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June 13, 2008

Posted by The Editors

Those of us at Democracy Arsenal and National Security Network want to convey our sympathies to the family and friends of Tim Russert. We counted on his reporting and his tough questions to help illuminate some of the most important national security debates in this country. His contributions to our national debate will be missed.

McCain and the Oligarchs...Part II
Posted by Moira Whelan

My in-box is flooded with odd stories of McCain's ties to Russian oligarchs. This one is probably the most sketchy.

Check out where John McCain was on his 70th birthday:

McCain's 70th birthday bash held on board the yacht of a Russian aluminum tycoon in the Adriatic Sea. The party was held on August 29, 2006, McCain's birthday and followed a congressional junket by McCain and five other GOP senators to the Republic of Georgia.

But it gets even more strange...

The 70th birthday bash was reportedly a promise of huge cash donations to McCain's forthcoming presidential campaign, another indication of violations of law prohibiting donations from foreign sources. The quid pro quo for Derpaska was that McCain and his top lobbyists were pushing the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS) and its Airbus subsidiary to receive the lucrative US Air Force contract to replace the Air Force's fleet of refueling tankers. The reported source for the aluminum in the Airbus tanker aircraft is Deripaska's Russian Aluminum Company (RusAl).

McCain Campaign Manager…and Yanukovich
Posted by Moira Whelan

Most Democracy Arsenal readers will remember the Orange Revolution, and the dirty tricks played before and after by Viktor Yanukovich…including the belief that he was behind efforts to poison his opponent, Viktor Yuschenko.

This story by ABC indicates that some in the McCain camp are getting edgy about Rick Davis's past life:

The McCain campaign is strongly denying the paper's reporting that in 2005, a White House National Security Council staffer called John McCain's Senate office to complain that Rick Davis, at the time a GOP lobbyist, was "undercutting American policy on Ukraine" by ferrying a Kremlin-backed politician, Viktor Yanukovich, around Washington D.C., the paper reported.

My own anecdotal conversations with people who run in the Russia and Eastern Europe circles indicate that Rick Davis was a fixture and a well-known advocate for Yanukovich. What’s interesting was that Davis never filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act that he did work for Yanukovich and today denied he ever did it.

This story is going to be one to watch.

A Superpower’s Choice
Posted by Shawn Brimley

This week, over objections raised by the four military service chiefs, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates signed a new version of the National Defense Strategy. This document, second only to the President's National Security Strategy, outlines how the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps should plan and prepare for future wars.

The document, though still classified, reportedly directs the military to plan for more Iraq-like missions, instead of the conventional wars it has historically prepared for.

With America fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it may seem perfectly reasonable to direct the military to use current conflicts as the basis for future plans. After all, the U.S. military purged itself of counterinsurgency knowledge in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and Secretary Gates has rightly pushed officers to pay more attention to critical capabilities like advising and training foreign militaries – skills that directly apply to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Advocates for focusing on counterinsurgency capabilities will often argue that "the enemy has a vote," and thus America's military leaders must focus on how an adversary will most likely choose to fight us. These advocates are correct in their belief that future wars will most likely include plenty of urban combat, improvised explosive devices, and the need to understand local populations.

But what often gets lost in the debate is the fact that America chose to go to war in Iraq. Whatever one may think of the war, it was clearly one of choice, not necessity. Iraq did not pose an imminent threat to the United States, and Bush administration officials decided to use force in order to prevent Iraq from becoming a future threat. The distinction is important. The war in Iraq was not foisted upon America by providence, but was rather a specific decision – one that looks ever more dubious over time. Do Americans really think that more Iraq-like conflicts are in the national interest?

The United States is a global superpower without equal. States such as China, Russia, and India are rising, but they do not pose anywhere near the kind of military threat the Soviet Union did. Ever since 9/11, many of America's leaders seem to be acting as if we are under siege. We are not. To a significant degree, the United States can chose when, where, and how to fight its wars.

Whatever one may think of the Iraq War, it is clear that Americans are not willing to engage in more Iraq-like conflicts. Such wars, inevitably requiring a long-term military presence on foreign soil, do not play to America's strengths, but directly to our weaknesses.

There is no doubt that the U.S. military needs to focus more resources on developing the capabilities to succeed in Afghanistan and Iraq, but using the current conflicts as a basis for developing America's future fighting forces contains significant risks that deserve a public debate.

America needs to be better prepared for counterinsurgency, but planning for more Iraq-like wars of choice threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You Know Bush is a Lame Duck President When...
Posted by Adam Blickstein

..he goes to Europe and no one bothers to protest or pay attention:

Rome was braced for violent protests against President Bush, with 10,000 police mobilised and hundreds of prisoners being moved out of the Regina Coeli prison to make room for arrested demonstrators. Yesterday morning, however, their cells remained empty.

“Bush is not even popular in the role of the enemy any more,” wrote Berlin's Tagesspiegel newspaper. The closest that he came to controversy in Germany was when he attacked the country's media for suggesting that he did not like asparagus. “You're wrong,” he told a press conference. “The German asparagus are fabulous.”

I also had no idea the German's were obsessed with asparagus:

During its short season, asparagus features prominently on restaurant menus and café chalkboards across the country, reflecting Germans' obsession with the prized vegetable. In fact, they eat more white asparagus than anyone else in the world, chomping their way through 1.35 kilos (three pounds) per head.


It isn't difficult for gourmets to find fresh local asparagus, since with a production of some 82,000 tons, Germany is the biggest asparagus grower in Europe. The area under asparagus production in the country has doubled in the past 12 years to nearly 20,000 hectares, making asparagus the country's biggest vegetable crop in terms of area and value.

Now if only the Germans could eradicate that pernicious side effect asparagus produces...

Good News! The World May Like Us Again
Posted by Moira Whelan

Pew has just completed a new global attitudes poll that shows improvement for the first time in years.

The survey of 24 countries shows that in 10 of them – including China, Russia, India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Tanzania – US favorability ratings rose since 2007.

The survey also shows that the world is watching the US Presidential election very closely, and that Obama is the candidate of choice by a slight margin.

Overall, the world thinks things will change for the better when George W. Bush leaves office. Funny, Americans think pretty much the same thing.

June 12, 2008

More Whimpy Appeasers
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

I guess you can add the Israeli Security Cabinet to George Bush and John McCain's list of appeasers

The Israeli security cabinet voted on Wednesday to pursue an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire with Palestinian militant groups in Gaza, but it left open the possibility of a military offensive should the truce talks fail.

“The security cabinet decided this morning to support Egyptian efforts to achieve calm in the south and end the daily targeting of Israeli civilians by the terrorists in Gaza,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert.

Bush on Boumediene
Posted by Adam Blickstein

The President shockingly disagrees with this morning's decision:

""We'll abide by the court's decision. That doesn't mean I have to agree with it...It was a deeply divided court, and I strongly agree with those who dissented. And that dissent was based upon their serious concerns about U.S. national security."

Well, he is 0-3 in Supreme Court cases questioning the constitutionality of his detainee policies so I understand he's bitter after once again being defeated by those pesky American institutions of the constitution, separation of powers and general rule of law. And as for those serious concerns about U.S. national security? I defer to Antonin Scalia:

The game of bait-and-switch that today's opinion plays upon the Nation's Commander in Chief will make the war harder on us.  It will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed.

That right there is a very serious, astute, and judicious argument worthy of a Supreme Court Justice, don't you think? Then there's this again from the President:

Bush said his administration will study the ruling. "We'll do this with this in mind — to determine whether or not additional legislation might be appropriate so we can safely say to the American people, 'We're doing everything we can to protect you.'"

Um, does Bush understand that the Boumediene decision largely reverses a portion of legislation (The Military Commissions Act) he helped ram through Congress in 2006? Well anyways, good luck getting a Democratic Congress to approve any similar legislation, after the Supreme Court already ruled said legislation unconstitutional, during an election year.

Does Today's Ruling Extend to those Held in Clandestine Detainee Programs?
Posted by Adam Blickstein

In the third major ruling against the Bush administration's detainee policy since 2004, the Supreme Court backed the right of foreign terrorism detainees at Guantanamo Bay to challenge their detention in U.S. civilian courts. Obviously a lot to digest, but my first question is: would this ruling apply to detainees held outside of Guantanamo? I haven't read the full ruling yet, but at first glance, it seems that today's decision might provide a blanket precedent for all detainees currently being held by the U.S. military regardless of physical location, and possibly including clandestine detention programs that have yet to be publicly disclosed. There has been quite a bit of press recently regarding these "ghost detention facilities," including military prison ships floating at sea as well as the use of Diego Garcia as a more remote version of Guantanamo, virtually hidden from the public eye and media scrutiny by thousands of miles of sea.

Doesn't the Court's ruling today allow these detainees to also challenge their detention? Which begs a question: if a detention program doesn't officially exist, do the detainees have the same rights as those held in a facility that is on the public radar? Would this ruling shed light on the detention programs that are still hidden in the "fog of law?" If so, the Court today might have delivered a ruling with broader ramifications than just allowing the 270 Guantanamo detainees from challenging their military incarceration and might further expose the Administration's dubious use of extrajudicial imprisonment that, according to some reports, is far more harsh than the conditions at Guantanamo.

June 11, 2008

Making Soft Power Look Good
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Richard_armitage2_2 A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how Democrats and progressives should stop using the term "Soft power" because despite the fact that the concept is spot on the term is politically problematic.  You know who doesn't have that problem?  Dick Armitage.  He spent a good five minutes at the CNAS conference today talking about the importance of Soft Power and not once did I think to myself - "hmmm..  this guy is whimpy."

Off the Table
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

So, I was at the CNAS conference today, which had a really interesting and provocative panel on Iran.  You had Nick Burns, who basically ran Iran policy for the Bush Administration for a couple of years along with Dennis Ross, Suzanne Maloney (Who Burns referred to as the person who knew the most about internal Iranian politics in the U.S. government for the years she was there) and Jim Dobbins. 

All of them agreed on the need for diplomatic engagement and the reduction in emphasis on the military option.  But even more interestingly at one point a Republican staffer from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who was in the audience, asked whether or not it was possible for any diplomacy to work without an effective military threat.  In other words, should we take the military option “off the table.”

Ross and Maloney both totally shot him down.  They argued that the whole idea of “on the table” or “off the table” was silly.  The reality is that the U.S. has more than 200,000 troops in the region in Iraq, Afghanistan and other Gulf States.  And a large naval presence in the Persian Gulf.  U.S. military power is in full display and thus the threat is implicitly there if Iran should choose to do something that is completely off the wall.  But the question of “keeping it on the table” is really a question of whether you continue to blatantly threaten military force, which they believed was not helpful.

Jim Dobbins - A man who has just a bit of history of dealing with some pretty bad guys and doing it effectively - then chimed in arguing that the whole idea that blatant military threats had to be a part of effective negotiations was simply ahistorical.  He argued that we never used military threats when negotiating with the Russians or Chinese during the Cold War.  We just made clear what our redlines were and that worked pretty well, but we never in negotiations actually threatened them.  He then said that in his forty year career he had negotiated with Soviet Apparatchiks, Afghan warlords, Somali warlords, Serbs and Bosnians.  He found that when explicit military threats were part of the negotiations the negotiations would fail.  So we should just stick the military threat back in the drawer.  The Iranians know it’s there.  We don’t need to waive it in their face.

(I've already written that the CNAS Iran report is a must read and also check out Attackerman for more commentary on the conference)

Update:  March Lynch also has the Iraq panel summary

Breaking Down McCain's Rhetoric
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

I have failed for a while now to do my homework and write up my analysis of the playbook that McCain seems to use in all his national security speeches, but I walk through it on bloggingheads here.

Condi Rice: Back to the Future
Posted by Patrick Barry

You know we’ve hit the fever pitch of Bush Administration legacy salvaging when Condoleezza Rice has a piece in Foreign Affairs.   Rice takes the Marty McFly approach, looking back to her original assessment during the 2000 Presidential Campaign, Rice surveys 8 years of Bush Administration policy – policy which she played a principal role in formulating - and big surprise, she has a lot of trouble putting their record in favorable terms.  Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter whether its 2000 or 2008, if you try to square Rice’s analysis with the state of the world today, you end up with a catalog of faulty recommendations and squandered opportunities.

In 2000, Rice articulated the Bush Administration’s guiding principle for dealing with our allies:

“to renew strong and intimate relationships with allies who share American values and can thus share the burden of promoting peace, prosperity, and freedom;”

 Here she is in 2008, looking fondly back:

“I believe that one of the most compelling stories of our time is our relationship with our oldest allies.”


“If someone had said in 2000 that NATO today would be rooting out terrorists in Kandahar, training the security forces of a free Iraq, providing critical support to peacekeepers in Darfur, and moving forward on missile defenses, hopefully in partnership with Russia, who would have believed him?”

Sadly, as far as our relationships go, the Bush Administration’s record under Rice’s tutelage has been abysmal. In Europe, opinion of the U.S. has never been lower, and administration officials and their minions have been happy to pour salt on the wounds. On the subject of NATO, the Administration’s lapses in Afghanistan and the consigning of the mission to “do what we can” status have given rise to perceptions that the historic alliance is “divided” or “unwieldy.”   Those aren’t results we can believe in.

But let’s not stop there. Rice’s understanding of the military is just as alarming. It’s not a surprise that Cheney and Rumsfeld bulldozed Rice when she was National Security adviser, because she doesn’t have the foggiest idea what she’s talking about. Take a look:

“Thus the next president should refocus the Pentagon's priorities on building the military of the 21st century rather than continuing to build on the structure of the Cold War…In order to do this, Washington must reallocate resources, perhaps in some cases skipping a generation of technology to make leaps rather than incremental improvements in its forces. “

Sound familiar? That’s because she’s echoing Don Rumsfeld’s plan on military restructuring, a plan so addle-minded that even Fred Kagan thought it was nuts. Faced with U.S. forces that have stretched themselves beyond comprehension for horrendously bad Bush Administration policies, this is the best Rice can offer up:

“The experience of recent years has tested our armed forces, but it has also prepared a new generation of military leaders…”

Huh? That’s interesting because, in the case of the Army, future leaders are leaving the service in record numbers. Again, Rice suffers from a bit of a reality problem.

However, there is one area where Rice’s analysis holds up, where her words still have relevance for how the U.S. relates to the world, and more specifically, Iraq. In 2000, Rice wrote:

“Military force is best used to support clear political goals, whether limited, such as expelling Saddam from Kuwait, or comprehensive, such as demanding the unconditional surrender of Japan and Germany during World War II. It is one thing to have a limited political goal and to fight decisively for it; it is quite another to apply military force incrementally, hoping to find a political solution somewhere along the way. A president entering these situations must ask whether decisive force is possible and is likely to be effective and must know how and when to get out.”

I couldn’t agree more.



Who has no fundamental understanding of the surge?
Posted by Max Bergmann

I am catching this a little late, but this is important to correct. The McCain campaign attacked Barack Obama for saying that the surge would result in an increase in violence. Pointing to this quote from Obama:

"I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse."

McCain says that that was clearly wrong saying:

Sen. Obama said that the effect would be the reverse. So, he has no fundamental understanding of the entire situation that warranted the surge, which led to the success."

This is ridiculous. The surge DID increase violence in Iraq. Yes the last eight months violence is down - but the eight months before that were the most violent since the war began - making 2007 (the year of the surge) the deadliest year for American troops (see the chart from icasulaties below). Putting U.S. troops in the most dangerous neighborhoods of Iraq was bound to increase violence.

Casualties_by_month_3 Violence has decreased since  - and while the troop increase and the change in strategy has had an important impact, other factors (factors not a part of the original of the surge plan) explain the decline in violence much more effectively. What are these:

1. We cut deals with the enemy. The Anbar awakening and the deals struck with Sunni insurgents were the most important factor contributing to the decline and violence. But its important to note that this was NOT part of the original surge strategy but was arrived at due to the escalating violence and the failures of Iraq's political leaders to make any headway on the political benchmarks laid out by the Bush administration as part of the surge.

2. Ethnic cleansing was more or less achieved in most neighborhoods. As in other ethnic conflicts - violence usually peaks at the outset, as integrated neighborhoods are forcefully segregated. As neighborhoods become segregated they are often walled off - creating more security for neighborhood residents by preventing outsiders from entering. This has been a tactic deployed by Petraeus and is a common counter-insurgency tactic. While this is effective at preventing violence, it also has the negative side effect of freezing sectarian divisions in place creating a significant long term obstacle to reconciliation (think Belfast).

3. We had a cease-fire agreement with Sadr, which has been extremely important in lowering attacks on the U.S.

Attributing the recent decrease in violence solely to the increase in troop levels and ignoring the fact that violence significantly increased during the first eight months of the surge is indicative of someone who "lacks a fundamental understanding of the entire situation that warranted the surge."

Bush's Budget, and other things
Posted by Shadi Hamid

The Project on Middle East Democracy – the organization I work for – has just released three excellent reports, which, in my biased opinion, are a must-read for anyone who cares about the future of Middle East reform. Stephen McInerney, someone who knows the congressional appropriations process like the back of his hand, has written a comprehensive and illuminating analysis of the fiscal year 2009 budget as it relates to funding for political reform in the Middle East. You’ll be surprised to find that requested funding for democracy-related programming in the region is at $758 million - a 89% increase over the amount appropriated the previous year. But, looked at more broadly, we still have a long way to go. As Steve points out:

Even in the international affairs budget for the [Broader Middle East and North Africa] region – normally thought of as the “’soft power’ counterpart to the DoD budget – 69% is designated for various forms of military assistance, as compared with 10% for democracy and governance.

The second and third POMED papers we’ve published are on “Perceptions of U.S. Democracy Promotion.” The author, David DeBartolo, takes a close look at polling results on how both Arabs and Americans perceive democratic reform in the Middle East. Instead of projecting our prejudices on Arabs and Muslims, it actually helps to look at – gasp – what they actually think on key issues like democracy and U.S. policy toward political reform. I know what you're thinking - foreign policy isn't a popularity contest! Except, having hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims angry at us for unabashedly supporting brutal dictators probably doesn't serve our national security interests too well. 

June 10, 2008

Land for Oil Revenues
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

I heard a fascinating idea recently from someone who has spent some time in Iraq working on political issues, about a couple of the central elements which stand in the way of political reconciliation.  The first is the Article 140 issue concerning the disputed territories in the North between the Kurds and the Sunnis.  The second major question is on how to distribute oil revenues and whether those funds should be controlled by the central government or by the local provincial and regional governments. 

On Article 140 the Kurds and the Sunnis are both vying for as much control as possible over a set of disputed territories in the North, with the Sunnis wanting as much as possible to be controlled by the Iraqi Central Government, while the Kurds want it to be controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government.  On the question of oil revenues, the Sunnis want the revenues to flow through the center and then be distributed, while the Kurds want the revenues to go directly to the regions and provinces.

Iraq_oil_2003_mbig_2 The interesting thing is that the two maps that I’ve included in this post indicate that the issues are completely linked.  The first map outlines Iraq’s oilfields and the second looks at the ethnic breakup of Iraq.  The disputed Article 140 territories roughly approximate the area labeled as the Sunni / Sunni Kurd regions.  Almost all of the oil in the North lies in the disputed territories and the Kurdish Regional Government controls very little of its own oil. Iraq_ethnoreligious_1992_4

This means that you can basically link the two issues together.  The Kurds can either have greater control of the oil revenues in exchange for an outcome on Article 140, which more heavily favors the Sunnis or vice versa.  Either way, this would eliminate the Kurds’ ability to completely split off from Iraq, which is really what the Sunnis are most concerned about.  But at the same time, it does give the Kurds a healthy chunk of what they want and a good deal of independence.  When I heard this suggestion, I thought it was pretty clever.

Of course, there are always complications.  First of all, right now negotiations on the major issues have been mostly stove-piped.  There is no forum to comprehensively address all the issues at once, which means that on every separate point of contention the parties take a maximalist position instead of trying to horse trade.  You could change this either through a new constitutional convention or some kind of open forum where broader negotiations could take place.  Also, there is the question of what the various Shi’a groups want.  If all the main Shi’a factions were on the same side of this argument and fully threw their support behind either the Kurds or the Sunnis, it’d be hard to imagine getting any kind of an agreement.  But again, you’d imagine that ISCI would be for decentralization and the Sadirsts would be for centralization, which might mean that there is an opportunity for some kind of negotiated solution.  Finally, there is the question of whether the parties are actually ready to deal and believe they have to.  Since Bill Clinton laid out the Clinton Parameters before leaving office, everyone has pretty much roughly known what type a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians would probably look like.  But it’s been eight years since then and we’re they’re not any closer.

Still, despite all of the problems it’s nice to know that there at least seems to be a possible solution to this problem and that people are thinking creatively about how to make it happen.

Nationalism Not Dead in Europe?
Posted by Adam Blickstein


Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan rhetorically asked if nationalism was dead in Europe. An email from a friend who works in Brussels confirms that it is in fact alive and well:

The tensions in the office are palpable, as the 3 resident Italians have moved into a cubicle together and put up Italian flags and a 'Do Not Talk to Us' poster since they were slaughtered by Holland yesterday.

All in all though, its the Portuguese who go crazy. There are a ton of Portuguese and Brazilian immigrants in Brussels, and when they win they drive around the city for hours honking their horns. And all the men have trashy haircuts somewhere between a mullet and bon jovi, trying to look like Cristiano Ronaldo, but usually failing.

Portugal did look pretty solid over the weekend, though their supporters should hope it doesn't come down to penalties in a post-group play match as Cristiano Ronaldo's has been known to look rather foolish when taking sudden-death penalties in big matches.

(Photo via REUTERS)

Kickin' Some CNAS on Iran
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

I have sometimes disagreed with my friends over at the Center for New American Security - especially on the question of Iraq.  But I have to say their latest report (PDF) on Iran from Jim Miller, Christine Parthemore and Kurt Campbell totally nails it (Conveniently it's also fundamentally in agreement with the much shorter brief that we at NSN put together recently).  It should be required reading for the next President of the United States (i.e. Barack Obama) and his advisors.  It takes the idea of talking with Iran and comprehensively answers the critical question:  how?

Game-changing diplomacy would have six main elements:

  • de-emphasize military threats;
  • make comprehensive verification the urgent priority for Iran’s nuclear program, while continuing to press Iran to voluntarily forego enrichment;
  • initiate serious discussions with Iran on Iraq, Afghanistan, al Qaeda and broader Middle Eastern peace;
  • offer to establish bilateral relations;
  • offer the possibility of relief from sanctions and over time additional economic and political
  • incentives to provide Iran the chance to join the international community; and
  • condition incentives and progress in bilateral relations on Iranian behavior.

The authors recognize that this policy might not work and that if it doesn't then at some point we may be forced to return to the current policy of coercive economic pressure.  But they argue that if that time comes the U.S. diplomatic position and the support it can expect from the International Community will be much stronger, which will make its ability to impose effective sanctions much more likely.  They also argue that military force should be seen as an absolute last resort that would be highly problematic at best.

The other thing I like about the report is that it absolutely follows reasonable foreign policy principles that Democrats can support, but it in no way seems "soft."  There is no chest thumping for the sake of seeming tough, but no one can read this without coming away with the clear idea that the authors are hard-headed and serious about keeping America secure.

Finally, I think the report is indicative of a broad consensus which is building on the entire left and also amongst the realist wing of the Republican party.  For anyone wondering what the stakes are for the upcoming election and for those who argue that Obama and McCain are somehow the same, this report should be a wake up call.   If McCain is elected there is no way we'd implement something this bold, far-ranging and smart.  But this is exactly the type of thing that Obama would be willing to explore and work with reasonable Republicans to pursue.

A City Divided
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I’ve been MIA on this blog for a while. Hopefully that will I guess part of the problem is that blogging from Amman is actually more difficult than you would expect. The military controls our bandwidth here (or so I’ve been told). Jordan is a fascinating place, and perhaps emblematic of a region that is going somewhere and going nowhere at the same time. It either feels like Dubai in 1994 or, maybe, Iran in 1977. How you perceive it probably depends on which side of the city you’re standing in (literally). 

Amman has a reputation for being boring (the Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom, as quite a few American expats call it). On its merits, this statement is, in fact, true. This isn’t Cairo. But if you look closer and dig beneath the surface, this place is pretty much an anthropologist’s dream. There’s something disorienting about living here, and it's this disorientation which, frankly, really concerns me. I was at one of Amman’s “hippest” clubs on Thursday night (Thursday here is like our Friday night). Everyone was dancing to, um, European house music and otherwise having a great time. The club, which is actually really big, was packed to the point where it was difficult to move. The alcohol was flowing. Not to politicize everything, but it was a reminder of why democratization in Jordan, or anywhere else in the region, will continue to be a difficult, tortured process. The secular elite here is not particularly excited about the prospect of political change, particularly if Islamists will be the ones leading it. Will they be allowed to do the things they do if Islamists come to power?

People here live in parallel societies running close together – in some cases, right next to each other. They do not, for the most part, intersect. Democratization is difficult enough when economic concerns predominate (as in Latin America where the primary cleavage was between socialists and conservatives). But it is more difficult when it is about existential matters like religion and identity. “On matters of economic policy and social expenditures you can always split the difference,” the political scientist Dankwart Rustow once said. How do you split the difference on religion? In the end, as much as Islamists moderate, they will still in some sense be “Islamists,” and this, by itself, independent of other considerations, is the problem for authoritarian regimes and allied secular elites.

So, anyway, the “hip” club represented one side of Amman, the posh neighborhoods of Abdoun, Sweifieh and Jebel Amman that look, feel like, and are strongholds of the city’s privileged Westernized elite – a cosmopolitan mix of well-heeled Jordanians wearing the latest fashions (don’t worry, there’s a Zara down the street from the Starbucks I’m writing from), mixed in with American expats who work in Amman’s burgeoning refugee aid community, and Europeans who find themselves in Jordan because the prospect of learning Arabic has become increasingly lucrative. This is a world unto itself, which is why I have mixed feelings about being a part of it.

Continue reading "A City Divided" »

June 09, 2008

That Wacky, Wacky Washington Post Editorial Board
Posted by Michael Cohen

One of the great challenges in writing "That Wacky, Wacky . . ." is the constant need to come up with new adjectives to describe the latest inanity, deception, outright lying and serial misleading of folks like Charles Krauthammer, Max Boot and Fred Hiatt. It's not as easy as it seems. Case in point: the editorial in Saturday's Washington Post and its rather astounding assertion:

When Mr. Obama opened his general election campaign this week with a major speech on Middle East policy, the substantive strategy he outlined was, in many respects, not very much different from that of the Bush administration -- or that of Republican Sen. John McCain

Now if you are surprised at this rather counter-intuitive notion, you may be ever more surprised as to why the Post makes this claim:

Mr. Obama was . . . hawkish about Iran. Hedging his much-discussed offer to meet personally with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- now the encounter would be with "the appropriate Iranian leader at a time and place of my choosing, if and only if, it can advance the interests of the United States" -- Mr. Obama fully embraced the Bush administration's view that "the danger from Iran is grave." He said "we will use all elements of American power to pressure Iran," and he pledged, "I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon -- everything."

What would he do? In essence, Mr. Obama promises an improved version of the Bush administration's three-year-old strategy of offering, in conjunction with European allies and Russia, economic and political favors to Iran in exchange for an end to its nuclear program and threatening it with sanctions if it refuses. Mr. Obama would have the United States join the Europeans in having direct discussions with Tehran, and perhaps he would agree to bigger incentives. In exchange, he would seek European and U.N. Security Council support for far tougher sanctions than the Bush administration has obtained -- such as a ban on Iranian gasoline imports, which is probably the strongest measure available short of war.

I hope grafs like these illuminate my dilemma. How does one best describe this: ludicrously simplistic, breathtakingly misleading, astoundingly stupid? The "improved version" of the Bush Administration's strategy (and that is a word I use loosely) is in fact a diametrically different approach to dealing with Iran - namely bilateral discussions between US and Iranian leaders and a ratcheting down of the militarism of the Bush Administration.  Last time I checked it is one of the fundamental differences between the approaches of Senator McCain and Senator Obama to how best to deal with Iran's growing influence in the Middle East.  (Does the Ed Board read its own newspaper). What's more, simply because Obama recognizes the threat from Iran to Israel as being grave, the fundamental issue is how he will deal with it. It's like arguing that because lots of people thought Saddam Hussein was a threat to the region and had WMD they all embraced the Bush Administration's approach to dealing with that threat. What kind of a person would make that argument . . . oh wait a minute.

But as if this isn't enough, the Post delivers the understatement of the century is describing the difference between Obama's approach to the Middle East and that of Bush and McCain, "The gap in Mr. Obama's Middle East policy remains Iraq."

You think? Besides Iran, THIS is the fundamental foreign policy difference between Obama and McCain. Indeed, it's hard to imagine two approaches more dissimilar. And yet, the Post argues the "substantive strategy" differences between the two candidates are not that "different."

And then there is this coup de grace. Noting that Obama, "has become unreasonably wedded to a year-old proposal to rapidly withdraw all U.S. combat forces from the country," the Post argues that Obama should go to Iraq because:

That would offer him the opportunity to outline a strategy based on sustaining the dramatic reduction in violence recorded this year. No, the left wouldn't like it, but it would be in keeping with Mr. Obama's pragmatic approach to the rest of the region.

Besides mischaracterizing Obama's plan for Iraq as a "rapid" withdrawal it seems worth noting that there are others besides the "left" who would be happy with that approach - the approximately two-thirds of Americans who want to see troops home from Iraq in less than two years.

I'm telling you, it's not easy being a blogger . . .


Centralizers Vs. Decentralizers
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Dr. Irak has some interesting news regarding a new Sunni-Shi'a coalition potentially forming in the Iraqi Parliament

According to a Sadrist lawmaker a new coalition called "The Patriotic Parliamentary Assembly." The coalition would include Sadrists, Fadhila, Allawi's "Iraqi List,' Khalaf al-Layyan's "National Dialogue Council," the "Arab Bloc," and Jaafari's "National Reform Current" (which he formed this spring after a Dawa leadership struggle with Maliki). As such, it would represent an interesting mix of Shia and Sunni (both religious and secular) parties that are united by their opposition to a long-term U.S.-Iraqi pact.

This is further evidence of what as shaping up to be a two coalition battle in Iraqi politics.  On the one-hand you have the nationalists, who are interested in a centralized Iraqi state with strong power in the center.  They include the Sadrists along with most of the Sunni groups.  On the other you have the Kurds along with ISCI and affiliated Shi'a groups  - including Maliki's Dawa party.  They are the decentralizers, who are pushing for a system where most power lies in the various provinces or regions.  Obviously Iraqi politics are more complicated than this and there are more elements involved but it's a pretty clean description of the current political order.

Now, the Iranians are naturally more supportive of the decentralizers as a weak central Iraqi state would give them a freer hand in the South.  You'd think we'd be supportive of a more centralized state, which has a better chance of maintaining the territorial integrity of the country and limiting to the extent possible outside influence from neighboring countries.  It would also tend to decrease the amount of sectarianism.  But naturally, as is the usual in Iraq, U.S. policy is totally reversed.  We've somehow ended up in bed with the decentralizers because they've been our allies all along (They speak English and were better trained in how to deal with Western politicians). 

Who speaks for Pakistan
Posted by Patrick Barry

The state of play in Pakistan is getting more curious by the day, but this statement by Interior Affars Minister Rahman Malik, indicating that Islamabad has scrapped the truce with the Taliban,adds a whole new layer to the confusion:

"The Swat agreement is scrapped as the militants have (continued) their attacks on security forces"

Here is where things get interesting though, because while Islamabad has abandoned the truce, the Taliban is very much under the impression that the cease-fire is still on. Here is the key excerpt:

"Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said that "some elements" were trying to sabotage the peace process.

The peace agreement was signed with the NWFP government and "not with Rehman Malik", he said reacting to Malik's announcement and especially his stand that there would be no talks with hardline militants."

Unsurprisingly, the government in the frontier provinces is not lending great clarity to the situation, responding with a largely vague criticism:

"The Awami National Party-led NWFP government too reacted angrily to Malik's comments, with senior minister and ANP leader Bashir Bilour saying Malik should have consulted provincial authorities before making such statements."

There is an intensely circular feel to these developments, where Islamabad sets policy, the Taliban disputes it on the grounds that they have been working with the ANP, and the ANP, while strong in the northwest frontier, says little because their overall power within the ruling coalition in Islamabad is limited.

Given the fiery remarks by Beitullah Mehsoud and the fact that previous cease-fires haven't exactly ended well for Pakistan, this reversal by the government is probably not a bad thing.  What is troubling however, is the incoherence that characterizes these developments, with multiple actors disputing what the state's policy should actually be.  If the new coalition government hopes to rule effectively, this sort of thing cannot continue.   

That Wacky, Wacky Fred Hiatt
Posted by Michael Cohen

In today's Washington Post, Fred Hiatt has a really aggravating op-ed that relies on the recent Senate Intelligence Report about the the use of pre-war intelligence to actually defend the Bush Administration and it's pre-war hyping of the threat from Iraq. As Hiatt puts it, the report makes clear that Bush did not "lie" to get us into war.

Now there is a very small kernel of truth here, as Hiatt repeatedly notes that many of the Administration's charges about Iraq's links to terrorism and WMD program were "generally substantiated by intelligence community estimates." As I've written at DA before, there was substantial reason to believe that Saddam had stockpiles of WMD. (Although it's pretty astounding that Hiatt believes  "generally substantiated" is a high enough benchmark for the decision to invade and occupy a country). But the issue is not whether Bush lied; the issue is how he and others depicted urgency of the threat . . . and on this account Hiatt knows full well that the Bush Administration exaggerated and misled the American people.

Take for example, Saddam's supposed reconstituted nuclear program, which the IAEA had long said did not exist and the Rockefeller report says there were substantial disagreements about in the intel community. Even if you buy the most charitable view about the nuclear threat from Iraq does Fred Hiatt (or anyone else for that matter) believe it was appropriate for Bush Administration officials to play up apocalyptic scenarios such as mushroom clouds over American cities? No piece of post-war investigation has ever supported these outlandish and deceptive arguments.

Or how about the Administration's constant conflation of Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda as if the two were working in cahoots when every piece of available evidence suggested otherwise? Does Hiatt think it was accidental that more than half the country thought Saddam was responsible for 9/11? Indeed as the Rockefeller report makes clear:

Statements and implications by the President and Secretary of State suggesting that Iraq and al-Qa'ida had a partnership, or that Iraq had provided al-Qa'ida with weapons training, were not substantiated by the intelligence.

Statements by the President and the Vice President indicating that Saddam Hussein was prepared to give weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups for attacks against the United States were contradicted by available intelligence information.

Yet, Hiatt has the chutzpah to argue the fault lies not with the Bush Administration for goosing the threat, but in fact is the fault of intelligence community:

But the phony "Bush lied" story line distracts from the biggest prewar failure: the fact that so much of the intelligence upon which Bush and Rockefeller and everyone else relied turned out to be tragically, catastrophically wrong.

This is Grade A BS and worst of all, Fred Hiatt knows it. Hiatt would rather constitute his defense of the Bush Administration around the legalistic issue of whether "Bush lied" while simply ignoring the serial manner in which Bush Administration cherry picked intelligence, ignored areas of disagreement in the intel community, framed the threat from Iraq in worst case possible scenarios, exaggerated the urgency of Iraq's ability to reconstitute a WMD program, made spurious and misleading arguments about Iraq's ties to terrorist groups, ignored other military steps short of invasion and occupation, played on America's fear of another September 11th type attack, cut short UN inspections before they had completed their work . . . and I could go on and on.

There is a mountain of evidence to suggest that the Bush Administration made the decision to go to war in Iraq based on reasons that had little to do with the available intelligence about its WMD program or its ties to terrorists. And unless Fred Hiatt had been living in a cave for the past five years he is well aware of this.

I'm sure Fred Hiatt, like many pre-war, advocates would like to absolve themselves of responsibility for supporting a war that went so disastrously wrong. But continuing to mislead Americans about what really went wrong and how we got into Iraq in the first place only continues the cycle of deception and yes . . . lies.

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