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May 31, 2011

Never Again

Andrew Exum unloads:

The U.S. and allied military campaign in Libya is an embarassment. From the very beginning, U.S. and allied political and strategic objectives have been unclear, and thus U.S. and allied military forces have been asked to carry out military operations without a clear commander's intent or end state. Out of all the operations orders that have been issued by the U.S. military for operations in Libya, in fact, only one -- the order to carry out the evacuation of non-combatants -- included an end state. None of the other orders issued to and by the U.S. military included an end state, in large part because senior military and civilian leaders either could not or chose not to explicitly articulate what the end state might be. The U.S. and allied military intervention is thus the very definition of an open-ended military intervention -- the kind in which most U.S. decision-makers swore we would never again engage after Iraq and Afghanistan.

I certainly agree that the campaign is an embarrassment (and potentially much worse) but I do question the last sentence. Which decision makers "swore we would never again" engage in an open-ended military intervention? Those kinds of wars seem very much on the table.

UK Views on Libya

Anthony Wells summarizes the latest YouGov poll of British views on Libya:

People were marginally in favour of the intervention in Libya (by 42% to 36%), but opposed further intervention to remove Gaddafi by 56% to 24%. Asked how long they though the West should continue to give military support to the rebels, 20% said it should stop immediately, 30% that it should continue for as long as necessary (6% said up to a month, 12% 3 months, 8% six months, 4% a year).

More generally YouGov asked if people though Britain should or should notbe prepared to take military action against leaders who posed a threat to their own people, but no direct threat to Britain – broadly whether people supported liberal interventionism or not. 32% thought Britain should intervene in such cases, 44% that she shouldn’t.

Why the Gulf Is (Relatively) Quiet

Gallup has a new poll out which sheds some light on why the states in the Persian Gulf have been relatively quiet during the Arab Spring:


Who Won the Iraq War?


Walter Russell Mead makes the rather bold claim that the U.S. war in Iraq "changed the course of world history" because it resulted in the loss of stature and defeat for al-Qaeda in Iraq and generally helped to turn the Arab world off of al-Qaeda's brand of terrorist violence. Bold assertion aside, Mead's point begs the question: could the U.S. have "defeated" al-Qaeda another way? Had we focused our counter-terrorism efforts on zeroing out the remaining al-Qaeda leadership around the world, while abstaining from any large-scale occupation of an Arab country, I suspect we'd find ourselves in much the same place vis-a-vis al-Qaeda; not to mention the fact that we'd have lost far fewer soldiers and not have tacked on several hundred billion in debt.

(AP Photo)

May 26, 2011

It's Not the 1930s

Victor Davis Hanson is concerned:

But if America abrogates the preeminent leadership position it has held for the last 65 years, wouldn’t the world look a lot like it did in the pre-American days of the 1930s? Then, a Depression-era United States was just one of many powers, and was reluctant to assert leadership abroad.

In other words, the post-American world could look a lot like the rather terrifying pre-American version of seven decades past. Why in the world would we wish to return to it?

The trouble with these kinds of formulations is that they're hopelessly vague - what, in specific terms, does it mean to "abrogate the preeminent leadership position" and why is this something we're concerned with at the moment? Then there's this:
The so-called international community cared as much in the 1930s about rising, aggressive totalitarian states in Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia as it does today about ascendant China or Iran.
This essentially refutes Hanson's premise about a "terrifying" post-American world right there. It is absurd to compare Iran to any of those rising powers in the 1930s and while China has the potential to shake things up globally, the idea that their rise is going unnoticed, or unchecked, is simply erroneous. In the 1930s, the U.S. had no military presence in Europe to contain Germany. In 2011, the U.S. has defense treaties with two of China's immediate neighbors and has military bases surrounding the country.

Obviously, things can go very badly abroad without having to rise to the level of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, but it behooves us to keep some perspective.

The Mess Awaiting NATO in Libya


Larison follows up on the issue of post-war planning in Libya:

The sobering thing to consider is that there has been far less planning and preparation for the post-Gaddafi Libya that the intervening governments say that they want than there was planning for a transition in Iraq. At least before the invasion of Iraq, the State Department had made some effort to come up with post-Hussein transition plans, which Pentagon planners and occupation officials dutifully ignored. There does not appear to be anything comparable going on in any of the NATO foreign ministries right now for officials to ignore later on. Supporters of the Iraq invasion were supremely overconfident and unreasonably optimistic about the prospects of transforming Iraq’s political system, and Americans and Iraqis have been paying the price for their arrogance ever since, but compared to Libya Iraq was a far better candidate for a transition from authoritarianism to some form of consultative or representative government. That doesn’t mean that it was a good candidate or that imposing political transformation on Iraq was wise, but that the same kind of transition in Libya will be vastly more difficult.
One argument I've made frequently is that a policy of nation building following a major conflict is largely unnecessary and costly. The U.S. has a very poor track record policing and restoring post conflict states and doesn't have the resources to devote to such endeavors given the meager security pay-off. So in this sense, if NATO presses ahead and unseats Gaddafi but avoids entangling itself in the messy aftermath, that's certainly better than dumping 100,000 troops into the place to try and police a post-Gaddafi Libya.

The problem for the administration is that it justified its intervention into Libya's civil war in purely humanitarian terms. It would completely undermine the war's rationale to sit idly by if a post-Gaddafi Libya descends into brutal chaos.

(AP Photo)

Bibi Boosted

According to a new poll, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has seen a surge of support following his trip to the United States:

The poll, conducted by the Dialog organization, under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs of the Tel Aviv University Statistics Department, showed that 47 percent of the Israeli public believes the U.S. trip was a success, while only 10 percent viewed it as a failure.

Nearly half of the public felt "pride" at seeing Netanyahu address the joint session of Congress on Tuesday, while only 5 percent deemed it a "missed opportunity." The rest expressed no opinion, while 20 percent of those questioned said they hadn't watched the speech.

Israelis also don't believe that U.S.-Israel relations have been harmed by the visit despite its attendant problems, tensions and disputes.

Some 27 percent of those polled said they believe relations between the two countries will actually improve as a result of the visit, while only 13 percent thought relations would deteriorate. Nearly half of those questioned don't think there will be any change.

From the poll, it emerged that Netanyahu's trip not only put a brake on the drop in his popularity ratings, but actually reversed the trend.

May 25, 2011

Putin, Hero

RFL reports:

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, clad in a kimono, rushes to rescue a bus threatened by an Al-Qaeda bomb.

He narrowly manages to save the passengers with the help of his loyal, bear-costumed sidekick, President Dmitry Medvedev.

That's the plot of a new comic strip that has taken the Internet by storm.

"Superputin, A Man Like Any Other," has been viewed almost 3 million times since being posted last week on a specially created website, www.superputin.ru.

I'm more of a Silver Surfer guy myself.

Staying in Iraq

Frederick Kagan has a new report (pdf) out making the case for an extended U.S. presence in Iraq beyond 2012. Here's what's in it for the United States:

A long-term strategic military partnership also benefits the United States. It would deter serious Iranian adventurism in Iraq and help Baghdad resist Iranian pressure to conform to Tehran's policies aimed at excluding the United States and its allies from a region of vital interest to the West.

In other words we must stay in Iraq to ensure that we can stay in Iraq.

While Kagan devotes the majority of the report to arguing why U.S. forces should stay within Iraq, he doesn't devote any space to arguing how the U.S. should go about convincing the Iraqi government. And indeed, Kagan admits that the Maliki government is "of two minds" about letting the U.S. retain a military presence in his country after the Status of Forces Agreement expires. One theme Kagan does stress is that Iraq should allow U.S. troops to stay in the country to keep Iraq free of foreign interference. This, for instance, was apparently written without irony:

If Maliki allows the United States to leave Iraq, he is effectively declaring his intent to fall in line with Tehran’s wishes, to subordinate Iraq’s foreign policy to the Persians, and, possibly, to consolidate his own power as a sort of modern Persian satrap in Baghdad. If Iraq’s leaders allow themselves to be daunted by fear of Maliki or Iran, they will be betraying their people, who have shed so much blood to establish a safe, independent, multiethnic, multisectarian, unitary Iraqi state with representative institutions of government. Maliki and Iraq’s other leaders contemplating such a course should beware the persistent dangers of the Arab Spring to would-be autocrats and those who appear to place control of their countries in the hands of foreigners.

Replace "Persian" with "American" and you can make the exact same argument from the standpoint of Iraqi nationalism. Kagan's entire argument is that Iraq's value to the United States hinges, in great measure, on how it can be used to defenestrate Iran. In other words, both the Americans and the Iranians are attempting to use Iraq in much the same way - as a springboard to enhance their power.

May 24, 2011

What Are Defensible Borders?


Paul Pillar parses the dust-up between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu:

The United States has an interest in assuring the security of Israel. In his AIPAC speech, President Obama properly referred to this aspect of U.S.-Israeli relations as “ironclad.” But the United States has no positive interest in either party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict acquiring title to land not because it is needed for security but instead for historical or religious reasons, or simply to acquire living space. The only U.S. interest is the negative one of being associated in the minds of much of the rest of the world with the Israeli occupation. So Netanyahu couched his denunciation of the 1967 boundary in security terms, saying (again ignoring what President Obama said about land swaps) that the boundary was “indefensible.”

Pillar goes on to insist that these borders are indeed defensible:

Let's see—even if we ignore, as Netanyahu has, what would be needed for the Palestinians' security—how has that boundary figured into Israeli security in the past? In the one war that was fought across the boundary—the one in 1967—the Israeli Defense Forces conquered the entire West Bank in less than a week (while they also were taking the Golan Heights away from Syria and the Sinai away from Egypt). Since that war, the differential between Israel's military capability and that of its Arab neighbors has become if anything even greater (even just at the conventional level, without considering Israel's acquisition of nuclear weapons beginning in the 1970s). Who would threaten Israel across that 1967 border? A demilitarized Palestinian “state”? Some rusty post-Cold War army from some other Arab country that somehow made it into the West Bank? For many years the biggest threat to Israelis' security has come not across a border beyond which Israel lacked control but instead from angry Palestinians in land that Israel does control. The idea of the 1967 border as indefensible is—given military realities in the Middle East—itself indefensible.

I think the concern today is not Arab armies but rocket fire from groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. The closer these groups can get to Israel, the easier it will be to accurately guide rockets at civilian targets. Unfortunately, the ranges these rockets can travel will improve over time, no matter where a final borderline is drawn, so what constitutes a "defensible" border is something of a moving target.

(AP Photo)

Choppers Into Libya


The mission creep in Libya continues with the news that the French and British will deploy attack helicopters to protect civilians strike at hard-to-reach Gaddafi forces. David Axe analyzes the move:

The decision to deploy attack helicopters was a long time in coming, a clear sign NATO appreciates the major escalation that the move represents. As early as April, analysts were saying helicopters might be necessary to root out Qadhafi’s most determined defenders. The British Apaches began preparing for sea operations in early May. In the meantime, the Royal Navy tried less risky methods of hitting Qadhafi’s troops, including gunfire from the destroyer HMS Liverpool.

As Britain and France up the ante in Libya, the U.S. continues to resist playing a larger role. U.S. Air Force A-10 attack planes and AC-130 gunships already represent the alliance’s most precise ground-attackers, short of helicopters. Plus, “we continue to provide the majority of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out.

But the Pentagon, notably, has not volunteered its own Apache and Cobra attack helicopters for ultra-dangerous Libya duty.

It does seem that NATO is dedicated to slowly ratcheting up the pressure on Gaddafi. But it does again beg the question of what NATO's plans are for a post-Gaddafi Libya, should they succeed in driving him from power. Unlike Iraq, there is now at least a semblance of a government in waiting in the Libyan Interim National Council - certainly more legitimate than the Chalabi-led Iraqi National Congress that the Pentagon flew into Iraq. And in this sense, the slow progress toward unseating Gaddafi has given the Council some time to dispense with the inevitable in-fighting and politicking that would naturally occur should they assume real power in Libya.

That said, the real test is not whether some alternative government can eventually assume power in Tripoli, but whether it could hold the country together against an insurgency from regime loyalists - if they choose to mount one. And if an insurgency does flare up, what role will NATO play in attempting to suppress it?

(AP Photo)

China's Pakistan Base

The news yesterday that China may build a naval base in Pakistan has raised some eyebrows. Gideon Rachman observes:

The story has come out of Pakistan, following the visit of the Pakistani prime minister to China last week. It may simply reflect Pakistani fury with the US, following the Bin Laden killing – rather than any genuine Chinese decision to go for an overseas naval base. Some western policymakers reckon that the Chinese will actually be wincing at the appearance of this story in the western press, since it will heighten the perception that China is overplaying its hand in the Pacific – an idea that has helped America to strengthen its military alliances across the region.

I don't think it's a Pakistan snub to the U.S., after all there are good strategic reasons for Pakistan and China to partner. And, as Rediff reports, they have been steadily expanding ties for some time:

A free trade area is in place from 2006, raw materials exploitation is in full swing in different parts of Pakistan, while China is building (often without international competitive bidding) infrastructure projects such as widening Karakoram highway, railway projects (closer to Abbottabad), port facilities at Gwadar and Karachi, hydro-electric projects in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, etc. Also, Pakistan procured 50 new fighter aircraft from China during Gilani's visit.

China had in the recent past substantially increased military supplies to Pakistan -- including JF-17 fighters, four frigates, six submarines, early warning aircraft and other ground forces equipment. More such projects are committed during this visit. Some Chinese retired naval officers and others have also demanded recently that China should set up military "facilities" in Pakistan. After the Chinese assistance to the Chashma III and IV nuclear power plants were cleared by the International Atomic Energy Agency in March this year (as a counter to the US-India 123 agreement), and as moves towards the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty are being made, the recent news about substantial increases in Pakistan's capability to produce nuclear warheads, is not surprising.

May 23, 2011

Who Has the Time?


To understand why this latest batch of peace process enthusiasm is likely to end in disappointment, it's important to examine two competing and contradictory tensions at the heart of the effort. Both involve time.

The first is a concern, raised by White House adviser Dennis Ross, that rushing into an agreement when neither party is ready could make things worse. The argument is that peace requires trust-building and efforts to prepare the respective publics for a deal. Suffice it to say the Palestinians haven't quite pushed a narrative of compromise (witness the reaction to the leak of the Palestinian Papers and the rush of PA officials to disavow their contents). That goes double now that Hamas is a part of the Palestinian government.

The counter argument is that absent a deal the Palestinians will be further disadvantaged in future negotiations. In making the case for the "1967 lines" as a starting point for negotiations, President Obama conceded during his AIPAC speech that those lines would of course be adjusted to accommodate "facts on the ground." And what are those facts? Continued Israeli settlements. Indeed, successive Israeli administrations have pursued a settlement policy precisely to create "facts on the ground" that would ensure more and more land would fall under Israel's ostensible control.

The longer negotiations and a lack of an accord continues, the more "facts on the ground" may change, and in Israel's favor.

This circle is really impossible to square, which explains why all U.S. efforts to resolve this crisis have consistently ended in failure. This time will likely be no different.

(AP Photo)

May 20, 2011

There's a Test?

Evidently Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels failed the "Israel test." Here are his offending remarks:

What is going on in the Arab world these days has little or nothing to do with Israel or Palestine, it has to do with tyrannical regimes which have really stifled prospects for their people who are now restless for a better life. . . . I don’t think right now it pays very much of a dividend to try to cut the Gordian Knot of Israel and Palestine.

Why Not Honesty?

The president's message seems to be that we will speak out on core principles while doing little to promote them. This is likely to incur to American foreign policy all of the detriments of acrimony from governments whose assistance we need and charges of hypocrisy from those working for change, without accruing the benefits of actually fostering change.

The Bush administration is rightly criticized for being long on vision and deficient in day-to-day management for advancing that vision. The Obama administration has taken two and a half years to more or less endorse that vision while demonstrating an equal deficiency in in the conduct of its policies. - Kori Schake

Here's my question: why even "endorse the vision" that our interests and values align in the Middle East? Why not treat the American people - and, indeed, the world - like adults and try to explain the basis for U.S. policies in the region? The president made a passing attempt at framing U.S. strategic interests in the region - terrorism, oil, Israel - in the beginning of the speech, only to drown it out in a lot of Wilsonian sanctimony. But a speech discussing the convergence of American values and interests in the Middle East that did not have a single word - not one - about Saudi Arabia, and only passing mention of the Gulf states, is self-evidently dishonest.

American "values" are clearly, and frequently, subordinate to strategic interests in the Middle East. No one can seriously deny this - nor is it something to necessarily be ashamed of! Rather than trying to dress this up in a lot of flim-flam, why not tackle it head-on? Why not explain to the U.S. and the world that in some places the U.S. cannot simply support "democracy" when it does not know what will spring forth from that democracy or that the U.S. has much more urgent needs to attend to - such as protecting Israel and ensuring the stability of the Saudi monarchy?

And if this is a message that Washington doesn't believe will go over well, but is nonetheless not inclined to actually change those offending policies, why not keep quiet? Consistently saying one thing and doing another is a formula for not being taken seriously. The Chinese, I suspect, are going about their business in the Middle East much the same way, but unlike America, they are not embarrassing themselves in the process.

How Did Israel/Palestine Become Central?

If we learned one thing from the "Arab Spring" thus far it's that outrage over a lack of domestic political freedoms and economic opportunity - not Israel or the West Bank - has the power to bring large numbers into the "Arab street" and even topple regimes. And yet, in the aftermath of President Obama's speech on the Arab Spring, all anyone is talking about is Israel and the Palestinians.

This frame of reference is ultimately counter-productive. Whatever else one says about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it's only a strategic liability for the U.S. insofar as Washington insists on subsidizing the combatants and trying - in a ham-handed and incompetent fashion - to solve it.

May 19, 2011

Saudi Ties and the Arab Spring


It's ironic that on the day President Obama is set to give a talk highlighting American policy toward the Mideast in light of the "Arab Spring," the AP reports on expanding U.S.-Saudi defense ties and cuts the legs out from anyone hoping the administration was going to embrace democracy for the region.

Writes Robert Burns:

Saudi Arabia is central to American policy in the Middle East. It is a key player in the Arab-Israeli peace process that President Barack Obama has so far failed to advance, and it is vital to U.S. energy security, with Saudi Arabia ranking as the third-largest source of U.S. oil imports. It also figures prominently in U.S. efforts to undercut Islamic extremism and promote democracy.

One wonders how that final sentence got into this report. Saudi Arabia is one of the principle ideological progenitors of the radicalism that the U.S. is combating. It was America's protection of Saudi Arabia (stationing troops there to "contain" Saddam's Iraq) that spurred bin Laden to turn his jihadist guns on the U.S. Far from "undercutting" extremism, America's embrace of Saudi Arabia has propelled it.

And it's absurd on its face to suggest that Saudi Arabia - a monarchy - somehow figures in "democracy promotion" efforts. One need only see how Saudi Arabia reacted to uprisings in Bahrain to understand how the kingdom views pro-democracy protests.

As to the merits of expanding and deepening America's defense ties to Saudi Arabia, who knows. Maybe if the U.S. declined to help Saudi Arabia defend its oil fields from terrorists and loosened the six decade defense relationship, the kingdom would collapse, oil prices would skyrocket and the civilized world would be forced to eek out a miserable existence in a Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic dystopia. Or maybe the Saudis would get on with life and find a way to keep selling the oil they need to keep their country afloat.

Either way, the fact that neither the administration nor the Saudis are eager to publicly discuss what it is they're doing should be proof enough that whatever President Obama says about U.S. policy towards the Middle East isn't quite the whole story.

(AP Photo)

Who's Leading in Libya?

No one's quite sure, according to a new Rasmussen poll:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of Likely Voters shows that 38% believe the burden of the military operation in Libya is being handled primarily by U.S. allies like England and France. Thirty-two percent (32%) believe the United States is primarily handling the operation, while another 30% are not sure.

Democrats and voters not affiliated with either major political party lean more toward the view that our allies are the ones who are primarily handling the military operation, while Republicans are more evenly divided. A plurality of GOP voters (42%) says the United States is primarily handling the military operation in Libya.

Hopefully President Obama's speech today will provide some clarity as to the U.S. mission in Libya.

May 18, 2011

Medvedev's Criticism and Putin's Czarist Vision


Over at Shadow Government, former USAID honcho Paul Bonicelli writes on Putin's latest movements:

But there is that other reason Putin is calling for a popular front and a uniting of every civic and social force he can collect under his banner: it is the way to take Russia back to the age and politics he is most comfortable with, that of czarist Russia, albeit with a twist. Putin has demonstrated after ten years in power that what he is really comfortable with is a Russia that looks and acts a lot more like that of the czars who practiced political and philosophical absolutism. The czars established control over the domestic scene by subjecting all societal groupings and activities to the service of the divine right state. Putin is not a czar de jure but he can be one de facto. This is a minor detail for one so determined to rule as he sees fit. So by defining the nature of the electoral system in terms of who can run and who controls the economy, he's got the electoral problem essentially solved. And this assured control at home means it is much easier to control the "near abroad" and exert influence over world affairs.

I find this to be an interesting point considering this news on Medvedev's latest comments criticizing Putin's lackadaisical attitude toward modernization. He goes on to state that imprisoned energy tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky would pose "absolutely no danger" to society if he were pardoned or released, while also sharing rare public criticism directed at Putin's oil czar:

As for Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, the country’s oil czar, Mr. Medvedev seemingly had him in mind when he lambasted the people involved in the failed Arctic exploration deal between BP PLC and OAO Rosneft.

“Those who prepared the deal should have paid more attention to the details of the shareholder agreements and other details,” Mr. Medvedev said at a televised press conference outside of Moscow. “They should have done a more subtle due diligence inside the government. They should have agreed in advance to have fewer problems.”

A thin-skinned leader might overreact to such criticism by reasserting the power he believes is his right. We shall see if there's a public response in short order.

(AP Photo)

Malaysia's Najib Goes West

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is in New York City this week meeting with potential investors in his endeavor to seek further outside support for his efforts to raise his nation's standard of living, followed by a trip to Washington for the diplomatic round of meetings. Earlier this week, Najib delivered remarks in Oxford which built on his speech last year to the Council on Foreign Relations, expressing a further push for moderation in the Muslim world and specifically referencing his religious opposition to acts of terrorism:

When four young men headed south from Yorkshire one morning in July, six years ago, maybe they thought the home-made bombs they carried in their backpacks made them “real Muslims”. Maybe they thought that by blowing themselves up, they were acting in accordance with the will of Allah, that they were following the teachings of the Quran. How wrong they were.

I would like to emphatically state that those who strap explosives on their bodies and blow themselves up are not martyrs. They do not represent Islam. Unknowingly, they are misguided into committing a grievous sin. So too, all those who preach hate and stoke the fire of intolerance in leading to this most blasphemous act, they too are as guilty as the perpetrators. Our heart goes out to their victims who are innocent, defenceless civilians going about their daily life. Islam never condones such a vile act. Neither is it part of the teachings of Islam.


A world free from terrorism is possible. It is not beyond our reach. It needs men and women of goodwill among the faithful of all creeds; it requires a vanguard of the moderates, it demands us to stop being a silent majority and to start reflecting the courage of our conviction. We must address the underlying causes of global violence. Merely going after specific individuals, dismantling their organisations, disrupting their finances and discrediting their ideologies is far from enough. We must be able to differentiate between the symptoms and the root causes. Only then, can we achieve a lasting solution.

It's encouraging to see a Muslim ally engage this issue with such directness and at such a prominent venue. Of course, these words are unlikely to be heeded by those in the Arab world - but it's unquestionably a step in the right direction. More of this, please.

Chechnya and Islam

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing former journalist and expert on Chechnya Thomas de Waal for Coffee and Markets. He made several interesting points about the region - here's an excerpt:

de Waal: This is a place where the Russian Government has poured a lot of money into and basically bought itself some time by building up this like war lord, the troops have come home casualty figures down. But in the long term basically Chechnya now, from people’s description, no longer looks like Russia any more. Most of the ethnic Russians have left.

So, Russia is building itself up a long term problem by creating this place which really has not much in common with the rest of Russia. And in the meantime other places in this very complex mountainous region around Chechnya, the North Caucasus is a place of literally dozens of nationalities living in the mountains of the North Caucasus, has become more unstable. There’s been more violence. There’s a kind of low level insurgency carrying on, which is actually getting worse. So, there are on many levels, Moscow is losing this region, even though it’s not very much in the headlines at the moment.

Domenech: I wonder if you could outline for us how that’s happening when it comes to the ethnic transition. You talked about the largest mosque. I’m very fascinated to see sort of how much more Islamic it’s become over the past several years. What are some of the examples of the effect that that’s having?

de Waal: Well, I think what’s happening is that you’ve got a younger generation of people in these places, Chechnya, Dagistan, Ingushetia who have grown up and their whole lives have been shaped by war, by instability, and by unemployment. The State really hasn’t offered them much. The local leaders tend to be very corrupt. If they go work in the rest of Russia they suffer ethnic discrimination. Last December we saw basically race riots in the center of Moscow with white nationalists, skin heads, trying to beat up people with brown skins and from the caucuses in Moscow.

So, it’s a pretty miserable existence for this younger generation. They don’t feel much connection with the rest of Russia. Some of them probably want to feel more connection with the rest of Russia. But for some of them, not all of them, but there’s obviously the attraction of Islam as a creed which promises purity, promises justice, promises equality, and is, you know, a way of fighting back against these corrupt regimes. It’s a narrative we see all over the world and it’s certainly happening in the south of Russia although many people aren’t really seeing it.

I hope you'll listen to or read the entire interview, which touches on several additional points of interest.

Non-Violent Resistance

So now we have an opportunity to see how Americans will react. We've asked the Palestinians to lay down their arms. We've told them their lack of a state is their own fault; if only they would embrace non-violence, a reasonable and unprejudiced world would see the merit of their claims. Over the weekend, tens of thousands of them did just that, and it seems likely to continue. If crowds of tens of thousands of non-violent Palestinian protestors continue to march, and if Israel continues to shoot at them, what will we do? Will we make good on our rhetoric, and press Israel to give them their state? - Matt Steinglass

One of the problems with inserting ourselves into this issue is that somehow the onus is on America - not the parties to the conflict - to resolve this issue. What if, following Steinglass' advice, the U.S. "presses" Israel to give the Palestinians a state - and Israel refuses? Or the Palestinians make demands that Israel can't accept?

Saudi Arabia's Counter-Revolution


A good piece here by Glen Carey documenting how Saudi Arabia is launching a counter-revolution in the Middle East:

The Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council also may admit Morocco and Jordan as the group seeks to counter “the wave of political change in region,” Ayham Kamel, an analyst with Washington-based Eurasia Group, wrote on May 13.

Under a pact dating back to 1744 between the Al Saud ruling family and Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, the kingdom has maintained an austere brand of Islam, known as Wahhabism, in return for the Sunni hierarchy’s acceptance of the crown.

The king renewed the alliance with clerical power at home “to present a solid front against the events that are sweeping the region,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said in a phone interview.

Political loyalties have their costs. Of the expenditure announced by Abdullah in February and March, $67 billion went to funds for religious groups and the military, according to a royal decree issued by the king.

President Obama is supposedly readying a speech that will make everything all better, but it's worth pointing out how bad America's choices are in the region so long as we insist on trying to micro-manage events there. We can get on board with Saudi Arabia as they whip up Sunni fundamentalism to counter Iran's supposed "influence" in the region, or we can throw our lot in with an amorphous group of protesters to instigate a series of destabilizing regime changes that could leave the region in flames. Good times.

(AP Photo)

French See a Set Up

Via Arthur Goldhammer, a new poll shows that a majority of French (57 percent) think IMF head Strauss-Khan was set up:

In contrast 32% of them do not consider it a "victim of a conspiracy," 11% not ruling. Among Socialist supporters, 70% of them believe in the conspiracy, against 23% who do not and 7% who did not comment.

May 17, 2011

Hispan TV: Iran-Cuba Joint Propaganda Effort

Via Latin American Thought:

The fight for hearts and minds reached a new level on May 3, when Cuba and Iran announced plans to increase media cooperation via Iranian-run Spanish language news network Hispan TV. Hispan TV was launched last week, eight months after a September 2010 announcement from Iranian state officials announcing the importance of increasing awareness of Iran’s “ideological legitimacy.”

But why in Spanish? The Guardian reports that Ezatollah Zarqami, the head of Iranian State TV, says because half of the world speaks Spanish.


The answer most likely has to do with the intended audience. Launching a Spanish language network clearly targets the Spanish speaking world, the majority of which resides in Latin America. It is an example of the type of soft power information campaigns that many governments are undertaking in efforts to promote policy, improve public diplomacy, and have a say in the information madhouse that exists today.

While the goal of this venture is supposedly "the reflection of first-hand, authentic news," Cuban Colada points out that:

Iran, Syria, Cuba, Russia and China are among the 10 worst repressors of the Internet, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists published on Monday. Click here for details.

Notice how the goal was stated as "the reflection," not the reporting.

Cross-posted at Fausta's blog.

Americans See Gaddafi's Fall

According to a new poll from Rasmussen, most Americans see Gaddafi's days as numbered:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of Likely Voters shows that 63% believe it is at least somewhat likely that Gaddafi will be removed from power as a result of the military action now being taken by the United States and other countries. Just 21% disagree and say it’s not likely. Those figures include 24% who say Gaddafi’s removal from power is Very Likely and only three percent (3%) say it is Not At All Likely....

Overall, 41% of voters give good or excellent ratings to the way the Obama administration has responded to situation in Libya, up slightly from 37% in April. Twenty-three percent (23%) give the administration poor marks for its handling of the Libyan situation.

DSK Fail

Judah Grunstein reflects on the Strauss-Kahn imbroglio:

In discussing the presumption of innocence, we often forget that there are in fact two varieties: The first is a legal presumption of innocence, to which Strauss-Kahn, like everyone accused of a crime, is entitled; the second is a social presumption of innocence, which often results in the miscarriage of justice before the formal system has even been engaged. This social presumption of innocence is what leads some to convince themselves that the behavior they have witnessed or that they are aware of did not really take place, or means something different, because a person like Strauss-Kahn can not be capable of such a thing.

Put me down as someone who is consistently shocked that people can behave so stupidly and recklessly (with the important disclaimer that DSK is innocent until proven guilty).

Why Is American Foreign Policy Militarized?

James Joyner had a good piece in the Atlantic last week asking why perpetual war became an American ideology:

The passionate zeal of the liberal interventionists and neoconservatives satisfies an emotional hunger that has been a part of our political system since the emotion-laden days of the Cold War, when the public first came to view U.S. foreign policy as a tool of good to be deployed against evil. Both ideologies use the language of morality and appeal to our shared humanity. People want to do something about tragedy and it's easy to persuade them that doing the right thing will be worthwhile. Realists may often be right, but they are rarely convincing.

I think that's right, but something's missing. I don't think we can explain the post-Cold War interventionist streak in U.S. foreign policy in just ideological terms, although I think the notion of "American leadership" has played an important role in pushing the U.S. in this direction. As Joyner notes, the disappearance of the Soviet Union left the U.S. without a competitor to push back against various foreign adventures, but I think there's more to it. When it comes to national security policy, Washington has engaged in the same kind of corporate book-cooking that would make Goldman Sachs proud. In other words, America has done a lot of "off balance sheet" accounting in the national security realm, all in an effort to shield the voter and tax payer from the true costs of various policy pursuits.

First, there is the sidelining of Congress in decisions of war and peace (a sidelining which they have all too enthusiastically consented to). Rather than a serious debate, the executive branch positions interventions as a fait accompli. No one takes seriously the idea that Congress should "declare war" before troops are dispersed. Second, there's a refusal to pay for wars by raising taxes. During the Bush years, we ran a guns and butter economy, with generous social spending and tax cuts, all while prosecuting two major ground wars. Third, there has been a refusal to resource counter-insurgency efforts by expanding the Army through conscription. There are good arguments against a draft, but surely one reason Washington has assiduously avoided the subject, despite the strain on manpower, is that it would make an interventionist foreign policy much harder to sustain.

May 16, 2011

Europe's Fear

Alex Berezow notes a growing fear of ... Wi-Fi.

The Cult of Putin


Why doesn't this surprise me all that much:

Members of the sect that has sprung up in a Russian village some 250 miles southeast of Moscow believe that the 58-year-old macho Russian politician is on a special mission from God.

"According to the Bible, Paul the Apostle was a military commander at first and an evil persecutor of Christians before he started spreading the Christian gospel," the sect's founder, who styles herself Mother Fotina, said.

"In his days in the KGB, Putin also did some rather unrighteous things. But once he became president, he was imbued with the Holy Spirit, and just like the apostle, he started wisely leading his flock. It is hard for him now but he is fulfilling his heroic deed as an apostle."

Reports from the sect's headquarters close to the town of Nizhny Novgorod say that its members are all women who dress like nuns and pray for Mr Putin's success in front of traditional Russian Orthodox Church icons that have been placed alongside a portrait of the Russian prime minister himself.

You can see our best Putin photos of 2010 here. And don't forget our list of some of the best Putinisms.

[Hat tip: Passport]

(AP Photo)

Peace, Well Being Linked

According to a new poll from Gallup:

The data are clear: Where there is high wellbeing, there is peace, and where wellbeing wanes, there is potential for conflict, for instability, and for violence, and peace is threatened.

Switzerland, Austria, Finland, Denmark, and Norway are among the high wellbeing countries that also have scores that indicate they are stable, peaceful countries according to the Failed States Index and World Bank dimension. These are undoubtedly among the most stable, peaceful countries on the planet.

On the other hand, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Burundi, Haiti, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Ivory Coast are countries that have low wellbeing and low peace/stability scores.

Gallup observes a relationship between wellbeing and real-world situations. Most notably, wellbeing in Egypt and Tunisia declined in the years leading up to the recent revolutions there. Similar patterns are evident in other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Bahrain.

May 14, 2011

Rumsfeld on WikiLeaks


Stepping aside from the ongoing back and forth blasts between Sen. John McCain and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey on waterboarding, it's time for another Bush-era official to offer his take on the policies of the time. So Donald Rumsfeld talks WikiLeaks with vindicated verve in today's Washington Post. An excerpt:

The documents should also disprove some myths that have dogged Guantanamo and the reputations of those who honorably serve there. The classified record, for example, confirms that three detainees who died in 2006 were suicides — not, as some have irresponsibly alleged, victims of brutal interrogations. The documents chronicle the lengths to which military guards accommodated Muslim religious sensibilities: sounding a call to prayer five times a day, providing halal meals and touching Korans only with gloves — not flushing them down toilets, as was falsely alleged by one U.S. magazine. There was no policy of mistreatment, much less torture.

The release of this classified information has compromised intelligence sources and methods, risking lives. The documents indicate, for example, that some al-Qaeda members turned and revealed large quantities of information about their colleagues. The cooperation of one Yemeni informant — since released — who fingered dozens of fellow detainees as members of al-Qaeda is now public, making him vulnerable to retribution.

Rumsfeld, one of the original co-sponsors of the Freedom of Information Act, has to smile at the results. In my recent interview with him - full transcript to come - Rumsfeld emphasized that with the release of his detailed documentation tied to his book project, he was interested not in revisionist history, but in putting out the truth about what happened for future historians to study and consider. Rumsfeld again:

Julian Assange hoped that his latest gamble with the lives of intelligence professionals, military personnel and terrorist informants would embarrass the U.S. government and inhibit its ability to strike our enemies. But the WikiLeaks documents, coupled with what we know about how bin Laden’s hiding place was discovered, may be among the clearest vindications yet of the Bush administration’s policies in the struggle to protect America and the free world from more terrorist attacks. They may prove the strongest arguments for keeping open the invaluable asset that is Guantanamo Bay.

(AP Photo)

The Gulf Cooperation Council Expansion

Suleiman al-Khalidi writes on the emerging anti-Iran bloc in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and what the newly formed club could look like if Jordan and Morocco - two countries which are certainly punching below the weight of GCC members Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar - decide to join in:

Ali Anouzla, editor of independent Moroccan news portal Lakome.com, said: "This looks like an alliance that will be against both geography and strategic common sense."

"Amid the popular revolts demanding democracy, it feels more like a political alliance aimed at preserving the stability and the continuity of Arab monarchies, the majority of which are led by prominent tribes and clans in their respective countries."

Reactions from other corners of the Muslim world were overwhelmingly supportive of the surprising step. Speaking from Riyadh after a meeting with King Abdullah, Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak voiced his support for the steps, particularly focused on Bahrain, saying, "Malaysia fully backs all sovereign decisions taken by Saudi Arabia and GCC states to safeguard the stability and security of the region in these trying times."

The question is just how much of this expansion has to do with safeguarding, and how much of it is reactionary crackdown. Elliott Abrams outlines the consequences for the Arab world of such a step:

An enlarged and well financed GCC can provide real leadership to the Arab world. The members are all countries with good relations with the United States, including in most cases close intelligence and military ties. The trick will be to prevent the GCC from becoming a reactionaries club, trying to avoid “carefully considered reform” and instead to preserve royal roles that make constitutional monarchy and democracy impossible. The legitimizing principle of government in the 21st century is popular sovereignty. The GCC monarchs can adjust to that, as many European monarchs did—or in the end disappear as did many other European kings and princes, ending up living in exile in rented mansions with plenty of time to contemplate what went wrong.

As we move into a new period in the Arab world, whether we answer these questions in a way that allows for less bloodshed and more smooth transitions may be up to the newly expanded GCC.

May 13, 2011

Our Growing World?

Via the Economist, a look at the world's growing population.

North Korea's Hacker Army

Via Marcus Noland, a report on North Korea's extensive cyber war capabilities:

North Korea's 1,000 or so hackers are as good as their CIA counterparts, experts believe. Due to difficulties in expanding its conventional weapons arsenal following the economic hardships during the 1990s, North Korea apparently bolstered electronic warfare capabilities.

The regime opened Mirim University, now renamed Pyongyang Automation University, in the mid-1980s to train hackers in electronic warfare tactics. A defector who graduated from Mirim University said classes were taught by 25 Russian professors from the Frunze Military Academy. They trained 100-110 hackers every year.

Stopping Syria

Aaron David Miller doesn't think President Obama can stop Assad's brutal crackdown:

And after all, what could he do that would deter a regime in a fight for its life? Pull U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford from Damascus? Impose a travel ban on Assad and his family? Press the Europeans to freeze Assad's money?

In a world of symbols, these steps may make an important point about American values. However, none of them will make a difference in how events play out in Syria.

I'm coming around to the view that "making ourselves feel good" has now become a core national interest, irrespective of objective outcomes.

May 12, 2011

Not Your Ayatollah's Iran


Addressing the recent political row in Iran, Geneive Abdo suggests that Western observers should stick to the known knowns in the Islamic Republic:

Ahmadinejad and Mashaie, whom the president hopes will succeed him when his term expires in 2013, envision a future Iran devoid of Islamic orthodoxy. This attempt to take Iran in a new direction has prompted accusations from high-ranking clerics that Ahmadinejad and Mashaie are influenced by religious "deviants" who believe in supernatural powers and djinns, or spirits. In fact, in the past Mashaie has said he can interpret for himself the Islamic texts, such as the Quran, and does not need the clergy -- an enormous threat to the clerical establishment's claim to religious sanction for their hold on power. In response, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi told a group of IRGC officers and staff that, "In order to learn the religion, one must go to scholars of the religion and not to exorcists and monks. Which wise person would accept learning the faith from exorcists and monks instead of scholars of the faith?"

Not only would Ahmadinejad and Mashaie's vision lead to the marginalization of Iran's clerics, but it would also make it far less likely that Iran could exert influence in Egypt, Bahrain, Lebanon, Palestine and continue to call the shots in Iraq. Without the clerical establishment, Iran would have no religious or moral authority to interfere in these countries, where Iran seeks to extend its political influence in the name of Islam. This is definitely bad news for the United States and other Western governments, which worry that Iran will succeed in extending its influence in the Arab world, particularly after the Arab uprisings.

While this is a downside to Khamenei's triumph in the power struggle, his victory has preserved a system the West might not understand but one that so far remains somewhat predictable. Such is the state of affairs inside Iran's regime that Khamenei and the conservatives the United States once called "hard-liners" are now a safer bet than the wild card that is Ahmadinejad.

I'm on the fence about this, though I believe Abdo makes a compelling case. The only thing worse than doctrinal theocracy might be a kind of lay theocracy done on the fly - there's a predictable awfulness to the current Iranian regime that could potentially worsen were it subject to interpretive awfulness.

Mashaei, on the other hand, has made some relatively encouraging comments about Iran's domestic and international behavior, suggesting that a modern Iran and an Islamic Iran needn't be mutually exclusive.

This, in my mind, is less an ideological rift than a generational one. Iran is a highly dysfunctional and corrupt kleptocracy run, often at very high levels, by clerics with zero business running the day-to-day business of a country. Ahmadinejad has worked to replace these clerics with seemingly more qualified, technocrat-types - he is, keep in mind, an engineer by training - in keeping with what appears to be some kind of 'vision' for a more modern, nationalistic Iran governed by smart, patriotic and pious men with ties to the revolutionary guard (sound like anyone we know?).

Left out of this process, oddly enough, are those most qualified to actually weigh in on Iran's more modern, nationalistic future: the Green Movement. And rather than include the Greens in this national, uh, dialogue, the regime's warring conservatives instead saw past their differences long enough to target and imprison Iran's reformists, lest they get in the way of the important business of reforming Iran. (Welcome to the Byzantine world of Tehranology.)

It's a pity, to paraphrase Henry Kissinger, that both of these conservative factions cannot lose, but I believe that they will, in time - and hopefully at the hands of those whom they've left out of the present in-fight.

(AP photo)

Eat It

Gates, fielding questions from Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, said the current U.S. budget-cutting efforts were unlikely to have an effect on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, which are funded separately from the defense budget.

"In the case of Libya, unfortunately, we're fundamentally having to eat (the expense of) that one," Gates said. - Reuters

A billion here, a billion there...

Oil and Terror

When I first joined the Navy, our military footprint in the Middle East consisted of a one-star admiral and three ships. We now have multiple three- and four-star generals, and 150,000 men and women of the armed forces are deployed at great expense to our blood and treasure.

It is no coincidence that as our nation’s reliance on oil has grown, so has our military presence in this area, which is rich in oil and ripe with volatility.

Reforming our energy policy will take time and political will, but the stakes to our national security are too high not to act. It took nearly a decade to find bin Laden. Let’s start our next attack on Al Qaeda right now — working to end our oil dependence. - Dennis Blair

Transforming America's energy economy in the way Blair states is the work of decades. It will do nothing about al-Qaeda or radical recruitment in the short and medium-term. Indeed, this energy independence argument has little to do with U.S. national security - oil wealth will flow to terrorists so long as their are people who need oil and terrorists who need money. American dollars can easily be substituted with Chinese yuan in this regard.

This is actually an argument about whether or not the U.S. should sustain a large military footprint in the Middle East. I'd agree that such a large military footprint in the Mideast is counter-productive and should be reduced, but we don't need to go on a crash course to reduce oil consumption to do that - it could be done in relatively short order for far less money than transforming America's energy economy.

U.S. Views on Syria

Via Rasmussen:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just nine percent (9%) of Likely U.S. Voters think the United States should get more directly involved in the Syrian crisis. Sixty-five percent (65%) say America should leave the situation alone. But one-in-four voters (25%) aren’t sure.

These findings are comparable to the views voters held in the early stages of the protests in Egypt in late January and in Libya a month later.

Yet while the Obama administration has limited itself publicly to criticism of the Syrian government’s actions, just 28% of voters think the administration’s response has been good or excellent. Nearly as many (23%) rate the response as poor.

If Americans don't want to get involved in Syria's uprising, it's not clear to me why they're unhappy with the Obama administration. In any event, as Rasmussen noted, public opinion on these matters isn't all that important.

May 11, 2011

Bin Laden and Nuclear Deterrence

By Elbridge Colby

The eminently gratifying and important killing of Osama bin Ladin is raising a host of questions – about the future of our counterterrorism policy, our relations with Pakistan, the revolutions in the Middle East, etc. One aspect that hasn’t been emphasized as much is that the United States just conducted a kinetic military operation within the confines of a nuclear-armed sovereign nation without its consent. Indeed, reports indicate that the Pakistanis scrambled interceptors once they picked up signs of the U.S. helicopters.

This is interesting because it is further demonstration that there are limits to how expansively nuclear weapons deter. Even if a country, like Pakistan, has a well-established and pretty formidable nuclear weapons capability, another nation has shown itself to be willing and able to penetrate its airspace, insert soldiers onto the ground, conduct military operations and kill targeted individuals – all without Islamabad’s consent. That’s striking because many argue that nuclear weapons possession so radically transforms the way nations behave – irrespective of the posture and nature of the states’ dispute – that possessing states will be protected from any significant military actions, certainly against their home territory. They will, so the argument goes, be so shielded from retort by their nuclear umbrella that they will have leave to get away with almost anything, such as sheltering Osama bin Ladin. There is some amount of truth to this view, of course. Nuclear weapons have enormous deterrent power, and countries will think far more carefully about taking serious action against a nuclear-armed power than against one without means of massively destructive reprisal.

Yet the commendable U.S. decision to go after bin Ladin – in an operation that involved inserting forces right into the middle of a nuclear-armed country and with full knowledge of the possibility that there could be shooting between U.S. and Pakistani forces – shows that nuclear weapons do not provide blanket protection for all manner of evils. Countries that have nuclear weapons can still be confronted and operated against without spurring escalation to nuclear use, particularly when the objective pursued is limited and discriminate, and especially when that objective is connected to a truly vital national interest. Presumably the president’s calculus was that there was almost no conceivable chance that Pakistan would resort to a nuclear response against the United States, which would be perforce irrational given America’s vast retaliatory capability, and that that miniscule probability was outweighed by the great national interest in taking just vengeance on the murderer of almost 3,000 Americans.

This fact should be borne in mind as we consider how to deal with today’s nuclear aspirants – and, perhaps more importantly, should be borne in mind by them. They may, despite our best efforts, succeed in getting nuclear weapons. But this will not give them blank check immunity to harbor the worst terrorists or continually attack South Korea with impunity. If we have the resolve, we can still take discriminate but effective action.

Elbridge Colby served most recently with the Office of the Secretary of Defense on the New START agreement negotiation and ratification effort. Previously, he served as an advisor to the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission and with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The views expressed here are his own.

Support for Militants in Pakistan

Erik Voeten surveys some recent research:

The second paper finds that Pakistanis who are more favorable towards liberal democracy are also more favorable towards militant groups. The authors ascribe this finding to widespread beliefs among those who favor democracy that Muslim rights and sovereignty are being violated in Kashmir, although the relationship holds for support for all four militant groups.

I guess that Osama Bin Laden made a wise choice when he chose to hide in a middle class suburb.

He also links to a paper (pdf) that suggests that democratization and economic development "may be irrelevant at best and might even be counterproductive" to reversing support for militancy in Pakistan.

Maybe it's time for Plan B - or is that C?

Can the U.S. Senate Do Foreign Policy?

Jennifer Rubin thinks she's found a "forceful, clear and unequivocal support for a robust American presence in the world" in the words of U.S. Senator Marco Rubio. So what did Rubio say? This:

I think we’ve taken too long. I think the fact that the administration continues to hold out hope that somehow Assad is going to be a reformer is not the right way to go. I intend, along with a couple of my colleagues this week, to introduce a resolution here in the Senate to act on this issue. And my hope is that this policy will move quickly on voicing support for those on the ground there in Syria who are trying, in a peaceful way, to bring about change to their country. And I think the world has to be so disappointed, I think, that this administration has not been more forceful in speaking out on behalf of freedom and democracy throughout the region, including places like Bahrain.”

Voice support. I hope Assad has braced himself for that.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Goldberg reports on two other GOP foreign policy poobahs:

Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman had passed through a few weeks earlier, to see King Abdullah II. Their visit, I quickly learned, was simultaneously a source of bemusement and irritation for the Jordanian government. The two senators, of course, advocate an assertive foreign policy, and both are associated with neoconservative striving for robust and quick democratization of the Middle East. “They came in and said that Jordan should open up its political space for more parties, and be more aggressive about democratization within the parameters of a constitutional monarchy,” a senior Jordanian official told me. “And then they said, ‘But whatever you do, don’t allow the Muslim Brotherhood to gain more power.’ So they want us to be open and closed at the same time.”

So on the one hand we have a foreign policy of empty declarations. On the other, an incoherent and contradictory set of recommendations. Still, foreign policy is usually an executive branch endeavor anyway. So how is the Senate doing exercising its core, constitutional functions? Josh Rogin reports:

In just over a week, 60 days will have passed since the war in Libya began. But Congress has no plans to exercise its rights under the War Powers Act to either approve or stop the administration’s use of U.S. military forces to fight the army of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi.

The War Powers Resolution of 1973 allows the president to commit U.S. forces for 60 days without the explicit authorization of Congress, with another 30 days allowed for the withdrawal of those forces.

“The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to a declaration of war, a specific statutory authorization, or a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces,” the law states.

But the administration won’t be immediately pressed to follow the law if nobody in Congress intends to enforce it.

I suppose things were worse when American politicians shot each other, but it's discouraging nonetheless.

[Hat tip: Larison]

Quality Time

According to the Daily Mail:

The average Brit will spend more than five years of their life with a hangover, according to new research.

They will suffer the ill effects for a whole day - usually a Sunday - at least once-a-week between the ages of 21 and 38.

During that period, another 12 days-a-year will be spent retching, sweating and feeling lousy because of weddings, birthdays and office parties.

The study does not provide any insight into where Britain stands relative to the rest of the world.

Targeting Americans

It is immaterial whether or not the Taliban, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba and the others are currently targeting the American homeland. We cannot allow them to create a fundamentalist caliphate stretching from Kabul to Kashmir and beyond. Their takeover of Afghanistan—a first step toward this grandiose goal—would galvanize jihadists and could reverse the loss of momentum they have suffered because of the Arab Spring and bin Laden's death. It would also provide greater impetus to topple the nuclear-armed Pakistan next door. - Max Boot

If it's immaterial that a certain group of people are or aren't targeting the United States, then why aren't we sending troops into Somalia, Yemen, the Palestinian territories and anywhere else a few people pine for a caliphate? (Leaving aside, of course, the rather important question of whether the Haqqani network and LeT have the capability to fulfill such a grandiose vision.)

May 10, 2011

Venezuela Wanted FARC to Act as Hit Men

A new book by the International Institute for Strategic Studies confirms that the Venezuelan government's ties to the FARC involved not only weapons deals with other parties (including Belarus), support for the FARC's claims of political legitimacy, the use of Venezuelan territory, and offers of $300 million dollars, but that the Venezuelan government may have had the FARC act as hit men against political opponents. The book is titled The FARC Files: Venezuela, Ecuador and the Secret Archive of  'Raúl Reyes'.

Of course the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, DC, already issued a press release rejecting the IISS allegations.

The BBC and others are covering the new book as well.

According to the IISS summary:

As FARC’s fortunes on the battlefield waned, the role of the COMINTER only increased in importance as FARC sought to:

*obtain weaponry, such as man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADs), to alter the military balance in Colombia;

* achieve political recognition and formal status as a belligerent;

* impose its own narrative internationally at the expense of the Colombian government;

* damage Colombia’s relations with neighbouring states;

* use its border enclaves to deal with a range of actors out of reach of Colombian security forces.

The dossier illuminates in detail FARC’s efforts to develop relationships with the governments and other strategic actors in the neighbouring states of Venezuela and Ecuador. These followed different trajectories and achieved different degrees of success. The relationship with Venezuela ultimately acquired a strategic dimension characterised by various forms of state support, whereas that with Ecuador did not. FARC has suffered many setbacks following the loss of the Reyes archive, and the archive itself has put FARC’s relations with neighbouring states under the spotlight in ways that have significantly constrained the group’s development. But FARC has lived to fight another day, at least in part due to its continued access to cross-border sanctuaries. It continues to pose a threat to the stability of Colombia and the Andean region.

Colombia Reports expands on Ecuador's Rafael Correa's role:
A comprehensive new study of the files found on "Raul Reyes"' computer has detailed the intricate relationship between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the FARC, as well as implicating Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa's complicity in seeking FARC funding, reported various media sources.
Although Chavez has long been accused of FARC links, the latest revelations suggest that he actively supported them financially and at one point "promised the group $300 million," Caracol Radio reported.

Even if this appears to have been an unfulfilled promise, there are said to have been numerous "smaller transfers of money," contributing to Chavez's intention to "keep Colombian military strength in the region tied down in counter-insurgency."

The study does not paint a picture of complete harmony in the relationship between Chavez and the FARC, as he would often betray them at times when it suited his political gain, such as one particular incident whereby the Venezuelan army permitted the FARC's use of a train, before ambushing them and capturing eight guerrillas to present to Uribe as he met with Chavez in 2002.

Nevertheless, the Venezuelan government is alleged to have asked the rebels to assassinate political opponents in Venezuela, as well as to train urban militia groups and serve as a shadow militia for the country's intelligence apparatus, reported the New York Times.

The analysis notes how with Chavez's various calls for the FARC "to abandon armed struggle...he did so only to deflect international pressure," which is just one element of the oscillating Chavez-FARC relationship that led the IISS to cast doubt on how "durable" the recent rapprochement between Colombia and Venezuela can really be.

Ecuador, another neighboring country who are presently improving relations with Colombia, are also implicated in the book. Having broken relations with Colombia following the 2008 raid into their territory that delivered the very same FARC computers, ties were only restored with Colombia in November 2010.
Although Correa was only indirectly implicated at the time, the analysis of Raul Reyes' computers has led the IISS to conclude that he "personally requested and illegally accepted illegal funds from the FARC" in 2006, even if in Ecuador the guerrillas never received a "comparable state of support" as in Venezuela.

However, it's Simon Romero of the New York Times who spells it out in the headline, "Venezuela Asked Colombian Rebels to Kill Opposition Figures, Analysis Shows." From the Times:
Colombia’s main rebel group has an intricate history of collaboration with Venezuelan officials, who have asked it to provide urban guerrilla training to pro-government cells here and to assassinate political opponents of Venezuela’s president, according to a new analysis of the group’s internal communications.

The analysis contends that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was asked to serve as a shadow militia for Venezuela’s intelligence apparatus, although there is no evidence that President Hugo Chávez was aware of the assassination requests or that they were ever carried out.

Chávez, however, lent the FARC money, and there is direct evidence of it:
A meeting described in the book shows that Mr. Chávez was almost certainly unaware of the Disip’s decision to involve the FARC in state terrorism, but that Venezuelan intelligence officials still carried out such contacts with a large amount of autonomy.

Drawing from the FARC’s archive, the book also describes how the group trained various pro-Chávez organizations in Venezuela, including the Bolivarian Liberation Forces, a shadowy paramilitary group operating along the border with Colombia.

FARC communications also discussed providing training in urban terrorism methods for representatives of the Venezuelan Communist Party and several radical cells from 23 de Enero, a Caracas slum that has long been a hive of pro-Chávez activity.

The book also cites requests by Mr. Chávez’s government for the guerrillas to assassinate at least two of his opponents.

Later in the article, Romero quotes a FARC member who found the Venezuelans deceitful.


Much more in the remarks by Nigel Inkster, Director for Transnational Threats and Political Risk at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Cross-posted at Fausta's blog

Religious Rants

As a proud Canadian and a three-day-a-year Muslim, I was gobsmacked by an op-ed in the National Post, one of our two Canadian national newspapers. Jonathan Kay, managing editor of the paper, highlights Dutch Politician Geert Wilders and his controversial views on Islam.

Out of haste (I’m on deadline) I’m lifting from The Atlantic Wire’s summary:

Wilders insists that he doesn't hate Muslims but considers them "victims of bad ideas," describing Islam not as a religion, "but rather a retrograde political ideology with religious trappings." Kay understands why Wilders's opinions have branded him "a hatemonger" in the eyes of many Europeans. Still, "His insistence on the proper distinction between faith and ideology deserve to be taken seriously," he argues. "For it invites the question: If we permit the excoriation of totalitarian cults created by modern dictators, why do we stigmatize (and even criminalize) the excoriation of arguably similar notions when they happen to be attributed to a 7th-century prophet?"
Being in no position to challenge Wilders on what is and isn’t in the Koran, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. And from the little I’d previously read about Wilders, I wasn’t left aghast by his comments.

But it’s Kay’s closing thought that irks. It singles out without context or perspective. There’s little question that Christopher Hitchens might have issues with Islam but at least when he strikes a match he burns down the whole pantheon:

[…] I will not be told I can't eat pork, and I will not respect those who burn books on a regular basis. I, too, have strong convictions and beliefs and value the Enlightenment above any priesthood or any sacred fetish-object. It is revolting to me to breathe the same air as wafts from the exhalations of the madrasahs, or the reeking fumes of the suicide-murderers, or the sermons of Billy Graham and Joseph Ratzinger.
Granted, it would be irresponsible not to discuss the role of Islam in a study of today’s geopolitical landscape and there’s room for only so many words in an op-ed piece, but to confound religion and ideology is mistaken - even in the case of Islam, whose current convulsions through it’s own Enlightenment are creating a branding challenge, to put it lightly.

Challenging and questioning the diktats of prophets, 7th century or otherwise, can never be a bad thing. But if Islam is to be judged ideology rather than religion on the basis of its most literal interpretation then there can be no halfway. The yardstick must stretch across the religious (er, ideological?) spectrum before it can find any moral force.

In crises of faith I often turn to a trusted friend to help light the way - television.

I leave you with The West Wing, season two, episode three:


Secret Deals and Pakistan Stability

The US and Pakistan struck a secret deal almost a decade ago permitting a US operation against Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil similar to last week's raid that killed the al-Qaida leader, the Guardian has learned.

The deal was struck between the military leader General Pervez Musharraf and President George Bush after Bin Laden escaped US forces in the mountains of Tora Bora in late 2001, according to serving and retired Pakistani and US officials.

Under its terms, Pakistan would allow US forces to conduct a unilateral raid inside Pakistan in search of Bin Laden, his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the al-Qaida No3. Afterwards, both sides agreed, Pakistan would vociferously protest the incursion. - Declan Walsh

This kind of news is difficult to interpret. It could easily be spin on Pakistan's part - a way to prove they were helping the U.S. even as the furor grows over bin Laden's Abbottabad hideaway.

On the other hand, it could be entirely accurate. And it's easy to see why Pakistan would agree to this kind of deal: their population has a largely negative view of the United States and any country, no matter how well disposed to the U.S., would have a hard time selling military incursions on their territory.

As a practical matter, if the U.S. was presented by Pakistan with this option or nothing, it's probably better than nothing. But this kind of arrangement is really corrosive to U.S.-Pakistani ties and to Pakistan's internal stability. It makes Pakistan's government look weak and duplicitious, which is bad for Pakistan. It also continues to perpetuate anti-Americanism inside Pakistan, which is bad for the U.S.

Should the U.S. Get Tough With Pakistan?


Anatol Lieven has been a persistent voice in warning the U.S. off taking actions that could potentially destabilize Pakistan, which is why his piece in the National Interest arguing for a harder line is noteworthy:

For while it is entirely true that I have argued that Pakistan is more resilient than it looks, and is not yet a failed or failing state, the United States certainly cannot deliberately try to make it one—unless Pakistan has in effect become an open enemy. Even without the apocalyptic threat of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons or materials falling into the hands of terrorists, a serious fraying of the Pakistani military would lead to anti-aircraft missiles, trained engineers and immense stores of munitions and equipment going astray. That in itself would raise the terrorist threat to the West by an order of magnitude, and absolutely ensure defeat in Afghanistan. For it must be stressed that—provenly in the case of the Afghan Taliban, probably in the case of al-Qaeda—the Pakistani military has given shelter to our enemies, it has not yet actually armed them.

One thing supporters of indefinite nation building in Afghanistan argue is that we have to stay in the country for the sake of Pakistan and that much of our problems with Pakistan stem from the fact that we left Afghanistan once before and now they don't trust the U.S. to stick around for the long haul. But it seems like the longer we've stayed in Afghanistan, the worse relations have gotten with Pakistan. The U.S. doesn't have many realistic levers over Pakistan's behavior and our go-to source of leverage (money) has only gotten us so far.

As Lieven notes (and as I pointed out earlier), it's one thing to support militant groups whose scope is limited to Afghanistan, since, for better or worse, that is a vital Pakistani interest and not something we can do all that much about. Providing safe harbor for an organization that has a demonstrated capacity to launch attacks directly against the U.S. homeland, however, is another story. Unfortunately, so long as we're invested in building up Afghanistan we are going to have to keep relations with Pakistan on a somewhat even keel, no matter what uncomfortable revelations lie in store.

(AP Photo)

Defending Free Riding

U.S. tax dollars at work:

Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands are signalling they soon will no longer permit US nuclear forces on their territory. The ‘De-nuked Three’ join a host of other European allies who are also cutting defence budgets and yet expect the Americans to proceed with missile defence at American expense. I think the Yanks call it chutzpah!

One delegate from a very large central European country that shall remain nameless, but with a fondness for worst, suggested not only the removal of American nukes, but that their defence should be assured by a real missile shield. Although, of course, the interceptors would need to be hosted by the neighbours. A clearer definition of free defence/free-riding I have yet to hear.

In effect, the ‘Du-nuked Three’ (not to mention the relatives) want free US defence, as well as the right to shift the burden of nuclear responsibility onto the three NATO nuclear powers – Britain, France and the US.

Of all the places the U.S. could recoup some budgetary savings as its debt burden builds, Europe seems the best bet. The New York Times is hosting a debate on just this topic here.

U.S. Views on Afghanistan

Rasmussen finds an increased willingness among likely voters to pull troops out of Afghanistan:

A new Rasmussen Reports nation telephone survey finds that 35% of Likely U.S. Voters now favor the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, the highest level of support to date. Twenty-one percent (21%) more support the establishment of a firm timetable to bring the troops home within a year.

The combined total of 56% is up four points from the beginning of March, up 13 points from 43% last September, and up 19 points from September 2009.

Thirty percent (30%) of voters still oppose the creation of any kind of timetable for withdrawal and 15% remain undecided.

May 9, 2011

Iranian Training Camps in Latin America

In an article titled Kuwaitis Among Trainees In ‘Guards’ Latin Camp the Arab Times reports:

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is allegedly training a large number of Kuwaitis, Bahrainis and Saudis in a private training camp located in Waheera, a remote area near the borders of Venezuela and Columbia, and intends to use them to carry out terrorist activities within their respective countries and other areas across the world in case Iran is attacked militarily, Al-Seyassah daily quoted a reliable source as saying.

Since the reports come from Arab-language newspapers, I speculate that the location of Waheera is actually Guajira (whose phonetical pronunciation is the same as "Waheera") in this map:


The article continues:

The trainees are first sent to Venezuelan capital Caracas or Columbian capital Bogota via Damascus and from there, they are sent to the border region in cars, one of the militants who broke away from the Iranian group told the daily.

Reportedly, the training camp is run by some Iranian intelligence officers and others affiliated to the Revolutionary Guard in cooperation with Hezbollah and Hamas. The trainees were given courses in making bombs, carrying out assassinations, kidnapping people and transporting the hostages to other locations. [Emphasis added]

The operations are allegedly financed through the drug trade:

When asked about the financing of this militia, the source said the money Iran makes through drug trafficking and money laundering is equal to the budget of some countries. “For example, Dutch police, in cooperation with security authorities of seven other countries, arrested 17 drug smugglers in 2009 in Korasu and confiscated 2,000 kilos of cocaine from them. The huge quantity was smuggled through tankers from Venezuela to West Africa and then to Holland, Lebanon and Spain. Smugglers also transported cocaine by air from Korasu to Holland, Belgium, Spain and Jordan. The Dutch authorities had then announced that the smuggling network was linked to Hezbollah and Iran,” he added. [Emphasis added]

These reports have been surfacing recently (including Kuwaiti newspapers), but long-time readers of my blog know about the Iranian and Hezbollah presences in Latin America. Interestingly, now the reports are including Hamas.

Cross-posted at Fausta's blog.

(h/t Vlad)

In Isolation

Jennifer Rubin strikes out at "isolationists" in the Republican party:

In sum, there are substantive and political reasons for Republicans to resist the temptation to abandon modern conservatism’s foreign policy (one that is grounded in moral values as well as a canny assessment of the danger of inaction). Whether they will do so depends in large part on the quality of the candidates and the strength of their arguments. If the internationalists are not forceful and effective in debunking the isolationists, as well as successful at the primary ballot boxes, the country and the party will suffer.

As Larison notes, there are no isolationists among Republican presidential contenders, so the charge that the party is trending "isolationist" is silly. What Rubin is really concerned about is that a future Republican nominee might say that he or she is less inclined to intervene in other countries and might seek to recoup some budgetary savings from the defense department. But there's no reason to believe they'd be sincere in this regard. It's useful to remember that, on the intervention side at least, this was how President George W. Bush presented himself to voters in 2000.

Pakistan and Afghanistan


In an article arguing that the U.S. must not withdraw from Afghanistan following bin Laden's death, Frederick and Kim Kagan make a very odd statement:

Bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan has once again concentrated the minds of Americans on the fact that Pakistan’s leadership has yet to come to consensus about the need to combat and defeat militant Islamist groups within Pakistan’s borders. Nor has the United States developed any real strategy for addressing this challenge.

But isn't this the whole enchilada? We are waging a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan premised on the fact that institutions and individuals favorably disposed to U.S. interests must prevail. Pakistan is also engaged in this counter-insurgency - mostly on the other side.

The Kagans lament the lack of a strategy for Pakistan, while pressing the U.S. to keep "resourcing" the Afghan war. But if you don't have a strategy for ending Pakistan's support for insurgent groups inside Afghanistan, you don't have a strategy to win the war in Afghanistan.

(AP Photo)

Most Americans See Pakistani Complicity

According to a Friday poll from Rasmussen, a majority of Americans think Pakistan knew where bin Laden was:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 84% of American Adults think it’s at least somewhat likely that high-level officials in the Pakistani government knew where bin Laden was hiding. That includes 57% who say it is Very Likely they knew. Only nine percent (9%) believe it’s not likely that Pakistan knew.

Just 15% of Americans say the United States should continue military and financial aid to Pakistan. Sixty-three percent (63%) say that aid should not continue. Twenty-two percent (22%) are not sure.

May 6, 2011

Bin Laden: Family Guy

The world knows bin Laden as the architect of mass terror, but according to Rediff he was also something of a domestic maestro:

A senior security expert in Islamabad told rediff.com that the police officers who interrogated Osama's 12-year-old daughter and his three wives are marvelling at Osama's ability to manage such a large family so harmoniously under one roof even while hiding from the world and its best spy agencies.

May 5, 2011

Foreign Policy Distractions


In the course of disparaging the Bush administration's handling of bin Laden at Tora Bora, Jacob Stokes praises President Obama's ability to multitask:

In contrast, President Obama – while managing the uprising in the Middle East, the war in Afghanistan and a government on the brink of shutdown – could have been too distracted to pay attention to what were surely incomplete intelligence reports saying the CIA had located bin Laden. He could have followed the advice of members of Congress and put the U.S. in the lead of the war in Libya, which would have occupied a significant portion of the national security apparatus’s attention. All of those things could have taken President Obama’s eye off the goal of capturing bin Laden. This opportunity could have been squandered.

This doesn't sound all that plausible to me. First, Libya is a fairly large distraction in its own right - it's not an Iraq-style debacle by any means, but it certainly reflects poorly on the administration's decision-making process. (For instance, where was Hillary Clinton yesterday - Islamabad? Nope, she was in Rome, trying to rescue the Libyan intervention.) Second, no matter what was going on, if CIA personnel walk into the Oval Office and say they think they know where bin Laden is living, any president is going to stop what he or she is doing and pay attention.

I think Stokes is a lot closer to the mark to say that casualty aversion was the prime culprit at Tora Bora.

(Photo credit: Pete Souza)

Dying for Credibility

Ilan Berman presses for regime change in Libya:

Reasonable minds may differ over whether our intervention in Libya, a country exceedingly marginal to U.S. strategic interests, was warranted in the first place. What isn’t in dispute is that having made the decision to intervene, the United States and its allies need to do more than simply muddle through. They must now unequivocally seek victory, as they themselves have defined it: the removal of Col. Gadhafi and his regime, by proxy if possible and by direct military intervention if necessary.

This certainly isn’t because regime change in Libya is necessarily a good idea. The West still knows precious little about Libyan politics, or what kind of political order might follow the Gadhafi era. Rather, it’s because, having committed its resources and prestige, a failure by NATO to finish the job would have catastrophic consequences.

According to Berman, these catastrophic consequences include Gaddafi's return to terrorism and the potential for Gaddafi to terrorize his own citizens worse than he already is. But the worst outcome in not seeking regime change, Berman writes, would be the demolition of NATO's credibility. In other words, while admitting that regime change might be a bad idea, we have to go ahead and do it anyway regardless of the costs, just to maintain our credibility.

If you had to choose between some embarrassment in NATO HQ vs. the potential for an Iraq-style quagmire, which would you choose?

The Myth of Military Force

Regardless of whether one thinks the president’s intervention in Libya was right or wrong, the way he intervened has likely guaranteed that the eventual fall of Qaddafi will cost many more lives and leave Libya in worse shape than if Obama had chosen more aggressive American action—including lots of Special Forces on the ground—earlier. The president had to know—despite whatever Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said publicly—that the decision to intervene meant regime change. The stiff retorts of Gates to questions about American objectives in Libya show his concern about “mission creep.” It will be brutally ironic if Gates, the administration’s preeminent “realist,” who surely would have opposed the Iraq “surge” if he’d stayed in the Iraq Study Group, ends up making in Libya exactly the same mistake as his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, in Iraq: dogged opposition to sending sufficient force to accomplish the mission. - Reuel Marc Gerecht

The notion that sending in loads of special forces to help unseat Gaddafi would end the conflict with less loss of life is pure conjecture. Undoubtedly it would hasten Gaddafi's end, but that's not the same thing as restoring stability and a measure of peace to Libya. Indeed, recent U.S. forays into this kind of business show that we are uniquely incapable of restoring peace and stability to a country after we've intervened in it.

Steve Chapman has a good piece today on just this subject.

May 4, 2011

Should Obama Have Captured bin Laden?


This morning, both John Yoo and Michael Barone hit on the same points I hit on Sunday in more thorough detail. Barone essentially outlines the framework of a political attack on Obama for moving away from his prior promises, but I think, as Barone seems to, that such an attack would be blunted by the fact that Obama ended up closer to the country's center. Only the leftward side of his base dislikes these moves with any intensity, and it's doubtful they'd cast a vote for anyone other than him in 2012.

Besides making the same point, Yoo makes the interesting argument that one side-effect of Obama's embrace of the Bush-era policies he once opposed is a greater willingness to kill terrorists as opposed to capturing and interrogating them. He outlines an argument for why Obama should've considered a capture instead of a kill:

Mr. Obama's policies now differ from their Bush counterparts mainly on the issue of interrogation. As Sunday's operation put so vividly on display, Mr. Obama would rather kill al Qaeda leaders—whether by drones or special ops teams—than wade through the difficult questions raised by their detention. This may have dissuaded Mr. Obama from sending a more robust force to attempt a capture.

Early reports are conflicted, but it appears that bin Laden was not armed. He did not have a large retinue of bodyguards—only three other people, the two couriers and bin Laden's adult son, were killed. Special forces units using nonlethal weaponry might have taken bin Laden alive, as with other senior al Qaeda leaders before him.

If true, one of the most valuable intelligence opportunities since the beginning of the war has slipped through our hands. Some claim that bin Laden had become a symbol, or that al Qaeda had devolved into a decentralized terrorist network with more active franchises in Yemen or Somalia. Nevertheless, bin Laden was still issuing instructions and funds to a broad terrorist network and would have known where and how to find other key al Qaeda players. His capture, like Saddam Hussein's in December 2003, would have provided invaluable intelligence and been an even greater example of U.S. military prowess than his death.

White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said Monday that the SEAL team had orders to take bin Laden alive, "if he didn't present any threat," though he correctly dismissed this possibility as "remote." This is hard to take seriously. No one could have expected bin Laden to surrender without a fight. And capturing him alive would have required the administration to hold and interrogate bin Laden at Guantanamo Bay, something that has given this president allergic reactions bordering on a seizure.

Mr. Obama deserves credit for ordering the mission that killed bin Laden. But he should also recognize that he succeeded despite his urge to disavow Bush administration policies. Perhaps one day he will acknowledge his predecessor's role in making this week's dramatic success possible. More importantly, he should end the criminal investigation of CIA agents and restart the interrogation program that helped lead us to bin Laden.

Yoo's argument is probably the best that can be made, philosophically, on this point. But there's little question in my mind that Obama made the right decision. Osama bin Laden is more valuable to the future interests of the United States - and as a statement about our approach to enemies - not as a captured target, legal controversy and living symbol, but as a corpse in the bottom of the sea.

(AP Photo)

Debating Pakistan

Larison agrees that asking Pakistan to account for its behavior with respect to bin Laden is reasonable, but cautions against leaping to conclusions:

What bothers me about the snap judgments about Pakistan’s complicity (as opposed to complicity on the part of a relative few people within Pakistani intelligence) is that they are not informed by any clear evidence of complicity apart from the location of the compound. There is an assumption that complicity simply must be the explanation for why bin Laden was where he was, and there is an added assumption that this implicates a large part of the Pakistani establishment. This is jumping to conclusions at its worst. If there were elements within the ISI that sheltered bin Laden, as I assume there were, that doesn’t prove that they were acting with the knowledge or approval of all Pakistani authorities.

Pew Poll: U.S. Still Divided on Afghanistan

According to a new Pew Research poll following the death of bin Laden:

While the public is more optimistic about success, there is little change in opinion about maintaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The public remains divided over whether the U.S. should keep troops in Afghanistan until the situation has stabilized (47%) or remove troops as soon as possible (48%), virtually unchanged from a month ago (44% keep troops, 50% remove troops).

Palin on Foreign Policy


I've criticized the Republican 2012 field on numerous occasions for their lack of foreign policy heft and a profound unwillingness to weigh in on difficult decisions they would have to make as Commander in Chief. It's only fair, then, to share one potential candidate's attempt to frame a coherent approach to foreign policy in the public square - in this case, Sarah Palin in a speech in Colorado this week. Here's the relevant portion:

There’s a lesson here then for the effective use of force, as opposed to sending our troops on missions that are ill-defined. And it can be argued that our involvement elsewhere, say in Libya, is an example of a lack of clarity. See, these are deadly serious questions that we must ask ourselves when we contemplate sending Americans into harm’s way. Our men and women in uniform deserve a clear understanding of U.S. positions on such a crucial decision. I believe our criteria before we send our young men and women—America’s finest—into harm’s way should be spelled out clearly when it comes to the use of our military force. I can tell you what I believe that criteria should be in five points. First, we should only commit our forces when clear and vital American interests are at stake. Period.

Second, if we have to fight, we fight to win. To do that, we use overwhelming force. We only send our troops into war with the objective to defeat the enemy as quickly as possible. We do not stretch out our military with open-ended and ill-defined missions. Nation building is a nice idea in theory, but it is not the main purpose of our armed forces. We use our military to win wars.

And third, we must have clearly defined goals and objectives before sending troops into harm’s way. If you can’t explain the mission to the American people clearly and concisely, then our sons and daughters should not be sent into battle. Period.

Fourth, American soldiers must never be put under foreign command. We will fight side by side with our allies, but American soldiers must remain under the care and the command of American officers.

Fifth, sending in our armed forces should be the last resort. We don’t go looking for dragons to slay. However, we will encourage the forces of freedom around the world who are sincerely fighting for the empowerment of the individual. When it makes sense, when it’s appropriate, we will provide them with material support to help them win their own freedom.

We are not indifferent to the cause of human rights or the desire for freedom. We are always on the side of both. But we can’t fight every war. We can’t undo every injustice around the world. But with strength and clarity in those five points, we’ll make for a safer, more prosperous, more peaceful world because as the U.S. leads by example, as we support freedom across the globe, we’re going to prove that free and healthy countries don’t wage war on other free and healthy countries. The stronger we are, the stronger and more peaceful the world will be under our example.

Some of these principles may sound familiar. A few of them were first expressed back in 1984 in President Reagan’s cabinet. They were designed to help us sharply define when and how we should use force, and they served us well in the Reagan years. Times are much different now, but I believe that by updating these time-tested principles to address the unique and changing circumstances and threats that we face today, they will serve us well now and into the future. Remember, Reagan liked to keep it simple, yet profound. Remember what he would say to the enemy? He’d say, “we win, you lose.”

It's not sophisticated, and it's more passion than policy, closer to campaign rhetoric than thorough commentary. But this expression of a framework from Palin is a vast improvement over the stated remarks from other candidates thus far. It is unacceptable, a year and a half before election day, for serious individuals to still mark foreign policy as "TBD."

A side note: the mission that killed bin Laden ended up hinging on an area where Palin explicitly parted ways with John McCain during the 2008 campaign, siding with Obama on the question of sending a unilateral mission into Pakistan. Obama's major vindication on this is also a minor vindication of Palin on the point, who was slammed internally by McCain campaign staff at the time for expressing this view.

(AP Photo)

Declaring Victory


Thomas Mahnkem warns against it:

There will be a temptation among some quarters at home and abroad to declare, "Mission accomplished". Opponents of the war in Afghanistan will cite Bin Laden's death as evidence strengthening the case for reducing U.S. forces in the region. Those who oppose a vigorous internationalist strategy will escalate their calls for the United States to adopt more of an "offshore" role. The Pakistanis will attempt to tout their cooperation with the United States in bringing bin Laden to justice while diverting American attention from such uncomfortable questions as how and why bin Laden was able to live for months or years under the noses of Pakistani military and intelligence officers. Other partners, whose enthusiasm for defeating al Qaeda has been limited, may be perfectly willing to declare victory and go home.

This temptation must be resisted, however. Protracted wars are not decided on the outcome of any individual episode. Rather, they turn on the progressive attrition of the adversary's sources of power. Similarly, this conflict will not end in a single battle or campaign.

Part of what has bedeviled the U.S. in Afghanistan is this conflation of the ideological struggle against the "jihadism" represented by Osama bin Laden with the counter-insurgency against Pashtun militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There are connections between the two, obviously, but they are not the same thing.

What I think proponents of "declaring victory" wish to do is wind down the nation building in Afghanistan, but not give up on trying to thwart terrorist threats around the globe. I think the manner in which bin Laden was dispatched makes a decent case for a counter-terrorist approach that relies on intelligence, small bases and precision instead of a full blown effort to rebuild Afghanistan.

(AP Photo)

May 3, 2011

Geographer Predicted bin Laden's Hideout

Great story here:

Could Osama bin Laden have been found faster if the CIA had followed the advice of ecosystem geographers from the University of California, Los Angeles? Probably not, but the predictions of UCLA geographer Thomas Gillespie, who, along with colleague John Agnew and a class of undergraduates, authored a 2009 paper predicting the terrorist’s whereabouts, were none too shabby. According to a probabilistic model they created, there was an 88.9% chance that bin Laden was hiding out in a city less than 300 km from his last known location in Tora Bora: a region that included Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed last night.

That's via Matthew Yglesias who believes the fact that bin Laden was holed up in a swanky compound in a city dispells the myth that terrorists need safe havens:

For one thing, a terrorist in rural Afghanistan is, by definition, not in the United States. It’s also hard to get from rural Afghanistan to the United States. And it’s difficult to communicate with people who aren’t in rural Afghanistan. It’s also, as Gillespie says, relatively likely that people will know what you’re up to. And in the scheme of things, it’s easier to be spotted by spy satellites and the like.

I'd also add that terrorists holed up in remote regions of lawless or poorly governed states are vulnerable to attack - by drones or from the air. We can also collect intelligence on terrorist networks without nation building in Afghanistan.

May 2, 2011

Pakistan: Friend or Foe?

Whenever an allied government doesn’t measure up to what the U.S. expects of it, it is tempting to accuse it of perfidy or betrayal, but that avoids considering whether we are expecting something that the ally can reasonably provide. Libya hawks have taken to bashing Germany for its pacifism, which is another way of saying that allies are supposed to act like satrapies: they are not permitted to make independent judgments about policy questions, nor are they allowed to act in their own interests. Iraq hawks derided Turkey for its opposition to the invasion, and some of them built up entire narratives that portrayed France as our traditional nemesis. Considering how widely loathed our government is in Pakistan, and considering how antagonistic many of our policies are to Pakistani interests, the U.S. has no reason to expect any Pakistani cooperation. For various reasons, we have received some cooperation anyway. Inevitably, that isn’t enough for some people, who seem to expect allied governments to commit a sort of suicide to fulfill our demands. - Daniel Larison

This is a very fair point with respect to Pakistan and their support for the Afghan Taliban, but I don't think it applies to allegations that they sheltered bin Laden or other al-Qaeda members. I think we agree that pushing Pakistan to do something it is almost constitutionally incapable of doing is reckless. Pakistan support for the Afghan Taliban is something that is deemed, for better or worse, a vital Pakistani interest and U.S. bribes and bombs have not really altered that calculus. We can't transform Pakistan into a country that suddenly trusts India and therefore doesn't seek strategic depth in Afghanistan - and efforts to change Pakistani behavior in this regard will naturally run aground, if not destabilize the country worse than it already has.

But what does that have to do with bin Laden and al-Qaeda? Keeping bin Laden secreted away doesn't advance Pakistan's aims vis-a-vis India or Afghanistan, as far as I can tell. And even if the ISI did have some kind of rationale, so what? Ultimately, we have to have some red lines and harboring fugitives responsible for slaughtering Americans on American soil is surely one of them.

Now, it's possible that bin Laden built a walled compound a few hundred yards away from a major Pakistani military institution with no one batting an eye. It's also possible that he managed to evade one of the most intense manhunts in human history without any help from well-placed insiders in the ISI or Pakistani military. (Jeffrey Goldberg makes that case here.) Even if he had that help, it's quite possible that the upper echelons in Pakistan's military (and certainly the civilian government) weren't quite clued in as to what was going on - or weren't very interested in finding out. We can't rule out sheer incompetence, either, given how much of it is routinely on display in our own government.

But it's also quite possible - I would say plausible - that Pakistan is at least partially complicit in sheltering bin Laden. I don't think that's a reason to invade or attack the country - which would be an insane act. But I don't think it's unreasonable to probe this question with more urgency and to demand changes in Pakistan's behavior if their complicity can be proven.

After bin Laden


In an effort to organize my own thoughts on the killing of Osama bin Laden, I find myself returning over and over again to Peter Beinart's take on the terror mastermind's demise:

President Obama now has his best chance since taking office to acknowledge some simple, long-overdue truths. Terrorism does not represent the greatest threat to American security; debt does, and our anti-terror efforts are exacerbating the problem. We do not face, as we did in the 1930s, a totalitarian foe with global ideological appeal. We face competitors who, in varying ways, have imported aspects of our democratic capitalist ideology, and are beating us at our own game.

Bin Laden was a monster and a distraction. It is good that he is dead, partly because the bereaved deserve justice, but also because his shadow kept us from seeing clearly the larger challenges we face. The war on terror is over; Al Qaeda lost. Now for the really hard stuff; let’s hope we haven’t deferred it too long.

The competitor Beinart alludes to, I'm assuming, is China, and I can't help but wonder if bin Laden's death marks the end of an epoch in American foreign policy. Terrorism obviously isn't going anywhere; it existed prior to 9/11, and it will continue to exist long after. The so-called Global War on Terrorism was less a global understanding than a kind of framework for How The World Works According to Washington. The American military has been and will for the foreseeable future remain the preeminent power on earth, but to justify and rationalize that hegemony there must be rules; a kind of flowchart or S.O.P. to help the Beltway make sense of American power.

The War on Terrorism provided Washington's pundits and policymakers with a handy paradigm, much as the Cold War did throughout the latter half of the 20th Century. Will this change? Will a symbolic death lead to a more substantive reappraisal of American policy? Keep in mind that bin Laden's arguably symbolic termination precedes an actual drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan later this year. So while the generals - and the bloggers, and the pundits, and the pols and the wonks - continue to fight and feud over the last war - will we employ 'COIN' or 'Offshore Balancing' in our next indefinite military campaign? - I can't help but think that the American public has already moved on.

And who can possibly blame them? My own gripe with the War on Terrorism, specifically the Afghan mission, was the apparent indefiniteness of the mission. In a decade full of 'surges' and small accomplishments, rarely has there been as decisive and certain an action as bin Laden's killing. This man attacked us, and now he's dead. Seems simple enough.

That's why I can understand last night's displays of revelry and pure emotion in Washington, New York and elsewhere. After nearly ten years of color codes, TSA molestations and frequent condescension from the intelligentsia, the American people finally got a cut and dry result - a mission truly accomplished.

But where to from here for American foreign policy? For all the shortcomings and confusion that came with the GWOT, it was, at the very least, a doctrine premised on national defense. But if, getting back to Beinart's point, the War on Terror is to be replaced by a doctrine of counter-declinism, deficit hawkishness and Chinese containment, then I fear we may be headed toward an even uglier foreign policy paradigm.

China has gradually crept onto the American radar screen, and Beijing, for its own part, has been a busy bee.

With bin Laden now dead, and U.S. withdrawal (kind of) underway in the Near East, is China the next in line to consume America's imagination and energy? And will Washington follow? What happens, in other words, when one distracted giant finally opens its eyes, only to find another right in front of it?

Update: Evan Osnos gives a rather appropriate take on Chinese reactions to bin Laden's killing.

(AP Photo)

Under Pakistan's Wing?

Steve Coll reflects on the death of bin Laden:

The initial circumstantial evidence suggests... that bin Laden was effectively being housed under Pakistani state control. Pakistan will deny this, it seems safe to predict, and perhaps no convincing evidence will ever surface to prove the case. If I were a prosecutor at the United States Department of Justice, however, I would be tempted to call a grand jury. Who owned the land on which the house was constructed? How was the land acquired, and from whom? Who designed the house, which seems to have been purpose-built to secure bin Laden? Who was the general contractor? Who installed the security systems? Who worked there? Are there witnesses who will now testify as to who visited the house, how often, and for what purpose?

A lot more questions than answers at this point.

Did Pakistan Betray Him?

Interesting thought from Tom Ricks:

What suspicious minds are asking: Why did the Pakistanis give him up? And what did we give in return?

I also think this will strongly up the pressure on the Obama Administration to end its involvement in Afghanistan. Not just politicians but the man on the street is likely to say, Hey, we got him, mission accomplished, let's go home.

If Pakistan did indeed tip the U.S. off to bin Laden's whereabouts, did they do so as a way to ease the U.S. out of Afghanistan? It doesn't sound all that crazy...

Al-Qaeda: Who's Left?

The BBC runs down the remaining high profile leaders of al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

A Compound, Not a Cave


Picking up on Ben's post below, the important subtext of bin Laden's very welcome demise is less the future of al-Qaeda (important as that is) but the future of Pakistan. As Jane Perlez writes:

With Bin Laden’s death, perhaps the central reason for an alliance forged on the ashes of 9/11 has been removed, at a moment when relations between the countries are already at one of their lowest points as their strategic interests diverge over the shape of a post-war Afghanistan.

For nearly a decade, the United States has paid Pakistan more than $1 billion a year for counterterrorism operations whose chief aim was the killing or capture of Bin Laden, who slipped across the border from Afghanistan after the American invasion.

The circumstance of Bin Laden’s death may not only jeopardize that aid, but will also no doubt deepen suspicions that Pakistan has played a double game, and perhaps even knowingly harbored the Qaeda leader.

Perlez goes on to provide important details as to bin Laden's hideaway:

Rather, he was killed in Abbottabad, a city of about 500,000, in a large and highly secured compound that, a resident of the city said, sits virtually adjacent to the grounds of a military academy. In an ironic twist, the academy was visited just last month by the Pakistani military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, where he proclaimed that Pakistan had “cracked” the forces of terrorism, an assessment that was greeted with skepticism in Washington.

In addition, the city hosts numerous Pakistani forces — three different regiments, and a unit of the Army Medical Corps. According to some reports, the compound and its elaborate walls and security gates may have been built specifically for the Qaeda leader in 2005, hardly an obscure undertaking in a part of the city that the resident described as highly secure.

So in 2005, people start fortifying a compound to repel a ground assault in very close proximity to a major military institution and no one inside Pakistan looks into it? Is that believable?

One can understand the thinking behind Pakistan's support for Afghan Taliban groups, cultivated as an extension of Pakistan's strategic goals in a neighboring territory - but what explains covert assistance to bin Laden, if such assistance was in fact offered (or passively extended)? Was keeping bin Laden alive an effort to keep the U.S. gravy train rolling?

(As a side note, the photo above is via Nicholas Jackson who notes how quickly the bin Laden compound was located on Google Maps.)

Pakistan's Osama Problem

One key point which will be much discussed in the coming weeks is the role Pakistan's authorities played in protecting the location of Osama bin Laden over the past several years. Rather than living in a cave or a remote area, it appears now that bin Laden has been in roughly the same location for multiple years, perhaps stretching back to 2005, when modifications were made to the compound where he was killed.

The question during the entire hunt for bin Laden has always been to what degree Pakistan was merely useless vs. actively undermining our efforts. Now Yahoo's Laura Rozen reports the area where bin Laden was killed is going to spark these questions once again given its population and location:

Obama commended Pakistani officials as he touted the effort to hunt down Bin Laden. But some critics are already pointing out the incongruity of Bin Laden, who had long been thought to be sequestered in far more remote parts of the country, turning up in an affluent suburb of Pakistan's capital - one that is filled with Pakistani military officials, no less.

"Abbottabad has a large military cantonment area and the Army college and exam center are located there," a former U.S. official who has worked in Pakistan told The Envoy. "It is very much off the usual track for foreigners … and I simply do not believe Bin Ladin could hide there unaided by or unknown to the Pakistanis."

It seems noteworthy that in President Obama's remarks on the subject, he thanked Pakistan without expressing anything they actually did to help the process along - and it's clear from the White House briefings tonight on the raid that he did not share intel with them, or indeed with any nation, taking a unilateral path instead. Rozen's source leads us to the question many in the administration and outside it are likely thinking about tonight: who in Pakistan's government knew Osama was there, and how long did they know it?

May 1, 2011

In Osama's Death, a Vindication of Obama's Choices

In time, Osama Bin Laden will be remembered as a villain who systematically murdered thousands of innocents in an attempt to destroy the civilization he despised and break the spirit of a nation he hated. Now he is dead, in a firefight after some time spent hiding out in a mansion in Abbottabad, Pakistan. He died likely knowing the truth: that in his grand mission, he failed. The nation did not crumble; the people did not despair; and the Muslim world did not unite in a global war against the West.

There's little question that the decisions Barack Obama has made as president played a major role in bringing us to this point. As a candidate, Obama said a great many things which gave those concerned with national security pause - particularly his promises to close Gitmo, to scale back interrogation policies advanced under President Bush and, of course, his entire candidacy was in large part motivated by his strong words against continued involvement in Iraq.

Whatever you may think of Obama's domestic policies or diplomatic decisions, his approach to national security has been largely wise and overwhelmingly vindicated thus far. His reconsideration of the promise to shut down Gitmo, his shifting of the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed back to a military tribunal and his reliance on several key personnel under George W. Bush who may disagree (and indeed have disagreed publicly) with him on other matters - Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus chief among these, but hardly alone - have projected a far more stable, responsible and moderate national security approach.

This has not come without cost, mostly from Obama's left flank, where many of his supporters have criticized him for going back on his word. But it's now reported that the bin Laden raid began with the interrogation of a detainee roughly four years ago, and the CIA continued to follow this lead under Obama, in August discovering a compound which stood out in its neighborhood for a number of startling reasons. Phil Klein reports on the White House briefing:

Two years ago, intelligence officials began to identify areas of Pakistan where the courier and his brother operated, and the great security precautions the two men took aroused U.S. suspicions.

Last August, intelligence officials tracked the men to their residence in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a relatively wealthy town 35 miles north of Islamabad where many retired military officers live.

“When we saw the compound where the brothers lived, we were shocked by what we saw,” a senior administration official said.

The compound was eight times larger than any other home in the area. It was surrounded by walls measuring 12 feet to 18 feet that were topped with barbed wire. There were additional inner walls that sectioned off parts of the compound and entry was restricted by two security gates. And the residents burned their trash instead of leaving it outside for pickup. There was a three-story house on the site, with a 7-foot privacy wall on the top floor.

While the two brothers, the couriers, had no known source of income, the compound was built in 2005 and valued at $1 million. That led intelligence officials to conclude that it must have been built to hold a high-value member of Al Qaeda.

Further intelligence gathering found that there was another family who lived on the compound which had a size and makeup that matched the bin Laden members who would have most likely been with Osama.

After exploring every angle for months, they concluded that all signs pointed to this being bin Laden’s residence.

President Obama was made aware of the compound when it was discovered last year. By mid-February, the intelligence was solid and since mid-March, Obama led five meetings with the National Security Council regarding the issue.

Intelligence officials worked with the U.S. military to plan the operation and a small team accepted the risk and began to train for it.

On April 29, this past Friday, Obama gave the final go ahead.

There was a key decision to be made during this process, and it wasn't the go-ahead (which seems rather obvious given the nature of the information). Given Obama's frequently expressed tendency to favor broad-based global partnerships, he had to decide whether to include other nations in the background on this approach - particularly Pakistan. Without advance warning, the potential for an embarrassing international incident was higher, but by sharing this information, Obama could have destroyed the entire effort through inevitable leaks, stalling or international disagreements.

Instead, "No other country, not even Pakistan, was informed of any of this intelligence until after the raid to protect operational security." The intel stayed secret. The operation stayed locked down. And the Navy Seals got their man.

While cooperation is not always a bad thing, in this case Obama chose to go it alone. It was the right choice, and he should be applauded for it.

One final note on bin Laden's passing: it's impossible for any reasonable person to begrudge anyone who rejoices in the vengeance of this moment, when a villainous man who embraced death as a mission is embraced by it, with the assistance of brave Americans whose names we'll likely never know. But the mission to capture or kill bin Laden was always about more than vengeance; about more than avenging the blood that cries out from the ground. It was about the fact that America is not satisfied simply to endure. Rather, we are prepared to do whatever it takes to destroy those who threaten us, and to ensure our children will grow up to live in a just, free and decent world.

Alone, bin Laden's death will not bring that about. But it is a powerful symbol, and a vindication of several difficult choices President Obama and President Bush made, often risking their own political capital on what they believed to be right.

Fungible Oil


The FT had an interesting note on oil markets last week. It seems U.S. traders are floating barges full of oil down river from Oklahoma to Louisiana where a barrel fetches an extra $15.10.

Record stocks of 40m barrels at landlocked Cushing, Oklahoma (the delivery point of West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the U.S. benchmark price), have produced a supply glut. There’s talk of building a pipeline to move 400,000 barrels per day from Cushing to Houston to connect “stranded” barrels with the global energy infrastructure. In the meantime, oil is being moved by truck, train and boat to take advantage price differentials.

The economics and infrastructure are such that one oil company is even sourcing Canadian crude from a pipeline in Mississippi and literally shipping it to refineries in Louisiana.

“We’re taking a steady diet of crude through our proprietary barge system down to our Garyville refinery,” said one oil executive. “Who would have ever thought that we would be moving western Canadian all the way down to Louisiana?”

The current trend of price anomalies reconfiguring energy markets is reminiscent of the oil price swings of 2008.

At that time, however, it wasn’t geographical price differences—exacerbated by a Middle East supply shock, growing emerging markets and loose monetary policy—that traders were cashing in on. It was quite the opposite, in fact. As the world economy fell off the precipice in 2008, traders, oil companies and even investment banks were taking advantage of the record price differences between tumbling current prices and rebounding future prices caused by oil supply outstripping global demand.

Punters were hoarding the cheap, excess oil, storing it offshore on super tankers, while at the same time entering agreements to sell that oil at a future date and at an agreed upon higher price, thereby locking in a profit. The difference then between WTI for immediate delivery and a one-year forward contract was $21.50 a barrel.

But not all oil is created equal, independent of whether or not it's bought today or tomorrow. The crisis in Libya has halted the production of its light, sweet crude that is prized for being easily refined into diesel and petrol, and for having a low sulfur content, making it cleaner to burn.

Saudi Arabia has said it “will meet any shortage” of oil supply but its oil is heavier and higher in sulfur, leaving it as a more expensive product for oil refineries to work with. WTI oil, also sweet and light, is a better substitute for Libyan oil, which means unrest in North Africa has helped push the U.S. benchmark to $114 a barrel.

Luckily a flattening has been occurring across the crude spectrum in the last few years. Since oil prices reached their record level of $147 a barrel in 2008, refiners have invested heavily in infrastructure allowing them to process heavy crude much more efficiently; thus putting a smaller premium on the sweeter variety.

Had this not been the case, who knows how far, and by what means, traders would be moving Canadian oil just to make a quick buck.


(AP Photo)

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