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January 29, 2009

Mixed Messages
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

One odd phenomenon coming out of Obama's meeting with the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon yesterday is the odd disparity in how the NY Times and Washington Post covered this issue.

The Times writes:

As President Obama moves to redefine the nation’s mission in Iraq, he faces a difficult choice: Is he willing to abandon a campaign promise or risk a rupture with the military? Or can he finesse the difference?

Since taking office last week, Mr. Obama has recommitted to ending the war in Iraq but not to his specific campaign pledge to pull out roughly one combat brigade a month for the first 16 months of his presidency. His top commander in Iraq has proposed a slower start to the withdrawal, warning of the dangers of drawing down too quickly.

On Wednesday, Mr. Obama visited the Pentagon for the first time since becoming president, and he seemed to be looking for an option that would let him stay true to his campaign promise, at least in theory, without alienating the generals. The White House indicated that Mr. Obama was open to alternatives to his 16-month time frame and emphasized that security was an important factor in his decision.

Well, that doesn't sound too good.  But then you read the Post.

Officers at the meeting described their new commander in chief in glowing terms, saying he had seemed deeply interested in what they had to say, asked pertinent questions and was decisive in expressing his own views.

"This was by no means just another briefing for the Commander-in-Chief," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said in a statement e-mailed to reporters last night. Obama, he said, "was not simply in receive-mode. He, along with everyone else around the table, was fully engaged in a dynamic discussion about global risks, ways to mitigate them and how to do so in the midst of this economic crisis. I think everyone walked away with the sense that this new relationship got off to a very productive start..."

Some military officials have expressed concerns about the risks of a rapid withdrawal, but most senior officers have said they see no problem in drawing down the troops in the absence of an unanticipated reversal of security gains in Iraq. Obama has indicated he plans to send as many as 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan this year, increasing the urgency of an Iraq drawdown.

Now that sounds a lot better.  This could just be a difference in perception of the reports.  It obviously includes a difference in sources.  But I think what you're most likely looking at here is another difference of opinion between the Joint Chiefs and the folks in Iraq.  Let's not forget back in 2007 there were a lot of stories out there about the Joint Chiefs being opposed to the surge and contending that our military resources and strategy were too heavily weighted towards Iraq.  The commanders in Iraq have always been more cautious and asked for greater resources.  The discrepancy in reporting might possibly be just another manifestation of this division.

The Dangers of a Slow Roll
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Marc Lynch has a great piece outlining the dangers of the slow roll withdrawal strategy. 

The CFR/Brookings/Odierno "go slow" approach ignores the reality of the new Status of Forces Agreement and the impending referendum this summer -- which may well fail if there is no sign of departing American troops. It sends the wrong messages to Iraqi politicians and the Iraqi population. It would badly hurt Obama's credibility in the region and with Iraqis, who will see his most important public commitment fall by the wayside. And it would lose the unique window of opportunity offered by the transition to signal real change.

NSN will have more on this tomorrow, but fundamentally I agree with Marc.  There are clear downsides inside Iraq for slow rolling the withdrawal.  And this doesn't even begin to factor in the broader geostrategic considerations and need to reduce the burden on the U.S. military.

January 28, 2009

FiveThirtyEight Iraq Style
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

There is no Nate Silver.  There are no fancy graphs. No boatloads of data.  No regression analysis.  But ICG's report (PDF) about the upcoming provincial elections is probably the best resource out there on the state of play of the upcoming provincial elections.  If you're specifically interested in the intra-Shi'a portion I'd also suggest Peter Juul and Matt Duss's report today. 

For those that don't have the time to read p on all of this, here are some basic conclusions that I took out of the reading and general trends

1.  High voter turnout expected.  As opposed to 2005 when there Sunnis largely boycotted, there seems to be broad excitmenet and participation across the spectrum.  It remains to be seen whether the elections will be perceived as fair and whether they'll be able to integrate some of the marginalized groups, particularly the Sunnis.  But the level of political activity and engagement is a good thing.

2.  A change election?  There is major disillusionment with many of the parties that were voted into power in 2005.  Iraqi voters are generally ready for change and appear willing to take a chance on some challengers.

3.  Incumbent retain institutional advantages.  The governmental system of patronage and corruption still provides many of the incumbent parties (ISCI, Dawa, the Kurdish Parties and the IIP) with a built in advantage.  As the ICG report explains

In a system steeped in patronage and with high levels of public-sector employment (a third of the labour force),  ruling parties can remind government employees of the benefits (job security) associated with their continued hold on power.

4.  The challengers are divided.  The main challenger parties including he Sadrists, the groups that make up the Sunni Awakening Councils, and other secular parties were never able to form a cohesive alliance despite the fact that all of them have common nationalist perspectives.  The result is diffuse and divided lists that will make it more difficult for them to compete.

5.  Watch out for the battleground provinces.  The hot spots are likely to be in areas where the Sunni boycott led to the formation of unrepresentative provincial councils after the 2005 elections.  In Ninevah, a Sunni majority province, the Kurds control 75% of the Council.  In Anbar, which is overwhelmingly Sunni, the Sunni religious IIP dominates the council because it was the only party to compete in 2005.  In Diyala, another mixed province, the Sunnis are badly underrepresented.  And of course Baghdad, the most ethnically diverse province in the country, also presents a complicated and unpredictable picture.  If things do get ugly, they are likely to get ugly in these particular areas

NSN Daily Update 1/28/09
Posted by The National Security Network

See today's complete daily update, "Pragmatic Signals Foreshadow Tough Choices Ahead," here.

What We’re Reading

The IMF says world growth is the worst in 60 years.  The International Labor Organization says over 50 million jobs could be lost this yearDoom and gloom is the mood in Davos this year, at the World Economic Forum.

Russia halts plans to deploy missiles near Poland, citing a change in U.S. attitude under the Obama administration.  A Russian soldier seeks asylum in Georgia and tensions flare.

Defense Secretary Gates seeks to improve battlefield medical care in Afghanistan.

The upcoming elections exacerbate ethnic tensions in northern IraqCandidates promise change and avoid using the words “Sunni” and “Shiite.”

Commentary of the Day

David Kenner looks at the five countries at risk of following Iceland’s governmental collapse due to the financial crisis: Great Britain, Latvia, Greece, the Ukraine and Nicaragua.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari discusses the U.S. relationship with Pakistan.

Tom Friedman proposes a five-state plan for peace in the Middle East.

Re: Talking to the Muslim World
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Commenting on Obama's Al-Arabiya interview, Heather writes that "a speech should follow some substantive initiatives, not precede them." I'm of the "show-not-tell" public diplomacy school of thought too, but I also think rhetoric is quite important in the Arab and Muslim world independent of what follows it.

A major criticism of Bush's Mideast policy is that he raised expectations needlessly high with needlessly soaring rhetoric. I tend to differ. Raising expectations is important because it forces us to at least consider the prospect of meeting them. In other words, rhetoric binds us. Rhetoric increases the cost of inaction, because it threatens to widen the gulf between words and deeds. The larger such a gulf, the more our credibility suffers. Raising the costs of inaction is obviously a good thing, because it propels us toward action. In the case of the Bush administration, this did not happen, but it could have, and it should have. And President Bush - and our country at-large - suffered greatly for choosing not to act upon his words.

Rhetoric is important because it is critical to story-telling. Let me explain. As I've argued before, narratives matter. What is the story we wish to tell to those who distrust us, and to those who wish to believe in us but can't? Obama has begun telling a new story. The facts may or may not be the same, but, either way, they are interpreted in the context of what might be called an "interpretive narrative."

Lastly, I'd like to respond to something Daniel Larison said, that

One of the advantages that Obama has in speaking to an Arabic-language network so early in his term is that the novelty of doing it and the priority he gave it are just remarkable enough that he need not say anything significant.

The bar has been set so low that the interview couldn't have not been a success, regardless of anything Obama actually said. This is one of the Bush's mixed legacies. He lowered expectations to the extent that we find ourselves easily pleased. It is good to feel good, but this is probably not a good thing for policy. On the other hand, because the Bush administration's Mideast policy was so, um, bad, it underlines the urgent need for a different approach. If Bush's policies had been middling and unremarkable, and continued within the basic contours of past U.S. engagement, then there would have been less pressure on his successor to offer a clean break with the past. A clean break with the past was what we needed, and we can thank President Bush for demonstrating this need in rather stark terms.

January 27, 2009

Talking to the Muslim World
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Remember 5-6 years ago when you couldn't find an American official willing to appear on Arab tv of any kind?  Back then, if I remember rightly, you could find lots of conservatives as well as progressives who thought that talking to the Islamic world was a good idea.  Now, though, when President Obama goes on Al Arabiya tv, and talks about giving a speech to reopen dialogue with the Islamic world, different story.  David Frum and I have a video debate about this here, where I take the "show don't tell" position and argue that a speech should follow some substantive initiatives, not precede them; David argues that making a speech to the "Muslim world" will inevitably lead us to disregard the diversity and difference within the Islamic world and empower extremists rather than liberals and moderates.  In a wonkier vein, Michelle Dunne, Hisham Melhem, Scott Carpenter and I opined on when, how and what such a speech could accomplish over at Carnegie recently. Our collective bottom line:  clarity, honesty, modesty.  My problem:  that doesn't make a great speech.

Why We Don't Have More Muslim Troops In Afghanistan
Posted by The Editors

This post is by NSN intern Luis Vertiz

While reading a blog post on the “Room for Debate/NY Times” blog re: Afghanistan, I came across this nugget of a quote from Bruce Riedel:

We should seek more troops from our NATO allies but also from Muslim allies like Morocco and Indonesia that have a common interest in defeating Al Qaeda. It can be done; already the United Arab Emirates has a few hundred troops in Afghanistan.

The BBC reported last year that the UAE and Jordan have troops in Afghanistan. Turkey also has a sizeable contingent of troops in Afghanistan. For the UAE, they are not only contributing troops, they are engaging in a full spectrum of missions, including combat missions. This seems like a blessing that should have been widely shared a model for emulation. But, seven years later, it hasn’t. Why? The lack of a serious presence of troops from Muslim nations draws questions which need to be mulled, such as:    

I.          What is the experience of Muslim nations with regard to peacekeeping or peace enforcement missions? What is their current troop commitment to other peacekeeping or peace enforcement missions?

II.         What political reasons inhibit/prohibit Muslim nations from sending their troops to help with foreign stability operations, considering the major criticism on the Arab street is the presence of Western, non-Muslim troops stationed within countries in the Middle East [Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan]?

III.       Would the presence of Muslim troops in Muslims necessarily be helpful to the mission in Iraq or Afghanistan? What would be possible political drawbacks?

The UAE has 50,500 active duty personnel in their armed forces. Out of this, 1,300 UAE troops are in Afghanistan, accounting for approximately 2.5% of the UAE’s armed forces.  That level of troop commitment is on par to that to the United States’ current commitment of 2.3% of active duty troops in currently deployed in Afghanistan. Thus, we are in a difficult position to ask others other shoulder a great amount of risk in America’s “good war”. Politically, the United States might be in a better position to ask other nations to increase their troop commitments if an additional 30,000 US troops are deployed to the Afghan theater.

Mr. Riedel’s recommendation would be stronger if he tied action against Al-Qaeda central to Al-Qaeda franchises popping up in various niches within the Muslim Diaspora. Countries like Morocco and Indonesia have pursued a policy of continuing operations against Islamic insurgents within their homeland. But despite the operational connections between Al-Qaeda HQ and their franchises, it appears, for now, that it is easier for the US’ Muslim allies to deal with Al-Qaeda as a domestic law enforcement issue rather than a foreign policy issue. Therefore, the United States needs to make the case, with demonstrable intelligence, to our Muslim allies that dealing with Al-Qaeda is in their national security interest, not just because military action has political or moral importance. Without this particular line of argument, it is a dubious to hope that our Muslim allies would lend credibility or operational capability to an American mission that have narrow support in the Arab and Muslim street.

Turkey is the other major Muslim country with troops deployed in Afghanistan. Starting with 90 Special Forces soldiers and augmenting their total to 1,300, Turkey’s troops are relegated to a humanitarian and reconstruction mission. Thus, it is important to note Muslim countries are not immune to the national caveats that are proving such a difficult obstacle when coordinating military operations between the US and its NATO allies.

To put Mr. Riedel’s recommendation into action, there needs to be serious consideration of the reasons why Muslim nations have been hesitant to provide additional troops to the Afghan mission in order for the United States to better address the concerns of our allies.

What's Russian for My Head Hurts? or Golova Moya Kruzhitsa
Posted by Patrick Barry

Though a few reporters and bloggers have cautiously welcomed this NY Times story, about Russia reaching an agreement with General Petraeus to allow NATO the use of Russian transit routes to Afghanistan, there does seem to be one reason to be skeptical - the Russians may not have actually signed off on the agreement!  From an op-ed in the Asia Times:

At any rate, within a day of Petraeus' remark, Moscow corrected him. Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Maslov told Itar-Tass, “No official documents were submitted to Russia's permanent mission in NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] certifying that Russia had authorized the United States and NATO to transport military supplies across the country."

A day later, Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, added from Brussels, "We know nothing of Russia's alleged agreement of military transit of Americans or NATO at large. There had been suggestions of the sort, but they were not formalized." And, with a touch of irony, Rogozin insisted Russia wanted the military alliance to succeed in Afghanistan.

Adding to the confusion are the articles written about U.S.- Russia relations, which continue to describe the agreement as a done deal, even though just a short google search finds that members of the Russian government began issuing these denials just a few days after the New York Times article appeared on January 20.  So what gives?  Why did General Petraeus say that an agreement was as good as inked when, from the Russians perspective, that clearly wasn't the case? 

Part of what makes these denials perplexing is that the Russians' suggestion, not that there was never any agreement with the U.S. on transit routes, but that the agreements were never "formalized," on account the failure to submit "official documents."  It's entirely possible that a deal was reached, but that the Russians never expected it to go public.  When the Times story broke, it might have had the effect of putting Russian officials in an awkward position.  That would explain why the pushback appears to have hinged on a technicality, and also why the Kremlin statements seem to be in such small circulation (I haven't seen their remarks outside of Asian sources).

Another possibility is that the Russians are trying to create wiggle room, by denying the deal exists on paper, while leaving open the possibility for substantive cooperation down the road.  Leaving out the productive conversations on transit routes, recent Kremlin statements on Afghanistan have generally been quite cagey.  On Friday, President Medvedev made some vague assurances of support, tempering those overtures with the expectation that any partnership should be "full-fledged and equal."  Medevedev's Monday remarks, on future NATO - Russia relations could easily constitute an extension of that strategy - opening the door for cooperation, but staying evasive when it comes to anything concrete. 

A third possibility is that there never was any agreement and someone, somewhere goofed.  Of all the options, I'd say it's the least plausible, but stranger things have happened.

Update: HT to Heather for the addition to the title - Golova moya kruzhitsa is Russian for "My head is spinning."

NSN Daily Update 1/27/09
Posted by The National Security Network

See today's complete daily update, "A New Tone and Approach to the Muslim World," here.

What We’re Reading

The E.U. promises to help the U.S. close Guantanamo, but did not offer specifics such as whether nations would accept ex-detainees.  While attention has been on Guantanamo, Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan presents just as complicated a situation, if not more so.

Islamist forces captured Baidoa, the seat of the Somali parliament, only hours after Ethiopian peacekeeping troops withdrew from the city.

Diyala Province, Iraq, illustrates some of the challenges for the upcoming provincial elections on Saturday, January 31.

Over 70,000 lost their jobs yesterday in both the U.S. and abroad. Meanwhile, the head of the IMF rebuked China for undervaluing the Yuan.

Commentary of the Day

Richard Cohen argues for the creation of a blue-ribbon commission with subpoena power to investigate the Bush administration’s use of torture.

Mackubin Thomas Owens says we should develop a flexible military, planning for a combination of conventional and irregular warfare.

A Financial Times piece examines what a Eurozone crisis would look like and argues that "if the EU itself does not become the target of political unrest, some other part of the political system is bound to come under pressure.”

January 26, 2009

What Diplomacy Looks Like
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

This seems to make sense:

US President Barack Obama put his prestige Monday behind a push for Arab-Israeli peace in sending envoy George Mitchell to the Middle East to bolster a truce in Gaza and deal with the human toll there.

Obama, promising to be more involved in Middle East peace efforts than his predecessor George W. Bush, was to meet Mitchell later Monday before the trip to "begin the process that the president promised to be actively engaged in, the peace process in the Middle East" said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Joining the pair at the White House will be Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gibbs told a news conference.

During his trip from January 26 to February 3, Mitchell will travel to Israel and the Palestinian West Bank as well as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Europe, State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters.

And this is nice to.

Asked to comment on what action the new administration might take on Iran's nuclear pursuits, Ambassador Rice said the United States remains "deeply concerned" about the threat that program poses to the region and the international community. She said the U.S. would pursue vigorous diplomacy that would be both directly with Iran and continued collaboration with the other four permanent members of the Security Council and Germany through the group known as the "P-Five Plus One".

"Dialogue and diplomacy must go hand-in-hand with a very firm message from the United States and the international community that Iran needs to meet its obligations as defined by the Security Council and its continued refusal to do so will only cause pressure to increase," she said.

It's refreshing to see that after years of either stubbornly ignoring a problem or refusing to change an approach that has failed, they will finally be some new seriousness injected into American diplomacy.  I don't know how long it took Bush to send someone over to the Middle East when he became President (But I'd be curious to have an answer to that question).  I do know that no top level U.S. official went over there during the 22 days of fighting in Gaza.

Of course, none of this is going to be easy.  And paying serious attention is only the beginning.  The execution is obviously critical.  But as opposed to the last eight years, at least this President is getting moving on these critical issues from day one. And with the appointment of a serious heavyweight like George Mitchell he is off to as good of a start as you can get.

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