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September 30, 2009

Conservative Plan for Iran: Dissemble about Obama Plan for Iran
Posted by Patrick Barry

An unfortunate side effect of attending a bloggers' conference is that it leaves you with very little time to blog, especially when the conference is as enriching as the one I just attended, hosted by the fine people over at the Middle East Institute.  One thing that has apparently continued, even if my blogging hasn't, is the dissembling perpetuated by opponents of the Obama administration's policy of engaging Iran.  Michael Rubin's piece flagged by James is the latest example.  Looking at the revelation of Iran's secret nuclear facility, as well as their recent missile test, Rubin concludes that its enough to put "a nail in the coffin of the Obama doctrine" of engagement. 

Given the tendency of former Bush administration officials to mistake means with ends, Rubin's take is understandable.  It also has the advantage of being totally wrong.  For the billionth time - ENGAGEMENT IS NOT THE GOAL. It never was. The Obama administration has been perfectly consistent on this point, stating it again and again. At a briefing at the State Department put together by MEI, a senior administration official working on Iran emphasized repeatedly that engagement was NOT the goal of U.S. policy toward Iran.  What he did emphasize is that engagement is an instrument for clarifying Iranian intentions, including on the issue of their nuclear program.  From that perspective it doesn't seem to have failed at all.  To the contrary.  When was the last time the IC was so unified in its position toward Iran?  Even the Russians seem to have moved closer toward the view that Iran's recent behavior has been pretty concerning.

Not only do the Michael Rubins of the world tend to ignore this, when you consider that engagement-as-a-means has become a near-constant refrain by the administration, it appears as though they're doing it willingly.

Neocons Attack Geneva Negotiations
Posted by James Lamond

In Geneva, the United States and Iran are holding their first talks in 30 years.  Not so surprisingly Iran’s nuclear program and its recent missile launch tests are topping the agenda.  Nonproliferation is an issue where President Obama retaken American leadership on and he has already made a great deal of progress on the international politicking needed to address the challenge that William Perry and Brent Scowcroft called "real and imminent." Yet conservatives (particularly the neoconservatives) are on the attack. 


AEI’s Michael Rubin wrote in today’s New York Daily News that:

Tomorrow, U.S. diplomats and their Russian, Chinese and European counterparts will join Iranian officials to discuss the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. The meeting follows new Iranian missile tests and exposure of a second covert Iranian nuclear enrichment facility. Iran enters the negotiations defiant. ‘The announcement of the enrichment facilities will be Iran's winning card,’ Kayhan newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Supreme Leader, editorialized last Sunday. The meeting will be a nail in the coffin of the Obama doctrine. Throughout his campaign, President Obama preached unconditional diplomacy.

But as Joe Cirincione points out- Rubin is way off- there has been calculated and strategic politicking:

The key to understanding... [the announcement that Iran had a secret uranium factory] is this: President Obama knew about the secret Iranian facility nine months ago. Before he began his strategy of engagement, he knew Iran was lying about its program. When he extended his hand in friendship, he knew Iran had built a secret factory to enrich uranium. Before he offered direct talks, he knew Iran was hiding a nuclear weapons breakout capability.

Each move was denounced as "weak" and "naïve" by the right. That talk looks foolish today. These were the moves of chess master, carefully positioning pieces on the board, laying a trap, and springing it at the opportune moment.

We now know that Obama was not acting on impulse, or philosophy or general principles, but on deep strategy. He knew better than his critics that Ahmadinejad could not be trusted. He just had a better plan for how to deal with him.


Obama is now well positioned to unite world leaders in a long-term strategy to back Iran away from nuclear weapons. While some nations mistrusted the previous administration--fearing a repeat of the Iraq War--they have more confidence in Obama. They don't believe he will use military force, except as a last resort.

Meanwhile, Obama's missile defense decision--a move that puts more military assets in position more quickly against the Iranian missiles--not only increases the pressure on Iran but allows Russia to move closer to the U.S. position without appearing to be buckling to America.

September 29, 2009

Envoy Hubris
Posted by David Shorr

Via Elizabeth Dickinson of Passport blog, there was unflattering Washington Post coverage of the Obama Administration's special envoy for Sudan, Gen. Scott Gration. To which I can only add a personal anecdote from the efforts a decade ago to deal with another difficult and deadly situation in Africa.

It was 1997, and the Clinton Administration was dispatching a senior official to Kinshasa to tell Laurent Kabila, who had recently seized the capital, to clamp down on the humanitarian abuses by his own Rwandan army-sponsored rebel force. At the time, I was working for Refugees International, which had for months been highlighting these abuses and the ineffectual international efforts to pressure Kabila. [Note parallel with the reaction to Gration by the Enough Project and other Sudan advocacy groups.] The US envoy didn't seem to really heed the warnings about how slippery Kabila had been, apparently confident in his own diplomatic powers. With the result that he ended up being fobbed off with insincere promises just as his predecessors had. My question regarding the current situation: what does Samantha Power make of all this?

And in the spirit of Dan Drezner's idea of brutally honest taglines: "David Shorr didn't have the guts to name the individual in the above anecdote."

September 28, 2009

No Time For Nation-Building
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at FP's Af-Pak channel, I offer a few thoughts on the McChrystal review and recommend a new strategic course for the US mission in Afghanistan:

The debate over troop levels is a distraction from the real problem in Afghanistan -- a dubious counterinsurgency strategy that is based on faulty assumptions and unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved. McChrystal's leaked review only provides more evidence of the desperate need for a new course in Afghanistan.

 . . . Instead, the president should demand his commander go back to the original objective for the mission -- disrupting, defeating, and dismantling al Qaeda. This means discarding the dream of nation-building in Afghanistan and focusing instead on targeting al Qaeda in Pakistan (a process already occurring through successful drone attacks on terrorist leaders there) and moving toward a more realistic containment approach of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Read the whole thing here

September 27, 2009

Russia's Iran Test -- The Stakeholder Version
Posted by David Shorr

Over on RFE/RL's Power Vertical blog, Robert Coalson warns "not so fast," when it comes to counting on Russia to help put pressure on Iran. True enough, President Medvedev might've been leading President Obama on the other day in New York when he affirmed that sanctions may be necessary. Coalson gives an entirely plausible reading of Russian strategy -- that Moscow is gaming all of these issues to chip away at US influence as a predominant global power.

To which my response is: we'll see about that, won't we. I'm very big on the idea of responsible stakeholdership, and this will provide a textbook case. The essence of stakeholdership is action on behalf of the wider international community and the rules-based order. Robert Coalson portrays a resolutely self-interested Russia that perceives advantages to letting the Iranian situation fester. The current international effort to ratchet up pressure on Tehran will test Medvedev and Putin's commitment to upholding the norm of nuclear nonproliferation. By the way, for the definitive analysis of Russia's prospects as a pillar of the world community, see the excellent chapter by Andrew Kuchins and Richard Weitz in the authoritative volume on responsible stakeholdership Powers and Principles: International Leadership in a Shrinking World.

On a quick note of bipartisanship, having seen Sen. Bob Corker talk this morning on CNN about Iran (and Afghanistan), he sounded extremely statesmanlike and practical.

September 25, 2009

Obama's Iran Test -- Sequencing Negotiations and Sanctions
Posted by David Shorr

I just finished listening to President Obama here at the conclusion of the G-20 summit, which dovetailed nicely with a Peter Feaver post on Iran over on Shadow Government. Full credit to Peter for being very crafty. Deep within a respectful analysis acknowledging that Obama may indeed have a serious strategy for how to deal with Iran, Feaver lays an obvious trap.

His key point is to differentiate between negotiations as a means to an end or as an end in themselves. Fair point, some people do place such faith in the power of diplomacy that they believe talks will yield a solution even when they show no real signs of progress -- though I doubt if any such people work in the Obama administration. Apparently, Feaver's view of negotiations as a means of halting Iran's nuclear program means not actually trying to negotiate. He says that if Obama truly sees negotiations as a means he will:

consider delaying (not abandoning) the direct talks with the Iranian regime until those sanctions have been imposed.

So then, after the revelation of the undisclosed site, Russian expression of openness to sanctions, illegitimacy of the government after elections, we still lack sufficient leverage to enter negotiations? Really? President Obama sees it the other way around. Here in Pittsburgh he offered about ten variations on the theme of how giving Iran chances to show their intransigence only adds to international unity, and thereby to further pressure Iran. In terms of the sequence going forward, he said "When we see diplomacy not work, we'll be in a stronger position for sanctions."

Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - Weekly Roundup
Posted by Michael Cohen

  • Do you think maybe it's time for General McChrystal to get a crash course in civil-military relations? First the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot leak; then the Woodward leak; then the "I'll resign if I don't get more troops leak;" now he's on 60 Minutes.  Yes, we know you want more troops, but this constant advocating for it in the media - and leaks clearly aimed to put pressure on the Obama Administration - is getting to be a bit much.
  • David Brooks actually wrote this today, "Third, while many Afghan institutions are now dysfunctional, there is a base on which to build. The Afghan Army is a successful institution." I have an idea let's all start up a collection to get David Brooks a subscription to his own newspaper - then maybe he will read stories like this and not write sentences like the one above that appear to have been composed in an entirely separate universe.
  • Perhaps we have less to worry about from al Qaeda then ordinarily assumed. This paragraph gave me a good chuckle:
The more accurate picture was that the bomb-makers were yet another dismal collection of stupid al Qaeda men, in contravention of the usual received wisdom in the media that jihadists are Islamo-MacGyvers, always well-trained, efficient, smart and capable of whipping up a batch of death from anything.

 . . .And if there is any good news in this depressing tale it's that it is some evidence that despite the passage of years, al Qaeda has shown little if any talent for improving many of its methods. They're still reliant on idiots who comb drugstores and beauty salons for makeshift ingredients after a beggar's trip/trawl around the Internet.

Islamo-McGyvers . . . that's pretty funny. But seriously, this latest terrorist alert is yet more evidence that when it comes to fighting terrorism sometimes shoe leather works better than multi-year military occupations.

Toobin and Serwer weigh in as well.
  • Have a good weekend! I'll be running the first road race of my life so wish me luck . . .

Live From the Pittsburgh G-20
Posted by David Shorr

So I came to Pittsburgh with a powerful advocacy message on behalf of closer cooperation between established and emerging powers: "Okay leaders, stop tiptoeing around the issue of who will be at the table for future summits and clarify all the confusion over how the G-20, G-8 will work!" Then, BAM, last night came the announcement that the G-20 will indeed be the key global summit forum going forward from Pittsburgh.

Great - except for one thing. Apparently the G-20 will confine itself to global economic policy, leaving other political and security matters to the G-8. I guess this is a kind of sop to the old club of Western industrialized powers, but it doesn't make sense. Political and security issues are subject to the same new power realities as the global economy, are they not? Apparently the leaders are going to try to keep the former agenda sequestered over in the G-8.

Except for one thing. The dramatic developments on Iran were quite prominent here at this economics-only summit group.

Clinton (Bill) Adds a Go-Slow Voice on Afghanistan
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

follow along with me here.  Former President Clinton goes on NPR and says:

"any former president has a continuing lifetime obligation to help when you can and meddle as little as you can."

and then on Afghanistan:

"I respect General McChrystal and he's giving us an updated Afghan version of what General Petraeus recomemnded with the Iraqi surge.  But let's remember why the Iraqi surge worked.  It worked because the US and our allies performed well, but they performed well in partnership with the Sunni Iraqis being sick and tired with what Al Qaeda in Iraq did, and being willing to put their own necks on the line. 

In sports parlance, Afghanistan like Iraq is an away game for the American team.  We've gotta have a hometown partner.  and Therefore what the president may want to do is take a little time and wait until the results of the afghan elections are finalized, and then see what decisions the afghan political leaders are going to make after the results.  i think that's time we ought to give him.

If you still think that might be freelancing, let me quote one of the things he loved to say when I worked for him. "if you find a turtle on a fencepost, it didn't get there by accident."

Obama, the Gap Band, and Today's Iran's News
Posted by Patrick Barry

President Obama as the long-lost member of the Gap Band? Definitely seems that way after he lobbed this bombshell revelation of Iran's efforts at constructing a secret enrichment facility, buried under a mountain near the Holy City of Qum.  Here are some key details from the New York Times:

...American officials said that they had been tracking the covert project for years, but that Mr. Obama decided to disclose the American findings after Iran discovered, in recent weeks, that Western intelligence agencies had breached the secrecy surrounding the complex. On Monday, Iran wrote a brief, cryptic letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency, saying that it now had a “pilot plant” under construction, whose existence it had never before revealed...

There are three points to take home here - two on timing, and another on the calls for a military strike that will likely follow this revelation.

First on timing.  Marc Lynch has noted that its no coincidence that this announcement came in advance of the P5 + 1 meeting with Iran in October, and following Russia's verbal commitment to consider sanctions.  I think he's spot on w\ the first point, but there's something left out of the second. If Mike McFaul's "beaming" is any indication, the decision to shut down missile defense plans in Poland and the Czech Republic was the primary reason for Russia's verbal concession on sanctions. Not to say that the Administration didn't have the Russians in mind when it decided to reveal its intelligence, but I think the very-public announcement has the added benefit of putting additional pressure on the still-reluctant Chinese to join with the rest of their negotiating partners, and present a unified front to Iran.  Whether they will, given the dramatically altered context, is still unknown. 

Something else to note on timing is that the U.S. has reportedly known about this facility for "years," a period which coincides with the development and release of the the 2007 NIE on Iran's nuclear program, a report which found that the Iranians were not actively seeking a nuclear weapon.  If that timing is right, then while its troubling that this facility was kept secret, its existence does not actually prove that Iran is moving past the break-out capability they are suspected to be pursuing. From the public's perspective, Iran is no closer to a nuclear weapon now than they were before this intelligence was released.

The last point about this facility is that its mere existence strongly debunks the notation that a military strike would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  Though I would emphasize that there's still a lot we don't know about this facility (a whole lot), it does seem clear that A) the Iranians were interested in securing it from sabotage, evidenced by its location underneath a mountain, and B) that they had sought to hide it from international scrutiny. The question therefore becomes, if there is one such facility, might there also be others? While an air-strike could certainly take out the plant at Natanz, and perhaps even this covert facility in Qum, it does nothing to address the possibility of other facilities hidden elsewhere in Iran.  The only thing it would ensure is Iran's refusal to the type of monitoring that could unearth a clandestine program. 

In conclusion, I have to agree with Marc - this revelation ultimately strengthens the U.S.' hand, but it's no cause for alarm and the military option is just as unpalatable as it was before. 
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