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October 13, 2006

Human Rights

It's Official: Congressman Shays Lives in a Parallel Universe
Posted by Shadi Hamid

So rarely have I been revolted as I was while watching this disingenuous piece of obsfucastion and denial by purported nice guy Congressman Chris Shays. Here is a man who has explained away and excused the Bush administration's open policy of facilitating torture while, in Orwellian fashion, calling it something else. See his pathetic performance here. Shays and the other torture-justifiers have chosen to turn a blind eye to some of the most egregious abuses of power our country has ever seen. It has destroyed our crediblity, but, more importantly, it has destroyed our moral sense as a nation.  Progressives should forget polls and remember principle, and start attacking the torture apologists on this issue like there's no tomorrow.


Media Matters
Posted by Michael Signer

If you don't already, put Media Matters on your bookmark list and RSS feed.  It was started with the help of former right-wing hit-man David Brock and apparently has some Democracy Alliance money.  It's a fascinating and energetic new effort at doing to the right what the right has done to the left for a couple of decades now -- put them on the defensive for media bias.

A couple of highlights from today's posts:

(1)  They note that both ABC and CNN reported on President Bush saying during his press conference yesterday that Bill Clinton's North Korea policy "didn't work" -- but that the reporters failed to report the fact that plutonium production stopped during the Clinton presidency.  Here's their summary:

The AP's Terence Hunt and NBC News' David Gregory both reported President Bush's "veiled swipe" at the Clinton administration's North Korea policy, in which Bush said, "I appreciate the efforts of previous administrations. It just didn't work." But neither noted that, following the Clinton administration's signing of the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, that country did not produce any plutonium until 2002, when the Bush administration abandoned the agreement.

(2)  They observe that network news faithfully carried President Bush's new talking points that he was "open" to change in Iraq -- but failed to note that he has maintained his inflexibility on troop withdrawal, perhaps the most important actual policy to most Americans today.  Here's their summary:

ABC, NBC, and CBS reported that, during a recent press conference, President Bush stated that he is "open" to changing the administration's Iraq war policy, but did not note that, during that same press conference, Bush reiterated his claim that the United States will not "leave before the job is done."

This is a powerfully helpful addition to the media landscape.  We should all pay attention to what they have to say -- particularly in the closing weeks of the current campaign.

October 12, 2006

Progressive Strategy

One well-placed Murder
Posted by Lorelei Kelly

Is the Taliban weapon of choice in the hearts and minds campaign to win Afghanistan. I learned this at a Capitol Hill discussion yesterday with Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter who now runs a humanitarian organization there (check out her new book ). Seems death obeys that law of diminishing returns  you learned in Economics 101: more of something doesn't necessarily produce a better result. With political goals in mind,the Taliban has developed a ghastly set of campaign advertisements: pick off strategic individuals like a night watchman at a public school (leaving names of teachers pinned to his body) an incorruptible police chief, a Red Cross worker. Later in the day, I attended an annual Army Association conference  that is best described as the beauty pageant of the defense industry. (I counted at least three helicopters, half-dozen drones and several ginormous military personnel vehicles inside the DC convention center). After hearing Sarah talk,  though, I couldn't help thinking that the expo symbolized America's dysfunction on national security: the more political and hands-on our tasks, the more  complicated and remote the technology we create to solve problems.

I've had many conversations with people who have spent time in Afghanistan. All agree that today's violent chaos is largely the result of our own missed opportunity. Iraq sucked the oxygen out of our efforts there.   Accountable government to replace the Taliban became an afterthought as early as 2002.   Even this administration's single minded "free market" foreign policy might have done wonders if we'd paid attention. Afghans are fabulous at commerce, after all and parts of the country have un matched agricultural resources.

Today, Afghan citizens are presented with two lousy choices: a Pakistan backed Taliban or a homegrown corrupt government. Both act like organized gangs, one shakes down the newly minted citizens during the a.m. the other during the p.m. Who you choose to side with depends on two questions:

Continue reading "One well-placed Murder" »


Thank God for Our Antiquated Institutions
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I’ve decided to finally get through all of Sam Huntington’s classic work (before he went bonkers) – Political Order in Changing Societies. Here’s one passage that stands out not because it is particularly original, but because it conveys just how lucky we are to have the unique and somewhat antiquated institutional structure which the founding fathers devised for us (and which has proven surprisingly and fortunately resilient). In other words, if we were living in Britain (where there is no separation of powers) and Bush happened to speak in a British accent, we’d probably find ourselves much closer to tyranny than we currently are. 

The passion of the Founding Fathers for the divison of power, for setting ambition against ambition, for creating a constitution with a complicated system of balances exceeding that of any other is, of course, well known. Everything is bought at a price, however, and as many Englishmen have pointed out, one apparent price of the divison of power is governmental inefficiency. "The English consitution, in a word," [Walter] Bagehot argued, "is framed on the principle of choosing a single sovereign authority, and making it good: the American, upon the principle of having many sovereign authorities, and hoping that their multitude may atone for their inferiority." (p. 111)

God bless America.

October 11, 2006


A River in Egypt
Posted by Michael Signer

A buzz is starting about a startling example of the through-the-looking-glass world of the President from today on CNN:

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN: Thank you, Mr. President. Back on Iraq, a group of American and Iraqi health officials today released a report saying that 655,000 Iraqis have died since the Iraq war. That figure is 20 times the figure that you cited in December at 30,000. Do you care to amend or update your figure and do you consider this a credible report?

PRESIDENT BUSH: No, I don't consider it a credible report, neither does General Casey and neither do Iraqi officials. I do know that a lot of innocent people have died and it troubles me and grieves me. And I applaud the Iraqis for their courage in the face of violence. I am, you know, amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they're willing to - you know, that there's a level of violence that they tolerate.

Um.  So Iraqis society "so wants to be free" that it is "willing to" "tolerate" a "level of violence" and therefore should be "applauded"?

Is he saying something causal here?  That because the Iraqis want freedom that they desire the willingness to tolerate it?  Or, to cut a quick logical corner -- that they somehow desire the violence itself?

Boy -- that would make things easy.  If that were the case, well, then, sure -- violence is a good thing!  Because it's testing the mettle the Iraqis want tested!  Because it gives Iraqis a chance to demonstrate their courage!  Because it would give us something to applaud them for.

Talk about denial...

North Korean Nukes: Three Fallacies (with bonus discussion question)
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

1.    "North Korea is not our problem."  This is the tack neo-realists Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman take in today’s LA Times.  They posit that North Korea’s nukes are a “regional problem” that we should insist that China, Japan and others take the lead on.  The problem? What appears to be the North's big goal?  A missile that can hit… the continental US.  CSIS’s Antony Cordesman notes the uncertainty around what kind of weapon this test represents.  In any case, I’ve noticed several South Korean commentators pushing the contrary vision that North Korean nukes are in fact not a Korean problem, but a US problem, because proliferation to terrorists would never target Asia. Both can't be right, and if the South Koreans don't think it's their problem, I'd bet on them.

2.  “The regional powers have all the leverage.” This is the Administration’s argument for why we need six-party talks and, conversely, why there’s no need for the US to talk to Pyongyang. See above.  Who are the North Koreans trying to impress, ultimately?  Not Beijing, which is already plenty impressed by the specter of millions of staving Koreans crossing the border in the event of regime breakdown.  Now, if we could take our hyper-power selves out of the equation, and make Pyongyang get down to the business of living with its neighbors, sure, that would be progress.  But we could do that most efficiently by talking with them, just to take away the excuse that we won’t talk with them.  Moreover, if the regional powers aren’t interested in using their leverage on behalf of “our” issues, we’d better look for plan B.

3.  “Kim Jong Il is crazy.”  Yep, if you dropped him here in suburban Michigan, people would be suggesting he get some help for that narcissistic personality.  But that doesn’t make him irrational, or impossible to deter, maneuver or even negotiate with.  Remember, not only did we talk to Stalin, we even strategized enough to win a war with him.  And he was a homicidal maniac (the technical term) on a scale that Kim, fortunately, can only contemplate.  His regime does have, over the past few years, a tiresomely sane record of doing, or attempting, most of the crazy things it says it’s going to do.

Continue reading "North Korean Nukes: Three Fallacies (with bonus discussion question) " »

Democracy, Middle East

Abu Aardvark's Puzzle: The Stickiness of Autocracy
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Marc Lynch (aka Abu Aardvark) poses the question of why Arab autocracies have proven so durable, seemingly immune from the winds of reform? After all, weren’t we talking about the blossoming, blooming, burgeoning “Arab Spring” just last year? As Lynch notes:

Many of the things which [USC economist Timur Kuran] expected to spark this bandwagon have in fact now happened:  the Iraq war toppled Saddam, the post-Hariri Lebanese protests drove out the Syrians, some brave activists began demanding change (Kefaya), Arab satellite TV broadcast it all widely.  But Arab regimes look as entrenched as ever. That has to be something of a puzzle. 

Of course, Lynch is goading us a bit here. It’s really not as mysterious as it sounds and I’m sure Abu Aardvark is well aware of how Spring turns to Summer.

Here are three considerations which may help clarify the matter, the first of which should be obvious to even the most unseasoned observer:

  1. US policymakers cannot pretend to be puzzled at the Arab world’s “democratic deficit,” because they are a big part of the problem. Despite all the fanfare to the contrary (i.e. the sweeping Wilsonianism of early 2005), the Bush administration continues to actively lend economic, military, and moral support to some of the region’s most stalwart dictators, including those in Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. Yes, it’s a long list. Well, then, why do we support these dictators? Because, apparently, or so we’re told, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. We’re afraid that Islamists will come to power through democratic elections. So we opt for sham, façade, imaginary      democracy. With that said, the “Islamist dilemma” is not an easy one to resolve and there are legitimate concerns about how to handle it. I’ve tried to address this here, here, and here.

  1. The existence and strength of political Islam is also an important factor from the standpoint of Arab domestic politics. In Eastern Europe and Latin America, the primary cleavage between regime and opposition was economic. However, in the Middle East, religion is the primary cleavage (i.e. Islamism vs. secularism) and this fact complicates matters quite a bit. In such a context, divisions between government and opposition are not a matter of differing public policies, but rather one of the raison d’etre of the state itself. Politics, thus, becomes an existential concern and, in extreme cases, a matter of life and death, as it was during the fated Algerian elections of 1991. The zero-sum nature of Arab politics makes democratic compromise that much more difficult.

Here’s another way of looking at it: guaranteeing regime actors that (after they are voted out of office) their private property and Swiss bank accounts will be protected is one thing. Ensuring that their very way of life will not be “affected” is altogether another. Rich people can still live rich under a leftist regime. The “bourgeois” lifestyle, on the individual level, will not be affected in any significant way. An Islamist-led regime, however, will initiate at least some changes which would have direct bearing on the private sphere (i.e. family law, private status law, women’s issues, artistic expression, alcohol consumption). Generally, people are more able to reconcile themselves to changes in public policy. The private sphere, on the other hand, is often seen as “untouchable.” Understandable fears of future Islamist intervention in “cultural production” may, then, provoke relevant regime actors to act in ways that are not necessarily in accordance with their rational self-interest. A good barometer of this is the, I suspect, uniquely Arab phenomenon of secularists and liberals warning that they will “leave” if Islamists come to power.

Continue reading "Abu Aardvark's Puzzle: The Stickiness of Autocracy" »

October 10, 2006

Middle East

Despair and its Aftermath
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I just read a fascinating, if despairing account of the tragedy known as modern Egypt in Vanity Fair, a magazine which, despite its glossiness, has some of the best political coverage out there today. If you want to understand why Egypt (and, by extension, the Arab world) is a powder keg, I suggest you give it a read. It is a tragic but familiar story of the humiliation of life under autocracy and how such humiliation can push people over the edge, to say and do dangerous things. The article is a bit long, so here are the most affecting parts:

Where Farouk still nursed a flickering hope for something better, Ashraf, his elder, had given up. If angrier than any other Egyptian I'd met, Ashraf also seemed to personify a facet of the Egyptian personality I'd long sensed lay just beneath the surface: the rage of a people living in a state of near-constant humiliation.

Some of these humiliations come with life under a dictatorship—the corruption, the petty harassments—but others are specific to Egypt. In the land of one of the world's most fabled ancient civilizations, the average Egyptian now struggles to get by on less than $1,000 a year. About the only opportunity for most Egyptians to economically advance is to labor as indentured servants for their far richer Gulf Arab cousins, or to obsequiously cater to the foreigners in their midst...

"Look at me," Ashraf said. "I feel like I'm 70. I feel like I don't have any future. Not even 1 percent of my dreams have come true. If I had a chance to do something, I'd take up a gun. It's the same life for me whether I live or die."

And then this:

[Farouk’s] ultimate dream, though, was to win the American-visa lottery. Every year, the U.S. awards some 50,000 work visas around the world, and this was the fourth year in a row that Farouk was applying...

For some minutes, Farouk rhapsodized about what his life would become if he won the lottery, how it would answer all his dreams. "Because I know in America I would be a great success. Everything would be wonderful for me then." After a short time, though, Farouk seemed to reflect on just how improbably small the odds were of this happening, and grew more solemn.

"You remember my friend Ashraf?" he asked. "He didn't tell you this, but last year he got an Iraqi visa. He wanted to join the jihad—as a fighter or as a shaheed [martyr], he didn't care—but so many Egyptian men have gone there that they have closed the land routes. To go to Iraq now, you first have to fly to Syria, and he didn't have the money for that."

It sounded like some bad joke, a guy so down on his luck he couldn't even get himself killed, but then Farouk continued in a soft voice.

"Sometimes I think maybe I should do that. They talk about it a lot in the mosques, about all the young men going there. I think I'm too soft to be a fighter, that it's not in my spirit, but I don't know … If I could go and kill some Americans before I die, then maybe my life would have had some meaning."

October 09, 2006

"First, Don't Panic"
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Rather than pretend to be a North Korea expert, I'll put on my "expert on the experts" hat and summarize/link to some of the better web analysis/commentary on the North Korea situation.

For starters, that sanguine advice from former US Ambassador to Korea Donald Gregg:

First: Don't panic. Kim Jong Il's objective is survival and eventual change in North Korea, not suicide. The diplomatic situation in Northeast Asia will be immensely complicated by the North Korea test, which I think was a huge mistake on their part, but missiles are not about to start flying.

Gregg further posits that we may be seeing the ascendancy of a hard-line faction within North Korea (when someone explains to me what a non-hard line faction looks like in the North Korean context, I'll let you know) and joins James Baker in making the plaint that this Administration doesn't understand that you negotiate with your enemies, not your friends, as Yitzhak Rabin once said.

As for the longer-term implications, a former British diplomat sets out in some detail the case for worry that this test breaks down nuclear inhibitions in "as many as 30" other countries that could become nuclear powers if they so desired.

The specific worry is Asia, most immediately Japan.  Steve Clemons, who was a Japan expert before he became a blogger-about-town, suggests tersely that Japan is "outgrowing its nuclear allergy" and draws some links between John Bolton's behavior and the North Koreans decision to test.  One wants to believe that the North Koreans make their decisions based on more than just what comes out of Bolton's mouth, but you never know.

I learned from this Council on Foreign Relations summary of links that Walter Russell Meade and the CATO Institute agree with Steve that a Japanese move to go nuclear is not unlikely.  CFR also cites a subscription-only piece at Stratfor which says the test may show that China's leverage over North Korea is diminishing.  A CNN report from before the test alleges that this remark by the Chinese PermRep to the UN angered North Korea's military leadership and may have spurred it to move the test forward:

...for bad behavior in this world no one is going to protect them.

The Chinese ambassador said this in response to Bolton referring to his country as North Korea's protector on the Security Council.

So just to sum up, we have a thumbs-down for:

  • The global moral norm that nuclear weapons are bad;
  • The U.S. ability to enforce same;
  • The U.S. ability to deter proliferation;
  • China's influence over its difficult neighbor.

Who gets a thumbs-up out of this?

  • Japanese (and South Korean) hardliners who want to go nuclear;
  • People (and politicians) who are tired of Mark Foley.*

*Based on a highly-unscientific survey, conducted at 9:30 pm, of 10 newspapers serving states with tight Senate races:  six led with North Korea over Foley, two still have Foley over North Korea, and two either carried neither or had them in tiny type well down the page.

October 08, 2006


Iraq in Three Parts
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

When even Armed Services Committee chair John Warner (R-Va) confesses that the Iraq war effort is "drifting sideways," its time to revisit even previously unpalatable policy alternatives that begin to look better alongside the abyss.  One such proposal is Les Gelb's idea of trying to refashion Iraq into a confederation of 3 essentially separate states: Kurd, Sunni and Shiite.  The Baker-Hamilton Commission, charged with Bush to evaluate Iraq policy options and report back after the election, is weighing this possibility, as is the Iraqi Parliament.

The gist of the idea is a weak Iraqi central government responsible for border controls, foreign affairs, and control and distribution of Iraq's oil wealth.  All other functions, including policing and security, would be devolved to three separate, though confederated, entities.

Gelb has been talking about this for nearly 3 years, during which time the inevitable failings he predicted with a unitary approach have all come to fruition.  Michael Signer has addressed Gelb's proposal several times here on Democracy Arsenal.  Back in May Gelb and Senator Joseph Biden co-authored an NYT op-ed on the subject that continuous to reverberate. 

For a long time, the plan seemed to give up too quickly on the hope of a single and stable Iraq, sowing the seeds for both internal strife within the fiefdoms and a likely resumption of interethnic and regional conflict down the road.  It was tough to face up to a fragile, fractured and politically tremulous Iraq as the end-result costing the lives of thousands of American soldiers and the valiant efforts of hundreds of thousands more.  But compared to a violent and uncontrolled inferno, a broken but at least partly stable country holds increasing appeal.  I had a chance to discuss Gelb's ideas with him in depth just last week, and think they merit a closer look now.

Here's what I like about the idea, and below that are some important caveats:

- It acknowledges that the quest for a unitary Iraq isn't progressing - Many of us have in the past urged waiting weeks, months and years to see whether conditions in Iraq don't turn a corner.  They haven't, and honest observers now admit more waiting is futile.

- Ideally, the option is a way to stop trying to impose an American vision on Iraq, and let the country's endemic political and social forces set their own course - Among the greatest flaws of the Iraq invasion and occupation is the degree to which made-in-America prescriptions were fed to an unwilling population.  Gelb and others argue, with some support, that the confederation proposal more accurately reflects where Iraq's own history and politics would lead.  The prospect of going with, rather than against Iraq's inherent grain is intrinsically appealing, though - particularly in light of polls showing more than three-fourths of Iraqis opposed to partition - we need to make sure that truths on the ground, rather than convenience and desperation, are making confederation now seem a "natural" outcome.

- Its an alternative to simple US withdrawal - Many of us are uncomfortable with simply withdrawing from Iraq (or even a more strategic redeployment) on grounds that Iraq would likely become a failed state with grave consequences for US security.

- It has the potential to prevent Iraq - or at least parts of Iraq - from becoming a failed state - The idea behind partition is that it would allow very (Kurdistan) and largely (the Shiite regions) stable areas of Iraq to more formally cordon themselves off from the violence in the center, and that Sunni Baathists - if given free rein - would stand a decent chance of being able to stamp out the insurgents and al Qaeda.

Continue reading "Iraq in Three Parts" »

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