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August 31, 2009

Lockerbie Bomber Release: The Plot Thickens


The London Times has the scoop:

Gordon Brown was dragged into the centre of the row over the early release of the Lockerbie bomber last night after it emerged that a key decision that could have paved the way for the terrorist to serve his sentence in Libya was approved by Downing Street.

A source close to Jack Straw told The Times that the move to include Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi in a prisoner transfer agreement in 2007 was a government decision and was not made at the sole discretion of the Justice Secretary. “It wasn’t just Jack who decided this. It was a Government decision. Jack did not act unilaterally.”

Meanwhile, the already embattled Gordon Brown is going to get pummeled some more as the Times further reports that MPs are gearing up to investigate the matter to see if there were any back room deals that facilitated al-Megrahi's release.

State side, NY Senator Chuck Schumer is calling for possible sanctions against Britain.

It's quite possible that this release was an explicit quid-pro-quo which would allow British firms to get access to Libyan energy. If that is indeed the case, it throws into sharp relief the oft-debated question about values vs. interests. Does Britain's interest in energy outweigh her interest in the feelings of the Lockerbie victims' families (not to mention the public outrage on both sides of the Atlantic)?

(AP Photos)

Japan's New Prime Minister

For some insights into Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's views, it's useful to read this op-ed he penned for the New York Times on August 26. Obviously, you can't infer too much from a single op-ed, but you do get the impression that he takes a dimmer view of American leadership and a more Asia-centric view of Japan's future.

Realism Gone Awry

Steve Clemons makes an interesting point in a debate on the proper content of "realism" and "Realism" between Paul Wolfowitz and his critics:

One of the issues I wish Wolfowitz had raised but regrettably neglected is the importance of America demonstrating by example the kind of democracy we hope others aspire to. His American Enterprise Institute colleague and former vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, applauds CIA officers who choked prisoners, faked executions before detainees, and threatened to kill children as strategies of coercion. We saw the reactions to 9/11 and the buildup to the Iraq war lead to a national-security pathology in the United States in which core democratic values were undermined. We held not just prisoners in Guantanamo but thousands of others in Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and other facilities in a manner completely at odds with our beliefs about universal human rights. We tortured -- and our government spied on a massive scale on American citizens. This kind of example is something that authoritarian governments salivate at -- and true democrats abroad revile. (emphasis added)

The world of ideas and their associated impact remains as vibrant as ever. When China and Russia violently eviscerate their Uigher and Chechen secessionist movements respectively without facing significant international criticism, the practical effects of an international human rights "norm" takes a real hit. The violent crackdown on civilians in Iran after the recent Iranian election undermines the legitimacy of not only the Islamic Republic of Iran, but also (for better or worse) the idea of an Islamic state. Similarly but to different ends, the election of Barack Obama remains in a sense America's greatest foreign policy achievement since attaining global hegemony after the end of the Cold War -- has anything else so dramatically reduced international animosity toward the U.S.? In a world governed less by military power and more by confidence in a nation's capability to innovate (think about financial markets), could any other domestic U.S. action other than the election of Obama so massively increased global trust in U.S. leadership?

The current global challenges posed by climate-change, economic recession, violent non-state actors, and the increasing preponderance of nuclear weapons will continue to also function as opportunities for states to enforce the better and more humane side of their own national interests -- that is, the protection of the well-being of their own citizens. Besides, isn't that the raison d'etre of states anyway? Doesn't anyone read the work of Andrew Bacevich?

U.S. Responds to Japan's Election


The State Department released a statement following the political earthquake in Japan:

We congratulate Japan on this historic election and join the people of Japan in reaffirming the strong democratic tradition that we share. The United States looks forward to early and close consultations with the new government on a wide range of global challenges and opportunities. The U.S.-Japan partnership is key to pursuing peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region and in promoting shared values around the world. We will work closely with the new Japanese government in moving toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, addressing the threat of climate change and increasing the availability of renewable energy, bringing stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and addressing international humanitarian and health issues. These are but a few of the issues confronting this generation of Japanese and American leaders.

As Secretary Clinton has said, the U.S.-Japan alliance is strong and remains a cornerstone of peace and security in East Asia. We welcome the opportunity to work with the new government in Tokyo to build upon our past successes and further cement this indispensable alliance.

(DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama. AP Photos)

U.S. Backing Down on Missile Defense?

Some interesting news from the "reset" front:

The Obama administration has developed possible alternative plans for a missile defense shield that could drop hotly disputed sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, a move that would please Russia and Germany but sour relations with American allies in Eastern Europe.

Administration officials said they hoped to complete their months-long review of the planned antimissile system as early as next month, possibly in time for President Obama to present ideas to President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia at a meeting in New York during the annual opening at the General Assembly of the United Nations.

But they cautioned that no decisions had been made and that all options were still under discussion, including retaining the Polish and Czech sites first selected by President George W. Bush. The Obama review team plans to present a menu of options rather than a single recommendation to a committee of senior national security officials in the coming weeks. Only after that would the matter go to cabinet-rank officials and the president.

Andrew Stuttaford thinks this is "sending the wrong message." I'm not sure how that could be, considering no actual decision has been made. As we have seen with the Georgia, the administration talks the conciliatory talk about improving relations with Russia, but then went ahead and agreed to train Georgian soldiers - a move that will definitely rile Moscow.

This "review" could just be a diplomatic feint or it could be a down payment on a substantive policy shift. We'll see.

August 30, 2009

Russia Buys French Assault Carrier

As reported in the Russian daily "Izvestia", this past Thursday, Nikolai Makarov, Chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces confirmed that Moscow is buying a French amphibious assault and helicopter carrier ship "Mistral." With this statement, he made clear whether Russia will be dependent on other countries when it comes to defense and military technologies.

The purchase of helicopter carrier became one of the most promising projects of the Russian Ministry of Defense's drive to acquire the most modern weapons and military equipment. According to "Izvestia": "Russia's military has already bought German and Austrian sniper rifles for special forces units. Our tanks are using French "Thales" thermal imagers. The sky over our heads will be protected by the UAVs which fought on the Georgian side in the past year. The approach towards defense procurement is very simple - take only what best guarantees the safety of the soldiers on the battlefield and what can deliver victory in the end."

According to Russian experts, such a drastic move away from purchasing only domestically-produced equipment should not be surprising. According to Ruslan Puhov, director of the defense policy center: "By buying a ship like the "Mistral," Russia is simply trying to act like China, which strives to adopt the most advanced technologies in the world. Following this ship, there should be a contract to build three similar vessels at Russia's shipyards. There is nothing to be ashamed of here - United States bought the French technology for bunker-busting bombs. The only question that needs to be asked here is: why there was no tender for this purchase? Such ships are also built in Spain and Holland."

The carrier ship is not the only major purchase of foreign defense technology by Russia - recently, the Defense Ministry announced that it was buying eight sets of French Future Combat Systems for the individual soldier: body armor, computers, navigation and control equipment. This decision effectively ends the development of analogous Russian system called "Barmitsa." According to Puhov, "this means that Russia's Defense Ministry does not care about the costs so long as it can show progress in the military modernization drive. Purchasing "Mistral" carrier effectively closes all other Russian naval shipbuilding programs."

August 29, 2009

Admiral Mullen's Message

Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has an interesting take on America's "strategic communications." He writes:

To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate. z

An excellent point. Policy and politics are what drives relations between states and people. America has a set of policies it has pursued in the Middle East. Those are, for the most part, deeply unpopular with most people in the Middle East. We know this. And obviously, we don't care (whether we should or not is a debate for another day). And yet, we engage in a very tedious, often expensive, kabuki dance pretending that we do, in fact, care.

It's a pointless exercise and one that Mullen is right to criticize. We're obviously not so concerned with our policies in the Middle East that we're going to, you know, change them. So why not just keep quiet and go about our business?

(AP Photos)

Will Obama Remove Karzai?

Looks like our man in Kabul isn't behaving himself. According to Helen Cooper in the New York Times:

Administration officials have made no secret of their growing disenchantment with Mr. Karzai, who is viewed by the West as having so compromised himself to try to get elected — including striking deals with accused drug dealers and warlords for political gain — that he will be a hindrance to international efforts to get the country on track after the election.

But Mr. Karzai, in a feat of political shrewdness that has surprised some in the Obama administration, has managed to turn that disenchantment to an advantage, portraying himself at home as the only political candidate willing to stand up to the dictates of the United States, according to Western officials.

That Mr. Karzai is capitalizing on anti-Western sentiment shouldn't surprise anyone, least of all the Obama administration. After all, their commanding general in Afghanistan has said explicitly in his orders to his troops that Afghans resent foreign forces on their soil. This is a gold-plated opportunity for Karzai to do some populist posturing.

This posturing, however, presents an obvious quandary for the administration. Mr. Karzai is in power because of the U.S. His government is sustained by tax payer dollars and protected by the lives of American servicemen and women. Naturally, they're going to expect a level of obedience gratitude. If it's not forthcoming, there will almost certainly be voices inside and outside the administration that will begin calling for his ouster. The longer the vote count continues and the more accusations of fraud surface, the easier it will be for the administration to rationalize a move against Karzai.

(AP Photos)

My Visit to North Korea, Part 3

(Continued from Part 1 & 2)

By Patrick Chovanec

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) may seem like an odd name for one of the most militarized places on the face of the earth. Just 30 miles north of Seoul, and 80 miles south of Pyongyang, it was the armistice line at the end of the Korean War: its winding contours stretching across the peninsula, 155 miles from east to west, mark the positions held by the opposing armies when that conflict ground to a halt in 1953. Officially the war never ended. Both sides merely observe a long and occasionally precarious cease-fire. Today the DMZ — which effectively serves as the highly fortified boundary between North and South Korea — is one of the last Cold War frontiers in existence, a place of watchtowers, land mines, and soldiers staring each other down across barbed wire fences. And this morning our group was heading there — from the “enemy side” of the border.

I climbed aboard the bus at our hotel and headed towards the back, where our minders sat, handing them each a packet of cigarettes. I don’t smoke myself, and for all I know neither do they, but Marlboros are valuable currency in North Korea, just as they were when I visited the Soviet Union back in the 1980s. Sitting next to our minders, and establishing a friendly rapport with them, made it easier to ask their permission to snap photos along our route. And while being under their constant surveillance may sound intimidating, they actually turned out to be quite pleasant and friendly in return.

One of the minders for another group, of Europeans, got a big kick out of learning new American slang. He jokingly warned his group that if they stepped out of line, he would “open a can of whoop-ass on them.” When his group ran late and we accidently ate the lunch he had scheduled for them, I taught him the expression ”you snooze, you lose” – quite handy for a tour guide. He loved it. I’m sure none of these guys would have hesitated to lower the boom if we caused any trouble, but we knew the rules and were careful not to give offense. Maybe there was a little bit of Stockholm Syndrome at work, but our interactions with our minders ended up being one of the highlights of our trip.

Our group had two minders, who I will call Mr. Nervous and Mr. Smooth. I’d like to introduce them, because I’ll be referring to them — with appropriate discretion — in upcoming posts. Both of them were young guys, in their late 20’s. Mr. Nervous had decent English, but had difficulty following some of our conversations. Because he wasn’t always certain exactly what was being said, he tended to become anxious that maybe we might be up to no good. He was kindly, though, and a little bashful, except when he got up in front of the bus and serenaded us with Korean folk songs like a star contestant on North Korean Idol. Mr. Smooth, unlike his companion, didn’t sweat the small stuff. His English was more fluent, which made it easier for him to relax and engage us in more meaningful conversation. He was thoughtful and eager to know our impressions of his country. He struck me as the kind of person who, if things were to ever change, would go very far.

Our route took us south along the “Reunification Highway,” giving us our first real glimpse of the countryside. People often ask me whether we ever saw evidence of starvation in North Korea. I tell them no, but then the main, high-profile corridors we travelled outside of Pyongyang were the last place you’d expect to see such a thing, if it did exist. But even from the highway, it was clear that life in the DPRK was hard. It was harvest time, but tractors were exceptionally rare, and even beasts of burden — scraggly ponies and bony oxen — were few and far between. Most people toiled in the fields by hand, and carried immense bundles of sticks or wheat on their backs, piled three or four times their own height. Even when they set these burdens aside, they ambled along permanently bent over by the weight. I had never seen farm work quite so grueling, even in the poorest parts of rural China.

The “highway” soon narrowed to a single well-paved lane in either direction. We saw no other vehicles, except for a convoy of three or four buses that passed us midway, going in the opposite direction. They carried South Koreans who had crossed the DMZ first thing that morning, presumably heading for family reunions or reunification-themed tours in Pyongyang.

I had visited the DMZ once, several years before, from the South Korean side. Apparently there had been official negotiations taking place, which prevented us for seeing the Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjom. Instead, we were taken to a mountain-top observation post where we could look across the valley into North Korea through coin-operated telescopes. Even at such a distance, the tension was palpable. About a mile away, you could see a huge flagpole, over 500 feet tall, flying a massive North Korean flag. At the far side of the valley, white box apartment buildings marked the city of Kaesong, with a tiny but clearly visible statue of Kim Il-Sung standing atop an outlying hill. It felt completely inaccessible, like looking at the moon.

Next they took us to one of four tunnels the North Koreans had secretly dug under the DMZ. There may be others, yet undiscovered. This one was found in 1978 on a tip from a North Korean defector, and is wide enough for one whole division to pass through it per hour, in the event of an invasion. Climbing down its slope through solid rock, for over 350 meters at an angle of over 10%, holding onto a rope, made it feel strangely like a ride at Disney World. Then you reach the bottom to find the first of three giant steel and concrete plugs marking the border. Standing deep underground, realizing you are a few feet away from North Korea and wondering what there might be on the other side of those plugs, is enough to raise the hair on the back of your head.

This time, arriving from the north, we wouldn’t be climbing down any tunnels, but we would get to visit the JSA at Panmunjom and see the actual border up close. When we finally arrived at the entrance to the DMZ, the bus stopped and let us out in a small parking lot in front of a massive concrete gate. Tall, olive-clad soldiers stood guard with automatic rifles, while others stood around smoking. We entered a building with a large map and relief table, and an officer briefed us (in Korean) on the layout of the DMZ. Outside the briefing hall there was a souvenir stand selling bottles of amber-colored wine with large cobras floating coiled up inside.

One by one, the empty buses pulled through the concrete gate. Then we were directed to line up, platoon-style again, and walk silently in single file through the gate to re-board the buses. On the other side, we found them lined up along a narrow sunken road, with stone walls on either side topped with huge concrete blocks. These blocks were rigged with cables to fall and block the path entirely in the event of an attack.

The DMZ is a surprisingly peaceful place, at least as you drive through it. In the years since the war, the absence of human habitation has turned some stretches into something of a wildlife preserve. Nearby towered the immense flagpole with the North Korean flag, which I had viewed through the telescopes from the other side. Farther away, just peeking over the trees, we could see a similar flagpole with a South Korean flag atop it. I felt like an astronaut on the moon gazing back at the earth. Our first visit, to the compound of buildings where the armistice had been signed in 1953, was historically interesting but uneventful. We were all eagerly anticipating our first real glimpse of Panmunjom, and the border itself.

Someone had remarked, earlier that day, that the then U.S. envoy to North Korea, Christopher Hill, was supposed to be entering the country that day to attend negotiations in Pyongyang. We didn’t give it much thought until we arrived at Panmunjom and marched up to the large reception building on the North Korean side of the JSA compound. As we approached the main entrance, a small group of Westerners in business suits emerged and begin climbing into awaiting vans. It was Christopher Hill and his entourage! If he saw us at all, he probably assumed we were Russians or something. We were just 20 feet away or so, and we wanted to shout out “Hey, we’re Americans!” But the North Korean side of the DMZ isn’t a smart place to suddenly shout anything, much less that particular piece of information. So we watched quietly and excitedly as he was driven away. We tried to explain to our minders exactly who that was, but they were non-plussed. But for us, it was precisely what we had come to see: history in the making.

From the viewing platform atop the reception hall, we could get a sense of the overall layout of the JSA. Directly opposite was a futuristic-looking building, the South Korean counterpart to the one we were now standing atop. Between them lay a series of long corrugated metal huts, parallel to each other and painted bright blue. These were the rooms where U.S., South Korean, and North Korean army officers met regularly to discuss practical issues related to maintaining the ceasefire. If one side or the other has a problem or demand, they make an announcement over a loudspeaker and the teams meet together in the blue huts. In the gap between each hut, a thin concrete line, about a foot across, marks the final boundary separating each side’s territory.

Back outside the reception building, we were lined up once more and marched down to the blue huts. There was no tension, just a mood of quiet intensity. Everyone knew that Panmunjom had seen vicious outbreaks of violence over the years, sudden gunshots or mass brawls involving axes and bayonets, but most days it was quiet, like this. The North Korean guards watched us nervously, intently. From this side, at least, the South Korean MPs actually looked much more intimidating in their shiny bullet-shaped helmets and what-we-have-here-is-a-failure-to-communicate sunglasses. Across from us, lined up at the base of the South Korean reception building, was a Western tour group — Americans probably – who no doubt were wondering who we might be.

We entered one of the blue huts and took seats around the tables inside. Those of us on the far side of the room were informed, by a North Korean officer, that we were now standing on South Korean territory. Any relief we might have felt, or any thoughts of making a quick bolt for friendly lines, was negated by the presence of a North Korean sentry standing firmly astride the far doorway.

After we filed back out to the North Korean side, we began taking pictures of each other standing in front of the dividing line. In the urge to take a memorable photo, our gaggle of visitors began pushing ever closer to the sensitive gap between the blue huts. Suddenly a North Korean guard clapped his hands and the relatively calm mood changed completely. We had pushed the limit, the guards had become agitated, and it was time to leave. We hurried away before trouble could brew.

We boarded our buses and returned along the same road to exit the DMZ. Our next stop was an old Confucian temple on the outskirts of Kaesong, which served as a small museum devoted to ancient Korean culture. It was beautifully restored, and at one point I hung back from the group a bit to take a photo without so many people in it. The compound was completely enclosed, and I couldn’t have been more than 20 yards away, in clear view, but Mr. Nervous had seen enough excitement for one day and quickly shooed me along. “Stay with the group!” he half ordered, half beseeched.

When I caught up to the group, inside one of the side courtyard buildings, everyone was gathered around a display of ancient artifacts. The guide was pointing out a comb, a needle, and finally a spoon. “Koreans invented the spoon,” she murmured proudly. What? We didn’t quite catch that. You said Koreans invented the spoon? “Yes,” she said, “Koreans invented the spoon.” The group was a little dumbfounded, but wanted to be polite. So, ahh, when was that? Slight hesitation before she responded: “Two thousand years ago.” Okay . . .

Now I happen to know that the ancient Egyptians had spoons, and plenty of them, 5,000 years ago. In fact, spoons probably date from a lot earlier than that, most likely the Stone Age when some clever fellow cut a gourd in half to form a ladle. But before we left Beijing, one of our Western tour coordinators gave us a piece of advice. “These people don’t have a lot,” he explained. “You have plenty. Sometimes people are going to say things that may seem silly to you, but just remember that while you get to go home, this is all they have. Let them have it. What does it cost you? Just let them have something.”

All of us stood around for a moment gawking at each other, recalling the same words of advice. And then we smiled, and gave in. “Wow. Koreans invented the spoon. How about that? Good for you guys.”

We broke for lunch in Kaesong, eager to try out our new knowledge of spoons. The city, barely a few miles from the DMZ, is home to a big industrial park where South Korean companies have been allowed to set up cross-border factories. The wages of the North Korean workers are paid to the DPRK government, which keeps most of it and passes along a tiny fraction to the employee. We weren’t allowed to visit any factories, but we did stop for lunch just below the statue of Kim Il-Sung atop the hill, the same one I had seen through the telescope several years before. So near and yet so far.

Like walking on the moon.

Patrick Chovanec is an associate professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in Beijing, China, where he teaches in the school’s International MBA Program. He blogs at http://chovanec.wordpress.com/ where this post first appeared.

August 28, 2009

Saving Pakistan From Itself


One of the central arguments behind the Obama administration's expanded commitment to Afghanistan is that failure to nation build will ultimately endanger Pakistan. Such arguments look a tad strained in light of today's news:

Despite strenuous entreaties by top U.S. officials, Pakistan has abandoned plans to mount a military offensive against the terrorist group responsible for a two-year campaign of suicide bombings across the country. Although the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has been in disarray since an Aug. 5 missile strike from a CIA-operated drone killed its leader, Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani military has concluded that a ground attack on its strongholds in South Waziristan would be too difficult...

...U.S. counterterrorism officials worry that a failure to capitalize on the post-Baitullah confusion within the TTP will allow its new leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, to consolidate his position and reorganize the organization. Officials in Washington say special envoy Richard Holbrooke and NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal have both pressed the Pakistanis to strike while the iron is hot. But after initial promises to launch a ground offensive in South Waziristan, the Pakistanis have backed off.

You would think that at a certain point, Pakistan's unwillingness to follow orders from Washington would cast the partnership, and our concerns for Pakistan's security, in a different light.

(Richard Holbrooke meets with Pakistan's Foreign Minister. AP Photos)

Debating Afghanistan


Joshua Foust at Registan argues that the over-riding strategic rationale for nation building in Afghanistan is to prevent India and Pakistan from coming to blows:

And lest anyone think it is appropriate to write off the India-Pakistan conflict as somebody else’s problem, it is never somebody else’s problem when nuclear weapons are involved. As Jari Lindholm reminded, India and Pakistan have come a hair’s breadth from nuclear conflict twice over Kashmir. And like it or not, it is a compelling and vital American interest to prevent nuclear conflict in South Asia—which makes “fixing” Afghanistan in some way also a vital American interest.
I'm not sure how far this really takes us when you consider that India and Pakistan have been fighting over Kashmir for six decades. Nuclear weapons have changed the potential lethality of that fight, and arguably heightened America's interest in seeing it resolved, but the underlying causes of the dispute long predates the introduction of nuclear weapons. If a solution was not forthcoming before the introduction of nuclear weapons, I'm not sure there's one to be found now, particularly if we're focusing on Afghanistan, which is at best tangential to the core problem in India-Pakistan relations. It's difficult to see how the dynamics of the Kashmir conflict change even if Afghanistan were somehow magically taken off the table.

It's also worth noting that the U.S. was able to reduce tensions between India and Pakistan with diplomacy when they edged toward a nuclear stand-off in 2002. It was one of the unheralded diplomatic successes of the Bush administration. Why wouldn't said diplomacy work as a model for navigating potential India-Pakistan flare ups vs. pouring billions of dollars and thousands of lives into Afghanistan?

And while it's true that the risks of a war between Pakistan and India are greater with nuclear weapons, those weapons could just as easily sharpen the minds of leaders on both sides about the potential costs of a war. The balance of terror isn't an ideal scenario, but it has so far restrained both parties from launching a nuclear salvo.

Foust continues:

When it comes to Pakistan, the big danger is not in a Taliban takeover, or even in the Taliban seizure of nuclear weapons—I have never believed that the ISI could be that monumentally stupid (though they are incredibly stupid for letting things get this far out of hand). The big danger, as it has been since 1999, is that insurgents, bored or underutilized in Afghanistan, will spark another confrontation between India and Pakistan, and that that confrontation will spillover into nuclear conflict.

Isn't the problem here Pakistan itself? It's pretty clear that irrespective of the state of things in Afghanistan, it is the Pakistani military that is driving, or at least enabling, terrorist violence against India. Denying insurgents a safe haven in Afghanistan doesn't help much if the Pakistani military remains committed to fighting India with terrorist proxies. There are a lot of places inside Pakistan where insurgents can train.

Stepping back, I think Foust is over-stating the nature of America's interests. Nation building in Afghanistan to ease Pakistani-India tensions is a very convoluted way of saying that U.S. soldiers need to be cannon fodder for the Taliban so that these insurgents don't get "bored" and turn their guns on India. That doesn't strike me as a wise use of American power, nor the best way to help Pakistan and India reach some workable accommodation over Kashmir.

UPDATE: Michael Cohen makes a similar point at Democracy Arsenal:

I really don't see why American troops have to be put in harm's way because a blow-up in Afghanistan might turn into a full-fledged India-Pakistan war. Why would the United States willingly hold itself and its soldiers hostage to an unresolved regional conflict? And are there really no other options - for example, diplomatic - for preventing such a war than "fixing" Afghanistan?

But there is something else about this argument that troubles me. Josh alleges that the big danger is if insurgents bored from the Afghanistan fight will try to spark a confrontation between India and Pakistan. I'm not clear as to why Afghan Taliban would in the wake of a US withdrawal want to get involved with the fight for Kashmir (did that happen from 1996-2001?) but the bigger question is that didn't jihadist terror groups already try to spark that conflict last November in the Mumbai attacks that killed 173 people? Not to minimize those horrific attacks, but even though the jihadists behind the Mumbai attacks were based in Pakistan - and probably backed by the ISI - it didn't spark a military escalation between the two countries. What would be different if we left Afghanistan?

But I will say one thing, if THIS is the rationale for saying I can understand "why even the war supporters cannot articulate them." I seriously doubt most Americans believe that we should be fighting a war in Afghanistan so that India and Pakistan don't fight one in the future.

(An anti-American rally in Peshawar, Pakistan. AP Photos)

August 27, 2009

Rumsfeld, Reconsidered

Jamie Fly makes several salient points about his former boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in the course of reviewing Bradley Graham's new biography. This struck me as the most pertinent for current events:

On the issue that caused Rumsfeld’s downfall — Iraq — By His Own Rules does not break much new ground, but it does provide useful context. The book makes clear that Rumsfeld’s supposed lack of planning for the postwar period needs to be viewed through the prism of his longtime interests in cutting costs and keeping American military deployments to a minimum. Rumsfeld had no interest in maintaining a significant troop presence in Iraq after Baghdad fell, and even less interest in establishing a flourishing democracy in the heart of the Middle East.

What is amazing is that the U.S. government as a whole did not resolve its contradictory opinions prior to the invasion. It is doubtful that Rumsfeld hid his views from his interagency counterparts.

I have made this point before, that Rumsfeld's disinclination toward nation building put him out of step in an administration that had clearly jettisoned any campaign skepticism it expressed about the proper use of American power. But I wonder if the "prism" through which we're to understand the post war debacle in Iraq is really Secretary Rumsfeld's aversion to military deployments. After all, how averse could he be if he endorsed the invasion in the first place?

Aimless in Afghanistan


The New York Times' C.J. Chivers says that counter-insurgency instructions handed out to officers in Afghanistan will stress that the aim of the U.S. military is to convince the Afghans that they should side with the government:

The mission, the commander says, is to protect the Afghans. The war will be won not by destroying the enemy, but by persuading the people. The international forces will have succeeded when the government of Afghanistan is supported by the population.

Again, this is a very far cry from stopping a terrorist attack against the United States. We're now using our military to protect Afghans and to convince them that their government - which Chivers' paper informs us is riddled with corrupt drug lords - is a force for good in their lives.

Spencer Ackerman adds some more context to General McChrystal's counter-insurgency strategy for Afghanistan:

He demands that his troops think about how they’d feel if a foreign army operated in their hometowns. A section called “playing into their hands” compares a unit that lumbers toward an engagement with an insurgent group to a bull chasing a matador’s cape. Civilian casualties “sow the seeds of our own demise.” Parables offered as sidebars urge commanders to respond to rocket attacks with school supplies.

That first sentence is important because it underscores the basic trouble with the mission as it is currently conceived. Countries almost never want to be occupied by a foreign military power. Do we have any idea how many school supplies it will take to change that?

(AP Photos)

Mexico's Crime and Security Problem

The Instituto de Estudios Ciudadanos sobre la Inseguridad (ICESI) has released a new report detailing the security problems that Mexico is currently facing.

* Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Baja California (all states where drug traffickers have a heavy presence) are now more dangerous places than Mexico City.

* The study compares the levels of crime in Chihuahua and Sinaloa as comparable to the levels of crime in Venezuela and South Africa.

* Approximately one in five crimes are reported in Mexico.

* 16% of those that do not report crimes state that a lack of confidence in the public ministry is the chief reason. 39% state that reporting crimes is a waste of time.

* Over half of the Mexicans interviewed stated that they do not go out at night for fear of becoming victims to crime.

* 6 out of every 10 Mexicans interviewed do not let their kids go out by themselves.

President Calderon and Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora have been working overtime trying to reduce fears that the security situation in Mexico is out of control. Medina Mora pointed out last week that Mexico’s crime rate has actually dropped from levels 15 years ago. It’s hard to know, since so much crime is not reported in Mexico. What is clear from this study is that Mexicans are feeling more insecure every day. If Calderon’s PAN party is to rebuild from its losses it suffered in July, it must somehow change public perception about insecurity.

With headless bodies being discovered daily in Mexico, stating crime statistics from 15 years ago may not do the trick.

August 25, 2009

My Visit to North Korea, Part 2

(Continued from Part 1)

By Patrick Chovanec

When you arrive in North Korea, there’s a sense of unreality about it. I suspect even Bill Clinton, when he climbed out his private jet onto the tarmac at Pyongyang, must have wondered to himself, “Is this really happening? Am I actually here?” For most of us, North Korea seems to occupy the same imaginary plane of existence as Mordor. I live in Beijing, and the concrete realization that the DPRK is a real place just a short hour and a half flight away — even though I’d known it all along in theory — came as quite a shock. Showing up at the Beijing airport and checking into my flight felt like that scene in Harry Potter where the plain brick walls of King’s Cross station give way to reveal a hidden platform with a magic train to whisk him off to Hogwarts.

In response to Part 1 of my story, many readers where curious to know what the North Koreans we encountered were really thinking behind their fearful and fearsome stares. From the few glimpses we were able to gather, what is life really like there, and what do people think of the outside world? I’m going explore these questions in future posts, and try to offer a few possible insights. But for the moment, let’s take a while to revel in the surreal “down the rabbit hole” quality of those first few hours in Pyongyang. And the best place to do that is at the hotel where we stayed.

Foreign tourists to North Korea pose a problem. The government wants their money, and needs them to show off at the Mass Games, but it certainly doesn’t want foreigners walking the streets and talking to random citizens. If only it could stick them somewhere, like on an island — which is exactly what they’ve done. The Yanggakdo International Hotel is a 47-story tower (one of the tallest in Pyongyang) located on an island in the middle of the Taedong River which bisects the city. The only links to the city are a single, heavily guarded steel bridge on either side, which guests are not permitted to cross. Even on the grounds surrounding the hotel itself, you must have an escort.


The hotel and its rooms are basic but fairly comfortable. You can even, believe it or not, watch BBC on your TV. (The local guides and minders also stay at the hotel, but on separate floors that do not have BBC. We asked one of our minders, who seemed relatively well-informed about world events, whether he had ever watched CNN or BBC, and he said — quite ingenuously — that he had never done so). As for the bed, I came away with a cluster of three angry red flea bites that itched horrendously for weeks afterwards.

Yanggakdo is officially rated as a 4-star hotel, and I would say it corresponds to a typical 4-star hotel in China, with their elaborate facilities and somewhat clumsy execution. You might be surprised to learn that TripAdvisor.com gives it a 94% positive rating, but the titles of the reviews — “The weirdness of it all,” “You won’t have a choice, but still, this is quite OK,” “Excellent views over a strange city,” “Probably the best hotel in an odd place,” – give you a better notion of how bizarre it all seems.

The grounds around the hotel feature a 9-hole par 3 golf course. It was either here or at another, 18-hole course outside of Pyongyang where Kim Jong-Il once played a legendary round of golf, scoring a hole-in-one at every hole except one. Why the missed shot? Because naturally only his father, Kim Il-Sung, would have been capable of playing a truly perfect game. Nearby is a driving range where you hit the balls directly into the river. We were told — and once again could not verify — that all those balls are recovered and recycled by divers who regularly sweep the bottom of the river. There are several other structures on the island, including a cinema and a stadium, which reportedly are almost never used.

The cafe-bar in the hotel lobby serves as a major meeting place and social hub for all kinds of foreigners in Pyongyang, sort of like Rick’s in Casablanca. Between diplomats, aid workers, and tour coordinators, there are a surprising number of Westerners in the city, and the Yonggakdo is one of the few places for them to go. There are also a quite a few businessmen passing through — not engaged in anything nefarious, at least on the surface, just the unglamorous barter trade in machine parts and raw materials that keeps this pariah state functioning despite everything. The guides and minders also like to hang out at the bar, sharing stories and making contacts, into the wee hours of the night. All in all, it’s probably one of the best places to get a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in North Korea.

Next to the bar there’s a phone exchange where you can actually call home at an exorbitant rate per half-minute. There’s no need to change any money. This and all the other stores and services visitors encounter accept hard currency only, and it is actually illegal for you to posses North Korean notes, except one or two to take home as a souvenir.

Once you’ve tired of the lobby, there’s plenty to explore. At the opposite end from the bar is a dark, narrow stairway under a sign that says “recreation center.” Follow it down and it leads to a long, winding subterranean passage lit by flickering fluorescent bulbs. Now you really are down the rabbit hole. The path snakes, widens, and narrows inexplicably, and at points the ceiling drops and the floor rises so even the shortest members of our party had to duck their heads through. Off to one side an opening suddenly reveals a smoke-filled billiards room. A few paces later, there’s another door, this one to a large and well-lit bowling alley. Finally, around one more corner, we arrive at a seedy-looking Karaoke bar. A few days later, our group actually had lunch there, while the KTV machine cycled through American songs such as “You Are My Sunshine” and “Georgia on My Mind.” As we were finishing up, the video screen suddenly erupted into a stirring rendition of “America the Beautiful,” with images of the Stars and Stripes fluttering in the wind – not exactly what we expected to find on the Karaoke play list in North Korea!

What we were actually looking for, though, when we first went exploring, was the casino. We had been told that there was a gambling casino, as well as a female-staffed “sauna” of notorious ill-repute in the basement. But we had the wrong basement. Behind the elevators was another sign and another stairwell, this one rather more elegantly appointed, leading to the “Casino Pyongyang” and the “Golden Spring Island Sauna,” both operated by an outfit from Macau. And when I say “outfit,” I think it would be safe to say we’re talking about The Outfit, as in Triads. North Korea has close ties with some rather colorful banks and nightclubs in Macau itself, so it’s actually no surprise their partners have set up a side operation in Pyongyang.

Figuring that what happens in Pyongyang probably doesn’t stay in Pyongyang, and might even end up widely distributed on DVD, we gave the “sauna” wide berth. We gladly paid the small entrance fee to the casino, however. It was packed with Chinese tourists playing slot machines, roulette, and Black Jack — apparently Pyongyang is quite popular with north China day-trippers who see it as a low-rent alternative to flying all the way down to Macau. I’m not much of a gambler in any event, but none of us were inclined to try the odds. In North Korea, we suspected, the House always won.

Supposedly there’s also a revolving restaurant on the hotel’s top floor, but they don’t run it unless you go up and find someone to turn it on. We never figured it was worthwhile to ask, since the only time we were at the hotel was at night, when the city was so pitch black you couldn’t see anything anyway (more on that topic in a future post).

As great as the Yanggakdo Hotel may sound, it pales in comparison to the hotel that was supposed to serve as Pyongyang’s premier tourist facility. Looking out our hotel window at the Pyongyang skyline (when we could actually see anything besides a shroud of fog), you could see an immense triangular structure, like a pyramid. Its shadowy presence looms over the city wherever you go, but it appears on no official map. If you point to it and ask, the guide will evade your question. Disturbingly, this mystery tower fits almost the exact description of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel 1984:

The Ministry of Truth — Minitrue, in Newspeak — was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air. From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:




In fact, this gargantuan structure is the Ryugyong Hotel, the 28th tallest building in the world and Pyongyang’s biggest embarrassment.


In 1986, a South Korean construction company built the 73-story Westin Stamford Hotel in Singapore, the tallest hotel in south Asia and the 3rd tallest in the world. Kim Il-Sung was mighty peeved, and decided to construct a skyscraper hotel in Pyongyang that would top it. The planned hotel would have 105 floors, stand 330 meters high, and boast 3000 rooms. After several years of construction, and $750 million (2% of the entire country’s GDP) down the drain, the building was discovered to be structurally unsound due to fatal design flaws and substandard materials. For the past 17 years, its unfinished, empty shell — nicknamed the “Hotel of Doom” — has presided over the city like a concrete ghost, too huge to demolish. From time to time construction activity appears to resume, only to taper off again. But for the most part, North Koreans wisely pretend not to notice this monstrous mistake in their midst.

As they say, Ignorance is Strength.

Patrick Chovanec is a professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management in Beijing, China. He blogs at http://chovanec.wordpress.com/ where this post first appeared.

August 24, 2009

Honduras Rejects Zelaya Deal, Reasserts Sovereignty


The Honduran Supreme Court rejected on Friday the San José Accord, which was brokered by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. The Supreme Court insisted that all accords are subject to the country's Constitution.

Arias's seven-point proposal had called for deposed president Manuel Zelaya's reinstatement and amnesty.

The Honduran Supreme Court's ruling lays out nine items that directly address Arias's proposal. Item number 2 specifically reminds Zelaya that he's accused of

crimes against the form of government, treason, abuse of authority, against the public and the State of Honduras
and would be facing charges upon his return.

Zelaya supporters in the country threw fire-bombs at a newspaper office last week and set fire to a fast-food restaurant. However, the supporters that had congregated at the Nicaraguan border are heading back to their homes. Last week Honduras ordered the expulsion of six Argentinian diplomats who back Zelaya, following Argentina's expulsion of the Honduran ambassador, who backs Zelaya. The Argentinian diplomats are confined to their embassy.

Zelaya is still canvassing for support outside the country. During his trip to Mexico this month, where he was received with state honors, he made a speech criticizing Mexican president Felipe Calderón, who initially supported Zelaya's return to power. Zelaya said, "It's better to feel like the president than to be the president, and I say this to Lopez Obrador". López Obrador, Calderón's rival, refers to himself as Mexico's "legitimate president." Following the speech, Mexican authorities denied Zelaya access to any media and escorted him to the airport.

Friday's Honduran Supreme Court ruling concludes by asserting that any political agreement derived from the San José Accord should be in compliance with Honduras's laws and Constitution and the country's rule of law.

This morning Organization of American States Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, along with seven other foreign officials arrived in Honduras to continue negotiating. The countries represented are Argentina (Jorge Taiana), Canada (Peter Kenneth), Costa Rica (Bruno Stagno), Jamaica (Kenneth Baugh), México (Patricia Espinoza), Panamá (Juan Carlos Varela), and Dominican Republic (Carlos Morales).

Russia Revises Military Doctrine

Russia is set to release a revision of its military doctrine in September 2009. The new doctrine will have two parts: open (describing various military-political aspects) and closed (outlining the possibility of using the army and navy, including the use of nuclear weapons as an instrument of strategic deterrence). According to General Anatoly Nogovytsin, Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and head of the working group developing the new doctrine, "the new version, developed with guidance from the Security Council, will differ from the existing one. We are carefully monitoring the governing documents of other countries, such as the position of the United States and NATO in military matters, that also have a 'closed' section in their doctrines. But that does not mean that Russia is trying to escalate tensions or consider Washington and NATO as the main threat."

As for the current threats to Russia and the need to revise the doctrine, and judging by recent statements made by the Russian military, the sources of concern for Moscow are missile defense in Eastern Europe and local military conflict near its territory. Russian Air Force Commander Alexander Zelin says that in 20 years (or approximately in 2030), United States and several other foreign countries will be able to strike anywhere throughout Russia with the use of air-space vehicles and weapons built on new physical principles. Consequently, Russia has to respond to such developments.

One possibility for technological deterrence and homeland defense is the establishment of the new generation of the anti-aircraft missile system - S-500 - which will be a further development of existing S-400 Triumph fielded in the country. This system can solve problems of air and space defense, such as destroying ballistic hypersonic targets flying at the speed of 5 kilometers per second. The closed portion of the doctrine will perhaps be describing such developments.

August 23, 2009

My Visit to North Korea, Part 1

(Photo: Patrick Chovanec)

By Patrick Chovanec

In October 2008, I traveled to North Korea. Before our departure, our group was informed that we marked roughly the 1,000th U.S. citizen to visit North Korea since the Korean War, over 58 years ago. In the wake of former President Clinton’s surprise visit to Pyongyang, to retrieve two imprisoned U.S. journalists, many people have asked me about my trip. Over the next several weeks, in a series of posts, I will relate some of my experiences and impressions from this journey.

Many Americans are under the incorrect impression that it is illegal for them to travel to North Korea, much like Cuba. While the U.S. does place a strict cap ($100) on how many souvenirs you can buy and bring home, as part of its commercial sanctions, the main obstacle to travel stems from the North Korean side, which grants only a handful of visas to U.S. citizens each year to view the Mass Games. Regardless, I realize that many people still have strong moral objections to traveling to North Korea (also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK). I understand and actually share many of those objections. There were some aspects of the trip that I found upsetting or uncomfortable, as I will explain. But I felt that these objections and discomforts were outweighed by the unique opportunity to gather first-hand knowledge and insight into a country few Americans have ever seen. Keep in mind, as you read, that I have sometimes muted opinions or omitted details that might put others, particularly any North Koreans we interacted with, at risk. The intelligent reader will be able to read between the lines.

When you visit North Korea, they tell you all the things you’re going to see, but they don’t let you know until the very last minute — usually when you get on the bus — exactly when you’re going to go see them. The idea, I imagine, is to prevent you from arranging to meet up with someone at a pre-determined time and place — which would be a pretty astonishing feat even with a fixed itinerary. The tour group is always together, under the supervision of one guide and two friendly but alert minders. No laptops or cell phones are allowed into the country. You must ask permission before taking any photograph. You must not stray more than a few yards from the group at any moment, and when the sightseeing schedule for the day is over, you are essentially confined to the hotel.

The centerpiece of all tours, which I’ll focus on today, is the mandatory visit to the mausoleum of Kim Il-Sung, who founded the DPRK with Stalin’s backing, launched the Korean War, and eventually bequeathed his reign to his son Kim Jong-Il, the country’s current ruler. They tell you about it the night before, because you have to wear a collared shirt and tie, along with nice shoes and pants. The visit is a very big deal as far as the North Koreans are concerned, and the guides are all riding on pins and needles to make sure the proper courtesies are observed. Kim Il-Sung, the “Great Leader,” is regarded as a virtual god among men, the pinnacle of human perfection in all respects, and his mausoleum is actually a vast Versailles-like palace complex on the outskirts of Pyongyang. It makes Mao’s tomb in Beijing, or Lenin’s in Moscow, seem like mere hovels by comparison.

When we arrived at the marble entrance pavilion, we were whisked past a long line of North Koreans waiting to enter by work unit. We were told, later, that each work unit in the entire country pays two visits to the mausoleum every year. I can’t confirm whether that is true, but we did hear it separately from multiple sources. And given the resources devoted to performing the Mass Games, and the central role the elder Kim’s cult of personality plays in underpinning the regime, I can easily believe it. As one of our foreign guides explained, Kim’s tomb is the most sacred site in all of North Korea, a kind of Vatican, Mecca, and Temple Mount all rolled into one.

Just past the doors, we passed through a security check with metal detectors and handed over our cameras, which were strictly prohibited beyond this point. In complete silence, we descended an escalator and stepped foot onto a series of moving walkways — like the ones at airports – that carried us through a long narrow corridor, several football fields in length. A parallel walkway, to our right, carried work units of North Koreans who had just completed their visit slowly past us in the opposite direction, also in total silence. Each of their faces, as they passed, followed us with looks of fear, revulsion, and hostility such as I have never seen. Unnerved, we giggled uncomfortably to each other and tried to avoid their unrelenting stares.

Finally we reached the end of this ordeal and entered a large marble foyer. We were instructed to form up, platoon-style, in front of a massive door. The North Koreans are well practiced lining up for everything, but among the Americans I was probably the only one who had ever done this before in the army, so we shuffled back and forth in disarray for a while as our hosts shook their heads, unimpressed. Then the doors swung open and we marched into a large hall where, at the far end, a great statue of Kim Il-Sung, about 30 feet tall in the purest white marble, stood facing us. On a screen behind it, the warm pink glow of a sunrise was just beginning to emerge below a clear blue sky.

There are moments in life when you are reduced to silence. It could be the moment your bride walks down the aisle, or when you hold your firstborn child in your arms, or when you witness death up close. Time stops, and you cross an invisible boundary where you confront something so fundamental that it escapes either word or thought. And that moment stays with you forever, coloring all that you are.

For me, walking across that hall, seeing that statue loom larger and larger, with that sunrise behind it, was one of those moments. It sounds trite to say that it reminded me of Big Brother in 1984, that I felt I had walked into the pages of that novel, except this was real. It sounds clichéd to say it made me appreciate being born in a free country or made me realize, for a moment, what it might have been like not to be. But that statue and that hallway conveyed something very simple, a feeling I will never forget: I am big and you are small. I am powerful and you are nothing. And the worst part was knowing that, at that moment, it was true.

There was a popular and very influential TV ad by Apple Computer, a take-off of 1984, where a lone renegade enters a great assembly hall presided over by an image of Big Brother, and heaves a giant hammer that destroys it. Obama supporters even parodied the ad last year, in a dig at Hillary Clinton. It’s a romantic notion, one that could only be entertained in a free society. In that room, beneath that smiling statue, it became painfully obvious how inconceivable and futile such an act of defiance would be, in real life. What if this were the only reality I knew? What if the consequences of even thinking, even imagining something different would be devastating, for me and my whole family? This place was no book. It was no ad. It was no joke. What if this were my life and I couldn’t just walk out of here and fly back home?

With these thoughts half-formed in my mind, we were ushered out the side and into another room where we were handed little MP3 players with earphones. On either side of the room were carved reliefs depicting both Koreans and foreigners weeping inconsolably, tearing their hair, and beating their breasts in grief. The voice in the earphone intoned in the most Shakespearian style of oratory how people all over the world broke down in tears when they heard on July 8, 1994 the news that the great Kim Il-Sung had died. Could it possibly be? How could they go on? What more was there to live for? Would anyone smile or laugh ever again?

At some point during all this we were pressed one by one through a narrow metal doorway which shot concentrated poofs of air at us as we passed. We were told that it was to remove any dust, sort of a “cleansing ritual” before seeing the Great Leader himself, but at this point the mind could hardly keep from imagining something more bizarre and sinister.

At long last, we entered a great red chamber where Kim Il-Sung himself lay in state. At least it looked like Kim, waxily preserved for posterity. All around him Koreans — especially older Korean women in traditional robes — were sobbing in tears. The entire room buzzed with an emotional energy that certainly seemed heartfelt. Each group proceeded around the open casket, lining up and bowing three times, once on the side, once at the head, and again on the other side.

I had been warned, before signing up for the tour, that we would be expected to bow at this point. I found the idea distasteful in the extreme, but had been assured that bowing, to the Koreans, was seen not as a sign of submission or obeisance, but simple politeness. And it was non-negotiable. To not bow would be deeply offensive. It was, if you like, the price of admission.

Now the moment was upon us. As we lined up to take our turn, I thought about our soldiers back in 1950, fighting to hold the Pusan Perimeter, or desperate and freezing along the Chosin Reservoir – the same men I had seen puttering around American Legion posts back home, or honored in bronze on the Washington Mall. How could I ever look them in the face? I thought about the needless destruction, and the orphans, and the nightmare that was still happening all around me. I tried to bow, out of sheer politeness, I really did. But my stomach clenched and my waist just wouldn’t bend. The moment passed, and I looked around in a panic, terrified that someone would be furious, but everyone seemed too preoccupied to notice. I performed the same half-twitch at each station and moved on, feeling depressed and drained.

Somehow we ended up on the same moving walkway, carrying us back down the long corridor towards the exit. Except that now the tension had burst, and we were chattering openly with each other, barely noticing the endless parade of hostile stares from North Koreans passing us on the way in.

We retrieved our cameras, and were taken outside to take pictures in front of the palace. There the mood of the North Koreans we encountered changed completely. They laughed and waved, even posed for us, like holiday-makers out strolling in their Sunday best. No longer in the immediate presence of the Great Leader, the tension had suddenly dissipated for them as well, and they had resumed their role as regular human beings. It was one of the precious few chances we had to interact with everyday North Koreans in a relatively unconstrained setting.

(Continue to Part 2)

Patrick Chovanec is a professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management in Beijing, China. He blogs at http://chovanec.wordpress.com/ where this post first appeared.

August 22, 2009

Iran's New Defense Minister Wanted for Bombing

I mentioned in a post last January that Iran is holding several of its citizens from being tried in Argentina for planning the 1994 bombing of the Argentine AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people.

Ahamad%20Vahidi.jpgNow one of those people, Ahmad Vahidi, has been selected for Defense Minister of Iran: The Guardian has the story,
Ahmadinejad chooses wanted man for cabinet
Iran's new defence minister sought by Interpol for 1994 bombing of Jewish centre

A former commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards has been nominated by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president, to head the country's defence ministry, despite being listed on Interpol's wanted register for the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural centre in Argentina.

Argentinian prosecutors joined Jewish groups last night in condemnation of Ahmadinejad's decision to propose Ahmad Vahidi for the senior cabinet post.

Vahidi has been on an Interpol "red notice" since November 2007, in connection with the car bomb attack on the Israeli-Argentine Mutual Association (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people and injured 150 – the worst attack on a Jewish target outside Israel since the second world war.

Interpol's red notices are alerts to its 187 member nations. They are not arrest warrants but are sometimes interpreted as a request for apprehending a suspect.

At the time of the attack Vahidi, who is currently Iran's deputy defense minister, commanded a notorious unit of the Revolutionary Guards called the Quds Force. It is known for orchestrating Iran's overseas operations including working alongside Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group, which is accused of carrying out the Buenos Aires attack on the instigation of Iran.

Argentinian prosecutor Alberto Nisman was not surprised with the appointment, considering Iran's record of sheltering terrorists:
Mr Nisman said that Mr Vahidi, who led a unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guard known as the Quds Force at the time of the attack, was accused of "being a key participant in the planning and of having made the decision to go ahead with the attack" against the AMIA.

"It has been demonstrated that Vahidi participated in and approved of the decision to attack AMIA during the meeting in Iraq on 14 August 1993", the prosecutor said.

Argentinian daily Clarin reports that Argentina issued an official statement declaring Vahidi's nomination "an affront to Argentinian Justice and the victims of the brutal terrorist attack against the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA)", and demanded Iran's cooperation in the case. AMIA president Guillermo Borger called Vahidi's nomination "shameful and insulting."

Vahidi was deputy defense minister during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first term in office.

F-35, Watch Out: Russia Testing New Jet Fighter

Photo Courtesy Lenta.ru

If the American military establishment is still thinking if its manned aircraft systems will have to compete with anyone many decades from now, they should rest assured - Russia is not far behind in trying to field its newest fifth-generation jet fighter. "Sukhoi" Aircat Company has begun testing a second working prototype of the plane dubbed PAK FA - Perspective Aviation Complex of the Battlefield Aviation.

The aircraft - which looks similar to both American F-22 and F-35 planes - has been moved to Moscow for further evaluation. Russia begun developing the plane in late 2007. And just like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that will be built and fielded by a number of international partners, Russia is in talks with India and Brazil to possibly produce the aircraft for service with these countries. For the record, Russian aircraft manufacturers already consider F-35 Lighting a serious competition, "given a limited volume of sales that can be generated from exporting military aircraft around the world."

August 21, 2009

Lockerbie Bomber's "Triumphant" Return

Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi stepped off a plane in Libya to a hero's welcome, according to the New York Times.

From the Times:

As Mr. Megrahi’s plane landed in Tripoli, hundreds of young Libyans were bused to the military airport to welcome him home, cheering and waving Libyan and Scottish flags as he sped off in a convoy of white vehicles.

I'm not sure what this outrageous spectacle is supposed to earn Libya, but it certainly casts Scotland's leadership in a rather bad light, doesn't it?

(AP Photos)

The Huckabee Peace Plan, Ctd.

Matthew Duss wonders if Mike Huckabee's Middle East peace plan (forcibly removing West Bank Palestinians and depositing them "somewhere else") will cost him politically.

It's early yet, of course, but so far it looks like the answer, as predicted, is no. From Public Policy Polling:

Our fifth monthly national survey matching up Barack Obama against some possible 2012 opponents comes to the same two primary conclusions as the other four:

1) Obama leads all comers
2) Mike Huckabee, at least at this early stage, is the strongest GOP candidate

In this particular iteration of the poll, Huckabee comes the closest to Obama that he has yet, trailing just 47-44. That's tightened since the President led 48-42 a month ago.

Huckabee also has the best overall favorability rating of the Republican quartet we tested, at 45/28.

Update: Daniel Larison offers his thoughts on the Huckabee One State Solution:

While Huckabee may not have thought out quite what this entails, it would mean either that the Palestinians remain a stateless, second-class people in the territories or that they would have to be relocated to some other territory that Huckabee would not regard as being in “the middle of the Jewish homeland.”

(AP Photos)

August 20, 2009

Defining Success in Afghanistan

Peter Bergen takes issue with Stephen Walt's bleak view of nation building in Afghanistan:

The implication of Walt's objection to the ramped-up Obama strategy in Afghanistan is that the U.S. should either do less in Afghanistan, or even just get out altogether. But America has already gone down this road. Twice. In 1989 the U.S. closed its embassy in Kabul and then effectively zeroed out aid to one of the poorest countries in the world; meanwhile Afghanistan was racked by a civil war, which spawned the Taliban who then gave safe haven to al Qaeda.

Then in the winter of 2001 the Bush administration overthrew the Taliban, and because of its aversion to nation-building rebuilt the country on the cheap and quickly got distracted by the war in Iraq. Into the resulting vacuum stepped a resurgent Taliban. This time the movement of religious warriors was much more closely aligned with al Qaeda.

So the U.S. has already tried the Do Nothing approach and the Do It Light approach in Afghanistan, the results of which are well known. The Obama administration is now attempting a Do It Seriously approach, which has a real chance of success.

OK. But what if we succeed? Does that mean there's no more al Qaeda? That international terrorism directed at the U.S. or Western targets is finished?

It's not hard to envision a scenario where the U.S. turns back the Taliban insurgency and drives it into Pakistan. Let's further envision Richard Holbrooke manages to convince Pakistan to divert more resources toward fighting the Taliban, and we manage to grind them further inside Pakistan. A couple of lucky drone strikes and we kill bin Laden and a few of his senior deputies. That's all good, so far. But presumably at this point, those with a stake in waging jihad against the West are going to get wise to the situation and try to escape. Some can't get out, but others do. There's no shortage of places for them to go, and Pakistan would be all too willing to let them leave. Then what?

Does the next state where al Qaeda takes root get subjected to "Do It Seriously?"

(AP Photos)

Great Powers & Failed States

The Wall Street Journal reports that India is burrowing into Afghanistan:

After shunning Afghanistan during the Taliban regime, India has become a major donor and new friend to the country's democratic government -- even if its growing presence here riles archrival Pakistan.

From wells and toilets to power plants and satellite transmitters, India is seeding Afghanistan with a vast array of projects. The $1.2 billion in pledged assistance includes projects both vital to Afghanistan's economy, such as a completed road link to Iran's border, and symbolic of its democratic aspirations, such as the construction of a new parliament building in Kabul. The Indian government is also paying to bring scores of bureaucrats to India, as it cultivates a new generation of Afghan officialdom.

This leads Justin Logan to wonder just how the Obama administration - and the boosters of counter-insurgency theory - propose to deal with this situation:

Eventually–although in fairness, God only knows when–we’re going to leave Afghanistan. When that happens, India and Pakistan are still going to live in the neighborhood. They’d each prefer to have lots of influence in Afghanistan, and to preclude the other from having too much. Accordingly, they’re both trying to set up structures and relationships that would, in the ideal scenario, let them control Afghanistan. In a less-than-ideal scenario, they’d like enough influence to undermine the other’s control of the country. Until you grasp that nettle, you’re really just fumbling around in the dark.

Find a solution for that in your COIN manual.

This problem - they live there, we don't - is not one that's possible to solve.

More broadly, I think the WSJ article underscores a point that Jakub Grygiel made in the American Interest: the real danger of failed states is not their ability to breed international problems like terrorism or drug trafficking, but that they tempt other powers to step into the vacuum, thus heightening the chances of great power conflict.

The War in Afghanistan Through the Years

The Council on Foreign Relations has put together a nice interactive timeline of America's war in Afghanistan.

Would the Taliban Follow Us Home?


Stephen Walt raises a number of good questions about whether Afghanistan would revert back to an al Qaeda safe haven if the U.S. withdrew. His fifth point seems the most salient:

Fifth, as well-informed critics have already observed, the primary motivation for extremist organizations like the Taliban and Al Qaeda is their opposition to what they regard as unwarranted outside interference in their own societies. Increasing the U.S. military presence and engaging in various forms of social engineering is as likely to reinforce such motivations as it is to eliminate them. Obama is hoping that a different strategy will eventually undercut support for the Taliban and strengthen the central government, but it is still an open question whether more American involvement will have positive or negative effects. If we are in fact making things worse, then we may be encouraging precisely the outcome we are trying to avoid.

How much of the American effort in Afghanistan is dedicated to fighting people who are fighting us simply because we're there? Clearly, al Qaeda elements inside Pakistan have a clear desire and demonstrated capacity to strike into the West (although that's been diminished since 9/11) but can the same be said of the Taliban?

(AP Photos)

Afghanistan Votes


Incumbent President Hamid Karzai casts his ballot. (AP Photos)


Afghan women crowd into a polling station. (AP Photos)


Afghans wait in line to cast their ballot. (AP Photos)

Donkeys laden with election supplies head to a polling station in Panjshir Province. (AP Photos)

August 19, 2009

Poll: U.S. Public Souring on Afghanistan


It looks like the U.S. is starting to drift toward Europe on the question of the mission in Afghanistan. The Washington Post reports:

A majority of Americans now see the war in Afghanistan as not worth fighting and just a quarter say more U.S. troops should be sent to the country, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

However, as the Post goes onto note, the President is enjoying support for his policies from Republicans:

Overall, seven in 10 Democrats say the war has not been worth its costs, and fewer than one in five support an increase in troop levels. Nearly two-thirds of the most committed Democrats now feel "strongly" that the war was not worth fighting. Among moderate and conservative Democrats, a slim majority say the United States is losing in Afghanistan.

Republicans (70 percent say it is worth fighting) and conservatives (58 percent) remain the war's strongest backers, and the issue provides a rare point of GOP support for Obama's policies. A narrow majority of conservatives approve of Obama's handling of the war (52 percent), as do more than four in 10 Republicans (43 percent).

The public clearly favors killing terrorists, but there does appear to be a well founded (in my view) skepticism of the administration's goal of "armed state building" in Afghanistan.

(AP Photos)

Clinton on U.S. Bases in Colombia

Reports that the U.S. was planning a basing agreement with Colombia set off protests from the usual suspects.

Secretary Clinton addressed the issue with reporters yesterday after her meeting with Colombia's foreign minister :

The foreign minister and I also discussed the bilateral defense cooperation agreement that our governments hope to sign in the near future. This agreement ensures that appropriate protections are in place for our service members. It will allow us to continue working together to meet the challenges posed by narco-traffickers, terrorists, and other illegal armed groups in Colombia. These threats are real, and the United States is committed to supporting the Government of Colombia in its efforts to provide security for all of its citizens.

I want to be clear about what this agreement does and does not do. First, the agreement does not create U.S. bases in Colombia. It does provide the United States access to Colombian bases, but command and control, administration, and security will be Colombia’s responsibility, and any U.S. activity will have to be mutually agreed upon in advance. The United States does not have and does not seek bases inside Colombia.

Second, there will be no significant permanent increase in the U.S. military presence in Colombia. The congressionally mandated cap on the number of U.S. service members and contractors will remain and will be respected.

And third, this agreement does not pertain to other countries. This is about the bilateral cooperation between the United States and Colombia regarding security matters within Colombia.

Full text of the statements, plus a Q&A with reporters, here.

Chinese City Makes 2018 Olympic Bid

By Patrick Chovanec

Reuters reports that the Chinese city of Harbin wants to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. Its request to put in a bid must first be approved by China’s cabinet, the State Council. Even if permission is granted, China’s sports minister says that winning the bid would be “difficult” given stiff competition from better-known contenders like Geneva and Munich.

Nevertheless, I’m thrilled, and hope China’s leaders give Harbin the go ahead. It’s a fantastic city and would benefit immensely from hosting the Winter Olympics.

Harbin is located in the far northeast of China, near the border with Siberia. Founded by the Russians in 1898 as an important junction on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Harbin is famous for old colonial architecture, bitterly cold weather, and 150-proof grain alcohol. It hosts an incredible festival every winter featuring huge snow and ice sculptures, including life-size castles and churches. It’s also home to a Siberian tiger reserve where the ”entertainment” includes feeding live chickens to the tigers.

When cities like Paris, New York, or London bid to host the Olympics, I have to wonder what they are thinking. Those cities already possess the attractions and facilities they need to bring in visitors, and the Olympics add nothing but security headaches and costly over-investment. The 2008 Beijing Games served as a big coming-out party for China, a focus for national pride–but for the city itself they were pretty much a bust. Beijing actually ended up attracting fewer visitors than normal last summer, and most of the venues now lie empty.

For Harbin, on the other hand, the Olympics would be a golden opportunity. The northeast, where the city is located, has run up on hard times. The region was home to many of China’s state-owned industries that collapsed in the 1990s, throwing millions of people out of work. It has struggled to develop replacement sources of income, such as winter tourism. The area’s ski resorts are promising but primitive, and poorly known even within China. Construction of new world-class recreation facilities, and the massive positive exposure that hosting the Olympics would bring, are just what Harbin needs to jump-start its future–and maybe even give those poor tigers and chickens a break. The benefits would endure long after the Games.

It’s true that Harbin may need help in preparing its bid. It lost previous bids to host next February’s 2010 Winter Olympics (to Vancouver) and the 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games (to Innsbruck), probably due to inexperience. But if China’s central government put its weight behind the effort, there’s no doubt in my mind that Harbin could put together a more persuasive case.

The Olympics can be an excessive indulgence for already world-famous cities, or they can be a chance to introduce new and exciting places onto the world stage, and give struggling cities a shot at rejuvenation. Harbin is a great place to start.

Patrick Chovanec is an associate professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in Beijing, China, where he teaches in the school’s International MBA Program. He blogs at http://chovanec.wordpress.com/ where this post first appeared.

Swedish Paper: Israel Harvests Organs from Palestinians

We're accustomed to hearing loony conspiracies and blood libels from Arab media, but Haaretz is reporting that a left-leaning Swedish daily is getting in on the act:

A leading Swedish newspaper reported this week that Israeli soldiers are abducting Palestinians in order to steal their organs, a claim that prompted furious condemnation and accusations of anti-Semitic blood libel from a rival publication.

"They plunder the organs of our sons," read the headline in Sweden's largest daily newspaper, the left-leaning Aftonbladet, which devoted a double spread in its cultural section to the article.

The report quotes Palestinian claims that young men from the West Bank and Gaza Strip had been seized by the Israel Defense Forces, and their bodies returned to the families with missing organs.

"'Our sons are used as involuntary organ donors,' relatives of Khaled from Nablus said to me, as did the mother of Raed from Jenin as well as the uncles of Machmod and Nafes from Gaza, who all had disappeared for a few days and returned by night, dead and autopsied," writes author Donald Boström in his report.

Frankly, if you want to spend any effort on dark fantasy scenarios, I'd much rather follow the lead of Canadian researchers and contemplate the impact of a zombie outbreak on the world.

When Bill Met Kim


There aren't too many details from this New York Times piece on the Bill Clinton visit to North Korea, other than it appears that Kim Jong-Il may be a bit healthier than initially presumed. But this bit jumped out at me:

During his one-hour meeting, officials said, Mr. Clinton advised the North Korean that he could win favor with South Korea and Japan by resolving cases of their citizens who had been abducted by North Korea. The dinner, which lasted over two hours, was “chitchat,” the official said. “It was not substantive.”

I wonder what you could "chitchat" with Kim Jong-Il about?

(AP Photos)

August 18, 2009

Huckabee's Peace Plan: One State


During his swing through Israel, former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee made some news:

Former U.S. presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said Tuesday there should be no Palestinian state in the West Bank and endorsed Israeli settlements there, sharply disagreeing with Washington and much of the world.

Annie Lowry thinks this shows Huckabee's lack of foreign policy prowess. I'm not so sure. However out of the mainstream that view is, I'm guessing a significant number of Republican primary voters would agree with Huckabee.

(AP Photos)

Secretary Clinton on Afghanistan Elections

The State Department released a statement on the forthcoming Afghan elections:

In three days’ time, the Afghan people will go to the polls to elect a President and new Provincial Councils. This election day will not be without its challenges, but the Afghan people have seen unparalleled campaigning, debate and dialogue in their country. Presidential candidates have debated each other in public and travelled throughout the country to talk to voters. The Afghan media and Afghan leaders have made politics accessible to Afghans in new ways. The Afghan people should be commended for their courage in conducting this election despite the stresses of wartime, and we and the international community are proud to support them.

The United States of America remains impartial in this election. We do not support or oppose any particular candidate. Like the Afghan people we want to see credible, secure and inclusive elections that all will judge legitimate. We hope that, from top to bottom, every effort will be taken to make election day secure, to eliminate fraud, and to address any complaints fairly and quickly.

It will be several days before we have preliminary results and we hope initial reports will refrain from speculation until results are announced. Final results could take several weeks. We call on candidates and their supporters to behave responsibly before and after the elections.

Finally, we look forward to working with whomever the Afghan people select as their leaders for the next five years. We trust that the next President, as well as provincial council members also being elected at this time, will work for the interests of all the people of Afghanistan.

Rational Actors

Stephen Walt has a question:

What impression do people in other countries get when they observe the divorced-from-reality nature of contemporary American political discourse? American pundits like to talk about how "irrational" our adversaries are (usually when they are trying to scare us into spending more on weapons or launching preventive wars), but do they ever stop to think about how goofy and irrational we appear to be to others?

I don't think so. Because we've got nothing on, say, South Korea:

And they called Tom Delay "the hammer"....

August 17, 2009

Odierno's Troop Request


General Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, wants to send U.S. troops to Northern Iraq to shore up gaps in security created by the lack of cooperation between Kurdish and Iraqi army forces.

On the face of it, it seems like a sensible move. As the New York Times reports, these areas were not policed by either Kurdish or Iraqi forces and have thus been subject to a number of attacks by al Qaeda. Odierno positioned the use of American forces as a stop-gap that would allow the Kurds and Iraqi army to come to terms with one another:

“Once they get used to working with each other, it becomes very easy,” General Odierno said. He said the United States’ role would be one of oversight and encouraging the two sides to get along, rather than peacemaking. “I think there’s room to work this out.”

Hopefully, that will indeed be the case. But what if it's not? Stepping back, this development seems to underscore one of the key problems that the Obama administration is going to face in Iraq - what will they do if violence spikes? Max Boot seems concerned that the president will stay true to his campaign pledge and leave Iraq, then adds that the president been more "moderate" on Iraq than his campaign rhetoric so maybe the U.S. will indeed police the country forever.

It's going to be very difficult for the administration to make good on its promise to leave Iraq without formulating a very clear argument for why any resulting instability or violence is not America's problem. So far, the administration has tried to straddle a line that does not repudiate America's traditional custodial role for the region while promising to remove our forces. But what happens if push comes to shove?

(AP Photos)

China Attacks India? Unlikely

By Patrick Chovanec

Blogs are buzzing about a recent article by Bharat Verma, editor of Indian Defense Review, in which he unambiguously predicts that “China will launch an attack on India before 2012.” The prospect of the world’s two fastest-developing economies slugging it out to see who is top dog is generating outcry in India and rebuttals from China. The angry to-and-fro has some convinced that China has a secret plan to “break up” India.

Several years ago, when I was still serving as a U.S. Army officer, I made a serious study of the 1962 border war between India and China. The circumstances that led to its outbreak are very different from anything we see today. At that time, India was unofficially allied with the Soviet Union and the bitter Sino-Soviet split had just become public (in 1961). China was still consolidating its hold over Tibet. It had only been three years since the Dalai Lama had fled (in 1959) and been granted political asylum in India–infuriating Mao–and the CIA was actively sponsoring Tibetan guerillas across the border in Mustang, Nepal. The war was sparked by China’s occupation of Aksai Chin, a remote Himalayan region which provided a vital strategic road link between Tibet and western Xinjiang. Even with these catalysts present, the region’s tortuous terrain and the absence of any further strategic objective made it difficult for either side to sustain anything beyond inconclusive light infantry operations.

Today, the geopolitical challenges that China faces are radically different. China’s main priority is to secure access to the raw materials–particularly oil, copper, and food supplies–needed to fuel its economic growth, and the routes used to supply them. Oil, in particular, is China’s Achilles heel. Starting in 1993, China went from being a modest oil exporter to a major importer. Some of this oil (and natural gas) enters via pipeline from Central Asia, but most is shipped from the Middle East across the Indian Ocean, through the Straits of Malacca, and across the South China Sea. That is why China has been investing heavily in naval, air, and logistical capabilities–including development of an aircraft carrier–that would enable it to project power along such vital supply lines.

Of course Tibet remains a concern, but China faces no immediate external threat from that quarter. In fact, it relies on India to keep the Tibetan exile community there on a short leash. Unlike in 1962, China’s borders are relatively secure. And given its other concerns, China would like to keep it that way.

Verma’s basic thesis is that China will attack India (soon) in order to distract its population from a collapsing economy and growing unrest. Now those of you who have read my other posts know that I am highly concerned about China’s economic outlook. But given the strategic context I just outlined, provoking a clash with India would only make China’s troubles worse, not better. India is ideally situated to impose a naval blockade that would choke off China’s oil supply and bring its economy to a grinding halt. And India’s long-standing intelligence links with Tibetan exile groups give it the perfect instrument to stir up trouble where it would be least welcome.

What Verma’s article does call attention to, however, is the great uncertainty that China’s growing wealth and prominence is generating among its neighbors. Unlike Britain or the United States, or even Russia, China has no track record as a Great Power. For decades, China has espoused a policy of “noninterference,” but this stance was at least partly the reflection of a poor and weak China that possessed neither substantial interests abroad nor the ability to influence events. Nobody really knows how a powerful China would behave. Its spokesmen often note that China presents no threat to others because it has no territorial ambitions. But the United States doesn’t have any territorial ambitions either, yet rightly or wrongly, plenty of nations feel threatened by how it uses its power to promote or defend its various interests around the world.

So China’s neighbors are quite reasonable to wonder whether, at some point, it may feel tempted to flex its muscles. China has not actually fought a war since its brief but embarrassing defeat by Vietnam in 1979, thirty years ago, and might see some benefit in demonstrating that things have changed. But its mountainous border with India makes a poor choice for testing China’s new capabilities, for the same reason the rough terrain in Afghanistan blunts the effectiveness of America’s high-tech military. Chinese forces performed well in Himalayan warfare in 1962 because of their proficiency in small-arms infantry tactics. But to achieve its goals in the 21st Century, that is precisely what China must demonstrate it has progressed beyond.

Of course anything is possible, which is what makes watching the Great Game in this part of the world so interesting. But as sparring partners go, China has little reason to stage a rematch with India.

Patrick Chovanec is an associate professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in Beijing, China, where he teaches in the school’s International MBA Program. He blogs at http://chovanec.wordpress.com/ where this post first appeared.

A Defining Experience

In introducing the new At War blog on the New York Times, the paper writes:

This generation’s conflict, which began on 9/11, is nearly eight years old. Yet there are no signs that it will end anytime soon, with the Obama administration sending thousands more troops into Afghanistan and Iraq facing enormous military and political challenges as American troops withdraw. So “At War” — an expansion of our Baghdad Bureau blog — is a recognition that war is now, and will be, a defining experience for Americans.

I don’t know how defining this is for Americans writ-large. Clearly, it’s the defining experience for the military and their families and for those engaged with U.S. foreign policy. But how many people is that? It seems there's far more passion behind the health care debate than there is behind the surge in Afghanistan. Am I missing something?

August 16, 2009

Venezuelans Protest Journalist Beatings

On Thursday, Chavez Supporters Attacked Venezuela's Journalists

Twelve Venezuelan journalists handing out leaflets in favor of press freedom were injured on Thursday by supporters of leftist President Hugo Chavez.

Marcos Ruiz, a reporter for Caracas daily Ultimas Noticias, was punched and beaten with clubs by at least four assailants, colleague Gledys Pastrana told Efe.

She said Ruiz was taken to the emergency room.

All of the journalists who were handing out leaflets to motorists and pedestrians on a busy street in the capital are employees of the Cadena Capriles group, one of Venezuela’s biggest media companies.

Besides Ultimas Noticias, Capriles publishes two business newspapers: El Mundo Economia and Negocios, and the sports daily Lider.

The Chavez partisans arrived on the scene shouting “revolution” and “this street belongs to the people” and then pounced on the journalists, Pastrana said.

Noticias 24 has photos of the beatings of the journalists, including this one:


The beaten journalists were handing out flyers opposing the new education law that has a provision outlawing reports that "produce terror" among children or incite hate (a provision similar to the Special Law Project Against Media Crimes). The education law was approved on Friday morning among protests: The Ley Orgánica de Educación (Organic Education Law) was strongly opposed and demonstrators on both sides had gathered in front of the National Assembly building. Police fired tear gas into the crowd (BBC News video here).

After the National Assembly's approval of the law, Hugo Chávez condemned the violence against the journalists and declared that "the law will allow us to speed up and deepen the revolutionary process,"

"This law opens the way for the liberation education. There are many chains to break, the ones of colonialism and cultural backwardness, for the deep revolution, the creation of the new man and new woman, the socialist revolution."
He signed the law in a public ceremony. The law becomes effective following its publication in the National Gazette

On Friday, journalists demonstrated in support of the beaten journalists:

In turn, the state prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Díaz, refused to meet with the journalists who came to protest the beatings, claiming that "they behaved more as political spokesmen than as journalists, for which they should resign their jobs as journalists."

On Saturday, a suspect was arrested and charged for the Thursday beatings.

August 15, 2009

Hamas: Too Liberal?


If you can believe it:

At least six Palestinians were killed and dozens wounded in the southern Gaza city of Rafah on Friday when Hamas police officers stormed a mosque that had been taken over by a group of Islamic militants.

The group’s leader had declared during Friday Prayer at the mosque that Hamas was too liberal and that from now on, Rafah, and soon all of Gaza, would be ruled by pure religious law. “We declare the birth of the Islamic emirate,” he said.

Hamas, an Islamist but Palestinian nationalist group that has ruled Gaza for the past two years, sent dozens of security officers to the mosque, where gun battles went on into the evening. Medics at Rafah Hospital said there were 6 dead and about 50 wounded, though some reports put the death toll as high as 16. At least one Hamas policeman was killed.

It's difficult to determine what exactly is going on here, but I know when Hamas took control of Gaza there were concerns that it could potentially become a sanctuary for al Qaeda and its affiliates. Perhaps that's what happened - this Islamist group, Jund Ansar Allah, was reported by the AP to have been at least inspired by al Qaeda. The AP goes onto speculate that Hamas has little patience for um, ideological diversity:

It also underscored the group's determination not to allow opponents with differing ideologies to gain a foothold in Gaza. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank are together supposed to make up a future Palestinian state, but Hamas' bloody seizure of Gaza in 2007 created rival governments in the two territories — located on opposite sides of Israel — that are complicating Palestinian efforts to gain independence.

Jund Ansar Allah claims inspiration from al-Qaida's ultraconservative brand of Islam but no direct links have been confirmed.

(A gunmen for Jund Ansar Allah stands guard outside a mosque in Gaza. AP Photos)

Troops to the Congo

There's not much to add to Michael Cohen's take down of Michael O'Hanlon's call to send U.S. troops into the Congo, but I'll add my two cents.

The most significant weakness in O'Hanlon's argument is the utter indifference to the question of whether America has any actual interest in the Congo. O'Hanlon spends his time detailing the "how" of such an intervention but not the "why." That, to me, is a fairly striking omission.

Update: See also - Cato's David Rittgers.

Gates on Pakistan: We'll Never Leave You


Responding to recent polling on Pakistani attitudes toward terrorism and the United States, Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested that America must convince Pakistan that we'll never leave Afghanistan:

“First of all, one of the reasons that the Pakistanis have concerns about us is that we walked away from them twice,” Gates said during a Pentagon news conference. The United States left Pakistan after the Soviets left Afghanistan, and later in the 1990s cut off military contacts with Pakistan in response to Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

“So, our military-to-military relations were significantly interrupted,” Gates said. “I think that the Pakistanis, with some legitimacy, question how long are we prepared to stay there?”

But let's turn this question around - how long do we have to stay there for Pakistan to stop hedging? Five more years? Ten more years? A little further on, Gates says that the U.S. will win Pakistan over by bribing them. But we know that such aid is insufficient - it simply frees Pakistan up to spend money on conventional and nuclear weapons to deter India.

Absent making Afghanistan the 51st state, it's perfectly reasonable for Pakistani officials to reason that at some point in the future, the U.S. will not be occupying Afghanistan.

(AP Photos)

August 14, 2009

Georgia to the Rescue

For anyone viewing the deepening American military commitment to Afghanistan with worry, today brought excellent news: Georgia will be joining the fight.

Well, 750 Georgian soldiers will be joining the fight. In the Spring, maybe. After we train them. And equip them. And transport them to Afghanistan and feed them and provide them with weapons.

And all it will cost the United States, aside from the out-of-pocket expenses detailed above, is a further deterioration in our already frayed relationship with Russia. Win-win!

(AP Photos)

Course Corrections

The University of Pittsburgh's Michael Brenner, participating in the National Journal's debate on the future of American grand strategy, laments the consensus:

The other noteworthy feature is the preponderant view that the past three presidents have gotten it just about right in setting aims and purposes. The judgment is that execution has varied and that there is room for criticism about the manner of execution. The ‘war on terror’ a la Bush and now Obama is taken as pretty much given, as are its derivatives in what we are doing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc. Patrick Lang, Andrew Bacevich and I (along with Edward Luttwak in his idiosyncratic way) are in a distinct minority. What is disappointing is that the skeptical questions we pose at the strategic level are not engaged. The reaction seems to be equal parts tolerance for dissenting views and an implicit message that you guys really have to do better than this to warrant a direct response. This is also the way it is playing out in the national forum....

...Objectively speaking, the shoe should be on the other foot. The prevailing strategy manifest in military interventions and, let’s not forget, political meddling, has registered serial failure: in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Islamabad, in Somalia, in Israel’s war on Hezbollah which we encouraged, in Israel’s assault on Gaza which we encouraged, etc. To my mind, recitation of these self defeating and counter-productive enterprises reveals two stunning truths about the state of American foreign policy. The country has invested enormously in unfruitful projects relieved only by the modest success of dislodging the Taliban – temporarily. Yet, the global struggle goes on against enemies real and imagined without any appreciable change in strategic thinking. Its sole convincing victory has been mastery of the American public mind.

I think this is correct, but I wonder about the very last part - winning over the American public. The American public holds a variety of often conflicting and frequently misinformed views about American foreign policy. Reading through this survey on public attitudes on the U.S. role in the world, the sentiment is all over the map.

None of these views or public opinion in general appear to be decisive in the formulation of U.S. policy. Are we really sending arms and money to Somalia because the American people demand it? President Bush sustained the Iraq war despite its deep unpopularity and began an air war in Pakistan with nary a public appeal. Numerous presidents pour money into foreign aid despite the public's unease over such investments.

That's not to say public opinion is irrelevant. But I don't believe that Washington sustains the current status quo simply because it has won over the American people. In fact, Washington has a number of means of deferring or otherwise hiding the costs of its policies from the American people. Deficit spending punts the financial bill to future generations. A volunteer military, coupled with the extensive use of private contractors, ensures that the disruption of repeated deployments is born by a small minority of the country.

Were the American people expected to finance the reconstruction of Afghanistan and Iraq up front - with conscription and higher taxes - both projects would be put to bed in short order.

Poll: Pakistan Sours on Extremism

A new Pew Research poll offers some very useful data on the current mood in Pakistan:

No fewer than 69% of the Pakistanis questioned worry that extremists could take control of the country. At the same time, indifference and mixed opinions about both al Qaeda and the Taliban have given way to a strong condemnation of both groups. In 2008, just 33% held a negative view of the Taliban; today, 70% rate it unfavorably. Similarly, the percentage of Pakistanis with an unfavorable opinion of al Qaeda has jumped from 34% to 61% in the last year.

However, growing concern about Islamic extremism has not resulted in an improved view of the United States. Opinions of America and its people remain extremely negative. Barack Obama's global popularity is not evident in Pakistan, and America's image remains as tarnished in that country as it was in the Bush years. Only 22% of Pakistanis think the U.S. takes their interests into account when making foreign policy decisions, essentially unchanged from 21% since 2007. Fully 64% of the public regards the U.S. as an enemy, while only 9% describe it as a partner.

And on India:

And growing worries about extremism notwithstanding, more Pakistanis judge India as a very serious threat to the nation (69%) than regard the Taliban (57%) or al Qaeda (41%) as very serious threats. Most Pakistanis see the U.S. as on the wrong side of this issue: by a margin of 54% to 4% the U.S. is seen as favoring India over Pakistan.

Perhaps the most interesting finding is that only 32% of Pakistanis had even heard of U.S. missile strikes on Pakistan's territory. I would think something like that would garner more attention. Given that figure, it appears that fears that American drone attacks might destabilize Pakistan could be overblown.

South Ossetia Hires American Lobbyists

Oh yeah, you read it right. Georgian break-away province of South Ossetia, recognized by Russia and Nicaragua as a sovereign state - and by no one else in the world - has hired an American public relations firm to "tell its side of the story" in the struggle against the Republic of Georgia.

In June, South Ossetia and Abkhazia hired San Fransico-based Saylor Company to do public relations in the US . Saylor Company will be engaged in image making of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the West, Reuters reports, referring to Director of Saylor Company, Mark Saylor — former Chief Editor of the Los Angeles Times, and South Ossetia’s ombudsman David Sanakoyev.

According to Abkhazian and Ossetian officials, public relations experts will try to raise patterns of perception on both republics after August war. Contracts with PR agency were signed in June 2009. Abkhazia and South Ossetia will pay PR experts $165-550/hour (conflict zone is 50% as much). At that, Saylor Company will get no more than $30,000 a month.

Here is a real issue - will Saylor Company be brave enough to face Members of Congress, who regard Russia as more culpable in last year's August conflict? After all, Georgia itself spent hundreds of thousands of dollars so far to lobby its interests with the U.S. government. And if anyone will make any decisions about the perceptions of this conflict, it will have to face 535 elected officials in Congress and their counterparts at the State Department. So, will there be a knock on a Congressional door by the reps from South Ossetia? That remains to be seen.

August 13, 2009

What Afghanistan Says About Obama's Foreign Policy


Matthew Yglesias worries about an emerging narrative where "the left" turns on President Obama. Instead, he argues, it's a case of Obama shifting his position on Afghanistan - from one of limited aims to armed state building.

On the contrary, I think the administration has been very forthright about their approach to foreign policy, Afghanistan included. Consider the speech from Susan Rice yesterday. As I noted earlier, it is quite expansive in its conception of the threats to the United States and the tools necessary to deal with them. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that the administration is looking at a problem like al Qaeda in Pakistan and concluding that they have to rebuild Afghanistan, mollify Pakistan-Indian tensions, reform Pakistan's internal governance all while subduing a cross-border insurgency and waging an air war on al Qaeda in Pakistan.

This administration has stated on several occasions the security of the United States is "inextricably" bound to the well being of everyone on the planet. We shouldn't be surprised when they start to put our money and our soldiers' lives where their mouth is.

This is progressive national security policy in action.

(AP Photos)

Susan Rice's Vision


U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice gave a wide-ranging speech on U.S. foreign policy and the United Nations. The speech hit on many of the themes echoed in earlier Obama administration foreign policy addresses: namely, that the U.S. must lead but can't meet the world's challenges alone.

Mark Leon Goldberg hails it as a "blockbuster." Your mileage may vary. The basis of the Rice/Obama argument is that we can get the world to see things our way if we improve their capacity to act and, crucially, if we buck up their "will." Here's Rice:

We build that will by demonstrating responsible leadership. We build will by setting a tone of decency and mutual respect rather than condescension and contempt. We build will by abiding by the rules we expect others to follow. We build will by pursuing pragmatic, principled policies and explain them with intelligence and candor. And in the broadest sense, we build will when others can see their future as aligned with ours.

Notice what's missing? Any reference to other nation's interests. Setting a good example, being candid and respectful are all good things, as far as it goes, but it does nothing to fundamentally change another nation's cost benefit analysis. The U.S. has reached the impasses it has - with China over North Korea, with Russia and China over Iran - because fundamental interests diverge. None of what Rice is proposing seems significant enough to change that.

The other striking element in the Rice/Obama vision is how expansive it is. Rice again:

In the 21st century, therefore we can have no doubt: as President Obama has said time and again, America's security and wellbeing are inextricably linked to those of people everywhere.

Even accepting a little rhetorical flourish, there's a good reason to be skeptical about such a sweeping claim. Unfortunately, there have been no end of humanitarian tragedies around the world in recent memory - in Sudan, in the Congo, in Zimbabwe - that have almost no bearing on the security or well being of the United States. Declaring that we are "inextricably" linked to the well being of every living person on the globe is a recipe for dangerous over-reach.

It's also worth asking what the U.S. reaction would be if a Chinese or Russian diplomat stood before the world and said that they viewed the well being of China or Russia as being tethered to the lives of every other person in the world. Would we view such a declaration with relief, or worry?

(AP Photos)

August 12, 2009

The Right Metric for Afghanistan


Richard Holbrooke believes that, like pornography, the U.S. will know success in Afghanistan when we see it. Well. That's reassuring.

More substantively, Katherine Tiedemann offers a few more tangible metrics.

National Security Advisor Jim Jones has reportedly "approved a classified policy document on July 17 setting out nine broad objectives for metrics to guide the administration's policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan," but another couple of months are needed to work out the details. One metric under consideration is an opinion poll to gauge how corrupt Afghans view their public officials.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, has said that another measure of success is the number of civilians protected, not the number of Taliban militants killed (and indeed, CENTCOM is not publicizing the latter). Although that first metric is much harder to calculate, it shows the Obama administration's focus on implementing counterinsurgency strategies in the Afghan theater.

Another yardstick of progress will be how legitimate the international community considers the August 20 presidential elections.

I find it fairly remarkable that none of the metrics floating around for Afghanistan include: 1. al Qaeda; 2. al Qaeda's ability to attack the U.S. Isn't that what this is supposed to be about?

(AP Photos)

Iran, North Korea Top Threat List


Rasmussen Reports:

Seventy-five percent (75%) of Americans describe North Korea as an enemy of the United States. Only four percent (4%) view the isolated Communist state as an ally, and 15% say it’s somewhere in between an ally and enemy...

...Iran is seen an enemy by 70% of adults, while five percent (5%) describe it as an American ally. Twenty percent (20%) place it somewhere in between.

The two countries have rotated in and out of the top spot for months when voters are asked which country is the greatest national security s threat to the United States.

Several other Middle Eastern Islamic countries are next, but then few Americans regard any country in that region other than Israel as a friend of America’s.

It's interesting to note that while Americans don't regard most Middle Eastern countries as friends, their elected leaders do, and shower them with weapons and aid. Go figure.

(AP Photos)

Poll: Killing al Qaeda Popular

These findings from Pew Research seem pretty intuitive:

Americans generally support allowing the Central Intelligence Agency to assassinate al Qaeda leaders, but opinions are more mixed about whether the CIA should have such a program without first informing Congress.

The most recent national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted July 22-26, 2009, finds that 60% favor "the CIA having a program that targets al Qaeda leaders for assassination," while 29% are opposed. But when a separate group of respondents was asked whether they favor the program without first informing Congress, opinion is more evenly divided (48% favor, 42% oppose).

Chart after the jump.


The Shiites Restraint

Rod Nordland reports on the remarkable restraint shown by Iraqi's Shiite population as it suffers continued violence at the hands of Sunni terrorists.

Certainly an encouraging sign for the future stability of Iraq even if the persistence of anti-Shiite violence is disturbing.

August 11, 2009

The Side of Angela Merkel You Haven't Seen (And Probably Don't Want To, Either)

Rebecca Frankel has the goods on a rather revealing German campaign ad.

Medvedev Takes Shot at Ukraine

(AP Photos)

Relations between Russia and Ukraine look to be hitting a low ebb, as this statement from Russian President Medvedev makes clear. Full text below:

A few days ago, I sent a letter to the President of Ukraine. It was not an ordinary document, I should say, as it contains a number of complex and unflattering characteristics of the actions by the top political leadership of Ukraine. In my today’s address I would like to explain the reasons behind my step.

There has been public concern in both Ukraine and Russia of late over the state of our bilateral relations. Ukrainian politicians themselves have admitted that relations are at an extremely low point today, and it is hard not to agree. The strain in relations between our countries has indeed hit unprecedented levels.

I have on many occasions stated that Russia seeks to be a predictable, strong and comfortable partner for its neighbours, all the more so for a country with which we share common historical and cultural roots. We are more than just neighbours; our ties are those of brothers.

Nikolai Gogol, the great writer and son of both Ukrainian and Russian peoples, said, “There are no bonds more sacred than the bonds of brotherhood”. As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Gogol’s birth, we remember these words once again. These celebrations are yet another vivid illustration of our peoples’ spiritual closeness.

Set against this background, the difficult – to say the least - relations our countries have been experiencing make an even stronger contrast. Let’s take a look at what is actually happening.

The leadership in Kiev took an openly anti-Russian stand following the military attack launched by the Saakashvili regime against South Ossetia. Ukrainian weapons were used to kill civilians and Russian peacekeepers. Russia continues to experience problems caused by a policy aimed at obstructing the operations of its Black Sea Fleet, and this on a daily basis and in violation of the basic agreements between our countries. Sadly, the campaign continues to oust the Russian language from the Ukrainian media, the education, culture and science. The Ukrainian leadership’s outwardly smooth-flowing rhetoric fits ill with the overt distortion of complex and difficult episodes in our common history, the tragic events of the great famine in the Soviet Union, and an interpretation of the Great Patriotic War as some kind of confrontation between two totalitarian systems.

Our economic relations are in a somewhat better situation and are developing, but we have not yet succeeded in tapping their full potential. Again, the problem is that Russian companies frequently face open resistance from the Ukrainian authorities. Bypassing Russia, Ukraine’s political leaders do deals with the European Union on supplying gas – gas from Russia – and sign a document that completely contradicts the Russian-Ukrainian agreements reached in January this year.

But no matter what the complexes or illusions motivate the actions of individual Ukrainian officials, we will always value our fraternal ties with the Ukrainian people and will strive to strengthen our humanitarian cooperation. It is with this aim in mind that we plan to open branches of the Russian Science and Culture Centre in several Ukrainian cities and will do all we can to support Ukrainians living in our country in their efforts to develop their national culture.

Patriarch Kirill’s recent pastoral visit to Ukraine was also an event of great significance. I had a meeting with the Patriarch following the visit, and he shared his impressions and said many cordial words. We both are of one and the same opinion that the two fraternal peoples may not be separated as they share common historical and spiritual heritage.

I am confident that our relations with Ukraine’s people will overcome any problems. They cannot be destroyed by politicians’ selfish interests, fickle changes in the global situation, or individual leaders’ mistakes, and all the more so, cannot be undone by empty words and pseudo-historic research.

I am certain that a new era will begin. Nevertheless, in the current situation, I have made a decision to refrain from sending the Russian ambassador to Ukraine. The new ambassador will commence his duties at a later stage, and naming the exact date for it will depend on the positive dynamics in bilateral relations.

There can be no doubt that the multifaceted ties between Russia and Ukraine will resume on a fundamentally different level – that of strategic partnership – and this moment will not be long in coming. I hope that the new leadership of Ukraine will be ready for the break through. We will in turn make our best for it to happen.

The Great Debate

National Journal's National Security Experts forum is always worth reading, but this week's question - on the future of American strategy - is particularly good.

Does Defeating al Qaeda Mean Nation Building?


Marc Lynch asks whether the costs of nation building in Afghanistan are worth the benefits:

What are the strategic reasons for expanding the commitment in Afghanistan? Why should the US be committing to a project of armed state building now, in 2009?

I hope that the argument isn't that it's to prevent al-Qaeda from reconstituting itself in the Afghan safe havens. That's a fool's game. It makes sense to keep the pressure on al-Qaeda, but does that require "armed state building"?

Suppose the U.S. succeeded beyond all its wildest expectations, and turned Afghanistan into Nirvana on Earth, an orderly, high GDP nirvana with universal health care and a robust wireless network (and even suppose that it did this without the expense depriving Americans of the same things). So what? Al-Qaeda (or what we call al-Qaeda) could easily migrate to Somalia, to Yemen, deeper into Pakistan, into the Caucasus, into Africa --- into a near infinite potential pool of ungoverned or semi-governed spaces with potentially supportive environments. Are we to commit the United States to bringing effective governance and free wireless to the entire world? On whose budget?

I think there is a legitimate worry that a U.S. policy that focuses solely on drone attacks is going to very quickly alienate much of the world and particularly Pakistan, a country we can't exactly afford to see destabilized. That said, the alternative, as Lynch demonstrates, doesn't strike me as tenable either.

In this vein, it's also worth considering the warning of the American Security Project's Bernard Finel:

In terms of [Obama administration's] diagnosis, there is still a broad reliance on macro causes to explain individual behavior. There is good reason to doubt this linkage — analytically and more significantly strategically. As I have pointed out many times, there are more gang members in Los Angeles than “jihadists” worldwide. If we can’t prevent gang violence in our own cities, how can we hope to prevent people from joining terror networks abroad? As long as groups like al Qaeda can survive by recruiting a few thousand individuals out of a potential pool of 1.3 billion Muslims, it seems tremendously unlikely that we will ever be able to eliminate “upstream” factors enough make a dent in the capabilities of terrorist groups.

I think there's a lot of merit to that argument, but it's also elides an important point. Those who are joining radical movements may do so from a mix of motives, but it's usually the case that they join movements that are tied to a broader political struggle pitting the Islamist group against a local or international enemy. In Somalia, it's al-Shabaab against the Transitional Federal Government. In Chechnya, it was the SPIR (and others) against Russia. In the Palestinian territories, it's Hamas against Israel.

The U.S. does not have the ability to reach into individual minds and turn them away from terrorism. It can't "develop" foreign societies or political systems so that terrorism is less attractive. But it can, if it chose, not make itself a party to every struggle that involves Muslim insurgencies. It could be less accommodating to the autocratic rulers of the Persian Gulf. These things wouldn't "solve" the threat of terrorism, but it would, I think, diminish the pool of willing recruits.

Photo credit: AP Photos

Applying Iraq Lessons to Afghanistan


Much of the impetus behind the Obama administration's strategy for Afghanistan seems to be predicated on the fact that since a counter-insurgency strategy worked in Iraq, it will work in Afghanistan. Kimberly Kagan makes that argument in Foreign Policy today.

Leave aside the obvious dissimilarities between Iraq and Afghanistan, there's a bigger problem with this line of thought: we don't know if the counter-insurgency in Iraq succeeded. Yes, we know that the combination of counter-insurgency tactics, a surge in U.S. combat forces and the flipping of the Sunni tribes, brought violence down. What we don't know is whether this trend is irreversible and whether any of the underlying drivers of this violence have been adequately addressed. That's because, by their very nature, the answers to these questions reveal themselves over time.

What the surge and counter-insurgency in Iraq did accomplish is pave the way for an American exit. The Iraq war's supporters could claim victory, and the U.S. could withdraw with the trends lines pointing in the right direction. Perhaps this, rather than an enduring transformation of Afghanistan, is what the Obama administration is ultimately after.

Photo credit: AP Photos

August 10, 2009

Canada: Great Power or Smart Power


If you haven't already done so, you should read this piece in the Globe and Mail from J.L. Granastein that ran on the home page this morning. It tackles the question of why Canada is not a great power:

That matters because great powers see themselves as mission-oriented. Sometimes, they play imperialist as Britain and France did. Sometimes, they seek global domination as Germany and the Soviet Union did. Sometimes, they aim to spread their capitalist/democratic vision of the world, as Washington does. But they all had or have a vision of the world they want. Canadians can't even agree on the kind of nation – or deux nations – that they desire. It's difficult to tell the world how to act in such circumstances, and Canadian moralizing that “the world needs more Canada” can only be a poor substitute.
I think the notion the Washington assumed "great power" status for the purpose of spreading democracy and capitalism obscures an important reality. America acquired great power from a variety of sources, not least was that it avoided the steep costs of having two World Wars fought on its soil. When WWII ended, we understood that the gains from that war would be lost if the Soviet Union swallowed up the weak but pivotal states in its wake. We then undertook a massive military and diplomatic program to check the Soviet Union, which in turn propelled the U.S. into the great power we see before us.

But the point is that America took on this role for largely defensive reasons. The missionary zeal for capitalism and democracy was always latent, as champions of that zeal have argued, but it became a central rationale only when the defensive one (the Soviet Union) collapsed. This, I think, explains why America's post Cold War foreign policy looks both rudderless and reckless.

The purpose of a country's foreign policy is to ensure an international environment conducive to the security and prosperity of its people. Powers that take on missions beyond that scope - or define their security needs so broadly as to constantly put them in conflict with other nations - burn out. Literally. Look at the great powers listed by Granastein: all fell from their perch after extraordinary violence (the Soviet Union "collapsed" peacefully but only after six decades of constant conflict, and bloodshed, with the West).

It's important to have "great power" insofar as it affords you security and prosperity. But it is very difficult to acquire great power and not fall prey to the hubris and over-extension that traditionally accompanies, and ultimately undermines, that power. I can understand why a Canadian would look at the trajectory of great powers and say, "thanks, but no thanks." After all, as Granastein goes on to note of Canada: "We are now what we will continue to be – a developed democratic nation-state with a high standard of living, and that is no mean estate."

Far from it.

Photo credit: AP Photos

What Are American Interests in the West Bank?


Rick Richman sounds a warning about imposing a peace deal on the Israelis and forcing them out of their West Bank settlements:

The U.S. has formally promised Israel support for “defensible borders” because such borders are both an American and an Israeli interest: otherwise, the U.S. would have to guarantee indefensible borders with troops on the ground, in a militarily untenable position. Israeli retention of the large settlement blocs is part of “defensible borders” (since the blocs are in militarily strategic locations), and the U.S. explicitly backed them in the 2004 Bush letter. The U.S. cannot honorably renege on that commitment, nor would American interests be served by doing so.

It would certainly not be in the U.S. interest to place troops between Israel and the Palestinians, and any U.S. pressure on Israel for a peace settlement that holds out the promise of using American troops to secure it would be a mistake.

But I think it takes a fairly expansive view of the American interest to argue that it hangs on the precise location of West Bank settlements. The location of those settlements impact American security to the extent that we're involved in subsidizing their construction or urging their dismantlement. But is there anything intrinsic to the question of who lives where on the West Bank that really impacts the national security of the United States?

Photo credit: AP Photos

Globalization at Work


Mark Leon Goldberg makes an interesting point regarding last week's attacks on Twitter and Facebook, which were apparently aimed at an anti-Russian blogger based in Georgia:

Still, it's frightening to see how instability and an unresolved conflict halfway around the world can impact my daily life in a pretty direct way. To the extent that DDOS attacks become a common feature of global conflict, those of us who think we have nothing to do with a conflict one way or the other may increasingly find ourselves smack in the middle of it.

Photo credit: AP Photos

August 9, 2009

Russia Remembers Georgia War

This weekend marks the one year anniversary of the war between Georgia and Russia. With the post-conflict assessments varying differently in the West and Russia itself, both combating sides are reviewing the war and blaming each other for triggering the hostilities and its aftermath. Gleb Pavlobsky, one of Russia's leading policy analysts, told in an interview to the Internet publication Russia.ru that the events of August 8, 2008 war caused Russia to enter world politics as an independent player "for the first time in history." In his view, the country will need to re-learn how to behave professionally in this great game, especially in the context of the likely continuation of the Russian-Georgian conflict.

"Luck in war is elusive, no military victory is truly final, with the only exception of full unconditional surrender by Germany in WWII. This is now impossible to achieve in the modern world," said Pavlovsky.

The key point, according to political scientist, was "Saakashvili's monstrous stupidity": "If Saakashvili did not behave so stupidly in shelling Russian barracks with gunfire, killing Russian peacekeepers, the tensions may have continued further, 'till something more terrible may have taken place." Pavlovsky is sure that all subsequent events were a response to his country's military aggression by Georgia.

"This is the main effect of Medvedev's presidency. We are not talking about triumph here - moreover, there was no triumph. After making its choice, Russia found itself in a new situation: we are now a country that must have global policies. Prior to this war, we only talked about peace. Now we must have a global strategy and a global policy - we are now playing in the "big boys" territory" - underlines Pavlovsky. He noted that Russia could no longer be bypassed, although some parties still do not understand that. "Russia has become a real hub of global politics, and President Dmitry Medvedev has to deal with this situation. His EuroAtlantic orientation raises tough questions about national security. Russia does not feel secure, and therefore insists on a new system in which its interests were taken into account. If we can not agree on this with NATO, European countries and the United States, we would then have to construct our own security system. This is a new situation. It is more dangerous and risky, but it motivates Russia to move forward," concluded Pavlovsky.

For his part, Russian President Medvedev does not feel any regret about his decision to defend Georgian breakaway province of South Ossetia, since Russia had no other choice at the time. On the night of August 8, 2008, Georgian troops attacked South Ossetia and destroyed part of its capital, Tskhinval, forcing Russia to protect Ossetain civilians and Russian peace keepers by moving its armed forces to Georgian territory.

"We acted precisely, and those decisions that were taken by me as the Supreme Commander in Chief have been effective. And most importantly - they have protected the lives of people. Returning to the events of that night is not easy, but I think at that time our country has acted decently and responsibly," said Medvedev, stressing that he was not ashamed of his decisions a year ago, as they have been honest and responsible.

Medvedev said that on a personal level, the memories of the night of August 8, 2008 will be most dramatic for him for the rest of his life. "I still, of course, remember everything for that time, my telephone calls with the Minister of Defense, who reported on the current situation and consequences of our decisions, our responses to the ugly aggression, which was took place on the night between 7 and 8 of August 2008."

According to Dmitry Medvedev, when reviewing the events of that time, he was once again convinced that Russia had no other choice in the situation. "On the other hand, the events unfolded in a hard and mournful scenario," said the President. Russian government was confident until the end that the Georgian regime would have enough honor and decency "not to commit fatal errors that will lead to the loss of life and to very serious geopolitical consequences": "Unfortunately, we were mistaken. These errors were committed by the regime of Saakashvili. And these errors immediately turned into a crime. People were killed, large numbers of people. And the Russian Federation had to take tough retaliatory measures, which have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and restored peace in the Caucasus - peace that is under threat," said the President.

Medvedev once again stressed that Russia will not leave South Ossetia and Abkhazia - territories that it has officially recognized - without Moscow's full support. "Like it or not, we will build official relations with South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. For us, it is a matter of decisions already taken," said Medvedev. "Of course, we'll help them solve these problems, we will implement programs of support, assistance, investment projects will be organized. We will defend the security of these states, will assist them in addressing a number of pressing economic problems," assured the head of the Russian State.

The investigating committee in Russia's Public Prosecutor's Office is completing a criminal case against Georgia on the genocide and massacres of civilians and peacekeepers during the events in the Georgian-Ossetian conflict in August 2008. The Public Prosecutor's Office acknowledged the death of 67 Russian soldiers, while the Deputy Head of General Staff of Russian Armed Forces Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn acknowledged that the loss of 64 Russian troops.

According to the Prosecutor's spokesman Vladimir Markin, the office has completed the collection and analysis of evidence of crimes committed by Georgian armed forces in South Ossetia, which now consists of 380 volumes. "As a result of Georgian aggression on the territory of Tskhinvali and other localities of South Ossetia, 655 houses were completely destroyed and burned, while 2,139 more dwellings suffering partial destruction - dwellings populated predominantly by Ossetians" - he said. The results of the investigation were also based on material abandoned by the fleeing Georgian army - more than 600 papers in the Georgian language, including detailed aerial photographs and topographic maps with symbols of the tactical environment, as well as military plans and orders. According to the Prosecutor's Office, these documents show careful preparation of Georgian armed forces for the attack.

In turn, Edward Kokoity, President of South Ossetia, is firmly convinced that in the near future, other countries will officially recognize South Ossetia, and the republic will never again be part of Georgia. "I am confident that the recognition of other states will soon follow. This is an inevitable process. When we had parliamentary elections, observers from Europe and Latin America have recognized that all took place at the highest level. It shows the state of South Ossetia, despite its youth, is well ahead of democracies in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, where there are crises all the time. They need to learn democracy from South Ossetia and Abkhazia," said Kokoity.

August 8, 2009

Iran Thought Experiment

Subbing in at Stephen Walt's place, Cato's Justin Logan asks an interesting question:

If you were an Iranian government official or an adviser to the government, what would you suggest the government do? Should it seek to acquire a nuclear capability or try to negotiate a deal with the United States?

This is a trickier question now that we have seen major rifts develop in Iran's leadership. So let's posit that we're in the Supreme Leader's camp. I would think the best course would be to cut a deal, under the following conditions: Iran retains civilian nuclear facilities, under IAEA monitoring, with uranium enrichment done inside Iran. That is, I believe, within the bounds of the Non Proliferation Treaty. Keeping uranium enrichment inside Iran is a useful hedge - it would give the country the flexibility to covertly develop a break-out capacity if the need or desire arose while still complying with international law. It delivers the benefits of civilian nuclear power generation while keeping the potential of a nuclear weapon within reach.

A deal would also take a major source of heat off the regime, allowing it to focus on shoring up its internal position. True, making a deal with the West would signal weakness, which could embolden the regime's domestic opponents. But the Supreme Leader is in an objectively more precarious position now than he was several months ago. Trying to fake your way out of that by digging in on the nuclear issue would only set much larger problems (like a gasoline embargo or military strike) in train. Better to fight on fewer fronts.

Photo credit: AP Photos

August 7, 2009

Selective Nonsense

Andrew Sullivan on Charles Krauthammer:

Seriously: it was Krauthammer's buddy Daniel Pipes who wanted Ahmadinejad in power, like many other neocons. They wanted him in power so they could get a pretext for bombing the country. Mousavi would have been a far better interlocutor - and might, with Obama, have changed the dynamics of the region. The idea that Obama was not encouraged by an outpouring of support for reform - which he specifically called for in Cairo - is partisan nonsense.

Reading this, you might mistakenly believe that Sullivan and Krauthammer are policy rivals on the Iran issue. In truth, they are in the same camp: both exaggerate the upheaval in Iran, both think it should force Obama to reconsider rapprochement with the regime, and both gentlemen believe Ahmadinejad's presidency to be "illegitimate." (as if every previous Iranian president were somehow a reflection of democratic legitimacy.)

Go read Krauthammer's comments in full, and tell me they couldn't just as easily have come from The Daily Dish. Aside from Krauthammer's cynical assumptions about Obama's motives, their arguments are almost indistinguishable.

Both Sullivan and Krauthammer now agree that this regime is too evil, too authoritarian and too "illegitimate" to negotiate with -- at least for the foreseeable future. Both were outraged by the Gibbs gaffe.

In Krauthammer, you at least have a certain kind of clarity: don't negotiate, don't recognize, and bomb, bomb, bomb Iran. From Andrew, we learn that Mr. Mousavi - somewhat inexplicably - may have "changed the dynamics of the region," or at the very least would've made "a far better interlocutor" for President Obama.

Well that's certainly reassuring. It's a good thing the Islamic Republic never pursued nuclear weapons while supposedly reform-minded presidents were in office.

Oh, wait a minute...

Twitter Attack Targeted Anti-Russian Blogger

Elinor Mills reports that the massive denial of service attack that felled Twitter yesterday was aimed at one man who goes by the name of Cyxymu - for a town in Georgia. Apparently Cyxymu was a critic of the Russian government.

Obama's Missing Afghan Metrics


David Sanger reports that the Obama administration committed additional forces and resources into Afghanistan without clearly articulating what success there would look like:

When President Obama unveiled his new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan in March, he emphasized the importance of these measures.

“We will set clear metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable,” Mr. Obama said. “We’ll consistently assess our efforts to train Afghan security forces and our progress in combating insurgents. We will measure the growth of Afghanistan’s economy and its illicit narcotics production. And we will review whether we are using the right tools and tactics to make progress towards accomplishing our goals.”

All that now seems unlikely to be completed before his field commanders finish their proposals for carrying out their marching orders. Their recommendations were originally due at the Pentagon within the next two weeks, but Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates issued expanded instructions for the assessment to the commanders last weekend and gave them until September to complete their report.

One of the basic problems confronting the White House is that "success" in the context of Afghanistan is going to look pretty meager. Al Qaeda was driven out of the country in 2001. None of the other issues on the table - clearing out the Taliban, cleaning up the Kabul government - makes America significantly safer from Islamic radicals who can operate from any country around the world. To the extent that we want to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for al Qaeda again, why wouldn't drone strikes and bribes be able to accomplish as much as a full-bore nation building effort?

There is, as Stephen Biddle has said, the issue of Pakistan and the danger it would be in were Afghanistan to collapse. But how realistic is that scenario? Afghanistan was in abject chaos during the 1990s without it threatening the state of Pakistan. Quite the contrary, Pakistan found the situation quite useful as an opportunity to bolster parties it favored.

Another worry for the White House is declining support for the mission, particularly among Democrats. CNN reports:

Forty-one percent of people questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released Thursday say they favor the war in Afghanistan -- down 9 points from May, when CNN polling suggested that half of the public supported the war.

Fifty-four percent say they oppose the war in Afghanistan, up 6 points from May.

The administration may be able to skate by indefinitely without articulating metrics, but it will need to show results sooner rather than later.

Update: Peter Feaver, who's quoted in the Sanger piece, has more to say on the subject of metrics here.

Photo credit: AP Photos

August 6, 2009

Limited Government at the Water's Edge

Alex Massie and Daniel Larison take a look at the nationalistic overtones in Mitt Romney's forthcoming book: No Apologies - The Case for American Greatness. As the title makes clear, Mitt Romney will not apologize for America.

What's less clear is whether Romney, or any Republican, can make the case that the same federal government that is too incompetent (and corrupt) to offer health insurance to people under 65 can nonetheless direct the course of world history and bring freedom and democracy to all the world's various peoples and cultures. That message is just a little incongruous, but after running many realists out of the GOP camp and into the Obama administration, it seems it's the one they're stuck with.

A War on al Qaeda

The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosted John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, today. It seems the takeaway from the event was his declaration that the "war on terror" is over. Instead, it's just a war on al Qaeda.

The whole speech is worth listening to in full, but to focus on this specific issue. The "war on terror" was always a silly formulation, like saying we're going to have a war on bullets. Terror is a weapon, not an entity. The idea of framing the current situation as a war on al Qaeda specifically has utility insofar as the word war summons us to a certain seriousness about the threat. But it also raises the question of what we're doing in Pakistan, and why we're putting a lot more blood and treasure on the line to battle the Taliban. They're not al Qaeda, but it sure looks like we're fighting a war against them as well.

Brennan argues that we must confront al Qaeda's "allies" - not just the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but around the world. The trouble is, what constitutes an ally? If a group receives funding or advice from al Qaeda in Pakistan to carry out a local attack in Yemen, should we read into that a threat that could eventually strike the homeland? Would the mere existence of groups loosely linked to al Qaeda compel the U.S. to intervene?

The danger with such a strategy is that it will boost bin Laden's program of stitching together localized insurgencies into a pan-Islamic battle against the U.S. By plunging in with aid and arms anytime a local despot cries "al Qaeda!" we could be doing bin Laden's work for him. That's not to say we shouldn't watch al Qaeda's global tentacles, just that we need to look before we leap.

In Praise of Spheres of Influence

A recurring theme in U.S.-Russian relations for nearly two decades now is that America does not recognize a Russian "sphere of influence" over the countries on its borders. But the Obama administration has seemingly reformulated this position into a more sweeping one: that we reject the very idea that other nations can seek to influence events beyond their borders. Vice President Biden said as much in Georgia, as did Secretary Clinton. During recent testimony to the Senate, the State Department's Philip Gordon said bluntly "We reject the concept of a sphere of influence."

Of course, the administration does not reject the "concept" of spheres of influence. It objects to other nations having a sphere of influence. The U.S. loves having influence over other countries - in the Middle East, in Asia, in Latin America. And there's nothing wrong with that! To the extent that countries have security and commercial interests in other countries, they are going to want to influence those nations. Nothing about this is nefarious. One of the enduring successes of America's Cold War strategy was that we kept key regions of the world (Europe and Asia) under our influence and not the Soviets.

But now that there's no ideology at stake, the situation is murkier.

What the Obama administration wants to say is that Russia's influence on its immediate neighbors is detrimental to U.S. commercial and security interests. But rather than say this outright, and then go about defending the various interests at stake and why we need to lock horns with Russia over them, they retreat to self-righteous platitudes about how they're trying to transcend "19th century" politics. I guess some people fall for this kind of talk, but it doesn't really bring clarity to the issues at stake.

Vice President Biden, speaking in Ukraine. Photo credit: AP Photos

August 5, 2009

Poll: Chinese Prostitutes More Trusted Than Government

The world's oldest profession gets some unusual respect in China, according to a new survey:

Prostitutes in China are considered more trustworthy than government officials, according to an online survey conducted by Insight China magazine. A total of 7.9% of the 3,376 participants in the survey said sex industry workers are trustworthy, putting them at third in the rankings after farmers and religious workers, AFP reported. Soldiers and students came in fourth and fifth respectively, while state-owned newspaper China Daily said on Tuesday that scientists and teachers ranked "way below, and that government functionaries, too, scored hardly better."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the only photos AP was returning with the search word "prostitute" were pictures of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Russia's Own Obama Running for Office

Oh yes, you read it right. An African-born farmer is making an improbable run for office in Russia, inspired by President Barack Obama and undaunted by racial attitudes that have changed little in decades.

Joaquim Crima, a 37-year-old native of Guinea Bissau who settled in southern Russia after earning a degree at a local university, is promising to battle corruption and bring development to his district on the Volga River. In Russia, a black man running for office is so unusual that Crima is being called "the Russian Obama."

"I like Obama as a person and as a politician because he proved to the world what everyone thought was impossible. I think I can learn some things from him," Crima said, sitting on his shady veranda in this town of 11,000, where he lives with his wife Anait, their 10-year-old son and an extended clan of ethnic Armenian relatives. Read more in this AP story.

Putin: Shirtless Wonder

James Downie's Kremlin sources have given us an invaluable look at Vladimir Putin's awesome powers.

UPDATE: The Times now heralds Putin as a "gay icon."

Poll: Sec. Clinton's Popularity


With her husband stealing the limelight, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is still getting good marks from this Rasmussen Reports poll:

Fifty-nine percent (59%) of voters offer their approval while 35% disapprove. Those figures include 31% who Strongly Approve and 15% who Strongly Disapprove.... In terms of personal favorable ratings, there is a huge gender gap. Sixty-one percent (61%) of women offer a favorable assessment of Clinton, but only 44% of men agree. However, the gender gap disappears when it comes to her job performance. Sixty percent (60%) of women approve of the way she’s handled that role as do 57% of men.

Photo credit: AP Photos

What Are the Russians Up To?


The New York Times reports that Russia sent two nuclear-powered submarines to patrol along the East Coast of the United States in "a rare mission that has raised concerns inside the Pentagon and intelligence agencies about a more assertive stance by the Russian military."

Could this be a little muscle flexing by Russia as a down payment on renewed hostilities with Georgia?

Either way, this should serve as a good reminder that it is jarring when a not-quite-friendly nation brings military power right up to your borders. Food for thought.

Update: Daniel Larison offers his thoughts on commentary suggesting that Russia is acting aggressively:

Russia does not have an “aggressive stance toward the U.S.” I’m not sure what one can call this except delusional. Our government arms and trains the military of a neighboring state, which then uses its army to escalate a war with Russia and kill Russian soldiers, and it is Russia that has an “aggressive stance.” Our government bombards a nominal Russian ally for 78 days without just cause, but it is Russia that is the aggressive one. We try to bring every former satellite and province into our anti-Russian military alliance, and it is Russia that is the aggressor. When Russia has the gall to protest against these provocations and aggressive moves, or even dares to retaliate against attacks on its soldiers and the populations under their protection, it is Russia that must be acting aggressively.

See also: Benjamin Carlson.

Photo credit: AP Photos

Bubba Diplomacy


Spencer Ackerman says it's hard to see the damage done to American interests by having President Clinton fly into North Korea for a little hostage rescue. It's not every day I agree with John Bolton, but I think he does raise a legitimate concern about what other hostage-takers are going to expect in the future. If the North Koreans get President Clinton, who will the Iranians want for their hostages?

As for Steve Clemons' (channeling Senator Kerry) suggestion that this is going to crack open a new door in our nuclear negotiations, that too is hard to see. Insofar as it was impossible to negotiate with the North while they were holding Americans hostage, it would seem the stage is set for renewed talks. But nothing about this episode changes the fundamental dynamic of the North's nuclear ambitions.

Nevertheless, and not to sound churlish, it's good to see the hostages released.

August 4, 2009

Poll: Americans Not Hopeful on Afghanistan


More polling has come in, now from Rasmussen, on American sentiment toward Afghanistan:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that only 22% expect the situation there to get better, down seven points from a month ago.

The plurality (41%) says things will get worse in the coming months, an increase of two points since the beginning of July. Another 24% say the situation will stay about the same during that time, up from 21% in the previous survey.

None of this entails that the U.S. wants out - like many other NATO members do - but it does suggest a certain worry about the mission. The administration is also finding a tough sell among left-of-center national security analysts and pundits. Michael Cohen, at the Obama-friendly Democracy Arsenal, has been doing yeoman's work cataloging the "Afghanistan Mission Creep" and you're seeing other writers sympathetic to the administration (such as Spencer Ackerman and Matthew Yglesias) voice concerns. Taken together, I think this confirm's Stephen Biddle's analysis that the administration has a very short window of opportunity to show results.

Photo credit: AP Photos

Poll: Italian, New Zealand Views on Afghanistan


Italy has lost 14 troops in Afghanistan and there is now a desire among Italians to bring the troops back home:

The majority of people in Italy want their country’s troops serving in Afghanistan to return home but they have different opinions on when, according to a poll by IPR Marketing published in La Repubblica. 22 per cent of respondents support an immediate troop removal, while 34 per cent say a gradual withdrawal would be better.

Conversely, 37 per cent of respondents oppose bringing Italian troops back from Afghanistan.

On the other hand, New Zealanders seem keener on the mission:

The majority of people in New Zealand agree with their government’s decision to extend the stay of a non-combat military mission in Afghanistan, according to a poll by Research New Zealand. 61 per cent of respondents favour the resolution to keep 140 troops working in reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan until September 2010.

On the other hand, New Zealanders are divided on whether to re-send Special Air Service soldiers back to Afghanistan, following a request by the United States government. 47 per cent of respondents would support this measure, and 44 per cent would oppose it.

Photo credit: AP Photos

August 3, 2009

A Novel Explanation for a Nuclear Iran

Anne Bayefksy channels some conservative trepidation over the Obama administration's apparent "acceptance" of a nuclear Iran. She's outdone, however, by David Solway writing at Pajama's Media who unearths the real reason the West has resigned itself to a nuclear Iran:

I am now beginning to suspect that this second alternative may well be the agenda furtively in play. If the Palestinians, the Syrians, and Hezbollah fail to do the job of reducing Israel to inconsequence, Iran remains the default option. I am coming to believe that the actual strategy at work in the official European and Western mind may be to encourage by every covert means, including endlessly protracted and fruitless negotiations, a nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran, thus getting rid of the perpetual nuisance which is Israel, appeasing the Arab world, and moving in to rebuild a devastated Iran for eventual, unencumbered oil and trade. The loss in immediate economic advantage would be offset in spades by future economic gains.

This is obviously absurd, but I wonder if this sentiment won't become more prevalent if (or when) the West proves unable to talk or sanction Iran away from its nuclear capability.

Hitting Reset on the Reset


Via Nikolas Gvosdev, this analysis from Brian Whitmore on the Obama administration's Russian policy is interesting:

Biden's remarks, seen in their proper context, seem to be a continuation of the message Obama sent before his departure for Moscow. In each case, the administration was appealing to the relatively progressive part of the Moscow elite (and in the Russian elite, progressive is always a very relative term) and sending a warning to the more retrograde elements.

Moreover, Biden was characteristically blunt in his remarks about Russia during his entire visit Ukraine and Georgia last week. He reiterated U.S. support for both country's NATO bids, said Washington would never recognize breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, and called on Russia to honor last August's ceasefire agreement and withdraw its forces from Georgian territory.

But Reset 2.0 goes beyond mere rhetoric.

Senior Georgian officials have told RFE/RL that behind the scenes in Moscow, Obama warned Medvedev and Putin in no uncertain terms against starting a new war with Georgia.

The officials said Tbilisi was informed by U.S. officials that Obama told Russia's leaders that any attack against Georgia would have "grave consequences" and that Washington "would not stand aside" in such a conflict as it did during last year's war.

A White House spokesperson declined comment on the claim (but did not deny it), saying only "we don't discuss private conversations."

One wonders what "not standing aside" really means in practice.

Photo credit: AP Photos

Poll: African Support for Obama

Gallup finds the already supportive nations of sub-Saharan Africa are even more supportive of U.S. leadership under President Obama:

August 2, 2009

Poll: Dutch Question Afghan Mission


Angus Reid reports on the latest polling of the Dutch:

Adults in the Netherlands hold dissimilar views on the scope of their country’s future commitment to Afghanistan, according to a poll by Maurice de Hond. 43 per cent of respondents would keep a limited number of Dutch soldiers in the country after 2010, while 31 per cent would withdraw all troops from Afghanistan.

In addition, 20 per cent of respondents would maintain more or less the country’s current role, and three per cent would extend the mission in Afghanistan beyond 2010.

Meanwhile, public opinion in Britain and Canada on Afghanistan is diverging from the U.S.

Whatever else can be said for President Obama's global popularity, it's not translating into concrete support for his foreign policy goals. At least in Afghanistan.

Photo credit: AP Photos

Russia to Biden: Thanks, Joe, We'll Be Fine

Vice President Biden’s recent statement about US-Russia relations struck a raw nerve in Russia. It's one thing to discuss Russia’s internal situation behind closed doors – it’s a whole different matter when such a high profile American political figure throws such facts in your face. And even if a country faces internal difficulties that may threaten its long-term future, being “poked in the eye,” so to speak, by Biden’s statement was far from pleasant. Russian political establishment responded right away, but the country’s cultural elite was not far behind.

Kirill Benediktov is a popular and best-selling author, historian and policy analyst who concentrates on writing about Russia's harsh reality and its uncertain future. His books topped Russia’s best-selling lists, and were being made into popular TV series. As a man who constantly checks the cultural pulse of his country, Biden’s Wall Street Journal description of Russia’s future merited a response. Benediktov focused on Biden's statement that "... they have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they're in a situation where the world is changing before them and they're clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable." Benediktov wonders: “But why bury the Russian economy? Perhaps Biden has other sources of information, some insider sources? Otherwise, why would he so confidently predict the death of the Russian banking system? Russia, it must be recalled, is one of the largest U.S. lenders, as Biden certainly knows that very well.”

The following is a direct translation of his op-ed in the daily “Vzglyad” paper:

"... And yes, goddamit we are going extinct. We must have the courage to acknowledge this - Russians are dying as a nation. Maybe for some ethnic groups, which are part of our multi-ethnic state, it is not true, but Russian women give too few births, while Russian men are dying too early - too little and too early for the people to survive. I do think about this "15-year factor” that Biden measures us by. No matter what sources he used - the National Intelligence Council or some other secret institution. But even according to open-source UN projections, in 2025, Russia will live only 116 million people, and by 2050 - no more than 100 million. Now, according to official population estimates, there are 142 million people in Russia. In the United States, by the way, there are now 300 million and by 2050, there will be 400 million people. This means that we will lose 26 million people in 15 years. As if all these years we would have been fighting a grueling, endless war, a war in which we are doomed to defeat in advance.

And if we do not understand this, if we are trying not to think about it, if we prefer to live one day at a time - then we owe U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and should say a great personal “thank you.” Because he honestly said what America expects from Russia. We should not hide behind beautiful words about Russia being a "great power" which has a "strategic partnership" with America. He said the god-honest truth: you may meander for the next 15 years. After that - well, then, sorry. And it does not matter what will happen next - whether smiling black-skinned sergeants will decommission our rusting ballistic missiles; or our last nuclear submarines will be finally decommissioned to serve as a photo-op for housewives from Kentucky; or our education reform will be brought to an end, and today's children playing in the sandbox will take the final exams in high school, choosing the correct color picture of the five proposed; or our difficult-to-understand Russian will be replaced by the Latin alphabet, in order to easier integrate us into the global economy.

But where Biden is wrong - and wrong, in my opinion, globally - it is in his regret that in the face of a changing world, we Russians are clinging to our past. It would be wrong to blame him for this - Biden grew up in a country with a very short historical memory (true, we should note that even with its short history, Americans are actively clinging to their own past).

So, we are advised not to cling to the past and to courageously face the changing world.

- As if the world is changing for the first time.
- As if Russia has never before stood on the edge of death.
- As if its towns and the churches did not burn during the Mongol invasion.
- As if the great Russian land never before lay in smoking, bleeding ruins during the times of the great chaos of the 16th and 17th centuries.
- As if the Russian people were not driven under the German rule during the 18th century.
- As if Napoleon never entered the vaults of the Moscow Kremlin.
- As if our gene pool has never been diminished before by the ruthless and fratricidal Russian Civil War.
- As if Guderian's tanks (WWII panzer divisions commanded by German general Heinz Guderian) did not stand where many Muscovites today go for their weekend barbecues.
- As if during the year that celebrated democracy - 1992 - our engineers and scientists, the pride of the nation, who designed spacecraft, did not go to the clothing market to sell cheap Chinese jeans.

We can also remember the defeat in the first Chechen war, and the financial default of 1998, and humiliation in the Balkans, when the Americans bombed our brothers, the Serbs, for an imaginary genocide of Kosovars, and we were powerless to raise our hands.

This is our past. Some will find shame in it, some - pride. But the main lesson that we can - and should - learn from our past, is that Russia has always survived. No matter what it faced.

And if we do not forget our past, if we do not deny our history, we will survive this time as well - to the great disappointment of the Vice President of the United States."

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