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April 28, 2011

The Endgame Cometh


Happy Mujahideen Victory Day.

Nineteen years ago, today, a rag-tag group of insurgents overthrew the previously Soviet-supported Afghan government. It’s a national holiday here in Kabul. The roads, usually clogged with traffic and pedestrians, are clear not only because Afghans are staying home to celebrate but also because many international civilians are on lockdown.

A string of high profile attacks on government and military buildings in the past few weeks have cast a pall over the holiday. And a blockbuster prison break this week has only added to tensions.

But in commemorating a day that was precipitated by the withdrawal of Soviet troops three years earlier in 1989, it’s worth looking forward to how the next major foreign military withdrawal from Afghanistan might shape the country.

Lost in the stories of Taliban infiltration of Afghan security forces has been reporting on how Afghans across the country are starting to hedge their bets as U.S. and coalition forces prepare to drawdown their forces this July, a process that should end by 2014.

Taliban are turning themselves in to authorities to be reintegrated into society, sometimes as part of local militias. Ethnic minority groups are beginning to rearm themselves in anticipation of a return of the Pashtun Taliban. And armies of pundits have weighed in on the false hope of talks with the Taliban or are exasperated that a 10-year war has gone on this long without a diplomatic component to compliment the military hardware.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of all this is what exactly happens after 2014. Ahmed Rashid recently commented on Karzai’s request for a “strategic partnership agreement” with the U.S. after 2014:

The Pentagon is keen on this so it can maintain between two and six bases in Afghanistan to keep pressure on al-Qaeda. Most countries in the region – such as Pakistan, China and Russia – will object to an indefinite U.S. military presence, while Iran will see it as a permanent threat.

The New York Times reports that upon hearing talk of a U.S. presence beyond 2014, Iranian, Indian and Russian officials made a mad dash to Kabul. The Times goes on to explain how talk of long-term U.S. bases could sink the burgeoning peace negotiations:

[The strategic partnership agreement] is without doubt a delicate process, and one that comes at a critical time. Afghan officials have expressed concern that the negotiations could scuttle peace talks with the Taliban, now in their early stages, because the insurgents have insisted that foreign forces must leave the country before they will deal. That they are already talking is an indication they are willing to compromise on the timing of a withdrawal – but it is hard to imagine Taliban acceptance of a lasting American presence here.

Discussions of permanents bases also plays into Afghan conspiracy theories that the U.S. is only here to steal Afghanistan’s mineral wealth and to have a permanent base in the region from which to exert influence over the eventual nuclear state of Iran and the current nuclear power of Pakistan, to say nothing of China and Russia.

A Wall Street Journal piece nicely explores the geopolitical posturing that surrounds an Afghan-U.S. strategic partnership:

Pakistan is lobbying Afghanistan’s president against building a long-term strategic partnership with the U.S., urging him instead to look to Pakistan – and its Chinese ally – for help in striking a peace deal with the Taliban and rebuilding the economy, Afghan officials say…

Some U.S. officials said they had heard details of the Kabul meeting, and presumed they were informed about [Pakistan's] entreaties in part, as one official put it, to "raise Afghanistan's asking price" in the partnership talks. That asking price could include high levels of U.S. aid after 2014. The U.S. officials sought to play down the significance of the Pakistani proposal. Such overtures were to be expected at the start of any negotiations, they said; the idea of China taking a leading role in Afghanistan was fanciful at best, they noted.

And yet, Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, has met Karzai three times since the Pakistani overture.


(AP Photo)

Which Country Does America Want to Defend the Most?

According to a new poll from Rasmussen, Canada tops the list of countries that Americans say they would defend militarily, followed by Great Britain, Australia, Israel and ... the Bahamas.

At the bottom of the list: Bulgaria, Albania, North Korea and Iran. Interesting to note: Albania is in NATO and ranks below Russia as a country Americans want to defend.

Russia's Election

Via Other Russia, this video (produced by Russia's Communist Party) lampooning Russia's ruling tandem is making the rounds.

April 27, 2011

Leon Panetta's Challenge at Defense

The choice of Leon Panetta to head the Defense Department is not surprising. In fact, I really wish I could've put money on it in Vegas earlier this month. It's making the best of a bad situation in terms of potential nominees - the best candidates for filling the key administration position under President Obama didn't seem particularly eager to do so, and the candidates who did seem to want the job all had negatives.

About to turn 73, Panetta is older than Bob Gates, and while a seasoned D.C. hand, he's been commuting for years to his home in Monterey, Calif. But his challenges in taking over DoD could not be greater. He's coming in at a sour moment, when Afghanistan and Libya hang in the balance. Gates, always popular with the troops and respected on Capitol Hill, is leaving after setting the Department on a solid track toward internal reform - but also after publicly criticizing the president's ham-handed and unexpected demands for further cutbacks. Pressure from Congressional factions is coming from a half-dozen directions, frustration from the president's base threatens to explode, and Panetta's tenure at the CIA was marked by several failures in management - the Christmas Day bomber and more. From Politico earlier this month:

Two of the biggest mistakes came in December 2009, 1 months [sic] after Panetta was sworn in. On Christmas Day, a Nigerian man, Umar Abdulmutallab, allegedly attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight approaching Detroit. White House and Congressional investigations faulted the CIA for failing to quickly pass on intelligence about Abdulmutallab, to connect reports on the suspect and to correctly search for his name in databases.

“There were a lot of mistakes that led up to that guy being able to get on the plane,” said Thomas Kean, a former New Jersey governor and co-chairman with Hamilton of the Sept. 11 Commission. “The CIA was in that loop. Whether it ever got to Panetta’s level, I don’t know, but it was definitely a problem.”

Five days after the Detroit attempt, a suicide bomber who had been cultivated by the CIA as an informant killed seven agency operatives at a base in Khost, Afghanistan. It was the deadliest attack on CIA personnel in more than two decades, and was seen as a major operational failure.

More recently, the CIA was criticized for not providing adequate warning that unrest in Tunisia was likely to bring down the government there and would spark a popular upheaval in Egypt and foment public disturbances across the Middle East and North Africa.

Even though he's a better fit for this role than he was at CIA, it is hard to see how Panetta will navigate this treacherous scene. Unlike Gates, who still had the fire in the belly for his tasks under George W. Bush and Obama and seemed happy to wait on his long-awaited retirement to the Pacific Northwest, one wonders if Panetta will not be all the more eager for Monterey after a few months in the Pentagon.

Obama Official: We Did Not Want to Side With Iran Protesters

In response to Ryan Lizza's must-read piece on Obama's foreign policy for the inclusion of several jaw-dropping anecdotes, Elliott Abrams offers a series of devastating critiques. One in particular stood out to me:

Many critics have argued that the Obama Administration seemed annoyed when Iranians rose up in June 2009 after the elections there were stolen. It appeared that the President was set on engagement with the ayatollahs, and was not at all pleased to see Iranians demanding freedom. Now we have it from someone who served in the Administration: “The core of it was we were still trying to engage the Iranian government and we did not want to do anything that made us side with the protesters.” In the annals of American human rights policy, the phrase “we did not want to do anything that made us side with the protesters” will hold a special place of dishonor.

This is indeed disturbing. Abrams notes a later quote, where “One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’”

It strikes me that if a critic of the President had so described his foreign policy, that critic would be accused of sarcasm and disrespect. But as Lizza writes, that summary “does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding.”

This word, "leading" - I do not think it means what you think it means.

The New Geopolitics of Food

Foreign Policy magazine hosted an event yesterday in Washington with Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, to chat about their food issue and his cover article on the "New Geopolitics of Food." Brown's survey piece is worth reading for a host of fascinating details and data points - his politics are old-guard leftist, and his predictions of a future with "every-country-for-itself philosophy" for food provision seem very throwback to me, but the information is worth gathering to draw your own conclusions about the issue.

Contra reports by The Economist and others in recent months, Brown believes the problems in food supply are not a temporary issue, but a long-term and rising problem. China's situation is particularly interesting, as with an expanding middle class has come, as anticipated, a growth in meat and protein demand. China consumes twice the meat of the U.S. today, according to Brown, and while it today produces roughly 14 million metric tons of soybeans, it consumes more than 70 million (not just as foodstuffs but as feed for animals). The ripple effect is obvious: today, more land in the United States is filled with soybeans than wheat, and China imported roughly 22.5 million metric tons of soybeans from the States last year, an increase of about 20 percent from 2009. Meeting this demand, according to Brown, could soon become a challenge.

Brown pointed out one story I'd missed completely - that South Korea, in what could be a trend followed by other nations, decided a few months ago to bypass international markets entirely, setting up an office in Chicago to buy directly from grain producers in America. He noted the problems of winter wheat crops in the U.S. and Russia from the past year, which just translate to annoyance on the part of Americans, can be calamitous for other nations. And his take on the "water bubble" in the Middle East is interesting:

While temperatures are rising, water tables are falling as farmers overpump for irrigation. This artificially inflates food production in the short run, creating a food bubble that bursts when aquifers are depleted and pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge. In arid Saudi Arabia, irrigation had surprisingly enabled the country to be self-sufficient in wheat for more than 20 years; now, wheat production is collapsing because the non-replenishable aquifer the country uses for irrigation is largely depleted. The Saudis soon will be importing all their grain.

Saudi Arabia is only one of some 18 countries with water-based food bubbles. All together, more than half the world's people live in countries where water tables are falling. The politically troubled Arab Middle East is the first geographic region where grain production has peaked and begun to decline because of water shortages, even as populations continue to grow. Grain production is already going down in Syria and Iraq and may soon decline in Yemen. But the largest food bubbles are in India and China. In India, where farmers have drilled some 20 million irrigation wells, water tables are falling and the wells are starting to go dry. The World Bank reports that 175 million Indians are being fed with grain produced by overpumping. In China, overpumping is concentrated in the North China Plain, which produces half of China's wheat and a third of its corn. An estimated 130 million Chinese are currently fed by overpumping. How will these countries make up for the inevitable shortfalls when the aquifers are depleted?

Some of Brown's points run afoul of typical categorization. He maintains the lessons of the past decade is that export bans don't work, with major blowback on trade restrictions (particularly in Southeast Asia), and that the decision of the U.S. and the European Union to invest in biofuels has had terrible consequences.

Yet when it comes to Brown's policy recommendations and the American left's solutions on food policy - population restriction, carbon caps, sin taxes, meat rationing (proposed straight-faced by one participant) - strike me as particularly tired and unlikely to work in the real world. Brown views this as a problem of overpopulation and climate, setting the solution to food problems as one where scientists triumph over economists; I think it's more likely a problem driven by poor governance and market barriers.

The real question for me hinges on the future of Subsaharan Africa. If it can be remade, by the Gates Foundation and others, as new breadbasket - the barrier to which is proper water and transportation infrastructure, not land - through proper technological investment and development, it will provide another source to meet demand. In all, I'm more confident in technological advancement to meet market demands for more supply, and that fears of "peak food" are enormously exaggerated.

Real Costs vs. Fake Ones

James Dubik throws down the guantlet in the New York Times, arguing that the U.S. should not only hasten the overthrow of Gaddafi but plan on policing a post-war Libya with its own forces, as well as those from the United Nations. In other words, he wants to turn Libya from a limited engagement into a full blown nation building exercise ala Iraq and Afghanistan. Here is what he's proposing:

The responsibility for security, reconstruction and nation-building will likely fall to the United Nations, which would mean deploying a multinational peacekeeping force in Libya, including troops from the United States, NATO and Arab nations. Washington must start planning and preparing for this complex and expensive contingency and muster the substantial political will required to see it through. While there is no guarantee that such a project will be any more efficient or effective than in Iraq or Afghanistan, failing to plan for it would be disastrous.

This is a path with real costs in money, manpower, executive branch attention and lives. Now, here is the alternative path that Dubik hopes to avoid:

America could pull out, making a tacit admission that the intervention was a strategic mistake. But a resurgent Colonel Qaddafi would likely seek revenge against the rebels and those who helped them. Moreover, NATO’s resolve would be called into question, as would America’s. Whatever influence Washington might have in the region would evaporate and Al Qaeda would waste no time pointing out that the United States had abandoned Muslims on the battlefield.

This course of action involves the following costs to the United States: someone, somewhere would "question" our "resolve," our "influence" would "evaporate" and al-Qaeda would tease us.

Is that worth several hundred billion dollars to you?

The Last 30 Years

Last July, in a debate with another realist making the case for Israel-as-a-liability (Chas W. Freeman), I argued that "what we really need in the Middle East are more 'Israels' -- not more Jewish states, of course, but more strong, reliable, democratic, pro-American allies.... The absence of those sorts of allies is precisely what has gotten us into such deep trouble over the past 30 years." - Robert Satloff

It's not clear whether the "30 years" here refers to the beginning of the Carter Doctrine or the Nixon/Kissinger tilt toward Israel during the Yom Kippur War. I'm assuming it can't be the latter, as that would undermine Satloff's argument. As for the Carter Doctrine, I think a more straightforward explanation for America's "deep trouble" in the Middle East over the past 30 years is that it has tried to micromanage countries and cultures that it doesn't understand and that ultimately resent outside interference.

Sure, it would be nice to have pro-American, free market democracies in the region but we can satisfy ourselves with the next best thing: less meddling.

A Question of Leverage


One recurring line of criticism against the Obama administration during the "Arab spring" is that it has been more willing to condemn and push-aside America's erstwhile allies than her enemies. For instance, here's Elliott Abrams:

Second, the Friday statement continues to appeal to Assad: “We call on President Assad to change course now, and heed the calls of his own people.” That might have been acceptable 300 deaths ago, but it is now absurd. The President called on Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a long-time American ally, to leave; why the reticence about Assad, a long-time American enemy?

I think aside from the fact that the administration is more or less making this up as it goes along, the basic fact is that the U.S. had influence over Egypt's military, which was the only institution that could push Mubarak aside. What leverage does the U.S. have over Syria, or institutions within the Syrian state that could oust the regime? Paradoxically, the more isolated from the U.S. the country is, the less ability the U.S. has to effect regime change when the country's citizens revolt. Of course, President Obama can get up and denounce Assad more vigorously, but it's not clear what that would accomplish on the ground.

The other alternative is to try to transform the thus-far peaceful protests in Syria into an armed revolt against the Syrian regime. As in Libya, it's not clear whether that is a formula for swiftly deposing the Assad/Baathist regime in favor of something better or for starting a prolonged civil war.

(AP Photo)

Canadians: Cynical and Distrustful


At least when it comes to their federal political parties:

As Canadians prepare to cast their ballots in the fourth federal election held in the past eight years, a unique segmentation conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion shows that only one third of Canadians are truly connecting with the main federal parties, while large proportions of respondents hold feelings of mistrust, skepticism and even cynicism towards politics.

According to Angus Reid, which conducted this analysis, the key group in this election is the Mistrustful Middle, "where respondents are currently being courted primarily by the Tories and NDP. This is the biggest of the five groups encountered, and the one where policy ideas are taking a more prevalent role than traditional support for existing parties."

You can read a full analysis here. (pdf)

April 25, 2011

Do Realists Threaten Israel?

Israel's Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren takes after realists in a piece in Foreign Policy. His basic position is that realists don't appreciate that Israel is in fact the ultimate American ally and a net-plus for America's security and economy.

The one odd element to the piece is that it's devoted to debunking arguments that are essentially irrelevant. Sure, there are realist analysts and academics who do not believe Israel is as strategically valuable to the U.S. today as it was during the Cold War - but so what? One could understand the impetus to Oren's piece if the realist argument were actually gaining traction and threatening ties between the two countries in some material way - but as far as I can tell, it is not.

Indeed, the actual debate over Israel in the United States has nothing to do with first order questions (whether we should be allies) or second order questions (whether Israel is a net-plus for the U.S. strategic ledger) but third order questions about whether we should pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians to further peace negotiations - and that debate was settled a year ago.

Obama's Foreign Policy


I'm just getting started on Ryan Lizza's big piece on the Obama administration's foreign policy, but this bit jumped out at me from the opening:

One of Donilon’s overriding beliefs, which Obama adopted as his own, was that America needed to rebuild its reputation, extricate itself from the Middle East and Afghanistan, and turn its attention toward Asia and China’s unchecked influence in the region. America was “overweighted” in the former and “underweighted” in the latter, Donilon told me. “We’ve been on a little bit of a Middle East detour over the course of the last ten years,” Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said. “And our future will be dominated utterly and fundamentally by developments in Asia and the Pacific region.”

So what has the administration done during its first years in office? Well, they launched a major effort to rekindle Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, surged tens of thousands of additional troops into Afghanistan (while quietly moving out the timeline for withdrawal to 2014), escalated military strikes in Pakistan and jumped into the middle of Libya's civil war.

For an administration intent on refocusing American foreign policy away from the Middle East and "unwinding" America's wars, they sure seem to have gone about it in a strange way.

(AP Photo)

Cyber Warfare With Iran on the Rise

In 2010, Iran’s atomic program was targeted by the Stuxnet computer worm to slow down uranium enrichment in centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear facility. Earlier this year, the 1000-megawatt Bushehr nuclear power plant was forced offline as well just as it was commencing operation.

Now Iranian officials claim their nation’s defense facilities have been the target of more cyber warfare. According to the Mehr News Agency, which reports in Farsi, Arabic, English, German, Turkish and Urdu, in addition to publishing the Tehran Times:

TEHRAN, April 25 (MNA) -- Iran has been targeted by a new computer worm dubbed Stars, the director of Iran’s Passive Defense Organization announced on Monday. Fortunately the Iranian experts spotted the computer worm and are still studying the malware, Gholam-Reza Jalali told the Mehr News Agency. No final result has been achieved yet, he added. “[However], certain characteristics about the Stars worm have been identified, including that it is compatible with the [targeted] system,” Jalali stated.

In November 2010, Iran’s Basij paramilitia, controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, established a 1,500 person “Cyber warriors” unit. Shortly thereafter, in February 2011, the Voice of America website was attacked by pro-Iranian hackers calling themselves the Iranian Cyber Army. Twitter and Google too have experienced electronic intrusions by pro-Iranian or Iran-based hackers.

Cyber warfare between the Iranian government and nations opposed to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and political expansionism seems to be on the upswing. More electronic disruptions are likely on both sides.

Peace With the Taliban

Jackson Diehl isn't impressed with the Obama administration's Afghan exit strategy:

The military drawdown appears likely to be accompanied by a new attempt to promote a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised a “diplomatic surge” in a February speech in which she seemed to soften previous conditions for talks with the Taliban. The administration is said to be quietly encouraging a Turkish initiative to allow the Taliban to open an office in Turkey, which would provide a clear channel for communications.

The idea of a quick political fix is seductive. There’s just one problem: It’s an illusion. Not only is there no chance of striking a workable deal with the Taliban, but the pursuit of one is only likely to make an already difficult political situation in Afghanistan worse.

The idea of some kind of political settlement to the Afghan war has been a hobbyhorse of a number of realists, but I don't see it happening. Unless we're willing to completely cede the field to Pakistan and their Taliban surrogates and call that a "political victory" there really is no political solution that is going to satisfy all parties to the conflict. I think it's immensely naive to argue that the Taliban can be convinced, bribed, threatened or cajoled into fully renouncing al-Qaeda, and even if they did formally break with the group, Afghanistan is a huge, rural country with plenty of places for al-Qaeda to hide even without formal Taliban sanction. Al-Qaeda managed to set up shop in Afghanistan with 100,000 U.S. troops in the country. Presumably they could do so again when U.S. troop numbers dwindle.

However, unlike Diehl, I don't believe the absence of a negotiated settlement is grounds for never leaving Afghanistan. Quite the contrary, it is the best argument for why America's effort is futile and overly ambitious. The basic fact is that the relevant political players in the Afghan war - the Taliban, Pakistan, India - have a much larger stake in the fight than the U.S. does. They have proven over time to be immune to U.S. bribes and resilient in the face of U.S. firepower. Unless we're willing to start a war with Pakistan over the future of the government of Afghanistan, we'd better start thinking about how to combat al-Qaeda terrorism without a sympathetic government in Afghanistan.

Thinking Things Through

In McCain's view, a modest increase in moral and material support to the rebels, plus more aggressive application of American air power — including the use of unmanned drones — would cause the regime to crumble. "I don't think it would be a lengthy campaign. In this kind of warfare, momentum shifts one way or the other." But what if it doesn't? What if, even after we make the Libyan war a fair fight, Gaddafi remains in power? That remains the insoluble Western dilemma, and even McCain is unable to offer a way out. - Romesh Ratnesar, Time

In other words, Senator McCain is basing his policies on best-case assumptions of what will happen, without giving any thought to what happens if they don't come to pass. All the more remarkable is that this kind of blithe disregard for what happens if Plan A doesn't quite pan out is happening in 2011, with the supposed benefit of seeing a similar approach fail disastrously in Iraq.

April 22, 2011

We're All Libyans Now

"They are my heroes," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said today as he visited Benghazi, Libya — a rebel-held city where the opposition to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is centered. - NPR

Sound familiar?

A Royal Wedding? Yawn


Interest in the forthcoming nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton isn't running all that high:

According to a CBS News/New York Times poll, nearly 3 in 10 Americans (28 percent) say they're very or somewhat wrapped up in the pre-wedding news. Thirty percent say they're following it, but not very closely and 42 percent say they're not paying any attention at all.

Of those that are following the wedding, most say they plan to watch it next Friday. Among women paying attention, nearly 3 in 4 say they'll watch.

Interest among Britons slightly outpaces that of Americans. In a separate poll commissioned by CBS News and conducted by the British online polling firm YouGov, 29 percent said they are following the wedding very or somewhat closely. But nearly half say they're not paying close attention and 1 in 5 say they're paying no attention at all.

In related monarchy news, Queen Elizabeth turned 85 yesterday.

(AP Photo)

UK Sours on Nuclear Power

According to a new poll from Angus Reid:

In the online survey of a representative national sample of 2,023 British adults, 43 per cent of respondents support building more nuclear power stations in the UK, down eight points since July 2010 and 12 points since November 2009. Conversely, the level of opposition to this idea has risen to 37 per cent, up six points in less than a year.

Across Britain, 45 per cent of respondents believe the UK should avoid nuclear energy and focus on other carbon-free sources of energy, while 38 per cent would further pursue nuclear energy capabilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The percentage of respondents who support either of these two statements has flipped since last year.

At least two thirds of Britons remain “very concerned” or “moderately concerned” about nuclear waste management (77%), health risks for communities that are close to a nuclear power station (69%), an accident at a nuclear power plant (69%), and nuclear technology falling into the hands of extremists (68%).

April 21, 2011

The World's Beer Consumption

It's rising, according to a new paper. (pdf) However, most of the rise is being driven by China and Russia. In some of the richer nations, such as the U.S., consumption is leveling off or even falling (despite my best efforts):


[Hat tip: Felix Samon]

Putin Calls Out Bernanke

Monetary policy gets testy:

“Look at their trade balance, their debt, and budget. They turn on the printing press and flood the entire dollar zone — in other words, the whole world — with government bonds. There is no way we will act this way anytime soon. We don’t have the luxury of such hooliganism,” he said.

Even as Putin blamed the U.S. for printing money — something for which Russia was criticized during periods of hyperinflation in the 1990s — other Russian officials said there is no alternative to the U.S. dollar and declined to discuss cutting the country’s dollar holdings.

Kindred Winecoff pushes back:

This isn't hooliganism. This is using monetary policy in textbook ways. As it happens, U.S. monetary policy has a great effect on external economies, which is why Putin calls the whole world the "dollar zone", but let's be clear: those countries want the U.S. to pursue less expansionary monetary policy so they can free-ride on it. It's fine for them to have that preference, and as I've argued before, I think the U.S. should allow some free-riding. But the U.S. government has citizens to satisfy as well, so those countries can't very well expect the U.S. to pursue a contractionary policies while the economy is so weak.

Humanitarian Intervention


The rationale behind America's intervention in Libya's civil war was that, absent immediate assistance, Gaddafi's forces would commit a massacre of civilians in the city of Benghazi that would have "stained the conscience of the world." Yet in the city of Misrata, the humanitarian situation seems just as dire, with between 300 to 1,000 civilians killed.

So what is the West going to do? NATO commanders are admitting there's not much they can do from the air and insisting that they won't send in ground troops, while the UK, Italy and France send in advisors. The Obama administration is going to kick in $25 million in money it doesn't have to buy things for the rebels, while loudly insisting it's wary about what it's doing.

The war in Libya is highlighting the contradictions of a limited war waged for humanitarian purposes with political goals (i.e. the removal of Gaddafi) that are out in front of what the combatants are willing to commit.

The question now becomes how far the Obama administration is willing to go to save face.

(AP Photo)

April 20, 2011

The World in Debt


Standard and Poor's recent warning about U.S. debt is a good opportunity to flog a book review I wrote about several nations staggering under unsustainable debt loads. It's also a good opportunity to highlight this analysis from Bobby Duffy, on Europe's attitude toward its sovereign debt problems:

In fact, earlier last year there were a number of countries that we could call "debt deniers", which have high levels of public debt - but were relatively unlikely to think that action on this was needed, such as France, Portugal and Italy. But by the end of 2010, each had come into line and high public debt countries now widely say they accept the need for action - for example, 75 per cent in France and 84 per cent in Italy.

So is this a sign that we're ready to take our medicine, that we realise we've been living beyond our collective means and need drastic measures? That would be an understandable shift in opinion, as the consequences in Greece, Ireland and now Portugal have caught the public's attention across Europe.

While we may see a fundamental shift in opinion in those countries actually requiring bailouts, it would be wrong to conclude that this will result in long-term sea-change in attitudes across Europe. For a concern about debt to stick, people will need to see that reducing it works.

The big problem facing most debt-strapped nations today is that the very steps required to pare back their deficits and rein in their debts tend to depress economic growth, which they also very much need to help balance the books. That said, there are some things that countries deep in debt shouldn't be wasting their money on - things like this.

(AP Photo)

Marco Rubio on U.S. Foreign Policy

“There is no replacement for America in the world,” Rubio says. “If America withdraws from the world stage, it will create a vacuum, and that vacuum will not be filled by someone better than us.” - Marco Rubio

I think this sentiment is worth unpacking a bit. First, it's simply not the case that any country could step in to whatever void it is Rubio thinks we'd be creating. There is no country even remotely close to possessing the kind of global force projection or influence that the United States wields. So even if the U.S. "withdrew" from the world stage there isn't even any state capable - much less interested - in filling that void on a global basis. Regionally, it's certainly possible you'd see unfriendly states wield more local influence, but in most regions of the world, the U.S. has very strong and capable allies that will also exert their influence.

And second, what does it even mean to "withdraw" from the world? Not trade with it? Not conduct diplomacy? Not pursue terrorist threats? Who is advocating these things?

Wary in Libya

The question of Islamic fundamentalists among the rebels is one of the murkier issues for Western nations who are aiding the anti-Gadhafi forces with airstrikes and must decide how deeply to get involved in the fight. Some countries, including the U.S., have been wary — partly out of concern over possible extremists among the rebels. - AP

I don't think it's correct to characterize the Obama administration as "wary" about Libya's rebels. A government that was "wary" would not commit itself to wage war on the rebel's behalf. It's more accurate to say that the administration jumped into the middle of a civil war about which it knew absolutely nothing about on behalf of rebels about which it also knew absolutely nothing about.

There are a lot of words to describe that behavoir, but "wary" isn't one of them

April 19, 2011

China's Aggression


Daniel Blumenthal argues that China is experiencing a "resurgence" of "foreign policy aggression." Here is his indictment:

* China "declared" the South China sea a core interest.
* China did not "condemn" North Korea.
* China "demanded" the release of a fishing boat captain detained by Japan.
* China halted the sale of rare earth minerals to Japan.
* China "reneged" on an agreement to air President Obama's speech on state television without censorship.
* China "moved" some short range missles around.
* China "displayed" a new stealth fighter.

Scary stuff. Now, in the same period of time, what has the U.S. done? Let's review:

* Sent additional soldiers to fight a war in Afghanistan.
* Ramped up a bombing campaign against Pakistan's tribal region.
* Provided covert military assistance for military strikes in Yemen.
* Agreed to sell $60 billion in advanced military hardware to Saudi Arabia.
* Cooperated with Israel to conduct sabotage operations against Iran's nuclear facilities
* Sent its secretary of defense into Iraq to request permission to station troops in the country past an agreed upon deadline.
* Bombed Libya.

(AP Photo)

April 18, 2011

Saudi-Iran Cold War


The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend about the "new Cold War" in the Middle East:

There has long been bad blood between the Saudis and Iran. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Muslim kingdom of ethnic Arabs, Iran a Shiite Islamic republic populated by ethnic Persians. Shiites first broke with Sunnis over the line of succession after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in the year 632; Sunnis have regarded them as a heretical sect ever since. Arabs and Persians, along with many others, have vied for the land and resources of the Middle East for almost as long.

These days, geopolitics also plays a role. The two sides have assembled loosely allied camps. Iran holds in its sway Syria and the militant Arab groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories; in the Saudi sphere are the Sunni Muslim-led Gulf monarchies, Egypt, Morocco and the other main Palestinian faction, Fatah. The Saudi camp is pro-Western and leans toward tolerating the state of Israel. The Iranian grouping thrives on its reputation in the region as a scrappy "resistance" camp, defiantly opposed to the West and Israel.

If you had to venture a guess as to which state was more likely to emerge as a moderately liberalizing, less anti-American force in the Middle East in 10 to 15 years would it be Saudi Arabia or Iran?

I genuinely don't know the answer, but it really doesn't matter because the U.S. is already knee deep in this thing on behalf of the House of Saud.

That said, we need to be clear about the forces we're supporting. Saudi Arabia may be pro-Western in the sense that they've agreed to take American money and have U.S. soldiers fight on their behalf in exchange for doing what they would do no matter who was protecting them (i.e. sell oil), but I don't think there's a natural "pro-Western" constituency in the country outside of the elite. There's also that little matter of Wahhabi proselytizing, which hasn't exactly been a boon to U.S. security. Not too many Iranians flocked to al-Qaeda in the 1990s.

(AP Photo)

60 Cups of Tea

Last night 60 Minutes aired an expose on Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson. While acknowledging his promotion of girls’ education in Pakistan and Afghanistan, their report brought into question his “origin story,” financial irregularities within his Central Asia Institute and exactly how many schools his NGO has built.

For those unfamiliar with Three Cups of Tea - recommended reading for the rank and file of both the U.S. military and Oprah’s book club - an Outside Magazine article chronicles Mortenson’s activities in Afghanistan.

The fascinating nexus between book clubs and the military was highlighted in a New York Times piece last summer:

The collaboration [between the US military and Mortenson], which grew in part out of the popularity of “Three Cups of Tea” among military wives who told their husbands to read it, extends to the office of Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Last summer, Admiral Mullen attended the opening of one of Mr. Mortenson’s schools in Pushghar, a remote village in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains.

On the ground here in Afghanistan development workers will confess that Mortenson’s inspirational story reignited their passion and drive for their often frustrating line of work. However, many hold reservations about the efficacy and sustainability - to say nothing of the possible harm - of this “cowboy” approach to development work.


April 16, 2011

Russia Losing Tank Exports Battle


Heavy arms exports have been the mainstay of Soviet and now Russian military sales - for many decades, Russian tanks have competed successfully on the growing global market. Following the collapse of the USSR, Russia has maintained a leading position when it comes to heavy-duty military machinery. However, current trends point to Russia's potential decline in this lucrative market. According to Konstanin Makienko from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, Russia is bound for weapons exporting decline unless it offers customers a wide range of modern and competitive products. On the one hand, Russia is the world leader in terms of sales of tank technology; on the other hand, over the past few years, Moscow has lost several tenders for the supply of tanks to foreign customers.

For the time being, India is the largest purchaser of Russian battle tanks - namely the T-90 model - purchasing hundreds of machines through 2019. But once this order runs out there may be no more customers willing to place such large orders, and the overall sales volume of MBTs may start to decline globally. What really irks Russia is the fact that it lost the Moroccan tender for 150 units to the Chinese VT1A main battle tank. The Chinese tank was based on the Russian T-72 MBT. Additionally, China is undercutting Russia on the tank market by offering more models to potential customers - from the cheaper Type-96 model, to more expensive Type-98 and Type-99. All these tanks were based on Soviet models, modernized by China over the course of the last few decades. This prompted Brigadier General Alexander Postnikov, Head of Russian Land Forces, to state that "today's military hardware produced by Russia, including heavy mechanized variants, are not compatible with NATO or even Chinese standards."

To add insult to injury, so to speak, was the selection several years ago by the Malaysian military - long a purchaser of Russian high-tech items like the Mig-29 fighter - of the Polish PT-91M battle tank, which is also based on the Soviet T-72 tank. And just a month ago, Russian T-90 MBT lost to its Ukrainian competitor T-84U during Thailand tender - Bangkok will purchase 200 Ukrainian main battle tanks, which, like the Polish and Chinese versions, is also based on the Soviet T-72 model.

Going forward, the picture mightn't be very bright for Russian exports of tank models and technology. Its mainstay customers in the Middle East - Libya, Egypt, Syria - are either embroiled in political upheavals and have more pressing matters to address, or, like Iraq, they are purchasing American and Western-made weapons. New customers like Venezuela, Azerbaijan and Uganda cannot make up for the drop-off in sales, and fierce competition from improving technology offered by China and other countries is further eroding Russia's once-dominant position. Add to that the growing trend of impending natural disasters, low-level insurgencies and the unlikely event of a large clash between state armies - and numerous countries may prioritize armored vehicles over heavy and expensive tanks if /when they decide to make that purchase. Russia may bounce back with modernized and high tech offerings, but it could only do so by closely following the emerging trends on the global arms market.

(AP Photo)

April 15, 2011

Sea Piracy at Record Levels

According to a new report, piracy has ticked up sharply:

Nearly 70 per cent or 97 of the attacks occurred off the coast of Somalia, up sharply from 35 in the same period last year, the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting centre in Kuala Lumpur said in a statement.

Attackers seized 18 vessels worldwide, including three big tankers, in the January-March period and captured 344 crew members, it said. Pirates also murdered seven crew members and injured 34 during the quarter.

“Figures for piracy and armed robbery at sea in the past three months are higher than we've ever recorded in the first quarter of any past year,” said the bureau's director Pottengal Mukundan.

An Unclear Path


In their op-ed today, President Obama, President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Cameron argue that Libya can only be at peace if Gaddafi steps down:

...so long as Qaddafi is in power, NATO must maintain its operations so that civilians remain protected and the pressure on the regime builds. Then a genuine transition from dictatorship to an inclusive constitutional process can really begin, led by a new generation of leaders. In order for that transition to succeed, Qaddafi must go and go for good. At that point, the United Nations and its members should help the Libyan people as they rebuild where Qaddafi has destroyed — to repair homes and hospitals, to restore basic utilities, and to assist Libyans as they develop the institutions to underpin a prosperous and open society.

Nowhere in the article, however, do they explain how they intend to bring about his downfall. The leaders state that unseating Gaddafi was not the point of the mission, but then declare that the NATO mission will not end unless and until Gaddafi steps aside. So it's only natural for people to point out that there is a rather glaring mismatch between means and ends here. Why harp on the fact that the goal is Gaddafi's departure if you're not going to take the necessary steps to hasten him to the door?

This isn't simply incoherent, it's dangerous. It is obviously foolish to try and unseat Gaddafi - the U.S.and NATO are completely unprepared to police and stabilize a post-Gaddafi Libya. But by publicly affirming that the goal is regime change, Western leaders are ultimately committed to doing so down the road.

(AP Photo)

April 14, 2011

A Prescription for Waste

Max Boot is concerned that the U.S. may achieve a measure of solvency:

The U.S. is currently engaged in three active wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya)—four if you count the war on terror, five if you count the war on piracy. We are increasingly hard-pressed to stave off the aggressive military designs of a resurgent China. We have to deter a nuclear North Korea and prevent Iran from going nuclear. We have to prepare for the possibility of an implosion in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed, highly unstable state. We have to maintain free movement across the global commons, meaning air and sea-lanes along with outer space and cyberspace. And at the same time we have to perform myriad humanitarian missions, such as the one currently being conducted by U.S. Pacific Command to assist Japan in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami.

Is this any time to cut defense spending? Apparently President Obama thinks so.

Note the frame: we have to. But here's the thing: we don't have to. We want to.

Boot titles his post a "Prescription for Decline," the "prescription" being the desire to trim back some of the federal government's defense spending. It's true that cutting defense spending could mean that the U.S. would have to rethink some legacy defense commitments and be less apt to start more unnecessary wars/nation-building boondoggles, but I fail to see why that's a bad thing. Washington is seemingly hell bent on scoring own goals, wasting American resources on vanity projects like the war in Libya or aggressive nation building in Iraq. Doing less of this is vital to staving off decline. I would prefer that we not "starve the beast" to pursue a more rationalized foreign policy, but Washington is not exactly known for being prudent stewards of Americans' money.

Defense spending is not the cause of America's fiscal woes - entitlements are. But a fair share of the U.S. "defense" budget is waste. Not waste in the sense of $500 toilet seats, but waste as in the trillion-dollar investment in Iraq, which has yielded nothing remotely close to the costs. It is wasteful to defend allies in Europe who neither need, nor apparently want, to defend themselves. It is wasteful to build, at a cost of billions, a shambolic state in Afghanistan that will collapse on itself unless we stay there forever.

I do think we should be careful about what and where we cut. I think the ability to ensure our vital sea lanes are secure and to exercise some check on China are worthwhile military expenditures. Maintaining naval and air power that is qualitatively better than both China and Russia combined makes sense. Heck, I'm not even opposed to forward deployments in Asia, an arena where U.S. conventional power (i.e. the thing we're good at) can potentially play a useful balancing role.

But the very fact that Boot can say (somewhat plausibly) that we're fighting five wars at once is a symptom that something's wrong. And it has nothing to do with the fact that Obama wants to shave a few billion off the Pentagon's tab.

Did the U.S. Just Flip Off Pakistan?

Barely a day after being issued a public warning about CIA activity in Pakistan, the U.S. went ahead and bombed the country anyway. Now, maybe we're back to the tacit understanding whereby Pakistan's leaders publicly denigrate the U.S. and privately allow us to prosecute the drone war. If not, this strike seems deliberately provocative and reckless. It would be one thing if the administration had bin Laden in its sites and had to take the shot (totally justifiable, in my view), but here's how the New York Times described the targets:

The targets of the attack were militants commanded by Maulvi Nazir, a Taliban leader from South Waziristan who is closely allied to the Haqqani network, the main Afghan Taliban group supported by the Pakistani military. American and Pakistani intelligence officials say Mr. Nazir is known to harbor Arabs affiliated with Al Qaeda. The Haqqani network and fighters associated with it are also responsible for many of the attacks against American and Afghan troops in eastern Afghanistan.

The drones struck a double-cabin pickup truck and a motorcycle as they returned from Afghanistan into Pakistan, a Pakistani military official said. Seven fighters were killed and six others were wounded in the attack just south of the village of Angor Adda on the border between the two countries.

Bombing a few Taliban fighters vs. undermining and embarrassing a crucial ally against al-Qaeda. Stoking anti-Americanism in Pakistan is just a monumentally short-sighted thing to do if you want to retain the country's cooperation and ensure that its citizens (and, crucially, expats living in places like the UK) don't fill the ranks of al-Qaeda. But such are the wages of nation building in Afghanistan.

The Libya Farce

It might be worth pointing out that the thing that has driven Libya to the point where it is in danger of becoming a failed state is the military intervention that did just enough to fracture the country into two parts. Where was all this concern about the Somalification of Libya a month ago when people were calling for turning it into another Somalia by attacking Libya? Escalating the Libyan war and toppling Gaddafi isn’t going to make the Somalification of Libya less likely, but will in all likelihood guarantee the disintegration of whatever political order remains. The U.S. and NATO are in their current predicament because too few people in charge of making decisions paid attention to unintended consequences and worst-case scenarios. Now would be a good time to fix that bad habit. - Daniel Larison

As further evidence of that lack of foresight, now Britain and France are whining that other NATO states haven't taken some of the burden of the Libyan air war off their shoulders now that a stalemate is clearly in the making. But as the U.S. found with its own boondoggle in Iraq, allies aren't keen on being dragged into wars not of their own making with little to no relevance to their own security or interests.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress can't quite clear the calendar to discuss Libya:

The Senate probably won't be debating the Libya war anytime soon. Top senators on both sides of the aisle are still negotiating over language for a resolution to express the Senate's view on the U.S. involvement in Libya, while the budget battle pushes the intervention to the back burner.

Congress was upset with President Barack Obama last month for committing U.S. forces to the international military intervention in Libya without seeking congressional consent or even really telling Congress about it in advance. But now, almost a month after the attack began, the appetite in the Senate for holding a full-fledged Libya debate on the floor, much less passing a resolution, just isn't there.

"I don't know if there will be time" to debate a resolution before senators leave town for a two-week recess next week, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable in an interview on Tuesday.

Is it any surprise that the executive branch doesn't really take Congress seriously when it comes to matters of war and peace?

April 13, 2011

Tea Partiers, 2012 and Foreign Policy

Today I asked Steve Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute, a brilliant fellow and a Reagan scholar, about his thoughts on the potential 2012 field on the daily Coffee & Markets podcast (the question is around the 14th minute). Hayward gives an interesting answer:

Foreign policy was a more salient issue in the sixties and seventies and into the eighties - with the end of the Cold War it's much less so. We're back to almost a pre-World War II model in terms of the weight of foreign policy in electoral politics I think. Reagan, you remember, grew up with the Cold War, and he got a lot of his interest in politics right after World War II - and the Cold War and the communists in Hollywood and so forth. And then in the sixties, during the flashpoint over Vietnam, he was commenting a lot on the Vietnam War.

What's different today is that although we have the post-9/11 world of terrorism, and now three kinetic military actions overseas or whatever they call them now, and although that's going on - and I think this shows in the polls too - and people are concerned about terrorism, it doesn't fix the public's mind in the way the Cold War did, the way things were going in the end of the 1970s, with detente and arms control and the weakness of Jimmy Carter on foreign policy.

It's harder to have a clear view on this if you're an opposition candidate getting ready to run against a president whose foreign policy is opaque at best. That's an interesting question, but we live in different times, and it's harder to make out if you're a candidate right now.

I think Hayward's take is an accurate diagnosis of the politics of this issue, but it doesn't make me any more confident about the ability of the candidates involved thus far in the 2012 stakes, particularly when compared to the president they most admire.

Difficult Political Games in Malaysia

Here's a fascinating piece from Chris Badeaux on the double game being played in the Malaysian state of Sarawak at the moment. As I wrote a few weeks ago in profiling opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, the challenge in running a campaign whose constituencies include Chinese Christians of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Muslim Brotherhood-allied Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) may be too difficult of a balance for any politician - even a naturally gifted one like Anwar - to strike. The last paragraph here is particularly insightful:

Thus, two nights ago, Anwar spoke to a wildly enthusiastic crowd in one of the local Chinese-majority constituencies, and very carefully avoided mentioning anything remotely about PAS at all. Indeed, his speech had virtually nothing to do with local politics, instead focusing on his second sodomy trial, national politics, and a brief shot at a local incumbent who was running as an independent after his party (PKR) decided not to contest the seat to allow DAP a clean run at it.

When Anwar visits with PAS strongholds in peninsular Malaysia, he is clear to take credit for bringing the Islamic extremists into his coalition; when he visits the Chinese communities in Sarawak, he is not quite so clear that he supports a party that wants to make alcohol illegal, make the murder of a non-Muslim by a Muslim less of an offense than the murder of a Muslim by a non-Muslim, and, oh yes, supports turning Malaysia into an Islamic state. The Chinese community here is one of, if not the greatest, driver of entrepreneurialism and private wealth creation, and private Catholic and Protestant Christian schools are a source of great pride. It is terribly unlikely that they would roar with approval if they knew that Anwar was helping advance the end of those things.

So Anwar plays a double game. Before Islamist constituencies on the peninsula, he is a man who supports the imposition of sh’ria. Before Chinese Christians and moderates in Sarawak, he is a man more sinned against than sinning, a man whose only crime is bringing together an opposition to face off against a governing coalition that is transforming Malaysia into a developed state.

Two-faced politicians are hardly a wholly owned property of the West. But it's more difficult when you're trying to balance constituencies who are not just incompatible, but often pitted directly at odds with one another on matters of policy. And complicating matters further is the factionalism of ethnic communities - as an insightful working paper (pdf) from local professor Faisal Hasis notes in passing, no single ethnic group forms a majority there.

This diverse picture on the ground makes it difficult for the ruling authorities to deploy the patronage which has served them so well in the past, but it also makes the challenge of forming a coherent opposition movement nearly impossible. And should the opposition win, the prospects of forming a government which remains responsive to these disparate needs is unlikely, to say the least.

April 12, 2011

Has Obama Lost Pakistan?

One argument that's frequently advanced on behalf of the counter-insurgency effort in Afghanistan is that while Afghanistan itself may be of marginal relevance to American strategic interests, Pakistan is another matter, and instability in Afghanistan will eventually bubble over to destablize a nuclear-armed, anti-American Pakistan.

The reality, however, appears to be the opposite: American efforts to stabilize Afghanistan by defeating the Taliban insurgency are actually driving instability in Pakistan. Exhibit A is the use of drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal region. Ostensibly a tool to target high level foreign fighters linked to al-Qaeda, the Obama administration has broadened their reach and tempo to hit more Taliban and Pashtun militant targets. Now, Pakistan is calling time:

Pakistan has demanded that the United States steeply reduce the number of Central Intelligence Agency operatives and Special Operations forces working in Pakistan, and that it halt C.I.A. drone strikes aimed at militants in northwest Pakistan. The request was a sign of the near collapse of cooperation between the two testy allies.

Who knows how seriously this will hamper U.S. anti-terror efforts, but it can't be good.

April 11, 2011

U.S. Military Spending vs. the World


The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has a new report out highlighting global military expenditures. As the above chart indicates, the U.S. retains a healthy lead.

Regionally, defense spending in Europe has fallen 2.8 percent while spending in South America has risen by 5.8 percent and in Africa by 5.2 percent. Brazil drove a lot of the South American growth. Asia rose only a modest 1.4 percent, which the Institute said was slower than previous years. Overall, global military expenditures ticked up slightly at 1.3 percent, the slowest growth rate since 2001.

April 9, 2011

Russia Showcases Its Next-Generation Tank


Russian "Urlavagonozavod" tank production facility has showcased - although not publicly - its next generation T-95 main battle tank, also known as "Project 195." The new tank differs from the currently fielded T-90 by a low silhouette, remote-operated turret and a special armored compartment for the crew.

It is estimated that crew safety was increased with this new arrangement, which puts an additional armored plate between the turret and the men operating the tank. This also allowed the tank profile to be lower, which contributes to its low visibility on the battle field, an almost "stealth"-like characteristic.

So, take that, China or NATO! - and there is no word yet if this model will be offered for export.

April 8, 2011

Foreign Policy in 2012, Ctd.

Greg Scoblete has an interesting response to my criticism of Mitch Daniels and other Republicans. My basic point in my original post was that Newt Gingrich's opinion on Libya at least has the advantage of getting into specific policy details - while his fellow 2012 candidates are speaking either in neo-isolationist platitudes (Barbour), knee-jerk anti-Obamaisms (Bachmann), or dodging the question entirely (Romney).

I singled out Daniels for particular criticism because while he's clearly forming a niche as the 2012 cycle's wonkish candidate, with a significant base of intellectual support (not a proven winning strategy, but that's beside the point), he also seems loathe to allow for any expression of public thought on foreign policy issues, and has studiously avoided making comments on Egypt and Libya.

Greg, on the other hand, points out that Daniels is merely prioritizing the interests of his day job above the interests of the 2012 political cycle, and that it's better to engage in such activity than to share vacuous platitudes about the country's foreign policy challenges.

This is a perfectly valid response. It hearkens back to an older era of political engagement when politicians weren't expected to have opinions on everything under the sun, and I certainly think that era was healthier on a number of counts. "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt," as the saying goes.

But I would suggest that in this era, Daniels' lack of offerings on this topic are of greater concern. And contra Greg's post, Daniels actually has spoken out on other foreign policy issues in the recent past, albeit in small ways.

My concern is that in avoiding comment on more difficult situations - Egypt and Libya - Daniels indicates he hasn't thought these things through as anything but a cost issue, as befitting his role as George W. Bush's OMB director.

At least, that was the case several months ago. I attended a roundtable along with Jennifer Rubin and several other online conservative writers with Daniels, and while most of my questions concerned practical political matters and domestic issues, I was concerned by the platitudes he offered in response to questions from Rubin. She notes one answer here:

I asked him [Mitch Daniels] the sole question on foreign policy — in what fundamental ways Obama had erred? He did not address any of the basic concerns conservatives have been discussing (e.g., engagement with despots, indifference on human rights, animus toward Israel). Instead, he gave a platitude, “Peace through strength has totally been vindicated.” And then he immediately asserted that we have to “ask questions about the extent of our commitments.” He said, “If we go broke, no one will follow a pauper.” At least temporarily, he said, we can’t maintain all our commitments. But if our foes don’t take a break, what do we do? Should we pull up stakes in Iraq and Afghanistan and hack away at the defense budget? It’s not clear whether he has thought these issues through, or whether he views foreign policy as anything more than a cost-control issue.

It's convenient to say that the nature of the American electoral process is to elevate state level executives to the presidency who tend to have few publicly expressed opinions about foreign policy. But this is an exaggeration based on past history, not the post-World War II era: Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, H.W. Bush, and Obama were all elected as individuals who had clearly formed and thorough views on foreign policy, and both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton had expressed their views in multiple speeches and public remarks in the lead-up to their candidacies. While he ran a campaign that was not focused on foreign policy, in 1999, Bush spoke out against Clinton policies in Kosovo, expressed his opinion that troops shouldn't be committed to stop ethnic cleansing in non-strategic interests, given a thorough speech on his views on defense spending and technology, shared his thoughts on a number of treaties, and given interviews on his views on Russia and China. In fact, I'd argue Jimmy Carter is the only example in the modern era of a president elected to office as a virtual blank slate on foreign policy ... and no one wants to be compared to the Carter presidency on such matters.

While many of Daniels' supporters have speculated about comparisons to Ronald Reagan's three-legged approach to campaigning, I am concerned that one of those legs is entirely absent from his portfolio. At this point, we have no real knowledge of what Daniels thinks about foreign policy issues. Is he an isolationist? Is he a globalist? How would he part from Obama's policies, or follow them? And he is hardly alone in this defect.

For comparison, it's striking to consider how much we knew about Ronald Reagan's views on the Cold War by the time he was elected president. He had given countless speeches, written dozens of columns, given hundreds of radio interviews on the topic by the time he was elected president. I've written about the public nature of his education, how Reagan went from broad terms to more and more specificity, to the level of criticizing specific aspects of internal policy. By the time he was elected, Americans - even those who disagreed with him - knew what foreign policy course he would pursue, and they chose it.

The lack of top tier candidates on the Republican side in 2012 of whom this is true is, for me, a matter of great concern.

U.S. Views on Afghan War

Gallup finds the public mostly split:


Frank Newport discusses the implications:

At this point, there does not appear to be a groundswell of opposition to U.S. involvement in that country. While the U.S. has been involved in Afghanistan for more than nine years, less than half of Americans say sending U.S. military forces there was a mistake. In contrast, it took less than a year and a half for a majority of Americans to say sending troops to Iraq was a mistake.

Americans also do not appear to be overly concerned about the way things are going in Afghanistan, with about as many saying the war is going well as say it is going badly. This is a more positive assessment than was the case throughout last year and for much of 2009 and 2008.



In the New Statesman, Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg complained about the harsh attacks leveled at him. Simon Jenkins is having none of it:

Oh dear. Nick Clegg has had another Shylock moment, bewailing his lot to the New Statesman. Has a Lib Dem not hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? "If you prick us," he wails, "do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?"

The short answer is no, not if you are a minority leader in a coalition. Then you are lower than a cur. You are a fence-sitter, a turncoat, a scapegoat, a liar, a pledge-breaker, a class traitor, probably a scumbag into the bargain. You are a stock-in-trade figure of fun and/or hate. Little old ladies quake at your name. When children won't go to bed and are threatened with a "right Clegging", they scream in terror.

His latest howl of pain breaks the number one rule of being on top: never show it hurts. Never say, as he did: "I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag." You are not a human, you are a government minister. You lie for your country and are therefore a punchbag. Above all, never mention the children's question: "Daddy, why does everyone hate you?" It suggests that everyone does hate you, that the playground mafia is on message, and that you probably should have stuck to market gardening.


(AP Photo)

Rothkopf on Ryan's Budget


David Rothkopf lays into House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's budget plan for a number of reasons, but on one criticism in particular I found his argument both ill-informed and inaccurate:

As White House Budget Director Jack Lew has accurately observed, a "budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations." Thus, Ryan's budget -- which clearly has been vetted carefully by his fellow Republican leaders -- can be seen as a manifestation of Republican views on everything from how we should treat our parents to what America's role should be in the world. I'll leave it to others to continue the debate on health care. Instead, I would just like to point out that according to the summary of the budget in today's Washington Post, Ryan is proposing spending $27 billion less than the administration's figure of $63 billion on international affairs -- the portion of the budget covering diplomacy and U.S. foreign assistance programs. That 43 percent whack is by far the most draconian of all Ryan's cuts when measured in terms of the contrast between the White House's and Ryan's 2012 proposals.

While I can't blame Rothkopf for this mistake, the graphic he refers to is simply not an accurate picture of Ryan's budget. It compared numbers from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for Obama to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) for Ryan - different methodologies, different evaluators - and that's just a completely unfair comparison. (The Post has since updated their graphic, which shows a smaller whack.) And while Rothkopf paints these numbers in severe terms in his lengthy post, the reality is that Ryan's proposal is really just a rewind to 2007. (pdf)

Keep in mind that spending on international affairs (categorized as Function 150) is up 65 percent in real terms over the last decade (staffing at places like USAID is up 76 percent over the same period), and Ryan's proposal meets the funding requests from President Obama for the State Department on anti-terrorism efforts (categorized as Function 970). A combination of these two functions under Ryan's proposal adds up to $41 billion for international affairs - that's just an 11 percent cut from the $46 billion in HR 1.

Keep in mind that much of the increased international affairs spending over the past decade was driven by President Bush's efforts on global health (PEPFAR, Global Fund), developing a new model for foreign assistance (Millennium Challenge Corporation), and the inevitable result of fighting two wars. We can debate what those numbers should be going forward, but in a time of economic belt-tightening, most Americans believe they shouldn't climb forever. As on many counts, Ryan's cuts are actually far more modest and pragmatic than those of his fellow conservatives - Tea Party hero Rand Paul's budget proposal involves cutting nearly all international affairs spending and all foreign aid.

In this context, a three year rewind is hardly the severe cut Rothkopf suggests. And the fact that Rothkopf gets these numbers wrong, then proceeds to frame Ryan's decision to take them back to 2007 levels with a scare-tactic title of "Death panels for diplomacy: Why does Paul Ryan hate American leadership?", indicates the level of seriousness, intelligence, and fairmindedness he brings to such debates.

(AP Photo)

April 7, 2011

Ground Troops Into Libya?

Deeper and deeper:

The U.S. may consider sending troops into Libya with a possible international ground force that could aid the rebels, the former U.S. commander of the military mission said Thursday, describing the ongoing operation as a stalemate that is more likely to go on now that America has handed control to NATO.

But Army Gen. Carter Ham also told lawmakers that American participation in a ground force would not be ideal, since it could erode the international coalition attacking Moammar Gadhafi's forces and make it more difficult to get Arab support for operations in Libya.

Of course it wouldn't be ideal, but now that we've started down the path it's very hard to change course. Not to worry though, because we've got a clear handle on things:

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, complained that the lack of knowledge about the rebels is a U.S. intelligence failure.

"It strikes me as unusual and maybe something that Congress needs to look at further, that our intelligence capabilities are so limited that we don't even know the composition of the opposition force in Libya, " Cornyn said.

If Congress isn't going to rouse itself to debate the war, why should it bother informing itself about whose side we're on?

In Praise of Rhetorical Restraint

In a post below, Ben Domenech argues that it is "profoundly disturbing" that Governor Mitch Daniels didn't offer an opinion on Libya, or a variety of other foreign policy matters over the past several months. Writes Domenech:

This is fine if one is interested in staying a provincial governor, but it is an unacceptable dodge from anyone interested in being Commander in Chief.

This has to concern anyone on the right who thinks the presidency demands an intelligent and sophisticated foreign policy approach if the mistakes of the Obama presidency are to be avoided.

I beg to differ. In fact, I'd argue it's closer to the opposite. The fact of the matter is that most Republican statements on any foreign policy issue at this stage of the game are vacuous platitudes and talking points crafted by advisers (this would go for the Democrats too were they in pre-primary mode). Many candidates never evolve positions that would rise above that level even during the campaign.

An "intelligent and sophisticated" person would not, in my view, formulate serious foreign policy positions in a matter of weeks in response to media demands that he or she say something profound. Given the gravity and magnitude and pace of change in the Middle East, I think it speaks rather poorly of a candidate to articulate sweeping policy doctrines or give definitive answers on matters of war and peace - particularly when they have a rather important day job that would, presumably, require much of their attention. I would think the people of Indiana might take some comfort in the fact that their governor is focusing on his job rather than a country he has no control over - a country that could also, incidentally, be in a completely difference place in six weeks, let alone six months.

Domenech rightly decries the vacuity of most of the potential 2012 presidential candidates positions on Libya, but this is symptomatic of a glib political culture (one that, again, is not a Republican phenomena but a bipartisan one). Standing aloof from that, at least at this stage, isn't a bad thing, in my view.

Which Countries Love Capitalism


According to a new poll from GlobeScan, public support for a free market economy is lower in the U.S. than it is in... China.

The 2012 Republicans and Libya

Scott Conroy's piece at RealClearPolitics on Newt Gingrich includes a reference to a video the former speaker claims justifies his position shifts on Libya. I've criticized Gingrich in the past for shifting on this, so it's only fair to include the counter-argument.

I'll admit I rarely watch the programs he's featured on in this video, so given a fuller context, I see how the shift is tied to Obama's remarks on March 3 - at least according to Gingrich's exploratory committee:

Gingrich said at that time that he could not support using the U.S military for a strictly humanitarian intervention. His message has been clear and consistent. Prior to March 3rd, he would not have intervened but used other means to defeat the dictator, but after the president’s March 3rd statement, he said that only reason to use our military force was to get rid of Qadaffi. He has maintained that position.

Regardless of what you think of Gingrich's shift - and there's no question there was a shift, it's just a question of whether it was a policy inconsistency, or a response to shifting facts on the ground and at the White House - it's worth noting that Gingrich is virtually alone in offering an intelligent commentary on the Libya situation among the potential Republican candidates for 2012. This may be one more example - there are many in the past on domestic politics - of Gingrich being penalized for being too much of a policy wonk, too specific in his arguments where others stick to pat generalities.

The statements from most of his potential foes are nearly all simple negatives: don't use ground troops, don't cater to the United Nations or the Arab League, don't do whatever it is Obama is doing. Tim Pawlenty did exactly this, though at least he has the excuse of doing it first. Mike Huckabee talked in vague terms about a need for an American presence, but does not specify how that will stop any of the killing of citizens he of course deplores. Haley Barbour embarked on what the Wall Street Journal tagged as a "glib trope to the isolationist left." Michele Bachmann gave a response which was just as isolationist, again without offering a solution. All of these individuals are actively engaging the national media - it's absurd that Mitt Romney, by all accounts the Republican frontrunner, thinks he can give a speech slamming Obama's foreign policy and then deliberately avoid reporters' questions on the most pressing foreign policy issue of the day.

Perhaps worst of all, it is profoundly disturbing that Mitch Daniels, a darling of the intellectual right, has as far as I can tell been completely silent on the matter - just as he has been nearly entirely silent on every foreign policy issue over the past several months. His comment in response to a question on Egypt in January was simply jaw-dropping: "I don't have a lot to say about it. I'm just a provincial governor out here." This is fine if one is interested in staying a provincial governor, but it is an unacceptable dodge from anyone interested in becoming Commander in Chief.

This has to concern anyone on the right who thinks the presidency demands an intelligent and sophisticated foreign policy approach if the mistakes of the Obama presidency are to be avoided. It's one of the reasons someone like John Bolton is likely to embark on a quixotic run, simply to ensure there's someone who understands the world outside our borders on stage in Iowa. Rather than just a litany of bullet points, perhaps Barbour, Daniels, Romney and others can just say "pass" and cede their time to candidates who are actually paying attention to the matter. Unfortunately, they won't be able to do this if they ever sit in the Oval Office.

April 6, 2011

Al-Qaeda Back in Afghanistan?


The Wall Street Journal has an ominous report on evidence that al-Qaeda is returning to Afghanistan:

In late September, U.S. fighter jets streaked over the cedar-studded slopes of Korengal, the so-called Valley of Death, to strike a target that hadn't been seen for years in Afghanistan: an al Qaeda training camp.

Among the dozens of Arabs killed that day, the U.S.-led coalition said, were two senior al Qaeda members, one Saudi and the other Kuwaiti. Another casualty of the bombing, according to Saudi media and jihadi websites, was one of Saudi Arabia's most wanted militants. The men had come to Afghanistan to impart their skills to a new generation of Afghan and foreign fighters.

Even though the strike was successful, the very fact that it had to be carried out represents a troubling shift in the war. Nine years after a U.S.-led invasion routed almost all of al Qaeda's surviving militants in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden's network is gradually returning.

Over the past six to eight months, al Qaeda has begun setting up training camps, hideouts and operations bases in the remote mountains along Afghanistan's northeastern border with Pakistan, some U.S., Afghan and Taliban officials say. The stepped-up infiltration followed a U.S. pullback from large swatches of the region starting 18 months ago. The areas were deemed strategically irrelevant and left to Afghanistan's uneven security forces, and in some parts, abandoned entirely.

What's notable about this al-Qaeda comeback, such as it is, is that it occurred during the troop surge, when the U.S. was supposedly breaking the Taliban's momentum. So even at the moment of maximum Western troop presence, al-Qaeda is still able to worm its way into vacant corners of the country. Obviously, some analysts will read this and conclude that we must have American forces in every square inch of Afghanistan forever to prevent small al-Qaeda camps from setting up shop, but how realistic and sustainable is that?

And while the return of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is troublesome, it also makes them more vulnerable. As the WSJ notes, the U.S. has been conducting ground raids and bombing strikes against al-Qaeda targets in the country - something it cannot aggressively do against al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan.

(AP Photo)

In Kuwait, Protests Meet the Water's Edge


By Michael Wilner

In an English class at Kuwait University, I was given the chance to ask local students what it means to be Kuwaiti. After testing the limits of my Arabic skills, I asked the class in English for their impressions of the revolutions rocking the Middle East.

“Forty years of anger!” one student responded.

“We want freedom,” another said.

Kuwait has certainly been quiet relative to its neighbors since Tunisia erupted in January. With no taxes on its citizenry, a 95 percent literacy rate and a parliament with real powers predating any other in the Gulf region, most experts expect that quiet to hold. But Kuwaitis are well aware of the pan-Arab uprisings that surround them, and some believe the small Gulf city-state may be the next stop for major protest.

“The potential for problems are there,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, citing political corruption, the illegal status of the Bedoun and the role of the emir. “The huge challenge for the U.S. is how we should assist the Kuwaitis to head off such a crisis,” Khalilzad added. “Additional reforms may be needed to head this off.”

The emir and his family cannot be publicly criticized, and in early February, one of Kuwait’s largest protests in recent memory erupted over the stateless status of nearly 80,000 residents. Security forces in Jahra quickly descended on the protests, which turned violent within hours.

Corruption is also a central issue challenging Kuwait’s parliamentarians. And while parliament has in some ways liberalized over the years - women have been able to vote and run for election since 2005 - there are no formal political parties representing the sides of debates Kuwaitis want to have publicly.

U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait Deborah Jones disagreed with Ambassador Khalilzad, noting that Kuwait has a “built-in elasticity,” with a free press and freely elected parliament. Jones did, however, concede the country’s need for political reforms.

“I think we’ve seen that they have tried to strike a balance between allowing demonstrations and freedom of speech without allowing violence,” Jones said. “I don’t think we’re headed for crisis. I think, like everywhere, we are in a phase of transition. The difference in sophistication is clear in the fact that their first blogosphere activity, politically, was to reduce the number of voting districts,” Jones added. “I mean, this is a big difference from saying, ‘tear down the government.’”

Kuwait is one of the most important logistical allies for the United States in the Middle East, serving as a stabilizing force next to Iran and Iraq.

“We have a lot at stake there,” Khalilzad noted. “But it also means we have relationships with people. We can influence what happens.”

Michael Wilner is a senior at Claremont McKenna College in California majoring in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. He interviewed Ambassador Khalilzad in Claremont and Ambassador Jones in Kuwait, where he was visiting on a university exchange.

(Photo credit: Wilner)

China's Coming Slowdown


Several analysts have been arguing that China has, if not feet of clay, been overvalued. Via Ryan Avent, a new paper on China's economic growth makes the case that China is due for an economic slowdown. Avent analyzes:

The story this suggests is one that's quite at odds with the prevailing view in much of the world—that China's relentless growth will continue until it dominates the global economy. Another possibility arises. Within a few years, we may be reading "What's the matter with China?" stories. A growth slowdown and demographic difficulties will challenge the policy status quo and could potentially expose serious weaknesses in the growth model (as Warren Buffet says, when the tide goes out, one sees who's been swimming naked). India, on the other hand, will be ascendent.

UPDATE: Avent isn't alone. None other than Doctor Doom himself thinks China's headed for a crash:

I’m writing on the heels of two trips to China….My meetings deepened my own impression and RGE’s long-standing house view of a potentially destabilizing contradiction between short- and medium-term economic performance: The economy is overheating here and now, but I’m convinced that in the medium term China’s overinvestment will prove deflationary both domestically and globally. Once increasing fixed investment becomes impossible—most likely after 2013—China is poised for a sharp slowdown. Continuing down the investment-led growth path will exacerbate the visible glut of capacity in manufacturing, real estate and infrastructure. I think this dichotomy between the high-growth/inflation pressures of the next couple of years and growth hitting a brick wall in the second half of the quinquennium is far more important than the current focus on a “soft landing” amid double-digit growth.

(AP Photo)

U.S. Interests in the Middle East

One of the consequences of the various uprisings gripping the Middle East will be a forced reappraisal of what American interests are in the region. No one is quite sure what will replace the old order that is in the process of either being swept away or seriously rattled, but I think it's clear that what follows will entail a rethink of U.S. policy.

In that light, a new Pew Research poll asked Americans to rank their Middle Eastern priorities:


That terrorism tops the list is interesting, because you could argue that the best thing the U.S. could do to blunt the spread of terrorism is to disentangle itself from the Middle East - something which may become a fait accompli if more democratic governments emerge in the Middle East. The flip side, however, is that chaos in the region (especially in Yemen) makes it more likely that terrorist cells can set up shop, making an attack against the U.S. more, not less, likely. Steps to reduce America's exposure to terror in the long run could produce a spike in short-term risk.

Dept. of Odd Excuses

Victor Davis Hanson is unhappy with the Obama administration's approach to the Middle East. I agree with Hanson that the approach has been ad-hoc, but this bit jumped out at me:

Obama turned his back on a million protesters in the streets of Tehran, with bizarre promises not to “meddle,” coupled with vague apologies about American behavior more than a half-century ago. A golden opportunity to help topple a vicious anti-American theocracy was turned into a buffoonish effort to appear multiculturally sensitive.

Er, no. What does "multicultural sensitivity" have to do with it? President Obama kept mum because he thought interjecting the U.S. into Iran's uprising would do more harm than good. You can agree or disagree with that reasoning - but it was the reasoning. "Multicultural sensitivity" had nothing to do with it.

April 5, 2011

The U.S. as the Soviet Union


Gideon Rachman draws a striking analogy:

Like the USSR in 1989, the US chose the honourable option in refusing to let its regional ally stay in power through force. But, like the Russians, the US now has to worry that it will sacrifice power in a traditional sphere of influence. American officials know that they risk losing friends and endangering economic and security interests in an emerging Middle East that they barely understand. After the fall of Mr Mubarak, a senior US official was heard to lament: “But we do everything with Egypt. Who do we work with now?”

I think it's obvious that the U.S. is going to lose some influence in the region as more democratic societies emerge (if they emerge). But that's not necessarily a bad thing - presiding over a status quo in which you're resented as a meddling, imperial power isn't sustainable and in any event isn't really necessary. Oil is sold on an open market and Middle Eastern states don't need to like us to take our money.

But that is not the approach the Obama administration is taking. Instead, according to David Sanger, they're viewing all events in the Middle East through the prism of containing Iran - a country that is a negligible military power already beset by internal fissures. That means that any democratic aspirations in states, like Bahrain, that could enhance Iran's power must be crushed, while those that have only a tenuous connection to Iran, like Libya, can be championed.

Unfortunately, there's no evidence to date that the Obama administration has any finer grasp on Middle East micromanagement than previous U.S. administrations.

(AP Photo)

Why We're Losing in Afghanistan


Mark Steyn thinks we're losing in Afghanistan because we're not killing enough Afghans:

The reason we're losing this thing is because of a lack of cultural confidence, of which the fetal cringe of this worthless husk out-parodies anything Coward could have concocted. When I'm speaking on this subject, I often get asked to reprise the words I quote in my book, from Gen. Sir Charles Napier in India explaining to the locals his position on suttee -- the tradition of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. General Napier was impeccably multicultural:
You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows.You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.

In the absence of cultural confidence overseas, we are expending blood and treasure building an Afghanistan fit only for pederasts, tribal heroin cartels, and the blood-soaked savages of Mazar e-Sharif.

Steyn is responding to the admittedly sad spectacle of U.S. senators blaming the Koran-burning pastor rather than the Afghans for the recent bouts of carnage in that country. And he's right about where the fault lies (with the murdering Afghans, not the moron pastor). But the idea that we're losing in Afghanistan because we're unwilling to kill enough Afghans to change their cultural practices is absurd on its face. By this definition, we can only "win" in Afghanistan when Afghans don't go on murderous rampages against foreigners. That's an unreasonable standard and one that's wholly disconnected from the (tenuous) counter-terrorism rationales that still keep large contingents of Western troops in the country.

(AP Photo)

UK Libya Polling

A new poll (pdf) from YouGov asked Britains about Libya. Overall, 50 percent think Prime Minister David Cameron is doing well vs. 35 percent who believe he's doing badly. Views are more mixed about the wisdom of taking action against Libya: 41 percent thought it was the right idea vs. 40 percent who thought it was wrong. Of those polled, 49 percent thought military action is going well vs. 27 percent who thought it is going badly.

When it comes to taking more aggressive action against Libya, British public opinion turns negative. Only 28 percent would support arming the rebels vs. 46 percent who oppose such a move. A clear majority - 64 percent - do not want to send coalition ground forces into Libya to depose Gaddafi.

Bibles and Moderate Muslims

The continued protests in Afghanistan over the burning of the Quran reminded me of a minor flareup over religious tension that was getting coverage in Kuala Lumpur when I was traveling there recently, where the pleasant resolution of Christian-Muslim tension provides another illustration of how a truly moderate Muslim nation behaves.

The spark, in this case, was the confiscation of roughly 35,000 copies of Bibles in Port Klang and Kuching Port, all meant to be used by local Christians to proselytize to the population. Last week, the Malaysian government decided to release the Bibles back to the missionary groups involved and widely published a 10-point list detailing the rights protecting the missionaries and their books, including an olive branch to allow Christians to print the Bibles within Malaysia - something they were not previously able to do.

There is a small but significant Christian population in Malaysia (concentrated particularly in the state of Sarawak, where they are actually the majority of the population, followed closely by Sabah where they account for roughly 1/3rd) but the Muslim hierarchy is still the dominant force. Local tension has sometimes risen up thanks to government policies - in 2003, then Prime Minister Badawi revoked a ban on the Iban language Bible, used by missionaries to minister to Borneo's former headhunter tribes, after a backlash from the local Christian population.

In this case, the government seems to have responded in a thoroughly civilized manner, opening the door wider for the missionaries to go about their business. Now if only other Muslim countries would have such an attitude toward religious freedom - in Saudi Arabia, of course, this sort of thing remains very illegal.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: Back to Gitmo After All

After all the political sturm und drang stretching back, the White House tells us that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is getting a military tribunal trial after all.

Beyond the fact that Senator Obama voted against the Military Commissions Act of 2006, and Candidate Obama criticized the commission system as "flawed" and "failed" (he routinely described it as such throughout the 2008 campaign), we are left with the uncomfortable irony that this move comes on the same day that now-President Obama announced his re-election campaign. Needless to say, this was an item of some note on the far left blogs today, and the words they used were hardly kind.

Let's consider for a moment how foolish it was to have this debate at all. From the beginning, the idea of civilian court trials for those detained at Gitmo was a disastrous and dangerous idea, opening them up to the ability to claim a whole host of rights under the protections of American law, bequeathed by a Constitution they sought to destroy, not as soldiers on the battlefield, but terrorists in hiding, slaughtering innocent citizens city streets. Obama's argument in 2008 that his alternate method would work seemed based more on a professorial - one might even say fantastical - view of how lawyers behave in court.

As NPR's Frank James notes, Obama's promise in 2007 was as clear-cut as it gets:

I have faith in America's courts, and I have faith in our JAGs. As President, I will close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists.

Yet as with so many other policies upheld before taking office, this one proved just too difficult for the president to employ. The shame is that it took them so long to recognize it - more than 500 days, in fact. Now that it's done, expect Obama to say as little about this as possible, and sweep one more way he's essentially adopted the Bush approach as his own under the rug.

He may succeed in this aim. Without a realistic and vocal opponent on the issue in his own party (beyond Dennis Kucinich), and with Republicans essentially lauding the president's view, I wouldn't expect him to be confronted on the matter until next year's debates, at the earliest. I will be interested in what he has to say about the decision then - and I await John Yoo's victory lap.

April 4, 2011

President Obama's National Security Polling

Not as good, according to a new poll from Rasmussen:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of Likely Voters shows 37% give the president good or excellent ratings on his handling of national security issues. Slightly more voters (40%) say the president is doing a poor job when it comes to national security. (To see survey question wording, click here).

Last week, just after his decision to get involved in Libya, 43% gave the president positive marks for his handling of national security, while 34% rated his performance as poor.

Positive marks for the president on national security are now at their lowest level since he took office in January 2009. His poor rating is the highest measured since last August. One year ago, 45% gave the president positive ratings on national security, while 32% rated the job he was doing as poor.

Humanitarian Interventions


Ever since President Obama decided to intervene in Libya's civil war, proponents of humanitarian intervention have rebuffed critics of intervention on the grounds that just because the U.S. doesn't intervene everywhere human rights abuses occur does not mean it should never intervene anywhere. The New York Times' Nicolas Kristof has been a leading proponent of this argument:

Critics argue that we are inconsistent, even hypocritical, in our military interventions. After all, we intervened promptly this time in a country with oil, while we have largely ignored Ivory Coast and Darfur — not to mention Yemen, Syria and Bahrain.

We may as well plead guilty. We are inconsistent. There’s no doubt that we cherry-pick our humanitarian interventions.

But just because we allowed Rwandans or Darfuris to be massacred, does it really follow that to be consistent we should allow Libyans to be massacred as well? Isn’t it better to inconsistently save some lives than to consistently save none?

Sure, but this begs an important question: if we state up front that the U.S. cannot intervene everywhere human rights abuses occur then aren't we implicitly conceding that humanitarian motives aren't, actually, the main issue we're debating? In this case, it's insufficient to simply say the intervention 'saved lives' since a host of other important factors are at play. And from there it's a question not simply of saving lives but at what cost.

(AP Photo)

The Obama Administration's Iran Spin

“It shouldn’t be overstated that this was the deciding factor, or even a principal factor” in the decision to intervene in Libya, Benjamin J. Rhodes, a senior aide who joined in the meeting, said last week. But, he added, the effect on Iran was always included in the discussion. In this case, he said, “the ability to apply this kind of force in the region this quickly — even as we deal with other military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan — combined with the nature of this broad coalition sends a very strong message to Iran about our capabilities, militarily and diplomatically.”

That afternoon in the Situation Room vividly demonstrates a rarely stated fact about the administration’s responses to the uprisings sweeping the region: The Obama team holds no illusions about Colonel Qaddafi’s long-term importance. Libya is a sideshow. Containing Iran’s power remains their central goal in the Middle East. Every decision — from Libya to Yemen to Bahrain to Syria — is being examined under the prism of how it will affect what was, until mid-January, the dominating calculus in the Obama administration’s regional strategy: how to slow Iran’s nuclear progress, and speed the arrival of opportunities for a successful uprising there. - David Sanger

There's a lot to say about this, if it indeed reflects the administration's thinking. The first thing to point out is that the idea that America's intervention in Libya is in any way frightening to Tehran strikes me as an enormous stretch.

First, the Obama administration set up a multitude of conditions before it used force: the prospect of an imminent and massive humanitarian catastrophe, strong multilateral backing, NATO in the lead, etc. None of those conditions would likely be met for a preemptive military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. Second, the administration has talked tough about removing Gaddafi but has failed to match its military strategy with its rhetoric. Far from fearing the display of American fire power and capabilities, the Supreme Leader & co. would likely conclude (if they haven't already) that American politicians let their mouths run far ahead of their intentions.

Finally, as Doug Bandow pointed out, the administration has actually dealt a massive blow to its hopes of convincing rogue regimes to disarm peacefully. Why on Earth would Iran - watching what's happening to Libya's erstwhile regime - give up a nuclear weapon now and leave itself vulnerable to military action? This is the lesson North Korea has drawn from Libya and it is, from the standpoint of a rogue regime, an utterly correct one.

The administration needs to get their Libya spin straight. On Friday, they're telling David Brooks that they plunged the U.S. into the middle of Libya's civil war with the understanding that it could hamstring the U.S. for years to come; on Sunday they're telling David Sanger that Libya is a "sideshow." Another lesson that Iran, and more charitable observers, is likely to draw from these conflicting signals is that the administration doesn't actually have a coherent strategy - for Libya, for Iran or for the greater Middle East. That's understandable, given the fast-moving unrest and tumult, but it is considerably less forgivable now that they've gone ahead and entangled the U.S. into a deeply problematic civil war.

April 1, 2011

Keeping Up Appearances

President Obama took this decision, I’m told, fully aware that there was no political upside while there were enormous political risks. He took it fully aware that we don’t know much about Libya. He took it fully aware that if he took this action he would be partially on the hook for Libya’s future. But he took it as an American must — motivated by this country’s historical role as a champion of freedom and humanity — and with the awareness that we simply could not stand by with Russia and China in opposition. - David Brooks

In other words, the president made a momentous strategic decision on matters of war and peace that his own spin doctors admit he knew nothing about but which he understood could potentially hamstring the U.S. for years to come ... just to be different than China and Russia.

And you wonder why we're broke.

Because Their Website Said So

After spending many paragraphs urging the United States to plunge deeper into Libya's civil war, Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman offer an extensive and rigorous assessment one paragraph exploring the nature and goals of the opposition they wish the U.S. to support:

Some critics still argue that we should be cautious about helping the Libyan opposition, warning that we do not know enough about them or that their victory could pave the way for an al Qaeda takeover. Both arguments are hollow. By all accounts, the Transitional National Council is led by moderates who have declared their vision for (as their website puts it) Libya becoming "a constitutional democratic civil state based on the rule of law, respect for human rights and the guarantee of equal rights and opportunities for all its citizens."

Well that settles it then. Their website said so.

At least they went to the website (presumably!). Paul Wolfowitz spent much of this panel discussion demanding that the U.S. throw the full weight of its support and aid behind Libya's rebels, then, when asked to name a single figure in the revolt, told the questioner to "go Google them."

And on this basis, America goes to war.

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