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January 19, 2008

Bacevich: A Surge to Nowhere
Posted by Shawn Brimley


Andrew Bacevich has a powerful critique of the Iraq war in today's Washington Post. I hesitate to even post excerpts but he finishes up the piece by asking:

But how exactly do these sacrifices serve the national interest? What has the loss of nearly 4,000 U.S. troops and the commitment of about $1 trillion -- with more to come -- actually gained the United States?

Bush had once counted on the U.S. invasion of Iraq to pay massive dividends. Iraq was central to his administration's game plan for eliminating jihadist terrorism. It would demonstrate how U.S. power and beneficence could transform the Muslim world. Just months after the fall of Baghdad, the president declared, "The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution." Democracy's triumph in Baghdad, he announced, "will send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran -- that freedom can be the future of every nation." In short, the administration saw Baghdad not as a final destination but as a way station en route to even greater successes.

In reality, the war's effects are precisely the inverse of those that Bush and his lieutenants expected. Baghdad has become a strategic cul-de-sac. Only the truly blinkered will imagine at this late date that Iraq has shown the United States to be the "stronger horse." In fact, the war has revealed the very real limits of U.S. power. And for good measure, it has boosted anti-Americanism to record levels, recruited untold numbers of new jihadists, enhanced the standing of adversaries such as Iran and diverted resources and attention from Afghanistan, a theater of war far more directly relevant to the threat posed by al-Qaeda. Instead of draining the jihadist swamp, the Iraq war is continuously replenishing it.

Look beyond the spin, the wishful thinking, the intellectual bullying and the myth-making. The real legacy of the surge is that it will enable Bush to bequeath the Iraq war to his successor -- no doubt cause for celebration at AEI, although perhaps less so for the families of U.S. troops. Yet the stubborn insistence that the war must continue also ensures that Bush's successor will, upon taking office, discover that the post-9/11 United States is strategically adrift. Washington no longer has a coherent approach to dealing with Islamic radicalism. Certainly, the next president will not find in Iraq a useful template to be applied in Iran or Syria or Pakistan.

According to the war's most fervent proponents, Bush's critics have become so "invested in defeat" that they cannot see the progress being made on the ground. Yet something similar might be said of those who remain so passionately invested in a futile war's perpetuation. They are unable to see that, surge or no surge, the Iraq war remains an egregious strategic blunder that persistence will only compound.

January 18, 2008

Ending Genocide - Send in the Contractors
Posted by Michael Cohen

Below, my blogmate Lorelei Kelly praises anti-genocide activists for raising awareness about the terrible situation in Darfur. Certainly, they deserve acknowledgment for the work they've done, but if recent reports out of the region are any indication, all their efforts are unfortunately not bringing real change on the ground. The UN mission to Darfur there remains woefully undermanned (instead of 27,000 blue hats, there are a mere 9,000) and lacks the necessary equipment (helicopters, in particular) to do its job. Then of course there is the typical UN reluctance to put itself in possibly deadly military situations. This from Jean-Marie Guehenno, UN peacekeeping chief:

A Sudanese attack this week on UN-led troops reinforces concerns that the force might be unable to protect itself or civilians in Darfur. The violence, along with foot-dragging by the Sudanese government and the lack of necessary helicopters and equipment, might doom the peacekeeping effort.

Guehenno told the Security Council last month that it might be better not to deploy a UN force at all than to deploy one that was too vulnerable, recalling tragedies involving overwhelmed peacekeepers in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

So in short, the peacekeeping mission to Darfur might not bring any kind of peace at all. There is actually a reasonable solution to this problem, but its one that unfortunately many in the activist community refuse to consider - the use of private military contractors to serve as peacekeepers. Now I know for many people the very reference to contractors conjures up images of Blackwater killing innocent Iraqis in Baghdad. Certainly, that is one side of the story.

But at the same time there are plenty of other military contractors (Armor, DynCorp etc) who have acted responsibly in Iraq. The vast majority of contractors and elsewhere don't break the law, they don't shoot civilians and they generally do a pretty good job. Moreover, some in the industry have indicated a willingness to play a more active role in humanitarian operations.

Now having said all that I would not advocate for such an approach if I thought governments could tackle this issue. But sadly they have failed to do so and as a result millions have died unnecessarily, particularly when one considers that even a small application of force could have likely stopped the violence years ago.

The advantage of using contractors are significant. A PMC-led force in Darfur would not have to encounter any of the serious challenges that cripple UN peacekeeping operations, from chain of command issues and coordination of national armies to equipment concerns. It's hard to imagine a PMC force being "overwhelmed" in Darfur.  At the very least, contractors would likely be better soldiers then the ill-trained units from the world's poorest countries that are often sent on peacekeeping operations.

Now of course for such an effort to succeed contractors would have to work on behalf of the United Nations and African Union and most of all be held responsible for their actions. Unlike in Iraq, there would have to be rules in place regarding accountability and oversight as well as a legal structure for prosecuting any contractors accused of human rights violations. No one wants to see a repeat of the Wild West show in Iraq and dealing with these issues in advance would go a long way toward nipping that problem in the bud. Having spoken with many in the contracting world I don't believe that such oversight rules would be a hindrance; in fact the opportunity to rehabilitate the image of PMCs would be an opportunity many in the industry would leap at. (Not to mention the money they would make).

Now I understand the concerns that many people have about the outsourcing of peacekeeping to private industry. But, what is the alternative. For years, the international community sat on its hands and did nothing as millions died in Darfur. After finally agreeing to send a peacekeeping operation to the region it is has received little Western support and is undermanned. In short, Western and African governments have failed miserably in stopping the killing. Contractors are not a panacea, but if they can stop the killing in Darfur shouldn't we give it a try?

The Craziest Thing Said on the Campaign Trail 2008
Posted by Michael Cohen

I generally think that John McCain is a pretty smart guy, but today he said something so utterly insane that it may well be the "Craziest Thing Said on the Campaign Trail in 2008."

In response to a worsening economic situation and burgeoning recession, John McCain has pinpointed the root of the problem - government spending.

"The economy is not good. The stock market continues down. And the indicators are not good. I'm not too astonished. ... We let spending get totally out of control, and it continues today, and I'm sorry to tell you this," McCain said at a town-hall style meeting at the Carolina Hospital East Campus in Florence.

The fact that John McCain actually believes this should immediately disqualify him for any consideration as President of the United States. Last time I checked, government spending has a stimulating effect on the economy, indeed it is a key lever of fiscal policy. Is it possible that John McCain does not know this? (Now I know the argument that spending can increase the deficit and have a drag on the economy, but a) that's not what McCain is saying and b) the deficit has actually gone down in recent years). The notion that worsening economy and plummeting stock market is a result of government spending is not only laughable, it's downright embarrassing.

But this isn't even the craziest thing McCain said. In regards to a stimulus package, here are McCain's thoughts: "People talk about a stimulus package. Fine, if that's what we want to come up with. But stop the spending first."

Excuse me while I bang my head against a wall and stick sharp pencils in my eyes. Cutting spending would have the exact opposite intended effect of a stimulus package. In fact, I can't imagine anything stupider then cutting government spending at a time of economic downturn. Well actually I can imagine something stupider; cutting corporate income taxes from 35% to 25% and paying for it with cuts in "wasteful spending" which is of course exactly what McCain is advocating. I could be wrong, but wouldn't such changes only begin to affect tax revenue in 2009? In the short-term these steps would have almost no stimulus effect on the economy (and its even dubious if they would have a long-term effect). Indeed, McCain's own web site cites a Tax Foundation report that makes clear his tax proposals are geared toward "improving the nation's longer-term economic health." So in reality, McCain is not really presenting a stimulus package at all.

But what's even more crazy about McCain's proposal and comments is that he doesn't even seem to understand the basic principles of fiscal policy. At a time of economic downturn, there are two options at the government's disposal (besides obviously monetary policy) cutting taxes or increasing spending. While most economists would probably be supportive of spending, arguing on behalf of tax cuts is not indefensible. Yet, McCain doesn't only reject the notion of government spending he seems to not understand that spending can actually stimulate the economy and that cutting spending will have a deleterious impact.

The even crazier thing about this entire discussion is that the statements above might not be the craziest thing McCain has said about economics on the campaign trail. In South Carolina he said this, "Every time we have cut taxes we have increased revenues."  Find me a reputable economist who believes that, but even if it was true why did McCain vote against the Bush tax cuts.

I guess when McCain said “The issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should,” he wasn't kidding around.

Winning (and losing) on National Security
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I've been wanting to respond to another post from Matt Yglesias since last week, but only now have gotten around to it. Matt writes

Brian Katulis writes on a subject near to my heart: how progressives can win on national security. His thought, meanwhile, largely mirrors my own. It's important to make a broad-based, principles-driven argument that the failures of the Bush years represent an ideological failure that discredits not specific people but their ideas.

Matt has made this same point several times - that progressives have to go beyond mere criticisms of the Bush administration's policies abroad, and instead question and attack the ideas that underlie said policies. Agreed. And on things like torture, the unitary executive, pre-emption, the so-called 1% doctrine, unilateralism, and militarism, liberals must offer a sustained critique that grasps that these destructive policies are not a coincidence. Rather, they are a product of an ideological bias that reflects a very dangerous worldview.

But, it's also worth noting that some of the Bush administration's ideas are/were quite good - even visionary - and the problem wasn't that they were pursued with dangerous aplomb, but, rather, that they weren't pursued at all. They were ideas that, except perhaps for a brief period in late 2004/early 2005, were never really implemented. I'm talking about the Bush administration's supposed elevation of democracy promotion as a central component of U.S. foreign policy. Not only that, the Bushies offered the novel argument that the only way to defeat terror and extremism in the long run was to support Middle Eastern democracy. The idea was that as long as Arabs and Muslims did not have legitimate, peaceful channels with which to express their grievances, they would be more likely to resort to political violence. Lack of democracy was seen as an important root cause of terrorism.

These ideas could have provided the impetus for a radical new direction in the way we approached the Middle East. But it was not to be. But let's be clear about it - the problem, at least in respect to democracy promotion, was not the Bush administration's ideas, but, rather, its apparent lack of interest in putting them into practice. It would be sad to learn the wrong lessons from the last 7 years of Bush-induced destruction. As difficult as it may be to believe, the Bush administration had some good ideas. It's time to resuscitate them and keep them alive. The neo-cons do not have a monopoly on democracy promotion. It's time for liberals to reclaim it from them, and mold it into a policy program that's not just visionary in theory, but that actually produces results on the ground.

Yes We Can
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Matt Yglesias writes:

I'm not sure there's very much the US government can or should do, in practice, to push Egypt into becoming a democracy.

This sentiment never fails to baffle me. This isn't exactly a contentious issue. There is - indisputably - quite a bit we "can" do to help Egypt move toward democracy (as for the "should" of it, I guess it depends if you have moral qualms with sending nearly $2 billion of aid to a dictatorship which represses, sometimes brutally, anyone who opposes it). It's not rocket science. Egypt is one of our closest allies in the region. They depend on us for economic and military support. This means we have leverage, and we shouldn't be afraid to use that leverage to push for change. For starters, this can mean making the billions we give to Egypt conditional on political reform (for more on this, see here). For more forward-thinking policymakers, we can also explore ways to show the Egyptian regime we're serious (this could include starting a dialogue with the strongest opposition group in the country - the Muslim Brotherhood. For more on that, see here). Now there is a legitimate debate about how much we can do ultimately do to change Egypt. But the basic point remains - we can at least do something.

As for the second question of whether we "should" do something, I'm pretty sure Matt and I are on the same page here (and hopefully the vast majority of liberals). Do you think that America should be bankrolling ruthless dictators oppress their own people - and not say or do anything about it? (think about this: you have unwieldy friend. He's really smart but is also a drug-dealer and has been involved in at least two murders. He helped you create an amazing website for your new business. You think you need him. So you give him $4000 over the course of the year carte blanche and you know he uses a significant portion of it for his shady activities. No, if he's really your friend, you want him to stop destroying his life and other people's lives. Secondly, you bear moral responsiblity if you have direct knowledge that your money is going toward illegal activities). This isn't rocket science. We have to stop problematizing the basic idea of democracy promotion. The how of it, of course, is difficult but we should all be in agreement that something must be done.

Progressive Strategy

Next Steps for Stopping Genocide
Posted by Lorelei Kelly

I know that Michigan and Nevada are getting all the attention this week, but before you head to the strip, take a minute to think about Tennessee, New York, Washington, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Georgia and Texas.

This month might be dominated by presidential politics, but January is also a great time to plot advocacy strategies for Capitol Hill. During the coming year, the distraction of headline politics provides a great opening to pilot new policy ideas inside Congress -- and get heard. National security is unfortunately an issue that gets warped and slung about in a most unhelpful way on the campaign trail. Which is why Americans who work on issues like Darfur and genocide prevention have a double opportunity to present their issue campaigns within a larger security strategy that changes our direction in the world. People who work on these issues inside Congress will welcome a ground truth check from public minded citizens.

The last month has brought both progress and setbacks for the fledgling peacekeeping mission in the Sudan. The fact that the UN troops have now joined African Union troops is a great step forward. Yet attacks against the peacekeepers continue -- the most recent one last Friday was against a supply convoy. Everyone who cares about this issue deserves to feel frustrated. After all, the U.S. and its allies pressured the U.N. to deploy a new peacekeeping force for Darfur but are now failing to support it. None of the hardware-heavy wealthy countries, it seems, has the wherewithal to come up with a few helicopters. This failing points out an important new direction for anti-genocide movement here in the USA -- one that will make all the difference in the world for promoting the primary security principle of this century: the safety of people. But doing this will require a few new strategies and tactics.

The genocide prevention movement is one of the most encouraging grass roots campaigns that I have seen in 20 years of working on peace and security issues in politics. When I worked on Capitol Hill,

Continue reading "Next Steps for Stopping Genocide" »

January 17, 2008

The President's Disastrous Mideast Trip - UPDATED
Posted by Michael Cohen

This week both my blogmates Ilan Goldenberg and Patrick Barry have offered tepid praise for the President's recent trip to the Middle East. Forgive me for sounding a discordant note, but color me unimpressed. In fact, to paraphrase Ilan the trip was "an unmitigated disaster."

I think Hannah Allam at McClatchy sums it up best:

President Bush wraps up a weeklong tour of the Middle East Wednesday, leaving many Mideast political observers mystified as to the purpose of the visit and doubtful that the president made inroads on his twin campaigns for Arab-Israeli peace and isolation for Iran.

Bush is heading back to Washington mostly empty-handed, said several analysts and politicians throughout the region. Arab critics deemed Bush's peace efforts unrealistic, his anti-Iran tirades dangerous, his praise of authoritarian governments disappointing and his defense of civil liberties ironic.

Indeed, it should hardly seem surprising that a George W Bush visit to the Middle East would not go well. After all he's less popular there then he is in the United States (and that is saying something). But by his words and actions Bush has severely weakened American credibility in the region and thrown away genuine opportunities for progress.

On Iran, Bush's constant rhetorical attacks about their nuclear program went over like a lead balloon. Instead of shifting course after the publication of the Iran NIE, the President openly derided it and continued to pound the drumbeats of war even though no one in the region, outside of Israel, has any appetite for military action.

If anything, efforts to isolate Iran are having the opposite effect as Ahmadinejad is wisely reaching out to the Gulf states and others in order to counter American rhetoric. America seems embarrassingly impotent and out of touch in trying to move the region toward its point of view about the supposed threat posed by Tehran. If anything, our efforts to isolate Iran are backfiring.

On the Arab-Israeli conflict, well I'll just recount the words of a Republican congressional staffer, "When people heard the president's pledge that he could help broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace by the end of his term, they laughed."  What's worse, at a time when the President seems to believe that there is a genuine opportunity for agreement between Olmert and Abbas he refuses to provide the political capital and direct involvement of a top US diplomat to make it happen, instead preferring to "nudge" the two sides toward peace. For all the President's nice words on the need for a Palestinian state and the creation of a compensation fund for Palestinian refugees it's hard to take them seriously when he refuses to put his money where his mouth is. I would imagine it's a view shared by many in the region.

But the President's worst performance may have come on the democracy front. In Egypt he actually praised Hosni Mubarek for "taking steps toward economic openness . . . and political reforms," all the while ignoring Egypt's many human rights violations, as well as the frequent efforts to stifle political openness. It's a far cry from the rhetorical calls for democracy in the region that one heard from Bush back in 2005 - and don't think political activists on the ground aren't noticing the change. According to the Washington Post:

Hisham Kassem, an Egyptian political activist who last year received a U.S. National Endowment for Democracy award, was left dispirited by Bush's tour. The year 2005 "was the best year in my life, politically. . . . Our hopes were way up there," Kassem said. "But -- it was just another story." Anger grew in his voice. "Bush, as far as American foreign policy vis-a-vis democracy, civil rights, is right back to square one," Kassem added. "This trip marks it."

Instead of standing up for democracy we have undercut the region's democracy activists and destroyed any credibility we might have on the issue.

Finally, Bush wasn't even able to convince the Saudis to increase oil production in order to reduce oil prices. Honestly, what's the point of electing a former Texas oil man if he can't even lean on the Saudis?

What comes away from this trip is the extraordinary impotence of the United States in the region. Across the board, regimes (many of which rely on American largesse) are tuning out the United States and privately mocking our diplomatic efforts. Successful trip? Hardly. All the President has done is ensure that the next US President will have his work cut out for him in the Middle East.

UPDATE: In Time Magazine, Scott MacLeod describes the complete disaster that was Bush's trip. The link is here, but the graf below sums it up well his appraisal:

Seldom has an American President's visit left the region so underwhelmed, confirming Bush's huge unpopularity on the street and his sagging credibility among Arab leaders he counts as allies. Part of the problem was the Administration's increasingly mixed message, amplified by the intense media coverage of his trip. For example, in Dubai he gave what the White House billed as a landmark speech calling for "democratic freedom in the Middle East." But during his last stop in Sharm el-Sheikh Wednesday, he lauded President Hosni Mubarak as an experienced, valued strategic partner for regional peace and security and made no mention of Cairo's ongoing crackdown on opponents and critics — and the continuing imprisonment of Mubarak's main opponent in the 2005 presidential election.

Bush's efforts to rally an Arab coalition to isolate Iran in the Gulf seemed to fall flat. Only days after he visited Kuwait, liberated in 1991 by a coalition led by the President's father, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Mohammed Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah was standing beside Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in Tehran, declaring: "My country knows who is our friend and who is our enemy, and Iran is our friend."

January 16, 2008

Not Enough
Posted by Patrick Barry

Yesterday’s revelation that President Bush cozied up to Prime Minister Olmert by deriding the Iran NIE has unquestionably tainted his Middle East visit, but he still deserves a fair bit of praise for having finally engaged diplomatically with the troubled region.

Still, if there are not considerable changes to the president’s policy towards the Middle East between now, and when he leaves office in 2009, the distance between his expectations and reality will remain unbridgeable.  His tour provides a good jumping-off point, but to reverse the broader and more problematic legacy of US involvement in the region, more significant changes must be made to American policy.  Progressive foreign policy experts have put forward some noteworthy recommendations for how the United States should proceed. If Bush truly wants to get serious on the Middle East, he should take a look at some of these proposals:

On Iran, “The Costs of Containing Iran” by Ray Takeyh and Vali Nasr - “The Bush administration is correct to sense that a truculent Iran poses serious challenges to U.S. concerns, but containing Iran through military deployment and antagonistic alliances simply is not a tenable strategy. . . Thus, the task at hand for Washington is to create a situation in which Iran will find benefit in limiting its ambitions and in abiding by international norms.”

On Iraq, “Four Ticking Time Bombs”
by Brian Katulis and Peter Juul -   “Rather than tinkering on the margins and avoiding the tough negotiations necessary to strike power-sharing deals among Iraq’s leaders, the Bush administration should implement a strategic reset of its approach to Iraq and the Middle East, centered on a phased redeployment of U.S. troops and intensified diplomatic efforts to resolve Iraq’s conflicts and stabilize the Middle East.”

On the Arab- Israeli Conflict, “Steps in Right Direction” by Moran Banai on Arab – Israeli Conflict - “Presidential visits such as this one are measured by what follows from them. Here follow-up will require an approach that constantly keeps an eye on progress on economic, political, and security fronts simultaneously, with visible indications of gains being made, even while discussions on the toughest issues – refugees, Jerusalem, final borders – continue apace. . .”

On Turkey, “Islamist Political Power in Turkey: Challenges for Brussels and Washington” by Steven Cook
- “Ankara literally sits at the geographic center of many of Washington’s pressing foreign policy concerns. Turkey can play an important role in helping Washington achieve its interests, but only if the United States recognizes that as Turkey comes into its own as a political, economic, and diplomatic player, there will be differences between the two allies.”

Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

If you, like me, were irritated by some of the moderating last night, read Matt Yglesias' piece in the Washington Monthly.

January 15, 2008

Have You Heard? The Islamic Extremists Are Really Really Really Really Dangerous
Posted by David Shorr

If you're a Republican presidential candidate these days, it seems as if the foreign policy debate boils down to showing how threatened you feel by Islamic terrorists. Someone should do a content analysis: relative to other foreign policy issues how much are the candidates talking about terrorists? As for me, I want to highlight a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too dimension here.

For example, Gov. Mike Huckabee's Foreign Affairs piece starts out really strong:

The United States, as the world's only superpower, is less vulnerable to military defeat. But it is more vulnerable to the animosity of other countries. Much like a top high school student, if it is modest about its abilities and achievements, if it is generous in helping others, it is loved. But if it attempts to dominate others, it is despised.

American foreign policy needs to change its tone and attitude, open up, and reach out.

Hey, sign me up! I want to vote for this guy. But wait a minute, keep reading. Scroll down just a few sentences and you learn that our problem is a failure to grasp how badly they want to kill us. Gov. Huckabee reminds us of the importance of knowing your enemy, which in this case means the cold-blooded murderousness of the children of Qutb. From what I already knew about this, I wanted to stop these people from committing further attacks. If I really knew what "makes Islamic terrorists tick," what should I do then?

Continue reading "Have You Heard? The Islamic Extremists Are Really Really Really Really Dangerous" »

Lefty Politics
Posted by Moira Whelan

I happened to notice after tonight’s debate that Obama is a south-paw. The dexterity issue struck me as one of the few areas of politics we have not yet explored deeply by the punditry. So given that it’s a smaller list (and because I am a lefty myself and was curious) I went digging for other famous lefties. Remember only 7 to 10% of the population are south-paws…

US Presidents:
James A. Garfield, Herbert Hoover, Harry S. Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan,  George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton 

Other famous US politicos: Bill Bradley, Anthony Kennedy, Robert McNamara, Ollie North, Ross Perot, William Perry

Honorable Mention: Fidel Castro, Bart Simpson

My prediction is that extensive debate of this issue, how Obama compares to these individuals and what this all means for the other candidates, will be as significant a contribution to the political dialogue as other discussion of minutia.

On a political note, Obama, in my opinion missed a huge opportunity in tonight's debate by not saying that his biggest weakness was that when he writes, he gets ink all over his hand.

Sometimes Dreams Come True
Posted by Michael Cohen

I was born in the great state of Michigan and I have to say that I have never been more proud to call myself a Michigander than I am tonight!

God bless you Euchre-loving people!

The dream lives; thank you Michigan!

That Wacky Wacky GOP
Posted by Michael Cohen

I have pledged to my fellow DA bloggers that after my recent sojourn to snowy New Hampshire I would return to Very Serious Foreign Policy Blogging. But with the possibility of a Mitt Romney, AKA Plastic Man, victory in Michigan tonight I had to have one last hurrah. You see as a political junkie, when I dream at night it is not of world peace or even Dana Perino, but instead of a brokered Republican convention. (Just typing the words gives me goosebumps.)

If the Mittster wins tonight you will have three contested primaries/caucuses won by three different candidates. With Rudy and Thompson still alive in the South the chances of a consensus frontrunner emerging on February 5th seems slim indeed. Let's say hypothetically that Rudy win Florida or maybe New York and McCain, Romney and Huckabee split the rest of the states voting on the 5th. With no frontrunner, a brokered convention becomes a real possibility And can you imagine Romney dropping out for the good of the party or McCain stepping down so his bete noire Plastic Man can get the nomination or the GOP establishment acquiescing to the Huckster?

I better stop typing before I get lightheaded . . . GO MITTSTER: make my dreams come true!


Bombing Ourselves in the Foot - Diyala Style
Posted by Patrick Barry

Buried within this piece from CBS and the AP is this troubling kernel of information:

“Still, the tree-lined farm region is more difficult terrain for fighting insurgents than the desert of Anbar, suggesting Diyala may not have seen the last of al Qaeda in Iraq. Compounding the difficulty for the military is the checkerboard pattern of Shiite and Sunni communities adjacent to one another.”

Violence has escalated as insurgents pour into Diyala from Anbar province but less attention has been paid to Diyala’s geographic and demographic peculiarities, which may affect the scope and intensity of the fighting. 

When viewed in this light, the recent round of bombings become more interesting. As Max has pointed out, air strikes are a rather counter-productive tactic for a counter-insurgency strategy, and it may be that the most recent strikes presage the challenges US troops will face as they focus their attention on Diyala.   

More on Bush and the NIE
Posted by Michael Cohen

Courtesy of David Kurtz over at TPM, we find the President's latest musings on the Iran NIE:

Q On the NIE, did you -- were you, in effect, distancing yourself from the conclusions of the NIE, and these guys --

THE PRESIDENT: No, I was making it clear it was an independent judgment, because what they basically came to the conclusion of, is that he's trying -- you know, this is a way to make sure that all options aren't on the table. So I defended our intelligence services, but made it clear that they're an independent agency; that they come to conclusions separate from what I may or may not want.

Now there are a few problems here that are worth mentioning. In the first half of the President's answer he seems to be suggesting that the intelligence community was seeking to take options off the table. Hmm, I can't imagine what "option" he is referring to? However, if I am reading this quote correctly the President's argument is disturbingly similar to conservative talking points on the Iran NIE. Indeed, look at what my good friend Charles Krauthammer had to say on this issue last month:

The administration understands that the NIE's distorted message that Iran has given up pursuing nukes has not only taken any military option off the table but also jeopardized any further sanctions against Iran.

But the really disturbing part comes at the end when the President notes that intelligence community (which he refers to as an independent agency) comes "to conclusions separate from what I may or may not want." Last time I checked the purpose of our vast network of intelligence agencies is to inform the decision-making of policymakers. Certainly, they are not an "independent agency" that acts at cross-purposes with the President. Yet here you have the President of the United States saying that what he "may or may not want" holds equal weight with their judgments.

This is a frightening insight into presidential decision-making in the Bush Administration (and one that most of us may have already suspected); that the President makes decisions based only loosely on what he is told by our intelligence agencies. Indeed this quote seems to indicate that his views on Iran are not informed at all by the judgment of these agencies.

I think we could have figured that some of the President's decisions were not informed by intelligence - but this is ridiculous.


A Soldier's Final Blog
Posted by Lorelei Kelly

... perhaps my death can serve as a small reminder of the costs of war. Regardless of the merits of this war, or of any war, I think that many of us in America have forgotten that war means death and suffering in wholesale lots. A decision that for most of us in America was academic, whether or not to go to war in Iraq, had very real consequences for hundreds of thousands of people. Yet I was as guilty as anyone of minimizing those very real consequences in lieu of a cold discussion of theoretical merits of war and peace....

Anything I could add to this would just be annoying blather. Read the rest of Major Andrew Olmsted's post here..

January 14, 2008

The President Knows
Posted by Michael Cohen

Sometimes you read a story about this President that is so insanely crazy it practically takes your breath away. Michael Hirsh's reporting on what our President told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert about the recent Iran NIE is just such a story:

In private conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week, the president all but disowned the document, said a senior administration official who accompanied Bush on his six-nation trip to the Mideast. "He told the Israelis that he can't control what the intelligence community says, but that [the NIE's] conclusions don't reflect his own views" about Iran's nuclear-weapons program, said the official, who would discuss intelligence matters only on the condition of anonymity.

"His own views?" One can only wonder what informed the President's opinion, but you really have to wonder what's the point of having a vast intelligence system if the President is simply going to ignore their conclusions when they don't conform to "his own views." This is a man who boasts that he doesn't read the paper, or watch the news and gets most of his information from the sycophants around him. Moreover, someone should probably remind the President why "he can't control what the intelligence community says." (See: Iraq War)

As Fred Kaplan points out, these words pretty much undermine any credibility the United States has on intelligence matters:

Let's say that six months from now Bush publicizes an NIE concluding that Iran has resumed its nuclear-weapons program or that, say, North Korea is reprocessing more plutonium. Given that he pooh-poohed an NIE that rubbed against his own views, why should anyone take him seriously for embracing an NIE that confirms them?

But imagine what this does to an already beaten down intelligence community. On the one hand, when the country gets sucked into a disastrous five-year war it's your fault (not the Administration that launched the war on cherry-picked intelligence and failed to plan for a post-war occupation). When you assert in 2004 that things are going from bad to worse in Iraq, the President derides it as "just guessing" even though you ended up being correct. Finally, when you produce a comprehensive report that differs with the President's "own views" you are derided once again to world leaders.

But most disastrously of all, by telling this to the Israeli Prime Minister do you think the President might be giving a green light for Israel to take matters into its own hands? Sure enough, Hirsh indicates that his words may have had this exact effect:

Bush's behind-the-scenes assurances may help to quiet a rising chorus of voices inside Israel's defense community that are calling for unilateral military action against Iran. Olmert, asked by NEWSWEEK after Bush's departure on Friday whether he felt reassured, replied: "I am very happy."

Do you remember when US President used to do everything in their power to prevent regional conflicts in the Middle East? Honestly, January 2009 cannot come soon enough.

UPDATE: Some folks have raised the fact that the quote above from Michael Hirsh's piece could lead one to a different conclusion, namely that Bush's admonition on the NIE may in fact cause the Israelis to back away from a possible unilateral attack on Iran, because they believe the US will attack instead. In hindsight, the quote could be read that way, but it's hard for me to believe that Israeli would be so naive to believe that. Indeed an ABC news story quotes Olmert telling a closed door committee meeting the following:

"Israel clearly will not reconcile itself to a nuclear Iran," the meeting participant quoted Olmert as telling the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. "All options that prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capabilities are legitimate within the context of how to grapple with this matter."

Obviously it's open to interpretation, but if I were the Israelis I would take Bush's words as a tacit green light, which is how I imagine they were intended.

Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Juan Cole pokes some serious holes in the new Iraqi de-Baathification law.  The basic deal is that the de-Baathification law was supported by the most anti-Baathist groups, most notably the Sadrists.  Meanwhile, most of the Sunni groups in Parliament, which include a large number of former Baathists, were opposed to the law.  On top of that only 143 members of Iraq's 275 member parliament were actually present.  So as far as we can tell the bill might have passed with as little as 72 supporters. 

The whole point of these legislative measures is not just to pass them.  They need to be passed in a way that actually brings about political reconciliation by getting the various sectarian groups to buy into the agreements.  All of the benchmarks are ultimately code for getting Sunnis and Shi'a to agree on how to share power in a new Iraq. It's as much about process as it is about product.   Pushing through a Shi'a version that is opposed by most of the Sunni members, many of whom were likely not even present, is not really the point.  It's likely to be counterproductive and actually make things worse.

Update:  Solomon Moore at the Times points out more problems

That Wacky, Wacky Bill Kristol
Posted by Michael Cohen

In what has to qualify as the man bites dog story of the week, Bill Kristol has a piece in today's New York Times arguing that Democrats are ignoring the huge success of the surge in Iraq - I know what you're thinking, "what a fresh and original insight from a conservative thinker." But, this rising conservative narrative, which has become all too familiar needs to be addressed.

Kristol argues that Democrats are living in a "fairy tale" by refusing to acknowledge the success of the surge:

The Democrats were wrong in their assessments of the surge. Attacks per week on American troops are now down about 60 percent from June. Civilian deaths are down approximately 75 percent from a year ago. December 2007 saw the second-lowest number of U.S. troops killed in action since March 2003. And according to Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of day-to-day military operations in Iraq, last month’s overall number of deaths, which includes Iraqi security forces and civilian casualties as well as U.S. and coalition losses, may well have been the lowest since the war began. Do Obama and Clinton and Reid now acknowledge that they were wrong? Are they willing to say the surge worked?

I sort of feel like a broken record on this issue, but let's once again go back to what the President said one year ago in announcing the surge:

This new strategy will not yield an immediate end to suicide bombings, assassinations, or IED attacks.   . . . Over time, we can expect to see Iraqi troops chasing down murderers, fewer brazen acts of terror, and growing trust and cooperation from Baghdad's residents.  When this happens, daily life will improve, Iraqis will gain confidence in their leaders, and the government will have the breathing space it needs to make progress in other critical areas. Most of Iraq's Sunni and Shia want to live together in peace -- and reducing the violence in Baghdad will help make reconciliation possible. A successful strategy for Iraq goes beyond military operations.  Ordinary Iraqi citizens must see that military operations are accompanied by visible improvements in their neighborhoods and communities.  So America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced.

This is exactly the criteria by which every Democrat running for President has judged the success of the surge - and rightly so; at its core the surge represented a coordinated military and political effort. The military effort has been successful, the political effort has not; ergo the surge is a failure.

Yet Kristol refuses to engage on this question, arguing that "It’s apparently impermissible for leading Democrats to acknowledge — let alone celebrate — progress in Iraq." Actually this isn't true. At the recent Democratic debate in New Hampshire all the candidates made the point that if you put 30,000 troops on the ground a decrease in violence should hardly seem surprising, but as Democrats have said ad nauseum, that isn't the criteria by which to judge the surge.

To paraphrase Kristol, it's apparently impermissible for leading Republicans to ever acknowledge the lack of political progress in Iraq.

Instead Kristol openly derides the notion:

And now Iraq’s Parliament has passed a de-Baathification law — one of the so-called benchmarks Congress established for political reconciliation. For much of 2007, Democrats were able to deprecate the military progress and political reconciliation taking place on the ground by harping on the failure of the Iraqi government to pass the benchmark legislation. They are being deprived of even that talking point.

Guess what Bill, it's not a damn talking point! The political progress and "so-called benchmarks" you so blithely dismiss is why 30,000 more American soldiers were sent to Iraq - and it's the cause for which hundreds have died. And from everything I've seen of the de-Baathification law is not all it's cracked up to be (see Juan Cole's take down here); and of course the Iraqi government is no closer to addressing the thorniest political issues; a new oil law and constitutional reform.

By the very criteria put forth by this Administration the surge has not worked, notwithstanding the pathetic attempts by Kristol, Krauthammer and others to argue otherwise.  So I'll make a deal with every and all conservative pundit, I'll write a long post praising the military success of the surge if you simply acknowledge that from a political perspective the surge has been an abject failure. Something tells me I won't get too many takers.

January 13, 2008

Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Generally speaking this Administration’s policy towards the Middle East has been – how shall I put it kindly – a complete, total, unmitigated, absolute disaster.  But I’ve been surprised at how far President Bush has been willing to go in the past week on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and I think progressives should encourage his newfound willingness to play a constructive role.  His acceptance of the right of Palestinian refugees to compensation is tremendously important.  The refugee issue ranks one or two on the list of Palestinian concerns.  So, this was no small deal.

In essence, what the President is doing now is returning to the “Clinton Parameters” which were laid out seven years ago by President Clinton as the diplomatic blueprint towards a settlement of the conflict. The blueprint has changed very little and in the end any agreement will ultimately revolve around it.  (This is a great summary)

The part that is unfortunate is that the blueprint was ignored for seven years and in the meantime the situation on the ground deteriorated dramatically.  The Palestinian economy and its institutions have completely collapsed.  Hamas has seized control of Gaza.  Palestinians and Israelis have experienced horrific bouts of violence.  Still, through all of this, the diplomatic blueprint for a peace agreement remains the same.  What has changed is the second half of the project.  The part after an agreement is signed.  The part where Palestinians, with assistance from the United States, Israel and the international community, work to build a sustainable and well functioning state.  That part has gotten much more difficult.

Also, one other side point here.  Administrations have a habit of ignoring what the previous guys were doing and starting from scratch.  If the President manages to make real progress on this issue in the next year, but doesn’t get a completed peace agreement, I would hope that an incoming Democrat (knock on wood) would be smart enough to pick things up where the Bush Administration leaves off. 

The Race Card
Posted by Michael Cohen

In recent days, the issue of race has once again jumped to the forefront of the Democratic nominating contest with the Clinton and Obama folks trading accusations along racial lines. 

But, the manner in which the Clintons is are playing the race card is fascinating and somewhat indicative of Clinton-style politics.  Initially it might seem that raising the race issue would spark a backlash against Hillary Clinton  (a phenomenon we are already seeing with South Carolina Cong. Clyburn's statement that he might considering endorsing Sen. Obama over Hillary Clinton's comments regarding MLK). Indeed, Andrew Sullivan argues today in the Sunday Times that; "it may be that race will now come to his rescue just as gender just did for Clinton."

Possibly. Certainly among African-American voters in the South this may be the case. But the racial issue plays both ways and in some respects plays better for the Clintons - by reminding white voters, particularly working class white voters, that Obama is black.

Now, as the kids might say "Duh," of course Obama's black - but if you've spent the past few months listening to Obama's rhetoric, he rarely ever references his skin color. He doesn't define himself as a black man on the campaign trial and he certainly doesn't speak in the same language of racial grievance as previous black leaders have done. I hate to say this, but it's probably one of his strongest selling points to whites. As David Greenberg suggests in today's Washington Post:

Obama -- whose strongest appeal has thus far been to upscale white liberals -- allows those whites to feel good about themselves and their country. He lets them imagine that a nation founded for freedom yet built on slavery can be redeemed by pulling a lever. At the same time, Obama doesn't threaten or discomfort whites. He doesn't strike them as wronged or impatient, or as the spokesman of a long-subjugated minority group or even as someone particularly culturally different from themselves.

That's why it makes perfect sense for the Clinton campaign to raise the issue of race. Up to this point Obama has not only neutralized the race issue, but he's used it to his political advantage.  But if the Democratic campaign is seen as a battle between black and white, rather than change vs. more of the same; you can book that plane ticket to Denver for Hillary Clinton. A racially charged campaign while likely to upset African-Americans will almost certainly play dividends among working class  and Hispanic voters who are far more likely to be turned off by direct racial appeals. (It hardly seems a coincidence that it was working class voters who made the difference for Hillary in New Hampshire.) The Clintons are smart enough to only raise this issue implicitly, allowing the media and political pundits to run with the ball, which of course they are dutifully doing.

Now the more skeptical among you might say that such a political strategy is too cute by half, consider two points. One, Ryan Lizza's recent piece in the New Yorker, which quotes a Clinton pollster (Sergio Bendixen) talking about the campaign's Hispanic firewall:

When I asked Bendixen about the source of Clinton’s strength in the Hispanic community, he mentioned her support for health care, and Hispanic voters’ affinity for the Clinton era. . .But he was also frank about the fact that the Clintons, long beloved in the black community, are now dependent on a less edifying political dynamic: “The Hispanic voter—and I want to say this very carefully—has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates.”

This Hispanic firewall strategy didn't just arise after New Hampshire, it was being voiced in the days before Hillary's miraculous comeback. Second, remember this isn't the first time the Clinton's have played the race card from "the bottom of the deck."  Bill Clinton is, of course, the man who invented the Sister Souljah moment, which was a pretty brazen racial appeal to white voters. So it's not as if these guys have ever shied away from playing on racial divisions for political gain.

Let's hope the Obama folks don't take the bait. How sad would it be if Obama's post-racial campaign would be derailed by the same political forces that have manipulated racial fears for the past 40 years.

It's Sunday
Posted by Shadi Hamid

And I've overdosed on Kathryn Jean Lopez. The Cornerites seem to really despise John McCain. But, not only that, they seem to be genuinely baffled as to how he's assumed front-runner status. And for good reason. McCain has dissented on so many of the core issues that define mainstream conservatism. I always used to think of Republicans as less willing to dissent from Republican orthodoxy (as evidenced by Reagan's "commandment" - thou shalt not publicly criticize another conservative, or something like that). Yet, if this is the case, then how do you explain the fact that Republicans might very well nominate someone who isn't even considered to be a conservative by many in the party?

Similarly, I used to think that liberals were much more willing to dissent from Democratic orthodoxy, yet it's very difficult to imagine the McCain equivalent in our party getting any significant support. Thoughts?

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