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May 23, 2008

Budget Boondoggle
Posted by Patrick Barry

There was a lot of uproar earlier this month over the fact the Iraq government had only spent a fraction of its reconstruction budget, despite soaring oil revenues. Senator Levin was especially irate, wondering:

"Why are we spending our money five years later when they have a surplus? That’s just extraordinary.”

Well Senator Levin, I don't know what to tell you, because according to this story, we're apparently doing just as poor a job spending Iraq's budget as the Iraqis.  This next passage highlights the absurdity:

In one case, according to documents displayed by Pentagon auditors at the hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, a cash payment of $320.8 million in Iraqi money was authorized on the basis of a single signature and the words “Iraqi Salary Payment” on an invoice.

Amen Senator Biden
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Joe Biden has an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal today responding to Senator Lieberman.  It's a must read.  I particularly enjoyed two pieces.  The first on broad strategy:

At the heart of this failure is an obsession with the "war on terrorism" that ignores larger forces shaping the world: the emergence of China, India, Russia and Europe; the spread of lethal weapons and dangerous diseases; uncertain supplies of energy, food and water; the persistence of poverty; ethnic animosities and state failures; a rapidly warming planet; the challenge to nation states from above and below.

Instead, Mr. Bush has turned a small number of radical groups that hate America into a 10-foot tall existential monster that dictates every move we make.

The intersection of al Qaeda with the world's most lethal weapons is a deadly serious problem. Al Qaeda must be destroyed. But to compare terrorism with an all-encompassing ideology like communism and fascism is evidence of profound confusion.

Terrorism is a means, not an end, and very different groups and countries are using it toward very different goals. Messrs. Bush and McCain lump together, as a single threat, extremist groups and states more at odds with each other than with us: Sunnis and Shiites, Persians and Arabs, Iraq and Iran, al Qaeda and Shiite militias. If they can't identify the enemy or describe the war we're fighting, it's difficult to see how we will win.

And this piece specifically on Iran:

Last week, John McCain was very clear. He ruled out talking to Iran. He said that Barack Obama was "naïve and inexperienced" for advocating engagement; "What is it he wants to talk about?" he asked.

Well, for a start, Iran's nuclear program, its support for Shiite militias in Iraq, and its patronage of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

Beyond bluster, how would Mr. McCain actually deal with these dangers? You either talk, you maintain the status quo, or you go to war. If Mr. McCain has ruled out talking, we're stuck with an ineffectual policy or military strikes that could quickly spiral out of control.

Sen. Obama is right that the U.S. should be willing to engage Iran on its nuclear program without "preconditions" – i.e. without insisting that Iran first freeze the program, which is the very subject of any negotiations. He has been clear that he would not become personally involved until the necessary preparations had been made and unless he was convinced his engagement would advance our interests.

President Nixon didn't demand that China end military support to the Vietnamese killing Americans before meeting with Mao. President Reagan didn't insist that the Soviets freeze their nuclear arsenal before sitting down with Mikhail Gorbachev. Even George W. Bush – whose initial disengagement allowed dangers to proliferate – didn't demand that Libya relinquish its nuclear program, that North Korea give up its plutonium, or even that Iran stop aiding those attacking our soldiers in Iraq before authorizing talks.

The net effect of demanding preconditions that Iran rejects is this: We get no results and Iran gets closer to the bomb.

Soviet Straw Man
Posted by Patrick Barry

I have to say that Nathaniel Thrawl and Jesse James Wilkins' op-ed wrist-slapping Barack Obama for invoking JFK to justify his willingness to negotiate with regimes like Tehran is a pretty blatant misrepresentation of the presumptive nominees' position.  Their argument, basically, is that Kennedy's naive decision to enter direct talks with Khrushchev emboldened the Soviets to erect the Berlin Wall and precipitated the Cuban missile crisis; Obama shouldn't be so naive to think that he can defy history through similar action.  Leaving aside the fact that directly linking Kennedy's failure at Moscow to one of the most dire crises in world history is a huge causal leap, Obama's position and Kennedy's actions with Khrushchev aren't even comparable in the first place.  Kennedy was dealing with a Soviet Empire, which rivaled the U.S. in terms of military capabilities and global influence.  Obama on the other hand is talking about a country whose GDP is smaller than Florida's, and whose power in its own region is contested. Given this disparity, and given that years of bellicose policy have accomplished absolutely nothing, I actually think that trying diplomacy with Iran would  be the exact opposite of naive - it would be prudent.

NY TIMES: Bush appeasement attack directed toward Israel as well
Posted by Max Bergmann

The New York Times has a truly stunning editorial today. The paper makes the very important point that when Bush made his appeasement remarks in the Knesset it is almost certain that he knew that Israel was negotiating with Syria. Thus, his appeasement attack was directed not just against Obama, but the leadership of the Jewish state of Israel as well. The Times writes:

Everybody knew President Bush was aiming at Senator Barack Obama last week when he likened those who endorse talks with “terrorists and radicals” to appeasers of the Nazis. But now we know what Mr. Bush knew then — that Israel is in indirect peace talks with Syria, a prominent member of Mr. Bush’s list of shunned nations — and it seems as if the president was going for a two-for-one in his crack about appeasement.

If so, it was breathtakingly cynical to compare the leadership of the Jewish state with those who stood aside in the face of the Nazi onslaught, and irresponsible to try to restrain this American ally from pursuing a settlement that it judges as possibly being in its best interests.


May 22, 2008

Hearings Wrap Up
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

So these hearings were a tame operation by comparison with the two previous Petraeus Crocker hearings.  Still, some very important points.

Three key points:

1.  Afghan/Pakistan border region, not Iraq, is the greatest threat:  General Petraeus agrees with Admiral Mullen and with our intelligence commnity that the next likely terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland will come from Pakistan and the Federally Administred Tribal Areas.  So just to sum up.  Our intelligence Community, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and future CENTCOM commander all agree that Pakistan is the greatest danger, but conservatives continue to insist that Iraq is the central front.

2.  Petraeus agrees with Gates, not Bush and McCain, on talking to Iran:  In his written responses General Petraeus agreed with Secretary Gates that we need a comprehensive approach to Iran that includes real diplomacy and engages on all issues.

3.  Odierno acknowledges that there is no need for a permanent presence in Iraq:  Despite John McCain's claims that we can have an indefinite Korea-like presence in Iraq, when asked by Jim Webb about the need for a permanent presence Odierno stated that it would be unnecessary.  

4.  McCain missing in action:  As the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, you'd think John McCain would show up.  But instead he is in California campaigning and fundraising.  When Petraeus was last confirmed for Iraq Commander, McCain was off in Davos Switzerland.

Some other important pieces:

1.  There is a possibility that General Petraeus will recommend further troop reductions after the pause in August.  Numbers and certainty are unclear.

2.  The Iraqi provincial elections, which are central to bringing about reconcilliation are being delayed from October until at least November.

3.  There is still no clear indication whether the Sons of Iraq will actually be integrated into the current government and security forces.  There are no good benchmarks on progress on that front and for the most part Petraeus and Odierno remained quite vague when asked about this problem.

4.  Petraeus essentially acknowledges that we need more troops in Afghanistan but that Iraq is impeding that effort and agrees with Army Vice Chief of Staff General Cody that we have little "strategic flexibility" in terms of troop levels. 

Hillary to Petraeus - what priority should be tracking down Bin Laden?
Posted by Max Bergmann

Hillary asks some sharp questions - hitting the point that the greatest danger is threat to the United States is from the Afghan-Pakistan border region yet our focus, manpower and resources are overwhelmingly in Iraq. She asks Petraeus what are you going to do to elevate the situation in Afghanistan and what priority should be tracking down Osama Bin Laden? He acknowledges it should be a very high priority.

Petraeus - says we have little "strategic flexibility" to send more troops to Afghanistan
Posted by Max Bergmann

Petraeus says it would be very hard to increase troop levels in Afghanistan because our military is overstretched. He agrees with General Cody the Vice Chief of the Army that we have little "strategic flexibility" and increasing troop levels in Afghanistan, as commanders have called for, would put the Armed Services under enormous strain. So basically, Petraeus concedes that Iraq negatively effects our ability to conduct operations in Afghanistan.

Odierno disagrees with McCain
Posted by Max Bergmann

Odierno says, under questioning from Webb, that if violence comes down and political agreements are made - granted a big if - then U.S. troops should not stay indefinitely and should come home - ie Odierno is opposed to indefinite 100 year occupation.

Reed has great line of questioning on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Posted by Max Bergmann

Jack Reed gets Petraeus to agree that if we are attacked it will most likely emanate from the tribal region of Pakistan - as our intelligence agencies have indicated.

Reed then follows up and says what does that say about our strategy and how we have allocated our resources.

Petraeus says we need to work with the new Pakistani government. One of the first trips he would take would be to go to Pakistan to meet with Gen. Kiani and the leaders of Pakistan.

Reed then follows up - if need more resources for Afghanistan and Pakistan where are you going to get them - Petraeus dodges - says he will have to assess if he gets the job.

Petraeus Agrees that the greatest danger is from Pakistan not Iraq
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Jack Reed finally brings up the gorilla in the room.  He asks Petraeus if he agrees with the intelligence community and Chairman Mullen's assessment that the next terrorist attack on the United States would most likely come from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area. 

Petraeus says YES.

And Reed naturally asks, then why does the campaign plan focus on Iraq not Afghanistan and Pakistan?  Reed also asks how Petraeus would plan to actually bring more troops into that area, since they're all in Iraq.

Can everyone just yield their time to Senator Reed?

Petraeus on Sadr
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

He acknowledges that Sadr is a very important element in Iraqi politics and that his movement represents the large segments of the poor Shi'a of Iraq.  That's exactly right.  Now, I hope that perhaps some of this nation's politicians will also start to recognize that this is the case. 

Odierno Skirts the Sons of Iraq Question
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

He says that 20-25% will eventualy be integrated and that we'll eventually have jobs for them. But here's the questions that wasn't answered. What is the progress to date? Has there been any progress? Are these guys being integrated? Are there any benchmarks for how to integrate them and ensure they don't turn on the Iraqi central government?  Simply saying "we're working on it" isn't good enough.

McCain and Confirming Petraeus
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

So today McCain is missing the confirmation hearings to campaign and fundraise in California.  Interestingly enough, in 2007 he also missed Petraeus's confirmation hearing because he was hob nobbing at Davos. 

Inhofe actually raises a really good question on AFRICOM
Posted by Max Bergmann

A significant part of CENTCOM's responsibility is the horn of Africa, where the U.S. military is increasingly involved as evidenced by the numerous air strikes conducted in Somalia. AFRICOM - a new combatant command is due to be set up this fall and will have responsibility for all of Africa (except for Egypt). Coordinating the transition from CENTCOM to AFRICOM is very very important, especially in the light of the food crisis and drought that is plaguing the horn, especially Somalia.

One question on Afghanistan
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

An hour in and one question on Afghanistan.  Meanwhile, Lieberman (i.e. the hawk) is the only one to mention Iran.

A non-Iraq question to Petraeus!
Posted by Max Bergmann

Finally - a non- Iraq question from Warner and its on the drug trade. Warner is right to be concerned, as we at NSN pointed out, Afghanistan now produces 93 percent of the world's opium and makes Colombia of the 1980s look like Utah. It is a huge problem and we have done little to address it.

No Provicinial Elections in October
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

For a year now, the Administration has been pushing the provincial elections as the central political moment that will empower local leaders and bring the Sunnis into the government.  Petraeus just said that those elections will be delayed until at least November.  That's significant on two fronts:

  1. It's generally not a good sign to see such an important element slipping
  2. There will be no opportunity for Republicans to politicize the provincial elections here in the United States and try to create another purple finger propoganda moment

Troop Reductions
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Petraeus says that come August he will be able to make further recommendations on troop reduction.  A change from last month when he said that after the "pause" they would consider removing troops.  Of course, there were no specifications on how long before those troops would be removed or how many.

Petraeus appeases war protestors...
Posted by Max Bergmann

Or maybe it is just a coincidence? Speaking of appeasing - does Bush-McCain now consider Petraeus an appeaser since he advocates working to see if better relations are possible with Iran?

Posted by Max Bergmann

Inhofe relieved...

Weird weird beginning to the hearing
Posted by Max Bergmann

First, Odierno introduces all of his family - Levin looks perplexed, Lieberman chuckles over Odierno's kid living in Greenwhich CT... ha ha..

Then, Levin throws it over to the Repubs. Only Warner is running late because of traffic, and umm McCain is doing Ellen and couldn't be bothered, so the opening statement for the Repubs is turned over to a confused Inhofe - who, predictably has no opening statement.

Levin turns it over to Petraeus - who unlike Odierno doesn't introduce his family - and he begins reading his prepared statement... Definitely does not have the feel of the last hearing.

McCain Isn't There
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

So, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee decided to go spend the day in California.  It's nice to know that a man whose whole candidacy seems to revolve around national security can't be bothered to show up.

Liveblogging the Petraeus Odierno Hearings
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Max and I will be liveblogging the Petraeus-Odierno hearings today.  As a preview, here is a list of questions NSN came up with

This round of hearings presents an opportunity to move the debate beyond Iraq and focus on how the war is impacting our broader national security, specifically with regards to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and the strain on the military.  During previous hearings, when he was leading our forces in Iraq, General Petraeus deferred on these questions, stating that the topics were outside of his purview.  But now that he is being nominated for CENTCOM Commander – and will likely be in charge of commanding any U.S. military operations from the Horn of Africa to the Middle East to Central Asia – he must address these broader strategic questions.

Continue reading "Liveblogging the Petraeus Odierno Hearings" »

May 21, 2008

John Bolton's 99%
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

John Bolton makes the argument in the Wall Street Journal that diplomacy isn't the answer and states

The real debate is radically different. On one side are those who believe that negotiations should be used to resolve international disputes 99% of the time. That is where I am, and where I think Mr. McCain is. On the other side are those like Mr. Obama, who apparently want to use negotiations 100% of the time. It is the 100%-ers who suffer from an obsession that is naïve and dangerous.

John Bolton has been against negotiation when it comes to North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Syria and a slew of other cases.  So I'm glad that he wants to negotiate with the British.  But off the top of my head I can't think of more then 5-10  serious international disputes that might draw the United States into a war (And even that number might seem a bit high).   Once you look at it that way John Bolton's 1% solution suddenly becomes a 50%-75% solution, which makes a moderate position look much much more extreme.

Clausewitz Would Be Proud
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Hezbollah has had a pretty good last couple of weeks.  Today they got an agreement with the Lebanese governing coalition that ended 18 months of political stalemate and gave Hezbollah exactly what it wanted – veto power in the new Lebanese government.  And they didn’t have to give up anything in return.  No discussions on disarmament.  Nothing on further investigations into the Hariri assassination.  Nothing

How did they do it?  Two weeks ago, they launched an offensive against the various militias aligned with the governing, U.S.-backed, March 14 coalition.  The military decided to stay out of the fight.  Hezbollah basically took over Beirut in the span of 24 hours and routed the militias affiliated with the March 14 coalition.  Then just as quickly as they appeared, they disappeared and let the Lebanese Army take over again.  They kept civilian casualties low, did not engage in ethnic cleansing, and did not stay out on the streets for too long or take a heavy-handed approach that would alienate the population.  But they did send a very clear message that they are the most powerful military force in Lebanon and that they can use that force when necessary.  One week later they got the deal they wanted.

Clausewitz defined war as a “continuation of politics by other means.”  Can one think of a more effective recent example? This was a low cost, well modulated, military action that achieved a direct and precise political outcome.  Pretty ironic that it was executed by a supposedly crazy and irrational terrorist group. 

Its called diplomacy, stupid
Posted by Max Bergmann

If you don't see something for a while - sometimes you forget what that something looks like. After more than seven years of this administration some could perhaps be forgiven for forgetting what diplomacy looks like. Charlie Kupchan and Ray Takeyh oped in the IHT today provide an important corrective - making the point that talking to our adversaries is not called appeasement - its called diplomacy

Obama's readiness to engage adversaries is a sign not of naïveté or inexperience, but of hard-headed realism. The history of diplomacy makes amply clear that longstanding rivalries usually require engagement - often at the highest levels - to reach resolution. In contrast, isolation and the silent treatment serve primarily to sustain mutual hostility and suspicion.

Bush should have learned as much from the results of his own policies. Throughout his presidency, Bush has refused to enter into direct negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program and broader issues of regional security.

The result has been mounting hostility and an Iran that is continuing to enrich uranium while fueling extremist causes throughout the Middle East.

Engaging Syria?
Posted by Moran Banai

The Israelis and Syrians announced today that they have been carrying on secret indirect negotiations through Turkey. Intriguingly, according to Al-Hayat (cited in Haaretz), the United States had asked Turkey to increase its efforts on these negotiations and “hinted to Israel more than once the importance of progress in talks with Syria.” The New York Times says that the talks and the announcement were coordinated with the United States.

In December of 2006, shortly after the release of the Iraq Study Group Report, which highlighted the importance of a U.S. diplomatic offensive in the Middle East to complement its other recommendations on Iraq, Prime Minister Olmert essentially told his cabinet that he would not negotiate with Syria because Bush didn’t want him to, saying:

“At a time when the president of the United States, Israel’s most important ally, with whom we have a network of strategic relations — when he is fighting in every arena, both at home in America, in Iraq and in other places in the world, against all the elements that want to weaken him — is this the time for us to say the opposite?”

At a press conference during Olmert’s visit to the United States in June 2007, he and Bush were asked about Israel negotiating with Syria and the prime minister said that "The U.S.  never said not to hold talks with Syria … and we've never asked for their permission. Israel will not ask permission to conduct peace talks if it feels it's right, nor defend itself if it feels it's necessary." And Bush, for his part, said: “If the prime minister wants to negotiate with Syria, he doesn't need me to mediate. It's up to the prime minister. This man is plenty capable of having negotiations without me mediating.”

U.S. objections still appeared to be a major stumbling block, as did the Syrian interest in having a U.S. presence at the table.

Then, in April of this year information came out about the Turkish-brokered talks and in early May, Secretary Rice said that the United States would not stand in the way of Israeli-Syrian negotiations, but expected Syria to change its policy toward Lebanon.

Dana Perino's reaction today was that the U.S. was apprised of the talks, that the president recognizes the importance of a comprehensive peace for Israel and that along with this being used to further isolate Iran, "we hope is that this is a forum to address various concerns that we all share about Syria -- the United States, Israelis and many others -- in regards to Syria's support for Hamas and Hezbollah, the training and funding of terrorists that belong to those two organizations."

There are obviously many other factors at play in this evolution, including the effects of the 2006 Israel-Hizbullah war on the balance of power in the region, the equally important effects of the Israeli strike in September of 2007, and, of course, the deadlock in Lebanon, which seems to have come to an end at the talks in Qatar that followed Hizbullah’s power play last week, and there are many reasons to be skeptical. But this evolving policy appears to be another example of the pragmatic realization that non-engagement with countries like Iran and Syria will not advance U.S. interests or those of its allies.

There is still a long way to go for the two parties to reach an agreement and much speculation in Israel that today’s announcement is primarily a diversionary tactic by Olmert to distract from the most recent corruption investigation against him, but the announcement is still welcome news. The United States should build on this momentum while ensuring that this track complements any negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians instead of becoming an alternative to them.

Bush, McCain Play Echo Chamber
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Their first back-to-back attack derided diplomacy with our enemies.  Now, they are playing Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on Cuba. After hard line comments on Cuba yesterday, echoing a familiar theme, McCain celebrates "Cuban Independence Day" on his website by perpetuating the same inept policy that, in 50 years, has failed to yield any positive results:

As President, John McCain Will Not Passively Await The Day The Cuban People Can Enjoy The Blessings Of Freedom And Democracy. It is in our national interest to support their aspirations and oppose those of a Castro regime that harbors fugitives from U.S. justice, expresses unrelenting hostility to America, and shoots down unarmed civilian aircraft. John McCain will press the Cuban regime to unconditionally release all political prisoners, legalize all political parties, labor unions and free media, and schedule internationally monitored elections. The embargo must stay in place.
While Maintaining The Embargo, John McCain Will Adopt A Broader Approach To The Cuban People. John McCain will provide more material assistance and moral support to human rights activists, and increase Radio and TV Marti and other means to communicate directly to the Cuban people. The Justice Department will vigorously prosecute Cuban officials implicated in the murder of Americans, drug trafficking, and other crimes. John McCain will begin an active dialogue with our partners in the hemisphere and Europe to develop a plan for post-Castro Cuba.  

Meanwhile, at the White House, President Bush marked the occasion by authoritatively telling the world that he knows, perhaps with the same soul searching powers used on other global leaders, that the small changes Cuba's new leader Raul Castro is implementing are nothing more than a "cruel joke:"

"The world is watching the Cuban regime," Bush said. "If it follows its recent public gestures - by opening up access to information, implementing meaningful economic reforms, respecting political freedom and human rights - then it can credibly say it has delivered the beginnings of change. But experience tells us this regime has no intention of taking these steps. Instead its recent gestures appear to be nothing more than a cruel joke perpetuated on a long-suffering people."

If McCain wants to use Bush as an echo chamber on every major national security issue (having already accomplished this with Iraq), then projecting a McCain presidency as a third Bush term, albeit one, according to Pat Buchanan, on steroids, becomes that much easier. Bill Richardson nails it:

John McCain doesn't understand as well as Senator Obama and I do how the Castro regime works. John McCain -- like George Bush -- is afraid to talk to bad guys.  He feels safer pretending to talk tough by hiding from them. Unfortunately ordinary people will pay for his lack of diplomatic skill. This is the Bush-McCain foreign policy that has failed all over the world, and it has failed to promote change in Cuba.

May 20, 2008

McCain's 100 year embargo of Cuba
Posted by Max Bergmann

John McCain today attacked Barack Obama for recognizing the obvious - our Cuba policy is a gigantic waste of time. It has achieved NOTHING in more than 50 years. Castro was able to leave on his own terms. Our policy has made the United States irrelevant in Cuba, while other countries are investing billions - China is even drilling off Cuba's coast.  Our policy has done more to shore up Cuba's dictatorship than it has to undermine it by providing Fidel with a useful scapegoat for Cuba's economic woes. The Council on Foreign Relations just released a bipartisan independent task force on Latin America that said "the United States should initiate a series of steps, with the aim of lifting the embargo against Cuba."

Yet John McCain wants to continue this policy and is in favor of the Bush administration's approach, which tightened the embargo after the Clinton administration loosened restrictions on agricultural trade and travel restrictions. This is either a clear case of more pandering from John McCain (this time directed towards the Miami Cubans) or another clear indication that John McCain has the same broken foreign policy as George Bush.

Total Ayatollah Recall
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Following-up on Ilan's post, it seems to me that McCain has a real problem on his hands. This passage from a 2003 CQ piece suggests that when moderates held elective power in Iran, McCain himself acknowledged that the theocratic leaders (ie the Ayatollah and the Council of Guardians) wielded ultimate political power in Iran:

The administration's nod to the Biden-Hagel gesture toward Iran appears at odds with its stated policy. Last year, the White House said it would abandon its policy of cultivating the moderates surrounding Khatemi, saying they had little influence. The administration said it was opting instead for direct appeals to the Iranian people through U.S.-funded radio broadcasts and other programs.

Some other lawmakers strongly supported Biden's initiative. "If you're looking for
progress with a member of the 'axis of evil,' the best chance is probably here," said Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the incoming chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

But others saw the effort as futile. "People go in there and meet the moderate foreign minister and the moderates around him, and they fool themselves into thinking the regime will change," said John McCain, R-Ariz., a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "The religious mullahs will never let them."

So, for McCain, when the moderates held elective office, the religious clerics were the final arbiters of Iranian politics and policy. But now that a more hard-line president has control in Iran, he is characterized as the true leader and the religious clerics are marginalized. The ideology of Iran's presidents may have differed over the years, but this in no way changes the fact that the political structure itself over time doesn't change, and largely hasn't changed, since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Even in January of this year, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rather publicly overruled President Ahmadinejad  in a way that directly contradicts McCain's recent assertions:

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who wields ultimate authority in Iran, ordered Ahmadinejad to implement a law that would supply natural gas used to heat remote villages. The issue has become critical during an unusually harsh winter in Iran, and illustrates Ahmadinejad's weakness on domestic policy despite the high profile the anti-American populist has acquired abroad.

It certainly is disconcerting, as Ilan stated, to have in McCain a presidential candidate who doesn't understand the basic nature of Iran's political system. It certainly undercuts any credibility he has on the issue, and for all his recent posturing on Iran, it demonstrates a world view in disarray, whether on purpose or not.  But whatever the root of the confusion may be, it does, in the end, perpetuate the conservative tactic of muddying reality in order to beat the politically expedient drum of fear. 

Another Foreign Policy Gaffe
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Deception or ignorance?  That seems to be the question every time John McCain makes a foreign policy gaffe.  Whether its Sunnis or Shi'a or yesterday on the nature of Iran's government.  Joe Klein reports:

At a press conference here, I just asked John McCain about why he keeps talking about Obama's alleged willingness to talk to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has no power over Iranian foreign policy, rather than Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who does. He said that Ahmadinejad is the guy who represents Iran in international forums like the United Nations, which is a fair point. When I followed with the observation that the Supreme Leader is, uh, the Supreme Leader, McCain responded that the "average American" thinks Ahmadinejad is the boss.

Let's be clear:  Iran has a very complex system of government with varying institutions, but at the top of it sits Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who essentially is only accountable to the Council of Guardians made up of clerics, many of whom are appointed by Khamenei.  So, Ahmadinejad is not the leader.  And as the Council on Foreign Relations explains, especially in the area of foreign policy, Ahmadinejad has very little influence.

On top of that as Klein points out, the President's job is to educate the public on questions of policy.  So if the "average American" thinks that Ahmadinejad is the ultimate leader of Iran, it's up to the President to dissuade them of this notion - not reinforce it.  Back in 2002 more then half of Americans thought Saddam was responsible for 9/11 and President Bush did nothing to disprove this assumption (In fact, while never directly claiming that Saddam was responsible for 9/11 the Administration did everything it could to reinforce the notion).  That doesn't mean our policy should be based on those false assumptions. 

Then there is the fact that in 2003 McCain and other conservatives dismissed efforts by Democrats to engage the reformist President of Iran Mohamed Khatami claiming that he had no real power.   Now that the President is a hardline demagogue he is the sole voice in Iran that matters.  That seems convenient.

Considering the bellicose language and all the speculation about war with Iran, you'd think the Republican nominee for President who consistently touts his foreign policy expertise should either get better briefings on the structure of Iran's government or start exercising that "straight talk" he is supposedly so famous for.   

May 19, 2008

Pushing Back on National Security
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Michael Tomasky points out that Obama's willingness to push back hard on national security instead of just cowering or trying to change the subject in the face of Republican attacks is an important change in the way Democrats approach national security.  I couldn't agree more.  This is huge.  And it isn't the first time.  We saw this coming a couple of months ago when McCain tried to attack Obama for supposedly not understanding that Al Qaeda in Iraq was in Iraq.  Obama threw it back in his face, arguing that AQI did not exist before the war that McCain so strongly supported.

I also think it's important to remember that fighting back directly on national security isn't a new discovery that is unique to Obama.  In 2006 Democrats did push back hard on national security and it was one of the reasons they won the election so handily.  In September of 2006 Republicans launched a national security offensive hoping to shift the election to their turf.  But Democrats gave as good as they got relentlessly attacking on Iraq and it was one of the reasons they took back Congress in 2006.  If you need a reminder just read Democracy Corps' polling memo from the time, which encouraged Democrats to take the debate head on because it was in fact a winner. 

I will say that the biggest difference in 2008 as opposed to 2006, is that Obama has a much clear vision on national security then did Congressional Democrats running in 2006.  And so that rather then just criticizing the utter incompetence of the Bush Administration, this time around, there are much sharper philosophical contrasts to be drawn.  This is going to be fun.

Hitler, Churchill and Chamberlain
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Matt Duss makes a great observation about the recent dust up on appeasement:

For conservative national security policy to function properly, it must always be 1938, the storm must always be gathering. There must always be new Hitlers to confront: Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein again, and now Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are among the various new Adolf Hitlers against whom America has faced off during my lifetime. And, of course, with new Hitlers always come new Neville Chamberlains who refuse to see the dangers. Naturally, the right always get to play Winston Churchill, who is, in their colouring book version of history, the paragon of manly manliness, knocking assorted Chamberlains aside as they brusquely sign declaration of war, and then reach for the brandy and cigars.

This reminds me of a final exam question I once had in graduate school.  "World War II and World War I yield exactly opposite lessons on how foreign policy should be conducted.  So what can we actually learn from this paradox about the nature of war and peace?"  After all, World War I was a war that no side wanted to fight and that all expected would be over quickly.  Posturing and a willingness to too casually jump to the use of force without thinking through the consequences played a significant role.  Poor communication between the Germans and the British who misunderstood each other's intentions was also critical.  And of course there were the German generals who felt that they had no choice but to attack first before they were attacked.

But conservatives tend to ignore that little war that killed millions in Europe.  Doesn't fit the narrative and the world view.

John Bolton's One Percent Doctrine
Posted by David Shorr

According to John Bolton, the split over the importance of negotiations in foreign policy is a difference of one percent. Apparently the foreign policy debate pits those, like Bolton, who believe negotiations can resolve 99% of international disputes versus liberals who are certain that negotiations can solve each and every situation in the world. These calculations raise an interesting accounting problem. Leaves me to wonder about 'international dispute' as a unit of measure.

I also wonder who these hundred percent-ers are. They must believe that negotiations could by themselves have resolved Bosnia, the Taliban's sanctuary for the September 11 terrorists, or Hitler's drive for domination. Talk about staw men throwing stones!! Bolton rejects the idea that this is a debate between reasonableness and unilateralist cowboys. Instead it's a debate between clear-eyed statesmen and pacifists!?!?

This is not a debate over whether negotiations will always work; of course they won't resolve every situation. It's a debate over when negotiations should be tried. Recent policy gives us a pretty good data set for the refuse-to-negotiate idea. The theory of issuing demands, standing tough, and waiting for the other side to capitulate hasn't been shown to work so well.

Continue reading "John Bolton's One Percent Doctrine" »

Is Iran A Serious Threat?
Posted by Michael Cohen

So over the weekend, Barack Obama said the Iran is not a "serious threat" to the United States in the same way that the Soviet Union was . . . and now John McCain is all a twitter. According to McCain:

Senator Obama claimed that the threat Iran poses to our security is "tiny" compared to the threat once posed by the former Soviet Union.

Obviously, Iran isn't a superpower and doesn't possess the military power the Soviet Union had.

YES! YES! YES! Obviously that is the case. The Soviet Union possessed enough nuclear weapons to destroy the United States and a military capable of invading Western Europe. Iran 's military can't be mentioned in the same breath as the Soviet military and of course Iran has no nuclear bombs. So what's the problem here? The notion that this is even a controversial statement is crazy.

But it's worth reading the rest of McCain's statement to see how he portrays the Iranian threat:

But that does not mean that the threat posed by Iran is insignificant. On the contrary, right now Iran provides some of the deadliest explosive devices used in Iraq to kill our soldiers. They are the chief sponsor of Shia extremists in Iraq, and terrorist organizations in the Middle East. And their President, who has called Israel a "stinking corpse," has repeatedly made clear his government's commitment to Israel's destruction. Most worrying, Iran is intent on acquiring nuclear weapons. The biggest national security challenge the United States currently faces is keeping nuclear material out of the hands of terrorists. Should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, that danger would become very dire, indeed. They might not be a superpower, but the threat the Government of Iran poses is anything but "tiny."

Can we all get a little perspective here? Yes, should Iran acquire nuclear weapons that would be bad, but as the most recent NIE on Iran's nuclear program showed, they are nowhere near achieving that goal. Iran is a regional threat, no doubt about it; they threaten our allies and they are a destabilizing force in the region, but a "dire" threat even close to being on par with the Soviet Union is simply absurd.

Later, McCain intimates that if Obama were to meet with Iranian leaders it would "reinforce their confidence." Call me crazy, but I think continually claiming that Iran is a dire threat to the US might also increase their confidence.

Tell me again, who is showing "inexperience" and "reckless judgment?"

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