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November 30, 2009

The Mother Of All Decisions
Posted by Michael Cohen

I have a love/hate relationship with the headline writers at the Daily News, but their editor is top notch. Below is an excerpt from my latest op-ed from them on the implications of Obama's Afghanistan decision:

Obama's goal of changing America's mind-set from the belief that there is a military solution to every national security challenge will be dealt a defining and perhaps fatal blow - and in the end, that is probably the most important reason why troop levels in Afghanistan matter and why the President should think twice. The opportunity costs will be profound, and Obama will risk becoming the one thing he likely did not want to be: a war President.

As he prepares to announce a decision that will define his presidency, Obama would be wise to consider the words of one of his predecessors in the Oval Office, Lyndon Johnson, who after leaving office told a biographer, "History provided too many cases where the sound of the bugle put an immediate end to the hopes and dreams of the best reformers." No doubt Obama knows what ultimately happened to Johnson's policy agenda - and his presidency.

Read the whole thing here

NSN Daily Update: November 30, 2009
Posted by The Editors

In lieu of our normal Daily Update, NSN has released a memo to the community regarding President Obama's speech on the way forward in Afghanistan. We encourage you to read it here.

What We're Reading

In a letter to the Pakistani leadership, President Obama offered an expanded strategic partnership, including additional military and economic cooperation. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown highlighted the need for enhanced cooperation with Pakistan on counterterrorism. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari ceded civilian control of Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure to his Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, in another sign of the political pressure he faces to step down or cede his extensive powers.

Iran refuses U.N. nuclear agency demands to stop work on a once-secret nuclear fuel enrichment plant, and further declares that it will build ten more similar plants, straining already-tenuous relations with the international powers. Iran also reorganized its naval forces to give operational control of the strategic Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz to the naval component of the Revolutionary Guard.

Voters in Switzerland voted to ban the building of minarets.

Sri Lankan General Sarath Fonseka, the commanding officer during the final military campaign against the Tamil Tiger insurgency, has announced his campaign for President against his onetime ally, President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Commentary of the Day

Steven Lee Myers discusses the capture of sectarian division in Iraq by their nascent political system, and wonders how long Iraq’s fragile democracy can prevent disagreements from turning into violence.

Andrew Napolitano explains why military tribunals that try terror suspects are unconstitutional. Petra Bartosiewicz adds the fact that a civilian court trial for terrorists carries few risks for the government’s ability to gain a conviction.

Jon Kyl's Discipline
Posted by James Lamond

Jon Kyl, the Senate Minority Whip –the second ranking Republican in the Senate whose task it is to maintain party discipline –has not exactly been the most disciplined messenger on foreign policy for his part lately. 

First his comments yesterday on FOX News Sunday about president’s upcoming Afghanistan announcement.  The Junior Senator from Arizona actually insisted any kind of exit strategy would be dangerous.  He said yesterday that:

“talk of an exit strategy is exactly the wrong way to go. And I hear that on the -- in the media. I certainly hope the president doesn’t do that, because all that does is signal to the enemies and also to our allies, to the folks in Pakistan as well as the Afghanis, that we’re not there to stay until the mission is accomplished.”

I would think that most people, regardless of their view on the war would agree that it is unwise and immoral to send soldiers into a fight without "talk of an exit strategy."

Last week, however the Minority Whip took it to another level when speaking about the follow-on agreement for START.  The Cable reported last week  that:

"Sen. Jon Kyl, R-AZ, the number two Republican in the Senate, is leading the drumbeat decrying the lack of an interim or 'bridge' agreement, which he says bodes poorly for the negotiations. Kyl just returned from a trip to Geneva with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, and issued a memo, obtained by The Cable, that warns about what might happen after the deadline passes
'For the first time in 15 years, an extensive set of verification, notification, elimination and other confidence building measures will expire ... Yet, no one appears to know what will come next,' Kyl wrote. 'That we don't have answers to these questions is alarming, more so because our negotiators must have known for months that a ‘bridge' would be necessary.'"

In the memo he wrote, Kyl said that

“I was shocked that there had been virtually no talk - and I know this from my conversations with members of both the Russian and U.S. delegations in Geneva - of what happens after December 5th and prior to the possible entry into force of the follow-on agreement when and if it is signed by the two Executives. Mr. President, I don’t say this lightly, but, this borders on malpractice.”

Besides the fact that the Administration has in fact been negotiating a bridging document in parallel with the follow-on agreement and the key administration principles on nonproliferation have been discussing the bridging document for months, Sen. Kyl continues to be shocked.

After just now discovering that there is no bridging agreement in place –two weeks before it is scheduled to end, months after the Obama administration has been talking about it, and after eight years of the Bush administration doing nothing to work towards a follow-on agreement–Kyl makes the case for a “bridging” or “collar” agreement, because “For the first time in 15 years, an extensive set of verification, notification, elimination and other confidence building measures will expire.” 

So basically, Kyl is making the case for the bridging document because it would be terrible if the verification measures in START were to expire, yet he does not support the START follow-on agreement which would leave the verification measures for both START and SORT void.  Tom Collina of the Arms Control Association writes that,   "some Senate Republicans are gearing up for battle on treaty ratification. Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) said in a Senate floor speech Oct. 19 that Russia’s development of the new multiple-warhead RS-24 missile violates the current START." Kyl claims that Russia had cheated on the agreement even though the Bush administration had made it clear that they did not have any objections on the issue Kyl is raising.  Kyl even penned an op-ed this summer with the neoconservative “Prince Of Darkness” Richard Perle, where the two argued against the nonproliferation agreements in general.

Kyl’s absurd stance on an exit strategy and self-contradiction on nonproliferation just shows how conservative leaders do not take national security issues seriously. 

Another Kirk Gitmo Flip Flop
Posted by Adam Blickstein

The only thing he's being consistent on is his inconsistency. Seems like after weeks of incendiary, obtuse and frankly incoherent rhetoric on Guantanamo Bay detainees and the probability of their transfer to the U.S. for trial and detention, Rep. Kirk has become more nuanced and thoughtful on the issue. The lede says it all:

What a difference a week makes.

Republican Congressman Mark Kirk now says he wants a "dispassionate and specific" discussion about the possibility of selling an Illinois prison to the federal government to house Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Make no mistake, Kirk still thinks it's an "unnecessary risk" to bring detainees to the nearly vacant Thomson Correctional Center in northwestern Illinois.

But now he's focused his concerns on how trials would happen for the detainees and how their medical care would be handled.

I hope someone gets Rep. Kirk a dictionary for Christmas cause how does anything he's said in the past sound dispassionate?

  • "If your Administration brings Al Qaeda terrorists to Illinois, our state and the Chicago Metropolitan Area will become ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots, recruitment and radicalization"
  • "As home to America’s tallest building, we should not invite Al Qaeda to make Illinois its number one target,"
  • "The policies that the president has chosen with regard to terrorist transfer are increasingly unpopular, and for those of us who oppose those policies we will find more and more allies the closer to an election we get"

So how does Kirk account for such disparate rhetoric on such a critical issue?

Kirk said much of his earlier rhetoric had to do with the fact that the federal interest in Thomson was "a rather surprise announcement" and that he was "going with the information that we had available."

Seems like a rather erratic response. Maybe he should have suspended his campaign, returned to Washington and stopped everything else in order to deal with this news. But Kirk is even wrong in his declaration retracting his earlier inflammatory rhetoric because the information we have available is pretty clear: the transfer of terror detainees to American soil will not threaten American lives nor will it turn Chicago into ground zero for jihad. What it will do is bring the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11to justice, something the previous President of Kirk's own party failed to do for nearly 8 years.

The bottom line is Kirk can barely have a "dispassionate and specific" conversation with himself on the best way to handle Guantanamo detainees. How can he have one with the people of Illinois let alone the rest of the country, not to mention those he desires to be his colleagues in the Senate?

November 25, 2009

Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - The Wrong Tactics Approach
Posted by Michael Cohen

I really try to be optimistic about our chances in Afghanistan - I try to look on the positive; I really do. But, it's stories like the one today in the Wall Street Journal that just further erode my dwindling confidence.

Commanders in Afghanistan say they will devote the majority of the fresh troops expected from the White House to securing the country's troubled south and will especially target this volatile city, the Taliban's main power base.

. . . Military commanders on the battlefield are ready to implement a plan that makes a defensive ring around Kandahar a linchpin of the fight to come. No matter how many troops the president decides to authorize, the Kandahar campaign will be an early, large-scale test of U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal's plan of refocusing allied military, political and economic efforts on population centers and away from sparsely peopled rural areas.

Commanders say the Kandahar campaign will force them to pull troops away from less-urgent fights. "There's no slack out there," said U.S. Brig. Gen. Frederick "Ben" Hodges, director of operations in the south. "Additional forces -- I need them big time. I can't dominate all of the places I want to dominate."

Beside being remarkably similar to the approach utilized by the Soviets during their occupation of Afghanistan the problem here is that you are unlikely to dominate Helmand no matter what you do!  Not only will the Taliban continue to own the countryside (they are after all a rural insurgency); and be able to slip over the border into safe havens in Pakistan, but the increased US presence is almost certainly going to play into the hands of the Taliban - and the image of the US as a foreign occupier. It shouldn't seem accidental that the Taliban are  most popular in the Pasthun-dominated South and East - and that the government's reach is the most minimal there. So wouldn't adding more US troops do as much harm as good?

This is particularly important when you factor in the Taliban's growing inroads in the North and West. Wouldn't it make more sense to focus US troops strength there, where the Taliban are more feared and disliked as opposed to places like Helmand where an increased US military footprint again will play into the hands of the Taliban - and is unlikely to be militarily decisive?

And here's the worst thing, even with 30,000 more troops you're not going to be able to secure Helmand AND pushback Taliban gains in the North and West.  Where is the prioritization? Once again you have a military command that seems intent on spreading itself too thin instead of focusing its energies in those places where it currently enjoys an advantage. And it would be one thing if you were going to send additional troops to the South in order to engage the Taliban more directly. But in fact, we're doing the exact opposite - and focusing on population rather than enemy centric COIN.

One of my biggest fears with the new White House strategy on Afghanistan was that by giving McChrystal more troops it would discourage him from thinking more strategically about how those troops were utilized. From early indications, these fears are being realized: and more troops may lead to the continuation of dubious military decision-making.

Where to Go for Your Secret Doomsday Planning Needs
Posted by David Shorr

Going to see the '2012' movie left FP Passport's Blake Hounshell with a semi-serious question:

What is the proper forum for secret doomsday planning? The G-20? The U.N. Security Council? The P5+1 or the EU3+3? Every country for itself?

Of course we know that even doomsday planning can't be kept secret because Foreign Policy or Washington Independent is bound to expose it. But okay, let's say the world is facing cataclysmic threats, what combination of powerful nations can the world count on to fend off the apocalypse? [Wait, don't we, in actuality, face cataclysmic threats?]

Blake's right, shame on the movie's producers for highlighting the anachronistic G8; clearly they haven't been paying attention to all our informative and relevant blogs. Their impulse to feature one of the G grouping leadership clubs may not have been off the mark, though. When you need high-level political will from the most influential countries, a G group is the right place to look. They have summit meeetings at their heart and global or regional power is their membership criterion. So my answer for Blake would be the G20. Next time they make a politico-apocalyptic thriller, they should ask us.

Thank You for That Question, Greg
Posted by David Shorr

Greg Scoblete over at RealClearWorld's The Compass blog wants to know why I'm so fretful about the prospect of the US dialing back it's international engagement. Specifically, he asks

Why, I wonder, would Shorr want to perpetuate a circumstance which he admits overextends the United States? And, in any event, is it really natural to expect the United States to foot the defense bill of other leading economies en-perpetuity?

Well, I'll tell you. First a clarification, my concern isn't only about American military commitment to the global commons, but also political. At both levels, though, my chief concern is the vacuum that would be left if the US abandons the role of guarantor of the international system. We can probably agree that other key nations should boost their contributions, including militarily (let's see how the NATO allies respond for Afghanistan). I interpret President Obama's push for international cooperation as an appeal for shared global leadership and contributions to the common good, especially at the political level.

But this still leaves me with my worry. Would American retrenchment be complemented by others filling the same role? Can the dispersal of responsibility take place on the same timeline as US pullback? In recent years I've become increasingly concerned about order and stability in the world. What will the global trend lines be? Will there be more peace and prosperity, or more conflict, dislocation, and ungoverned spaces? Which will be more prevalent, good globalization or bad globalization? From that perspective, the US role as a global power and leader is important. We need to be more sensitive in carrying out that role, not be so hasty in remaking others in our image, and by all means enlist the help of others. In the meantime, however, I'm left with the question if not us, then who?

What Democrats Should NOT Do on Afghanistan?
Posted by Michael Cohen

Back in 2007 when I first started blogging here at Democracy Arsenal I got myself in quite a bit of hot water for defending Will Marshall and the Progressive Policy Institute from the ad hominem attacks of a few liberal bloggers. Well today, we are truly coming full circle . . .

You see the PPI has a new blog called the Progressive Fix, but there is not much new or even progressive about some of the views being expressed there. Instead they continue to reflect a perspective that has driven some dangerous foreign policy thinking in the Democratic Party in recent years.

Take for example the post today by Jim Arkedis - a really nice guy who I recently met in Dubai on my ill-fated trip to Afghanistan. A couple of days ago Jim tweaked me because I suggested that perhaps this country needs to have a national debate about how we have found ourselves - 8 1/2 years after 9/11 - fighting two wars in places where al Qaeda doesn't even exist. Jim thinks such debates can wait until after we've decided to send more troops to Afghanistan, which in my view precisely serves to continue the cycle of American foreign policy myopia that I aimed to identify. But I'm not going to quibble with that post.

Instead,I'm going to quibble with Jim's post today. In it, he suggests that General McChrystal's strategic review is:

. . . hardly a guaranteed success, but it offers the highest possibility of permanently denying al Qaeda the safe haven only the Taliban can provide in a difficult and complex operating environment. It also shows that the U.S. is committed to being a partner with the Afghan people against the Taliban, one of the most vile groups imaginable. They are fanatical ideologues who deny women basic rights and have been bent on enforcing a draconian interpretation of sharia law.

Yes, yes, the Taliban are horrible. Saddam gassed the Kurds too. It still didn't justify going to war in 2003 - and as bad as the Taliban might be it doesn't justify a troop increase of 30-40,000 troops today, particularly when the current government in Kabul is pretty lousy as well. I mean does the vileness of the Taliban change the basic fact that the Karzai regime is a completely unsuitable partner for population centric counter-insurgency?

As for that safe haven that only the Taliban can provide: what about that safe haven that already exists in Pakistan - and has been there for the past 7 years? As a good friend pointed out to me yesterday - we want al Qaeda in Afghanistan! Better that than the inhospitable FATA where neither the US not the Pakistan government can get to them. If al Qaeda wants to leave their safe haven of the past 7 years to head to a country that has a sizable US military presence, bring it on!

But all of these points are moot, because PPI has identified the real reason why Democrats in Congress should support a dangerously wrong-headed policy on Iraq - politics:

Whatever course he chooses, the President will need his party’s understanding and support to succeed. If Democrats fall out over Afghanistan, he won’t be able to sustain a coherent policy, and the public will likely lose confidence in the party’s ability to manage the nation’s security.


Putting aside the Democrat's past public image on national security how is this recommendation any different from what the Republican party did for George Bush during the first 6 years of the Iraq War?  If I can break this argument down a bit, it seems to be suggesting that no matter what the President decides to do in Afghanistan - as far as military escalation goes - his party must support him because if not Republicans will call Democrats names and accuse them of being a bunch of wussies on national security.

Aren't the days of "Democrats need to be as militaristic as the Republicans" behind us? Didn't the 2006 and 2008 campaigns put to bed the notion that Democrats can't win on an anti-war message? I'll tell you what, if you want the public to "lose confidence" in the Democratic party's ability to manage the nation's security then yes, mindlessly supporting a strategically dubious war in Afghanistan that will tarnish and subvert the President's larger foreign policy agenda is a jolly good idea. (BTW, ask the Republican party how slavish support for a failed military effort in Iraq worked out for them.)

I'll admit I'm being a little snarky today because after spending about 6-7 months writing about the foolishness of military escalation in Afghanistan I'm getting ready to watch a Democratic President, to whom I've invested a great deal of emotional energy and support, tragically follow this course. But just because the President makes a decision to send more troops into an Afghan quagmire it most certainly does not mean that his party should blindly follow course.

November 24, 2009

The Potential Blindspot in President Obama's Vision of a Nuclear-Free World
Posted by David Shorr

Despite President Obama's soft-pedaling the time frame for his goal of a world without nuclear weapons, announced in his April Prague speech, it may be quite possible during his lifetime, though certainly not within his presidency. Whatever the timeline, charting the course all the way to zero is too complex to try at this point. The early moves in this direction, on the other hand, are quite clear. One of the most significant, the Nuclear Posture Review that determines the policy and strategic basis of US nuclear forces, is currently being prepared for the president's signature.

In fact, the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is probably the most important bureaucratic process you've never heard of. (Find more details in Martin Butcher's background paper or Joe Cirincione and Andrew Grotto's report for CAP.) Important because the resulting documents will determine the purpose of America's nuclear arsenal, which in turn will send a clear signal to the rest of the world. And unless the review sharply curtails the function of nuclear weapons purely to deter others from nuclear attack (aka a pledge of no first use), that signal could land with a diplomatic thud and undercut the Obama administration's credibility.

The essence of the NPT Treaty -- the spiritof the law -- is to uphold a taboo on the world's most destructive weapons. That's why nations possessing nuclear weapons that signed the treaty 40 years ago, like the US, were expected ultimately to disarm (Article VI). These devices were to be tolerated only with the understanding that they would eventually be eliminated; the nonproliferation norm stipulates an international security system that leaves no permanent role for nuclear arms as military instruments. You can see why this is so important to preventing the spread of this technology to more countries. In the international politics of nonproliferation, there's no avoiding arguments that "what's good for the goose..." particularly as the United States struggles to restore its moral authority,

This also explains President Obama's numerous references to reducing the role of nuclear weapons in US national security. His posture review is an opportunity to clear the air and confine that role to nuclear deterrence. The more functions and scenarios that are devised for nuclear weaopns, the more tortured the policy debate over reducing them, refraining from testing, halting the development of new systems, etc. My favorite resource that I've found in this area is a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article by Jeffrey Lewis, the blogosphere's official arms control wonk. My summary: there's minimum deterrence, and then there's a lot of scary rationalization for keeping a much more extensive arsenal than you need to deter a nuclear attack.

November 23, 2009

You Want The War - Pay For It
Posted by Michael Cohen

Apparently David Obey thinks that if the Obama Administration wants more troops for Afghanistan - they need to pay for it:

"There ain't going to be no money for nothing if we pour it all into Afghanistan," House Appropriations Chairman David Obey told ABC News in an exclusive interview. "If they ask for an increased troop commitment in Afghanistan, I am going to ask them to pay for it."

Obey, a Democrat from Wisconsin, made it clear that he is absolutely opposed to sending any more U.S. troops to Afghanistan and says if Obama decides to do that, he'll demand a new tax -- what he calls a "war surtax" -- to pay for it.

"On the merits, I think it is a mistake to deepen our involvement," Obey said. "But if we are going to do that, then at least we ought to pay for it. Because if we don't, if we don't pay for it, the cost of the Afghan war will wipe out every initiative we have to rebuild our own economy."

Obey is a 1000% correct. For too long we have acted in this country like our foreign military misadventures don't cost money, don't blow up the deficit and don't mean a misallocation of resources away from far more important national priorities. If we're going to spend potentially $100 billion a year fighting the war in Afghanistan then the President should make perfectly clear how he is going to pay for it - and if it means raising taxes to do it then so be it.

Indeed, both Obey and Senate Armed Service Chairmen Carl Levin are now calling for a war tax. But Levin wants to direct the tax to "folks earning more than $200,000 or $250,000." But why should the rich pay for America's wars? If it's so important, everyone should chip in. And in fact proposed House legislation would ask middle-class to pay their share.

As any regular reader of this blog is well aware I think the idea of sending significantly more troops to Afghanistan would be a disaster. But if we are going to go down this road, we should at least be honest about the costs and the necessary sacrifice that the American people will have to make. Not only should Congress push a war tax, but the President should endorse the idea.

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