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October 28, 2008

Syria is Clearer in the Light of Day
Posted by Patrick Barry

Morning brings clarity, and this morning's reporting on Syria shows that the Bush Administration is looking at cross-border attacks from a clouded strategic perspective.  Though the strike was reportedly a tactical success, it could not have come at a worse time.  Over the past year, Syria has made a clear and concerted effort to open up to the west - from engaging with traditional interlocutors like Turkey and France on Middle East peace to improving problematic relations with Lebanon through the establishment of a Syrian embassy in Beruit.  They even sent Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem to meet with Condoleezza Rice at the UN General Assembly.  Recent Syrian behavior gives every indication that they are primed for some kind of serious break-through.  As of this morning, that's no longer the case:

Damascus largely froze high-level diplomatic efforts with the U.S. after an American strike inside the country, a move that threatens support for broader peace initiatives in the Middle East...

...Syrian diplomats said that before the raid they had been considering inviting to Damascus the State Department's point man on the Middle East, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, for talks aimed on furthering Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations, as well as efforts to stabilize Lebanon and Iraq.

It isn't just Syria-U.S. diplomatic efforts that have been hampered by this attack.  The Bush Administration's decision could also have significant repercussions for the ongoing talks between Syria, Turkey and Israel (already complicated by internal Israeli political developments), as well the recently improved relations between Syria and Lebanon. 

I'll admit, the Bush Administration wasn't faced with an easy decision in this instance.  Whatever promising indicators have emerged over the past few months, a diplomatic coup with Syria is by no means a foregone conclusion, and the al-Qaeda leader killed in the attack was alledgedly responsibile for funneling hundreds of insurgents into Iraq.  What I would expect however, is an understanding of the veiled linkages that criss-cross the world's most unstabile regions (and the Middle East especially), an appreciation for how one decision can often carry broad, unforeseen ramifications.  The frequent air strikes in Pakistan, and now the attack in Syria give me no confidence that they have sufficiently recognized this point.

HT to Hanna

Robert Kagan on Iraq
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Matt Duss breaks down a pretty absurd interview that Robert Kagan did with Der Spiegel. 

Original SOFA Plans Coming Home to Roost
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

One of the common themes in reporting about the U.S.-Iraq security framework agreement is that the Iranians are opposed to any kind of agreement and are doing all they can to stop it.  As the Washington Post reports today:

A deal to authorize the presence of American forces in Iraq beyond 2008 is forcing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to choose between two influential powers in this country: the United States and Iran.

Here is the thing. This whole situation may have been avoided, or at least not been quite as contentious, if the Bush administration hadn't originally pushed for an agreement that would specifically give the U.S. military the authority to use Iraq as a base to contain Iran.  Long before the Iraqi public had turned against the agreement and Maliki began pushing for a firm timeline this was supposed to be the Bush administration's attempt to lock the next President in.  The security framework negotiations were originally based on the Declaration of Principles for a Long-Term Relationship of Cooperation and Friendship Between the Republic of Iraq and the United States of America that was signed on November 26, 2007 and included this language:

Providing security assurances and commitments to the Republic of Iraq to deter foreign aggression against Iraq that violates its sovereignty and integrity of its territories, waters, or airspace.

This language was specifically about the U.S. military limiting Iranian influence in Iraq.  If you are the Iranian government how do you react to this?  Easy.  You work to actively undermine anything in the agreement.  And even though it seems quite apparent that such language is no longer in the agreement, I'm sure the Iranians are still skeptical.  By making such an aggressive play, the Bush administration pretty much signaled to the Iranians that they should in fact consider this agreement a competition for influence.   And considering that the Iranians have a great deal of political influence in Iraq including close ties with the dominant Shi'a parties, this was not a competition that we wanted or needed on an agreement that at it's core was simply supposed to offer basic legal protections to American forces in Iraq.

In addition, the original broad reaching language set off the American Congress, which questioned whether or not this was meant to tie the hands of the next President or commit the U.S. to a defacto treaty without being approved by Congress.  The result was a lot more scrutiny both in the U.S. and Iraq.  And eventually what may have been a complicated but doable agreement became a political football and struggle for outside power influence.

Ironically, all of the grand ambitions about opposing Iran and tying the hands of the next administration have now been taken out of the document.  And in fact they've been replaced by a pretty hard timeline for withdrawal - a significant blow to President Bush.  But the price of being so aggressive at the outset is still be paid.  The security agreement may still get done.  It may not, which would cause a real mess.  But one has to wonder.  If the Bush administration had at the start simply viewed this as an agreement on the legal status of American forces, and not tried to turn into a document that deters Iran and ties the hands of the next President, would we still be talking about this agreement?  Or would it have been done a long time ago?

October 27, 2008

Bush vs. Obama on Pakistan
Posted by Patrick Barry

William Saletan addresses an important topic in the wake of the revelation in today's New York Times that the Bush Administration has reigned in its ground raids into Pakistan, and has instead chosen to rely primarily on air strikes to eliminate militants operating along the Af-Pak border.  Saletan concludes from the article that there's not much difference between Barack Obama's stated position and the Bush Administration's, and that consequently, the vigorous debate between McCain and Obama on this subject is a "charade."  Here's more from Saletan:

Last year, Obama declared that under his presidency, "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will." John McCain criticized Obama's policy as rash, suggesting it would undermine the Pakistani government. The United States should try covert action in Pakistan "before we declare that we're going to bomb the daylights out of them," said McCain. A month ago, in their first debate, McCain again condemned Obama's position, arguing that the next president should "work with the Pakistani government," not "attack them."

Today, the New York Times reports what's actually going on along the Pakistani border. The report, based on interviews with U.S. and Pakistani officials, exposes the Obama-McCain debate as a charade. We're already getting actionable intelligence about terrorist targets in Pakistan. We're already blasting them. And the Pakistani government is working with us to facilitate these attacks. The covert action, the cooperation, and the aerial assaults aren't competing options. They're the same thing.

There may be similarities between the more moderate positions taken by the Bush Administration and those proposed by Senator Obama, but on Pakistan, there is a real difference between the two, a difference that Saletan's piece does not recognize. The critical distinction here has to do with the meaning of "high-value." Last August, Obama said he would strike at "high-value" al-Qaeda targets, whether the Pakistanis would act or not.  This means that Obama would not shrink from authorizing targeted strikes at people like Osama Bin Laden, or Ayman al-Zawahiri - the highest echelon of al-Qaeda's leadership. But, if you look at the New York Times piece, there's every indication that what the Bush Administration is doing in Pakistan is anything but targeted at senior al-Qaeda members:

Once largely reserved for missions to kill senior Arab Qaeda operatives, the Predator is increasingly being used to strike Pakistani militants and even trucks carrying rockets to resupply fighters in Afghanistan. Many of the Predator strikes are taking place as deep as 25 miles into Pakistani territory. …

Given the frequency of strikes in Pakistan, and given that many of the victims of the attacks are purported to be not just mid-level Taliban or al-Qaeda but also civilians, it seems fair to question just how discriminate the Bush Administration is being. You could argue that collateral damage and mission creep are intrinsic to air operations, and that Obama will likely face this sort of thing if he becomes President, but that isn't exactly true.  By limiting strikes to only al-Qaeda's senior leadership, instead of conducting counter-insurgency from the skies, Obama would likely limit damaging side-effects like the kind you see complicating our mission in Afghanistan, while leaving open the possibility of an ammenable agreement on a more effective strategy.  To give an example, robust counterinsurgency operations, conducted jointly by U.S. and Pakistani forces might have been a real possibility in a context not poisoned by accusations of indiscrimate bombings.  But because the Bush administration wanted to open things up a bit, we're faced with a more limited set of options going forward.

McCain's Irresponsible Syria Response
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

So how does the McCain campaign respond to sporadic news reports that U.S. special forces carried out an attack in Syrian territory?  Well a responsible campaign (i.e. the Obama campaign) would follow the White House's lead and offer no comment until they got more information.  But instead the McCain campaign opts for blatant politicization. Here is McCain spokesman Michael Goldfarb:

"Syria is a state sponsor of terror and a sanctuary for terrorists that target U.S. troops in Iraq, yet Barack Obama has pledged to meet personally and unconditionally with Syria's leaders during his first year in office. While John McCain has been demanding that Syria do more to crack down on terrorists moving from its territory into Iraq, Barack Obama allowed one of his closest foreign policy advisers to travel to Syria for discussions with the leaders of that rogue regime. Barack Obama opposed the surge, voted against funding for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and demanded the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. If Barack Obama had his way, U.S. forces would not have been in a position to launch this strike. So does Barack Obama support this action -- an action that would not even have been possible if his policies had been implemented?"

This is so absurd.  Let me count the ways.  First, McCain is once again demonstrating the recklessness and impulsiveness that makes one question whether he can in fact be commander in chief.  There is only one proper response to this.  The same response that the Obama campaign gave, which is that you just simply don't discuss a military operation if the White House and the military are refusing to comment.  The issue is a sensitive one and a question of national security.  You take your lead from them and wait until you have all the facts, instead of trying to score cheap political points.

Second, here is the McCain campaign accusing Senator Obama of supposedly not being willing to crossover into Syria, even though he has rightly not commented on it at all.  But Senator McCain has previously mocked Senator Obama for being willing to go into Pakistan and go after high value Al Qaeda targets.  The intelligence community tells us that the greatest threat to the homeland and the place where an attack would most likely be planned is on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.  But the McCain campaign seems to be arguing that smuggling routes from Syria into Iraq are a higher priority target than terrorist training camps in Pakistan.  That is an exact rehash of invading Iraq to fight terrorism, while taking your eye off of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.  We've tried it before.  It didn't work.

Finally, there is the argument about not meeting with Syria.  Here is the thing.  Israeli PM Olmert has stated publicly that Israel should move to direct negotiations directly with the Syrians and the Israelis are currently in talks through a Turkish mediator.  Ambassador Nick Burns, who was Bush's point man on Iran for three years, had a piece out this weekend arguing for direct talks with our enemies.  Colin Powell, James Baker, the Iraq Study Group, and numerous Republican foreign policy experts have all called for talks with Syria.  McCain is the odd man out on this one.

And yet, his campaign, which claims national security as its greatest strength, is irresponsibly politicizing this story one week before the election.

Update:  Max Bergmann has previously pointed out that McCain himself was for talking to the Syrians before he was against it.

Of Pirates and Mercenaries
Posted by The Editors

This is a post by NSN Intern Amanda Hillman

Wired’s Danger Room blog team has been posting the past few weeks on the nearly too-sensational-to-be-real Somali pirating story. Starting last month, Somali pirates gained worldwide attention when they hijacked the Ukrainian cargo ship, the Faina, laden with “$30 million worth of grenade launchers, piles of ammunition, even battle tanks” in the Gulf of Aden. The Somali pirates have demanded millions in ransom, reportedly between $8m and $35m; additionally, the hijackers have threatened to kill the crew of the Faina within days if their demands are not fully met. A coalition of countries with maritime interests in the area, including the governments of the United States and Russia, along with NATO, “are cooperating to try to recover the ship.” The single confirmed death related to the hijacking was that of the vessel’s captain, who suffered a stroke several days after the pirates boarded. Negotiations for the release of the remaining crew are still underway.

Continue reading "Of Pirates and Mercenaries" »

The Repulican's Robocall
Posted by James Lamond

John McCain and the RNC have a new robocall out in Wisconsin and Ohio that is just ridiculous, and completely out of touch with what is actually happening in the campaign. The robocall, says Obama would be “a weak president” saying he would “endanger American lives.”  What is ironic is that the robocall comes out as Republican foreign policy leaders continue to flock to Obama. When thinking about whether or not Obama is the one that would "endanger American's Lives," the McCain-Palin ticket and the RNC should take a look at what foreign policy leaders in their in party are saying.  Lets just take a look at the the past week or so: 

Continue reading "The Repulican's Robocall" »

October 24, 2008

Frank Gaffney Credible Spokesman
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

In another attempt to spook the electorate we have this relatively absurd ad with Frank Gaffney of all people telling us how dangerous Barack Obama would be. Usually these types of efforts try to put at least some kind of credibility behind them, but seriously Frank Gaffney?

This is the same man claiming some conspiracy theory that Obama may have not been born in the United States.  The main who claimed that Sarah Palin has learned about national security through osmosis.  The man who compared the Annapolis conference last year to "gang rape."  He's really just a genuine nut.

Are the Realists Ascendant?
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

James Joyner takes issue with my piece arguing that Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama marks a major break within the Republican foreign policy establishment. Joyner argues that there is a broad historical consensus between most of the members of the Republican and Democratic foreign policy communities and that the real outliers are the Necons. I agree. But then he goes on to say this.

Realism and its variants are the dominant mindset of that Establishment and neoconservatism (and its cross-party counterpart, liberal interventionism) is the decided outlier. Relegating it to the margins isn't killing the Republican foreign policy establishment: it's restoring it.

One problem. Can someone please show me how the Necons have been marginalized within the political process? The Republican Party's standard bearer is a Necon. John McCain's views on refusing to negotiate with Iran, taking a hardline approach to Russia, and forming the League of Democracies are all Neocon views that are rejected by the realists. It may be that in 2003 the establishment eventually came around to the idea of the War in Iraq, but McCain was advocating for the war right after the 9/11 attacks. The only people who were doing that were the Necons. McCain's lead foreign policy advisor is Randy Scheunemann - a Neocon. If McCain wins, the Neocons are back in business and the realists are even more marginalized - especially since they opposed him.

In the more likely case that he loses, it comes down to a question of who will lead the Republican party in 2012. If Palin, Giuliani, or Huckabee are the nominees the realist wing will all be full fledged Democrats. If the Republicans nominate a sane moderate then the realists might stay in the party and retake control.

But from where we stand today. Having the biggest realist names in the Republican party disagreeing with the nominee and having the single biggest name actually endorse the Democratic candidate does not demonstrate that they are seizing control of the party and marginalizing the Neocons. It demonstrates is that they are being marginalized within their own party.

Krauthammer Pile-On
Posted by Patrick Barry

Never underestimate Charles Krauthammer - you may think you know how he feels, but then, all of sudden, he lurches into a hyperbolic rant that's completely inconsistent with his previous position.  Case in point: today's squirm-inducing endorsement of John Mcain, principally for reasons of foreign policy, and intended to drive people into the voting booths  and from there under their beads where they will remain, paralyzed with fear.  Earlier this month, Krauthammer gave Barack Obama slight praise on the subject, saying "In the foreign policy debate with McCain, as in his July news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Obama held his own -- fluid, familiar and therefore plausibly presidential."  This morning's op-ed finds a very different Krauthammer, wondering how, in a world brimming with existential crises, we could possibly consider voting for someone who thought 9-11 was only a "tragedy."

Continue reading "Krauthammer Pile-On" »

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