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January 28, 2011

What Does Oil Cost?
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Iraq oilRight on time, just as DC recovers from the salmon-induced hangover of the president’s State of the Union address, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce begins calling the administration’s plan to shift the country’s energy mix away from oil and coal “unrealistic” and insisting it’s too costly. Is the Chamber right? Let’s examine.

If shifting to clean energy is too costly, what does the status quo cost? As Gen. Wes Clark points out, the costs are enormous in terms of the money Americans send overseas:

It’s an $821-million-a-day addiction to foreign oil. That’s $300 billion a year, or about $1,000 for every American—man, woman, and child. In June we sent $27 billion abroad; in July it was over $29 billion.

Our dependency on foreign oil costs more than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s about 60 percent of the total U.S. trade deficit. If we weren’t sending the money away, it would be enough to repair America’s woeful infrastructure in a few years. Enough to send every child in America to college, and fix public education to boot. At a time when we’ve lost 8 million jobs, it would be enough to hire 3 million Americans at $100,000 per year, or almost 8 million at about $40,000 per year.

If a foreign country came here and said, “Pay us this tax,” we would consider it an act of war. Yet when a political party discusses trying to recapture $300 billion a year in taxes, it’s political suicide. Americans pay billions of dollars per month to foreign countries—some of them incubators of terrorism, nearly all of them unstable dictatorships—and it isn’t even a campaign issue.

And those are only the dollars we measure. Energy market scholar Peter Maass points out that a simple accounting from the trade balance misses a huge amount of the total costs, which are difficult to quantify. But a full accounting would likely show what anyone seriously watching already knows: it’s extremely expensive. Maass explains:

Continue reading "What Does Oil Cost?" »

January 27, 2011

We've Seen This Movie Before
Posted by Michael Cohen

Reading through the Pentagon Papers today I came across this rather unsettling quote from early 1968 - remind you of any wars being fought today?

The paper entitled "Alternate Strategies" painted a bleak picture of American failure in Vietnam:

We lost our offensive stance because we never achieved the momentum essential for
military victory. Search and Destroy operations can't build this kind of momentum and
the RVNAF was not pushed hard enough. We became mesmerized by statistics of known doubtful validity, choosing to place our faith only in the ones that showed progress . . . In short, our setbacks were due to wishful thinking compounded by a massive intelligence collection and/or evaluation failure.

And right on cue Martine van Bijlert makes basically the same argument about the war in Afghanistan:

It has been said many times before, but the gap between rhetoric and what people experience is mind-boggling and ultimately leaves you feeling speechless. How often do you want to keep pointing out that media reporting is being manipulated; that the gap between what policymakers believe privately and what they propagate in public is so vast that it must hurt their brains (not to mention their conscience); that the definitions of success are being defined by what can be achieved and measured, rather than by what could be relevant.

Eerie, isn't it?

Whither the Tea Party on the defense budget?
Posted by Jacob Stokes

So will they or won’t they? Amidst the hype during last year’s election season, there was much ink/bytes spilled over the question of whether Tea Partiers would include defense in their budget-cutting fervor. As we come into budget season, it’s time for the rubber to hit the road -- and it’s beginning to look as though the Tea Partiers are going to cave under pressure from their party brethren, as well as for the age-old reason that defense spending benefits their district. Enter this story from today’s NYT and this quote about how House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon is “educating” – read: whipping – new members about the threats facing America:

Mr. McKeon, for one, is concerned, and has quietly been meeting with the new members — a number have no experience in government — to educate them on national security. One Congressional staff member who closely monitors the military said, “While McKeon would say that all members are entitled to advocate for positions they want to advocate, what he has been doing is working to educate new members on what the threats are, and why we need the defense budget close to where it is.”

To be fair, my contention that these new members are getting whipped into backing off defense cuts assumes that they were for reducing military spending in the first place, a proposition which Benjamin Friedman at CATO has so skillfully dissected.

It’s not a sure thing that the Tea Partiers have folded, far from it. There are still many high-level conservatives – most notably Eric Cantor and even Mitch McConnell – who have endorsed including defense spending in budget cuts. But my guess is it’s going to continue shaping up as we’ve seen the last few weeks, with assaults on civilian and diplomatic international affairs budgets – those at State, USAID, UN funding, etc. – without anyone calling out Buck McKeon for insisting on funding the programs the Pentagon and the service chiefs don’t even want, such as the EFV.

The end result of all this is the defense budget is unlikely to see any real cuts while the cuts that are made will undermine the civilian and diplomatic efforts across the world, including in Afghanistan and Pakistan. For a masterful takedown of this proposition as well as an explanation of why it shows conservatives still don’t understand today’s wars, see Andrew Exum.

January 26, 2011

State of the Union: On Democracy in the Arab World
Posted by Michael Wahid Hanna

Last night’s State of the Union address was, unsurprisingly, focused on domestic issues. For someone concentrating on the broader Middle East, the speech’s oblique references to foreign policy did not convey a clear sense of the social unrest and political malaise that have been on display for weeks as demonstrations and acts of self-immolation spread across the region. The only reference to these developments was the President’s brief reflections of the stunning developments in Tunisia:

“And we saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”

Absent from this remark was any mention of the unprecedented and ongoing demonstrations on the streets of cities throughout Egypt, a key ally in the region and a recipient of billions of dollars of U.S. assistance. In light of decades-long U.S. ties with and support for the autocratic Arab order, the United States is not in a position to radically revise policy in the space of a paragraph or two. U.S. support for Egypt and the Mubarak regime has been deep and consistent since the signing of the Camp David peace accords under Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar al-Sadat. And while the fundamental justice of the protestors’ cause might lead to a visceral sympathy for them, in many ways avoiding direct reference might be preferable to a short and transparently disingenuous statement.   

For purely instrumentalist reasons, our relationship to political reform and democratization in the Arab world has been inconsistent. Short-term interests and considerations of stability have often taken precedence over long-held ideals about political participation and democratic norms. For the United States, the freedom to think proactively about democratic change in the post-Cold War Middle East continues to be inhibited by the events of 1979 and the Islamic revolution in Iran. Hence we have responded differently to portents of democratization depending on possible outcomes and geopolitical advantage. The post-election protest movement following the 2009 Iranian elections was greeted with genuine, if muted, excitement on the part of the United States. Other instances, such as Hamas’s successful foray in electoral politics in 2006 hastened policy retrenchment. The United States likes democracy when the right people win.

It is only natural that we would be more eager for like-minded leaders to emerge from periods of political transition. Again, while understandable in the short term, our perennial hesitation has become problematic over the course of decades. The Arab world and its leaders have proven wholly immune to the very notions of gradualism and internally-directed liberalization and there have been precious few political transitions to speak of. This has had quite obvious negative ramifications for U.S. interests in the region and beyond. While the United States cannot force political openings, our policies have clearly hindered their emergence. 

However, the social unrest now emerging throughout the region and testing key assumptions of U.S. policy are fuelled by local discontent and popular organizing that has little to do with our State of the Union, as opposed to the frayed and tattered state of unions throughout the Arab world. In light of the disastrous state of affairs in the Arab world wrought by years of conflict, mismanagement, and repression, it is incumbent to think realistically about how we can support the democratic aspirations of Tunisians, Egyptians, and others. This cannot simply be a rhetorical exercise, and words alone will not shift political realities on the ground. And we must bear in mind that the prospect of political reform in the region is fraught with serious dangers. But while the Egyptian situation might not result in immediate effect, we should be on notice that our inability to encourage much-needed political reform by our allies might in the end endanger the very stability we prize. 


Counterterrorism in the State of the Union: A Tale of Two Paragraphs
Posted by Eric Martin

Given that the State of the Union address tilted heavily toward domestic issues, should come as no surprise that US counterterrorism policy was allotted a mere two paragraphs.  That said, the two paragraphs are instructive, and offer a stark contrast in approaches and, ultimately, efficacy.

First, the good:

Of course, as we speak, al Qaeda and their affiliates continue to plan attacks against us. Thanks to our intelligence and law enforcement professionals, we're disrupting plots and securing our cities and skies. And as extremists try to inspire acts of violence within our borders, we are responding with the strength of our communities, with respect for the rule of law, and with the conviction that American Muslims are a part of our American family.

Here, Obama hits all the right notes in highlighting what are by far the most effective tools in our counterterrorism kit: intelligence and law enforcement, as buttressed by cooperation from local communities, which can act as a tripwire in terms of detecting and reporting nascent plots.

Obama's direct reference to the American Muslim community is particularly timely considering some of the noxious anti-Muslim bigotry finding favor amongst certain elected Republican officials and pundits - notably, Peter King and his planned hearings focusing on Muslim-American terror activities and support for same.

As mentioned above, local communities can play a vital role in interdicting terror plots before they are carried out, and, contra Peter King, American Muslims have been instrumental in these efforts. According to the Muslim Public Affairs Council database:

7 out of the last 10 Al-Qaeda plots threatening the U.S. since 9/11 have been prevented with the help of Muslims.

Overall, almost 40% of all Al-Qaeda terror plots threatening the U.S since 9/11 were foiled with the assistance of Muslim communities.    

However, that support could begin to wane if perceptions of persecution lead to alienation, fear and ambivalence. 

While Obama's first paragraph was near-flawless, his second misses the mark in many ways:

Continue reading "Counterterrorism in the State of the Union: A Tale of Two Paragraphs" »

January 25, 2011

The White House's Credibility Gap on Afghanistan Deepens
Posted by Michael Cohen

I've been watching State of the Union speech for for probably 30 years and I've yet to hear a memorable one - and tonight will not break that streak.

What a snoozer. Although frankly from a political perspective I thought it was actually pretty effective - makes Obama look like the adult-in-chief who is willing to work across the aisle with Republicans. But from a policy perspective there was very little of interest and it took all my energy to stop playing online scrabble . . . and in the end, scrabble won.

But then there was the foreign policy section, which actually wasn't boring . . . but instead blood-boiling:

We have also taken the fight to al Qaeda and their allies abroad. In Afghanistan, our troops have taken Taliban strongholds and trained Afghan Security Forces. Our purpose is clear – by preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people, we will deny al Qaeda the safe-haven that served as a launching pad for 9/11.

Thanks to our heroic troops and civilians, fewer Afghans are under the control of the insurgency. There will be tough fighting ahead, and the Afghan government will need to deliver better governance. But we are strengthening the capacity of the Afghan people and building an enduring partnership with them. This year, we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead. And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home.

I'm not sure how this could be any more misleading (or insulting with the obligatory 9/11 reference):

  • Training of the Afghan security forces is not progressing well or did the President miss the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan testify this week that our efforts on this front are failing badly.
  • Fewer Afghans might be under the control of the Taliban but far more Afghans live in provinces where security is deteriorating and in 2010 far more of them were killed in the war-fighting.
  • Building an "enduring partnership" with the Afghan people; somehow I'm thinking the part where Hamid Karzai today lashed out at the international community "for fomenting a 'crisis' by pressing him to inaugurate parliament" is not what he had in mind.
  • As for the notion that the Afghan government will deliver better governance . . the less said about that the better.

I'm a former speechwriter so I get that the President wants to offer American people a rosy view of the war - but nothing about how he described the situation in Afghanistan provides an accurate assessment of what is happening in Afghanistan. And there was no sense at all - beyond mere platitudes - of what troop withdrawals in Afghanistan will look like or under what conditions they will occur (just that they will happen, even likely in truncated form).

Two paragraphs of platitudes about a conflict being waged by 100,000 US troops is embarrassing and the lack of candor and public forthrightness from this White House about the war in Afghanistan should be downright scandalous. This Administration seems content to kick the can down the road and cede public diplomacy efforts to General Petraeus whose public pronouncements of progress are not even considered credible by other US officials.

There was once a time when I defended this president from the public pressure being placed on him by his military officers to escalate in Afganistan; but there is no defending him now - he seems tragically content to wallow in the same pool of generalities and misleading claims of progress about the war as they do.

*Oh and while I liked the section on Tunisia; the failure to mention anti-government demonstrators in Egypt kind of took the bloom off that rose.

Foreign Affairs Portion of the SOTU
Posted by Jacob Stokes

The State of the Union Address has been leaked to the National Journal. Here's the foreign affairs portion. What do you think?

Text below:

Just as jobs and businesses can now race across borders, so can new threats and new challenges. No single wall separates East and West; no one rival superpower is aligned against us.

And so we must defeat determined enemies wherever they are, and build coalitions that cut across lines of region and race and religion. America’s moral example must always shine for all who yearn for freedom, justice, and dignity. And because we have begun this work, tonight we can say that American leadership has been renewed and America’s standing has been restored.

Look to Iraq, where nearly 100,000 of our brave men and women have left with their heads held high; where American combat patrols have ended; violence has come down; and a new government has been formed. This year, our civilians will forge a lasting partnership with the Iraqi people, while we finish the job of bringing our troops out of Iraq. America’s commitment has been kept; the Iraq War is coming to an end.

Of course, as we speak, al Qaeda and their affiliates continue to plan attacks against us.  Thanks to our intelligence and law enforcement professionals, we are disrupting plots and securing our cities and skies. And as extremists try to inspire acts of violence within our borders, we are responding with the strength of our communities, with respect for the rule of law, and with the conviction that American Muslims are a part of our American family.

Continue reading "Foreign Affairs Portion of the SOTU" »

January 24, 2011

The Price Being Paid
Posted by Michael Cohen

In recent weeks I've been trying quite unsuccessfully to write less about Afghanistan. The reason is simple; how many times can one keep making the same argument over and over again - without seeing any sort of change in strategy - before it becomes simply exhausting. For nearly two years I have been writing about the strategy underpinning the war in Afghanistan both here at Democracy Arsenal and elsewhere - sometimes cogently, other times not.

And I have to say it has been nothing but a constant and unceasing source of frustration as assumptions continue to go untested, mistakes are repeated, missions creep in the direction of further escalation, military and political leaders obfuscate and purposely seek to inflame the public, and platitudes have taken the place of anything resembling rigorous analysis. 

Sometimes when you focus so much energy on strategy and tactics the human toll is forgotten. Then I read stories like this one in the Los Angeles Times, which recounts the devastating impact of the war on just one Marine regiment, and I realize that voices must continually raised against the war in Afghanistan and the manner in which it is being prosecuted:

When the Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, deployed to the Sangin district of Afghanistan's Helmand province in late September, the British soldiers who had preceded them warned the Americans that the Taliban would be waiting nearly everywhere for a chance to kill them.

But the Marines, ordered to be more aggressive than the British had been, quickly learned that the Taliban wasn't simply waiting. In Sangin, the Taliban was coming after them. In four years there, the British had lost more than 100 soldiers, about a third of all their nation's losses in the war.

In four months, 24 Marines with the Camp Pendleton-based Three-Five have been killed. More than 140 others have been wounded, some of them catastrophically, losing limbs and the futures they had imagined for themselves. The Marines' families have been left devastated, or dreading the knock on the door.

Please read the entire article. It packs an emotional wallop; but it also tells a story that needs to be re-told - about a war that is tangential to US interests; that is being poorly prosecuted by our military leaders; that has been sold by our political leaders as though it is in this nation's vital interests when it is anything but; and that is wreaking a terrible toll on both our fighting men and women in uniform and their families.

But above all, it is a reminder that this terrible and unnecessary war that is, in reality, doing very little to keep Americans safe is ruining too many young lives, both here and in Afghanistan.

January 21, 2011

Neocons Make the Sovereignty Argument for China
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Nina Hachigian of the Center for American Progress explains how American neoconservatives undermine the argument that China needs to be a responsible global stakeholder:

At base, however, Washington and Beijing have divergent ideas about how a great power should conduct itself in the 21st century. In that battle of ideas, China gets support from an unlikely corner: American neoconservatives.

China ducks international responsibility by citing its sovereignty. Neoconservatives unwittingly support that view when they insist the U.S. compromises its own sovereignty if it engages fully with today’s international institutions and abides by international laws. This sends Beijing a dangerous message: Stewardship of the international order is not the business of a great power.

She goes on:

Yet some American neoconservatives find themselves on the side of China’s Communist leaders in this debate. Though they have tended to criticize the Obama administration for not being adequately tough on Beijing, their own ideal of national sovereignty supports China’s.

John Bolton, President George W. Bush’s U.N. ambassador, lays out a current conservative view in his book, “How Barack Obama Is Endangering Our National Sovereignty.” Bolton argues that those who advocate for the U.S. to engage with international organizations to address global problems are really saying we should “cede some of our sovereignty to institutions that other nations will also influence.”

“That,” Bolton warns, “is unquestionably a formula for reducing U.S. autonomy and reducing our control over the government.”

So while China invokes a 19th-century ideal of sovereignty to justify decisions that harm U.S. interests, some neoconservatives are championing the same antiquated notions — legitimizing China’s rejection of international standards and rules.

In other words, unless America chooses to engage with and participate in international institutions and global governance, forefeiting a small amount of sovereignty and putting up with the frustrations inherent in multilateral diplomacy, there’s very little chance China will play by the rules either – and that will mean more than just little frustrations.

January 20, 2011

Is the Fuel Swap Back? Again?
Posted by Kelsey Hartigan

Could it be?  Is the Zombie fuel deal back?

With the P5 + 1 talks kicking off tomorrow in Istanbul, rumors of a revived fuel swap are surfacing.  Again. 

Iran has denied claims that it intends to propose new terms for a fuel swap and the U.S. is saying that it’s open to the idea but not sure it wants to be the one to bring it up. It’s hard to remember, but despite all of the hype, the original Tehran Research Reactor deal was never intended to solve the Iranian nuclear question.  It was however, supposed to serve as a confidence building measure.  A big baby step of sorts.  If the reports are true and parties are once again considering a fuel swap, it’s possible that this time around there could be some progress on the enrichment debate. Or at least the appearance of progress. 

In December, Hillary Clinton confirmed that Iran is "entitled to the peaceful use of civil nuclear energy," if and when Iran can demonstrate that that it is complying with its international obligations. A few Iran hawks on the Hill decided they didn't agree with this and announced instead that they preferred to "continue ratcheting up" the pressure on Iran, which for the record, is ridiculous. 

The U.S. and its partners have the right to demand that Iran temporarily halt its enrichment, but Iran’s hardliners can be counted on to torpedo any agreement that advertises such a requirement.  The original TRR deal went south after Western diplomats publicly congratulated themselves for pulling a fast one on Iran and Ahmadinejad ran into trouble at home. It's hard for some to remember, but even Ahmadinejad has a base.

Continue reading "Is the Fuel Swap Back? Again?" »

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