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June 06, 2008

Not Very Neighborly
Posted by Patrick Barry

A few months ago I called for the U.S. to exercise patience with the new Pakistani Government after they announced plans for a talks with notorious Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud.  At the time, I was somewhat open to the prospect of Pakistanis adopting a new strategy, largely because Musharraf's policies had been so ineffectual. 

Unfortunately, the events of the past few weeks have left me feeling skeptical about whether Pakistan' hoped to accomplish anything besides leaving their Afghan neighbors out in the cold.  Today's statements by Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi did absolutely nothing to shift my opinion:

"We will not engage with terrorists, we will not compromise with terrorists. And those who would take up arms and guns are neither your friends nor our friends"

It's difficult to make remarks like that and expect people to take you seriously, when earlier this week Baitullah Mehsud boldly held his own press conference for Pakistani journalists, during which he claimed that he would continue his struggle in Afghanistan.  Which is more meaningful to Afghanis?  The assurances of a Pakistani Minister, or the threats of one of the Taliban's most fearsome leaders, a man who organized a conference of insurgents in Waziristan that reportedly culminated in a public execution?  Add all this to the news last week that high-level Pakistani officials had suspended their cooperation with their Afghani and NATO counterparts over the restless border areas, and you have the makings for a very bad situation. 

Contrary to the hope I expressed a month ago, it seems more and more that the new government in Islamabad is taking a position similar to what had been the longstanding policy of Musharraf and others: insulate Pakistan at the expense of heightened instability in Afghanistan. There are a whole host of reasons why this method isn't likely to work, mostly having to do with the porousness of the Afghan-Pakistan border, and the tendency of the Taliban to renege on it's promises, as it did following Musharraf's peace agreement in 2006.  The biggest difference for the United States is that this time, we have much less ability to influence the situation.    

Polite Society Ain't Bush Country
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Richard Clarke was sharp last night on Countdown. Besides promoting his excellent new book, Your Government Failed You, he also discussed the Senate Intelligence Committee Report released yesterday that documented the Administration's public misrepresentation and exaggeration of intelligence in the run-up to war. I found this exchange most interesting:

OLBERMANN: Democrats, probably the Democrats today, said impeachment was not a remedy to this. But can anybody argue with a straight face, post-Lewinsky, that these lies, the blood and treasure that they cost us, don`t demand some kind of remedy? Is there some other kind of remedy?

CLARKE: There may be some other kind of remedy. There may be some sort of truth and reconciliation commission process that`s been tried in other countries, like South Africa, el Salvador and what not, where if you come forward and admit that you were in error, admit that you lied, admit that you did something, then you`re forgiven. Otherwise, you are censured in some way.

I just don`t think we can let these people back into polite society and give them jobs on university boards and corporate boards and just let - - pretend that nothing ever happened when there are 4,000 American dead and 25,000 Americans grievously wounded. And they will carry those wounds and suffer all the rest of their lives. Someone should have to pay in some way for the decisions that they made to mislead the American people.

In a vacuum, the compendium of mistakes, misappropriations of power, abrogation of the constitution, and general recklessness of the Administration might demand strong punishment, such as impeachment. But in the current political reality, this will never happen even if it should.  Short of this, as Clarke pointedly suggests, none of these guys should have any elevated positions in academia, private business or the public sector. Just ask John Yoo or Doug Feith. The author of Bush's torture policy is having a very very hard time at Berkeley Law School while the architect of the Iraq war recently failed to have his teaching contract renewed at Georgetown Law due to faculty protests. 

There might be outlets for folks like these, say Pat Robertson's Regent University School of Law, but when it comes to polite society, as Clarke suggests, they should be forced to stay away.

June 05, 2008

Secretary Gates drops a bomb on the Air Force
Posted by Moira Whelan

Airforce The news that the Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff were forced to resign is pretty big news and could speak to a lot of activity that’s been happening at the Pentagon under the radar.

First and foremost, they were sacked in a very public way for Air Force standards. Both were attending Corona, which is a big gathering of generals. One was summoned to Washington, the other dealt with at the base in Ohio where the conference was taking place. They were separated and dismissed…in front of every single top dog in the Air Force.

Others are more plugged in than I am, but the Air Force and DoD have been doing battle for some months, and it isn’t the first time that Secretary Gates has made his frustration public. He was pretty blunt about feeling the F-22 was a waste of time while the Air Force still pushed it, as well as about the Air Force’s failure to step up deployment of drones.  He’s said that getting the Air Force to think and act in new ways is “like pulling teeth.”

The most interesting thing to me is that Gates took really decisive action here. On one hand, he seems to be keeping things in line in a pretty rough environment. On the other hand, it makes you wonder what else isn’t getting done if the Air Force chiefs have been able to run their own rogue operation for so long unchecked.

Hopefully Gates will use the next few days to make his expectations of the Air Force leadership clear, because right now, the rumor mill says that everyone is just ducking for cover.

Swing 'Em Home
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Unlike President Bush, some out there are doing their patriotic duty and golfing for the troops (warning: satire)

That Wacky, Wacky Fouad Ajami
Posted by Michael Cohen

There was so much wackiness in Fouad Ajami's op-ed in the WSJ yesterday I was simply too overwhelmed to give it a fair and thorough "whack" job, but there was one line that needs to be highlighted. When explaining the shifting rationale for the war in Iraq Ajami makes the dubious argument that "the aims of practically every war always shift with the course of combat, and with historical circumstances." What's his example to prove this point, the Civil War.

Need we recall that the abolition of slavery had not been an "original" war aim, and that the Emancipation Proclamation was, by Lincoln's own admission, a product of circumstances? A war for the Union had become a victory for abolitionism.

This is breathtakingly misleading. Yes, abolition was not necessarily an original war aim; and yes circumstances changed - but slavery most certainly was the impetus for the war in the first place. Read Lincoln's Second Inaugural Mr. Ajami.  And if you read histories of the time it is fairly clear that abolition was in fact a crucial war aim for many Northeners, including Lincoln. Abolition was most certainly on the table, if not professed openly by Lincoln in the days and weeks leading up to the war (for obvious political reasons). This changed "circumstance" is 180 degrees different from say going to war over weapons of mass destruction and then making a five-year occupation about building democracy.

While I suppose one could defend Ajami by noting that he's an Arab historian and doesn't know much about American history he also writes this:

We don't need to overwork the stereotype that Arabs understand and respond to the logic of force, but this is a region sensitive to the wind, and to the will of outside powers. Before America struck into Iraq, a mere 18 months after 9/11, there had been glee in the Arab world, a sense that America had gotten its comeuppance. There were regimes hunkering down, feigning friendship with America while aiding and abetting the forces of terror.

Glee? Like the glee in Tehran when thousands came out to rally in support of the US after September 11th? Or the fact that the Iranian regime put out feelers to the US government about improving relations in 2003? As for those regimes aiding and abetting the forces of terror, would that have included the country that we invaded and occupied, namely Iraq?

June 05, 2008

They Really Do Get It
Posted by David Shorr

The latest version of the Public Agenda Foundation's Confidence in US Foreign Policy Index reminds us how receptive Americans are to a change in the direction of our policy. I'll start with my personal favorite. As I've said before, I think that discomfort with America's negative image internationally is the most powerful lever available on the public's attitude. So here's what the Public Agenda survey found: roughly two out of three Americans believe the US is viewed negatively by the rest of the world AND that a positive international image is important for our national security. This survey question is coming up in a number of different polls (by different organizations); in fact, I believe every opinion research outfit should be asking this.

Similar two-thirds majorities believe that the US should use diplomatic and economic methods to combat terrorism (as opposed to military methods), relations with the rest of the world are on the wrong track, the US is doing a fair or poor job in creating a more peaceful and prosperous world, and the world is becoming more dangerous for the United States. Actually that last one is a three-quarters majority. Slight majorities agree that we should withdraw from Iraq even if it leads to increased violence, that it is very important for our foreign policy to take into account the views and interests of other countries, and that we can fight terrorism without ever resorting to torture -- with a bigger majority believing that our safety from terrorism does not depend on our success in Iraq.

Public Agenda is interested in Americans' confidence in our foreign policy, so their research tries to pinpoint what the public believes are the most effective approaches. Study coauthor Scott Bittle, who gave the briefing in which I took part, highlighted the public's interest in strategies whose leverage over threats is relatively straightforward: energy independence tops the list, followed by better intelligence collection, and immigration control. These results seem to cut against my stated belief that the public would back a broad-gauge strategy based on promoting overall increases in peace and prosperity. But wait, in a respectable fourth place among foreign policy strategies (with a narrow majority) was "showing more respect for the needs and views of other countries," which seems to validate my thesis about the perceived importance of getting back in synch with the rest of the world.

While I'm pleading for pollsters to ask my favorite questions, here's another that I've liked ever since the first time I saw it asked by the Program on Internationanl Policy Attitudes:

The United States should look beyond its own self-interest and do what’s best for the world as a whole, because in the long run this will probably help make the kind of world that is best for the US.

I think these kinds of questions touching on global interdependence, often drawing support from overwhelming majorities, show where the entry point is for progressive foreign policy. Now what does this really mean for the progressive message?  Well, here's a line from last night in St. Paul, where the Democratic nominee said it's time to

...rally the world against the common threats of the 21st century -- terrorism and nuclear weapons, climate change and poverty, genocide and disease.

If you're only going to say one thing (aside from Iraq, Afghanistan, energy), this is what it should be, as often as possible.

Why Hillary Lost?
Posted by Michael Cohen

So there has been a great deal of speculation today about the various reasons why Hillary Clinton lost a race that a year ago seemed to be hers for the taking. Not surprisingly, much of the blogosphere points to her vote in support of the war in Iraq. I think there is something to that, but let's be careful in how we interpret this.

For example over at the Atlantic, Matt Yglesias makes the case that the failure to recognize the radioactive nature of the Iraq vote is one more sign of denial among liberal hawks:

Denying this reality seems to be part of the continuing hawk effort to avoid any accountability for the war. At the end of the day, Hillary Clinton had (and has) much more credibility with the liberal base than does the average person who shares her position on the war. If she can be held accountable, and if John McCain (until very recently the most popular politician in America) can be held accountable, then the sky's the limit.

But, I'm not so sure things would have played out this way if the Bush Administration hadn't screwed up the war so badly and, most important, for so long.

In 2004, no Democratic could have won the nomination had they not been a war supporter - indeed, even though John Kerry lost, I think that if Dean had been the nominee he still would have lost and probably by a lot more. Even back then, support for the war was essential for demonstrating foreign policy "toughness." I'm not saying it's right; but I think it's a fact. And of course, even as a war supporter Kerry fell victim to the two generation charge of Democratic weakness.

Now, if Bush had begun to wind down the US commitment in Iraq after the election and begin bringing troops home I imagine the same thing would have been true this cycle - no one could be nominated in 2008 if they opposed a war that was seen as successful (UPDATED: or at the very least, not disastrous). The same "electability" issues that caused the party to nominate Kerry in 2004 would have likely delivered the nomination to a war supporter (like, Hillary Clinton) in 2008. Being an war opponent would have been seen as too much of a liability. So the issue here is less how Hillary voted and more how the war turned out.

But this is one more reason why Barack Obama is one lucky son of a gun.  The only way that an anti-war voice gets nominated as a Democrat is if the country is so incredibly fed up with the war that suddenly that becomes an asset not a liability. After five years this is precisely what has happened.

It's one more sign of exactly how disastrous the Bush Presidency has been for the Republican Party. Democrats spent years trying and failing to build up their foreign policy credibility (see Dukakis in tank) and couldn't do it. And in a sense they still haven't. The reason why Democrats have even a minute advantage on foreign policy is not because of anything they've done, but instead it's based on how badly the Republicans have managed the war - and stubbornly refused to change course.

Indeed, when it comes to terrorism or strengthening the military Republicans are still favored. So before anti-war voices start congratulating themselves (and as a brief reminder, I include myself in that group) they would be wise to remember that it's not about them, or the hawks. It's about George Bush and his effective squandering of the GOP's most effective political trump card.

And something else to keep in mind, Obama's change message never would have resonated the same way if George Bush wasn't such a colossally incompetent and reviled President.

So there you have it; without George Bush, we likely wouldn't have gotten Barack Obama - ah, the irony.

Gaza Fulbright Students Get Scholarships Back, State: We Were Wrong
Posted by Moran Banai

Good news – the State Department has re-instituted Fulbright scholarships to the seven students in Gaza. It has admitted it was wrong for failing to ask the Israelis to allow the students to leave before rescinding the scholarships. In fact, Sean McCormack acknowledged on Monday that the first time the Israeli government was approached about the students was Friday -- after the story leaked that the scholarships had been rescinded. And today, four of the seven students were able to leave Gaza to apply for visas to the United States.

It is puzzling that whoever was responsible for this decision at State did not foresee that it could completely backfire, angering Palestinians, Israelis and Americans alike. After all, when alerted to the situation, the Israelis were willing to work on this issue. Getting their cooperation initially may have required actual diplomacy, which can be tough, but it surely could not have caused more problems or exposed the confusion in U.S. policy more clearly.

This was more than a major screw up. It suggests the lack of a coherent strategy on the part of the U.S. government to deal with the question of Gaza and how not to penalize the people of Gaza in trying to isolate Hamas. This incident suggests that it is essential for the United States to develop such a coherent strategy and explore how to move forward. As I wrote last week, I think that it includes balancing Israel’s critical security needs with an understanding of how our policies affect the long-term interests of all actors in the region, and it also includes finding a way to man the checkpoints in a manner acceptable to Israel, Egypt and the PA so that they can be reopened.

But, the first and easiest step for our government to take immediately is to work with the Israelis to allow approximately 600 other students waiting to go on educational exchanges to leave Gaza. This is a relatively simple way to demonstrate our commitment to the people of Gaza, to better understanding and to a better future. The question is, will we do it?

Catch 22
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Spencer Ackerman has a great set of posts on a Congressional hearing this afternoon with two Iraqi Parliamentarians.  All are worth reading but I want to focus on the lack of support that seems to be emerging in Iraqi politics for a Security Framework agreement and complementary Status of Forces Agreement for Iraq.

Here's the problem.  The Bush Administration wants two things that are utterly incompatible.  First it wants an agreement that defines America's long-term commitment and provides legal protections for our troops.  But then it is also set on provincial elections for the fall.  Here's the problem with that.  Nothing is more unpopular with the Iraqi people, then supporting an agreement that is seen as putting in place a long-term American occupation.  Sadr is already using this to great political benefit.  Organizing rallies and publicly opposing the agreement.  And Sistani has also come out against the agreement.  If ISCI were to support an agreement along these lines, they would get absolutely creamed in the provincial elections, and the faction that is supportive of the keeping American troops in Iraq would be dramatically weakened.  But without some kind of agreement you really can't keep American forces in Iraq.

So the options are:

  1. Exclude the Sadrists from the provincial election.  A non-starter that would likely cause a complete meltdown and serious intra-Shi'a fighting.
  2. Postpone provincial elections and push through the SOFA and Security Framework.   That will go over real well with the Awakening Councils and Sons of Iraq, that are looking for greater political representation.
  3. Have the provincial elections but give up on the idea of the security agreement in the short-term and instead get the UN to extend its mandate for a six month period. This would provide a continued legal umbrella for the U.S. presence (I don't know enough to understand if this actually doable at this point.)

But basically the idea of holding provincial elections this fall and getting a security framework agreement done, seem utterly incompatible.

Why no talk of Sec Def?
Posted by Max Bergmann

A few weeks back Ilan and others debated who should be the Secretary of Defense in a Democratic administration. Ilan persuasively argued against Chuck Hagel as Sec Def - but that leads to the obvious question over who should be the Sec Def in a Democratic administration?

With all the talk swirling over who will be the VP nominee - I am surprised that no one has mentioned HRC as a possible Secretary of Defense. HRC has been on the Armed Services committee since she came to the Senate and has greatly impressed those in uniform and military wonks with her knowledge and expertise. I have heard a number of anecdotes from people sent in to brief her on a given military subject that she was often just as knowledgeable about the subject as the briefer. Also talk about breaking glass ceilings - it would be enormously path-breaking to have a woman in charge of our most manly of institutions. And from her perspective the position of Sec Def will no doubt be of great importance and influence given that the next administration will be embroiled in two wars.

Of course there are reasons why Hillary would not want such a role and why Obama would want to look in an another direction. But as baseless speculation amps up over the VP nominee, I am surprised there has been no baseless speculation about Hillary in the Pentagon. 

June 04, 2008

Final Primary Thoughts
Posted by Michael Cohen

As a student of campaign rhetoric and the author of an upcoming book on the subject tonight presented a true cornucopia of campaign oratory - and the contrast between the three speakers was fascinating.

First John McCain. There really is no nice way to describe this speech. Forget the content for a second; McCain is quite simply an awful public speaker. I've never seen a politician in my life who is so clearly "reading" a speech than McCain. When he smiles; I cringe. There is no passion and little inspiration behind his words - when he speaks one gets the impression that he is seeing his speech for the first time. And from a presentation standpoint, whose idea was it to have a green backdrop with about 200 supporters in the room? I know that public rallies in of themselves do not portend political success, but the contrast between McCain's almost desultory affair and the hysteria of Obama's speaking venue was palpable. If you are undecided voter looking at these two events from simply an aesthetic standpoint, who would you rather be associated with? It's also another sign that McCain has surrounded himself with a lousy campaign staff who don't really seem to understand optics and stagecraft. Hell, was that it hard to get a presidential teleprompter for the presumptive GOP nominee? And it's not like this was an unimportant speech. The speech looked like one you might expect to be delivered in Iowa . . . in December.

As for the content, McCain sounded defensive (actually voicing the words "third Bush term" seemed ill-advised) and ornery. The line "that's not change we can believe in" makes him sound like a cranky old man. In an election where change is the watchword and 81% of the electorate thinks the country is off the rails I simply don't understand this idea of denigrating change as a political theme. Voters are afraid of change when things are going well . . . when things are going badly, not so much. McCain has a very tough road ahead of him, but his campaign really needs to figure out an affirmative message and a compelling narrative that differs from the "other guy is too scary." Otherwise it's going to be a very long summer for McCain.

Hillary Clinton: I'm not sure what to say here. Hillary has done so much in this campaign to inspire millions of Americans, particularly women. And throughout her career she has been a passionate advocate for the issues that she clearly cares about deeply. I have enormous respect for both her accomplishments and her tenacity. But, tonight has to have been one of the lowest moments of her political and professional career. Her speech was, for lack of better words, graceless and petty. Her supporters -- and the party which she sought to lead -- deserved better than this.

Barack Obama: There is so much to say here, I don't even know where to start. How about the historic: the party of the bloody shirt, Jim Crow, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Bilbo and George Wallace just nominated an African-American to be their standard bearer for President of the United States. Whatever you think of Barack Obama that has to make you smile. (And for what it's worth on a night like this, when history was made and America took a giant step forward in its 230-year tarnished legacy on race relations, it's rather unfortunate that neither McCain nor Clinton felt the need to reference this point). The diversity of the crowd in Minnesota really spoke volumes and I don't want to get too emotional here, but seeing those crowd shots and the black and white faces standing side by side, united in passion and excitement for this candidate, well damn . . . I had to reach for the Kleenex.

As for the speech, it was as usual profound, moving and inspirational. But of course that has been Obama's bread and butter since Iowa. No real surprise there. And I thought his conciliatory words about Hillary Clinton were pitch perfect and rather classy, particularly after her performance earlier in the evening. But one of the striking contrasts with McCain and Hillary's oratory is the extent to which Obama's speeches are structured so effectively; there is such a strong narrative thread of "change" in his speeches, but it was especially true tonight; there is good change he is advocating, there is the bad change McCain wants and then he hits the high notes when he lays out how his vision of change can transform the nation and ensure that America lives up to its basic values. It's just very smart and effective speechwriting.

But something else jumped out to me this evening - Obama was damn feisty. That line about McCain denying his accomplishments was striking (and maybe a bit whiny). Obama is still playing the hope card, but I was struck by how aggressively and almost personally he went after McCain in occasionally populist terms.

Beyond that, the most important element of his speech came on foreign policy - instead of trying to play "tough," Obama really lit into McCain on his support for the war and refused to back away from his anti-war position. Now some of you might say "Duh" of course he didn't back away, but this in itself is quite historic. During the Democratic primaries it makes sense to play to the anti-war crowd, but one would expect that in a general election (and this was the first speech of the general election) an untested Democrat -- who didn't serve in the military -- might try to nuance his way around the issue to neutralize sure to come GOP attacks of softness on national security. But Obama is signaling clearly and unambiguously that he is going to make the war and his opposition to it the centerpiece of his campaign. In short, he is refusing to cede ground on foreign policy and national security.

Most of us weren't alive for the last time a Democrat did that. This is going to present real problems for McCain. His only hope is to dominate Obama on foreign policy, but if he faces an opponent that is willing to fight back on the issue . . . well it's hard to see McCain's path to the White House.

Something else was striking about Obama's Iraq rhetoric - he twice referenced Iraqi leaders and demanded that they solve Iraq's problems. Now some people on this site might accuse Obama of scapegoating the Iraqis, but when voters start to realize that Iraq is going to have an approximate surplus of $70 billion in oil revenue those types of attacks are really going to resonate. Frankly, I usually would be gun shy about such language, but Obama has a point, both politically and substantively. You're going to hear a lot more of this in the next five months.

Finally, as usual he finished very strong and this really speaks to Obama's delivery and his feel for the crowd. He is not just a good orator, he's a good speaker - his ability to rise to a crescendo and sense the rhythm of the audience . . . well that's not something you're taught. He really knows how to leave his audience on a high note.

It should all make for a hell of a race!

Intelligence in the Post-Iraq World
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Matt Yglesias has a insightful look into how leaders from both political parties refuse to acknowledge our own intelligence community's assessment that Iran has "halted an effort to build a nuclear warhead in mid-2003." While it is more or less a matter of political convenience to downplay this crucial piece of analytical evidence, Yglesias fails to mention an important component of this rhetorical gamesmanship: namely, the degradation and politicization of our intelligence agencies before and after the Iraq war has given adequate political cover to either downplay or disown subsequent findings from our intelligence community.

Both Democrats and Republicans acknowledge the failings of our intelligence apparatus in the 2002-2003 run-up to war.  And while they may argue over whether it was at the hands of top-down manipulation from the White House or institutional failures from the ground up, the fact remains the same: any intelligence products can be, rightly or wrongly, dismissed as questionable due to our dismal intelligence record from the past decade.

A joint Wall Street Journal Op-Ed as well as exchange  on Fox News Sunday between Congressional intelligence leaders Reps. Jane Harman and Peter Hoekstra  from 2007 is instructive:

WSJ 12/10/2007:

The limitations of the intelligence community are unfortunately well known to us. As past leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, we both saw the intelligence on Iraq's WMD in the run-up to the war, as well as the failure to detect the 9/11 plot or predict India's rise to the ranks of nuclear-armed nations...

Still, intelligence is in many ways an art, not an exact science. The complete reversal from the 2005 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear-weapons program to the latest NIE serves as its own caution in this regard. The information we receive from the intelligence community is but one piece of the puzzle in a rapidly changing world. It is not a substitute for policy, and the challenge for policy makers is to use good intelligence wisely to fashion good policy.

Fox News Sunday 12/16/2007:

WALLACE: I have to ask you to follow up, Congressman Hoekstra. Do you have full confidence in Director Hayden?

HOEKSTRA: When you say that the community is incompetent, I'm telling you I don't have confidence in the community. You know, I have high confidence that the community continues to be broken and is not giving us, as policymakers, the information that we need to make good decisions.

HARMAN: Yes, I would distinguish the workforce of the community from the leadership of the community.

Peter and I have been all over the world talking to very capable people who are in austere locations, away from their families, trying to get it right. And I, frankly, think that the recent NIE on Iran was the best work product they've produced.

The leadership, in my view, becomes political. And that's wrong. Remember, there was a purge going on in 2005 by Porter Goss as the CIA director and his top staff of people, members of the community that they thought were leaning Democratic. I think that that is outrageous.

We need the best intelligence we can field. Then we need wise policymakers to use it as a tool to make wise policy. That part has been broken for many years, and we've all suffered from that.

Needless to say, a major task of our next President is to ensure that our intelligence community regains its credibility so that future intelligence assessments can't simply be dismissed by politicians, either implicitly, or as rogue documents, providing yet more evidence of a broken intelligence apparatus.

On The Subject Of Terminology
Posted by David Shorr

Ilan told us that we need to stop talking about soft power. I want to nominate another potentially powerful concept in need of a new name. One of the paradigm shifts we need in foreign policy is to worry as much about the overall condition of the world -- extreme economic inequality, failing states, ungoverned spaces, identity politics, warlordism, greenhouse gasses -- as we do about overcoming specific threats (read 'bad guys'). These are the underlying cancerous pathologies that determine how many threats we face. Looking at it from a more optimistic vantage, it's about promoting progress and better lives

But how should we talk about this challenge? Obviously people are already talking about prevention, root causes, interdependence, and the futility of going it alone. The Stanley Foundation and US in the World have a useful new communications resource along these lines. But I think the floor is still open for the best way to explain why improved global conditions are a core national security challenge. Progressives have been successful recently in prompting public concern not just about the terrorists out there who want to harm us, but also future recruits. There's a lot more talk now about the dangers of enflaming anti-American sentiment; we need a similar reframing for the overall policy.

The closest I've found to what I'm looking for is a concept from the US military of "phase zero," which precedes the traditional phases of an operation (deter/engage, seize initiative, decisive operations, and transition). Stewart Patrick of Center for Global Development has highlighted the danger that this concept could be yet another element of the problem of the mission creep by which the military's responsibilities are growing and further overshadowing the civilian agencies. At a conceptual level, though, the idea gets close to what I'm after. As I've thought about it, I keep coming back to the idea of "pro-active security" as a way to describe it -- as opposed to REactive, obviously. Other ideas?

June 02, 2008

Anti-Semitism and Middle East Policy
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

One other element from John McCain’s speech that is worth further exploration today is his use of Ahmadinejad’s anti-Semitic rhetoric to disqualify negotiations.

It's hard to see what such a summit with President Ahmadinejad  would actually gain, except an earful of anti-Semitic rants, and a worldwide audience for a man who denies one Holocaust and talks before frenzied crowds about starting another.

Taking aside for a second the fact that Ahmadinejad does not run Iran’s foreign policy and that Obama’s position is not that he would meet with him, there is a bigger question here. 

If America’s policy in the Middle East was based on not talking to leaders who have made outrageously anti-Semitic or anti-Israel comments, we would have no policy at all.  Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, who McCain praised in his speech today, blamed Israel for the 2006 war with Hezbollah calling it an “operation of mass destruction.”   The Iraqi Speaker of the Parliament accused the “Jews” of being behind violence in Iraq.  Yet John McCain says that we should work with these people.

Saudi King Abdullah made this statement in 2004 as Crown Prince when discussing the internal Al Qaeda threat in Saudi Arabia:

"They got their boldness from Satan. They are Satan's helpers. They are the hangers-on of Satan and of imperialism... But I tell you that you can be 100% sure that, Allah willing, this country will be victorious, whoever the faction that turns against it may be. But we are convinced that Zionism is behind everything. This has been established, I am not saying by 100%, but by 95%."

And yet Saudi Arabia remains one of America’s closest allies in the region.

And here is what Bashar Al-Assad had to say about Jews and Israelis. They “try to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality with which they betrayed Jesus Christ and in the same way they tried to kill the prophet Muhammad.”  Yet, Israel is currently in negotiations with his government.

The ugly and unfortunate reality is that offensive anti-Semitic language is prevalent throughout the Middle East.  But even the Israelis have recognized that if they want to get things done, they have to deal with these regimes.  That is why are they are talking to Syria.  That is why they use backchannels to communicate with the Saudis.  That is why they made peace with Jordan and Egypt.

Alas, if the use of deplorable anti-Semitic rhetoric were a standard by which the U.S. decided who it would and would not deal with in the Middle East, we’d have no Middle East policy at all.  But apparently in John McCain's world that standard only applies to Iran.

Talking to Iran is the Only Real Option
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Today John McCain outlined his path forward on Iran.  He started by mocking Barack Obama’s proposals for engagement claiming that they’ve been tried before and failed.  He completely mischaracterized Obama’s position which is about tough and direct negotiations.  He instead argued for continuing the failed policies of the Bush Administration, calling for more sanctions and international pressure and refusing to engage with Iran.   The problem with this approach is that for the past eight years it has yielded no results:  Iran has gotten stronger, its uranium enrichment program has continued unabated, and it now possesses 3,000 nuclear centrifuges as opposed to zero.  The course that McCain is proposing has yielded nothing.  Continuing on this path ensures that at some time in the future whether it be three, five or ten years, Iran will be in a position to attain a nuclear weapon.  At that point the President’s options will be limited to either striking Iran militarily - a costly endeavor that in the long run is unlikely to slow down Iran’s nuclear program - or allowing Iran to go nuclear.   Direct diplomacy won’t necessarily solve all of our problems but it is surely better than the current failed course, and it is worth trying.

Continue reading "Talking to Iran is the Only Real Option" »

Hard Evidence: the Don't Talk to Iran Line Isn't Working
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Gallup is out with a poll this morning noting that 67% of Americans think we should negotiate with our enemies, and 59% think specifically that we should talk to Iran.

This of note given John McCain's old-win-in-a-new-bottle speech at AIPAC, (well, maybe just a different bottle) which keeps us on the same feckless Bush Administration path (and somehow manages not to mention Iran's nuclear partner Russia and its other defender China).

But it's also worth underlining that Americans have been saying this consistently for two years now.  In polling DA's own David Shorr commissioned in his day job in 2006, 75% endorsed "Trying to build better relations with Iran" and 50 percent endorsed "negotiations without preconditions."  Conservatives have been working hard for a while now to drive the public away from this point of view.  But the public is resisting.  Please note.

June 01, 2008

More on McCain and Nukes
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

I don't buy parts of James Gibney's defense of McCain's non-proliferation policy.  A few points of contention.

First of all, Gibney looks at McCain's record and sees a man who is supportive of non-proliferation initiatives.  But everything he cites comes from before 1999 when McCain seemed to undergo a pretty significant transformation and became significantly more militaristic.  So what evidence does Gibney have from the last 10 years?

Second, Gibney dismisses McCain's idea of kicking Russia out of the G8 and applauds McCain for his willingness to work with the Russians.  If McCain were to go back on his previous promise to try and kick Russia out of the G8 and instead take a more reasonable position, I'd be much more willing to take his positions on non-proliferation seriously.

Third,  McCain's policies on the two most immediate proliferation threats - Iran and North Korea - are highly problematic.  On the same day that McCain gave his speech he wrote an op-ed that basically said he'd go back to the same hardline approach to North Korea that the Bush Administration used from 2000-2006.  And on Iran, his policy seems to be exactly the same as the Bush Administration's policy.  An approach that has not worked for the past 7 years as the Iranians have moved along on their enrichment program.

Fourth, McCain is still a strong supporter of ballistic missile defense.  The idea of making progress on other major proliferation issues with the Russians, as long as we continue to make them feel threatened by trying to build a national missile defense is dubious at best.

Finally, he writes that "Lefty bloggers, meanwhile, whined" about McCain's policies.  But then he links to Jon Wolfsthal's piece, which was posted on this blog.  Jon Wolfsthal is many things but I would not dismissively call him a "lefty blogger."  He is a non-proliferation expert
with years of experience who among other things spent five years at DOE, where he spent time as the government's onsight monitor for the Yongbyon reactor in North Korea.  Not exactly a whiny lefty blogger...

Soft Power
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

I agree with Ezra.  There isn't really a need for a replacement term for Soft Power, which is why I didn't bother to suggest one in my original article.  In fact, one can advocate for the  ideas underpinning soft power - and some kind of mix of liberal internationalism and neorealism - without using the actual term.  If you must, Smart Power is pretty good.  But the problem with the word smart is that it sounds pretty condescending and elitist.  Another friend has suggested Principled Power, which has a nice ring to it.  Or Ezra's recommendation of "remember Iraq" is also pretty effective these days.

But I think it's ultimately not about the phrase but about the attitude.  When progressives refuse to be beaten up on national security and respond aggressively to conservative attacks they overcome the traditional stereotype of weakness.  You don't prove that you are strong by making half-hearted politically transparent promises about "killing terrorists" and annihilating other countries.  You prove that you are strong by standing up for what you believe in, such as the ideas behind Soft Power, and demonstrating that you are willing to fight for it and not concede the point to your conservative opponent. 

Like this.

The Facts
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

The NYT Public Editor takes down the terrible editorial by Edward Luttwak in their op-ed pages a couple of weeks ago arguing that Obama would be seen as an apostate in the Islamic World and would therefore alienate the entire Middle East.

All the scholars argued that Luttwak had a rigid, simplistic view of Islam that failed to take into account its many strains and the subtleties of its religious law, which is separate from the secular laws in almost all Islamic nations. The Islamic press and television have reported extensively on the United States presidential election, they said, and Obama’s Muslim roots and his Christian religion are well known, yet there have been no suggestions in the Islamic world that he is an apostate...

With a subject this charged, readers would have been far better served with more than a single, extreme point of view. When writers purport to educate readers about complex matters, and they are arguably wrong, I think The Times cannot label it opinion and let it go at that.

I admit that as someone who blogs regularly, there are times when I write about things that are outside my area of expertise.  And I think that is OK.  It's part of the nature of blogging and the public exchange of ideas, as long as you don't take yourself too seriously, keep an open mind and are willing to listen to those more expert than you. 

But there are certain issues, which as a non-expert I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole.  They are simply too important, too controversial and too complicated to write without a comprehensive base of knowledge.  Making bold assertions about another religion that you do not really understand is near the very very top of that list. 

Deciding What We Want From Iran - And When
Posted by David Shorr

With apologies to Andrew Marvell: Had we but world enough and time, this coyness, Tom Friedman, were no crime. Friedman's column today says that the US shouldn't negotiate with Iran because we lack sufficient bargaining leverage in the face of Iran's coherent regional strategy and commensurate negotiating strength. His advice, leverage first, negotiations later.

There are many problems with this argument. We don't have time to put this off. We don't have time to wait for Iran to clean up its entire act in the region. Friedman understimates US leverage, Iranian vulnerability, and potential Iranian interest. But mostly, as we keep saying, negotiation is not a favor we do for the other side, but a means -- potentially, not guaranteed -- to achieve objectives and promote our own interests.

The primary objective of a negotiation is to keep Iran from building nuclear weapons. Obviously, the destabilizing (yes, terrorist) acts of "Iran & Friends" that Friedman writes about will also have to stop, if Iran is to become a 'normal country.' But first things first. Friedman is falling into the same we-want-it-all trap that got us into this situation. At the risk of sounding like one of his columns, foreign policy requires choices. If we wait to accumulate leverage (we're really supposed to wait for alternative energy???), or for Tehran to clean up its regional act, Iran could use that time to develop its nuclear program. That's what North Korea did.

Friedman's assessment also deeply discounts the leverage on our side of the equation. To say we have no leverage is to claim that Tehran is heedless to its international outlier status. Speaking of energy, this also ignores the problems in Iran's energy sector. It also denies that significant political segments in Iran want better relations with the West, and the US in particular.

And just as with Iraq, an important source of leverage is Iran's standing with respect to the Nonproliferation Treaty. In the very same section of today's Times, was a piece about the IAEA's complaints with Iran. This is the non-negotiable stuff. Absolute transparency is the core of any deal and the focus of any negotiation. If we believe the moral high ground matters -- for instance to corral international opinion and support -- then there's leverage. In short, Iran has a burden of proof, let's keep it that way. The US, too, has an outstanding high-ground matter: taking regime-change off the table. Interesting that Friedman mentions Bush's negotiations with Libya; an explicit emphasis on policy-change rather than regime-change was crucial.

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