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August 31, 2006

Latin America

Still swatting flies in Colombia
Posted by Adam Isacson

Iraq has made plain that the United States is really, really bad at dealing with insurgencies. Helping elected governments assert control over territories dominated by people who murder civilians sounds like a noble goal. But our fundamental misunderstanding of "counterinsurgency" - viewing it as a mainly military effort, neglecting poverty and civilian governance, treating the locals with suspicion or even abusing them - keeps making the situation worse.

In what is currently the nation's number-two best-selling non-fiction book, Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks takes the U.S. defense establishment to task for "unprofessional ignorance of the basic tenets of counterinsurgency warfare." Warned expert Andrew Krepinevich in a year-old Foreign Affairs article, "Having left the business of waging counterinsurgency warfare over 30 years ago, the U.S. military is running the risk of failing to do what is needed most (win Iraqis' hearts and minds) in favor of what it has traditionally done best (seek out the enemy and destroy him)."

This is a big, fundamental problem, because the "war on terror," as currently fought, keeps leading us into difficult counterinsurgency missions. Right now, the Bush administration is facing insurgents directly in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it's not going well. Israel, the United States' closest ally in the Middle East, just confronted a locally popular irregular army (Hezbollah doesn't really fit the definition of an insurgency) with a strategy based on aerial bombing, with hugely frustrating results. Meanwhile, Washington is supporting other governments' counterinsurgency campaigns in Colombia, the Philippines and Nepal.

I work a lot on Colombia, which is by far the biggest U.S. military aid recipient outside the Middle East - $3.8 billion in military and police aid since 2000, making up 80 percent of our entire aid package to Colombia during that period. This aid, under a framework called "Plan Colombia," started out as an effort to reduce the flow of illegal drugs from Colombia. In the wake of September 11, though, the Bush administration got permission from Congress to allow the aid to be used to fight Colombia's insurgency, principally two Marxist guerrilla groups founded in the mid-1960s.

Continue reading "Still swatting flies in Colombia" »

Democracy, Progressive Strategy

Responding to Spencer Ackerman (or, how to cure my democracy "fetish")
Posted by Shadi Hamid

As mentioned yesterday, The New Republic’s Spencer Ackerman, in a response to my American Prospect article, questioned the wisdom of a “democracy-centric foreign policy” and, moreover, wondered aloud whether I had a democracy “fetish."

Unfortunately, Ackerman is unable to grasp the fundamental nature of the "democratic dilemma" which has afflicted us for so long in the Middle East. For starters, he profoundly misunderstands the nature of political Islam. He claims that the US "is insane to promote democratic elections in which the victors proclaim eschatological hostility to it.” But not all Islamists proclaim “eschatological hostility” to America and to think so is to fall under the illusion that Islamists are uniformly crazy, irrational fanatics. This is simply not true. If we put aside the exceptional cases of Hamas and Hezbollah, mainstream Islamist groups - while they may in some instances be reactionary and/or exclusivist - are not, as Ackerman assumes, “radical." Unlike Hamas and Hezbollah, most Islamist groups – such as Turkey’s AKP, Morocco’s PJD, Tunisia’s Al-Nahda, and the Jordanian and Egyptian branches of the Muslim Brotherhood – are not armed or have military wings. Not only that, they have explicitly renounced violence and committed themselves to playing by the rules of the democratic game.

In Jordan, the Islamic Action Front is the largest opposition party in parliament and has generally had a working, if somewhat tense, relationship with the Hashemite monarchy. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has 88 seats in parliament and provides social services to millions of people. With that said, I’m not going to pretend that these Islamists (many of whom I have interviewed at length) are paragons of liberalism; they most certainly are not. Their views on women's rights, status of minorities, and implementing Islamic law leave much to be desired. They have, however, evolved in recent years, focusing less on empty religious sloganeering and more on the importance of democratic reform. For better or worse, they are well-rooted in society and represent a broad sector of the Arab electorate. Ackerman, it appears, would like to wish these groups away. In doing so, he is guilty of the same thing he accuses me of: mistaking “the world that American liberals would like to live in for the actual one that American liberals must confront.” These groups exist and, if democracy ever comes to pass in troubled Arab lands, then Islamists coming to power will be part of the package, whether Ackerman and I like it or not (as has already has happened in Turkey and Iraq, both of them allies).

It seems Ackerman only wants democracy if it produces nice, docile pro-American Arab liberals. Well, I’ve made the point over and over – pro-American Arab liberals are pretty much a figment of our imagination. For all intents and purposes, they don’t really exist (although I suppose this depends on how you define "pro-American"). As a liberal and a believer in liberalism, I wish it were otherwise but there are facts on the ground and we have to, at some point, face the Middle East as it is, not as what we would like it to be. The democrat's greatest test, after all, is supporting the democratic rights of those he disagrees with.

Building on his unsound foundation, Ackerman is essentially telling us that we shouldn’t promote democracy because Arabs hate us. He seems to forget that one of the reasons they hate us is because, well, we don’t promote democracy. Instead, we’ve been propping up the same ruthless dictators who have been oppressing and torturing their own people for decades. As long as we remain complicit in propping up these despicable regimes that betray everything our country has ever hoped to stand for, Arabs will never begin to trust us, believe us, or "like us." Their rage will continue to fester with no outlet for expression. And I think we know what can happen if the rage of millions of young men has no political outlet. For all their faults, at least the neo-cons were able to recognize as much.

Continue reading "Responding to Spencer Ackerman (or, how to cure my democracy "fetish")" »

Latin America

What is Lula Doing Right?
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

With elections just weeks away, Brazilian President "Lula" Ignacio da Silva is well-ahead in the polls.  He is bucking not just a string of corruption scandals but general dissatisfaction with incumbents across the Americas, and I might say, globally.  (I'm having trouble thinking of the last major leader who was easily re-elected, but I'm sure I must have forgotten someone.)

Much has been said and written in recent months about whether the tide is turning against democracy in Latin America, and whether the gains of the last 15 years are being lost, not just in Venezuela, but in Nicaragua, Bolivia, Peru and so on.  I won't pretend to be a Latin America expert -- and fortunately the brilliant Adam Isaacson, who is the real thing, returns soon to guest-blog for us.  But here a few possible factors I'd like to see sombody explore:

-- economic policies.  Somehow in Brazil, both the bankers and the poor seem to perceive that they are better off.  How'd that happen?

-- savvy use of Uncle Sam-bashing.  My very cursory attention to the matter suggests that Lula is balancing very effectively between the Venezuela-Cuba-Bolivia axis (to dignify it a bit) and Washington.

--New powers.  Lots has been written about the emergence of pivotal regional states such as Brazil, Nigeria and Ukraine. Nigeria and Ukraine are perennially emerging but never quite get there; is Lula demonstrating what the phenomenon looks like?  (eg occasional murmurings about nuclear power and separate trade blocs; balancing politics; some UN leadership in areas like the Haiti mission)

--just a case of high-level political skills?

I look forward to enlightened commentary.  (And if you think this is my week to pose questions without answering them, you're right.)

August 30, 2006

Middle East

The Danger and Promise of Democracy Promotion
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I’ve been getting some interesting responses to my American Prospect essays (1,2) on the future of progressive foreign policy. In a spirited rejoinder to my piece (amusingly titled "Against Democracy"), Spencer Ackerman of The New Republic criticizes my "fetishization of democracy.” Even though I don’t think he intended this as a compliment, it does, I must say, have a nice ring to it. (My fetishes aside, Ackerman's article is useful contribution to the debate, and I hope to respond to his points after I sufficiently digest them).

Heather, also yesterday, touched on what I think are some critical questions regarding my suggested move toward a “democracy-centric” foreign policy.  Heather asks: “why has the democratization project been mostly unsuccessful in the Middle East…?”

This assumes that there was, in fact, ever, a real democratization project, not just in words but in deeds. The Bush administration’s dramatic shift in pro-democracy rhetoric was never accompanied by sustained policy changes on the ground. For a brief three or four month period in early 2005, Bush did, to his credit, put significant pressure on President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and a couple other repeat offenders. But, soon enough, the realist temptation became too tempting even for the self-anointed anti-Scrowcroft of our time. Well, then, why the reversal?

This brings us back to what I consider to be the fundamental dilemma for American policymakers – they want democracy but fear its outcomes. For too long, we’ve tried to avoid the question, get around it, or, worse, pretend it doesn’t exist. Instead of supposing that there is some mythical, silent Arab liberal majority that is just waiting to unleash its electoral potential, let’s try to ground our idealism in a fact-based assessment of Arab politics. As I point out in my article, Arab liberals have virtually no grassroots support in the Middle East. And as for “pro-American Arab liberals,” those don’t even exist. Mainstream Islamists, on the other hand, are as powerful as ever (at least partly because the Bush administration’s horrendous foreign policy has made gratuitous anti-Americanism such an easy sell). So, yes, Islamist groups will come to power if there are free elections. It’s going to happen whether we like or not. And it already has in Iraq, Turkey, and the Palestinian territories (and is likely to happen in Morocco next parliamentary election).

What we need, then, is a coherent policy toward political Islam.

Continue reading "The Danger and Promise of Democracy Promotion" »

August 29, 2006


ISO New Speechwriter for SecDef
Posted by Michael Signer

Donald Rumsfeld has just made an extraordinary speech at the American Legion's national convention in Salt Lake City, likening opposition to the President's policies against terrorism to appeasement of Hitler in the 1930's. 

Many people will have many things to say about the speech, which is just breathtaking in its manipulation of history and the harsh political polarization of any rational discussion of the Administration's policies.  But I want to focus here on a narrower question. 

What's up with Rumsfeld concluding with this quotation of George Clemenceau?:

"You know from experience that in every war -- personally -- there have been mistakes and setbacks and casualties," [Rumsfeld] said. "War is," as Clemenceau said, 'A series of catastrophes that results in victory.'"

Clemenceau was premier of France during WWI and a critical ally of America.  Good.  But he's not the most providential source of Administration-friendly quotes.  Here are the others that the Columbia World of Quotations offers:

"War is too important a matter to be left to the military."

"America is the only nation in history which, miraculously, has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization."

"My home policy: I wage war; my foreign policy: I wage war. All the time I wage war."

And, my personal favorite for this SecDef:

"It is far easier to make war than to make peace."


The Passion of ... the Council on Foreign Relations
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

The Council on Foreign Relations has been making some interesting new appointments this summer, perhaps none more intriguing than the juxtaposition of former Bush speechwriter and prominent evangelical Michael Gerson and former German foreign minister and 70s radical Joschka Fischer.

For a while I had wonderful visions of the conversations the two could have in the men's room, but alas, Gerson is staying in Washington, where his family is, while Fischer, who is also teaching at Princeton this semester, will be in New York.

Fischer and Gerson represent two continents, two generations, two rather different philosophies of government -- not to mention two contrasting lifestyles.  But I'd rather think about something they have in common -- something I'd like to hope maybe our friends at the Council would ask them to reason together about.

In many ways, Fischer and Gerson represent the 1990s and the 00s vision of the same ideal:  using the power of the state and the global community to promote democracy, peace and freedom beyond the borders where it has flourished on its own.  I might even provocatively say that this ideal shares important qualities of the vision our own Shadi Hamid put forward as a "democracy-centric" foreign policy.

Continue reading "The Passion of ... the Council on Foreign Relations" »

August 27, 2006

Middle East

Going it Alone In Iran
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Michael Signer asks the question:  if one of the primary objectives of US foreign policy is to exemplify conduct that causes other nations to want to emulate America's example and follow its lead, what is Washington to do in cases where most of the world declines to back us? 

The answer, of course, depends on why the world isn't with us:  is it because our motives are questionable, our intelligence faulty, our objectives unrealistic, our methods inappropriate, our plans half-baked?  Or is that other countries - because of their own economic or political interests, cowardice, indifference, inertia or a combination thereof - won't subscribe to a policy that has genuine merit?  The distinction makes all the difference.

All this seems may soon be tested over Iran.  The LA Times' Maggie Farley framed the question well in a piece yesterday:  if the US ends up forced to sidestep the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran, will Washington's doing so be a sign of weakness or of strength?

A bit of background:  Over the last few days, Tehran has opened a heavy water plant, and launched a sub-to-surface missile test, all days in advance of an August 31 UN deadline for a cessation of their uranium enrichment activities.  All signs indicate that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has no intention of heeding the UN's demands.

Washington now faces a dilemma.  The crisis in Lebanon only underscores the breadth of Iran's regional ambitions and the efficacy of their proxy network.  The one thing foreign policy experts of all persuasions agree on is that the foremost threat to U.S. security is nuclear weapons in the hands of a rogue or terrorist state.   Thus far, Ahmadinejad seems unwilling to slow down his nuclear march, meaning that waiting out the threat - essentially the Clinton Administration's approach to Iraq and one that, in retrospect, looks better and better - may not be an option here. 

But, if the US must act, will we get the international support we need, and - if not - why not, and then what?

Continue reading "Going it Alone In Iran" »

August 25, 2006

Progressive Strategy

Exemplarism in Iraq
Posted by Michael Signer

My good friend and tough critic (isn't it nice when they're the same thing?) David Adesnik has recently hammered me for not being sufficiently specific about what "American exemplarism" -- the doctrine I argued for in the recent inaugural issue of Democracy:  A Journal of Ideas -- would mean in Iraq.  David writes:

When America has the power to go it alone but the rest of the world refuses to go along, what should America do? That was the question Clinton and Albright could never answer. If exemplarism wants to succeed where they failed, that is the question it must answer.

Irving Kristol once wrote that neoconservatism was, above all else, a "persuasion" -- a way of approaching the world and a valence for one's own thinking and conclusions.  So exemplarism wouldn't necessarily be defined, inductively, as a product of certain policies.  Instead, it's a set of principles -- America is and should be exceptional; America is and should be strong; America should lead the world in moral accomplishments; America should seek to be willingly followed by the community of nations -- that generate policies.

But this doesn't mean that exemplarism wouldn't also be about policy.  As regards Iraq, it seems to me the correct exemplarist policy would be something along the lines of what's now being proposed by Joe Biden and Leslie Gelb, among others -- that progressives should dedicate themselves not just to redeployment, but additionally to solving the problem during and after the military redeployment by building a workable, long-term, constitutional solution that would resolve Iraq's current ethnic and geopolitical tensions.

Continue reading "Exemplarism in Iraq" »

August 24, 2006


Words Matter
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Our friends over at the Century Fund have published the musings of Mort Abramowitz and myself on why this Administration's rhetoric is such a substantive disaster.

Mort, in addition to being brilliant and idiosyncratic, is an old-fashioned public servant of the "political differences stop at the water's edge" type who was appointed to high positions by Republicans.  When he and I write together, he usually tells me that I am too snarky and partisan.  So I offer our joint thinking as evidence, on the one hand, of just how off the rails things have gotten, but on the other hand how much people who care about foreign policy can actually agree on if they try (and if I save my snarking for the blog.)

The Bush administration is struggling to convince our allies, the Israelis, the Arabs, indeed the world, that it has a vision for an achievable peace in the Middle East. Unfortunately, it is drowning in its own idealistic rhetoric, which has turned on itself and is peopling the world with cynics.

The stated goal of a new, democratic Middle East requires us to stay the course in Iraq and pay long-term attention to the failed states that spawn terror. Each successive rhetorical device is emptying its predecessors of substance—and makes the unenviable task of coming up with policies that work and maintain public support that much harder. The future “promise of a democratic peace” is the glue that holds them together.

Each administration generates its own buzzwords, if only to distinguish itself from the bad guys who came before. But when the nation embarks on and ambitious new enterprise, the words get bigger and the stakes higher. Ever since “making the world safe for democracy” entered the lexicon, the grandiosity of the ambitions must be matched by rhetorical shorthand that offers cosmic significance to the cognoscenti and laudable goals to the country at large. The risks: our rhetoric both raises the real world stakes of the policy and gradually departs from the reality it is trying to shape.

Read the rest here.

Continue reading "Words Matter" »

Progressive Strategy

A Proposal for a New Progressive Foreign Policy
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Here's Part II of my American Prospect article on the future of progressive foreign policy. Where in Part I I talked about the "vision gap," in part II, I attempt to close it, by proposing a new way of conceptualizing democracy promotion and its place in US policy. I'm really curious about what Democracy Arsenal readers (i.e. you) think about some of these issues. Here's an excerpt:

The progressive approach to democracy promotion is distinguished by a fundamental realization that democracy cannot be imposed at gunpoint. The United States can, however, effectively pressure Arab governments to democratize by making economic and military aid conditional on a pre-established set of markers emphasizing freedom of expression, free elections, and the rights of opposition groups. In practice, this would mean telling Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah of Jordan, and others that if they do not get serious about political reform, the United States will get serious about slashing foreign aid. For governments that demonstrate a willingness to change, a comprehensive package of incentives will be offered. A successful democracy promotion policy consists of more than just a statement of intent. It requires a sustained commitment, clear objectives, and detailed policy prescriptions tailored for each country’s particular needs and challenges.

Democracy promotion should no longer be viewed as one policy instrument among many. Rather, a democracy-centric foreign policy will provide an integrated approach that will, in turn, clarify other important U.S. objectives:

  • War on Terrorism. Terrorism does not occur in a vacuum. When people are unable to express their grievances through a legitimate, responsive political process, they are more likely to resort to political violence and terrorism. Islamic extremism feeds upon humiliation, or what Tom Friedman has called “the poverty of dignity.” Arabs can reclaim their dignity only through a democratic process that treats them as citizens with rights, rather than subjects whose sole obligation is to obey. Only with the promise of a democratic future can the Middle East break free of the economic, cultural, and political malaise that has, for decades, fueled the rise of religious extremism.

  • Promoting Moderate Islam. Political reform leads to religious reform, not the other way around. Islamic thought and practice has been stifled by an undemocratic atmosphere in which Muslims are not exposed to the full diversity of opinions on issues of importance. Democracy, as Madeleine Albright argues in “A Realistic Idealism,” will “create a broader and more open political debate within Arab countries, exposing myths to scrutiny and extreme ideas to rebuttal.” In free societies, Arab liberals will finally be allowed to organize politically and communicate their ideas to a larger audience.
  • Read the whole thing here.

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