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November 30, 2008

The Palestinian Question in Jordanian Politics
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Last month, I wrote on the apparent rapprochement between three key Jordanian actors, the Islamic Action Front (the largest opposition party), the regime, as well as Hamas, which continues to wield substantial influence within the kingdom, both directly and indirectly.

The Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, is devoting much of its attention to the "Palestinian portfolio," perhaps more of a priority now with Hamam Said leading the Brotherhood after his surprise May election to the post of Overseer-General (Said is the first Jordanian of Palestinian origin to ever head the Jordanian Brotherhood). In a country that is nearly 60% Palestinian, the IAF is hoping to capitalize on Jordanian anger over the situation in Gaza. The government appears to be encouraging them. Anything that can detract from demands for political reform is high on the government's priority list. In less than two weeks, the IAF has held three protests, all approved by the regime.

Before July, this would have been unheard of, as the government had, for nearly three years, done nearly all it could to restrict, repress, and marginalize the opposition. To my knowledge, this is the first time in recent memory that three consecutive IAF protests have been permitted to go forward. The Jordanian government, one of our closest allies in the region, is playing a difficult balancing act, between different domestic and foreign poles of influence (the Muslim Brotherhood, the U.S., Israel, Iran, Hamas, and increasingly Russia).

November 28, 2008

That Naughty, Naughty Charles Krauthammer (aka Lazy, Lazy Washington Post editors)
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Tonight's game:  spot the inaccuracies in today's Charles Krauthammer column that even on a holiday WAPO editors should have caught.  I'll spot you two:

The forthcoming Chevy Volt "gets 40 miles on a charge," as if after that you have to push it back to the plug?  Uh, no.  Its small gas-assisted engine then gets another 300 miles -- at between 150 and 300 miles to the gallon, ten times that of the Hyundai to which Krauthammer unfavorably compares it.

"In the old days -- from the Venetian Republic to, oh, the Bear Stearns rescue -- if you wanted  to get rich, you did it the Warren Buffett way:  You learned to read balance sheets.  Today you have to read political tea leaves."

I don't know where to start with this sentence, which is an excrable construction that only a very turkey-saturated editor could love.  But never mind that, let's skip to the substance -- the happy myth of an uncorrupt yesteryear.  In less than two minutes of tooling around the Web (ok, my sister is a scholar of Venice so I had a bit of a head start), I came up with this, from Venice Reconsidered (Jeffries Martin, Martin, Romano):

As Grubb trenchantly writes, "The logical implications of an exemplary Venetian Republic, with blue-blood paternalism on the one hand and happily powerless masses on the other, are dubious lessons for our own day -- especially if we take seriously Ventura's demonstration of the patriciate's systematic abuses of justice, tax evasion, fiscal corruption, abuse of office, and in general thorough exploitation of class privilege at the expense of underlings."

Those Venetians - -they had everything except Blackwater.  (From what I recall from college, interrogation and torture were not outsourced.)

Anyway, add your own Krauthammer bloopers below.

India Attacks: What Next?
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Let's recap what we still don't know:

  • domestic group (as the innovative tactics and recent Indian history of homegrown extremism suggest) or foreign (as the level of precision and focus on international targets suggest);
  • link with Al Qaeda (see above);
  • link with Pakistan (lots of allegations coming out in the Indian press, but that is what would be said first in any case);
  • final extent of casualties/hostage-taking.

The experts I reached in between bites of turkey yesterday suggested looking ahead to several decisions the Indian government will have to make on response --

1.  Can it be restrained?  The current government faces elections next spring and was criticized for reacting too little to attacks over the summer.  This time, it may feel that it has to keep up the menacing rhetoric, and even follow it with action, whatever facts emerge.

2.  What happens to the rapprochement with Pakistan?  Pakistani PM Zardari had just made interesting overtures to India, suggesting that Pakistan could adopt a no-first-use nuclear policy (anathema to the Pakistani military) and take other steps to warm the relationship.  It was unclear before this whether Zardari was serious; now it's unclear whether either side will have the will to follow through, to put it mildly -- and, because of #1 above, the consequences could be much more serious. (Thanks, Ezra.)

3.  What happens to US-Indian relations?  Though the great majority of casualties seem to have been Indian, the aggressive targeting of Americans, Brits and Israelis appears to have been a bid not just for media attention but also to disrupt the growing US-India ties. 

4.  What becomes of India's heightened global profile?  One expert I spoke to saw it as an effort to disrupt India's internationalizing economy (of which Mumbai is the de facto center) and send the message to the Indian government that its efforts to reach outward could be thrown off at will.  He worried that the Indian government might be tempted to pull back from its strengthened global engagement, citing the US-India civil nuclear agreement and India's activism in Afghanistan as two potential flashpoints.  This seems unlikely to me -- frankly, India's struggles with terrorism are extensive enough that one attack seems unlikely to deter a determined government -- but again, something to watch for. 

November 27, 2008

How to Spin a SOFA
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Fixed timeline for complete troop withdrawal from Iraq? Check. Deadline for American troops to pull out of Iraqi cities? Check. Greater clarity on the endgame for one of the greatest foreign policy disasters in American history? Check. But reading the AP article on the passage of the SOFA through Iraq's parliament, you'd think the Iraqi's just approved an extension of war, not an end to it:

Iraqi parliament OKs US troops for 3 more years

BAGHDAD (AP) - Iraq's parliament on Thursday approved by a wide margin a security pact with the United States that lets American troops stay in Iraq for three more year.

It's only halfway through the article that you actually find out the details of the SOFA. Talk about burying the lede under a pile of journalistic turkey.

November 26, 2008

Think Higher for Holbrooke
Posted by Patrick Barry

Matt Yglesias and Spencer Ackerman both ask: why not Richard Holbrooke for Ambassador to Iraq?  That's a legitimate question, especially given Holbrooke's ability to wrangle with the very toughest customers, but as a strictly hypothetical exercise, I wonder whether his formidable persona might fit better in a more elevated role - something like special envoy to the Middle East. 

For the past few years, there has been a growing consensus that in order for the U.S. to have any shot at leaving Iraq and Afghanistan in decent shape, a regional approach will have to be adopted.  The Baker-Hamilton Commission suggested a diplomatic offensive as a way of inducing stability in Iraq, and the Jones-Pickering report made the same recommendation about Afghanistan.  In separate reports on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the Center for American progress has been similarly outspoken about adopting this regional approach. Last year I went with Ilan to an event on Iraq at CATO, where Jim Dobbins made a convincing argument for why, when dealing with weak states like Iraq and Afghanistan, a coordinated regional strategy is critical.  Ilan summarized the talk, and Dobbins' lessons (which mostly have to do with Iraq, but they work for Afghanistan too):

Dobbins argued that in every case of trying to fix a failed state the neighbors play a critical role.  They have serious national interests because they are the ones who have to deal with the refugees, violence, crime, economic shocks and all the other wonderful things that happen as a result of a total meltdown on your border.  They simply are not going to sit on the sidelines.

All of the neighbors have an interest in maintaining stability.  To do this they search for proxies who will carry out their agenda. Paradoxically, this proxy strategy only ends up exacerbating the situation by strengthening various warring parties and creating greater potential for broader regional conflict. The only way around this, is to create a regional dialogue that forces all the neighbors to come together and coordinate their strategies.  Instead of a zero sum game they should be working towards the same greater goal of keeping Iraq from totally falling apart.

So not only is there resounding support for a regional diplomatic strategy for both Iraq and Afghanistan, but as this Karen DeYoung piece from last week indicates, the incoming Obama team feels the same way. 

Now, it's true that there are other people just as qualified for this role, if not more so, because of their regional expertise (Dobbins, Ross, etc.), but if what you want is somone who can get a bunch of stubborn actors in line (Hindus, Pashtuns, Iranians, Tajiks, Syrians, etc. - on top of Sunni, Shia and Kurds) then Holbrooke seems like a pretty strong candidate for the job.

The Syria Track
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Aaron Miller has a compelling piece in the Post today on the need to first try and achieve something on the Syria track before turning aggressively to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The Syria-Israel track does seem much more ripe for an agreement and it could generate the type of game-changer that improves America's image in the region, generates positive Israeli political momentum towards piece, weakens Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah and in the long-term could potentially improve the likelihood of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.  However, I think that if the new administration goes in this direction it should be careful to not treat an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement as a substitute for the Israeli-Palestinian track.  Sustained engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be there from day one.

November 25, 2008

The Limiting of Options and the Broad Consensus on Foreign Policy
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

There has been a lot written in the past few days about the insufficient nature of the right-left spectrum on foreign policy.  It inspired me to go back and reread Barry Posen and Andrew Ross's classic 1996 article Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy (PDF).  Ross and Posen outline a much more intellectually honest paradigm for breaking down American foreign policy schools.  They discuss four basic strategic choices that to me break down into five separate schools of thought: 

1.  Neo-Isolationism - this is the view of complete disengagement held by some on the far right and far left.  It's an essentially marginalized group with a philosophy championed by Pat Buchanan.

2. Selective Engagement - The policy that was pushed by realists in the 1990s.  It argued for an approach focused exclusively on great power politics.  It was probably best exemplified by President Bush's first campaign where he argued for a "humble foreign policy" and where Condi Rice wrote a Foreign Affairs article that essentially outlined this view.

3.  Cooperative Security - Probably best exemplified by the first Clinton Administration and today's liberals.  It argues that international institutions and spreading democratic values and freedom are the central vehicle for achieving stability and maintaining peace.

4.  Primacy - This school believes in America's role as the undisputed global leader.  It can be divided into two schools:  hard primacy (i.e the Neocons), which is leadership achieved primarily through military means; and soft primacy (i.e the Liberal Hawks and second Clinton administration), which takes a more holistic view on primacy and uses all tools at America's disposal, including alliances and international institutions, but still believes in America as the indispensable nation.

What is interesting in my view is that what you now see forming is a broad consensus among liberals, liberal hawks and realists.  There is relatively universal agreement among these groups that we need to begin withdrawing from Iraq, focus more on Afghanistan, opt for direct diplomacy with Iran, reengage with the world, improve our image, strengthen our alliances, close Guantanamo and deal with global warming and energy security. 

That is a pretty broad consensus and it's one that politically was first pushed hardest by the left.  On the traditional right-left spectrum, you would have to call this a solidly left of center consensus that  has in fact been Obama's foreign policy platform for the last two years

It is reflected in Obama's ability to pick realists, liberals, and liberal hawks to build a coalition foreign policy team.  It's unfair to typify any of Obama's picks as absolutely from one school but roughly speaking Obama campaign advisors and folks such as Susan Rice are more representative of liberals.   Jim Jones and Bob Gates are more representative of the realists, and Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden are more representative  of the liberal hawks.  Although, again, none of these labels really fit perfectly.

Anyway, this consensus didn't always exist.  It definitely didn't exist ten years ago.  The difference is that with a failed war in Iraq, another war brewing in Afghanistan, a major economic crisis, an overstretched military, and the rising influence of new powers, the United States finds itself as constrained as it has been since the end of the Cold War.  The thing about constraints is that they take away options.  They force people to take a less ideological view and focus more on pragmatic results.  Realists, liberals and liberal hawks have all taken a less ideological approach in recent years, which has brought them all closer together.

The realists have toned down their emphasis on great power politics and state centered solutions.  During the 1990s they refused to accept the Clintonian emphasis on economics, globalization and transnational threats.  But now you have realists like Bob Gates focused on transnational threats such as terrorism.  Jim Jones has made energy security an important priority, and the latest NIC report puts a central emphasis on questions of food security, global warming and resource wars.

Liberals are much less excited about the idea of democracy promotion in the aftermath of the Iraq War.  They have also toned down their emphasis on the importance of international institutions.  Mostly because international institutions are slow actors that take a lot of times to get things done and what we are staring at right now are some real emergencies that require immediate actions.

The liberal hawks have also been cowed by Iraq.  While many continue to believe that the problem with Iraq was not in the idea but in the execution, they also recognize that American power is limited and constrained by the current environment.   There is little appetite for any new adventures (Such as for example getting into a war with Iran).

So, what does this all mean?  It doesn't mean that people's general foreign policy philosophies have changed.  At their core liberals, realists and liberal hawks still disagree over some very big things.  Realists will still tell you that great power politics are the greatest long term threats and liberals will still argue that long-term peace is based on international institutions and the peaceful promotion of democracy.  But constraints have taken away flexibility and left few appealing options.  While the philosophies continue to differ, near-term policy prescriptions on most of the big foreign policy issues have converged towards a pragmatic consensus.

Part 2: Where the Left-Right Spectrum Shows Its Usefulness
Posted by Patrick Barry

So I'm going to go ahead and take issue with Shadi's post bemoaning the use of the left-right spectrum to characterize foreign policy positions.  At its core, I'd say that Shadi's position reflects uneasiness about using very narrow dichotomies to describe a world view. While I think it's unacceptable to use dichotomies (left-right being one example) to describe someone's broad position, I think its fine, even useful, to use them as shorthand for showing where someone stands in relation to a particular issue.

To show the usefulness of the left-right spectrum, it's probably worth investigating how the spectrum evolved into shorthand for an entire foreign policy perspective in the first place. Shadi argues that it’s because of the Right, and their manipulation of post 9-11 sensibilities, but I would argue that it was the debate over Iraq which largely served to popularize this left-right way of looking at foreign policy. 

Continue reading "Part 2: Where the Left-Right Spectrum Shows Its Usefulness" »

November 24, 2008

Members of Congress Urge Repeal of Mask Ban for Iraqi Interpreters
Posted by The Editors

This is a post from Eric Auner

The Washington Post reports that “Thirteen members of Congress and an association of interpreters this week urged the Pentagon to rescind a policy that prohibits interpreters who work with U.S. troops in Baghdad from wearing ski masks to conceal their identity.” This comes only five days after an earlier Washington Post article describing the ban.  The American Translators Association was especially troubled by this policy, and their spokesperson said "There seems to be a disconnect between the command and the people on the ground who appreciate what the interpreters are doing…We have received messages from members saying that this is outrageous -- that we have to do something. They're baffled, dismayed and even outraged at this really inexplicable policy."

Given the timing, it appears to me that the original article, which I previously wrote about, is at least partially responsible for this latest effort, so kudos to the Washington Post.  I was hoping that this latest article might contain a more fleshed out rationale for the ban.  Maybe that explanation is still lurking out there somewhere, but in this particular piece there was only a lame reiteration of the line that “the sharp reduction in violence in Baghdad has made wearing masks unnecessary.” Unfortunately for this line of reasoning, the decline in violence in Iraq does not mean that Iraq is safe yet, especially not for these interpreters.  At Vet Voice Brandon Friedman writes “At least half a dozen major milblogs, one prestigious magazine, two newspapers, 13 members of Congress, and every Iraq veteran to whom I've spoken about the story think the policy is a careless, dumb idea… Who in the Army actually supports this policy?”

From my perspective, what the mask ban issue really brings into focus is the sheer scope of what US policies in Iraq have to cover.  In other words, not only do we need to further reduce violence and help negotiate the passage of the new security agreement, we also regulate what our interpreters can and cannot wear, and even that has life and death consequences.  In any case, this latest step is a hopeful one, and hopefully it will be successful.

This Ain't no Winter Wonderland
Posted by Patrick Barry

There has been a lot of chatter over the past few months about whether NATO-ISAF forces in Afghanistan will face a Taliban-led 'winter offensive' this year.  Since the beginning of the war, it has generally been the case that attacks have ebbed in the winter time, resulting from miserable conditions that make personnel movement and large-scale operations prohibitive.  This winter figures to be a different story however, as many informed sources - General McKiernan chief amongst them - have speculated that the Taliban have no intention of letting up and that Afghanistan will likely face unprecedented violence.  The LA Times had a pretty good story on the subject yesterday:

In recent years, the first snow falling on the jagged mountain peaks of Afghanistan has ushered in a seasonal slowdown in fighting between insurgents and the Western forces that overthrew the Taliban in 2001.

This winter looks to be different. Snow and icy terrain aside, both sides have made it clear that they plan to keep fighting, each contending that the harsh conditions favor them more than their enemy.

It's interesting that both the Taliban and NATO-ISAF should point to winter clashing as evidence of their resolve in taking the fight to the opposition.  To me, this isn't the whole story.  What the contention over this issue misses is that for reasons having to do with the region's terrain and weather, as well as Afghanistan's linkages w\ insurgent havens in northwest Pakistan, if there is any kind of winter offensive, its existence will be a testament to the Taliban's rebuilt strength and capacity. 

Afghanistan's weather and topography are huge factors when it comes to the fighting there.  This is especially true during the winter, when snowfall closes the passes of the Safed Koh mountain range, preventing insurgents in neighboring Pakistan from easily crossing the border into Afghanistan.  A recent STRATFOR article highlights the difficulty that these factors create (Someone sent the the article, so I can't link - sorry):

Combat operations in the Afghan-Pakistani border area take on a regular cycle in accordance with the seasons. Winter arrives early in the extremely high altitudes of the Hindu Kush and Safed Koh. When the snows come, many of the high mountain passes become impassable, causing a noticeable decline in combat activity. With the spring thaw, heavy snow melt in the mountains results in flooding, mudslides and muddy or washed-out roads and paths, also limiting the level of combat.

So for there to be a pronounced uptick in violence in Afghanistan this winter, insurgents will have to overcome sizeable challenges.  The LA Times piece suggests that they might accomplish this through sheer willpower, borne from a desire to project influence during a period where convention dictates that their strength should be on the wane. However, a much more plausible and unpleasant explanation is that the Taliban have already gained a strong enough foothold in Afghanistan that they no longer depend as much on the lifelines w\ Pakistan to sustain their operations.  If this is the reality (there are signs that it might be) then a winter offensive becomes less an opportunity to keep the pressure on NATO-ISAF, and more a test to determine whether the insurgency has reached a point where it is self-sustaining.  If that's the case, we're in for a very long winter.

Update: Apparently Spencer Ackerman covered this subject in much more comprehensive fashion two months ago. Since he accounts for all the elements left out of the LA Times story, you have no reason to read my piece! 

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