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June 26, 2009

NSN Daily Update: 06/26/09
Posted by The National Security Network

For Today's update click here

What We’re Reading

The deaths of three German soldiers in Afghanistan leads German Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit with Obama  in Washington on Friday. Advisors state that the discussions will mostly revolve around the environment, crisis in Iran, and global economy.

As US troops prepare to withdrawal from Iraqi cities by June 30, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki calls the withdrawal of American troops in Iraq a “great victory” goes as far as comparing it to the rebellion against British troops in 1920. U.S military officials are concerned about the safety of American troops and Iraqi civilians. Closing the inner-city bases along with restrictive guidelines  will leave them more venerable, while nine are killed and 25 injured  Friday by suicide bomber on motorcycle in Baghdad.

Nandan M. Nilekani, a founder and former chief executive of Infosys Technologies, takes on a new government project to ensure every citizen of India has an ID card within three years.

Commentary of the Day

Natan Sharansky describes the massive revolt of Iranian citizens and how it has elicited the unmitigated surprise of the free world's army of experts, pundits and commentators.

The Financial Times discusses how the US and UK governments are concerned by one of the 21st century’s biggest security risks: the threat of cyber attacks.

June 25, 2009

Neocons sound like Anti-American Europeans
Posted by Max Bergmann

Gary Schmitt's riff on America's victory over Spain is rightfully getting ripped. What I want to add though is how weird it is that the neocons - the people who are all about invading foreign lands - would adopt such an isolationist view, especially at a time when the world is beginning to freak out at the prospect of the potential rising of America as a soccer power.

What is so bizarre about this is how much the neocons sound like American-hating Europeans. Both  dismiss American talent, American enthusiasm for soccer, and American understanding of the game. Just as neocons - and other soccer-hating sports writers of my parents generation - insist that we don't get soccer and don't care, European soccer writers are right there with them saying that Americans don't get it and don't care.

Take for instance Football 365 a UK soccer site writing in typical British sarcasm: "Perhaps understandably, the three people that care about football in America are quite excited this morning." Gary Schmitt similarly - using the same fact based analysis that got us into Iraq - says that:

Thankfully, Americans are not buying it [soccer]. In spite of the fact that one can drive by an open field on Saturdays and usually see it filled with young boys and girls playing soccer, the game’s popularity has not moved anywhere toward being a major sport here in the United States. It’s grown for sure but not close to where folks once expected it to be given the number of youth that have played the game over the past two decades.

This is what makes being a soccer fan in the U.S. pretty bizarre, on the one hand you are constantly trying to defend the world's game to Americans, while on the other hand you are desperate to stick it to the world and show that the U.S. can beat them at their own game.

Contrary to Schmitt and Football 365, any reasonable observer would expect the U.S. soccer to be exactly where it is today. The US has a league that is rapidly expanding and is gradually expanding its fan base - this may be a shock to some but there are often more people at DC United games then there are Washington Nationals games. The expansion of satellite tv and cable networks has also meant that - unlike when I grew up playing - American kids can watch professional European soccer as well as MLS. Coverage by ESPN - while still pretty poor - has expanded dramatically in the last five years - and American soccer fans rely tremendously on new media for information and commentary.

As for the American team it has more and more players playing in the top European leagues and is becoming more talented and consistent. Just as Mexico - the country with the most direct knowledge of U.S. soccer is practically in national mourning due to the rise of the yanks. Mexico used to be the dominant team in North and Central America - they used to be the team representing the region at tournaments like the Confederations Cup - but not anymore. And they are sick to death about it. As the Reuters UK soccer blog assesses - which is not exactly a bastion for pro-American commentary - "the U.S are at least on a level with the second tier nations in Europe — the Swiss, the Scandinavians." (Contrary to George Vescey's description of the victory over Spain as a "miracle on grass" this was no miracle - a stunning upset, but no miracle. Vescey is still stuck in 90s, in the last ten years the U.S. has evolved into a solid soccering nation. If a country like Sweden (or Mexico) beat Spain it wouldn't be called a miracle.)

Steven Wells - one of my favorite writers who unfortunately tragically passed away of cancer on Tuesday - tracked for years the disturbingly high levels of anti-Americanism in the soccer coverage in Britain. His column on British anti-Americanism in soccer simply nails it. I excerpted a few money graphs (but the whole thing is worth a read:

Alas, Englishmen who live in desperate fear of an American soccer planet are legion... there's no shortage of stuck up limey soccer snobs who still think it's frightfully funny the ghastly Yanks play the round ball game at all. Like most prejudices, this hatred disguises fear. Recently a leading English soccer journalist told me he "really hopes football fails in America". Others are less blatant but they make their loathing plain through sarcasm, satire and snidery...

We - a substantial chunk of us, anyway - are desperately scared that association football will succeed in America. That the USA will become a footballing power. That the yanks will develop a version of the beautiful game as irresistible as jazz, rock'n'roll or the amazing American language (and unless you've checked the English/American phrase books handed out to GIs in 1942, you probably have no idea how much American you speak, limey). Why are we scared? Because as a nation we have a desperate need to feel superior to the vibrant barbarian culture that's replaced us as top global ass-kicker.

Face it, feeling superior to Americans is about all we've got left. But the list of things we actually do better than the Yanks is slim and getting slimmer. Did you know that the bastards even brew decent beer these days? So what have we got left to be smug about? Wensleydale cheese, Ricky Gervais, Theakston Old Peculier and Helen Mirren. And, oh yeah, football. Sorry, the Yanks get it. Not all of them. Not even most of them. But enough of them. Even if Bex bombs. Even if the MLS collapses, American soccer isn't going away. It's time for a new joke.

The Other War
Posted by Michael Cohen

With all the attention this week focused on the extraordinary events occurring in Iran, events next door in Iraq are barely registering (in fact Iraq has virtually dropped off the radar screen of the blogosphere). Perhaps folks should be paying attention, because it's a very bloody week and one that does not bode well for the country's future.

First there is the violence. And as is so often the case in Iraq, it's been horrific.Yesterday, a car bomb exploded in Sadr City killing more than 70 people and injuring 135. On Saturday, a massive truck bomb exploded in Northern Iraq killing 68 people and wounding 200. While other scattered bombings might be chalked up to score settling and revenge, these attacks seem intended to undermine the government in Baghdad.

Yet, as terrible as the violence has been in Iraq the even more worrying news may be on the political front. The one thing you often hear from Iraq experts is the potential for sectarian violence, not necessarily between Sunnis and Shias, but between Arabs and Kurds, which makes this news, flagged by Juan Cole, even more disturbing:

Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region hit out at Baghdad on Tuesday, describing oil and gas contracts due to be awarded by the federal government at the end of this month as "unconstitutional". The Iraqi oil ministry and Kurdistan, however, are at loggerheads over how international companies involved in the tapping of the nation's vast energy reserves should be paid. Iraq's decision to award service contracts differs from Kurdistan, where numerous profit-sharing deals have been struck. A statement issued by the Kurdish government said Baghdad's policy was "unconstitutional and against the economic interests of the Iraqi people."

In addition, just yesterday, the autonomous region of Kurdistan passed a new constitution that lays claim to the disputed region of Kirkuk.

These two stories raise even more red flags in light of this piece from the Sunday New York Times:

Popular support for Iraq’s democratic institutions is being undermined steadily by official corruption, yet the country has no comprehensive anticorruption law.  The country’s economy is dependent almost entirely upon oil revenue, but because there is no single law regulating the industry, there is widespread confusion about investment, production and lines of authority.

And parts of northern Iraq continue to be beset by ethnic and sectarian violence that could engulf the rest of the country in a new wave of warfare, but there is little prospect of a political resolution being offered any time soon to settle competing claims in the disputed province of Kirkuk. . .  Also languishing are statutes regarding foreign investment, the environment, elections, price fixing, political corruption, consumer protection, intellectual property rights, building codes and even the design of a new national flag.

Combine this legislative dysfunction with the fact that the Iraqi Parliament has appropriated funds for a national referendum on whether US remain in Iraq until the originally planned departure date - and there is real reason for concern about Iraq's uncertain future. (Oh by the way, US combat troops will be leaving Iraq's urban areas in just six days).

While there are signs of political reconciliation occurring on the local level and across the country there is a real question as to whether Iraq will turn into a stable country or will it turn in a violent and more deadly direction.  While those of us who vehemently opposed this war would like nothing more to be proven wrong - and see a prosperous and stable Iraq rise from the ashes - that possibility is seeming more and more uncertain these days.

So, the next time you hear a commentator talk about the success of the surge or the effectiveness of counter-insurgency tactics or what worked in Iraq can work in Afghanistan or that "the security situation is manageable" in Iraq be very dubious. What we are seeing today in Iraq is pretty compelling evidence that the institutionalized political reconciliation, which was supposed to accompany the US surge in 2007, is not occurring at a pace that inspires confidence.

The U.S. in Iran: "Stop Meddling"?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

One of the most oft-cited arguments against taking a “stronger” stand in support of the Iranian protestors has been the “kiss of death” issue – the notion that U.S. support damages those it intends to help. It's not necessarily incorrect, but I worry that it is both overstated and oversimplified. As Hilzoy argues:

I would have thought that speaking out in favor of the protestors would be about as good an idea as Britain's endorsing its favored candidate in our Presidential election in 1808, which is to say: it would be very, very unlikely to help its intended beneficiary.

There is no doubt that U.S. support can backfire. It is worth noting, though, that, despite the bad taste of the Bush years, many reformers, dissidents, and even those who claim to really, really dislike us (i.e. Islamists), have been calling on us to “meddle” and to take a more pro-active approach to supporting democracy in the Middle East. For example, a couple months ago, I was a co-convenor of an open letter to President Obama urging him to make support for democracy a top priority in the region. It has since been signed and supported by hundreds of Arab and Muslim activists and reformers from across the political spectrum – secularists, liberals, leftists, and Islamists (see here and here).

Even Islamist leaders activists – those most concerned with distancing themselves from the U.S.  – regularly call on America to meddle, by putting more pressure on Arab autocrats (see here for an interesting example). Mainstream Islamists also regularly express their desire to engage in dialogue with Americans. Presumably, this would be the ultimate “kiss of death.” And, as I wrote yesterday, the “kiss of death” hypothesis directly contradicts what happened in 2004-5 when the “embrace” of a very unpopular president didn’t seem to hurt the reform movement. If anything, it may have actually helped. Referring to U.S. pressure on the Mubarak regime, Abdel Menem Abul Futouh, one of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s leading figures and member of the group’s Guidance Bureau, remarked to me in a 2006 interview: “everyone knows it…we benefited, everyone benefited, and the Egyptian people benefited.”

So, yes, the “stop meddling” impulse is a valid one at times, but it should be noted that Arab and Muslim grievances revolve largely around the fact that we’ve meddled on the wrong side – the side of autocrats, and that we too often meddle by using a lot of pro-democracy rhetoric and then doing nothing to back it up. There are, however, other types of “meddling” that could conceivably be both in accordance with our interests, our ideals, and, just as important, the interests of reformers on the ground. I wish it was as easy as saying, let's "stop meddling" and be "neutral," but this is not very realistic, as 1) silence is, itself, is a form of meddling, 2) no one really has explained what a "non-meddling" US-Mideast policy would look like in practice, 3) we have - whether we like it or not - the ability to influence the outcomes of Middle East conflicts and disputes, and 4) we are, for better and worse, at least partly responsible for many of the said disputes. 

Congressional Attempts to Undermine People of Iran and Obama Continue Unabated
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Today, Mahmoud Ahmadinajd emerged after nearly a week of virtual silence with the following blustery and propagandist statement:

In a speech in the port town of Assaluyeh he said: "Do you want to speak [with Iran] with this tone? If that is your stance then what is left to talk about? I hope you avoid interfering in Iran's affairs and express your regret in a way that the Iranian nation is informed of it."

While Ahmadinejad is clearly absurdly twisting Obama's words to serve his own political and repressive objectives, his statement can be viewed as actually justifiable. Not in terms of action or rhetoric coming from the Administration, though, which has been broadly and in a bipartisan fashion praised by Iran experts, members of Congress from both parties, former Secretaries of State and National Security Advisers as well as conservative commentators, Peggy Noonan, Pat Buchanan, and George Will, but in terms of Congress, which remains for the most part largely myopic and oppositional to the Administration in its approach to Iran. It's almost as if they are continually and proactively playing right into Ahmadinejad's hands:

A Republican effort on Tuesday to cut off U.S. loans to some companies doing business with Iran will bring Congress deeper into the fray over the U.S. response to the Iranian elections.

The amendment to the draft fiscal 2010 State and foreign operations appropriations bill will give members their first chance to vote on binding Iran policy since that country’s presidential election June 12.

Rep. Mark Steven Kirk , R-Ill., said the amendment was aimed at Reliance Industries, a large energy company based in India that reportedly has provided Iran with as much as a third of its refined petroleum. He will offer the measure when the House Appropriations Committee takes up the draft bill on Tuesday.

Well, the amendment passed in committee and now is attached to the must pass foreign operations appropriations bill. It's just shocking to me that the committee would allow through such a dangerous amendment. It both undermines President Obama's methodical approach to the situation in Iran and goes far in actually confirming the propaganda coming from Ahmadinejad and the oppressive regime that the U.S. was actively interfering in Iranian affairs and undermining the Iranian people. And this makes the legislation, and rhetoric coming from Kirk, even more insidious:

[Kirk] offered another reason to back his plan: “Our amendment is a go because AIPAC supports it,” he said, referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a leading pro-Israel lobby.

So, we have the U.S. Congress, in collusion with AIPAC, passing legislation to cut-off oil supplies to Iran during a major political crisis. This is red meat for Ahmadinejad and the Khameini regime. How can members of congress not see this as anything but a dangerous abrogation of their duties as elected officials, playing right into the hands of the very regime they are despising with rhetoric yet uplifting with legislation? They are not only stifling Obama's ability to steer a properly diligent foreign policy course here, but also going far in actually harming the Iranian people's attempts at reform and change. It's truly baffling and I hope, hope, for the sake of America's strategic positioning and the Iranian people that this is stripped from the final bill when it comes to a vote. But the damage may have already been done, as AIPAC's former top Iran analyst acknowledges:

Keith Weissman, AIPAC’s former top Iran analyst, strenuously disagreed with such initiatives, at least FOR right now. “The best policy now is, ‘Do no harm,’” he said.

Neither sanctions nor diplomatic engagement has meaning now, since the country is in internal turmoil, Weissman explained: “What AIPAC is doing here is hurting the very people the U.S. and the rest of world would like to assist in Iran. Any kind of message like this just proves what the bad guys in Iran have been saying to their people for years. It makes it easier for them to hurt the people Obama is trying to help.

“I hope that when American Jews and the organized community look at it, they will say: ‘Hold on a minute. Let’s wait and see what happens.’”

American Jews might agree with that sentiment, but it's clear there is a concerted effort from the organized community and some members of congress to do not what's right for America and the Iranian people, but what's right for their own, narrow self interests. And sadly, in the end it's the people of Iran who will suffer the most.

June 24, 2009

The Power of U.S. Democracy Rhetoric (or, learning the wrong lessons from the Bush era)
Posted by Shadi Hamid

In watching events in Iran, I keep on getting this sense that the Bush years – particularly as they relate to democracy promotion – are being misunderstood, or perhaps misinterpreted. The chronology (of 2004-6) has become blurred. The idea that U.S. democracy rhetoric is counterproductive is not necessarily wrong, but it certainly seems like an odd lesson to glean from the Bush era.

For a short time, Bush’s pro-democracy rhetoric had a positive effect on reform in general, and on reformers in particular. It is not an accident that President Bush’s short-lived democracy promotion efforts (which lasted for less than a year during late 2004 and part of 2005) coincided with the only “Arab spring” we’ve seen in the Arab world in quite some time. What did these efforts consist of? Not a whole lot. A lot of soaring rhetoric, strong public statements, and some highly public, symbolic gestures, such as Condoleezza Rice canceling a trip to Cairo in March in protest of Ayman Nour’s detention, and, well, not a whole lot else.

The lesson here is that rhetoric – in the short-run – can have a disproportionate (and positive) effect, even if it is not followed by discrete policy changes. The catch is that people have to think you’re serious and - it is hard to remember it now - but many Arabs, including Arab autocrats, started to suspect we were serious. In other words, the power of American rhetoric should not be underestimated.

In the long-run, however, rhetoric has to be backed up by policy, and, but it never was in the case of the Bush administration. The lesson here is that rhetoric is not enough on its own. That’s why I’ve always found it bizarre that some commentators developed a post-Bush aversion to American democracy rhetoric. The problem is not the rhetoric, but, rather, the failure to meet the expectations set by the rhetoric.

Whither AID?
Posted by Michael Cohen

I've been crashing a bit this week on a long article, but I would be remiss if I didn't take a moment to highlight Rajiv Chandresekaran's fascinating and depressing article from last week's Washington Post on the many travails of America's development agenda in Afghanistan.

Rajiv highlights an issue that should be foremost in the minds of US policymakers - the ongoing degradation of the US Agency for International Development and its inability to carry out America's development agenda. One line, in particular, jumped out at me:

"The agency no longer has people on its staff who implement development and reconstruction programs -- all of them left in the 1980s and 1990s because of budget cuts -- it turned to contractors."

The quote from Richard Holbrooke about AID's efforts in Afghanistan is even more troubling:

"In my experience of 40-plus years -- I started out working for AID in Vietnam -- this was the single most wasteful, most ineffective program that I had ever seen," he said in a recent interview. "It wasn't just a waste of money. . . . This was actually a benefit to the enemy. We were recruiting Taliban with our tax dollars."

AID has, in the words of Patrick Leahy become little more than a grant-making and check-writing agency for contractors and non-profits. And the failure of AID to carry out crucial development work in Afghanistan over the past 7 years, which Chandresekaran highlights, is the result of this bipartisan hollowing out of America's development agency. As the article makes clear, AID doesn't even the capacity to adequately oversee the contractors who they hire. If AID doesn't have development and reconstruction experts on staff what is the point of having a development agency in the first place?

Relying on the military to take these responsibilities is hardly a long-term answer to the problem, particularly since AID's work must be done in both kinetic and non-kinetic environments. But in general, the Defense Department has no core competency in doing development work; this is work that needs to be done by a development agency. And while efforts to improve AID's performance in Afghanistan are underway the rot starts with the head.

And lest we forget, it's now been 154 days into a new Democratic Administration - and we still have no nominee for the head of USAID. 

Read the whole article here

The Monroe Doctrine Leg of the Appalachian Trail
Posted by Adam Blickstein

So apparently, buried deep within the stimulus bill, was the "Monroe Doctrine Provision of Appalachian Trail Expansion," providing funds to expand the reach of the popular hiking trail so that "all Americans, whether North or South, can enjoy the uninterrupted and exotic natural expanses of this great hemisphere, from Mount Katahdin in Maine to the Rio de la Plata in Argentina." This, apparently, is what inspired Governor Sanford's journey south. Note: Red line denotes existing trail. Blue denotes the new so-called "Monroe Doctrine leg":

New PanAmerican Appalachian Train

NSN Daily Update: 6/24/09
Posted by The National Security Network

For today's complete daily update, click here.

What We're Reading

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed that Iran will not yield to protestors “at any cost.” In his speech yesterday, President Obama sharpened his criticism of the Iranian government’s crackdown, saying he was “outraged” and “appalled” by the events of the past few days. Iranian officials reported the arrests of several foreign nationals in connection with the protests.

Former detainees at the U.S.’s Bagram military base in Afghanistan have alleged abuse at the hands of American soldiers.

Missile strikes by a U.S. drone in Pakistan killed at least 43 people.

After a four-year hiatus, Obama is sending an ambassador to Syria, indicating the deepening engagement between the U.S. and the Syrian government.

The former Prime Minister of Kosovo, Agim Ceku, was arrested in Bulgaria on Tuesday. He is wanted for alleged war crimes committed during the 1998-99 war in Kosovo, when he was a commander in the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army.

Commentary of the Day

John Podesta urges Congress to pass the American Clean Energy and Security Act.

Thomas Friedman calls on Americans to “end our addiction” to oil in our own “green” revolution.

Robert Cohen argues Iran’s Islamic Republic system has been weakened.

Tim Rutten calls Twitter “tyranny’s new nightmare.

June 23, 2009

WashTimes Breathless Over Previously Reported Letter to Iran
Posted by Adam Blickstein

EXCLUSIVE usually denotes the dissemination of previously unreported news, which is why the headline of a pending Washington Times piece reading "EXCLUSIVE: U.S. contacted Iran's ayatollah before election," also featured prominently on the Drudgereport, is curious. Why? Well first the article reads thusly:

An Iranian with knowledge of the overture, however, told The Washington Times that the letter was sent between May 4 and May 10 and laid out the prospect of "cooperation in regional and bilateral relations" and a resolution of the dispute over Iran's nuclear program.

The Iranian, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic, said the letter was given to the Iranian Foreign Ministry by a representative of the Swiss Embassy, which represents U.S. interests in Iran in the absence of U.S.-Iran diplomatic relations. The letter was then delivered to the office of Ayatollah Khamenei, he said.

"Before the election" and a "over a month before the election" are two different things. I'm not claiming that the Washington Times is at the vanguard of journalistic integrity, but it seems a little egregious to claim that any letter sent, being generous here, nearly 35 days before Iranians actually voted was a pre-election letter. But what's worse is that news of this letter isn't new, nor is it exclusive. In fact, its existence had been widely reported earlier this year (even in the Weekly Standard). As the Guardian said in January:

Officials of Barack Obama's administration have drafted a letter to Iran from the president aimed at unfreezing US-Iranian relations and opening the way for face-to-face talks, the Guardian has learned.

The US state department has been working on drafts of the letter since Obama was elected on 4 November last year. It is in reply to a lengthy letter of congratulations sent by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on 6 November.

This letter seems extremely consistent with the thoughtful and methodical re-engagement with Iran Obama has advocated and in part executed. While the frame presented by the Times alludes to directly implies that the letter is another indication Obama's reaction to the events unfolding in Iran have been recalcitrant and unsupportive of the Iranian people, in reality, the letter's origins date from right after Obama himself was elected and before he even took office, far before Mir-Hossein Mousavi even declared his candidacy for the Presidency in Iran. So while the Times tees this up in the context of Iran's election, and seeks to stoke the fires of Republican partisan sniping on a sensitive international issue, they are pretty far off base both in their exclusivity claims and couching of reality.

In fact, according to an expert cited in the Guardian article, an effect of the letter would be to divide the hardline clerics from those in Iran who seek better relations in the west, the exact dynamics now partially at play amidst the turmoil and chaos unfolding both on the streets and in Qom:

"There will be disputes inside the system about such a letter. There are lot of radicals who don't want to see ordinary relations between Tehran and Washington."

That's exactly why both this letter and the breadth of Obama's actions and rhetoric towards Iran are important: they exude calibration and nuance. Neither of these are readily grasped by the fire-breathing Right and publications like the Times, which is a reason we shouldn't be surprised why to them this letter is further evidence of Obama's paucity on the subject. Regardless, since its on Drudge, expect some in the GOP and in the media to try and hammer Obama for this even if the letter and the election are completely disconnected.

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