Democracy Arsenal

« August 2010 | Main | October 2010 »

September 15, 2010

Stephen Walt Drags Me Back In - More on ASG
Posted by Michael Cohen

So at some point I'd like to stop writing about the Afghanistan Study Group and actually talk a bit more about the US war in Afghanistan, but Stephen Walt has dragged me back in

I should say at the outset that I am generally a big fan of Steve Walt and his writings (with one notable exception) - and in general I think US foreign policy would be on a better track if more people listened to his prescriptions for it. That's why I am particularly disappointed by his critique of my critique of the ASG report. I quote in full below:

Michael Cohen at offers a more sympathetic critique, and says he's mostly disappointed that the Study Group didn't offer more detailed, actionable recommendations. He also chides us for making arguments that he (and others) were making a year ago. He's correct that we didn't lay out detailed "action plans" for implementing our various recommendations, but that's also largely beside the point. Until the national leadership is convinced that the present course is a non-starter, there is little point in offering detailed action plans for implementing a different course. The Group also sought to produce a report that key staffers and politicians would actually read, unlike some of the doorstop reports that think tanks often offer. And at least one reader welcomed this feature. Cohen is also correct that the Group was neither alone nor the first to identify the problems with current U.S. strategy, but so what? The question is whether one can get the relevant decision makers to finally pay attention.

I'm not sure if this was Walt's intention, but this analysis makes it sound like I am just bitter that more people weren't listening to me last summer when I was writing the Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch. I dare anyone to read what I wrote here and draw Walt's 'sour grapes' conclusion. 

Continue reading "Stephen Walt Drags Me Back In - More on ASG" »

September 14, 2010

The Military and Succession in Egypt
Posted by Michael Wahid Hanna

Thanassis Cambanis had a very interesting story over the weekend in the New York Times (in which I am quoted) on the Egyptian military and the looming issue of presidential succession (yes, I know, it has been looming for some time now). The story describes the stakes for the military in the succession process and discusses how the military might fit into various post-Hosni Mubarak succession scenarios.

In the piece, Issandr el-Amrani, a sharp observer of Egyptian politics, states that “[t]he military is seen as the only institution that is able to block succession in Egypt.” But gaming out what the military would and, as importantly, could actually do is difficult. It is not at all clear that they could in fact block a succession scenario, specifically, a scenario that involved the ascension of Gamal Mubarak. In the story I argue that “[i]t’s an open question how much power the military has, and they might not even know themselves.”

The role of the military in Egyptian society has changed dramatically since the days of the Free Officers movement and Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser. The thing to remember is that Egypt’s military has not been involved directly in political affairs in years. The last high profile military man, Field Marshall ‘Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazaleh, was removed from his post as Defense Minister in 1989, in a move that was seen as a preemptive action against a potential political rival.

Furthermore, the military role in governance is diminished. In 1966, Sid’qi Suleiman led a government filled with active-duty military officers. These serving military men held key portfolios and occupied half the cabinet-level positions. As such, in 1968, the leftist historian Anouar Abdel-Malek could confidently describe Nasser’s Egypt as a military society. The current cabinet of 33 formal ministers includes only one active-duty military officer, Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the minister of defense (Lt. Gen. ‘Omar Suleiman, often seen as a potential presidential successor, is a minister without portfolio).

Continue reading "The Military and Succession in Egypt" »

A Bit More on that Afghanistan Study Group Report
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over the next few days I'm going to be writing a bit about the situation in Afghanistan, which based on a set of recent interviews and discussions seems increasingly dire and immune to good alternatives.

But the recent, rather heated debate, about the Afghanistan Study Group report merits further discussion. Josh Foust, in indomitable Foustian style, unleashed a 3,600 word howitzer-style attack on the group, which led to heated responses from ASG signatories, Bernard Finel and Justin Logan.

Finel pungently criticized both me and Foust for engaging in a "circular firing squad" by attacking individuals who basically share the same goal as we do - namely, de-escalate the US presence in Afghanistan. It's a fair critique, but I would simply note to Bernard that while I've been critical of the ASG report I did also say that it would be helpful if ASG folks " flesh (ed) out the complexities of what a real Plan B strategy for Afghanistan looks like."  (And the notion that we should ignore the all too evident flaws in this report simply because we share basic aims seems non-conducive to smart foreign policy analysis).

Indeed, this is where much of the criticism from the report comes from - a frustration that after ten months of work the ASG has come with a report that offers a series of non-actionable, unrealistic recommendations that will be of little assistance to policymakers. Maybe ASG can be effective going forward (and I hope they will be) but frankly I can't help but wonder what they have been doing for the past year.

Yet both Finel and Logan; as well as to a lesser extent Steve Clemons have sort of tried to change the debate - arguing instead that the report is important not for it's recommendations, but because it demonstrates the failure of current US strategy and will spark a debate about Afghanistan policy.

Continue reading "A Bit More on that Afghanistan Study Group Report" »

September 13, 2010

What the United Nations Should, and Shouldn't, Worry About
Posted by David Shorr


From Colum Lynch's Turtle Bay Blog over at Foreign Policy, we have a fascinating report of a recent retreat of top UN officials at which they took stock of the global agenda and the world body's relation to it. From Lynch's reading of the leaked working papers from the meeting (available at and additional background in his post, it was quite a hand-wringing affair. In a couple areas, retreat participants had plenty of cause for worry. In terms of the sensitivities that Colum highlights, keeping the organization in a central role, they're setting themselves up.

To the extent that the UN retreat documents highlight the dire consequences of persistent multilateral dysfunction, the warning is perfectly apt, though the problem should hardly be laid at the feet of the UN. To the extent that the retreat tried to use these pressures to shake the organization out of its torpor and hide-bound ways, that is also to the good. But when the UN's standard and self-expectation is to be at the heart of the multilateral action no matter what the issue, this is self-defeating and represents a misreading of the international system.

It's also why I've always hated the idea of a competitive multilateral marketplace of inter-governmental organizations. It's not as if all IGOs supply the same commodity of multilateral cooperation. Different forums are distinctive in their composition, mandate, authority, and level of representation (along a political-to-technical spectrum). Division of labor, rather than competition, is the name of the game. The UN should be asking whether it is making the maximum contribution on the basis of what it's set up to do, not whether it's doing everything. With such a biodiversity in the multilateral ecosystem, aspiring to pre-eminence only sets the UN up for a fall.

Continue reading "What the United Nations Should, and Shouldn't, Worry About" »

September 10, 2010

Muslims, Quran Burnings, and the Problem of Freedom of Speech
Posted by Shadi Hamid

It’s good that Pastor Terry Jones is considering backing down from his plan to burn 200 Qurans. Obama and Petraeus, correctly, anticipated that such an act would have dire repercussions and provoke anti-American activity throughout the world (it already has). We saw what happened with the Danish cartoon controversy and drawing a bunch of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad is considerably more mild than burning the book that Muslims consider the literal, exact word of God.

But herein lies a problem. I remember getting into a conversation with a relative – an American citizen – about the Danish cartoons. He suggested that there should be some sort of international ban, enforced by the UN (I’m not sure how), on offensive depictions of religious figures. When I heard this, I thought to myself, “you’re sort of missing the point here.” Meanwhile, Muqtedar Khan, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Delaware, is regarded as one of the more progressive – I’ve imposed a moratorium on using the word “moderate” without quotation marks – American Muslim voices. But he has written a bizarre and, quite frankly, frightening article about the Quran burnings (via Isaac Chotiner). For example:

The act will scorch Muslim hearts everywhere. The searing pain will never be forgotten...Believe me, there is nothing more precious to Muslims than the Quran, and watching people toss it into fire, will be horrifying. I would rather burn in fire myself, than watch a Quran burn.

I have to admit – the first time I heard about Pastor Jones’s Quran burning scheme, it disturbed me a bit, but in the same way that a Sarah Palin speech disturbs me – it bothers me, makes me fear for my country, but, after 10 minutes, you sort of shrug it off. In contrast, when I first heard about the Danish cartoons a couple years back, I literally didn’t care and had trouble understanding how people could get so worked up about it.

Continue reading "Muslims, Quran Burnings, and the Problem of Freedom of Speech " »

Who Are You Calling "Pollyana"?
Posted by David Shorr


Pollyanna The importance of shared interests is on my top three list of misunderstood elements of the engagement strategy, so I'll take another stab at straightening the record. This time the provocation comes from Daniel Drezner's review of Secretary Clinton's CFR Speech. Drezner lists the following critique among the 'bad' parts of the speech in his tally of the good, the bad and the BS: 

The overestimation of shared interests.  Clinton talked about, "international diplomacy aimed at rallying nations to solve common problems and achieve shared aspirations" as a constant of American foreign policy.  That's great -- but what about the areas where values and aspirations are not shared?  There were far too many Pollyannish paragraphs in this speech.

Contrary to appearances, the stressing of shared interests is not merely a fudging over of divergent interests or empty rhetoric. In fact, the appeal to common interests is based on a strategy for how to overcome differences in an age of growing international interdependence. When countries disagree over an issue, the substance of any solution will be shaped by bargaining, compromise, brinksmanship, etc. This isn't news to anyone.

The more fundamental problem, one that hangs over the entire enterprise of international cooperation, is to induce world leaders to do politically and diplomatically difficult things. From climate change to Middle East peace to balanced economic growth, the immediate benefits of the deal on the negotiating table won't be enough to make it attractive. For most of the issues on the international agenda, progress hinges on a widespread awareness of needing to tackle a problem despite its intractability and the surrounding swirl of differing interests. As I said in a longer post on the same subject, it's not hard to think of an anaology in day-to-day life. When we talk about individuals needing to make wise choices, we say it's in their "own best interests," which parallels this approach to foreign policy pretty closely.

What do we do about actors that are more fundamentally at cross-purposes? The answer is similar. When it comes to renegades or defectors, you want the broadest, strongest possible international coalition helping reinforce the price of ostracism. Sometimes I describe this strategy in terms of the social contract and the analogy with local communities. We're trying to strengthen the law-abiding majority in the community of nations.

September 09, 2010

The Definitive Take on the State Secrets Ruling
Posted by Jacob Stokes

The New Yorker's Jane Mayer, who's been dogged on this issue, has the definitive take on yesterday's Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals ruling that people who claim to be victims of rendition won't be heard in court:

But equally disturbing is the message that this verdict sends to individual American citizens, like the former Jeppesen employee, who felt a call to conscience that made him speak out, even at the risk to his own future employment, because he believed that secret kidnapping and torture were crimes in a country founded on the idea that all people, not just Americans, have inalienable rights, including protection from cruel and inhumane punishment. That his allegations could receive a public hearing in the press, but not a legitimate hearing in the American system of justice—even under an Administration headed by a former professor of constitutional law—is a daunting reflection of the clout wielded by the national-security bureaucracy in Washington, in the age of the Long War.

A New Way Forward in Afghanistan?
Posted by Michael Cohen

There's a new report out this week from the Afghanistan Study Group, a collection of academics, think tankers and foreign policy specialists, offering a path forward for US policy in Afghanistan.

It's worth taking a look if only to read its diagnosis of the war, which from a narrow USFP perspective seems spot-on - we don't have vital interests in Afghanistan and the interests we do have can be furthered in ways other than deploying 100,000 troops in a futile counter-insurgency effort etc.

Of course, any regular reader of DA will know this is not a new argument. In fact, it seems most of Washington has concluded that the current war strategy for Afghanistan isn't working (not to mention the American people). To be honest, the conclusions drawn in this report would have been more helpful in 2009 and not 2010 (and they were certainly identifiable then). And am I the only person who finds it odd that the report signatories do not include a single Af/Pak regional specialist or even actual military analysts. Were Christine Fair, Gilles Dorronsorro and Austin Long unavailable?

But I suppose it can't hurt to remind people that the current strategy is tangential to actual US interests . . . and a bit FUBAR.

But, the big question is what to do differently - a true Plan B. And here the report fails to deliver (and actually could do more harm than good).

The authors first recommendation is to emphasize power-sharing and political inclusion. Seems like a good idea, but there is no sense of how we actually get there. Indeed, the report authors make the following recommendation - as a first step:

The Afghan Parliament should be given confirmation authority for major appointments, district councils should be elected, budgeting authority decentralized, and elected provincial representatives should be included in the national level council that determines the portion of funds distributed.  The ethnic base of the Afghan army should be broadened. More generally, governance should depend more heavily on local, traditional, and community-based structures.

Continue reading "A New Way Forward in Afghanistan?" »

Even COIN Wars Are Hell
Posted by Eric Martin

One of the fundamental flaws at the root of COIN doctrine is the omnipresent tension between theory and practice with respect to the discipline that is expected of enormous armies.  It is an attempt to make tigers into Paper Kittens.

In theory, soldiers implementing COIN show remarkable levels of restraint while operating under restrictive rules of engagement that often put their own lives in greater peril in order to avoid alienating the local population.  This, in addition to being knowledgeable and sensitive to local customs and cultural - presumably, wherever "the locals" appear on a map. 

In practice, soldiers on the ground are, understandably, mostly ignorant of the local population that they interact with and are prone to dehumanize them regardless as a survival mechanism and means of overcoming the moral reluctance to kill. 

In addition, many deviate from the rigid prohibitions on the use of violence for a number of reasons: from the mental strain and breakdown brought on by the stresses of combat, to insubordination, to the stubbornness of survival instincts.  And then, of course, there are the inevitable "bad apples" - the soldiers that, in every war, commit atrocities and take dehumanization to depraved depths.

This is just the most recent example of something that is, simply put, inextricable from war:

Twelve American soldiers face charges over a secret "kill team" that allegedly blew up and shot Afghan civilians at random and collected their fingers as trophies.

Five of the soldiers are charged with murdering three Afghan men who were allegedly killed for sport in separate attacks this year. Seven others are accused of covering up the killings and assaulting a recruit who exposed the murders when he reported other abuses, including members of the unit smoking hashish stolen from civilians. [...]

Continue reading "Even COIN Wars Are Hell" »

September 07, 2010

David Petraeus Is Out Of Line UPDATED
Posted by Michael Cohen

So apparently some jackasses in Florida want to burn copies of the Koran on September 11th and General Petraeus is not happy about it - and he emailed a note to the Associated Press decrying the act:

"Images of the burning of a Quran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan - and around the world - to inflame public opinion and incite violence."

This follows on Petraeus's interview with the Wall Street Journal where he warned that burning the Koran "could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort. It is precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses and could cause significant problems. Not just here, but everywhere in the world we are engaged with the Islamic community."

Now I would imagine that Petraeus is correct, but there is something deeply disquieting about having a four-star general characterize an expression of constitutionally protected free speech as a danger to American troops and US national security operations.

I sort of hate slippery slope arguments, but it seems to me that this is the very definition of a dangerous slippery slope.

For example, would people comfortable if Petraeus characterized an anti-war march as a threat to the US mission in Afghanistan? Or what if Petraeus condemned a Congressional vote to cut funding for a weapons program as a threat to US soldiers in the field? Such behavior would almost certainly overstep not just the letter of civil-military relations, but certainly the spirit. 

It's very hard to see how Petraeus's actions here are much different: well except for the fact that most people would generally agree that these folks in Florida are acting like complete jackasses - but acting like a jackass is a constitutionally protected right in this country. And I for one am fearful of the chilling effect on legitimate expressions of free speech to have a four star general characterizing such actions in the manner that Petraeus has.

Continue reading "David Petraeus Is Out Of Line UPDATED" »

Guest Contributors
Sign-up to receive a weekly digest of the latest posts from Democracy Arsenal.

www Democracy Arsenal
Powered by TypePad


The opinions voiced on Democracy Arsenal are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of any other organization or institution with which any author may be affiliated.
Read Terms of Use