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May 21, 2009

The Future of US-Egypt Relations
Posted by Shadi Hamid

We - the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), the organization I work for - have just released a new publication, outlining a new U.S. strategy for supporting human rights and democracy in Egypt. 

This is a critical period for U.S.-Egypt relations, with President Hosni Mubarak planning to visit Washington for the first time in 5 years, and President Obama giving his major speech to the Muslim world in Cairo on June 4th. So we hope this report, written by Greg Aftandilian, will help in framing the current debate.

What we tried to do with this paper is provide a way forward that was a middle path between inaction and a more pro-active approach (which has little chance of happening in the current political climate). We wanted something that Obama officials could read and say to themselves, "hmm, we can actually do this - now."

Perhaps, sometimes, a bit of ambition must be sacrificed for a bit of realism, as much as some of us may dislike the way the word "realistic" is misused these days. In any case, the vision Greg lays out in this paper is actually doable, not later but now, and we hope the Obama administration will consider the policy recommendations, particularly in light of some recent signs suggesting that the administration is de-emphasizing human rights and democracy in the bilateral relationship.

Signing Off
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

As you may have noticed, I haven't been blogging on Democracy Arsenal for the past month or so.  That is because I am leaving NSN and Democracy Arsenal to take a new job in government.  I've enjoyed blogging at DA and it has become a valuable tool for me to help develop my own ideas and bounce ideas off of others.  I will miss it. 

A special thank you to our readers and contributors, who have made my time here so much fun.  I will continue to follow the blog and will look for more great things from NSN and Democracy Arsenal in the future.

NSN Daily Update 5/21/2009
Posted by The National Security Network

See today's complete daily update here.

What We’re Reading

President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney will both give speeches on national security today.  President Obama met with human rights groups before his speech, which is expected to focus on detainee policy.

A judge in Milan ruled that the case against Italian and American intelligence officials over extraordinary rendition can go forward but without referring to classified information.

Pakistan and India have begun sharing intelligence on Islamic extremists under U.S. prodding, an unprecedented cooperation.

Israel removed an illegal settler outpost in the West Bank, a possible gesture to President ObamaIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he is willing to talk to Syria, without preconditions.

Commentary of the Day

Roger Cohen describes the “miracles of realism” as evidenced in Vietnam, but is not sure how to apply those lessons.

Khalil Shikaki writes that Palestinian elections would be a “risk worth taking.”

Former Army Ranger Sgt. Brian Hughes adds another military voice to those urging the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

May 20, 2009

NSN Daily Update 5/20/2009
Posted by The National Security Network

See today's complete daily update here.

What We’re Reading

Colin Powell struck back at his Conservative critics, saying "Rush Limbaugh says, 'Get out of the Republican Party.' Dick Cheney says, 'He's already out.' I may be out of their version of the Republican Party, but there's another version of the Republican Party waiting to emerge once again,"

Arms given to Afghan forces by the U.S. may be falling into the hands of the TalibanThe U.S. rejected the Afghan government’s account of the civilian death toll from recent airstrikes.  A report prepared for USAID says that corruption among Afghan officials is “pervasive” and “entrenched.”

Japan’s economy fell by a record 4% in the first quarter of 2009.

Spanish legislators urge curbing the power of the Spanish courts to pursue cases against people accused of committing war crimes in other countries.

Commentary of the Day

Former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union Stephen Sestanovich says that President Obama is hobbled on Russia policy by entrenched cold-war thinking, the Jackson-Vanik amendment.

Former UN official Francesco Bastagli explains the “real reason Iran wants nukes.”

Rick Amato laments in the Washington Times that “Despite the extraordinarily high price they have paid, America's severely wounded veterans are enduring humiliating financial hardships of epic proportions."

May 19, 2009

About Those Drones
Posted by Michael Cohen

My boss, Steve Coll has a interesting piece over at the New Yorker blog on the use of drones in Pakistan. Responding to a weekend op-ed by David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum in the NYT, which argues that the drone attacks are counter-productive because they are inflaming Pakistani public opinion and destabilizing the country, Coll says that both men are ignoring the domestic political importance of the US military going after Al Qaeda's leadership:

Even if direct U.S. action is grinding at Al Qaeda’s middle lists, it is at least responsive to the political, moral, and legal obligations of any American President—namely, to identify and respond to any “clear and present danger,” as national security law standards put it, to U.S. lives and interests. All of Obama’s intelligence and military advisers have identified Al Qaeda’s still-active planning of terrorist violence from Pakistani soil, led by Bin Laden and Zawahiri, as such a clear and present danger.

Coll gets to the nub of the problem I keep coming back to with the anti-drone argument - Kilcullen and Exum seem to place far greater importance on public opinion in Pakistan rather than the need to target Al Qaeda's leadership. Coll makes the argument that this is backwards from a domestic political standpoint; but I tend to think that from a national interests standpoint Kill/Ex's view might be wrong as well. For example, they say:

Having Osama bin Laden in one’s sights is one thing. Devoting precious resources to his capture or death, rather than focusing on protecting the Afghan and Pakistani populations, is another. The goal should be to isolate extremists from the communities in which they live. The best way to do this is to adopt policies that build local partnerships. Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies must be defeated by indigenous forces — not from the United States, and not even from Punjab, but from the parts of Pakistan in which they now hide.

I'm not so sure about this. Will protecting the Afghan and Pakistan populations necessarily make America safer - I think the jury is still out on that one. (The recent Pakistani counterattack in the Swat Valley has not necessarily made those more than 1 million refugees safe, but in the short-term it certainly has made the US feel a lot safer about Pakistan's political stability and dealt a serious blow to the Taliban). And is the course that Kill/Ex are advocating realistic in the near-term? Sure, it would be better if indigenous forces wiped out Al Qaeda, but in the 8 years since 9/11 that hasn't happened and I wonder how long the US should be prepared to wait for Pakistan to achieve that goal, particularly if we have the means within our midst to hasten that day. Should the goal of building up Pakistan's COIN capabilities and its effectiveness at governing the Swat Valley come at the expense of more direct and immediate US interests (even if they exacerbate Pakistan's problems in the short-term)?

Also, both men seem to minimize the importance of killing Osama bin Laden and decapitating the top Al Qaeda leadership. They use the experience of wasted resources being used to chase after Zarqawi in Iraq as a reason not to aggressively go after OBL. But my gosh, Zarqawi is not Osama bin Laden!

The reason why his elimination didn't end the violence in Iraq is because we were in the midst, not of an insurgency, but a civil war. There were others who could take Zarqawi's place - that is certainly not the case if we knock off Bin Laden. Killing OBL and other members of Al Qaeda's top leadership won't end the terrorist threat but it will certainly recast how we think about the war on terror. As Coll puts it, "If Bin Laden and Zawahiri are removed, it will be much easier not only to alter the rhetorical terms of American strategy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region but also to rewrite the entire global narrative of counter terrorism inherited from the Bush Administration."


I wonder here if the COIN-advocates have become so wedded to the perceived success of their tactics in Iraq - and the efficacy of population-centric COIN - that they are confusing what precisely is in America's national interests. Is the focus on COIN tactics coming at the expense of what should be the US counter-terrorism strategy in Af/Pak?

America's interests in Af/Pak boil down to degrading Al Qaeda's capabilities, decapitating their leadership and preventing them from attacking America again.  I'm still having a hard time understanding how, for example, nation building in Afghanistan or Pakistan achieves that goal in the near-term - or even that the US presence there can ensure that this actually occurs over the long-term.

Of course, the US has another goal for the region: preventing a Taliban or Islamic takeover of Pakistan and ensuring that Al Qaeda is prevented from building a base of operations in Afghanistan. Kill/Ex argue that the drone attacks are further destabilizing both countries. But then shouldn't we figure out how to conduct the drone attacks more effectively rather than ending them altogether? Kill/Ex seem to be arguing that protecting population must trump other larger strategic considerations. I'm not sure I would see it that way; and I'm nearly positive that no American president (particularly one who has to run for re-election) will see it that way.

Can't we have a modicum of stability in Af/Pak - or at the very least ensure that US interests are protected -- without necessarily devoting fulsome resources to protecting the populations in both countries? Of course, this is many ways the crux of the COIN/CT divide.

This is not to say that Kill/Ex are wrong about the drone attacks. Perhaps the strategic benefits don't outweigh the costs - and maybe there is a better way to calibrate the program so it is more effective. My problem is not necessarily with the conclusion they draw, but the road they take to get there - and the way they balance US interests in the region.

Or perhaps I'm drawing the wrong conclusion . . . commentors please feel free to weigh in.

A Reality-Based Iran Policy
Posted by Patrick Barry

Former Cheney aide John Hannah has a thought-provoking piece in the Washington Post today, criticizing the Obama administration's strategy of engaging Iran as a means for halting their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Hannah briefly surveys the history of countries abandoning their nuclear ambitions, and observing that "[s]successful denuclearization of hostile states is most likely to occur as a result of regime change, coercive diplomacy or military action, not U.S. pledges of mutual respect."   What follows is really the core of Hannah's argument:

"As for Iran, the facts are that America's greatest success in setting back Tehran's nuclear program came not as the result of any negotiation but in response to intense diplomatic and military pressure. The 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate noted that in 2003 Iran halted its nuclear weapons design work (while continuing efforts to enrich uranium and develop ballistic missiles) because of increasing international pressure resulting from exposure of its covert nuclear program. Most observers noticed that Iran's decision coincided with the U.S. invasion of its neighbor Iraq and the toppling of Hussein's regime after three weeks of fighting -- something Iran's military had failed to achieve after eight years of war in the 1980s.

History's lesson for the Obama administration seems straightforward: Short of regime change or military attack, the method most likely to persuade an anti-American, terrorist-sponsoring state such as Iran to cease its nuclear weapons program is credibly threatening the regime's hold on power. While using intense diplomatic engagement with Tehran to make clear the historic opportunity that exists for reconciliation, the United States should simultaneously be working to confront the regime with a crippling combination of diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions and military coercion."

In 2001, such a strategy might have been credible. In 2009, not so much.  There is one major reason for discounting Hannah's call for harsh sanctions and military coercion: it fails to appreciate how much the ground has shifted out from under the U.S. over the last 8 years.  Take sanctions for instance.  The reality is that even if the Obama administration wanted to deploy tough sanctions against Iran tomorrow, it doesn't have the international support to do so.  Russia wouldn't go forward with a UN Security Council resolution right now, and the Chinese are perfectly happy to sit in Moscow's shadow and wait it out.  Indeed, part of the reason the Obama administration has emphasized 're-setting' U.S. - Russia relations is to gain its cooperation on Iran - something which had become infeasible during the Bush years.  Better to consider sanctions when there is a realistic shot at getting them than lose face by pursuing them prematurely.

An option made even more unrealistic by the Bush administration's actions is Hannah's call for military coercion. The ability of the U.S. to influence Iran through military means depends largely on the degree to which Iran perceives a U.S. threat as credible. It's highly ironic that Hannah should point to the invasion of Iraq to demonstrate the effectiveness of the military as a tool for deterring countries like Iran, as no policy has so limited the U.S. military's ability to pressure the Iranian regime nor so strengthened Iran's influence in the region as the invasion of Iraq.  Based on an an observation from Iran experts Suzanne Maloney and Ray Takeyh in a Brookings report late last year, not only has the U.S.' disastrous handling of the way meant the loss of Iraq as a “bulwark against Iranian influence," but since the U.S. became bogged down in Baghdad, “Tehran now has acquired the means to influence all of the region’s security dilemmas.”  The knowledge that Iran need only lift a finger to send thousands of Revolutionary Guards across Iraq's eastern border makes the threat of a U.S. strike at Natanz or Bushehr far less troubling to the regime.  

For these reasons, not to mention the fact that Bush administration basically had its shot at strong-arming Iran into ending its nuclear program and failed completely, I tend to think engagement is the way to go. 

Obama Erases National Security Gap
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Really important new polling data from GQR and Democracy Corps.  The take away:

For the first time in our research, Democrats are at full parity on perceptions of which party would best manage national security, while they have moved far ahead of the GOP on specific challenges such as Afghanistan, Iraq, working with our allies, and improving America’s image abroad.

Nearly two-thirds of likely voters – 64 percent – approve of the job Obama is doing on national security. That is 6 points higher than his already strong overall job approval rating (at 58 percent, the highest we have yet recorded). On other aspects of national security – from Iraq, to Afghanistan, to terrorism, to the president’s foreign diplomacy – the same is true: higher job approval ratings than on the President’s overall job approval.

More importantly, the generational breakdown demonstrates just how damaged the GOP's future electoral prospects may be:

Younger voters. Voters under age 30 trusted Republicans more on national security by a 27 point margin in 2003; now they trust Democrats more by 18 points, 50 to 32 percent. This strong margin of trust among younger voters could signal the start of a lasting generational shift on this set of issues.

It's fine if Republicans want to hammer Obama on national security. But it simply won't work if the public so overwhelmingly sides with Obama on the issue. The Republicans will really need a massive paradigm shift for any of their arguments to actually stick. And Dick Cheney is clearly not the man to lead them out of this wilderness as he continues to do more harm than good to the GOP brand:

The public flatly rejects the claims from former Vice President Cheney and other Republicans that Obama’s policies put America at risk. A strong majority says Obama’s policies are increasing US security – compared to the majority who now say President George W. Bush’s policies undermined America’s security. Indeed, by a 2 to 1 margin, Americans say that President Obama is doing better, not worse, than his predecessor when it comes to national security.

This national security data, coupled with the GOP's across the board downturn in terms of public opinion from the Gallup poll, especially in the (former?) Republican stronghold of the Midwest which basically birthed the party, reflects, to borrow a popular phrase, almost no "green shoots" for the GOP, except amongst their churchgoing and elderly base. After 2006 and 2008, it was going to be very hard for the GOP to rebuild their brand. What these numbers show is that as long as they cling to old ideas and old leaders, they aren't going to do anything to change this reality.

NSN Daily Update 5/19/2009
Posted by The National Security Network

See today's complete daily update here.

What We’re Reading

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in D.C. yesterday.  Netanyahu will meet Congressional leaders today and is expected to discuss his position on a Palestinian state.  President Obama told Netanyahu that his administration has a timetable on Iran.

The U.S. and Russia began nuclear talks.

The Supreme Court ruled that an ex-detainee could not sue high-ranking Bush administration officials for his treatment in U.S. custody.

Young Pakistanis take on responsibilities in a vacuum of government services.

Commentary of the Day

The New York Times reacts to the Indian election.  Gideon Rachman writes about the ugly side of Indian democracy.

Bob Herbert writes about the psychological toll of the war in Iraq.

Fareed Zakaria examines the effect of global fear and panic in the face of both the Swine Flu and global economic crisis, concluding that “the sense of urgency that makes people act -- even overreact -- and ensures that a crisis doesn't mutate into a disaster."

The Militarization of US Foreign Policy - Sign # 643
Posted by Michael Cohen

Apparently nearly a million Pakistanis have been displaced by the government's military attacks on the Taliban in the Swat Valley and not surprisingly the United States is providing humanitarian assistance. What is perhaps surprising (or maybe should be) is who is doling out the assistance - the Pentagon. Spencer Ackerman over at the WINDY blog poses a reasonable query:

The question, though, is when the Defense Department isn’t going to retain the exclusive capability to provide this aid.

Secretaries Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bob Gates have both talked about bolstering the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s capacity to take on the provision of non-military assistance. I hesitate to criticize, since we’re talking about the well-being of roughly a million people — a concern that eclipses bureaucratic box-checking — but there’s always going to be some important priority that comes before interagency reform. And in this case, the State Department has a more established presence in the country than the Defense Department does.

True enough. This is not a time to be arguing over which is the best agency to be offering humanitarian assistance, but really shouldn't this be AID's job? We've seen a lot of talk about the need for a less-military focused US response to Pakistan's problems. Wouldn't the empowering of our civilian agencies be a worthwhile step in that direction; particularly when as Spencer points out they already have a fairly robust presence in the country? This is what happens when you keep weakening the country's civilian agencies.

May 18, 2009

Countering the COIN Fad
Posted by Michael Cohen

Today's must read piece is the op-ed from Sunday's Washington Post by Celeste Ward on the fad of counterinsurgency:

Counterinsurgency doctrine is on the verge of becoming an unquestioned orthodoxy, a far-reaching remedy for America's security challenges. But this would be a serious mistake. Not all future wars will involve insurgencies. Not even all internal conflicts in unstable states -- which can feature civil wars, resource battles or simple lawlessness -- include insurgencies. Yet COIN is the new coin of the realm, often considered the inevitable approach to fighting instability in foreign lands. . . like many useful concepts that gain currency in Washington, counterinsurgency risks being taken too far, distracting us from other threats, challenges and strategic debates.

This is exactly right. I would in particular hammer on the last point that raises the issue of military strategy versus tactics. A line you hear quite often from COIN advocates is that counter insurgency is difficult and we shouldn't do it - but the military has a responsibility to be ready to apply COIN strategy if our elected leaders demand it.  But of course the veneration of COIN goes beyond this rather minimal application. Many seem to view COIN as the future of war and based on the "success" of COIN in Iraq, they seem to believe that the United States is uniquely positioned to do it . The question for many COIN-danistas seems to be not whether and when we should do counter-insurgency, but how the US can do it more effectively. I thought Justin Logan captured this idea very nicely a few months ago:

The work of the COIN crowd is going to create the impression in the minds of policymakers that the military knows how to win counterinsurgencies and therefore we don’t need an “Iraq syndrome.”  But we do need an Iraq syndrome.

The military needs to be making clear to the civilian leadership precisely how difficult counter-insurgency can be and why they should think twice about trying to implement such an approach.

But of course that's not exactly occurring - as the myth-making narrative of the Iraq surge makes clear. Ward does a nice job deconstructing that argument as well, pointing out that not only were COIN-tactics being utilized prior to the surge in 2007, but that the "success" of the surge is a dubious one at best:

So why did the Iraqis stop the carnage and start deal-making by 2007? We don't fully know. A number of accounts give a nod to the Sunni Awakening and the cease-fire by the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Nonetheless, the prevailing interpretations of the surge narrative -- even competing ones, which tend to differ mostly over claims of paternity -- put the Americans in the driver's seat of history. The assumption seems to be that the United States, its leaders and the tactics it employed are primarily responsible for the events on the ground.

But the decisions of the Iraqis themselves surely made a material difference. They stopped fighting, whether due to political calculations, fear or exhaustion. The full story of Iraqi motivations and perceptions has yet to be told. Meanwhile, sectarian maps of Baghdad show a clear pattern over time: Sunnis and Shiites progressively moved into separate enclaves, by choice or by force. By the time of the surge in 2007, mixed neighborhoods in the city had nearly disappeared, as the respective sects moved into areas populated by their own. The conflagration of sectarian violence might have been poised to burn itself out anyway.

As I've written here many times the clearest and most unambiguous lesson that we should draw from the war in Iraq is that we should never get involved in such a war again - and that any benefit we accrue from invasion, occupation and nation-building will almost never be worth the cost.

The fetishization of COIN is not the way to accomplish that goal.

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