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July 04, 2008

Iraq: The Real Issue
Posted by Shawn Brimley

Let's be clear on where the McCain campaign stands on Iraq:

McCain on the Today Show in June: “Americans are in South Korea, Americans are in Japan, American troops are in Germany. That's all fine."

McCain advisor Max Boot:   “We need to maintain a long-term commitment in Iraq – for 100 years if need be...a long-term presence designed to reassure Iraqis of our commitment to their security against an array of enemies.”

Wall Street Journal Editorial: “[A] permanent U.S. military presence – albeit one reduced over time – would give Iraqis the confidence to continue their political maturation.”

Thomas Donnelly and Frederick Kagan of AEI: The U.S. Army and Marine Corps are "less a wall of steel than a sponge, absorbing takfiri toxins and leaching them from the lands they incubate…We must reestablish a network of forward bases along the new American security perimeter…the future will see not only forward-deployed forces but forward-stationed forces. To win we must be there.”

Obama wants to leave Iraq and McCain wants to stay. That's all that matters in this debate.

That Wacky, Wacky Krauthammer
Posted by Michael Cohen

It's been a few weeks since I've had a reason to write about my oh so favorite conservative columnist, Chucky Krauthammer, but today he serves up a real doozy . . . so how could I resist. Not surprisingly Krauthammer has a somewhat cynical take on Barack Obama's statement yesterday that he would refine his Iraq policy based on events occurring on the ground:

Two weeks ago, I predicted that by Election Day Obama will have erased all meaningful differences with McCain on withdrawal from Iraq. I underestimated Obama's cynicism. He will make the move much sooner. He will use his upcoming Iraq trip to finally acknowledge the remarkable improvements on the ground and to formally abandon his primary season commitment to a fixed 16-month timetable for removal of all combat troops.

The shift has already begun. Yesterday, he said that his "original position" on withdrawal has always been that "we've got to make sure that our troops are safe and that Iraq is stable." And that "when I go to Iraq . . . I'll have more information and will continue to refine my policies."

He hasn't even gone to Iraq and the flip is almost complete. All that's left to say is that the 16-month time frame remains his goal but that he will, of course, take into account the situation on the ground and the recommendation of his generals in deciding whether the withdrawal is to occur later or even sooner.

As I made this point yesterday, shouldn't Krauthammer be appluading Obama's supposed shift (that doesn't actually exist)? He's acknoweldging the "remarkable improvements" in Iraq, as Krauthammer describes them. Isn't this time for celebration? Obama's opponents have been for weeks calling on the Democratic nominee to shift his position on withdrawal based on the improved security situtation and now they claim to see evidence that he is in fact shifting and they attack him for being cynical.

What's even more confusing to me, however, is the notion that Obama's "flip is almost complete" and he is seeking to "erase all meaningful differences" with John McCain on Iraq. As Krauthammer is no doubt aware, only hours after the "refined" quote Obama reaffirmed his desire to withdraw troops from Iraq in 16 months.

My first day in office I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in, and I will give them a new mission, and that is to end this war — responsibly, deliberately, but decisively. And I have seen no information that contradicts the notion that we can bring our troops out safely at a pace of one to two brigades a month, and again, that pace translates into having our combat troops out in 16 months' time.

As this quote makes clear, the contrast between Obama's position and that of McCain's could not be more stark and the differencs oh so meaningful. Obama wants the troops home in 16 months, McCain has never laid out a timetable for withdrawal. In fact, he has spoken of American troops being in Iraq for 100 years, so long, of course, as the country is peaceful. (But then he never says how long he is willing to maintain the mission until we get to a point that Iraq is peaceful . . . but then that is a whole other conversation.)

But then I've never known Krauthammer to let pesky things like facts get in his way.

July 03, 2008

Must Be A Slow News Day
Posted by Michael Cohen

So apparently Barack Obama completely reversed his position on Iraq and is now calling for US troops to stay there for the next 100 years. Ok, I'm kidding; but considering the breathless news coverage of Obama's statement about Iraq in Fargo, North Dakota today one would think Obama said something akin to what I've written above. Here's what Obama actually did say:

When I go to Iraq and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I’m sure I’ll have more information and will continue to refine my policies.

Refine! Refine! After seven years of a President who refuses to ever budge on any long-standing policy position, one would think that refinement might be the kind of approach we would celebrate in our elected leaders.

Not surprisingly, the McCain campaign pounced on these comments:

"Today, Barack Obama reversed [his] position, proving once again that his words do not matter," McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said in a statement.

I smell a rat here. Not that long ago the McCain folks were attacking Obama for sticking to a phased withdrawal and refusing to shift course based on the improved security situation in Iraq. So now he talks of refining his policy and they go nuts because he has "reversed" himself. Isn't that what they wanted him to do? So which one is it - do the McCain folks want Obama to switch course or don't they?

And considering that John McCain has "reversed" himself on the Bush tax cuts, offshore oil drilling, torture, campaign finance, immigration etc it is a bit rich to see him attacking Obama for speaking of "refining" his policy toward Iraq.

And just in case you think Obama really has "reversed" himself I think this quote that he delivered at a press conference should put that idea to bed:

Let me be as clear as I can be. I intend to end this war. My first day in office I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in, and I will give them a new mission, and that is to end this war — responsibly, deliberately, but decisively. And I have seen no information that contradicts the notion that we can bring our troops out safely at a pace of one to two brigades a month, and again, that pace translates into having our combat troops out in 16 months' time.

Understanding a President's Intent
Posted by Shawn Brimley

Senator Obama has not changed his position on Iraq! I really don't understand how the media can get these things so completely wrong. Obama has always stated his intention to end the war in Iraq. His desire has been to withdraw one or two brigades (~3,500 troops each) a month until all combat troops are out.  This is his intention.  He has always held firm however to the imperative to be as careful leaving Iraq as we were careless getting in. It's amazing to me how even the prospect of taking a little more time leaving Iraq due to the conditions on the ground (it is a war after all, and no plan surives first contact with reality) is somehow taken to be an error or something to be criticized. There is a real, vital, basic difference between the candidates - one intends to leave, another intends to stay.  It's that simple people.

McCain advisor Max Boot on the Commentary blog:

In order to build on the success that General Petraeus and his soldiers have had, we need to maintain a long-term commitment in Iraq-for 100 years if need be, as John McCain has said. That doesn’t mean 100 years of fighting; clearly, that would be unsustainable. It does mean a long-term troop presence designed to reassure Iraqis of our commitment to their security against an array of enemies.

How many people think we can stay in Iraq for any length of time and a) not be perceived as occupiers and b) continue to be forced to fight those who want us to leave?

That's what I thought...

I've Been Outed
Posted by David Shorr

Just as Shawn did, I noticed Patrick Doherty's post over on American Strategist. I appreciate, and identify with, Shawn's defense of both the prudence and liberalism in our shared approach. On the other hand, I'll actually cop to some of the "sooo 20th Century" charges Patrick levels.

But first a related defense against Shadi, who really recoiled at my referring (positively) to the United States as a status quo power. As I explained in a comment on his post, what I mean is the American interest in the strength of the system as a system, not a preference to keep world conditions just as they are. A status quo power is generally content with the terms of the international social contract, doesn't feel they're in need of radical revision. (A point Shawn echoes quite well.) As principal author of the post-WWII order, that's how the United States should feel -- hastening to emphasize, though, the need for a serious update to address power shifts, unresolved inequities, and a fast-changing world. Even so, the fundamentals of the current rules based order are basically sound.

As with a durable constitutional order, the seeds of renewal lie within the system itself. Having recently spent two strenuous years trying to help the cause of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's reform push, this idea is articulated eloquently in his In Larger Freedom report. Both the United States and the international system itself (not coincidentally) are urgently due to have their stores of legitimacy restocked. (I happen to think spreading the economic benefits of globalization are at the top of that agenda.)

But if the test of a 21st century progressive is an orientation toward things transnational and non-state, I fail the test. I am state-centric in my worldview. I have my reasons, and you can be the judge. The rise of non-state actors is an undeniable feature of the overall global diffusion of power in the 20 years since the Cold War's end. Even with the relative decline in the influence of states and governments, though, they remain the indispensible actors for the solution to any international problem you can think of. Yes, I know, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, etc... But the way I see it, political will from national capitals is the necessary condition for international progress -- insufficient, perhaps, but necessary.

Now, as to transnational. The blurring of international borders is indeed key to the way I see today's world. And yet, there are a couple of reasons I don't like infectious disease and climate change as symbols of contemporary challenges. Let me be clear, they are both urgent and addressing them is imperative. Their impact on our fellow humans is dramatic and tragic. As international agenda items, though, they have a heavy technical element. Maybe this is the bias of a 20th century guy whose focus has mostly been on violent conflict and persecution -- man-made problems in the sense of willful inhumanity toward fellow man -- but some of this transnational stuff for me lacks the real messiness of a true man-made problem, and making them the poster-problems for global threats feels like a cheat.

McCain's UNdiplomatic missions
Posted by Moira Whelan

McCain’s gaffe confusing Shia and Sunni in Iraq is perhaps his most notable foreign travel experience of the campaign thus far. This week, McCain attempted to trump that by sliding into the news coverage of US hostages being released in Colombia just after he’d left. Trouble is that for John McCain, this trip, the release of hostages and what John McCain knew, could cause him more trouble than his infamous trip to Iraq.  Couple that with questions about how he conducted himself on his trip to Canada, and it looks like the guy who wants to be diplomat-in-chief may be rather…undiplomatic.

Just as John McCain was wheels up from Cartagena earlier this week, three US hostages were freed by the FARC after years in captivity. Good news, most certainly. However, at issue now is what John McCain knew, when he knew it, and whether or not he should have known it at all.

John McCain took the trip south—billed as official Congressional travel--with his two colleagues Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham. It’s been reported that prior to the trip, John McCain spoke to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe at around 4pm and Uribe gave him some highlights of the operation to spring the hostages. When the Senators had dinner with Uribe that night, they were briefed on the operation but none revealed it because they said it was “classified.”

When McCain was asked about the operation once the hostages were freed, he revealed the fact that he’d been briefed, and praised the operation.

Here’s the problem, there’s a law known as the Logan Act that reads:

"Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both."

The conversation with Uribe definitely qualifies as "correspondence or intercourse" and we have a "controversy" with the Colombian government because the United States has been on their back for years to get these hostages freed. To be sure, the trip itself was cleared by the US government, but that's different from State expressly allowing McCain to have a direct "classified” conversation with President Uribe about an ongoing controversy.  If McCain was going to have private conversations with a foreign leader, the conversation itself would have to be cleared.

John McCain’s conversation with Uribe raises some serious questions that make more investigation necessary. Namely:

  • Was John McCain’s conversation with Uribe classified?
  • Did McCain have prior approval for this conversation?
  • Did McCain’s staff (or that of Liebermann’s or Graham’s) clear the content of the conversation with Uribe through the State Department?
  • Once McCain knew this information, did he—in good faith—make that information known to the State Department?

When asked about it, McCain’s aide reportedly said:

"I don't think that there is an established protocol" for such briefings, said a McCain aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. " 'Protocol' is not a word I would associate with this."

Perhaps there isn’t protocol, but there are laws. And for someone who wants to have the top job of enforcing them, voters deserve to know the due diligence he did on this trip to ensure that he upheld the same laws that govern our diplomats.

Questions are also circulating about McCain’s recent trip to Canada . It too was billed as not being political but rather Senatorial. Therefore, he needs to act like a senator, and not as a presidential candidate. This is because according to the Hatch Act, US government resources and personnel cannot be used in support of political purposes. As the principal on the trip, McCain would have to adhere to these rules, and save the conversation about his campaign for his own plane, at his own events, and not those done on the taxpayer dime.  However, in his remarks while in Canada, McCain repeatedly referred to his presidential campaign including in the trip’s headline speech.

Diplomatic work by senators—be they running for President or not—is important. That said, it’s also important that Senators set aside their own political interests while doing these trips, and pursue the facts tax payers have paid for them to go find. At very least, John McCain needs to be transparent about the steps taken by his staff to ensure that he’s following both the spirit and the letter of the law when it comes to these trips.

UPDATE: At writing, the general welcoming the hostages back to the United States and briefing on their care in a live press conference reveals that he found out yesterday from officials in Colombia about this operation. So...did John McCain know before the US government?

H/T to a friend of Democracy Arsenal on this one.

A Few Simple Maxims
Posted by David Shorr

Recent twists in the Iran debate have reaffirmed for me a couple of foreign policy principles I treat as axiomatic. Yesterday Tony Lake told the Financial Times:

Unless you assume that [Iranian negotiators] have IQs less than those of eggplants, they are not likely to make major concessions for the privilege of speaking with us. So the question is: what is your strategy for the talks?

The last years have been an experiment with the bad-guys-should-just-do-what-they're-supposed-to approach. Hypothesis disproved. If the weight of international sentiment and moral authority is arrayed against the target regime, then you can make ultimatums. Otherwise, in diplomacy you don't get something for nothing.

As to attacking Iran, we have a new scary report from Seymour Hersh. Which brings me to another rule of thumb confirmed by recent experience: foreseeable unintended consequences are often more important for deciding on major policy moves than the, sometimes questionable, intended outcome. Which puts us once again in the zone of things we shouldn't have to say. If the United States attacks Iran without first undertaking a dogged search for a diplomatic solution, the rest of the world will be done with us. Finished. Fed up. Repulsed. We will truly be the rogue superpower. Any effort being given to considering or discussing it is a waste of precious time.

America should be a conservative power!
Posted by Shawn Brimley

Patrick Doherty over at The American Strategist has called out David, Ilan, and myself in a good post arguing that our vision of America's role in the world is not sufficiently progressive.

To recap, I've been arguing for a while (here, here, here, here) that Americans have forgotten – both through our post-Cold War triumphalism and our post-9/11 paranoia – that the most important strategic legacy of the Cold War was not the successful containment of the Soviet Union but rather the creation and sustainment of an inherently liberal international system. When asked what sort of grand strategy America should follow my suggestion would be to pull a Marty McFly and go back to the future. I've called such a strategy sustainment, though Matt Yglesias (who digs the idea) calls the word "the ugliest neologisms I've heard in awhile." Guilty as charged.

Anyway, what inevitably what happens when I suggest that we focus on this key Cold War-era lesson is a chorus of folks arguing that such a view is insufficient and oh so 20th century. I agree with this. Of course I'm not suggesting (and neither is Ilan, who has real 21st century style, or David, who I've actually never met but heard he is quite hip) that we simply default back to an earlier era to sustain the system as it was in the 1980s or earlier, rather that the basic pillars of the international system (stability in key regions, a decently functioning international economy, and access to and stability in the global commons) need to be sustained if we are to deal with the great challenges of this new century. There are cracks in our foundation, and we need to pay attention.

Doherty argues that such a grand strategy pays insufficient attention to the transnational pressures at work in the world such as energy security, urbanization, and climate change – I disagree. Doherty describes well the sorts of pressures that will manifest in the coming years, but he did not outline any alternative. Patrick cites the examples of FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower in critiquing the idea, while I think that what Truman and Eisenhower did was exactly what I am proposing we do today – focusing on the basic pillars of the international system, and thinking hard about creating a balance between American and global interests.   

Is such a view inherently conservative?  Absolutely.  When thinking about grand strategy, as David argues, being wary of dramatic power shifts or paying insufficient attention to the basics of one's position in the international system is a recipe for disaster and decline. But let's remember, the system as it exists is rife with liberal values and views! From global trade and commerce, to functioning alliances, to plenty of international institutions that promote diplomacy, compromise, and human rights, the system itself is liberal!  The system we have is inherently progressive! So yes, we should be very conservative when considering changing an international system that is commensurate with liberal values!

But Shadi is right that inequality was rife throughout the 20th century and that current dynamics are likely to only exacerbate the gap between haves and have-nots. Sustaining a stable international system is only one side to the 21st century grand strategy coin (much like sustainment complemented containment during the Cold War).  There is plenty of change to make, and plenty of challenges to pursue. Climate change, energy security, a rising China, tensions with Russia, and the perpetual challenges in the Middle East all require different approaches and the ability for America to be nimble, flexible, and, well, powerful.

After eight years of a grand strategy that has seen our deficit explode, our standing in the world plummet, and our power eroded substantially, it is vital that we think not only about where we are going but where we've been. America got grand strategy basically right before, and we can do so again.       

O Say Can You Hum Along?
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Over at, Eli Lake and I discuss Iran policy -- basically, I ask Eli again and again what good bombing Iran would do if it doesn't eliminate their nuclear capability, and he can't really give me an answer.  Also, in honor of the glorious Fourth, I wish for Bob Dylan to regain his social conscience, and Eli wishes for a new "We Are the World" -- which leads to a delightful dialogue, and even better followup in the comments, about whether "We Are the World" or "Do They Know It's Christmas" was a better piece of trashy feel-good pop.

Enjoy the holiday.

NSN Daily Update – 7/3/08
Posted by The National Security Network

NSN Daily Update – 7/3/08

War in Iraq Strains U.S. Military And Hurts U.S. Efforts In Afghanistan

“I don’t have troops I can reach for” –Admiral Mullen
“Afghanistan an “under-resourced war”- General McNeil
“When the five-brigade surge went in, that took all the stroke out of the shock absorbers for the United States Army.” – General Cody

Yesterday, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs acknowledged publicly what has been said quietly for a long time – our focus on Iraq is hurting our efforts in Afghanistan. Admiral Mullen said "I don't have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq." This admission, taken with Admiral Mullen’s past comment that "In Afghanistan, we do what we can…In Iraq, we do what we must," is a clear sign that the Bush administration has failed to prioritize the war in Afghanistan and has pushed our military to its limits. Urgent action is required that returns Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan, to the center of our counterterrorism policy and provides the troops and resources that the mission requires.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen says that the Iraq war is hindering crucial troop deployment to Afghanistan.  Admiral Michael Mullen noted that more U.S. troops are needed in Afghanistan to help control an increasingly active insurgency but, due to the war in Iraq, insufficient forces are available for such action.  "I don't have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq," Mullen said. "Afghanistan remains an economy of force campaign, which by definition means we need more forces there. We have the ability in almost every single case to win from the combat standpoint, but we don't have enough troops there to hold. That is key to the future of being able to succeed in Afghanistan." [Washington Post 7/2/08]

Iraq War poses "significant risk" to all-volunteer army – the surge to out the Army’s “shock absorbers” says Army General. Vice Chief of the Army Gen. Cody said that the "heavy deployments are inflicting 'incredible stress' on soldiers and families and that they pose 'a significant risk' to the nation's all-volunteer military. 'When the five-brigade surge went in, that took all the stroke out of the shock absorbers for the United States Army,' Cody testified. 'Our readiness is being consumed as fast as we build it. Lengthy and repeated deployments with insufficient recovery time have placed incredible stress on our soldiers and our families, testing the resolve of our all-volunteer force like never before.'" [Washington Post, 4/2/08. NY Times, 4/6/08 ]

General McNeil, who just finished a tour as Senior Commander in Afghanistan, has called the mission there an “under-resourced war.” American commanders in Kabul and military officials in Washington have said that coalition force levels remain too low. Before departing Afghanistan last month at the end of a tour as Senior Commander there, Gen. Dan K. McNeill called Afghanistan an “under-resourced war,” as he warned that Pakistan was not doing nearly enough to stem the flow of militant fighters across the mountain border it shares with Afghanistan. General McNeill said the Afghanistan mission “needs more maneuver units, it needs more flying machines, it needs more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance units.” [New York Times, 7/2/08]

Quick Hits

Will there be a status of forces agreement with Iraq? The Iraqi status of forces agreement negotiations are either going forward “in a constructive spirit”, as the Washington Post reports, or, according to the New York Times, bogged down in details and “no longer optimistic.” However, both newspaper outlets seem to agree that an interim pact is the most likely outcome.

Adm. Michael Mullen strongly discouraged an air strike on Iran as it would further strain US forces in the region. His comment came in shortly after George Bush said “that he believed the best way to deal with the Iranian nuclear program was through multilateral negotiations.”

Will the President close Guantanamo?  A decision on the future of the highly controversial prison camp is expected before the President leaves for the G8 meeting at the end of the week.

A Congressional committee has found that Bush friend Ray L. Hunt of Hunt Oil signed a deal with Kurdistan that undermines US security interests…and that State Department officials did nothing to discourage the deal and in some cases appeared to welcome it, documents show.

July 02, 2008

Annointing Winners In A Civil War -- Always A Problem
Posted by David Shorr

Strange story on Morning Edition this morning from Corey Flintoff in Iraq. The lead-in says that consultations with local sheiks have been turning violent; then Flintoff covers one such meeting that stays relatively cool; and the US officer remarks on the shift from when he used to get nothing but complaints instead of, as now, thanks.

Then within the story, and the meeting, is a show-down over a shift of local Iraqi command from one individual to another. While the story briefly mentions the patronage that's at stake in the switch, it makes it sound like just another tough personnel call at the office, who's going to get the promotion -- except here, one of the performance metrics is collaboration with the US occupation against AQI. And that's the point: it's no fault of the US forces, but what we're essentially doing is making nearly arbitrary choices about who will have power at the local level. The fact that it's at a local level is itself a big problem. The story is about command of militias. Just how does this relate to the stabilization of a unified Iraqi republic?

What's infuriating, for me, about the steady stream of surgeisworking, is that if you strip out the real context, it's easy to claim success. To quote once again from Steven Simon's excellent "Price of the Surge" article in Foreign Affairs:

The problem is that this strategy to reduce violence is not linked to any sustainable plan for building a viable Iraqi state. If anything, it has made such an outcome less likely, by stoking the revanchist fantasies of Sunni Arab tribes and pitting them against the central government and against one another. In other words, the recent short-term gains have come at the expense of the long-term goal of a stable, unitary Iraq.

Great Parliamentarians Think Alike
Posted by David Shorr

When two key American and British progressive political leaders offer forward-looking ideas on today's urgent diplomatic challenges, it's probably worth taking note. As regular DA readers already know, I think one of the most resonant ways to talk about the failures of recent policy is to focus on US out-of-touchness with the rest of the world. Now, along come Jim Murphy, MP -- UK Minister for Europe, who blogs -- and Sen. Russ Feingold with excellent points about the importance of diplomacy that really clues into local realities elsewhere around teh globe (hat tip to Washington Note's Sameer Lalwani for a substantive post on Feingold's recent New America Foundation speech).

Continue reading "Great Parliamentarians Think Alike" »

The Security Premium
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

We released a new report over at NSN today on the impact that saber-rattling on Iran, the war with Iraq, and the Bush Administration's foreign policy have driven up the price of oil.  Going read.  Rosa Brooks also had  good piece on this recently.  Here is an interesting graph (Note that we're not claiming that the entire rise in prices is due to this foreign policy.   But it's played a role)


NSN Daily Update - 7/2/08
Posted by The National Security Network

NSN Daily Update – 7/2/08
New Administration Report Conflicts with GAO Assessment and Again Paints Simplistic and Overly Rosy Picture of Iraq

The United States embassy in Baghdad released a report yesterday claiming that there has been “satisfactory progress” on 15 of the 18 congressionally mandated benchmarks for Iraq.  But this is another in the Administration’s long history of releasing vague measures of progress that paint an overly rosy picture of the situation in Iraq.  Meanwhile, the GAO recently concluded that while a number of legislative benchmarks have been passed by the Iraqi Parliament, in many cases they have not achieved their intended goals or have not been implemented at all.  The security situation in Iraq has improved but serious political issues must still be solved if there is to be long-term stability 

The Administration continues to use vague measures of progress in Iraq to paint a rosy picture.  Since the evaluations of the “benchmarks” of progress in Iraq began last year, the Bush Administration has consistently used unclear monikers, “satisfactory progress” and “unsatisfactory progress.”  Last September, the Administration’s benchmark report said 13 benchmarks were reported as either satisfactory or partially satisfactory.  The GAO’s report by contrast found that only 3 of the 18 benchmarks had been met.  Some benchmarks claimed as “satisfactory” by the Administration only demonstrated minimal levels of progress, not achievement, while others failed to accomplish the intended purpose of the specific measurement.  Today, the Bush Administration continues to use the same vague qualifications to evaluate progress in Iraq.  [NSN Benchmark Assessment Report, 9/14/08.  GAO, 9/4/08]

Key legislation has been passed but it remains unimplemented, which is the much more important benchmark.  The Iraqi government has passed legislation on de-Ba’athification reform, amnesty, and provincial powers legislation after considerable debate and compromise among Iraq’s political blocs.  But it’s unclear that the intended outcomes of the laws can be achieved.  For example, in the case of the amnesty legislation only a very limited number of prisoners had been set free as of May 2008. Moreover, implementation of the de-Ba’athification law has stalled and may end up making it more difficult to bring Sunnis into the government instead of less.  [GAO, 6/08]

Key elements ‘critical’ for national reconciliation remain stalled.  Additionally, other legislation considered critical for national reconciliation has not been enacted.  The most important among these measures are laws that define the management of oil and gas resources, and provide for the disarmament of Iraq’s armed groups; both laws remain stalled.  Moreover, critical issues such as integrating the Sunni Sons of Iraq into the central government, holding free and fair provincial elections and solving the dispute over Kirkuk are all outstanding.  [GAO, 6/08.]

Quick Hits

Amidst Taliban resurgence and a revival of Islamic radical elements, 41 U.S. and coalition troops were killed in Afghanistan in June, making it the deadliest month since the 2001 U.S. led invasion. 

The “enhanced interrogation techniques” deployed at Guantanamo Bay appear to have been directly copied from Chinese Communist coercion techniques—which at the time the U.S. referred to as torture.

Iran’s foreign minister sees opportunity for new nuclear talks with the international community, further exacerbating a schism in Iran’s leadership between hardliners and more moderate elements in Tehran.

David Ignatius derides the Bush administration’s approach to dealing with Iran, saying that U.S. half steps mask indecisive policy

Meanwhile, Wendy Sherman has an LA Times Op-Ed pointing out that the successful diplomacy with North Korea over its nuclear program should put to rest the notion that that a willingness to talk with an enemy equates appeasement.

In Colombia, John McCain reiterated his support for the Colombian free trade agreement and urged the Colombian president to improve the country’s record on human rights.  One of his major fundraisers, Carl H. Linder, Jr., served of CEO of Chiquita Bananas who this week admitted to illegally funding the paramilitaries and agreed to pay a $25 million fine.

A new CNN poll has found that in the face of the Midwest floods, economic woes, and other domestic issues, American fear of terrorism is today less than any period since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

July 01, 2008

A New Project from NSN
Posted by The National Security Network

To our readers:

This document is the first in a series of daily briefs that NSN will be putting out each morning over the next few months.

McCain Visits Colombia - Pledges To Continue George Bush’s Failed Colombian Drug Policy That Has Proved Unable To Stem The Drug Trade.

Today John McCain begins a three-day visit to Colombia and Mexico where he will pledge his support for continuing the Bush administration’s policies on trade, immigration, and drugs. McCain’s support for the Colombian trade agreement has received much attention, but just as concerning is his support for continuing the Bush administration’s Plan Colombia – a drug eradication strategy that focuses heavily on aerial spraying and other forced eradication programs. This policy has proved ineffective. More cocaine is flowing into the US than ever before, and the number of users at home is rising. The U.S. needs a change in course and a comprehensive new counter-narcotics strategy, not more of the same.

McCain continues to promote failed Bush strategies.  “I want to go to Colombia as it is a vital ally in our struggle against the scourge of drugs, a great amount of cocaine that comes into the United States of America, as we know, comes from Colombia,” McCain said. “Colombia has shown success, and I am strongly in favor of the free trade agreement between the United States and the nation of Colombia.”  However, a recent UN report highlights that despite aggressive eradication efforts and more than $5 billion in U.S. aid, the area under coca cultivation in Colombia is increasing.   From 2006 to 2007, the total area under coca cultivation in Colombia increased by 27%.  [CBS, 7/1/08, UNDOC, 6/08]

The Bush-McCain supply-side strategies alone have been ineffective and insufficient in stopping the flow of drugs to the U.S.  U.S. actions as a part of Colombian counter-narcotic policies have created a “balloon effect” in the country; when the U.S. targets one region, production increases elsewhere.  In Colombia, coca growers have adapted their growing practices to counter intensified coca eradication; producers have expanded growing operations to non-traditional cultivation areas.  Meanwhile, coca production has risen in Bolivia and Peru.   [DOJ, National Drug Assessment 2008; UNDOC, 6/08 ]

The U.S. must shift its efforts to a more comprehensive strategy, including demand reduction at home.  According to John M. Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America, "Forced eradication, including aerial spraying, only guarantees more replanting."  Instead, it is necessary to focus on improving infrastructure and helping poor coca farmers transition to alternative, legal crops. "The easy pickings in terms of spraying coca in Colombia are over, and for there to be progress beyond this plateau there needs to be an alternative livelihood," Walsh said.  Additionally, the National Drug Control Strategy has emphasized the effectiveness of balanced demand- and supply-side strategy. [Washington Post, 6/19/08; International Crisis Group, 06/08]

Quick Hits

Al Qaeda is extending its influence into Algeria and the Maghreb by extensively supporting radical Islamic militants that are “reinvigorated with fresh recruits and a zeal for Western targets”

Iraq invited a consortium of the world’s energy firms to start bidding on the plethora of “underperforming” Iraqi oil fields, a measure taken to boost production. This is taking place despite the fact that no oil law has been passed, and the Iraqi government has failed to spend the amount of oil revenue they currently receive, indicating that the move is hardly “pressing.”

The month of June was the deadliest for NATO forces in Afghanistan since the beginning of the war, with 45 reported casualties. It was also the second straight month in which militants killed more U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan than in Iraq.

McCain campaign confident Charlie Black was a lobbyist with close ties to Colombia.  A lobbying firm headed until recently by Black has earned $1.8 million representing the Occidental Petroleum Corporation, the leading foreign producer of gas and oil in Colombia.

The views of a former CIA operative who opposed the “conventional wisdom” on Iran’s nuclear weapons program were deliberately suppressed by the agency, the Washington Post reports.

Despite mounting criticism by fellow African leaders and his runoff described as “not free, fair or credible”, Robert Mugabe attended the African Union summit in Egypt.

A compound said to belong to a militant Islamic group near Peshawar, Pakistan exploded, killing “as many as eight people”, amidst a Pakistani offensive wave in the area to counter increased resurgent activities.

The Grand Strategy Debate
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I really enjoyed reading the last few posts on "grand strategy." I largely agree with Ilan and Shawn. However, I share David's concerns about a strategy that fails to point “toward worthy ultimate objectives” or one without “the kind of heart and soul with which we can inspire a nation.”

At a deeper level, any strategic reassessment must look at the question of foundational principles. What kind of country do we aspire to be? What are the ideals which drive us, and to what extent are we willing to uphold them? A reassessment also requires that we take a hard look at what we have done. For a country that wishes to use its power for good, to what extent have we used our power for the opposite? We must err on the side of self-criticism, because there is, sadly, much to criticize. 

Ilan says that “the goal of American foreign policy should be to sustain the international system that that has served the United States and mankind so well for the past 60 years.” Yes, there was much in that system to be proud of, and it is tragic that it has been systematically dismantled in the last eight years. But the danger of the Bush experience is that it makes us look with perhaps excessive affection for pre-9/11 strategies – strategies that were largely designed to maintain the status quo in critical areas (i.e. the Middle East). The international system served us well, but to what extent did it serve others well? Here, the picture is less clear. 

So, yes, I was concerned by David’s conclusion that “we are indeed reorienting America from being a revolutionary power toward being a status quo power, and properly so.” If this is indeed true – and if this is really what progressives want – then I’m really, really confused and more than a bit worried. Of course, we shouldn’t be a revolutionary power – in the sense that that revolutions are usually disrupting and often violent – but if we aspire to reinstate the status quo, let us just recall that the status quo wasn’t all that great for a lot of people.

It would be hard for anyone to argue that the Middle East was a beneficiary of the once-predominant internationalism that reigned supreme. And it was this bi-partisan approach to U.S. policy that gave us the Middle East we have today – one beset by political violence, terrorism, sectarianism, anti-Americanism and often brutal authoritarian regimes. The Bush administration made it much worse, but it would be a mistake to think that things were going well when Democrats (or Bush senior) were in power.

In some sense, the Middle East is the primary (but certainly not the only) exception to the 50-year long relative success of the pre-9/11 era. But it is also a particularly important one, in that our successes and failures in that region have a disproportionate effect on our vital interests, not to mention on how others perceive us, and how we perceive ourselves. I’ve begun to notice much more now that commentators are saying that we should de-emphasize the Middle East and concentrate more attention to rising powers like China and Russia. And, of course, they’re right (about the second part), but the danger here is that we will fail to take corrective action – action that is sorely needed - in the world’s most undemocratic and dangerous region. We can give up on the Middle East – and that is a certainly a better option than invading it – but if we if we wash our hands of responsibility for the fate of the Middle East, then I think history – to say nothing of the hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims – will judge us harshly.   

June 30, 2008

Bush Administration Confirms What We Knew All Along
Posted by Patrick Barry

Thanks to stalwart intern Will Rosenzweig, who picked up on this oh-so-telling Dana Perino gaffe:

On the heels of this morning’s story in the New York Times that the Bush Administration has been grossly negligent in its pursuit of Al Qaeda in Pakistani tribal areas and weak-kneed in pushing Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to pull his weight in attacking al Qaeda and Taliban outposts, comes this gem from White House Press Secretary Dana Perino:

“The President has been looking for Osama Bin Laden since September 12th.”

Call me crazy, but shouldn’t Bush have been looking for Bin Laden on say, January 20th, 2001, the day he took office? Perino basically admits that for nearly nine months the administration ignored the significant threat that Bin Laden and Al Qaeda posed to America. This admission is unsurprising and yet stunning at the same time. It’s unsurprising because we’ve long known that the Bush administration repeatedly ignored the warnings of Richard Clarke about the need for a war room to track Bin Laden and Al Qaeda leads.

But Perino’s comment is also stunning. It’s stunning because this is the same Bush Administration whose core message of “Republicans strong, Democrats weak” has consistently sought to pigeonhole Democrats as being soft on terrorism, despite the fact that their policiesor sometimes the absence of policies – have contributed to a worsening terrorist threat. Their duplicity is unconscionable. First, there was Bush’s assertion that Democrats were weak on terror and showed their “softer side” when voting on the President’s terror agenda. And of course there was Dick Cheney’s insistence during the 2004 election that should voters “make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again, and we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating.”

For those who would say that Perino’s comment was merely a slip, I’d point you to President Bush answering Jim Lehrer’s question about whether he took his eye off Al Qaeda in the first presidential debate in 2004:

“Of course we're after Saddam Hussein -- I mean bin Laden.”

Give Me Liberty, Or Give Me Stability
Posted by David Shorr

There are numerous problems with the way that Gregory Scoblete sets up a dichotomy between the universality of liberal ideals and the particularity of the world's different societies and their governance. Before launching into my critique, though, I'll credit Scoblete for putting his finger on a central issue for post-Bush foreign policy: how agitated or patient should the US be regarding the domestic regime character of other countries?

But his article is a classic example of distorting a policy approach to fit his frame -- the struggle between moral clarity and accommodation. If you're not punitive toward dictators (McCain), then you're passive (Obama). This passage shows how Scoblete skews things and misses the pivotal point of the debate:

Many politicians, Obama included, have spoken of the universal appeal of American values. But McCain's argument is different. He's not merely stating that they are appealing, but that they universally applicable and that it is in our interest to apply them.

Continue reading "Give Me Liberty, Or Give Me Stability" »

9/11: Facts and Narratives
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Our challenges in the Middle East are not simply about policy; they are about narratives, and our failure to understand their importance.  I was reminded of this again last week, when some relatives from Egypt were visiting for a wedding. I had mentioned 9/11 in the context of civil rights for Muslims in America. Then, quickly, the conversation took a different turn. My aunt said something about Arabs not being responsible for September 11th. She suggested that it was probably an “inside job,” and began listing a variety of non-Arab groups that could have been involved. I got annoyed. “You don’t really believe that, do you?” “Those are just baseless rumors and conspiracy theories,” I said. “I mean, after all, Bin Laden himself admitted his involvement and congratulated the 19 hijackers for what they did.” (Then the creative response, “Bin Laden was a double agent.”)

Then my uncle chimed in. He’s exactly the kind of person (some) U.S. policymakers appear to like. Privately religious, but adamant about the separation of religion from politics; distrustful of the Egyptian masses and what they would do if they were allowed to actually vote in free elections; and goes into near seizures whenever the name of the Muslim Brotherhood is mentioned (“they’ll destroy the country!”). But, even here, the same old narrative popped up. He argued that when you’re trying to determined who did 9/11, you have to look at who benefited most from it (“The U.S. and Israel”). Then he started talking about one of those 9/11 truth viral videos about how a couple planes couldn’t have made the towers collapse the way they did. 

But then there was another point he raised which was interesting to me, because it’s not the kind of thing you’d expect to hear, but you actually hear it quite a lot from Arabs. He said that Arabs are so backward and hopeless that there was no way they could be responsible for anything which required such advanced planning, organizational discipline, and technical knowledge, etc.

After about 10 minutes of trying to counter what they were saying, I gave up. The facts were irrelevant. If anything, the more I countered with evidence, the more adamant they were that I was wrong. This is not surprising, and there has been a growing, and quite fascinating, literature on how challenging misconceptions with facts can actually have the effect of hardening those misconceptions (see, for instance, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler’s excellent paper on this). The statements of my aunt and uncle may appear to be irrational and stupid, but they are totally in keeping with the predominant narrative that exists in the Middle East. Facts are interpreted within the context of this narrative, and everything is bent to fit it. The narrative is this – that the U.S., through its policies, has consistently undermined the will of Arabs and Muslims, and contributed to the underdevelopment of the region. Whether or not this narrative is actually accurate is almost beside the point.   

Continue reading "9/11: Facts and Narratives" »

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