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April 12, 2008

Posted by David Shorr

Matt is 90% right in highlighting the importance of international institutions and legitimacy for a healthier foreign policy. But since the 10% over which we differ is one my favorite topics, I can't resist. A few days ago, Matt took the right wing to task for their "bad faith" critique of international institutions. Couldn't agree more. In fact, the point that the UN is constantly scapegoated for the failings of the national governments that comprise it is an argument over which I have some pride of authorship (two can play shameless self-promotion). But let's follow the argument to its logical conclusion, particularly as we confront the bad-faith critics on the right.

Continue reading "De-Institutionalization" »

April 11, 2008

Tribal Trauma
Posted by Patrick Barry

Steve Simon's new piece in Foreign Affairs is a must-read for anyone concerned with the long-term consequences of the United States arming tribal factions in Iraq. His argument is similar to the ones made by Marc Lynch and Brian Katulis over the past few months - that the administration, by prizing security gains over political consolidation and compromise, has actually worsened Iraq's long term prospects for achieving an open, functional society. 

Simon does a pretty good job cataloging the history of the surge - though it was originally intended to be matched by a top-down political strategy of consolidation and cooperation, US leadership grew so frustrated with the apparent lack of political movement that it quickly substituted in a new policy, which embraced a series of local developments and cobbled them together under the dubious label of "bottom-up reconciliation."  I agree with Simon's argument, namely that this pursuit is dangerously short-sighted because it has stoked "the three forces that have traditionally threatened the stability of Middle Eastern states: tribalism, wardlordism, and sectarianism." 

Of course, chief among the local developments latched onto by the administration, has been the phenomenon of Sunni tribes turning on Al-Qaeda in Iraq, a move largely precipitated by the AQI's use of poisonous methods to subjugate Sunni communities.  But when it comes to tribalism, we're tinkering with an especially complex and dangerous dynamic, one that has been a force for instability in the Middle East broadly, and Iraq specifically since at least the 19th century. Here are some key passages from Simon's article, highlighting the tribes' tumultuous past:

Under the Ottomans:

"The Ottomans attempted forced sedentarization of the tribes, weakening tribal authorities by disrupting settlement patterns and replacing tribal sheiks with smaller cadres of favored leaders who became conduits for patronage."

Under the British:

"Thus, the tribal system that Ottoman rule sought to dismantle was revitalized by British imperial policy, and the power of the nominal Iraqi government was systematically vitiated."

Under the Baathists:

"When the Baathists took power in 1968, they explicitly rejected "religious sectarianism, racism, and tribalism ... the remnants of colonialism." The tribes, in their minds, were inevitable rivals of a centralizing state."

Under Saddam:

"Selected tribal leaders were allowed to enrich themselves by any means, fair or foul, and in return they were expected to defend the regime. Saddam, in effect, fostered a process of retribalization in Iraq."

Now one would think that given the obstacles posed by these tribes, that we would look for lessons from neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which have successfully withstood similar challenges by subordinating "the tribes to the state." But once again, we're guilty of shirking history's lessons:

"Now, U.S. strategy is violating this principle by fostering the retribalization of Iraq all over again. In other countries in the region, such as Yemen, the result of allowing tribes to contest state authority is clear: a dysfunctional country prone to bouts of serious internecine violence."

Sacred Flame Protection Unit...
Posted by Adam Blickstein

It's true that these guys, the official Chinese Olympic torch protection unit, scorch the earth wherever they and the Olympic flame go. It's true they are acting like thugs towards protesters and spectators alike, and appear to actually be comprised of "paramilitary police from a force spun off from the Chinese army." But it's also true that the rather distinctive moniker given to this brutish group would also be a rockin' name for an 80's revival hair band..

Just a random thought for Friday after a busy busy week

Washington Post: Page A4
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

It has a wealth of information today that puts the Iraq situation in the right context.  I think Congress did a good job of making sure we didn't just hear from Petraeus/Crocker and instead got analysis of the broader implications for national security.  Basically, it shows that everyone from the Joint Chiefs to the Secretary of Defense is in disagreement with President, Petraeus, and Crocker on indefinitely leaving 140,000 troops in Iraq.  They will never they say that publicly because that would be out and out insubordination but some of these quotes come really close.

Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, on the Military and Afghanistan:

"The only relief valve that I see out there that would provide that would be level of forces in Iraq," Mullen said. "We'd need to come down a certain number of brigades before we could start to meet the . . . legitimate force requirements that we have in Afghanistan that we just can't fill."

Secretary Gates on troop levels

Striking a tone distinct from that of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gates and Mullen also told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that they do not see the halt in U.S. troop reductions from Iraq as indefinite. Gates reiterated that he expects only a "brief pause" in the drawdown before it continues this fall.

"I do not anticipate this period of review to be an extended one, and I would emphasize that the hope, depending on conditions on the ground, is to reduce our presence further this fall," Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

David Satterfield, Rice's top Advisor on Iraq, summarized the view of Congress, including Republicans, on the security framework agreement that the Administration is trying to work out.

“Other than the fact that it violates the Constitution, statute law, common sense and the overwhelming judgment of the American people, this is a sensible thing to do.”

And there is this exchange between Jim Webb and Assistant Defense Secretary Mary Beth Long, regarding the Administration's promise that the agreement would not tie us to "Permanent Bases."  (Don't think it made it into the online version)

Webb:  What is a permanent base?
Satterfield:  Senator, the Administration has made quite clear that we are not seeking permanent bases in Iraq...
Webb:  Right.  What is a permanent base?  Are our bases in Japan permanent bases?
Long:  I have looked into this.  As far as teh department is concerned, we didn't have a worldwide or even a department-wide definition of permanent bases.  I believe those are, by and large determined on a case-by-case basis...
Webb:  Well, I understand that.  But basically my point is it's sort ofa dead word.  It doesn't really mean anything.
Long:  yes, Senator, you're completely right.  It doesn't...

Call it What it is: Torture!
Posted by Adam Blickstein

AP has a follow-up on ABC's reporting that senior Administration officials, including Dick Cheney and Condi Rice, all were complicit in authorizing the "harsh interrogations" of detainees. While both the ABC and AP piece confirm what most assumed, that the egregious actions at Abu Ghraib and other detention facilties weren't merely the errant actions of a few low-level troops but part of a broad strategy from the White House to abrogate international law, American values, and moral decency, they both lack a crucial element: calling torture torture. They skirt around the truth, afraid of the "T" word for weak editorial reasons. The headlines of both articles are instructive:

(ABC) Sources: Top Bush Advisors Approved 'Enhanced Interrogation'

(AP) Cheney, Others OK'd Harsh Interrogations

The body of evidence is pretty clear on this that the 'enhance interrogations' were in fact torture. And while further exposing these immoral and illegal actions is essential, doing so by using the same Administration language ("harsh tactics," "enhanced interrogation")  that got us into this moral and legal morass only compounds the problem. It helps to shield the Administration from true culpability and accountability.

History may look upon this Presidency's use of the 'fog of law' and 'fog of language' as central to their strategy on all the issues that have become prominent and controversial in the past decade: intelligence, war, detention and torture. But it may also look at the media (an industry where language itself is the linchpin) that has adopted the same dubious words, frames and phraseology, as simply an unassuming accomplice in the nefarious pursuits of this Presidency.

April 10, 2008

Matt's right...but
Posted by Max Bergmann

I was probably a bit too dismissive of Tancredo yesterday. The problem of gangs and racist groups, as the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out a few years back, is a real and seemingly growing problem - and is due in no small part to the Army having to lower its recruiting standards. That being said, I'm not sure Tancredo's point was to point out the general problem of gangs in the military. I interpreted him, perhaps unfairly, as being a bit more conspiratorial - ie  we let disloyal Hispanic immigrants into the military where they receive military training and when they return to the U.S. they will will rejoin MS-13 to destroy America. He may not be 100 percent wrong on this point, but this does fishtail with his general dislike of all brown people (including opposing letting Iraqi refugees into the U.S.) - a view that definitely deserves to be mocked.

Fact Check: Bush Downplays Defense Spending as Percentage of US Economy
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Bush just stated in his speech that spending on defense as a percentage of the U.S. economy was around 4 percent, and cited that this is historically low as compared to World War Two and Vietnam. That is true, but unfortunately doesn't account for current American spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, funded mainly through the "off-budget" emergency supplementals that hide the true costs. The New York Times earliest this year breaks down this point:

Even considering the military budget and war spending together, however, total U.S. expenditures remain modest compared to historical levels in wartime. Shortly before the Vietnam War, in 1962, defense spending alone tallied 9.3 percent of GDP. During World War II expenditures were higher still; in 1944 the defense budget peaked at 37.8 percent of GDP. Even after recent increases, defense spending today comes to about 3.7 percent of GDP—and the combined total, even after including both war-spending supplements and “Global War on Terror” expenditures, comes to 6.2 percent of GDP. Still, today’s spending represents an increase since before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when defense spending tallied roughly 3 percent of GDP.

Bottom line: Spending on defense, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has doubled in the past 8 years. The President is still insists on hiding the true costs of war...

Make You Look Like Stalin . . .
Posted by Michael Cohen

So yesterday I attended the Pe-Crock hearings at the House Foreign Relations Committee and since I feel that llan and Max handled the substance of the afternoon's proceedings quite wel, allow me to relay the sartorial epiphany that I experienced. At about 2:36 PM I finally understood why Republicans do so well in elections - they have great hair.

I'm not even joking here. You should see some of the manes on these guys. Click here to see what I'm talking about. Jeff Flake, Mike McCaul, Luis Fortuno and don't even get me started on Jeff Fortenberry from Nebraska. Them there are some handsome fellas.

Even Ron Paul and Dan Burton have got that avuncular, grandfatherly thing down pat. The major exception here is of course Steve Chabot from Ohio who seems to have combined some sort of comb over and homage to former Ohio Congressman James Traficant that has gone horribly awry.

Then you look at the Democratic side and it looks like a before shot from the Hair Club for Men. Seriously, what kind of image are we projecting to the world as Democrats. If it wasn't for Robert Wexler and his Semitic good looks it would be a train wreck.

You know Ilan always says we need to a better job of training progressives to talk about foreign policy and national security. Yeah, yeah that's important, but how about some toupees as well . . .

On an unrelated note, one of my favorite things about the House Foreign Relations Committee is that Steve Chabot, Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul all sit together on the far right side of the dais. Insert your own joke here.

April 09, 2008

Had Enough
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

OK, we're calling it a day on this.  There is nothing new here at this point.  And Max wants to watch Manchester United Vs. Roma. 

What was Delahunt up to?
Posted by Moira Whelan

Delahunt just asked Crocker to convey to the Iraqi government the concerns of Congress about the expiration of the UN mandate. Why would he do that? After all, they can probably get C-Span. I’m checking on this, but I think that based on Crocker’s commitment to do so, the US government must now formally do that in a diplomatic sense, which can be a Fairly Big Deal…but I’ll get back to you on that one.

Delahunt also dug deeper into a question Clinton asked yesterday about the negotiation of presence of US forces and the bilateral agreement between the US and Iraq. Clinton stressed that if the Iraqi parliament had a chance to pass or reject the agreement, then so should the US Congress.

Delahunt took it one better: if the Malaki government decides not to take it to the Iraqi parliament, they will be in violation of the Iraqi Constitution. The agreement, in this case, would be null and void from the Iraqi side, and therefore the US could not agree to it, and it would not be binding to protect our troops, right?

This will prove to be a pretty big point in the months to come.

Tancredo a man obsessed
Posted by Max Bergmann

So Tom Tancredo has a chance to question two of the top civilian and military leaders in Iraq and what does he do? He of course asks a bunch of conspiratorial questions about immigration. Tancredo is worried about MS-13 a Latino gangs in the U.S. army in Iraq (apparently Tancredo's inside sources tell him that MS-13 graffiti has appeared in Baghdad - talk about a scandal) and he is opposed to letting in Iraqi refugees who served this country, etc., etc. I think he gets the award for worst questioner.

Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

So Tancredo basically decides that this is the place to ask why we are letting any of the Iraqi refugees who are being displaced, including the ones working with the United States, are being let in to this country.  Seriously... Not surprising but still.

Heads I win tails you lose
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Representative Wexler goes after Peteaus hard makes a very good point.  When we ask what is failure we get a littany of items.  When we ask what is success we get nothing.  I thinks that is exactly right and it is the fundamental problem in the entire argument.

The Other Hearing
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Shifting over to the House Armed Services Committee.  They now have the Vice Chief of the Army and the Assistant Commandant of the Marines talking about the stress on the ground forces. 

Skelton asked:  "Are you satisfied that we are ready for any military contingency right now."  Cody said no.

Chabot Just Asked One of the Dumbest Questions
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

He's got a tough reelection fight, you'd think he'd do more then literally read almost an entire Wall Street Journal Editorial and then ask a question that Petraeus has already answered four times in his opening testimony.  Just sort of embarrassing.  (But at least he does ask a question about Iraqi oil paying for reconstruction.) 

Would Petraeus Help Advise a Withdrawal?
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Had to step out for a bit.  Spencer has this important exchange between Petraeus and Tauscher

Asked by Ellen Tauscher, a California Democrat, what he would say to a new president who asked for a withdrawal plan within 60 days of taking office, Petraeus dodged like hell. Wow.

"I would back up," he said, "and ask  what's the mission, what's the desired endstate. And then you advise on resources..." Tauscher said the goal would be to keep the security gains of the surge, fix the readiness problems of the military and cut U.S. costs in Iraq.

"My response would be dialogue on what the risks would be. And, again, this is about risk." Petraeus sounded a lot like he was saying he would not be willing to advise a President Obama or a President Clinton on withdrawal  -- something that, unless he was willing to resign, is very Constitutionally dubious.

Andrews hammers Crocker on lack of progress on benchmarks - Crocker put on defensive
Posted by Max Bergmann

In questioning from Congressman Andrews, Crocker was on the defensive. Andrews hitting on the debathification law points out that this law hits the Baathist Sunnis hard and prevents them from working in the defense and interior ministry which will prevent them from reconciling with the Shia dominated government. In short its a law that does nothing to facilitate reconciliation. In addition Andrews notes that there has been no progress on a hydrocarbon law - ie the law that divides oil revenue.

In general Crocker has had to squirm much more in the hearings than Petraeus. If you by the notion that these hearings are like a "job performance review" then it is clear that Crocker has a lot more to squirm about than Petraeus due to the inability to achieve any real political progress, while Petraeus seems a bit more assured because of the security improvements.

Crocker - the dog ate my benchmark homework
Posted by Max Bergmann

Cong. McIntyre asks Crocker what happened to the benchmarks? Crocker stutters and then says we are working on evaluating them and pledges to get an assessment to Congress next week. Talk about not bringing your homework. You would think you would have gotten this done before the hearing.

Security Forces
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

A central question that was just asked.  When will the Iraqi Security Forces be ready to take responsibility?  I have another question.  Petraeus is arguing that there has been a dramatic improvement in Iraqi Security Forces.  But if that is true then why do we still have 150,000 American troops in Iraq?

Congresswoman Sanchez hits on the General Jones report last Fall
Posted by Max Bergmann

Congresswoman Sanchez smartly brought back the report from General Jones that was released right before Pe-Crock testified last Fall. The General found that the national police is:

85 percent Shia. It is associated with some pretty bad things that have happened in the near past. It is sectarian, and it is not trusted by certainly the other ethnicities in the country...And I believe it should be disbanded and re-tasked.

Petraeus responded saying that the national police force "are pulling their load" and that their had been substantial progress in the interior ministry. This again seems to go against what has been widely reported.

Choosing Shi'a
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Crocker says that the "way Iraqis are viewing the battle between Sadr and Maliki as between the government and extremist militias."  Really?  How does he know this?  To me this is how the Bush Administration is viewing / spinning it.  But there is nothing to substantiate that argument.

Has he been out and about among the Iraqi people in the last week?  All of the reporting from reporters on the ground and in the fighting seem to contradict Crocker's statements.   

Petraeus Plays Along
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Spencer Ackerman points out something important.

A New York Republican named John McHugh conflated Al Qaeda with Al Qaeda in Iraq and asked the leading question: "We are really talking about the primary security interest of each and every American or do I have that wrong?"

Petraeus: "That is correct." Unbelievable. He really cherry-picks what strategy-level questions he wants to answer, doesn't he?

Let's be clear.  Al Qaeda Central is on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.  The NIE said that the major threat to the homeland comes from this group and that AQI is a separate organization.  Petraeus and Crocker's willingness to on the one hand correct very specific details and on the other let broad generalizations slip is irritating.  Coincidently they also seem to pick and choose, based on whether the generalization is in line with their policy or not.

I'm Impressed With Snyder
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

He tells Petraeus.  It's about resourcing.  It's your job to do your job, which is Iraq.  It's our job to figure out how to manage our resources, and when Admiral Fallon is here he says we need 2,000 more troops today.  And members of Congress have to make that decision.

Also, says that we hear a lot about  being able to walk through this neighberhood or that neighberhood, but nothing about what is going on behind those doors.  Are living conditions actually getting better.  Is electricity increasing?  Health metrics?  etc...