaida's senior leaders. His view of the war is myopic, narrow, and troubling. Such a campaign would do nothing to address Pakistan, the drug trade, NATO, the other great powers, or any of our other interests across South Asia. It is also morally troubling -- it amounts to a declaration that we reserve the right to kill anyone we deem to be a terrorist, anywhere in the world, forever. Call it the Biden Doctrine of the Forever War. States should not maintain a state of war indefinitely just because it is too inconvenient to settle the political conditions that led to the war in the first place. War should be the last resort, not the first.

Nation building in Afghanistan is the only pragmatic policy option that will secure the full range of our interests in South Asia and yield an actual end-point to the war, which is why Petraeus is right to be alarmed about the funding levels for our civilians.

I think Miller is right to warn about an open-ended campaign of assassinations against senior al-Qaeda leaders but his case for nation-building doesn't address that at all. What about al-Qaeda leaders operating outside of Afghanistan? The central question with respect to Afghanistan is which war our nation building efforts hope to win - the one against a native Taliban insurgency or the one against global jihadism? We could "win" in Afghanistan and still lose the broader effort. When you're dealing with constrained resources - and an executive branch in Washington seemingly eager to open up new fronts across the world - you have to question the wisdom of putting all our counter-terrorism eggs in one hugely expensive sinkhole called Afghanistan.

Furthermore, it's extremely difficult to see what American policy can do inside Afghanistan to "stabilize" Pakistan, other than to consent to Pakistan's wishes and make Afghanistan its proxy. Pakistan has made it abundantly clear that it will buck American wishes inside Afghanistan, yet proponents of indefinite nation building seem to wave this problem away or insist that somehow chaos in Afghanistan will endanger Pakistan. But that overlooks the rather glaring fact that it is Pakistan that is facilitating the chaos in Afghanistan for its own ends. Nation building proponents can't square that circle.

U.S. Support for Libya Strikes Climbing

A pair of new polls shows climbing support in the U.S. for the military mission in Libya, following a fresh poll from CNN that showed a jump in public support. First, Rasmussen:

34% of Likely U.S. Voters now think the United States should get more directly involved in the Libyan crisis, up 12 points from 22% two weeks ago. Forty-eight percent (48%) say the United States should leave the situation alone, down from 63% in the previous survey. Eighteen percent (18%) are not sure which course is best.

Forty-one percent (41%) of voters rate the Obama administration’s response to the situation in Libya as good or excellent, unchanged from earlier in the month. But 28% now say the administration is doing a poor job, up from 21%.

One likely explanation for the increased support for U.S. involvement in Libya is the United Nations’ approval of the use of multi-national air strikes to help rebels attempting to overthrow the government of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Forty-seven percent (47%) of voters say they are more supportive of American involvement in Libya now that the U.N. has approved the mission. Fifteen percent (15%) say the U.N. action has made them less supportive, while 32% say it has had no impact on their opinion.

Meanwhile, Gallup found that 47 percent of those polled approved of military action in Libya while 37 percent opposed. Additionally, Gallup noted that this approval rating "is lower than what Gallup has found when asking about approval of other U.S. military campaigns in the past four decades."

Across the pond, YouGov found (pdf) that the British public is equally supportive of military action in Libya with 45 percent thinking it's the right move vs. 36 percent who think it's the wrong move. Prime Minister Cameron gets higher marks for dealing with the conflict in the UK than does President Obama.

March 22, 2011

Debating Libya

Judah Grunstein thinks that the "barriers to exit" in Libya are actually pretty low; since the Obama administration didn't spend months demonizing Gaddafi, they have more wiggle room in dealing with him:

Nevertheless, the absence of such a campaign of demonization now allows for a wider range of political approaches toward Gadhafi's regime than were imaginable in Iraq, to take just one example, where not only did Saddam Hussein need to go, but the military needed to be disbanded and the Baathist party purged from the political arena. Similar to its approach in Egypt, the U.S. can actively pursue a policy of impeachment, as opposed to regime change, in Libya, which opens the door to a political settlement of both the civil war as well as the U.S. and Western intervention in it -- even as that intervention continues. In other words, this signals America's return after a decade's hiatus to a Clausewitzian approach to war more applicable to the kinds of limited conflicts we're likely to face moving forward.

I'm not so sure it's going to play out so neatly. First, as Grunstein points out, the Obama administration has stated that its policy in Libya is that Gaddafi must no longer rule Libya. That is, Obama's policy is regime change, even if, for the moment, he is not matching military means to his stated ends.

It's true that removing Gaddafi from power is a more limited goal than transforming Libya into a model democracy in North Africa, but I don't see how the president has given himself much room to maneuver toward a political settlement. Obama's opening position is that Gaddafi loses power. Gaddafi's opening position is that Gaddafi stays in power. Unless one side backs down, it's a zero-sum standoff.

(UPDATE: To clarify, Grunstein is contrasting Libya to Iraq, where the goals were a root-and-branch removal of Hussein and senior officials in the Baath party, where in Libya, President Obama just wants a single person ousted but could conceivably deal with other members in Gaddafi's inner circle.)

Meanwhile, Shadi Hamid thinks I define U.S. interest too narrowly:

Some people might take issue with "moral imperatives" or how morality is very much part of how I conceptualize broader U.S. interests. But we aren't France (and even France has taken to talking about the honor of the West in face of dictatorship). We are the United States and the U.S., for both better and worse, has claimed to be a nation that stands for something beyond the nation-state. That's why people look to us for moral leadership, even if they're likely not to find it. We are not Botswana. And the president of the United States is not the premier of China. Moreover, it is declared U.S. policy under both the Bush adn Obama administrations that the U.S. will support the universal, democratic aspirations of the Arab people. In this sense, we have encouraged them to do what we would do in similar circumstances - resist repression and fight for their freedom.

I have, respectfully, two problems with this. The first is that invoking morality is a complex and often dubious standard. Once we declare that we have a moral obligation to act in Country X then we have an open-ended commitment to intervene everywhere our moral sensitivities are inflamed.

If, on the other hand, we declare we have a moral obligation to act if the country can't really fight back, doesn't have a great power patron, isn't hosting American military bases, is regionally important, or is rich in natural resources, then it's not actually morality that's guiding our hand, is it? Morality is just one ingredient, and self-evidently not the decisive one, or else we'd be marching off into Burma, Yemen, Somalia, et al.

Giving undue emphasis to morality in cases such as our involvement in Libya's civil war is therefore fundamentally dishonest - both to the American people about the reasons their blood and treasure are being put on the line, and to a global audience as well, since it could raise expectations of American aid in future conflicts. Mind you, I am absolutely not implying that people aren't sincere in their moral outrage or in their view that morality should play a major role in guiding U.S. decision-making. But at the political level, it's just not the case that morality alone is the guiding factor, and saying otherwise - or playing up the moral aspect of specific policies - isn't very clarifying.

The second, and more practical problem with the morality standard is that there is no way whatsoever to ensure that American intervention will actually bring about a free and democratic Libya. Hamid argues that we're intervening on behalf of freedom fighters, but what do we know about them and their aims? Ronald Reagan once hailed the Afghan Mujahadeen as freedom fighters, but they were, by any reasonable standard, not interested in freedom and certainly not interested in the other values America stands for.

So what can we possibly know about how Libya's freedom fighters would rule the country if given the chance? All I know of the Libyan opposition is what I've read in the papers, so I will readily stand corrected if evidence can be presented showing that the proclivities of Libyan society (not just the elite portion currently asking for Western assistance) is toward pluralism, freedom, respect for minorities and women's rights, and all the other values Americans stand for. Or, if they don't, that they U.S. has divined some mechanism that can enforce and institutionalize those norms in the wake of Gaddafi's ouster. Barring that, we don't actually have an argument on behalf of fighting for freedom, but on behalf of people who want to take power from an admittedly loathsome dictator.

Public Supports Libya No-Fly Zone


A new CNN poll shows that support for a no-fly zone among the American public has edged up:

Seven in ten Americans support military action by the U.S. and other countries to establish a no-fly zone in Libya, a 14-point increase since last week, according to a new national poll.

But a CNN/Opinon Research Corporation survey also indicates there is less among the public for air strikes that directly target Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's troops who are fighting opposition forces, and only one in four want to send ground forces into the conflict....

According to the survey, 70 percent support the establishment of a no-fly zone by the U.S. and other countries, up from 56 percent a week ago. Twenty-seven percent oppose the move, down 13 points.

The poll indicates support drops to 54 percent for air strikes not directly related to the no-fly zone that instead target the troops fighting the rebels, with 43 percent opposed to that action.

A Billion Here, A Billion There


Pretty soon, it starts to add up:

With U.N. coalition forces bombarding Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi from the sea and air, the United States’ part in the operation could ultimately hit several billion dollars -- and require the Pentagon to request emergency funding from Congress to pay for it.

The first day of Operation Odyssey Dawn had a price tag that was well over $100 million for the U.S. in missiles alone. And the U.S. military, which remains in the lead now in its third day, has pumped millions more into air- and sea-launched strikes targeting air-defense sites and ground-force positions along Libya’s coastline.

The ultimate total that the United States spends will hinge on the length and scope of the strikes as well as on the contributions of its coalition allies. But Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said on Monday that the U.S. costs could “easily pass the $1 billion mark on this operation, regardless of how well things go.”

Naturally, the war in Libya has led some to conclude that now is not that time to cut the U.S. military budget. And obviously if President Obama is going to use American power in this fashion, the costs are going to add up. But the opposite is also true: there are cost-savings associated with a foreign policy of restraint.

(AP Photo)

March 21, 2011

The 'Because We Can' Standard


Judah Grunstein isn't impressed with "the idea that, because the U.S. and the global community does not intervene everywhere and every time that tyrants and despots abuse their people, it should not intervene in Libya." He writes:

However, we shouldn't let constraints in particular instances tie our hands across the board, especially in a situation such as Libya, where there are no great-power interests at stake, and where the balance of forces and circumstances is largely in our favor.

What I'm presenting here is a hybrid case for intervention that is based on both liberal interventionism, to the extent that the intervention in Libya is meant to support the Libyan uprising as well as the broader wave of popular revolt throughout the Arab world, and cold-eyed realpolitik, to the degree that the balance of forces allows for it and a successful outcome will advance our broader global interests. So, why Libya and not Côte d'Ivoire or Bahrain? Because in Libya we can, in Côte d'Ivoire "we" already did, and in Bahrain we can't.

I guess the question centers on what it is we think "we can" do. It's important to recognize that intervening in Libya and bombing Gaddafi's supporters is not the same thing as finding a politically acceptable end-state to the country's rebellion - a fact that is being resolutely over-looked by most of the campaign's supporters. So, yes, there are very low barriers to entry in Libya, which makes it attractive where a campaign against Bahrain or Burma is much less so. But it's the barriers to exit that matter most.

(AP Photo)

Score One for Multilateralism

The Arab League is suddenly not all that happy with the Libyan no-fly zone:

The Arab League secretary general, Amr Moussa, deplored the broad scope of the U.S.-European bombing campaign in Libya and said Sunday that he would call a league meeting to reconsider Arab approval of the Western military intervention.

Moussa said the Arab League’s approval of a no-fly zone on March 12 was based on a desire to prevent Moammar Gaddafi’s air force from attacking civilians and was not designed to endorse the intense bombing and missile attacks — including on Tripoli, the capital, and on Libyan ground forces — whose images have filled Arab television screens for two days.

Moussa has since back-tracked a bit but this really does underscore the absurdity of fighting other people's battles. The Arab League endorsed a no-fly zone. They should be the ones trying to enforce it. Instead, they're carping.

This should also be seen as a shot across the bow. The coalition that many of the president's supporters are so proud of will quickly peel off if the war, or at least our involvement in the war, is not brought swiftly to an end.

March 19, 2011

Progress vs. Deforestation in Borneo

Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown drove some attention last week to the work of his sister, Clare Rewcastle, on the subject of deforestation in the Borneo rainforest. Rewcastle claims that the prognosis for the region indicates incredible degrees of deforestation - to the point that she predicts 90 percent deforestation by the year 2020, mostly due to oil palm production in the region (it's widely used as a cooking oil). An excerpt from Brown's oped:

What Clare Rewcastle is exposing through her local informants is that over this period, particularly during the 1980s, Malaysia's once vast pristine jungle has been stripped bare and enormous areas have been planted with oil palm in an environmental nightmare that shows no sign of slowing. Deprived of their livelihoods, some of the world's poorest people have been further impoverished by the deforestation.

The recent Sarawak Report exposes how pressures continue to force families to leave the forests and give up on their traditional livelihoods. These families are being pressed to accept "compensation", often of only £80, for land whose wood is worth millions.

The courage being shown by local Sarawak people gives us all a chance to stop the destruction. If the world fails now we are not guilty simply of a sin of omission; we will be actively condoning the destruction of a nation's future by people too greedy to see the trees for the wood.

Of course, this sparked pushback from the local authorities - in this case Deputy Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Planning and Resource Management Datu Len Talif Salleh, who denounced Rewcastle and Brown as repeating false information and lacking any real knowledge of the situation on the ground:

“Firstly, Gordon Brown has never been to Sarawak. Clare Rewcastle, his sister-in-law, may have been born in Sarawak and resided here for about eight years but this does not make her an expert in our land use or to comment on the situation in the country. How can they have the cheek to tell us what to do?” he asked.

He said Rewcastle made an erroneous statement that Sarawak was 100 per cent green in the 80s and that today the state is 95 per cent deforested with only five per cent still untouched, which he claimed even small children would find preposterous.

“A hundred years ago Britain was 100 per cent forested but now less than 10 per cent is forest. More than 60 per cent is agriculture land. But Sarawak wants to turn only 25 per cent of its vast forest into agriculture land and yet they blame us for destroying our forest,” Len Talif lamented.

This is one more instance of a challenge I've written about in the past in the context of a middle-income trap: a nation trying to avoid hitting a plateau status in development, and having to balance those concerns of the demand for rapid progress against environmental protection. This has been noted by their own officials concerning hydropower and other discussions, and it's a challenge for every nation.

Personally, I have a hard time accepting Rewcastle's numbers on face value. The idea of 90+ percent deforestation sounds more like hyperbole to me. A study from a similarly minded environmental group, while also critical, found a much slower progression - roughly 10 percent over the past 5 years. This is still deforestation, and seems par for the course for Len's nod to 25 percent shifted to agricultural use - but it's hardly the disastrous situation Brown describes as "probably the biggest environmental crime of our times."

The irony, of course, in all of this: one of Brown's initiatives as prime minister was a dramatic increase in the use of biofuels - including palm oil - as a fuel alternative. How often our Western leadership forgets that when something becomes a green policy mantra in the West, it can drive deforestation and agricultural steps elsewhere around the world in a vicious cycle.

Elliott Abrams on Foreign Policy and the Tea Party

My interview with Elliott Abrams a few months back is now available here. Here's an excerpt from the initial transcript concerning Abrams' thoughts on the Tea Party, Defense spending and the challenge of isolationism, which strikes me as particularly relevant given the current foreign policy debates on the right:

Domenech: America’s presence around the world is going to be something that is likely to be more of an issue within the new Congress. There seem to be so many members who are willing to put defense spending on the gradation of cuts. And I wondered what your thoughts area about that generally and about some of the different pushbacks that exist within both the conservative movements against this new view. Who do you think has the right of it and which direction should we go?

Abrams: It’s a very interesting question. I was very struck during the 2010 campaigns at the role that Sarah Palin played on this question. In many of her speeches, to Tea Party audiences, she said, "don’t cut the Defense budget, cut everything else, but we don’t want to cut the defense budget."

I have no doubt that there is fraud and waste in the Pentagon. It’s inconceivable that there shouldn’t be. It’s a government agency. There are going to be plenty of inefficiencies, but fundamentally, I think that it is a mistake at this juncture to be cutting the Defense budget, which is not so large, compared to various times in the past.

I think we missed one great opportunity and it was a terrible mistake. And that is, when the Obama administration started to spend its TARP money, the president was looking for shovel ready projects. It is now clear, at the end of two years of Obama, that he didn’t find too many. And I think the administration has acknowledged this. Well, there were a lot in the Pentagon. And the administration, for ideological reasons, did not want to spend the money on Defense related matters, and that was a huge mistake, both in terms of the economy because there were shovel ready projects that would have created employment and in terms of national defense.

This is going to be a very interesting debate within the Republican Party. I don’t see much isolationism, I have to say. I see one or two people, I mean, one associates this with Senator Rand Paul and that’s probably an unfair charge to make against him to say isolationist. You’d have to define the term and he’s not asking that we stop trading with foreign countries. I agree with the view that we do not have a revenue problem in the federal government, we have a spending problem and the solution to the problem is to stop the amazing amounts of red ink. We are likely to have an inflation problem soon enough.

But it seems to me that if you look at the world that we face, this would be a very inopportune moment to start doing what unfortunately the British have now had to do and dramatically cut back on their global role.

Domenech: Besides this debate within the Republican Party, there is also a debate that occurs within the evangelical community—who obviously make up a significant chunk of the base for both the Tea Party moment and the American center-right—about not just about our role in the world, but our role in the Middle East. What are some of the lessons Christians and evangelicals, in particular, ought to take from what’s happening in the Middle East right now and what our relationship ought to be with Israel going forward?

Abrams: I was in Israel in October and spoke to a group called the Jewish People Policy Institute which is Israeli, and I’ve been thinking about not just Israel as a country, but about the relationship with Jewish communities around the world. There were people there from all over, from Israel, of course, but from all over the world—Canada, Australia, Europe, Latin America. And I said to them, you know, "America really is an exceptional country, particularly if you compare it to the countries of those that you from Europe live in, in many ways, but I’ll give you one way that’s critical for everybody here: we have Christians."

We have a country whose majority religious group is Christians, unlike any country in Europe, with the possible exception of Poland today, I would say, where there are real Christians—in that case, Catholics. So this is a very interesting question. I try to explain to people from other countries that the critical Israel lobby in this country doesn’t consist of Jews, it consists of Christians, evangelicals primarily.

Look, I think that the United States has a very important role in the Middle East protecting moderate regimes in the Arab world and protecting Israel. And this is a critical moment because of the rise of Iran. People are saying this is a critical moment, every year, but the rise of Iran actually is, to use technical political science language, “a big deal.” And everybody in the Middle East knows it.

Domenech: That’s the formal term.

Abrams: That’s the formal term, yes. Everybody knows it and everybody talks about it constantly. If you ask why the UAE is building such a large and expensive air force, or why the Saudis want this arms deal with us, or why the Israelis want to buy “bunker buster bombs.” Or why several countries are experimenting with, so far, civilian nuclear power, Iran is the answer. So we have a critical role at this juncture, because Iran is seeking hegemony in the region.
Iran has a Mediterranean boarder because of Hezbollah and Lebanon. Iran has a border with Israel effectively because of Hezbollah and Lebanon. I remember in the Bush administration we had a heavy debate over whether it could possibly be true there would be a relationship developing between Hamas and Iran. And many experts said not possible because Hamas is Sunni and Iran is Shiite. Well, you know, ten years later, it’s obvious that the key foreign support for Hamas comes from Shia Iran. They’ve gotten over their theological disputes at least to this extent.

Israel is quite isolated in the world. And it’s hard to see that getting better in the near future because of the political situation so many European countries where you have a growing alliance between Muslim communities and the hard left and you might even add some on the far right. It’s a combination of Muslim anti-Semitism, hard left Anti-Americanism and anti-Israelism and far right anti-Semitism. It’s a witch’s brew, so they are not going to get much help there in the near future and they are going to have to, in Israel, to rely largely on the United States. I hope that we prove reliable.

If you haven't already, you should be reading Abrams' superb CFR blog.

Regime Change

This was predictable:

We cannot be content with the current stalemate, with Qaddafi holding Tripoli and most other cities while the rebels are ensconced in Benghazi and Tobruk in the east. We do not want to divide Libya indefinitely (unless its people vote to do so). Most of all, we do not want to get into a situation like that in Iraq between 1991 and 2003, when the United States had to devote considerable resources to maintaining a no-fly zone.

The longer Qaddafi stays in power, the more suffering he can inflict on the people under his control, and the more mischief he can inflict on other countries—including the United States. He has already threatened to retaliate against “all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea.” That is no idle threat, given that in the past he has been responsible for numerous acts of terrorism, including the midair bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988.

The only way this crisis will end—the only way we and our allies can achieve our objectives in Libya—is to remove Qaddafi from power. Containment won’t suffice. We must make “rollback” the international strategy.

That's Max Boot calling on the U.S. to "muster the will and resources to oust a dictator." Mind you, Boot is also a firm believer in mustering the will and resources to stay in Iraq for the long term. Oh, and Afghanistan too. Maybe there is an untapped wellspring of American resources he's discovered? If so, perhaps he should let the Treasury know. They could use it!

Equally predictably, Boot has nothing to say about what follows Gaddafi, who provides security for a post-Gaddafi Libya, who pays for that security or why any of this is of vital importance to the United States. Because, you know, that stuff's not important or anything.


Perhaps the Obama administration has cleverly figured out a way to bring about the neoisolationist fantasy of the 1990s: making the rest of the world shoulder the load of global policeman. Many of the critiques of U.S. military intervention over the past twenty years have been critiques of U.S. involvement, not military intervention, per se. The cases in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and so on were deemed not to be in our interest. Perhaps they required military intervention, but let someone else bear the costs.

The Bush 41 and Clinton administrations tried this, but were never able to get the rest of the world to handle matters satisfactorily. The United States was "indispensable," Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright concluded. If we did not lead and shoulder the leader's load it would not get done, whatever it was that needed doing (the East Timor exception that proved the rule notwithstanding). - Peter Feaver

Again, it's not clear if this is what the Obama administration is doing, but if so, rather than deride it as a "neoisolationist fantasy"* the president should get significant credit. The U.S. has no interests at stake in Libya's civil war, so it makes no sense to "bear the leader's load" in Feaver's words. But European and Middle Eastern countries do have a stake in the conflict. If going along with a UN Resolution and offering some intelligence and logistical support galvanizes these countries to take the lead and bear the majority of the costs ... that's a good thing! Military intervention may not be the best way for those countries to safeguard those interests, but they are in a better position to judge that than the U.S.

* I understand why Feaver uses the word fantasy here - it is something of a fantasy to expect others not to free ride on the U.S. when Washington has proven so profligate with its global leadership. But I don't quite understand what is "neoisolationist" about the proposition that nations with a larger stake in an outcome should bear a correspondingly larger share of the costs. It seems rather like common sense.

March 18, 2011

Regime Change & Moral Obligation

For realists, I would love to hear how doing nothing in Libya was going to help U.S. security interests. Having an oil-rich pariah state that could very well return to supporting terrorism and wreaking havoc in the region would be disastrous, creating Iraq part 3 and making it more likely we'd have to intervene sometime further into the future, at much greater cost and consequence. Did we not learn from the quelched Shia uprisings of 1991? Or from standing by idly (or supporting) the military coup that ended Algerian democracy in 1991? - Shadi Hamid

From where I sit, it looks like we're moving precisely in the direction Hamid says he wants to avoid. Gaddafi is already an international pariah. If the U.S. simply adheres to the letter of the UN Resolution, which limits international action to protecting Libyan civilians but does not commit to regime change, Gaddafi may hang on, effectively partitioning Libya much as Iraq was split following the first Gulf War. In such an environment, it's quite likely that Gaddafi will turn to terrorism to seek revenge against his rivals.

In other words, unless we are willing to see that Gaddafi is overthrown or removed in short order, we are replicating the dangerous stalemate that prevailed in the 1990s with Iraq. It's quite possible that Gaddafi sees the forces arrayed against him and folds like a cheap suit (here's hoping). In that case, the no-fly zone and other Western and Arab League military operations could proceed quite smoothly, and the rebels could take the country and sort out a new political order with minimal bloodshed going forward. But it would be irresponsible to simply assume that Gaddafi will knuckle under - which means that either the "coalition" forces his removal or embarks on an open-ended mission to "contain" Gaddafi to Tripoli and whatever other territory his forces now control.

And as for America's security interests, it seems to me the over-riding security interest of the United States is to safeguard the lives and resources of its citizens and to put both on the line only when either are gravely threatened. Libya hardly meets such a standard, and if we insist that it does, then there are numerous countries that would demand American military intervention; starting with Yemen, Bahrain and Sudan.

What's more, it would be nice if those making moral demands of the White House recognize that the administration has far more powerful and fundamental moral obligations to the resources and security of the citizens in the country it was elected to serve than it does to citizens in other countries.

March 17, 2011

A Second War of Choice

Andrew Sullivan raises some good questions about the looming war against Libya:

If we are prepared to do this in Libya, why not in Congo, where the casualties and brutality have been immensely greater? Or Zimbabwe?

There is no intellectually defensible rationale for intervening in Libya on a humanitarian basis that doesn't simultaneously demand interventions in Congo, and Zimbabwe, and Somalia and Sudan, and so on. Why prioritize Libya?

But perhaps what's more troubling about this whole episode, as Sullivan notes, is that it has proceeded almost entirely without debate. When the Bush administration wanted to wage a war of choice against Iraq, it at least spent several months building a public case. The Bush administration had to resort to some wild rhetoric about the possibility of the United States getting nuked, but at least it was making a case built (however absurdly) on American security interests. What has the Obama administration said? What interests are at stake? Why is American security at risk if we do nothing?

And what of Congress? I know it's considered old-fashioned in national security circles to trot out the Constitution and remind folks that it is the people's representatives who get to decide whether the U.S. wages war or not, but it remains the case nonetheless.

And I should add that just because I think the intervention is ill-considered doesn't mean I think it's going to end in a calamity (although it clearly could). There's no reason to believe the U.S. can't deliver a beating to Gaddafi's thugs and force them away from the rebel strongholds without having to intervene on the ground. But unless the Obama administration articulates some clear red-lines about the scope of American involvement, we're on a clear path toward regime change in Libya. For better or worse.

Obama & Libya

Daniel Larison clears up some of my earlier confusion regarding why the Obama administration was courting a UN vote against Libya:

Perhaps one reason that there is some confusion about the administration’s position is that no previous administration has successfully moved other states to take up these sorts of collective security responsibilities without major U.S. participation. We don’t quite know what we’re watching, because previous administrations haven’t seriously tried to encourage burden-sharing. It’s possible Obama isn’t doing this, but it would help make sense of what he has been doing.

If the U.S. stayed out of a conflict in the past, other states for the most part weren’t clamoring to enter it, but if the U.S. were intent on entering a conflict it was able to bring along other states in support. Regardless of more public reluctance on the part of the U.S., there is much more clamoring for action from some European and Arab states where Libya is concerned, so it may be that the U.S. is trying to facilitate action by others, or it may be that the U.S. is willing to give the clamoring governments enough diplomatic rope with which to hang themselves.

I do admit that this crossed my mind - that this was a clever diplomatic strategy to effectively pass the burden of action onto other states, with the U.S. in a supporting role. If that is indeed the case - if the administration's tacit support galvanizes others states to do the majority of the heavy lifting (i.e. the bombing and the paying for) with the U.S. quietly offering intelligence, then it does indeed make more sense. In a more ideal world, these kinds of regional coalitions are what the U.S. should be supporting. I guess we'll have to see whether that is indeed their true intention and if so, if the gambit actually works.

What's the UN Got To Do With It?


The Obama administration is evidently not willing to wage war against Libya without the imprimatur of the United Nations:

The administration, which remains deeply reluctant to be drawn into an armed conflict in yet another Muslim country, is nevertheless backing a resolution in the Security Council that would give countries a broad range of options for aiding the Libyan rebels, including military steps that go well beyond a no-flight zone.

Administration officials — who have been debating a no-flight zone for weeks — concluded that such a step now would be “too little, too late” for rebels who have been pushed back to Benghazi. That suggests more aggressive measures, which some military analysts have called a no-drive zone, to prevent Colonel Qaddafi from moving tanks and artillery into Benghazi.

The United States is insisting that any military action would have to be carried out by an international coalition, including Libya’s Arab neighbors.

This doesn't make much sense to me. If the administration believes that waging war against Gaddafi is in America's national interest, then it should do so irrespective of UN sanction. If the administration does not believe that waging war against Gaddafi is in America's interest, it should not do so anyway simply because the UN has authorized it. Having the UN Security Council authorize punitive measures against Gaddafi's regime doesn't suddenly transform the conflict from a peripheral interest to a central one.

(AP Photo)

Libya & Iraq Lessons

Is it really necessary to point out that, lessons notwithstanding, Libya is not Iraq? (It is not Bosnia or Rwanda, either, but, given the administration’s modest definition of American purpose, its members won’t be summoning these precedents any time soon.) The Obama team ought to respond to the Libya crisis on its own terms, if it intends to respond at all. That means acknowledging the differences between Libya and Iraq: the disparity between Saddam Hussein’s 500,000-man army and Muammar Qaddafi’s 50,000-man (and shrinking) army; the distinction between the size of Iraq’s population and Libya’s population, which adds up to about 20 percent of Iraq’s and mostly inhabits a thin slice of coastline; the difference between an essentially American enterprise and an undertaking that has the sanction of the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and marches to the tune of La Marseillaise; the difference between a dictator whose crimes (presumably) belonged to the past and one who vows to “cleanse Libya house by house” and, by all accounts, has proved himself keen to do so; the difference between Iraq, with no viable opposition movement, and Libya, which boasts an active and well-armed rebel force; the difference between a country frozen in the amber of authoritarianism a decade ago and an entire region awash in a wave of successful popular uprisings today. - Lawrence Kaplan

There are indeed obvious differences between Libya in 2011 and Iraq in 2003 and Kaplan ably catalogs them, but there are more similarities here than Kaplan acknowledges. The first is the utter disregard among those pressing for military action for what happens following a U.S. strike. Much like the commentary in the lead up to Iraq, the entirety of the focus is on urging policy makers to act, now, irrespective of whether the U.S. is capable of sorting out the complex set of political issues that follow the end of hostilities.

The second, related, similarity is that the U.S. almost certainly does not possess the wherewithal to sort out a post-war Libyan political settlement. The Bush administration prepared for months for the Iraq war and its aftermath, and what followed the invasion was not exactly a ringing endorsement of American colonial management. Indeed, the U.S. has been trying for a decade to midwife an acceptable political and security dynamic in Afghanistan with little success.

Of course, this doesn't mean that failure is preordained in Libya, but the track record of American policy toward post-war settlements in the Middle East doesn't instill a lot of confidence - nor does the fact that the Obama administration has had at most two weeks to discuss Libya and American policy toward the country. Secretary Clinton has met a whopping two times with opposition groups.

The third similarity is Potemkin multilateralism. Kaplan trots out the Arab League endorsement, as if this means anything. As Leslie Gelb and others have pointed out, if the Arab League and Libya's neighbors want a no-fly zone, they are well within their rights and have ample equipment to establish one. But just as the coalition of the willing produced only a handful of nations truly willing to commit blood and treasure to the battle, it's far more likely that ringing endorsements from the Arab League are a prelude to holding America's coat while it wades into a second war of choice.

An Exceptional Nation


For the last five days, newspapers have been full of articles about what we can learn about nuclear power from Japan’s tragedy. But the country has equally valuable lessons to teach us about the human capacity for composure and courage in the face of epic tragedy. - Jonathan Kay

(AP Photo)

March 16, 2011

U.S. Opposed to Afghan War


A new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that two-thirds of the American public (64 percent) say that the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting and almost 75 percent believe President Obama should pull "a substantial number" of combat troops out of Afghanistan this summer. On the other hand, 53 percent of those polled believe the president will not withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan this summer.

(AP Photo)

Obama to Brazil: What Can You Do for Me?

The Washington Post's headline reads:
In Brazil, Obama will ask what S. American economy can do for U.S.:

When top American officials have visited Brazil in the past, they often have asked what the United States can do to help Brazil’s economy, which has been buffetted by periodic financial crises.

But when President Obama visits this weekend, he’ll be asking what Brazil can do for the U.S. economy.

White House officials said Tuesday that Obama’s trip this weekend — the centerpiece of which will be a series of economic talks in Brazil — would focus on ways that rapid growth in Latin America’s largest economy can pay off for U.S. businesses.

“This trip fundamentally is about the U.S. recovery, U.S. exports and the critical relationship that Latin America plays in our economic future and jobs here in the United States,” said Michael Froman, national security adviser for international economic affairs.

Let's hope the administration at least attempts to couch that in better terms, because you can bet the Brazilians are focused on what's in their national interest.

The trip is supposed to be about trade:

President Obama will be heading to the region at a time of growing trade between U.S. and Central and South America. U.S. exports to the region grew 86% between 2004 and 2009 and are on track to double in the next five years, the White House said. Exports to the region are estimated at about $161 billion in 2010, supporting nearly 900,000 U.S. jobs, the White House said.

Obama's scrupulously avoiding Colombia and Peru, two countries which have been waiting for their own Free Trade Agreements to be finalized:

Brazil is the first stop on the trip, which will include a visit with the country's new president, Dilma Rousseff. He will also be visiting El Salvador and Chile.

I can't wait to see if former Marxist Dilma will be lecturing Obama on free trade and business, and against protectionism, as Lula did almost exactly two years ago during Lula's White House visit.

Oil and tech are on the table, but other trade is unlikely to change:

In a nutshell, Brazil wants greater access for its ethanol and other commodities, and fewer U.S. subsidies in cotton and agriculture generally. On the other side, the United States is pushing for more access for its consumer goods in Brazil.

Preliminary talks, including a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota in Washington earlier in March, have convinced both sides to expect scant, if any, progress.

Brazil says it cannot offer greater access to its consumer market, in part because its industries are suffering due to a strong currency and a wave of cheap imports from China..

Andres Oppenheimer is predicting a honeymoon, but my prediction is that they'll punt on the trade issues after the photo ops are done.

Maybe Obama will get Dilma to toss a football, just like Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia did. Dilma, however, may insist on kicking a soccer ball.

Security will be tight while the Obama family takes in the sights in Rio and possibly a stop at the beach. No word if Obama will meet with the Brazilian politician who changed his name to Barack Obama trying to get elected.

The Troop Withdrawal Charade


During yesterday's congressional testimony, General Petraeus indicated that some American troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan but declined to specify how many.

It's very difficult to understand the Obama administration's approach to Afghanistan. On the one hand, they have adopted a counter-insurgency strategy which, if it is to succeed, will take years, if not decades. I don't believe the approach is a good idea, but it's the one the administration has embraced. So if that is the case, why send any troops home at all this summer? It's seems obvious to me that the troop reductions will be a purely token gesture, one driven by political expediency and designed to mollify the president's critics. But those critics will obviously understand that a few thousand troops does not entail the end of the counter-insurgency effort.

The worst of all worlds is to settle on a resource-intensive strategy and then not provide adequate resources.

(AP Photo)

Hyping Japan's Nuclear Dangers?


Robert Zubrin says the press is needlessly fanning fears about Japan's nuclear dangers:

Let us be clear. Compared to the real disaster at hand, the hypothetical threat from the nuclear stations is zero. The reactors in question were all shut down four days ago. The control rods have been inserted, and the cores have been salted with boron. It is physically impossible for them to sustain a fission reaction of any kind at this point, let alone cause another Chernobyl. Only the fission-byproduct decay heat remains, and it is fading fast as the short half-life material (which accounts for most of the radioactivity) performs its decay reactions and ceases to exist. At this point, the total heating power in the reactors is only about 0.3 percent of what it was when the reactors were operating. That means that a system previously capable of generating 1,300 megawatts of heat would now yield 4 megawatts thermal -- about the same as that emitted by a dozen 100-horsepower automobile engines. The Japanese engineers can certainly deal with that with water cooling. And even if they were to stop, there just isn’t enough heating power in the system anymore to generate a dangerous plume of radioactive materials, which is doubly impossible at this point since all the more active short half-life stuff is already gone.

I am utterly unqualified to discuss nuclear physics so caveat emptor with Zubrin's analysis. Nevertheless, this Reuters analysis does seem to confirm that the levels of radiation released thus far have not reached a seriously dangerous level.

(AP Photo)

Still More Libya Polling

A new one from CNN shows 56 percent of the public supporting a no-fly zone with 40 percent opposed. It also finds support for arming the rebels (53 percent vs. 43 percent). However, the public does not favor the U.S. taking the lead to resolve the crisis - 74 percent said the U.S. should "leave it to others" - and an equally large majority do not support sending ground troops into Libya.

Jobs & Wellbeing


Gallup finds a connection:

One of the most important factors contributing to an individual's wellbeing is his or her employment status. Globally, the difference in wellbeing between those who have good jobs and those who are self-employed is significant. In terms of one's wellbeing, the worst job in the world is to be self-employed in a developing country. At 12% thriving, the self-employed in the developing world have the lowest wellbeing of any group. Many of the world's poor are forced into growing or making things to sell on a street corner, working for themselves out of desperation. The picture is different in the developed world, where the self-employed are more likely to be entrepreneurs out of opportunity.

March 15, 2011

Meanwhile, in Egypt

J. Scott Carpenter and Dina Guirguis report on Egypt's constitutional developments:

A principal cause for concern in Egypt is the hastily organized constitutional referendum scheduled for March 19 -- a little more than a month after Mubarak's departure and just four days following Secretary Clinton's arrival. In the referendum, the process behind which is largely unknown, Egyptians will vote on whether to amend Egypt's current constitution to create a framework under which parliamentary and presidential elections can be held in June and August, respectively.

The proposed constitutional amendments putatively address the most troublesome articles of the current (suspended) constitution by instituting presidential term limits and restoring full judicial supervision over elections. Despite these seemingly responsive amendments, Egyptians have voiced increasing concerns over both their substance and the process that has led to the referendum. Worries also center on the amendments' endorsement of the SMC's overall electoral timetable and transition plan -- and the implications of this endorsement.

The amendments themselves were drafted over a two-week period, in near secrecy, by a ten-person, all-male committee chosen opaquely by the SMC. Two members, including the committee chair, have Islamist orientations. The amendments essentially leave intact the presidential system and various articles that permit expanded executive power. Furthermore, they ban from the presidential contest any person holding dual nationality or whose spouse is non-Egyptian, a ban that would preclude well-respected public figures such as Egyptian-American Nobel laureate Ahmed Zuweil from the race.

The amendments presume the election of the parliament before the president by requiring that the president be sworn in by the nation's legislative bodies. With the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), Egyptian opposition and civil society groups are largely opposing the amendments and the time line because they do not result from a participatory, inclusive, and genuine dialogue with the Egyptian people.

Along with favoring the MB -- which, though lacking majority support, is organized and relatively disciplined -- the accelerated time line is believed by other opposition figures to boost former regime elements, which remain entrenched in local governments and could easily reconstitute either under the same or an alternative party banner.

The question becomes whether Egypt's military is deliberately engineering this transition so as to empower the Brotherhood - the better to spook the West.

New Poll Shows U.S. Not in Favor of Libya Intervention


A new poll from Pew Research confirms earlier polls from Rasmussen which showed that the American public doesn't support a military intervention in Libya:

The public by a wide margin says the United States does not have a responsibility to do something about the fighting between government forces and anti-government groups in Libya. And while opinion is divided over enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, this view is undercut by the fact that Americans overwhelmingly oppose bombing Libyan military air defenses.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted March 10-13 among 1,001 adults, finds that 63% say the United States does not have a responsibility to act in Libya; fewer than half as many (27%) say the U.S. has this responsibility....

Reflecting the public's reluctance about U.S. involvement in Libya, barely half (51%) favor increasing economic and diplomatic sanctions against Libya. The public is divided over the possibility of enforcing a no-fly zone -- 44% favor this action while 45% are opposed. Yet just 16% favor bombing Libyan air defenses -- 77% oppose bombing the sites.

This is actually somewhat in line with yesterday's Washington Post/ABC news poll, which showed a slight majority in favor of a no-fly zone until they were asked about bombing Libyan air defenses, after which support for a no-fly zone drops. Pew also found that 69 percent of Americans have no interest in arming rebels and 82 percent do not want to send U.S. troops into Libya.

Meanwhile, Larison thinks we should follow Senator Lugar's advice and actually debate the merits of going to war with Libya in Congress:

As the vast majority of the public is against a Libyan war even in the form of a no-fly zone, it is hardly certain that Congress would authorize military action, much less take what is by now a very unusual step of formally declaring war. This is as it should be. War powers were reserved to Congress to prevent the executive from launching wars arbitrarily, and the failure of Congress to rein in presidential abuses in this area and the failure to insist on declarations of war before going to war have been at the heart of many of the most serious foreign policy blunders since WWII.

March 14, 2011

A No-Fly Zone Is Just the Start


One dynamic that bears repeating in the Libya no-fly zone debate is that by implementing a no-fly zone, the U.S. would almost certainly be committing itself to doing more against the Gaddafi regime down the road. The very act of creating one against Gaddafi is a strong statement that the U.S. takes an active interest in the internal balance of power in Libya. That we take such an interest with a frankly appalling level of ignorance about the actors inside the country, their aims, capabilities, loyalties and outlook is clearly beside the point to the strategy's proponents. We'd have staked a claim to that balance and changes to it would provoke a U.S. policy response.

Many of the voices currently agitating for a no-fly zone would almost certainly endorse more putative measures against Gaddafi should he retain power in a portion of Libya. Much like the no-fly zones in Iraq morphed into a cassus beli to finish off Saddam "once and for all" a no-fly zone in Libya will turn Gaddafi's defiant survival into a rallying cry among U.S. interventionists for a future invasion down the road.

(AP Photo)

Polling Europe

The Guardian today reported on a new poll surveying members of

Europe's hope of a better future is faltering, as the financial crisis and spending cuts bite, according to a Guardian/ICM poll of five leading EU countries. It finds trust in government at rock bottom and widespread fear of further economic decline. Few people are convinced that the present signs of recovery can be sustained. The poll was carried out online using a representative sample of more than 5,000 people of working age in five leading EU states – Britain, France, Germany, Poland and Spain. It paints a picture of a continent confident in its liberal values and still mostly committed to EU institutions such as the euro and the free movement of people between states, but notably hostile to state spending and political leaders.

The poll also found deep economic pessimism in among Europeans:

Overall, 40% of those polled think their economy will get worse over the next 12 months, against 20% who think it will improve. Only in Germany are more people optimistic than pessimistic. Economic anxiety is greatest in France, where pessimists outnumber optimists by a net difference of 46 points. In Britain, the difference is 40 points and in Poland 30 points. Spain is more optimistic, with a net difference of 18 points – which could be explained by few people in the country thinking things can get worse than they already are.

U.S. Inclined Toward Libyan No-Fly Zone

A new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows less skepticism toward U.S. intervention in Libya than prior polls:

When it comes to Libya, 56 percent of those polled are supportive of the United States’ joining a new no-fly arrangement to prevent government air strikes on rebel groups. Support is slimmer (49 percent) for more independent U.S. action: using U.S. aircraft to create the no-fly zone.

They also asked the public to rate President Obama's performance on Libya:

Forty-five percent say they approve of President Obama’s handling of the situation in Libya, and 34 percent say they disapprove. A large 21 percent say they have no opinion on the matter. Those undecideds shift to disapproval when it comes to the president’s handling of the political unrest in the region more broadly. On that front, 45 percent approve, and 44 percent disapprove.

Foreign Policy as Emotive Cheer-Leading

To understand how the U.S. can be led into a civil war with no relevance to its national security interests, it's useful to observe the reaction to recent testimony from the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

To recap: when asked about the status of fighting in Libya, Clapper said that a stalemate would eventually produce a victory for the Gaddafi regime.

This provoked a firestorm of criticism from lawmakers and pundits, angry that Clapper told them something they didn't want to hear. It even provoked push-back from the Obama administration's national security team, who were apparently unhappy with a "reality-based" assessment.

But, as Daniel Drezner observed, the job of an intelligence analyst isn't to cheer on one side in a conflict. It's to provide an assessment of the situation. And anyone reading the news in the past few days would surely see that Clapper was merely echoing the headlines pointing to a sharp deterioration in the rebels' position. A foreign intervention notwithstanding, the present trajectory appears to favor Gaddafi.

That this acknowledgment is verboten in Washington and, dispiritingly, inside the Obama administration is a pretty good indication that the U.S. is lurching toward another intervention in the Middle East.

March 13, 2011

Russia's Ministry of Emergency Situations will aid Japan

Russia' Ministry of Emergency Situations will send to Japan a squad of rescuers to conduct search and rescue operations in areas affected by the earthquake. According to RIA Novosti, Irina Andrianova, the head of MES, confirmed that Japan has already agreed to accept the Russian specialists who will work for two weeks in standalone mode.

Russia to Purchase French Armored Cars

In yet another sign that Russia is serious about modernizing its ground forces with foreign help, the French company Panhard is in talks with Moscow to supply VBL 500 armored combat vehicles for the Russian Border service. The actual delivery of the vehicle is far from certain, given how long Russia has been negotiating with France to purchase the "Mistral" amphibious assault ship.

Another plan to purchase ground vehicles is sure to ruffle the feathers of the domestic weapons manufacturers, who are balking at their government's decisions to acquire Western military equipment instead of buying domestic fare.

This decision follows last year's announcement that Russia will purchase Light Multirole Vehicles (LMVs) built by Italian Iveco after the Italian company formed a joint venture to assemble 2,500 of the armored vehicles in Russia.

March 11, 2011

Honeymoon's End: Who's Less Sold on U.S. Leadership?


Gallup released a new survey canvasing approval for U.S. leadership. As part of our regular series of Global Top Fives produced with Gallup, we've dove in deeper to see where approval has dropped off the sharpest. Read it here.

Words and Deeds


One of the arguments being put forward on behalf of intervening in Libya's civil war is that because President Obama declared that he wanted Gaddafi gone, the U.S. has "no choice" but to facilitate his removal. Fareed Zakaria makes that point in Time, as does Simon Tisdall in the Guardian:

If the west does not intervene, and the revolution is bloodily suppressed, leaders who spoke out boldly and bravely in support will be ridiculed as impotent charlatans. They will not be trusted again. They may be forced, in time, to deal with a triumphant and unpredictably vengeful Gaddafi. And democratic uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world will be set back, perhaps fatally. It is a conundrum made in hell.

It's actually not all that difficult. Let's remember that at the end of the day, the president of the Untied States, like the prime minister of Great Britain, is a politician. Part of the job description of a politician is to say things - and make promises - that they don't have the ability to deliver on. It's an unfortunate and disagreeable habit, but it's not one that can be cured.

I think it's true that the U.S. pays a price when its leadership makes declarations that they have no intention of following through on. This episode is a terrific reminder that leaders should choose their words more carefully. But looking feckless is orders of magnitude less significant than intervening militarily in Libya's civil war. They're not remotely on the same plane and it's a patently absurd argument to say that the U.S. must commit itself to a potentially calamitous course of action simply to save face.

Larison puts it well:

Saying that the U.S. wants him gone creates the expectation that the U.S. will work to bring that about, which makes it that much harder to do the correct thing for U.S. interests, which is to avoid being pulled into a civil war that has nothing to do with us. So we can agree that Obama blundered by calling for an outcome that he has no intention of realizing. It doesn’t follow that Obama should compound an error of saying the wrong thing by doing something even more unwise.

(AP Photo)

March 10, 2011

By All Means, Arm Them!

Your fun Libya fact of the day, courtesy of Andrew Exum:

On a per capita basis, though, twice as many foreign fighters came to Iraq from Libya -- and specifically eastern Libya -- than from any other country in the Arabic-speaking world. Libyans were apparently more fired up to travel to Iraq to kill Americans than anyone else in the Middle East. And 84.1% of the 88 Libyan fighters in the Sinjar documents who listed their hometowns came from either Benghazi or Darnah in Libya's east.

The East, incidentally, is the portion of Libya that's broken Gaddafi's hold and is currently battling him for control of the country. Maybe someone should call Senator McCain's office.

New Poll Shows Little U.S. Support for Intervention in Libya

Following a Rasmussen poll which found that 63 percent of Americans wanted to leave Libya alone, a new poll (pdf) from Angus Reid confirms that there is little appetite for an entanglement with Gaddafi's crumbling country:

The prospect of a military intervention to topple the Libyan regime is endorsed at this time by fewer than one-in-ten Americans, a new Vision Critical / Angus Reid poll has found.

The online survey of a representative national sample of 1,006 American adults presented respondents with three policy options that the United States government could take to deal with Libya, where a popular uprising that began in February has led to violent confrontations between rebels and the long-standing regime of Muammar Gaddafi.

More than a third of respondents (36%) believe the U.S. should impose economic sanctions against Libya—the course of action originally outlined by President Barack Obama last month.

One-in-five Americans (22%) would do nothing, saying that the African country poses no threat to the U.S. Only eight per cent of respondents would authorize a full-scale invasion of Libya to remove the current government.

I think it would have been better to measure whether Americans would support a no-fly zone - the policy option currently being batted around. I don't think anyone has really put a full-blown land invasion on the table.

Liberal Interventionists & Libya

I was a strong opponent of the Iraq war, but this feels different. We would not have to send any ground troops to Libya, and a no-fly zone would be executed at the request of Libyan rebel forces and at the “demand” of six Arab countries in the gulf. The Arab League may endorse the no-fly zone as well, and, ideally, Egypt and Tunisia would contribute bases and planes or perhaps provide search-and-rescue capabilities. - Nicholas Kristof

With all due respect to Kristof, who has done some very courageous reporting in the region, this doesn't sound well reasoned at all. It "feels" different? Presumably the reason Kristof feels this way is that the atrocities being committed by Gaddafi loyalists are unfolding before our eyes, while the majority of Saddam Hussein's more heinous crimes were done years prior to the second Gulf War. Nevertheless, if your aim is to leverage American blood and treasure to assuage your own moral anguish, a no-fly zone is patently insufficient, for many of the reasons sketched out by Mark Leon Goldberg here.

Of course, if your aim is to simply "do something," however ineffective, then maybe a no-fly zone is called for.

Is China Building a String of Pearls?

Is China building out a series of naval bases in friendly states on its perimeter, the so-called "string of pearls?" Billy Tea thinks not:

First and foremost, China does have some involvement in the identified ports. But with the exception of Sri Lanka's Hambantota and perhaps Myanmar's Sittwe, they are used not only by China and there are currently no signs whatsoever of any developments for future military purposes.

Second, while there is no denying that China has an interest in building relations with strategically located countries, it is important to understand the great power context these countries face. To openly side with China over other regional powers, including India and the United States, would be extremely risky diplomacy for these smaller countries.

Indeed, in today's globalized world, choosing one great power's side over another's unnecessarily limits countries' economic and political options. That's especially true for less-developed countries like Myanmar, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka - all of which are reliant on foreign trade, aid and investment and for development purposes need all they can get. In the current geopolitical context, countries stand to gain the most by subtly playing great power off one another, rather than committing to one in particular.

Third, government officials in the respective "pearl" countries have openly repudiated reports they have given China any preferential treatment and that Beijing is quietly building and/or planning to build military bases in their sovereign territories.

Ultimately, the first and second rationales seems more persuasive than the third. Countries lie all the time about strategic matters, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if China's neighbors were engaged in some misdirection about their own commitments.

Which Country Has the Most Billionaires?


Forbes has released their list of the world's billionaires (full disclosure: I didn't make the cut). Mexico's Carlos Slim takes top honors with an estimated net worth of $74 billion. But according to Keren Blankfeld, Brazil claims the largest number of billionaires, adding 12 to the list just this year. Moscow, however, is the city with the most billionaires.

UPDATE: Correction, Brazil has the most billionaires in the Americas. America is still the land of the most billionaires globally.

(AP Photo)

March 9, 2011

Who Has the Biggest Defense Budget?


According to a new report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Saudi Arabia devotes the greatest percentage of its GDP (some 10.5 percent) to defense. The U.S. comes in second at a little over 4.5 percent. China sizes up at under 2 percent of its GDP. The U.S. continues to spend the most in absolute dollars, accounting for 60 percent of the world's total defense spending.

IISS goes on to argue that despite the massive preponderance of defense spending, the trend lines point to a shift in power away from the West:

These further emphasise the key theme that while the military sector in the West is, overall, contracting as a result of financial constraints, elsewhere the picture is often quite different. Many states are seeking to translate their economic strength into military power which they may then use in support of national goals ranging from protecting their energy supplies to asserting territorial claims.

How quickly the global redistribution of military spending and procurement will translate into useful military capability will vary according to national circumstances. However, it is already clear that as a result of shifts in the global distribution of economic power and consequently the resources available for military spending, the United States and other Western powers are losing their monopoly in key areas of defence technology, including stealth aircraft, unmanned systems – and cyber warfare.

Among the fastest ways to national insolvency is for the U.S. to attempt to sustain across the board dominance in a world of rapidly growing economies.

(AP Photo)

An Iraq Syndrome?

Bloody wars beget caution. As after Korea, as after Vietnam, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have made Americans battle-averse. In 2005 John Mueller, a professor of political science at the Ohio State University, predicted in Foreign Affairs that an “Iraq syndrome” would eventually make America more sceptical of unilateral military action, especially in places that presented no direct threat to it, and less inclined to dismiss Europeans and other well-meaning foreigners as wimps. - Lexington

It has always puzzled me why much of the Washington foreign policy community saw the "Vietnam Syndrome" as a bad thing, as if the U.S. had curled up into a geopolitical fetal position, unwilling to use force even to protect vital interests (not true: when push came to shove we ejected Saddam from Kuwait). But to the extent that a "Vietnam Syndrome" prevented policymakers from blundering into an unnecessary conflict, so much the better, I would argue.

The trouble is, of course, that the definition of a "necessary" conflict is quite elastic. If the Iraq war has made at least some cross-section of elite opinion more wary about plunging American power into a Middle Eastern country about which it knows next to nothing, it should be regarded as a good thing.

Women Around the World

The Economist's chart of the day examines how women are faring around the world.

Democratic Passions Then and Now

Pew Research has gone back into the archives to compare enthusiasm for democracy among citizens of Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union with their current attitudes. It provides something of a cautionary tale:

In 1991, majorities of Russians and Ukrainians clearly favored democracy, rather than a strong leader, as the best way to address their country's problems. By 2002 opinion had reversed, with two-thirds or more in each country saying they preferred a strong leader. In Poland and Bulgaria views were mixed on the issue, while publics in the Czech Republic and Slovakia continued to strongly support democracy.

Seven years on, doubts about democracy persisted. The fall 2009 Global Attitudes survey found Russians and Ukrainians still believing that a strong leader was the best means of solving their country's problems. Bulgarians now shared this view. In most countries half or more approved of the shift to a multi-party system. But the level of support declined between 1991 and 2009 in all but Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In Ukraine, a majority actually disapproved of the change to multiple parties.

These findings do not mean that East Europeans were inclined to abandon democracy. Publics across the region broadly endorsed the demise of communism. Rather these opinions point to the gap between what East Europeans hoped for and what they perceived in terms of political change.

March 8, 2011

Fun Afghanistan Fact of the Day

Courtesy of Ann Marlowe:

Second, plenty of Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathizers and enablers are already in the Afghan government, both in Parliament and in governor and district governor positions appointed by President Karzai. In fact, President Karzai’s choice for speaker of the lower house of Parliament, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, was the man who brought Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan in the first place. On Sunday, the legislators chose an obscure Uzbek Afghan as speaker, an MP from strife-torn Kunduz Province who had previously fought with Hekmatyar’s group Hezb-i-Islami. Not an encouraging selection, but miles ahead of Sayyaf, who’d had the highest vote total on a previous ballot.

Her whole piece, on why it's pointless to negotiate with the Taliban, is worth reading.

U.S. Views on Libya Intervention

A majority of U.S. voters want a hands-off approach to Libya, according to a new poll from Rasmussen Reports:

Just 22% of Likely U.S. Voters think the United States should get more directly involved in the Libyan crisis. Sixty-three percent (63%) say America should leave the situation alone. Fifteen percent (15%) are not sure.

This is consistent with an earlier Rasmussen poll that found that 67 percent of voters said the U.S. should "stay out" of the unrest roiling the Arab world.

Rasmussen also asked voters about the performance of President Obama with respect to Libya:

Forty percent (40%) of voters rate the Obama administration’s response to the situation in Libya to date as good or excellent. Twenty-one percent (21%) say the administration is doing a poor job.

John Kerry & Intervention


What's remarkable about most of the arguments that U.S. lawmakers are putting forward about an intervention in Libya is that none of them hinge on America's national security interests. Here's Senator John Kerry:

For the administration, Mr. Kerry’s view is more troublesome, given that he is a normally a strong ally on foreign policy issues. He was a fierce critic of the war in Iraq, but he sees Libya as a different matter.

He has pushed the White House to do more — including “cratering” Libya’s airfields so the planes cannot take off.

Mr. Kerry, who was openly siding with officials who want the president to take a stronger public stance, said he was pushing the administration to “prepare for all eventualities” and warned that “showing reticence in a huge public way is not the best option.”

“You want to be prepared if he is bombing people, and killing his own people,” he said, referring to Colonel Qaddafi. The Libyan people, he said, would “look defenseless and we would look feckless — you have to be ready.”

Notice that Senator Kerry's case hinges exclusively on how the U.S. looks or is perceived. He's even scornful of public "reticence" - as if it were a bad thing! There is no indication, or argument, that the lives of Americans or core interests are in danger.

Senator Kerry is surely correct that the U.S. looks feckless when its political leaders issue threats they have no intention of following through on. But that's an argument in favor of reticence.

(AP Photo)

Was Libya a Bush Success?

Paul Pillar argues against those, like columnist Charles Krauthammer, who credit the invasion of Iraq for scaring Gaddafi into giving up his nuclear program:

The particular mistake among Krauthammer's assertions I feel especially moved to correct—because I was personally involved in the relevant diplomacy—is that “Qadhafi was so terrified by what we did to Saddam & Sons that he plea-bargained away his weapons of mass destruction.” In fact, the Libyan ruler's dramatic turnabout, in which he gave up his involvement in international terrorism and instead became a counterterrorist partner of the West, as well as giving up his unconventional weapons programs, had begun years earlier. Qadhafi was responding to the pressure and ostracism of multilateral sanctions and to the prospect of an improved international standing if he came clean about the bombing of Pan Am 103 and was willing to deal seriously with the United States on the issues of most concern to the United States. The secret negotiations that confirmed and codified all this were begun in 1999, under the Clinton Administration. It was the willingness of the United States to engage Qadhafi's regime that made this all possible, not some prospect that military force would be used to remove him—let alone, as with the ouster of Saddam, that force would be used to oust him no matter how he tried to adjust his policies.

In the interest of not being churlish, I still think the Bush administration deserves credit for taking "yes" for an answer when it came to Libya. They could have spurned this engagement, as they spurned feelers from Iran, and left Libya considerably worse off than it is today.

Britain and Libya


As one wag (whose name escapes me) put it, David Cameron "is having a bad Arab revolution." A new YouGov poll confirms that:

Asked how David Cameron has respondened so far the public give a broadly negative reaction – 32% think he has done well, 48% badly.

There is strong support for applying economic sanctions – 69% would support them with only 16% opposed – and majority support for a no-fly zone (56% suport, 25% oppose). However, there is very little support for either direct military intervention by British troops, or indirect military intervention by arming the Libyan rebels (only 11% and 12% respectively would support). What support there is for limited military action against Libya is conditional upon UN approval – 52% of people would support limited military action (such as enforcing a no-fly zone) with UN approval, only 9% without.

March 7, 2011

Iraqis Have a Say


While the focus of much of the world has been on Libya and Egypt, Iraq has had its own series of protests, which have elicited some less than benign responses from the Maliki government (or factions allied to the government) including the the detention and torture of journalists and attacks on protesters. Particularly disturbing has been the violence in Iraqi Kurdistan, frequently hailed as a model of democratic, pro-Western values.

Abe Greenwald contends that it's President Obama's fault:

This would not be going on if the Obama administration had taken a minimal interest in the war that the U.S. will soon have devoted almost a decade to winning. Washington has seen Iraq through far more difficult challenges than this: heading off civil war, getting Maliki to turn his guns on Shiite militias, and handing security for cities over to Iraqis — to say nothing of pulling together an Iraqi parliamentary democracy.

Notice what's missing from this equation: Iraqis. They are missing both as agents of their own salvation and as authors of the current violence and repression. But surely it's Iraqis - more than an American president - who are responsible for killing one another.

(AP Photo)

Americans Want Afghan Pullout

According to a new poll from Rasmussen Reports:

A majority of voters, for the first time, support an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan or the creation of a timetable to bring them all home within a year.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 31% of Likely U.S. Voters now say all troops should be brought home from Afghanistan immediately, while another 21% say a firm timetable should be established to bring all troops home within a year’s time. The combined total of 52% who want the troops home within a year is a nine-point jump from 43% last September. Just 37% felt that way in September 2009.

Only 34% of voters now think there should be no timetable for withdrawal. Fifteen percent (15%) are not sure.

The World's Favorite Country

Digging a bit deeper into the BBC poll referenced below, we find that respondents in 27 countries gave Germany highest marks, followed by the United Kingdom and Canada:


Myths and the Muslim Brotherhood


With the first of Rep. Peter King's (R-NY) hearings on the radicalization of Islam scheduled to occur this week, on Sunday Lorenzo Vidino of the Rand Corporation took to the pages of the Washington Post to detail what he tabs as "five myths about the Muslim Brotherhood." Yet in reading the piece, it's hard to imagine this was the title Vidino chose - each "myth" is more of a "yes, but" contextual clarification; far short of factual inaccuracy.

Is it fair to say that the Brotherhood is a global organization? That just depends on what your definition of "organization" is - perhaps "alliance of like-minded collaborators who share money, information, and resources across more than eighty nation-states" is not your definition of a "global organization." How close and how recent do ties to al-Qaeda have to be to raise concerns? Portions like "This is not far-fetched, yet ..." and "Historically, yes. But ..." are a good sign that it's simply unfair to call items such as "The Brotherhood seeks to impose a draconian version of sharia law" myths - in Egypt, at least, that is simply a fact.

One myth which I'd suggest Vidino's piece persists in deploying is a typical view of the generational divide between old and new guard on questions of radical Islam. In reality, the differences are more complex, and the young voices for radicalism are often the most violent - a piece about Alexandria in the 1960s in this weekend's Wall Street Journal drives the point home:

Colette Frege Haggar remembers how, in the 1960s, she would slip on a bikini and walk down Alexandria's streets to join the other bikini-clad women at her local beach.

Now, women in this Egyptian city almost universally wear head coverings - and increasingly, Ms. Frege and others say, they wear niqabs, the black shroud-like garments with slits for the eyes. If women go to a public beach, they usually do so in head-to-toe dress.

Ms. Frege, a 56-year-old Catholic of Lebanese-Italian descent, has watched her city morph from the Middle East's most cosmopolitan city to one of its Islamist strongholds. The question is what comes next: a return to the more liberal polity of her youth or a fundamentalist entrenchment.

Of course, for as much as some counseled against the upheaval costs of pushing against Hosni Mubarak, the fact is that his regime's crackdown may have helped foster the kind of pent-up religious radicalism we've seen in other arenas. But that is a larger debate. Back to the reminiscing:

Ms. Frege is among those who recall when Alexandria was known as Little Paris, home to a vast community of Europeans and Jews, described by novelist Lawrence Durrell as the city of "five races, five languages, a dozen creeds."

Today, the vast majority of foreigners have left. Egypt's second city is now a bastion of the country's Muslim Brotherhood, along with Salafists, who adhere to an austere Saudi Arabian brand of Islam. Alcohol, once sold widely, has largely been relegated to hotels. Women say they wouldn't dare wear a bikini at the beach, nor a short skirt on the city's streets. The town is a parable for what Egypt has become in recent years: the world's most religious nation, according to a 2009 Gallup poll.

Read the whole thing, but note particularly a passage quoting a 32-year-old store manager who claims the more stringent version of Islam "'rescued' the city from its cosmopolitan past and would have to step in again if it returned. Muslim moderates are not found based on their age. The young are not necessarily more progressive than the old, and the societal context can make a great difference in outlook. I've cited in the past the words of one of the leading voices for moderation in the Muslim world, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak - age 57 - who just last week spoke in Istanbul about the terms on which the Brotherhood can participate in the political dialogue:

Since the beginning of the uprising in Egypt and the expected power shift in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic world has rallied around the Brotherhood and demanded that the West engage with them. But a crack in that unity appeared today when Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak said that the Muslim Brotherhood “shouldn’t be part of the process as long as they don’t reject violence and extremism.”

“Anyone who wants to be part of the political process should adopt values that are compatible with democracy,” Najib said in an interview in Istanbul, where he is speaking at a conference on moderation. “It’s not just about having a vote and choosing your leaders; it’s also part of imparting the right values for democracy to work, because there are failed democracies as well.”

Najib said he has “some concerns, deep concerns” about Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader. Those concerns center on Qaradawi’s support and justification for terrorism, which carries a great deal of weight given Qaradawi’s credibility as an Islamic scholar. It is exactly that type of Muslim leader that has led the Middle East astray, according to Najib. “We have lost a lot of ground to the extremists in the Middle East.”

This is wise counsel. Najib's call needs to be the basis for legitimate political participation on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and around the globe. We're far past the point where we can pretend that violence and extremism is part of a set of myths about the Brotherhood. Indeed, it needs to become a myth, or the future in Egypt and elsewhere may not be bright.

(AP Photo)

Brazil on the Rise


According to a new BBC poll, the world has a more positive view of Brazil and, in fact, an improved outlook toward a lot of countries:

Positive views of Brazil's influence jumped from 40 to 49 per cent on average over the previous year, with negative views dropping to just 20 per cent. Views of Brazil are now predominantly positive in all but two of the countries polled. The poll, conducted by GlobeScan/PIPA, asked a total of 28,619 people to rate the influence in the world of 16 major nations, plus the European Union.

In the year when South Africa hosted the World Cup, the proportion positively rating its influence in the world rose significantly, from 35 to 42 per cent. Germany was again the most positively viewed nation, with 62 per cent rating its influence as positive (up 3 points).

Overall, positive ratings increased of 13 of the 16 nations rated. These include the USA--positive views of American influence rose an average of four points to 49 per cent, with 31 per cent negative. The United Kingdom's positive ratings rose five points to 58 per cent, making it, for the first time, the second most positively rated country. This upwards movement for many countries counters a downward movement found in 2010, but also, in most cases, surpasses the levels found in earlier years.

In marked contrast, the three most negatively viewed countries saw their average ratings go from bad to worse, including Iran (59% negative, up 3 points since 2010), North Korea (55%, up 6 points), and Pakistan (56%, up 5 points). There was a significant increase in negative views of Iran in key Western countries including the United Kingdom (up 20 points), Canada (up 19 points), the USA (up 18 points), and Australia (up 15 points). However, Israel, for many years among the least positively viewed nations, bucked this trend, keeping its negative ratings at 49 per cent and showing a slight lift in positive ratings from 19 to 21 per cent.

(AP Photo)

China, Iran & Smart Power


Via Daniel Drezner, it looks like Secretary Clinton is rethinking that whole "smart power" thing:

As Clinton railed against cuts sought by Republican to the U.S. foreign aid program, she told senators, "We are a competition for influence with China. Let's put aside the humanitarian, do-good side of what we believe in. Let's just talk straight realpolitik. We are in competition with China."

She noted a "huge energy find" in Papua New Guinea by U.S. company Exxon Mobil Corp., which has begun drilling for natural gas there. Clinton said China was jockeying for influence in the region and seeing how it could "come in behind us and come in under us."...

She said foreign assistance was important on humanitarian and moral grounds, but also strategically essential for America's global influence.

"I mean, if anybody thinks that our retreating on these issues is somehow going to be irrelevant to the maintenance of our leadership in a world where we are competing with China, where we are competing with Iran, that is a mistaken notion," Clinton said.

Grouping China and Iran into the same category is wrong for a number of reasons, not least because the nature of the relationships are fundamentally different. China and the U.S. may not be fast friends, but the relationship is considerably better than it is between the U.S. and Iran. Having America's top diplomat lump the two nations together doesn't seem particularly helpful.

Moreover, if the best the administration can do in defense of foreign aid is complain that Exxon Mobile might get the short end of a few Asia Pacific oil deals, they're going to have to up their game.

(AP Photo)

Kristol on Gates

Bill Kristol levels a lazy and thankfully brief critique of Robert Gates which is, on the whole, rather disappointing in tone:

"In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”

Thus spoke Defense Secretary Robert Gates, addressing the cadets at West Point on February 25. It’s ironic that President Obama’s secretary of defense cites Douglas MacArthur as a foreign policy authority - a general who was fired, as he should have been, by a Democratic president after he botched a land war in Asia, sought to use nuclear weapons, and defied civilian authority. Perhaps Gates should spend his time rereading Matthew Ridgway, or talking with David Petraeus, instead of quoting Douglas MacArthur?

This seems an incredibly petty critique, but it provides the basis for nearly all of Kristol's meandering post. Please; if one can't quote Douglas MacArthur at West Point, where the man graduated first in his class, where can one quote him? If quoting someone favorably is tantamount to embracing or glorifying the whole of their history and ideology, no Republican should ever quote FDR - as many have in recent weeks regarding public employee unions, including Kristol's own publication.

Of course this was not Gates' intent. Kristol should know that when Gates says the word "again," it is an indication that he is speaking about future wars, not ones begun before he became secretary of defense. Kristol should know that when Gates speaks about the changing use of large forces, it's a sign that we are unlikely to use large land-based forces in Pakistan or Iran or China. And Kristol should know that when Gates says we ought to "call a spade a spade" in regards to the Libyan no-fly zone operation, the SecDef isn't being defiant of the president or saying it can't be done, but merely stressing that imposing one is not an easy or simple task - and that it requires more than just throwing planes in the air to get shot at.

Kristol should know these things, and I would suggest he probably does know these things, because he isn't an idiot. But he leveled the criticism anyway, which is disappointing.

I'd encourage people interested in a fuller picture than those covered by this petty sniping to read the Gates remarks Kristol references in context, and to consider Fred Kaplan's take on Gates' farewell tour as an alternate view.

March 4, 2011

Libya & the CNN Effect


Paul Miller makes a very important point:

The administration looks to me like it is being driven by the CNN effect. Libya is in the headlines, dramatic events are afoot, so the administration believes it must do something, it must act, probably to demonstrate resolve, or exercise leadership. It isn't leadership to let the media drive your foreign policy. If the exact same thing were happening right now in Equatorial Guinea, no one would care and we would not be contemplating a no-fly zone.

The administration is blundering into an unnecessary crisis, setting unrealistic expectations about our ability to drive events in Libya, and exposing itself to the dangers of unplanned escalation and mission creep. If we're to have a grand strategy centered on building the liberal democratic peace -- which is not a terrible idea -- it should start from more considered reflection, not lurching overreaction to a crisis over which we have little control.

It's worth pointing out that the administration is being goaded into this course of action by U.S. lawmakers too, not just journalists. But Miller is right: no core U.S. interests are at risk in Libya. The administration is going to be criticized no matter what it does, but far better to be assailed for inaction (or as I prefer to describe it, restraint), then to act recklessly.

(AP Photo)

March 3, 2011

Pessimission, UK Edition

According to a new Ipsos MORI poll, Britons have stayed downbeat despite a growing mood of economic optimism worldwide:

The general economic mood has greatly improved in many countries since the low point of 2008. Citizens of Sweden, Germany, China Australia and Canada are far happier now with the current state of their economy than they were two years ago. However, that large rise has not been seen among Britons where just eight per cent described the economy as good in April 2009 and 13% do so now. This places Great Britain around the same level as France and Italy in rating the economy as good (both 11%) but higher than Japan, Spain and Hungary (6%, 4% and 3% respectively).

However, economic optimism for the next six months is low among European and G8 countries. Of the G8 countries, Canada and Germany are the most positive about the future – although only one in three (31% and 30% respectively) expect the economy to improve in the next six months. The French are the most pessimistic with just five per cent expecting improvements. Just over one in seven (13%) Britons are optimistic about the future of the economy.

You can view the full survey here. (pdf)

The Death of Shahbaz Bhatti


The New York Times shares footage of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani minister gunned down this week in the latest violence in the increasingly fractured country. Bhatti, who had recently met with Secretary of State Clinton - was Pakistan's lone Christian minister. In the interview, Bhatti delivered a defiant rebuke to Pakistani radicals:

They want to impose their radical philosophy in Pakistan and whoever stands against their radical philosophy, they threaten them. When I’m leading this campaign against the Shariah laws and for the abolishment of [the] blasphemy law and speaking for the oppressed and marginalized, persecuted Christians and other minorities, these Taliban threaten me.

But I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of [the] cross and I’m following … the cross.

I’m ready to die for a cause. I’m living for my community and suffering people and I will die to defend their rights. So these threats and these warnings cannot change my opinion and principles. I will prefer to die for my principles and for the justice of my community rather to compromise.

Keep in mind that nearly all of Pakistan's provinces have an active separatist movement. In the wake of other events across the country, as well as increased violence and antagonism toward more liberal politicians and leaders, I think it is very likely that moderates in the nation will remain on the retreat.

(AP Photo)

Rumsfeld on Microfinance

Pejman Yousefzadeh has an interesting interview with Donald Rumsfeld, posing questions - on matters, such as, microfinance - that few have asked during the course of the former defense secretary's whirlwind tour of the media scene.

It's an interesting opportunity to hear Rumsfeld opine on matters other than Iraq and Afghanistan. The podcast is available here for download.

Making Up Reasons

Diplomats say NATO won't act to stop Moammar Gaddafi from bombing his own citizens unless the U.N. Security Council passes an authorizing resolution -- and Russia and China will not allow that. Pentagon officials are meanwhile warning that any no-fly operation would require preemptive attacks on Libyan air defenses. At a Senate hearing Tuesday Gen. James Mattis, chief of U.S. Central Command, called the potential mission "challenging" and added, "it would be a military operation -- it wouldn't be just telling people not to fly airplanes."

Those comments exasperated Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) a former Navy pilot who, along with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), just returned from a tour of the Middle East. "We spend $500 billion on defense, and we can't take down Libyan air defenses?" he asked incredulously in an interview he and Lieberman gave to me and The Post's Fred Hiatt. "You tell those Libyan pilots that there is a no-fly zone, and they are not going to fly."

"I think they [in the Obama administration] are making up reasons" not to act, McCain added. "You will always have people who will find out the reasons why you can't do it. But I don't recall Ronald Reagan asking anyone's permission to get Cuba out of Grenada, or responding to the killings of American soldiers.." - Jackson Diehl

This is a very odd way to describe what's happening. A top military official tells a Senate panel that bombing Libya is an act of war and not something to be entered into lightly (a message also conveyed by Secretary Gates to British Prime Minister David Cameron), and Senator McCain thinks this is the geopolitical equivalent of calling out of work sick with a "stomach bug."

I don't believe anyone in the Obama administration is arguing that establishing a no-fly zone is some kind of technical or logistical impossibility - they're saying, to borrow a phrase, that it wouldn't be prudent. Senator McCain's counter-argument consists of saying the words "Ronald Reagan" and making an unsubstantiated assertion of how Libya will behave after it gets bombed.

A Vital Valley - A Vital War?


Late February, the New York Times ran an account of how the U.S. military was pulling out the Pech Valley, an area earlier deemed "vital" to America's war efforts against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Now, apparently, not so much. Or in the words of Major General Campbell, the U.S. isn't retreating but "realigning to provide better security for the Afghan people."

Leslie Gelb vents:

I'm not blaming the generals or their key aides who made these strategies. They were all sent to Afghanistan to do their duty for our country as Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama decreed. They were given a task to pacify an Afghanistan that we could not pacify, to prepare Afghans to govern and fight for themselves who turned out to be unwilling to fairly govern or effectively fight. The generals and their aides were given the task of searching for answers, for workable strategies, that didn't exist.

When viewed from the objective of keeping the American homeland safe from terrorist attacks, having 100,000-plus Western forces trying to prop up a ramshackle government in Afghanistan is not the best use of resources.

(AP Photo)

U.S. Views on Troops in Iraq

While a majority of U.S. voters view the Iraq war as mistaken, a plurality don't believe U.S. troops will be able to leave the country this year:

A plurality of voters fears that the growing unrest in the Arab world will have a negative impact on the fragile political situation in Iraq, and most think it is unlikely that all U.S. troops will be out of that country by the end of the year as planned.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that only 19% of Likely U.S. Voters think the political unrest in the Arab world will make things better in Iraq, while 40% expect it to make things worse there. Eighteen percent (18%) say it will have no impact. Nearly one-in-four voters (23%) aren’t sure. (To see survey question wording, click here.)

If the situation in Iraq becomes more violent, just 22% think the United States should send troops back into the country. Sixty-five percent (65%) say the Iraqis should deal with any growing violence on their own. Thirteen percent (13%) are undecided.

U.S., UK & Canadian Views on Afghan War


According to a new poll from Angus Reid, more Canadians and Britons oppose the Afghan war than Americans do:

A year ago, a majority of Americans (58%) supported the mission in Afghanistan, while about two-in-five (38%) opposed it.

Now, in a trend that began late last year, respondents are evenly split, with 47 per cent backing the mission, and 46 per cent opposing it. The level of rejection to the Afghan mission is highest in the Northeast and West (both at 49%) and lowest in the South (44%).

For more than a year, a majority of Britons has expressed opposition to the mission in Afghanistan. This month, only 31 per cent of respondents are backing the military operation, while 60 per cent are against it.

This month’s result matches the high level of opposition to the mission, which was recorded in October 2010. Respondents in London (63%) and Scotland (62%) are more likely to reject the military operation.

For the first time since the war began, three-in-five Canadians (63%) voice opposition to the mission in Afghanistan. Support for the military effort has dropped to the lowest level recorded (32%).

This month’s numbers represent a drastic shift from a survey conducted a year ago, where 47 per cent of Canadians backed the war.

Full results here. (pdf)

(AP Photo)

March 2, 2011

U.S. Views on the Iraq War

Not so great, according to a new Rasmussen poll:

Looking back, a slight majority of Likely Voters believe the United States should never have gotten involved in Iraq in the first place. They also believe the mission there was more of a failure than a success.

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of Likely Voters shows that just 36% believe the United States should have gotten involved in Iraq, while 51% disagree. Another 14% are undecided.

China, Ignored


Max Bergmann explains why no one cares what China has to say about unrest in the Middle East:

China doesn’t have an international system it is pushing, it has China. And it is pretty hard to develop a new alternative international order in an age of nationalism, liberalism, and democracy whose sole function is to benefit the mothership power. China is developing and expanding its relations with other countries and building somewhat of a network of associates. But these are largely transactional relationships. A vivid example of the nature of China’s priorities was evident in the evacuation of Chinese oil workers from Libya. China was in Libya because it could get oil, but in Egypt, where resources are scarce, China was relatively absent. For the US the situation was reversed. We had close ties with Egypt and paid it billions, despite it being resource poor, because Egypt is critical to regional stability and peace.

I think this is largely correct, and clearly the fact that the U.S. has a large network of allies is an American strength. That said, having a more "transactional" relationship with the Middle East specifically doesn't sound like a bad thing. The world may not care what China has to say about the mess in the Middle East, but neither do they expect China to clean it up.

(AP Photo)

The U.S. and Terror

Following up on yesterday's post, Larison puts terror and U.S. foreign policy in context:

It isn’t that the threat is huge. The threat isn’t huge. What matters is that it is avoidable. When calculating the costs and benefits of U.S. policies, it becomes important then to consider whether these policies are doing enough to serve the national interest that they merit the risk of incurring regular attacks on Americans at home and around the world. Whether the threat is relatively large or small, there is no reason to expose the United States to needless dangers. The threat is nowhere near as dire as warmongers make it out to be, but it is much greater than it has to be, and the threat exists in no small part because the people demagoguing and exaggerating the threat frequently prevail in seting policy.

And apropos of this, via Yglesias, some new research on U.S. foreign policy and terrorism:

Applied to the US case, our theory predicts that more anti-American terrorism emanates from countries that receive more US military aid and arms transfers and in which more American military personnel are stationed, all relative to the country’s own military capacity. Estimations from a directed country dyad sample over the period 1978 to 2005 support the predictions of our theory for both terrorist incidents involving Americans and terrorist killings of Americans as dependent variables. These results are robust to a wide range of changes to the empirical research design.

America's Allies Want America's Nukes

By Elbridge Colby

The FT reports today that the White House has disavowed the reported statement by Gary Samore, NSC non-proliferation czar, that the United States would redeploy shorter-range nuclear weapons to South Korea if Seoul requested them. (Cold War-era U.S. tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from the Peninsula in 1991.) The story is interesting on a number of levels, not least because this is a fairly anemic denial: it states only that Washington “has no plans or intention” to redeploy them, has the effect of signaling to Pyongyang, Beijing, Tokyo and others that such a move is not beyond the pale. This is doubly so because it comes on top of earlier murmurs from Seoul seeking consideration of redeployment.

Just as interesting, though, is how the story reflects what has been a dormant but looks to be a reemerging dynamic: the push by U.S. allies to gain more visible and, to some, more credible manifestations of a U.S. nuclear commitment. Ultimately, a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon, whether it is on the ground in South Korea or somewhere thousands of miles away on a submarine or ICBM. But there has long been a perception that “forward-deployed” or “theater” weapons (including not only ground-based but also forward-deployed aerial and sea-based systems) have some value in demonstrating a specific commitment to the countries or areas in which they are deployed. So, back in the Cold War, NATO allies pushed for Washington to maintain nuclear weapons in Europe, weapons that were viewed as more credible for the defense of Europe and essential to linking European and U.S. security.

Today, U.S. allies in Northeast Asia worry about North Korea and the Chinese military build-up. In the Middle East they worry about Iran’s weapons program and regional ambitions. And in Eastern Europe there is concern about Russia’s continued truculence, as well as some reports that have unnerved capitals in the former Soviet Empire. Assuming these disturbing trends don’t all halt and reverse themselves, watch for allies to signal interest and maybe eventually push Washington to put some nuclear forces back to the front.
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.

March 1, 2011

Terrorism: A Small - Or Huge - Threat?

Cato's Malou Innocent makes the case that U.S. policy is driving radical recruitment:

As a 2006 Government Accountability Office report noted, "U.S. foreign policy is the major root cause behind anti-American sentiments among Muslim populations." A 2004 Pentagon Defense Science Board report observed, "Muslims do not hate our freedom, but rather, they hate our policies."

At times it takes humor to shed light on such weighty and controversial issues. Writing about the motivation of Islamist radicals, American comedian Bill Maher once opined, "They hate us because we don't know why they hate us."

For far too long, politicians and pundits have danced around these uncomfortable truths. But it is well past time for American leaders to thoroughly explore the notion that U.S. policies contribute directly to radicalization. Reigning in the West's interventionist foreign policy will not eliminate the number of people and organizations that seek to commit terrorist attacks, but will certainly diminish it..

In this respect, terrorism can no longer be attributed to ignorance and poverty—conditions that exist in foreign conflict zones, but in and of themselves do not generate attacks against the West. Viewing poverty and underdevelopment as an underlying cause of extremism makes the mistake of stereotyping terrorists and their grievances. It also commits the error of ignoring the unintended consequences of past actions and very real dangers right within our borders.

I'm of the mind that, in general, a less interventionist foreign policy would serve American interests well in part because it would serve to reduce the terror threat. But sometimes I think that those advocating a less interventionist policy lean too heavily on that rationale. So in the spirit of subjecting our beliefs to scrutiny, it is worth asking if terrorism should cause a major rethink of where and when the U.S. intervenes in a foreign country. Sticking just with Cato analysts, Benjamin Friedman has argued that the threat from terrorism is in fact rather small and manageable (or as Stephen Walt, another non-interventionist, put it, more people are at mortal risk from nut allergies and bathtub drownings) and that hysteria over the threat is usually far more damaging than the threat itself:

It’s been six or seven years since people, including me, started pointing out that al Qaeda was wildly overrated. Back then, most people used to say that the reason al Qaeda hadn’t managed a major attack here since September 11 was because they were biding their time and wouldn’t settle for conventional bombings after that success. We are always explaining away our enemies’ failure.

The point here is not that all terrorists are incompetent — no one would call Mohammed Atta that — or that we have nothing to worry about. Even if all terrorists were amateurs like Shahzad, vulnerability to terrorism is inescapable. There are too many propane tanks, cars, and would-be terrorists to be perfectly safe from this sort of attack. The same goes for Fort Hood.

The point is that we are fortunate to have such weak enemies. We are told to expect nuclear weapons attacks, but we get faulty car bombs. We should acknowledge that our enemies, while vicious, are scattered and weak. If we paint them as the globe-trotting super-villains that they dream of being, we give them power to terrorize us that they otherwise lack. As I must have said a thousand times now, they are called terrorists for a reason. They kill as a means to frighten us into giving them something.

So is radicalization a major issue that warrants the U.S. to think twice before pursuing a preferred policy, or is it a small threat that doesn't warrant sweeping government changes? It seems to me you can't argue that on the one hand, the threat from terrorism is rather small and manageable, and on the other that it is so grave that we need to make major changes to American foreign policy.

Super Duper Power

The fact that it took ten days and at least a thousand dead on the streets of Libya’s cities before President Obama finally mustered the courage to call for Muammar “mad dog” Gaddafi to step down is highly embarrassing for the world’s only superpower, and emblematic of a deer-in-the-headlights approach to world leadership. Washington seems incapable of decisive decision-making on foreign policy at the moment, a far cry from the days when it swept entire regimes from power, and defeated America’s enemies with deep-seated conviction and an unshakeable drive for victory. - Nile Gardiner

Look, if you're going to criticize the Obama administration for not marching into Tripoli and carrying out Colonel Gaddafi's head on a pike, fine. But does anyone find that last sentence remotely in accord with reality?

How Will the Mideast Revolts Play Out?

Joshua Kurlantzick compares the Middle East in 2011 to Asia in the 1990s:

Yet today these countries have enjoyed mixed results. Thailand is not truly a democracy, and the military has regained power; Malaysia has retained a soft authoritarianism; the Philippines is essentially an oligarchy; Cambodia has become an authoritarian state; Indonesia has moved toward democracy but faces serious challenges; and South Korea is a vibrant, pluralistic democracy. And throughout Asia, nostalgia for authoritarian rule remains high, according to studies conducted by the Asian Barometer survey series.

Given the hope for widespread democratic change in Asia that existed in the late 1990s, this mixture of consolidation and reversals is hardly inspiring. But Asia offers several critical lessons for today's changes in the Middle East, where it is likely that some countries will build genuine democracies while others will stagger backwards into authoritarian rule or outright chaos.

One lesson he offers is for the U.S. to take a "background role" - something that may happen in places like Tunisia but probably not in Egypt.

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