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January 12, 2007


Posted by Michael Signer

So I'm going to go on the record and predict the President will lose the fight for this new policy in Iraq.  I think constitutionally he might well argue that even if Congress de-funds the escalation in the supplemental appropriation, he could take steps to fulfill what he sees as his role as commander-in-chief.  But that's beside the point.  I think he's going to lose, for two critical reasons: 

Continue reading "Prediction" »


The Burden of Proof
Posted by David Shorr

Above all cautionary lessons, you'd think the Iraq debacle has demonstrated the folly of resorting to military force without first gaining the upper hand of political legitimacy, establishing the existence of the threat, and clarifying, through serious planning, how armed force will achieve your objectives. You'd think that this searing experience would make clear that prudence in the resort to force is different from willingness to use force.

After Iraq, surely our political discourse is mature enough that people no longer have to prove their national security credentials by pointing toward where they would use force, and thereby falling into the same sloppy strategic reasoning that got us into Iraq in the first place. We have learned that to be hesitant to use force is simply to respect its destructive bluntness as an instrument and wait until the proper moment.

Surely the burden of political proof has shifted toward those with an itchy trigger finger. That IS the popular wisdom of November's anti-Iraq War elctoral mandate, right? From the looks of Jeffrey Goldberg's article in the new New Yorker, apparently not.

The article compares and contrasts the Democratic presidential frontrunners' foreign policy views. Maybe some of the quotes from the candidates are interesting, I don't know. Frankly I'm having trouble seeing past Goldberg's retrograde premise. He is still asking "do they have the stomach," [a paraphrase, not a quote] when he should be asking "do they have the judgment."

Just one example to show how flimsy this is: "Polls also show that a sizable minority of Democrats now feel that the war in Afghanistan was a mistake--thirty five per cent." [That one is a quote.] Is this serious political analysis? Just what does this sizable minority indicate?

Can we please have a serious debate? Please?

January 11, 2007

Progressive Strategy

National Security Temptations
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Some of you may recall Marc Grinberg's spirited run as a guest-blogger in November. Marc and I sparred quite a bit on questions of progressive strategy and the Dems' approach to foreign policy. These discussions (see here, here, and here) were productive, forcing us to reassess some of our original positions. Well, Marc and I decided to try to synthesize some of these ideas and come up with a more coherent argument. So we co-wrote a piece for TomPaine, published earlier this week, where we argue for a principled foreign policy approach that emphasizes sincerity over poll-tested notions of "strength," even if that means incurring political losses in the short-run. Here's an excerpt:

There are two national security temptations for Democrats in the new congress: a reflexively anti-Bush approach, and a reflexively "strong" approach—trying to out-tough the Republicans on security. Both must be rejected. Though based on political calculations, they are, in fact, bad politics. Neither is driven by an overarching set of principles, leaving Democrats looking like they stand for nothing.

According to supporters of the first approach, November's victory was a mandate for opposing the Bush agenda blow-for-blow. Thus, Democrats should respond with a strategy that is the antithesis of neo-conservatism — redeploying from Iraq, limiting American activism in the world and adopting a realist foreign policy outlook. But these Democrats have come to support a mishmash of policies that could hardly be described as liberal. A reflexively anti-Bush Democrat might oppose democracy promotion in the Middle East, arguing that that's what neoconservatives do. Others may claim that the internal politics of faraway nations should not be of concern to progressives —that we have enough problems at home to worry about. But it is precisely because we are progressives that we care about poverty and oppression abroad. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once noted, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

The second temptation—to prove Democratic toughness on national security—is based on the interpretation that November's win was more a response to Republican failures than a vote of confidence in Democrats. The public still does not trust liberals to keep them safe, and so the Democratic Party must promote only what will be perceived as strong national security positions, taking on Republicans from the right, and avoiding soft issues such as civil liberties.

Continue reading "National Security Temptations" »

Middle East, Terrorism

A new Cold War?
Posted by Zvika Krieger

Yale professor Ian Shapiro has published an interesting op-ed that argues for the revival of containment as a post-Iraq strategy for the Middle East. Drawing on parallels from the Cold War, he predicts that the dysfunctional states of the Middle East will implode of their accord, and our interventions are only making things worse (while saddling ourselves with a massive military burden).

While I am hesitant to swallow his full equivalence of communism and radical Islamism, the point in the article that most resonates for me is his analysis of why containment worked: "So long as the USSR did not stage a military attack, containment...would guarantee security." In other words, containment necessitates patience. Americans had patience for it during the Cold War because they realized that there was not an immediate threat to their security. So that forces us to ask the question today: Are we, as Americans, really in that much danger of attack? Or, more precisely, how much safer have we become as a result of our interventions in the Middle East?

I would argue, as are an increasing amount of security analysts, that our interventions have made us less safe. In the most immediate sense, they have put our troops in the line of fire. But in a larger sense, they have provided a common enemy for secularists and fundamentalists -- America -- and are thus preventing the internal clashes (or what some might call "soul searching") that are necessary for actual democracy to emerge in the Middle East.  We have to remind ourselves that the war against radical Islamism -- like the war against communism -- is much more of an internal battle for the countries of the Middle East than it is our battle. While we may have felt some its affects on 9/11, we can't let that distract us from the fact that the war can only be won by the people of the Middle East themselves. 

So there are two lessons from the Cold War: We only hurt ourselves by intervening, and that we will only have the confidence not to intervene when we acknowledge that there is little direct threat to American security. We can't use the abstract threat of "terrorism" to justify hasty and aggressive action in the Middle East anymore. We have to recapture that Cold War confidence that authoritarian states will collapse as a result of their own dysfunction, and that "the best way to spread democracy is to demonstrate its superiority" rather than "ramming [it] down people’s throats."


How Exactly?
Posted by David Shorr

So I'm sitting here, trying to grant every benefit of the doubt I can. What is our best shot here? What can we still hope to salvage from this debacle? Is our ability to do good in Iraq, to do right by Iraqis, completely exhausted?

As with much of foreign policy, the debate isn't about the ends we pursue, but how we pursue them. The vision of Iraqis (and everyone else for that matter) freed from repression and violence and pursuing their happiness is shared across the widest political spectrum. The proposition (thanks Bruce) is that a boost in the forces deployed in Baghdad will secure the streets of the capital so that ordinary peace-loving citizens create the social space and the political demand for Sunni-Shia coexistence and an end to the fighting.

That sounds nice.

Continue reading "How Exactly?" »

January 10, 2007


10 Fallacies of Bush's New Strategy
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Here are 10 fallacies I heard from the White House library tonight:

1.  That the strategy is "new" - Bush referred directly to the "clear, hold and build" strategy promulgated in October 1995.   At best, this is a course-correction which has unaccountably taken more than 15 months to be put into effect.

2.   That the strategy is any more likely to work now than in the past - Bush made two arguments as to why what failed previously will succeed now: 1) that troop levels will now be sufficient and 2) that crippling restrictions on troop movements and maneuvers will be lifted.  But rather than citing evidence for either of these, Bush made only a stilted reference to military commanders having certified to their truth.  This less than a week after replacing the leaders who refused to attest to same.

3.  That the strategy is "Iraqi" in impetus or direction - While Bush clearly wants to claim that the escalation of US troops will happen in support of a renewed Iraqi effort to secure itself, this is bunk.   Bush is under desperate pressure to do something - anything - about Iraq.  This plan is as made-in-Washington as they come, right down to the predicate laid to avoid blame for the White House.  Bush is setting himself up to be able to claim that the al-Maliki government failed to come through in the crunch, even though such failure is painfully, unavoidably foreseeable from the outset.

4.  That 20,000 troops will somehow change the game - The worst part of Bush's plan is that an additional 20,000 US soldiers will risk life and limb in furtherance of a "strategy" that is doomed to fail.  Baghdad is a city of roughly 5 million people.  The 20,000 figure is driven not by any assessment of what it would take to do the job, but by tight recruitment constraints and a straightforward political calculus of what the American public might ht possibly bear.

5.  That the Iraqi government enjoys sufficient legitimacy and impartiality to curb sectarian violence - Central to Bush's plan is the ability of the Iraqi government to credibly assert itself against the militias.  But the Iraqi armed services are themselves riddled with partisan militants.  It is a Shia army with close links to the radical Sadr militia - the idea of their going "door to door" in Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad can only strike fear among residents.

6.  That the al-Maliki government is a reliable US ally - While Bush has repeatedly affirmed his faith in AL-Milk, his advisers have grave doubts about the trustworthiness of the Prime Minister.  Milk's links to Sadr, his mishandling of Saddam's execution, his failure to take control of errant ministries, his impetuous decisions affecting US military operations emblems the difficulties of forging the sort of partnership that Bush seems to be banking on.

7.  That the Iraqi military has the competence to take the lead in securing Baghdad - For anyone who somehow harbors notions about the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, a quick read of the Iraq Study Group Report will dispel such notions in devastating terms.  Army units are described as lacking personnel, equipment and leadership and as resistant to carrying out orders.  The Iraqi police are described as "substantially worse."

8.  That the terrorists and insurgents are wholly separable from the Iraqi population at large - The strategy refers repeatedly to clearing neighborhoods of insurgents.  But what allows radical militias to survive is the support and protection they receive from ordinary citizens who are sympathetic to their aims.  Until such backers buy into a political resolution of Iraq's strife, they will continue to support and breed the insurgency, making it impossible for US or Iraqi troops to root out.

9.  That the US is in a position to "provide" a political alternative to the Middle East - It's astounding and distressing to hear Bush continue to talk in terms of the US "advancing liberty" in the Middle East through means like the Iraq war.  While Bush references standing with regional actors pressing for their own freedoms, he stops well short of acknowledging the kind of broad shift of ambitions and tactics needed to guide a new US Middle East policy.

10. That disaster is still avoidable - Bush cited a series of reasons why failure in Iraq would be a disaster: because Islamic extremists would grow in strength; because Iran would be emboldened to pursue nukes; because Iraq could become a terrorist haven.  But all those developments are underway right now.


And a Guest-Blog on the Speech
Posted by Michael Signer

And these concluding thoughts contributed by an anonymous friend of mine with military experience in Iraq:

"The President's plan is contingent on Iraq Security Forces (ISF) stepping up to the plate within a year to take over from US forces.  The ISF have proven they are incapable of this.

"In order for Counterinsurgency to work, you need overwhelming force to provide static security to the local population... 16 thousand more troops in a city of 6.5 million is FAR from overwhelming force.  It is a pittance.  Once you have that security, 80% of successful counterinsurgency is non-military tools such as economic and political development within the cocoon.  Those create the indigenous institutions required to sustain the peace and stability by itself once the external forces have left.  But that process can't begin until  the initial security is provided. 

"We need 100s of 1000s more troops, not 20,000 more... and we need them for a five year comitment if this is going to be a successful project.  If as the president said, this is the singular ideological struggle of our time, how come we have not mobilized EVERY last resource of our country to win it?  If we are in the game, we must play entirely to win.  If we are not in the game to win, we should get the hell out of the game!"


Did He Meet the Gerson Test?
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

I think he fails one of Gerson's tests utterly -- explaining what leverage we have and why this will work this time. 

And as for my own criteria, he met more than I expected with the de-Baathification commitment.  But we didn't hear benchmarks for success, an honest explanation of numbers, or a commitment of real prestige to get economic assistance dollars and use them wisely.  Those all seem like critical elements to me to make this work if it had any faint chance of working.

Haven't seen or heard any Republican or Democrat saying more than "I hope I'm wrong" (Gordon Smith) in response.


Liveblogging iv: the final windup
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Purely from a speech construction point of view, you don't want to stick the stuff about our great armed forces and their bravery and suffering at the end.  Having it there next to the "bipartisan working group" and the reference to Joe Lieberman smacks of cynicism somehow.

Now I'm trying to listen to two commentators at once...


Live-Blog IV
Posted by Michael Signer

I like the end, about the actual soldiers serving the calling of freedom.  This doesn't sound like President Bush -- it sounds too humble and too focused on actual people suffering the actual consequences of policy.

And this is chilling to me -- "the year ahead" -- he's repeated that a couple of times.  This is a policy for an entire year?  Why?  What's the year for?  How do we get to that time?  And does that kick it farther down to his last year?  And to the next President?

I found it, in sum, halting and hedged, unconfident and contingent, and humble, but not in a great way...


Regional Solutions: Liveblogging iii
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Well, I'm glad we have this regional section of the speech, but I agree with Mike Signer that it is four years too late.  And the tone of lecturing the region that it needs to understand its own interests seems unlikely to succeed.

Now we're trying again to reclaim the democracy-building, freedom-spreading tone.  Sigh.

Overall, I have to say that this speech was oddly insular -- some parts of it would be confusing for a lay person to follow I think.  The laying out the argument section was followed by a short rhetorical section on "freedom in the greater Middle East," followed by another defensive "we can't up and leave" section.

Did he just say that??? "There will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship?"  Does no one in the White House remember that this president held his own "victory" celebration on the deck of a navy ship?


Live-Blog III
Posted by Michael Signer

Heather, I think maybe the books are there to make him look studious?  Historic?  Nay, statesmanlike?

Aha, there's the emphasis on diplomacy -- "we will use America's full diplomatic resources" with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Gulf States... Ok, putting schadenfreude aside, how exactly will this happen with this Administration?  Now this is sounding just casually serial, like a State of the Union speech where the President starts listing off this and that in a focus group way.  Not getting a broad theme or effort here.

Interesting that he would say "on the one side are those who believe in freedom and moderation."  That's almost funny.

It really is amazing, stepping back from all of this, that we're sending another 20,000 troops just to focus on a capital city, in a country that's going to hell, in numbers that will be inadequate and will only secure a few dozen square miles in a huge city.

This is the only eloquent part of the speech -- the young democracy that's "fighting for its life."  And then this part -- that the terrorists are "without conscience."  But he doesn't seem to understand that they're fighting eachother as often as they're fighting us.

And this is precious -- I can't believe he said "there will be no surrender party on the deck of a battleship."  I just can't believe it.  Is it such cunning, subtle wit that he's parrying with himself about Mission Accomplished?  It is arrogance, a Big Joke like a Big Lie?  Or is it just a slip-up, an irony in a sea of portentousness?  Whatever it is, I'm not sure whether that thing on my face is a wince or a grimace, but it doesn't feel good.

"Mass killings on an unimaginable scale" -- talk about ahistorical fearmongering.  Are you kidding me?  It's awful, but it's not World War II.  And by making it into an absolute Worst Thing Ever, he attempts to trump, to make opposition to his policy a violation of a principle, or of faith itself.

Liveblogging II
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

"Too many restrictions on the troops we did have"???  What is that supposed to mean?  I'm not being snarky, I'm just asking.

We're five minutes in, and no mention of how the security mission connects to political/economic solutions, I note.

Oh, that's what he means.  Now supposedly Iraqi and American units will go everywhere, and there won't be hands-off zones.  Will the MAhdi Army view that statement as declaring war on them?

OK, so as previewed he did say that our commitment is not open-ended.  That will be useful to Republicans running for President and Congress, sort of.  And I also note we haven't heard anything about any timeframe at all.

Ah, now we're getting "beyond" military operations -- but it's better life in communities.  Important, but still nothing about the government itself.  "Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenue among all Iraqis." 

OK, points to Bush on pledging that the Iraqis will "reform de-Baathification laws" -- though it's a bit strange for us to be announcing that about a sovereign government.  If Iraqis and Americans could deliver on that political list, that would be great, but I still didn't hear much about powersharing for Sunnis.  And I didn't hear any personal commitment to getting reconstruction money through Congress, which will be necessary, to put it mildly.


Live-Blogging the Speech II
Posted by Michael Signer

OK, now I'm getting more worried -- the "vast majority" of the 5 brigades will be deployed to Baghdad.  What if the major focus of the insurgents is no longer Baghdad?  What if they're smart, tough, and resourceful, and start attacking from the suburbs?  Or move to other cities? 

As a Marine friend told me, we are, with this increase, going to have one soldier for every 185 Baghdad residents; in Bosnia (where they weren't shooting at us), we had one for every 75 residents!  How is that going to be enough?

It's also striking just how much the President is relying on al-Maliki -- how much he's bringing him up, how much he's focusing on his representations about what the Iraqi government will do.  This must be the one instance in the world where the Administration fully trusts another President and is willing to defer to them -- in the instance where the state is weakest!  Why is Bush trusting al-Maliki so much?

I hate to fret, but I really am worried that our soldiers in Baghdad are going to be potted plants.  This is asymmetrical warfare, and if the insurgents ambush 5 Marines on Monday going door-to-door, and then do is again on Wednesday, then they start to win. 

There he goes again -- the Iraqi government is going to spend "10 million dollars of its own money" on jobs... I just don't get where he derives such total faith in the actions of such a weak government.

I do know from reading the speech beforehand that he actually talks about the ISG's recommendations -- for almost the first time -- and he actually embraces regional diplomacy!  Amazing!  Only four years late!


Live-Blogging the Iraq Speech
Posted by Michael Signer

The President just started speaking, and I just skimmed the speech on a friend's Blackberry.  I was surprised at how defensive and hedged it seemed -- how responsive, rather than authoritative.  But then, as someone told me, it will depend on delivery.  Will he exude some gravitas?  Or will he seem small, in that particular way he has, when he tries to seem statesmanlike?

"The responsiblity rests with me" -- wow, that was unusual.  He actually said the line with some direct humility.  Good -- points for him.  Only 6 years too late.

"Failure in Iraq would be a disaster for the United States."  This sounds good, but what does "failure" mean???  Is failure leaving?  He's listing, serially, a whole bunch of bad things, such as emboldening Iran to seek nuclear weapons.  But wouldn't redeploying and looking stronger, and marshalling our resources against Iran have the opposite effect of emboldening them?

And now he says that the generals support him -- which is, from the WaPo this morning, not true... you can't make this reality up.

More to come...


Liveblogging I
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Follow along at home... highlights of the "Iraq Strategy Review."

Opening strategy is to try to re-live a high point.  Just in terms of a live audience, he missed the chance to grab us immediately.  But maybe in this media age that doesn't matter.

Now we're re-living 2006, sort of.  So the message is that it's all Al Qaeda's fault?

"Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me" is something, but it ain't exactly ringing.

Anybody else wonder why he's doing this stand-up in front of a bookshelf rather than in the Oval Office?


Posted by Heather Hurlburt

I'll let former chief Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson say it for me:

“I don’t think the American people need a pep rally.  I think they need a theory.”

What questions does the President need to answer?

why the security of Baghdad is essential, why old plans didn’t work and why new ones will, and how it will work -- what leverage do we have.

How should Bush do it?  Gerson drew comparisons with JFK's Cuban Missile Crisis speech.   That's both self-serving -- JFK didn't have to explain past mistakes, as Bush must -- and a tough hurdle for any White House to get over.


Zvika Krieger Guest-Blogging
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I´d like to belatedly welcome Zvika Krieger to Democracy Arsenal. As you may have already gathered, he's guest blogging with us from his fascinating perch in Sri Lanka and Beirut. By way of introduction, Zvika is a writer based in the Middle East who has written for Newsweek, The New Republic, and other publications and has appeared on CNN, Fox News, and NBC News. He has received research fellowships to study the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, the Kifaya reform movement in Egypt, public health in Bombay slums, religious identity in Kashmir, historical memory in Palestinian refugee camps, and the role of religion in Lebanese politics. In other words, this guy has a thing for hot spots. Make sure to check out some of his recent articles, here and here.

January 09, 2007


The Bush Reconstruction "Surge"
Posted by Gordon Adams

In addition to the escalation of US forces in Iraq that President will announce on Wednesday evening, the administration is said to be preparing a “surge” in reconstruction assistance, announcing a program, described as “significant,” by the Wall Street Journal on Friday, January 5, 2007.

This assistance package may consist of roughly $1.5 b. in reconstruction funds assistance through traditional foreign assistance channels (State/USAID) and another $1 b. in additional funding for the Pentagon’s Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP).

If Congress endorses this package, they should beware.  It is not significant, either in size or in potential impact in Iraq.

Continue reading "The Bush Reconstruction "Surge"" »


Live-Blogging on Iraq Tomorrow
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Technology and toddler permitting, I'll live-blog the President's Iraq speech tomorrow night -- and I hope several other Arsenalistas will join me.

To keep your grey matter spinning until then, seven things to watch for:

1.  Specifics/benchmarks/goals:  Numerous Republicans and Democrats have said that their support for a surge would be conditioned on clear goals and benchmarks for what additional troops would accomplish.  How much of a nod to this will the President make?

2.  Complete strategy:  Sen Graham says that the President's speech will mark "a change in economic, political and military strategy."  Will that be laid out in comprehensive commitments, not just slogans, and will it include:

Continue reading "Live-Blogging on Iraq Tomorrow" »

Middle East

The Lebanese Speak
Posted by Zvika Krieger

Returning to Lebanon after spending three weeks in Sri Lanka, I was surprised to see that the anti-government March 8 coalition was still camped out in downtown Beirut. Their 38-day protest has brought the city to a standstill, and even the “escalated” actions they announced yesterday will probably do little to break the stalemate between them and the governing March 14 coalition. One of the primary reasons for the current conflict is that both sides claim to represent a larger segment of the Lebanese people since this summer’s war with Israel. It’s tough to tell who is right.

Zogby International has released one of the first exhaustive studies of Lebanese public opinion since the war, which sheds some light on the current conflict. According to the poll, opinion on the major issues facing the Lebanon seems to universally divide along sectarian lines—with the Shi’ites on one side and the Sunnis, Christians, and Druze on the other. This helps to dispel Hizballah’s claim of broad-based support for their pro-Syrian, anti-government coalition.

In case you were fooled by Christian leader Michel Aoun’s alliance with Hizballah, the poll proves that Lebanese Christians remain among the most pro-Western and pro-American segment of the country’s population. The Druze continue to be the most consistent source of US support in Lebanon -- they are the only group in Lebanon that still supports US efforts to spread democracy in the region and, interestingly enough, they would rather be ruled by Condoleeza Rice than Ahmadinajad, Saddam Hussein, or King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Condi ’08, anyone?

Continue reading "The Lebanese Speak" »

January 07, 2007


Liza Juliet
Posted by David Shorr

Whenever a new baby joins us on this floating sphere, we hope the world he or she comes to know is a peaceful one. Many here take a professional interest in world peace, so maybe we can give the vision a little more definite shape.

Things aren't looking so great these days, but we're all familiar with international problems and situations that somehow worked out better instead of worse. So without quibbling over odds, causal factors, or dissimilarities, these are some precedents for which we hope, for the sake of Suzanne and David's new little girl, history repeats itself. Of course history doesn't repeat itself, but it's good to remember that its downward spirals sometimes turn around. So for little Liza Juliet, we hope some of today's problems come out like some of yesterday's...

Continue reading "Liza Juliet" »

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