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April 30, 2010

America's Fantastical Afghan Mission
Posted by Michael Cohen

There's a new report out from the Pentagon on the current situation in Afghanistan. It does not make for easy reading . . . because it lays bare the fundamental contradictions and unrealistic assumptions that underpin the US effort in Afghanistan. It is truly a snapshot of precisely how incoherent and fantastical our mission in Afghanistan has become. Much of the press reporting from yesterday focused on this key takeaway:

The overall assessment indicates that the population sympathizes with or supports the Afghan Government in 24% (29 of 121) of all Key Terrain and Area of Interest districts.

This is obviously of great concern and suggests precisely how difficult the challenge will be for the US to extend the legitimacy of the Kabul government, particularly in the areas where US operations are focused. As the report indicates, these operations are overwhelmingly occurring in the South and East of the country - and right there is a big part of the problem. Consider this observation, in the report, about the nature of the Taliban:

They operate mainly in the Pashtun-majority areas of Afghanistan in the south and east, and in Pashtun pockets in the north.  The common goals of these groups are to expel foreign forces from Afghanistan (although there is no mention of foreign fighters allied with them or al Qaeda) and to undermine the central government.

Isn't the somewhat obvious takeaway from this insight that the very presence of "foreign fighters" in Pashtun-dominated areas actually feeds the insurgency. Now granted this wouldn't be an issue, per se, if ISAF's presence in these areas was providing security, good governance and development. But as the report makes clear - it's not. So one could actually draw the conclusion that the focus of US troops on stabilizing the South - rather than consolidating gains in the North and West - is actually undermining the achievement of our overall mission goals, namely slowing the insurgency's momentum.

Not that this stops the report from sounding an occasionally optimistic tone about US and NATO capabilities in the South and elsewhere:

The establishment of effective governance is a critical enabler for improving development and security.  As the operational plan progresses, ISAF is working closely with the Government of Afghanistan and the international community to coordinate and synchronize governance and development in the 48 focus districts prioritized for 2010.

But actually if you read the report closely you'll see that, from the military's own perspective, that challenge may be unachievable. Unfortunately, I'm not able to cut and paste the map here, but on pg. 45 of the report (figure 15) is a map of District Level Governance Assessment. Literally, there are only 3 out of hundreds of districts in the country that are considered to have "Full Authority" from the district government. The lion's share of governance in the country is either non-existent, dysfunctional, unproductive or wasn't assessed.

What possible reason is there to then believe that the governance and development can be synchronized, no less sustained - particularly in a region of the country wracked by a fearsome insurgency. Truly the mind reels.

Indeed, on page 23, the report notes that "Despite some progress, improvements to national infrastructure remain insufficient to provide tangible benefits for the populace."

Again, all of this contradicts any reason for optimism about the ability of the US to work with the Afghan officials in extending governance - particularly since the US has committed itself to begin troop withdrawals in a mere 14 months and particularly in the South and East where, as the report notes, the presence of foreign fighters only inflames the insurgency. But the report's flights of fancy on governance are nothing compared to its delusions on security:

A March 2010 nationwide survey indicates that 52% of Afghans believe insurgents are the greatest source of insecurity, while only 1% believes the National Army/Police are primarily to blame. This perception provides an opportunity for the Afghan Government, with the support of the international community, to improve its legitimacy and enhance popular perceptions of the government.

Let's ignore for a moment that this represents an incredibly simplistic definition of how states achieve "legitimacy." For example, just because Afghans in Marjah believe the Taliban is the source of insecurity that doesn't mean they are more likely to view the government in Kabul as legitimate Indeed, the very fact that only 29 of 121 Areas of Interest or Key Terrain support the government would suggest that even though Afghans view the Taliban as the primary source of insecurity . . . it isn't having much impact on "popular perceptions" of the government. If anything, the exact opposite. Yet, it doesn't really matter, because as the report indicates, ISAF and the ANSF is unable to provide any sort of security anyway:

Security and stability conditions in the 80 Key Terrain districts and 41 Area of Interest districts
are presently far from satisfactory.

So even if we buy the notion that providing security would improve state legitimacy - it probably isn't a realistic aspiration in the near-term. Now this might be different in areas of the country that are non-Pashtun and fear the Taliban; but this seems a much harder mountain to climb in a region of the country that is broadly sympathetic to the insurgency. (And on this note the report regularly cities polling that suggests most Afghans are more supportive of the government, in general, and view the security situation as improved but doesn't break these numbers down by region - which basically makes them useless.) And as if all this wasn't enough, check out this incredibly revelatory passage:

Finally, in order for the ANSF to successfully transition to security lead, there is a requirement for a minimum acceptable rule of law capacity (i.e., governance, courts, judges, prosecutors, and correctional capacity) to support the security effort.  Defining sufficient rule of law capability, and the resources required to achieve it, is outside the scope of this report but is being addressed by the interagency and international community.  Without the necessary supporting rule of law structures, the ANP will become ineffective over time.  No matter how many police we train or how well we partner with them, without sufficient rule of law and governance, transition will fail.  

So not only is the ANSF unable to provide security in the key districts where they and US troops are located . . . even if they were able to muster up a military force that was even marginally competent the lack of "rule of law structures" would make such security basically illusory. And as the report does mention, one of the sources of Taliban legitimacy has been their ability to provide a forum for resolving grievances, i.e. a very rudimentary rule of law structure.

I could go on in this vein, but I think you get the idea.  Those who are looking for optimism about the mission in Afghanistan are not going to find it in this report. But it really does beg the question; why are we continuing on a mission - that by the military's own analysis - is almost certainly out of the scope of our capabilities and the capabilities of our host country partner? And perhaps more directly, why aren't our civilian policymakers asking this question of the uniformed military?

April 29, 2010

Support for New START from SFRC Chairman + Ranking Member = Bipartisan Support
Posted by Kelsey Hartigan

Today marks the beginning of hearings related to the New START accord.  The opening statements from Senator Kerry and Senator Lugar highlighted the importance of putting partisanship aside and continuing the long history of bipartisan support for strategic nuclear arms treaties. 

Senator Kerry
This treaty improves our security because it increases certainty, stability and transparency between two countries that together hold 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons—and it does so while retaining for America the flexibility to protect ourselves and our allies in Europe and around the world.

On a matter this vital to America’s national security, it’s more important than ever that we put aside politics and judge this treaty on its merits.  This should not be a partisan issue.  Some of the most important arms control treaties have been negotiated by Republican Presidents.  Remember, it was Ronald Reagan who began negotiations on the original START Treaty, and George H.W. Bush who completed them.  And that treaty was approved with the overwhelming support of Democrats.

In fact, the New START Treaty reflects concerns raised by Senators on both sides of the aisle and shared by our negotiators.  It emphasizes verification.  It will not inhibit our missile defense.  It will not prevent us from fielding strategic conventional weapons.  The START and SORT agreements with Russia were approved by large majorities of both parties.  And we can do it again this year.
Senator Lugar:
I support the new START Treaty and believe that it will enhance U.S. national security. It would reduce strategic nuclear launchers and warheads and replace the 1991 START I Treaty that expired last year. Equally important, it will provide forward momentum to our relationship with Moscow, which is vital to U.S. policy goals related to Iran’s nuclear program, nuclear non-proliferation, global energy security, and stability in Eurasia. Further, because the verification procedures contained in START I expired last December, without the new START Treaty, the United States lacks both the ability to carry out onsite inspections in Russia and the formal consultation mechanisms that monitor the Russian strategic nuclear program. It is essential that a verification system be in place so that we have a sufficient understanding of Russian nuclear forces and achieve a level of transparency that prevents miscalculations.

Arms control treaties have traditionally enjoyed bipartisan backing. With 67 votes required for ratification, the Senate approved the START I Treaty in 1992 by a vote of 93-6, and the 1996 START II Treaty by a vote of 87-4. The Moscow Treaty, signed by President Bush and then-President Putin in 2003, was approved 95-0. Since the new START Treaty combines concepts from START I and the Moscow Treaty, I believe a thorough and detailed debate can achieve similar levels of support.
This is good news, folks.  What say you, Jon Kyl?

Schlesinger to Focus on Tactical Nukes—Says New START Reductions are “ Quite Adequate”
Posted by Kelsey Hartigan

From James R. Schlesinger:

While New Start may be acceptable in the narrow context of strategic weapons, it also needs to be considered in a much larger context. In particular, as I shall come to later, it must be viewed in terms of the evolving Russian doctrine regarding tactical nuclear weapons use and on the balance between Russia’s substantial stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons – which are excluded under this Treaty – and strategic weapons.  As to the stated context of strategic nuclear weapons, the numbers specified are quite adequate."


Schlesinger will go on to focus on tactical weapons and the need to engage Russia on this topic. 

Given that countless military and national security experts have viewed the New START accord as a starting point, calling for future negotiations once this treaty is ratified and enters into force, Schlesinger’s observations regarding the need to engage Russia on tactical weapons is warranted.  Importantly, Schlesinger’s comments echo objectives already laid out in the NPR.

The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review states that the U.S should direct future efforts to: 

Engage Russia, after ratification and entry into force of New START, in negotiations aimed at achieving substantial further nuclear force reductions and transparency that would cover all nuclear weapons – deployed and non-deployed, strategic and nonstrategic.  

Perry, Schlesinger on the Historical & Modern Context for US-Russian Arms Control
Posted by Kelsey Hartigan

Sw21_09_schlesinger-perry-anastasio-miller

Tune in today at 2:30 pm EST as William Perry and James Schlesinger appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  NSN will be live-blogging throughout the hearing, so continue to watch Democracy Arsenal for up-to-date coverage.

Are Conservative Foreign Policy Minds Closed?
Posted by David Shorr

Daniel Drezner wants to know whether the views of our conservative counterparts have ossified in the same way that domestic policy voices on the right have gotten trapped inside their own echo chamber? I'd go along with Drezner's view that the foreign policy wonks haven't shown the same pathology of epistemic closure. But that sets the bar pretty low. While our conservative friends have kept a basic openness to views and issues outside their tribal cosmology, their main arguments have become more rigid, not less so, over the last couple years.

Maybe the chance to gain domestic political advantage exerts an irresistible force. The effect, though, is that center of gravity in the foreign policy debate has not had the kind of corrective pendulum swing you'd expect after the failures of the Bush Administration (a problem I explored in greater depth in a recent article for Center for American Progress). As we've seen in the political realm, the opposition is held to a much lower standard of responsibility for presenting practical alternatives (strkingly low), but today's topic is the policy discourse, not the political one. So while I'm happy acknowledge conservative fellow wonks basic intellectual openness and the occasional glimmers of moderate-ism they've contributed, I don't think they have mainly been partners in a discourse that is moving forward.

What do I mean, more specifically. Gone are the days when America's international political legitimacy was treated as a valid consideration or concern. In the mid- to late-2000s, conservatives publicly admitted that diplomatic status and moral authority were a withering strategic asset of the United States. It is pretty clear from the critique of current policy that these concerns have been forgotten -- even worse, actually, they are once again roundly and widely disdained as catering to others rather than standing up for American interests. That's the only way I can interpret a critique that treats every US move to accomodate others' concerns or put money in the moral authority bank as craven. Prove me wrong. Please. I would love to see multiple examples where conservatives acknowledge any American accountability to the international community (not just closing Guantamo).

The implications for the Iran debate are quite significant. The current approach is based on the premise that a successful diplomatic approach depends on gaining the support of a strong international coalition. Having the pressure come not just from the United States will turn up the heat on Tehran much more than America as a lone voice. The price of building that support is everything we've seen the administration doing, and which the conservatives have been railing against. If they think this is a fool's errand, okay, then just come out and advocate a military attack. Not long ago, the need to engage Iran more intensively in pursuit of a diplomatic solution was a bipartisan consensus. From what conservatives have been saying, I'm not sure that's true today. Diplomatic soluions take time, effort, and sensitivity to other views; if you're resistant to what diplomacy entails, I don't know in what sense you're for diplomacy.

Even more specifically. Take this May 2008 speech on nuclear arms control by then-candidate John McCain, which notably expresses openness to ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Never mind whether McCain would still deliver it, would our friends still write it? If so, that side of them has been pretty quiet. So sure, I'm happy to affirm that our conservative counterparts aren't as rabid and unhinged as others in their movement. But we're sure not having the foreign policy debate I thought we'd be having in 2010.

April 28, 2010

The "Treating Our Enemies Better Than Our Friends" Meme
Posted by David Shorr

I don't mean to pick on my friend Kori Schake; she's merely keeping up the drumbeat charge that the US now is nicer to its enemies than its friends:

Contrast the harshness with which President Obama himself and his cabinet excoriate Israel for building settlements that were not even covered by the temporary freeze with President Obama's careful language as Iran's Qom reactor was revealed (he even delayed the announcement so that it would not interfere with his message of a different America at the UN last fall). It would appear that Israel is the only government for which the Obama administration favors regime change. Imagine what signal that sends to Iran.

Don't hold back, tell us what you really think of the administration's policy. In my reading of this graf, which is jam packed with arguments, I see three issues. There's the question of whether we use the same standards of etiquette with allies and adversaries. Second, the rationales for why the US would press issues in one diplomatic forum versus another. And then last, the matter of regime change (somehow it always seems to come back to that issue). 

On the comparison between Washington's treatment of Israel versus Iran, I can hardly do better than the commenter Wolfboy on Kori's blog, who said "Please hold off on such comparisons until the US refuses to rule out military action to deal with the Israeli settlement issue, or declares that the US and Iran are joined by an unbreakable bond." For all the administration's purported mistreatment of Israel, it's worth noting the assessment of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren that "This administration, I say this unequivocally without reservation, this administration is as good if not better than previous administrations in its security commitment to Israel, in assuring Israel's military edge." (About 14 minutes into his Charlie Rose interview.)

But there are more fundamental problems with this argument. To begin with, this whole exercise of comparing our treatment of friends and enemies, just on the face of it, is so apples-to-oranges. Digging a bit deeper, what are the implications of how we're supposed to treat allies or adversaries? Is friendship a carte blanche, ensuring that leaders of ally nations are immune from criticism or controversy with the United States?

And for nations we regard as posing a threat, are we precluded from modulating our response or making tactical choices about the right time or place to raise criticisms or point the accusing finger? In oher words, how much room is left here for any diplomatic efforts? As I debate these issues in the blogosphere with my conservative friends, I have tried to be more careful not to caricaure them. I know they understand the need for diplomacy. Yet their policy critique gives no credit for policy choices that have been made to boost diplomacy's prospects. And frankly, the more criticism I read, I really wonder how they think diplomacy will work. For one thing, the criticism never acknowledges the international coalition-building around Iran, except to slam it as a fool's errand. The missed deadlines and supposedly wasted year that Kori laments stems directly from the difficulty of lining up international support, and the desire to keep from losing momentum is the animating drive for the way the administration has been relentlessly working to persuade others to stand with us in pressing Iran. If conservatives are so sure they could drive this more successfully or expeditiously, I'm still waiting to hear how.

Which brings me to my next point: choosing the right multilateral venues. The key point is that a solid international front of pressure on Iran is something that has to be built, not presumed. It would be great if the world saw this the same way as the US; they don't. Consequently, it's indeed true that the administration hasn't pressed Iran's misdeeds as loudly as possible or in every public forum. This is a calculation that some forms or venues of protest would undermine international support on Iran. In the case of the nuclear summit, the administration figured it could actually accomplish more on Iran in private meetings in the margins of the summit.

Again, I don't want to caricature the conservative view, but I need someone to explain to me how it's different from asserting that the US view is correct, and everyone else should follow along, without needing to be patiently convinced or cajoled?

Finally, since Kori brings it up, regime change. According to Kori, the Obama administration wants regime change in Israel and doesn't want it in Iran, even though it should. Once again I read the conservative argument as lacking any sense of trade-offs or negative potential consequences. It's an entirely different matter to want regime change than to seek regime change as a matter of policy. We all want greater freedom for the people of Iran. Some of us, though, see a direct contradiction between the policy objectives of getting Iran to do a nuclear "full monty" and regime change. However abhorent and illegitimate the Iranian leadership is -- and it indeed is abhorent and illegitimate -- a policy aim of removing them will only give them every incentive to barrel ahead to a nuclear weapon capability. For any successful peaceful outcome here, Tehran needs to know that changing their policy without changing their regime will be credited by the United States and the international community. Something we ought to know by now.

The GOP's Short-Sighted Immigration Strategy
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at AOLNews, my latest column looks at the Arizona immigration bill and its potential impact on national politics:

America has always been a country of immigrants. But this historical legacy notwithstanding, it's also been a country that engaged in its fair share of anti-immigration hysteria at times of economic and social uncertainty.

Case in point, the passage last week of legislation in Arizona that would make illegal immigration a state crime and would allow law enforcement officials to demand proof of citizenship based on simply a "reasonable suspicion" that someone is an illegal immigrant. If unable to immediately provide proof, individuals -- even U.S. citizens -- can be arrested by the police.

Pushed through by a Republican state legislature and a GOP governor, the law is a virtual recipe for police intimidation and harassment of both legal and illegal Hispanic residents. After all, in a state with a significant number of illegal immigrants from Mexico, what exactly is "reasonable suspicion" for being an illegal other than being Hispanic?

While the Arizona bill stands on dubious constitutional grounds and has a good chance of being thrown out in court before it is even implemented, the political implications, particularly for Republicans, may resonate far longer . .  Over the long term, the GOP seems likely to have dealt itself a far more grievous blow with Hispanic voters.

You can read the whole thing here

The Inspiring Wali Karzai
Posted by Michael Cohen

So as every sentient observer of the war in Afghanistan is intimately aware the US is preparing to do battle this summer in Kandahar province. Our goal is not only weaken the Taliban militarily, but also to extend the legitimacy of the Afghan government and build up good governance in the province. And who is the government representative for this insurgent-laden land. None other than the precocious Ahmad Wali Karzai.

Wali Karzai has a rather "unique" resume. He's supposedly on the CIA payroll, is the brother of the president . . and is likely a major drug dealer. But dwelling on these "attributes" really doesn't do justice to the man; because in fact Walid Karzai is an individual of great personal empathy.

Case in point; this past Tuesday Kandahar was racked by another in a series of suicide bombings. Three people were killed and dozens were wounded. This followed the murder last week of a top Afghan government official by Taliban insurgents . . . in a mosque.

So what were Walid Karzai's soothing comments to his fellow Kandaharis after the latest attack:

"We are not facing a big threat," said Ahmad Wali Karzai, the president's half brother and a top official in Kandahar province. He added that the security situation was far worse a few years ago.

"You get one or two incidents once or twice a week," he told The Associated Press. "That shouldn't be a concern. A suicide attack can happen anywhere.

Wow. I mean wow. Can you imagine a public official anywhere in the world making a comment like that. "A suicide attack can happen anywhere." While nominally a true statement it bears noting that such attacks occur with somewhat depressing regularity in Kandahar. And for the record, this guy is the representative of the Karzai government in Southern Afghanistan . . . the government on whose behalf we are fighting a counter-insurgency . . . which, as one of its key goals, is seeking to improve governance and security in Southern Afghanistan. Did I mention, wow?

In light of this, how shall we say, contradictory approach - if the US is to succeed in its mission in Southern Afghanistan it would seem that finding a way to push Karzai out is absolutely essential. Steve Coll had more on this earlier in the month and it's worth revisiting:

There is no question but that A.W.K. is the most visible, most intractable symbol of the corruption and corporate self-interest of the Karzai government in southern Afghanistan. The poison A.W.K. has come to represent spills into everything—including the upcoming provincial elections, which are meant to be a cleansing exercise in political inclusion, but may turn out to be another fraud-and-fix operation by the Karzai southern mafia. (Hamid Karzai’s irrational-sounding outburst last week, in which he suggested that the international community, rather than his half-brother, was responsible for last year’s massive fraud in the presidential election, is probably best understood as a crazy-like-a-fox smoke-blowing exercise designed to create space for A.W.K. as he works the parliamentary vote, which is scheduled for September.) By virtually all of the accounts I’ve heard, there is no single action the international community could insist upon that would have a greater impact on public opinion in Taliban country than the removal of A.W.K. and the replacement of his reign by a visibly more inclusive and less malign political economy. The decision to do this can be postponed. It cannot be avoided.

April 27, 2010

If Iran Policy Had "Bite" -- Then What Would Happen?
Posted by David Shorr

Here is the lede of Kori Schake's slam against current US efforts to keep Iran from getting the bomb:

The Obama administration is talking tough on Iran. Despite allowing the Iranian government to escape sanction for a year of not accepting sugar-coated Western deadlines to abandon their nuclear program, and doing nothing about discovery of another nuclear plant at Qom, Team Obama is suddenly making an awful lot of noise.

Vague premise alert: a more coercive approach would get (have gotten) Iran to change its ways. Since Kori's own preferred course of action is implied rather than explicit, I have to infer her alternative policy. That's okay, though, because one of my core points is that options are constrained. We are squarely in the zone of picking the least bad option here.

Since Schake takes the administration to task for its public line of ruling out a military attack in the short term -- which is merely a pretense, when in reality they've ruled out any military option -- I'll assume she supports possible attacks against Iran as a nearer-rather-than-longer-term option. Problem 1: it's kinda self-serving to base your critique and policy alternative on the claim that current policy is duplicitous.

Problem 2: the threat of force cuts two ways. When coercive diplomacy is well executed, the credible threat of force exerts pressure and lends urgency toward the intended aim. On the other hand, excess saber-rattling and looking like you have an itchy trigger finger can stiffen the resistance of the government in question, particularly a paranoid regime like the leaders in Tehran. Correction, the threat of force cuts three ways, since it also carries the danger of undermining international support. Kori apparently sees no trade-offs associated with bearing down much harder with a near-term threat of force; I disagree.

Quoting the post again:

They are hoping against all evidence that this Iranian government will have a Damascene Conversion. Secretary Clinton told the Financial Times, "what we believe is that if the international community will unify and make this statement, maybe then we would get the Iranians' attention in a way that would lead to the kind of good-faith negotiations that President Obama called for 15 months ago." That's their strategy.

Problem 3: it hardly does us or our objectives any good to paint Iran as absolutely impervious. Sure, it's good bloodsport politics to yell "NAIVE" and ascribe ridiculous ideas to the administration; I get it. Here's the question that it begs, though, do you see any need to pursue a diplomatic solution? Even if the US pursues diplomacy as a show of good faith, then the diplomacy can't be completely disingenuous about the possibility of success -- since that would undercut the good faith part.

Schake's own words, one more time:

All the hubbub has the feel of an orchestrated attempt to look like Washington is doing something when Washington is doing nothing -- they are covering their retreat into a policy of containing a nuclear-armed Iran.

Problem 4: "doing nothing," really? Really!? If working to build a united international front of pressure on Iran doesn't look like much of a strategy to you, that's fine. Chalk up one more disagreement. But if you try to claim the administration isn't doing anything, I have to ask whether you've been paying attention. Go ahead and lay whatever odds you want on success, but by any measure, the current effort has to count as a serious diplomatic full-court press.

Returning then, to my original question: you got a better idea? We're just going to have to bomb, huh? Do you foresee any trade-offs in international support for / hostility toward the United States? Unilateral sanctions? Problem 5: every lesson we have says sanctions have to be multilateral to work. Unlike Gregory Scoblete, I do see a non-nuclear Iran as an international public good, rather than a parochial American interest. And I'm as impatient with the free-riding of other major powers as anyone. If you have doubts about Clinton's strategy, I have my own doubts about yours.

April 26, 2010

The Problem(s) with US Foreign Assistance
Posted by Shadi Hamid

In a recent post, I ran through some of the highlights of POMED's annual budget report on Middle East democracy assistance. There are some increasingly troubling signs that democracy is simply not a priority for the administration, at least not in the countries that need it most. For example, Stephen McInerney, the author of the report, writes in Foreign Policy about the so-called "Mubarak trust fund," which would essentially pump money to the Egyptian regime without congressional oversight. Why congress would want to divest itself of its own role is more than a bit baffling. The take-away is this: even as Egypt continues its descent into full-blown autocracy, the U.S. - both the executive branch and congress - appear increasingly unwilling to do anything about it. 

In any case, the whole idea of "democracy assistance" is a bit odd and more than a bit hypocritical. We fund autocracies with billions of dollars of aid, then we fund some small NGOs so that they can oppose autocracy. Talk about mixed messages. Often, "democracy assistance" does not in fact assist democracy, since much of it goes to authoritarian governments themselves to help them govern more effectively. And a good chunk of NGO assistance goes to NGOs that are effectively GONGOs - government organized non-governmental organizations. GONGOs, needless to say, have nothing to do with democracy promotion. Even the money that does go to well-meaning NGOs is focused less on specifically democratic concerns and, as the Arabist notes, more on things like women's empowerment, minority rights, etc., which are all important, but are not necessarily clearly linked to democratization - the movement, among other things, toward a political structure in which "alternation of power" is possible.  

So what, if anything, can and should we do?

The idea of "positive conditionality" - that we increase aid to Arab regimes and make that aid conditional upon explicit, measurable benchmarks (which I write about here) - has picked up steam in think tank circles, and one can only hope that policymakers begin to take it seriously. But that would take creativity and imagination and if anything that can be said about our Middle East policy, it's that it's aggressively conventional

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