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November 30, 2007

That Wacky, Wacky Krauthammer
Posted by Michael Cohen

Because I consider it my life's mission to expose the absurdities of Charles Krauthammer, I offer my latest installment of "That Wacky, Wacky Krauthammer."

In today's edition, Krauthammer penned a piece in the Washington Post that claimed among other things the stem cell debate is over . . . and here's a shocker, the President was correct! Who could have imagined such sycophant-like behavior from Charles Krauthammer?

A decade ago, James A. Thomson was the first to isolate human embryonic stem cells. Last week, he (and Japan's Shinya Yamanaka) announced one of the great scientific breakthroughs since the discovery of DNA: an embryo-free way to produce genetically matched stem cells. Even a scientist who cares not a whit about the morality of embryo destruction will adopt this technique because it is so simple and powerful. The embryonic stem cell debate is over.

Which allows a bit of reflection on the storm that has raged ever since the August 2001 announcement of President Bush's stem cell policy. The verdict is clear: Rarely has a president -- so vilified for a moral stance -- been so thoroughly vindicated.

Now, I'm no expert on stem cell research, but any time Charles Krauthammer makes a definitive statement that indicates George Bush was unequivocally correct about anything . . . well my eyebrow curls upward in suspicion. Apparently my misgivings were well placed. According to Susan L. Solomon of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, old Charley is way off base.

It is not true. It is not even close to true. The new "induced pluripotentiary stem cells" (IPS for short) that scientists have now figured out how to make will be powerful tools for scientists studying the mechanisms of human diseases in their laboratories, and there is no doubt that this is an important scientific event. But these reprogrammed cells cannot be used to treat human patients in the clinic, because they were created using genes and retroviruses that can cause cancer in humans. Moreover, even if other, safe ways of producing these new IPS cells are found, no one yet knows the extent to which these new cells will behave like true human embryonic stem cells. Krauthammer and others who are seeking to justify current federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research would like to think that IPS cells are exactly the same as embryonic stem cells, but they are not.

Now of course Ms. Solomon has a vested interest in saying that Krauthammer is wrong, but if history has taught us anything . .  it is that Charles Krauthammer is usually wrong.

The Illusion of Success
Posted by Michael Cohen

While everyone should be pleased by the evident progress in Iraq on the security front, the front page article in today's New York Times detailing the challenges in resettling Iraqi refugees is a sobering reminder of how illusory -- and temporary -- these gains really are.

The Iraqi refugee situation is one of the great unreported stories of the Iraq conflict and it appears that not only does the US government have no plan for dealing for these folks - neither does the Maliki government:

The Iraqi government lacks a mechanism to settle property disputes if former residents return to Baghdad only to find their homes occupied . . . Nor has the Iraqi government come forward with a detailed plan to provide aid, shelter and other essential services to the thousands of Iraqis who might return. American commanders caution that if the return is not carefully managed, there is a risk of undermining the recent security gains.

What's worse is that the military continues to put pressure on the Iraqis to move forward on the refugee issue, but to no avail:

Col. Cheryl L. Smart, who tracks the data on displaced Iraqis for General Petraeus’s command, said that the American military had been “very vocal” with the Iraqi government about the need to establish a system to adjudicate claims about property rights and to avoid using Iraqi troops to carry out “forced evictions.”

As if that isn't concerning enough, guess who's in charge of the resettlement - Ahmed Chalibi. If it wasn't so said, it would almost be comic.

There is of course is a larger lesson here - apologists for the this Administration like my favorite bete noire Charles Krauthammer would have us believe that the security improvements in and around Baghdad show that the tide has turned in Iraq. But, if the Maliki government can't tackle issues like refugee resettlement (even under US pressure) there is zero hope that the security gains will translate into long-term progress for Iraq. And let's be clear, political progress means more than reconciliation - it means a commitment by the Iraqi government to  finding solutions to issues like divvying up oil money, de-baathification, refugee resettlement etc.

Indeed the lack of political progress and any movement on issues like refugee resettlement provides the most compelling evidence possible that the surge is not working and that a shift in US policy is necessary.

Yeah, I'm not holding my breath either . . .

November 28, 2007

The Thing No Republican Candidate Mentioned
Posted by Moira Whelan

In the very sparse and weak treatment of international issues in tonight’s debate, not a single candidate mentioned Annapolis.

Not only that, these guys were allowed to skate by with only sweeping assertions about “radical Islam” and the like. Not a single candidate was asked to address in detail what they would do to address the challenges we face…except to say that we should face them. No policy proposals, no tough ideas, just rhetoric.

In contrast, every Democratic debate is full of in-depth and proactive answers by all of the candidates on global issues.

I can only draw one conclusion from this: people must trust Democrats more on security issues, and would rather hear from them, not Republicans on the issue. Otherwise, if it were so important to them, they’d talk about it, right?

Kurdish Oil
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

So, not only is the Kurdish Regional Government undermining any chance of a national oil sharing agreement by signing a bunch of contracts with foreign companies, their doing it with the help of a whose who of former Bush Administration officials.

Two top Kurdish leaders are a long way from the mountains of northern Iraq this week.

On Monday night, Omer Fattah Hussain was the toast of a dinner held at the 10,000-square-foot McLean mansion of Ed Rogers, a Reagan White House political director and current chairman of the lobbying firm Barbour Griffith & Rogers. In an opulent living room just off an art-filled entryway with a curved double stairway, the deputy prime minister of the Iraqi Kurds' autonomous region mingled with such luminaries as former assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle, former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and former White House press secretary Tony Snow.

This is actually very important because it significantly decreases the chance of ever getting a national oil deal and essentially signals to the Iraqi Central Government that the Kurds have given up on ever getting this done.  The Iraqi Oil Minister has declared these deals illegal and threatened to exclude any company that is doing business with the Kurds from getting any contracts in the rest of Iraq.  To which the Kurdish Oil Minister responded, "We don't need his approval, every time we hear the word 'illegal,' we sign two more contracts."

Meanwhile, the company that started this latest round, against the objections of the State Department, is Hunt Oil.  Naturally, the company's CEO is on the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and a major Republican contributor.

Also the Iranians and Turks might not be too happy about this bit:

According to one person at the meeting, the officials warned that some of the blocs being offered by the Kurdish government lay outside its territory and might extend into Turkey or Iran.

Annapolis and "Gang Rape"
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Generally, I've always thought that President Bush's decision to completely ignore the peace process for seven years was disasterous. I don't have high hopes for what can be achieved in the next 14 months, but it's hard to argue with the fact that getting Israeli and Palestinian leaders to sit down and talk is a good thing. 

Then again if you're Frank Gaffney, you might just compare the peace conference to the gang rape of a 19 year-old woman.  This is seriously one of the nuttiest and stupidest things I've ever read.

Good News for the Bush Administration
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Just how bad are things for the Administration politically?  This is what passes for good news.

A new poll released yesterday underscored the changing political environment, finding the public more positive about the military effort in Iraq than at any point in 14 months as a surge of optimism follows the rapid decline in violence.

To put this in context, the poll is talking about September of 2006.  That would be one month before the 2006 Democratic landslide.  But that's the good news.  It gets worse.

Yet Bush remains as unpopular as ever in the survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, and the public remains just as committed to bringing U.S. troops home.

In fact, if you look at the poll more carefully (PDF) the President's approval rating is down 7 points from September 2006, Democrats in Congress approval rating has not changed and support for pulling troops out of Iraq is actually up 7 points since the 2006 election and has not dropped in the past few months. 

Those Democrats who are starting to argue that candidates should back off on Iraq and start supporting a middle of the ground approach because it is wise politically, should think twice.  Of course, the Administration has gotten a bit of a boost from the reduction in violence but the overwhelming sentiment remains the same.   Start to hmm and haw now would be politics.  It would also be bad policy.

The Balkans back to the brink
Posted by Max Bergmann

All appeared right in the Balkans just a few years back. The pull of European Union membership created momentum for reconciliation and reform in Bosnia and to a lesser degree in Serbia. The issue of Kosovo's independence was still a stickler, but it looked like a resolution was possible. Now the region is on the brink of sliding backwards. The BBC reports:

Serbs and ethnic Albanians have failed to resolve the future status of Kosovo at a final round of internationally-brokered talks.

The real question is what happens next. Once isolated, Serbia has now gained an ally in a resurgent Russia that is willing to stick a finger in the eye of the U.S. and Europe. If Kosovo declares independence from Serbia unilaterally, Russia would likely block U.S. and European efforts to recognize Kosovo at the security council. But there is a larger danger that the Kosovo dispute could spill into Bosnia. The fear is that the Republika Srpska (the Serb entity in Bosnia), could be prompted to declare its independence from Bosnia - effectively destroying the Dayton peace agreement and leaving the Balkans in flux.

What to do? Richard Holbrooke wrote an important oped this weekend where he calls for Bush to...

make one last, personal effort with Putin. His efforts must be backed by temporary additional troop deployments in the region. It is not too late to prevent violence, but it will take American-led action and time is running out.

This to me has it right, but it leaves out the role of the EU. Ultimately this issue is about what direction Serbia wants to go. Do they want to continue on the path toward membership in the European Union or do they want to ally with Russia and remain isolated from the EU and the west.

While Oli Rhen the EU's enlargement commissioner has stated that "A new European dawn is in the making in Serbia," mixed signals from some EU members, especially from France's President Niklas Sarkozy who has cautioned against future enlargement, creates hesitancy among those striving for European membership. Why make difficult reforms to join the EU, if there is a decent chance they won't let you in. The EU needs to send a strong signal to Serbia - you make the reforms and accept Kosovo's independence you will get in. You don't, you won't. While Bush needs to pick up the phone to pressure Putin, he also needs to give Sarkozy a call as well.

Pakistani Military has "lost the will to fight" in Northwest Pakistan
Posted by Max Bergmann

Arthur Keller, a retired CIA officer, has a worrisome oped in the New York Times today. He argues that the Pakistani military has all but given up in its efforts to uproot the Taliban and Al Qaeda from the tribal regions of Pakistan. The few actions that are taken involve ineffectual attacks from helicopter gunships or artillery bombardments - amounting to little more than window dressing to appease the Americans.

The truth is that the soldiers have lost the will to fight. Reports in the Indian press, based on information from the very competent Indian intelligence agencies, describe a Pakistani Army in disarray in the tribal areas. Troops are deserting and often refusing to fight their “Muslim brothers.”

Nothing illustrated this apathy more clearly than the capture of hundreds of troops in August by the Taliban warlord Baitullah Mehsud with nary a shot fired in resistance.

November 27, 2007

Admiral Mullen is frustrated - get used to it
Posted by Max Bergmann

Admiral Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is frustrated.

“All of us are frustrated with the pace of political reconciliation at the central, senior level,” Mullen said. “And we have stated that in as many ways as we possibly can. And it continues to be a concern.”

“But in the end, it’s going to be up to the senior political leadership in Iraq to take advantage of this window of opportunity.”

And if they don't??? One of the biggest flaws in the current approach is that it is based on a flawed assumption that improvements in security will somehow magically facilitate reconciliation at the national level. Less violence does not mean that different sectarian groups will compromise on their strategic interests, or will forget the violence inflicted upon them. The past is not simply water under the bridge. Those who believe otherwise, should just look to Annapolis, where significant progress was made in half-century long sectarian war, because the different leaders agreed to talk more to each other.

"Americans are beginning to resemble Germans"
Posted by Max Bergmann

Over at Der Spiegel, Gabor Steingart, their Washington correspondent, takes the pulse of the American psyche, and finds that we are losing our optimism.

As frustration takes hold in the land of optimism, Americans are beginning to resemble Germans. They are collectively depressed over the Iraq War, the weak dollar and the aging of the baby boomers.

Steingart adds this interesting anecdote.

Several (Republican) presidential candidates spoke at the event, but a speaker who chose to celebrate, once again, the West's victory over communism drew the loudest applause... The audience was ecstatic. Who would have thought that the Cold War could still warm the cockles of Republican hearts today?

Sanchez? What were they thinking?
Posted by Shawn Brimley

I found it strange that Speaker Nancy Pelosi would choose to associate herself and thus the entire Democratic party with Sanchez:

"It may be among the strangest of political alliances: a former commanding general in Iraq, blocked from a fourth star and forced into retirement partly for his role in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and the speaker of the House, desperate to end a war that the general helped start.

But in partisan Washington, the enemy of one's enemy can quickly become a friend, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the new marriage of convenience between Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez."

I think this was/is a very bad idea. Sanchez is right up there with Tommy Franks and Paul Bremer in terms of how they are portrayed in both press accounts of the war and in the emerging histories. In Fiasco, Tom Ricks concludes:

"Sanchez often appeared overwhelmed by the situation, with little grasp of the strategic problems he faced. The opinion of many of his peers was that he was a fine battalion commander who never should have commanded a division, let alone a corps or a nationwide occupation mission."

I can understand the cold political calculus that leads one to believe that getting a news cycle out of this is a benefit, but I think the long-term implications of this will prove much more harmful. I just don't believe this wins over anyone in the military, and in fact most veterans and active folks in my little network think this was quite foolish.

November 26, 2007

President Bush's War
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

I'm glad the military is planning to play a healthier role in the political debate during the next go round on Iraq.

Defense officials believe his testimony succeeded in muting a congressional debate and in giving them breathing room for their counter-insurgency strategy, but at a potentially high cost. In addition to the burden on Petraeus, some officials believe, an incessant spotlight on one general risks politicizing the military and undermining the public's faith that military leaders will give honest assessments of the war's progress.

"This is not Dave Petraeus' war. This is George Bush's war," said one senior official, underscoring the military's view that its role is to carry out the decisions made by political leaders.

Except, one thing that is worth noting and that I think is crucially important. This focus on Petraeus didn't just spontaneously happened as the Times story suggests.  It started with President Bush trying to turn Bush and Rumsfeld's war into Petraeus's war.  Petraeus was the President's number one talking point for months (See here and here).  Petraeus is in the first one or two sentences of pretty much every Iraq document that the White House put out for six straight months.  This didn't just happen.  This was a concerted effort by the White House to use Petraeus as cover for its own political agenda.  Unfortunately, General Petraeus was willing to play along and provide that cover, acting as the Administration's best spokesman. 

I'm glad that saner voices such as Admiral Mullen and Admiral Fallon are trying to ensure that this doesn't happen again, but the damage has been done.  There will be at least 120,000 American troops in Iraq at the end of 2008.

Getting Out
Posted by Max Bergmann

William Arkin at the Post hits the nail on the head. He argues that the decrease in violence should not obscure the fact that we need to get out of Iraq.

No one at the national level is going to "reconcile" and transform until they know America is leaving. And, even then, there could be a civil war of enormous proportions, resulting in division of the country.

Furthermore, the presence of the American occupier remains the strongest stimulus for messianic and jihadi violence. "Al Qaeda in Iraq" might be vanquished. But it's unclear whether it was ever a significant enemy or whether its defeat will spell the violence. The anti-American banner, "al Qaeda," is still very attractive to many. And terrorism is likely to continue in Iraq -- with al Qaeda, Iranian, Syrian and Pakistani support -- as long as the U.S. military occupies the country.

The American people want out of Iraq. And our being there stands in the way of the outcome we are seeking. And so, we should acknowledge the progress. But we should be realistic about what is possible.

Designed Neither to Fail Nor Succeed
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

That's how Rob Malley described the Annapolis agenda this morning.  I've been out there trashing Annapolis with the best of them, but when Amos Oz says

the gaps between the two negotiating sides at this time are smaller than they have ever been during the 100 years of fury and suffering... extremists on both sides are expecting the negotiations to fail and praying for a dead-end. Time is not on the side of the Israelis or Palestinians. It is mostly on the side of the radicals.

I figure I better start rooting for Secretary Rice.

Mitt Romney: No Muslims in my Cabinet
Posted by Shadi Hamid

It's amazing we tolerate this from our presidential candidates, especially one who has been the target of bigotry himself and who should know better. Will there be an uproar over Mitt Romney's anti-Muslim comments? No, probably not, unfortunately. According to an op-ed by Mansour Ijaz in the Christian Science Monitor:

I asked Mr. Romney whether he would consider including qualified Americans of the Islamic faith in his cabinet as advisers on national security matters, given his position that "jihadism" is the principal foreign policy threat facing America today. He answered, "…based on the numbers of American Muslims [as a percentage] in our population, I cannot see that a cabinet position would be justified. But of course, I would imagine that Muslims could serve at lower levels of my administration."

Notice the language. Romney can't even say a simple "yes" about having Muslims serve at lower levels of the government. No, he would imagine. Thanks. Keep imagining. And from when did we start deciding cabinet appointments based on the size of the ethnic or religious group the potential appointee comes from? No, and this isn't necessarily a hypothetical question (Fareed Zakaria). Then again, Zakaria doesn't want to blow up Iran, so he could never be hired by a Republican.

To be an "American Muslim"?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Ali Eteraz is fun to read, and his articles are often quite provoking (in a good way). I like how he takes the shibboleths of a community, and attempts to tear them apart, with sometimes rather amusing results. In his latest for the Guardian, he questions the utility of a constructed “Muslim” identity, where Muslims are bunched together as part of a “collective,” and argues instead for a more ethnically-based conception of identity, based on whether someone is, say, Egyptian-American or Pakistani-American (rather than "Muslim-American"). The corollary of this is that you have Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans, but the category of Christian-American doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense (unless of course you’re a Christianist). Why then do we insist on using - and overusing - the term “Muslim-American," with all of its (implied) "theocentrism"? This construction, Eteraz argues, privileges religion in a way that is unhealthy for the body politic.

While it is an interesting line of argument, Eteraz doesn’t really make clear why identifying with your religious background, over an ethnic one, is necessarily problematic. It, of course, could be problematic if your understanding of Islam is restrictive and exclusionary. But if your Islamic identity fuels a progressive understanding of the world around you (as it does with, say, the Christian left), then it could very well be a positive thing. The very notion that "theocentric" self-definitions are "bad" is itself somewhat socially-constructed.

It’s a matter of what's more important to you. For better or worse, for many and even perhaps most Muslims today, religion takes precedence over any ethnic or national affiliation. I’m not sure how helpful it is to try to fight a trend toward religious affirmation and self-identification which has animated the Middle East – as well as Muslim diaspora communities – for the past several decades. If your being Muslim means more to you than being “Pakistani,” than who is anyone else to say that this is an unacceptable choice, or, worse, a choice that somehow is threatening to the body politic? In the end, it appears Ali Eteraz is arguing for a defiant secularism, one which discourages Western Muslims from “aggressive” displays of public religiosity.

It really is time to have an open discussion about the social utility of having a "Muslim" identity in the west. In fact, it needs to begin with the left, which has to be asked how on one hand it opposes theocentrism among Jews and Christians but simultaneously affirms it with people who profess Islam. When it comes to the west, I do not want the left kowtowing to any religion; not even mine.

I would be curious to know what “kowtowing” to religion means exactly. If anything, America’s comfort with religious expression, and its mixing of religion and politics, has probably been a major factor in helping American Muslims integrate into the American cultural mainstream. Where public expression of religious preference is frowned upon, in France, the Nordic countries, and elsewhere in Europe, the question of Muslim integration has become frought with much more peril. In these cases, there does appear to be a clash of cultures – between a religious culture and a post-religious culture. We, in America, have largely avoided this clash, because of our more forgiving anglo-saxon model of secularism (in contrast to the aggressive laicite of France of Turkey).   

Continue reading "To be an "American Muslim"?" »

Women and Global Security
Posted by Lorelei Kelly

Last weekend I attended the International Women Leaders Global Security Summit in New York. Sponsored by the Annenberg Foundation, my organization was one of three partners on the project (The White House Project, the Council of Women World Leaders and the Women Leaders Intercultural Forum).  75 leaders from all corners of the globe gathered at Essex House right off Central Park for three days to discuss a new framework for global security--one that values both state and human security and views them as compliments, not as tradeoffs.  We used many participatory techniques learned from Americaspeaks --a top flight organization in the field of deliberative process. The four topics that launched the discussion were Responsibility to Protect, the Economics of Insecurity, Preventing Terrorism and Climate Change.  Check out our Call to Action and other details.  Perhaps this framework can help motivate some of the 20 million American women  who care about these issues but don't vote?

November 25, 2007

The 'desurge' begins
Posted by Shawn Brimley

Today's LA Times is reporting that an Army brigade scheduled to leave in December will indeed depart on time and will not be replaced. 

"The U.S. Army's 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry, which has been operating primarily in the country's volatile eastern Diyala province, will be the first of five brigades to depart Iraq without being replaced over the next several months, officials confirmed."

"The U.S. military recently announced plans to reduce troop numbers by about 20,000 by July. The current level is about 162,000 troops."

And so the desurge begins. Depending on how this goes over the next six months or so, Secretary Gates may push for a more aggressive withdrawal that gets down to 100K before the end of 2008. I've also been hearing that 100K is a type of threshold number below which a force could be sustained for a long period of time without breaking the Army or the Marine Corps. 

In any event, I happen to believe that the slope of the withdrawal will now begin to define both the parameters of what is feasible and the venacular of the presidential candidates. Some will want the negative slope to be steep and in essence disconnected from whatever occurs on the ground in Iraq, others will endorse a more gradual decline that is linked to more limited American goals and flexible enough to be alterted if circumstances warrant, while the rest (Republican presidential candidates) will continue to talk about how the reduced violence in Iraq portends "victory" around the corner.

Continue reading "The 'desurge' begins" »

What Shift?
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

With all do respect to Shawn, I have to agree with Kevin Drum.  There really hasn't been a major shift in tones.  The Democrats and critics of the war have always made political progress the number one issue.   The argument all summer over the benchmarks ultimately revolved around political progress.  There has been no shift in tone.

Also, I'm not sure if I was the NY Times I'd be going to Mike O'Hanlon for political strategy. 

“The politics of Iraq are going to change dramatically in the general election, assuming Iraq continues to show some hopefulness,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who is a supporter of Mrs. Clinton’s and a proponent of the military buildup. “If Iraq looks at least partly salvageable, it will be important to explain as a candidate how you would salvage it — how you would get our troops out and not lose the war. The Democrats need to be very careful with what they say and not hem themselves in.”

Really?  Because despite the drop in violence, all the polls show that opposition to the war is at an all time high at almost 70%.  So, which audience, outside of the Washington DC think tank circuit, is Mike O'Hanlon trying to appeal to?  This is exactly the kind of mealy mouthed middle of the road strategy that Democrats tried in 2002 and 2004 on national security when they were too afraid to just stand up and offer a real alternative

I have said this many times before.  Democrats can be strong competent stewards of national security without having to support the horribly misguided policies of the Bush Administration.  They don't need strategic drift.  Just a clear alternative that emphasizes some combination of rebuilding our stretched armed forces, going after Al Qaeda central in Pakistan/Afghanistan, energy security, nuclear terrorism and homeland security.  All issues that have been badly bungled and do in fact impact America's security.  What Democrats don't need to do is start vacillating on the war in Iraq.  That's bad politics and bad policy.

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