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May 31, 2011

In Afghanistan, It's the Strategy Stupid
Posted by Michael Cohen

In a piece looking at the outlines of the debate inside Obama's war cabinet about Afghanistan policy Rajiv Chandrasakaran previews the arguments of war opponents - it is too expensive:

Of all the statistics that President Obama’s national security team will consider when it debates the size of forthcoming troop reductions in Afghanistan, the most influential number probably will not be how many insurgents have been killed or the amount of territory wrested from the Taliban, according to aides to those who will participate.

It will be the cost of the war.

“Money is the new 800-pound gorilla,” said another senior administration official involved in Afghanistan policy, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It shifts the debate from ‘Is the strategy working?’ to ‘Can we afford this?’ And when you view it that way, the scope of the mission that we have now is far, far less defensible."

So instead of arguing the practically incontrovertible facts that the current strategy in Afghanistan isn't working - war opponents want to use the bogeyman of growing deficits to end the war. Why not just argue the facts?

Why not point out that since December 2009 the Karzai government has shown no inclination to improve governance or crack down on endemic corruption?

How about pointing out that the President's own party is increasingly in open revolt against his policy in Afghanistan - with only 8 voting against an amendment that would speed up troop withdrawals from Afghanistan? 

They could make the argument that current military gains are simply unsustainable because a) Pakistan continues to provide a safe haven for Afghan Taliban fighters and b) the Afghan Army and Police are nowhere close to taking over security responsibilities from the US and NATO? To the latter point why not remind David Petraeus of his confident prediction to President Obama that security could start being turned over to the Afghans in 18 months:

Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, “David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?”

“Sir, I’m confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame,” Petraeus replied.

“Good. No problem,” the president said. “If you can’t do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?”

“Yes, sir, in agreement,” Petraeus said.

“Yes, sir,” Mullen said.

If all else fails civilian advisors could even play the trump card that nation building in the Hindu Kush is simply not in the national security interest of the United States, particularly now that bin Laden is dead and al Qaeda is clearly on the run in Pakistan.

The point here is that the cost of the war is the least effective argument against the war, particularly since the President has said that the fight in Afghanistan is in the vital interest of the United States. Arguing about the money raises the idea that if we could afford to stay in Afghanistan for the long haul we should.

Well clearly we shouldn't - and one would hope that President's civilian advisors would have the courage to make precisely that argument.



May 26, 2011

Iraq, Iran - Same Difference? Conservative Cluelessness on National Security
Posted by The Editors

This guest post is by Sara DuBois, Interim Communications Director at the National Security Network.

 New footage released today shows Tim Pawlenty appearing to mix up Iraq and Iran. After he explicitly establishes that the reporter is “talking about Iran,” Pawlenty responds,

“Well I think the situation now in Iran is such that Secretary Gates is negotiating with whether the United States military will be there beyond the end of this year. And they're looking to the Iranians to see if they invite the Americans to stay, invite us to stay.”

Pawlenty clearly confuses Iraq and Iran.  Unfortunately, he is not only blatantly incorrect in doing this, but also patently unoriginal.

For months, we’ve seen conservatives not giving thought to national security and/or foreign policy even when, like Pawlenty, they claim the mantle of expertise on these matters.

We saw this last year, when the conservative “Pledge to America” failed to address the wars we are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, terrorism, energy security or other key national security issues.  We also saw Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) reveal that it wasn’t until his fifth visit to Iraq that he came to “realize” that Sunnis and Shiites don’t get along, while Rand Paul told the National Review “foreign policy is really a complete non-issue” and that he’s “not thinking about Afghanistan.”

Conservatives ignore foreign policy and national security, and then when the issue does come up, they resort to extremes: neoconservative interventionism or extreme isolationism -- or in Pawlenty's case here, blank confusion.

We saw this movie before, with a cast including seasoned pros like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Rep. Wilson, along with neophytes like Rand Paul and Sharron Angle. Now we’re watching the sequel, and it's just as much of a horror film for an American people who deserve leaders who know how --and where-- to keep them safe.

Posted by James Lamond

Since 2009 and the rise of the G20 as the “premier forum for their international economic cooperation” the roles of the G8 and eth G20 have made for some very interesting debates on the future of economic and political global governance issues. On his new blog, the Internationalist, Stewart Patrick offers a great breakdown of dynamics in the various G-Summitries and the return of the G8. Stewart says the G8’s back for reasons of: members’ want of exclusivity and influence; practicality of working in a smaller group; and common “western” values and goals. But the most appropriate and efficient roles for the two organizations remains unclear. 

Democracy Arsenal itself is divided on this issue.  Shadi tweeted this week: “Just got back from pre-G8 summit in Paris. Came out a bigger believer in sticking w- #G8 over #G20 for political/security issues.” Meanwhile David outlines in a recent report  the “maximalist argument” for the G20 to become a multilateral hub, expanding to political and security affairs. In addition to more natural issues like climate financing, he outlines “The protection of core labor standards/minimum wage laws; The shift away from fossil fuel energy; Prevention of, and response to, mass atrocities; Regulation and internationalization of the nuclear fuel cycle; Standards for the detention/prosecution of terror suspects; Cybersecurity; A more secure Middle East,” as potential issues.

I am very sympathetic to the practicality argument outlined by Stewart. It’s simply easier to function in a smaller setting and there’s an inverse relation between inclusion and efficiency for a summit. There is also the issue of more divergent interest in the larger group. For example a summit with Saudi Arabia will certainly have different outcomes on issues like the Arab Spring and Climate Change than a Euro-Atlantic plus Japan forum.

But if we are making an efficiency argument, then who is included does make a difference. Russia is included, but India is not. Yet India is both significantly more democratic and outranks Russia in GDP. Meanwhile Italy, which is already represented by the EU at the summit, is included though it ranks behind South Korea in exports and behind Brazil in GDP. Yet the G8, as Stewart points out, is meant to embody "the identity and aspirations of the world’s most advanced market democracies.” 

The issues on the agenda for this Deauville summit – Arab Spring, Japan’s nuclear crisis, internet freedoms, the global economy and climate change – are a mix of political and security issues that would be more effectively addressed in a smaller forum and issues (for example climate change) that cannot possible be addressed without countries like China and India. I think I have raised more questions than answers in this post. But the make-up of the GX summits and their portfolios over the next years will be interesting to watch.

May 25, 2011

Whose Side is the GOP's On?
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at Foreign Policy, I have a new piece looking at the behavior of Republicans in Congress over US policy toward Israel - and it's not a pretty picture:

The idea that Congress would openly side with a foreign leader against the president of the United States seems too far-fetched to believe. Remarkably, however, something not dissimilar happened in Washington Tuesday, May 24, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to a joint meeting of Congress (a speech interrupted more than 25 times by a rapturous standing ovation). While these types of congressional addresses are rare, this particular event is even a bit more unusual: The speech's intention -- with the full assistance and backing of the Republican leadership in Congress and implicit support of Democrats -- was to give Netanyahu a public forum to offer a rebuttal to President Barack Obama's recent proposals for moving forward with the Arab-Israeli peace process.

As the New York Times reported last week, the invitation was initially requested by Netanyahu of the GOP leadership before the president's Middle East speech plans had even been formalized: It was "widely interpreted as an attempt to get out in front of Mr. Obama, by presenting an Israeli peace proposal that, while short of what the Palestinians want, would box in the president." In turn,Obama's May 19 speech was scheduled purposely so that the president could get out ahead of Bibi's remarks.

It's one thing for Republicans to oppose the president's position on Arab-Israeli peace. In the hours after Obama's Middle East speech, Republican presidential contenders like Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney did just that, arguing that the president had proverbially thrown Israel "under the bus." (Never mind that Obama simply reiterated long-standing U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli peace process.) They were joined -- in a bipartisan manner -- by prominent Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in offering pushback on the president's words.

It is certainly appropriate for members of Congress to disagree with the president's foreign-policy agenda. But it's something else altogether to be appearing to work in concert with the leader of another country in trying to put the president on the defensive -- and seeking to score a partisan political advantage in the process. By openly siding with Netanyahu against Obama and making Arab-Israeli peace a partisan issue, Republicans in Congress are at serious risk of crossing a dangerous line and in the process undermining U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Read the whole thing here


May 24, 2011

Iran and the Bomb: Always on the Brink
Posted by Kelsey Hartigan

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ominously warned Congress today that Iran was on the brink of acquiring the bomb: “Now time is running out, and the hinge of history may soon turn. For the greatest danger facing humanity could soon be upon us: A militant Islamic regime armed with nuclear weapons.”

While an Iranian nuclear weapon is certainly nothing to scoff at—Iran’s refusal to address the concerns of the international community and verify the nature of its nuclear program is one of the most serious foreign policy challenges we face—the ticking time bomb scenario isn’t exactly new.

Assessments regarding the status of Iran’s nuclear program have varied widely over the years. Salon’s Justin Elliot pointed out last December, “According to various Israeli government predictions over the years, Iran was going to have a bomb by the mid-90s -- or 1998, 1999, 2000, 2004, 2005, and finally 2010. More recent Israeli predictions have put that date at 2011 or 2014.”  Roughly a month after Elliot recounted that timeline, Israel’s former Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, said he believed that the Iranians would not be able to make a bomb until 2015, at the earliest. That same month, the Atlantic’s Jeffery Goldberg penned an article where he noted a shift among Israeli defense officials. "I spoke with one of the Israeli officials I quoted in my article last year about the coming confrontation between Israel and Iran, and he put the chances of an Israeli strike on Iran in the next year at less than 20 percent -- and he was one of the Israelis who felt, in the spring of last year, that it would be necessary for Israel to attack Iran's nuclear facilities by the end of 2011. ‘People have very different opinions inside the defense establishment,' he said, when I reached him, ‘but it's clear to all analysts that the virus and the sanctions are working better than we thought.'"

A recent CNAS report by Marc Lynch similarly notes that, “Although Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon is often presented as a clock counting down as HEU inexorably accumulates, in fact the clock has been reset frequently. Israeli and U.S. officials have declared routinely that Iran is two years away from a weapon over the past 10 years, with the deadline endlessly receding like a Zeno’s paradox. For instance, Israel’s outgoing Mossad chief Meir Dagan revealed that Israel’s estimate of Iran’s likely date for a nuclear weapon had extended from 2012 to 2015. Similarly, IAEA reports do not indicate linear progression in Iran’s nuclear development, and revise observations about that progress frequently. Indeed, the Obama administration estimates that the Iranian nuclear program has not developed as quickly as expected due to supply chain problems, inferior equipment and technical problems (and not only from the reported effects of the Stuxnet virus).”

While negotiations on the nuclear front do not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon, there may be an opportunity, given all of the changes happening in the Middle East, to influence Iran’s long-term strategic calculus. Ominously warning that Iran is going to have the bomb any day now does not help achieve that objective.

May 20, 2011

Obama's Strange Middle East Speech
Posted by Michael Cohen

So as a former speechwriter, foreign policy/political analyst and occasional blogger I suppose I have to say something about Obama's big Middle East speech yesterday . . . but truth be told I'm a bit stumped.

It was a fine speech, but hardly a major one. There was some tough rhetoric on Bahrain and it was nice to see the President associate the United States more directly with the democratic revolts unfolding in the Arab world and to pledge acceptance of countries and movements that we disagree with but who at least accept "genuine and inclusive democracy." We'll see how that works out in practice, but I suppose it's good that Obama said it.*

And of course no Middle East speech would be complete without a misguided overreaction to comments related to Israel or efforts by discredited and desperate neo-cons like Charles Krauthammer to claim that any rhetorical support for democracy in the Arab world is vindication of George Bush's Freedom Agenda. The less said about these two ludicrous and pointless arguments the better.

But in general, I'm a bit mystified by the whole thing. As near I can tell there was no significant policy shift or announcement. Generally, the President doesn't give major foreign policy speeches unless he has something new or important to say. There was little of that in this address (reiterating rhetorical support for democracy is not a policy shift) - and little sense that the US would suddenly become more diplomatically and politically engaged in the region's most pressing issues. So what exactly was the point? 

It seems to follow a White House pattern of viewing major speeches on the Middle East as a way of changing perceptions of the United States in the region. This view seems to be based on two flawed assumptions 1) that words rather than actions shift public opinion in the Arab world and 2) that changing Arab public opinion about the United States has any real impact on US national security interests.

To the first point, the President gave a major speech on the Middle East in the Spring of 2009. It was a well-received address, but the follow-up was tepid and didn't challenge in any serious way the real impediments to how the US is viewed in the Arab world, namely its support for Israel and un-democratic regimes across the region - or more important the actual impediments to reform. Indeed since May 2009 the peace process with Israel has further floundered and when the Arab Spring emerged the US was caught completely flat-footed. The result is that the US is once again seen in a negative light in the region. 

But it was a nice speech.

Today, if the United States is serious about shifting how the US is viewed in the Arab world there is really only one way to accomplish this goal - putting actual pressure on Israel or involving the US more directly in political negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. That's the only issue that would really move the needle in a serious way, because US pressure might actually have an impact. But I have no sense that either of these things are going to happen so all these efforts to shift perceptions of the US probably aren't going to amount to much. 

Indeed, I think David Ignatius captures the dilemma well, "Each thread of his “dignity” agenda for the Middle East requires something that has been in short supply at this White House: a systematic ability to implement foreign policy strategy through committed, emphatic follow-up actions. It’s this operational question — not the rhetorical framework — that will be the crux."

Precisely. You really do get the sense sometimes that the Administration thinks the rhetorical framework is as, if not more important than the operational question. But the simple fact is without effective follow-up Obama might as well have not given this speech. Simply mouthing US support for reform in the region and offering some relatively minor helping hands to emerging democrats doesn't do much of anything to further US interests.

Part of the problem here is that this Administration seems to operate under the notion that improving the US image in the Arab world is of vital concern to US national security interests. This has become one of those untested DC national security assumptions - but to be honest I don't fully understand it. Obviously, it's nice if people around the world have a good image of the United States and it can have a positive impact, along the margins, of bilateral relations but ultimately perceived interests will generally trump public opinion. Ultimately, we should be supporting democratic reform because we perceive it to be in our interests that more countries live under free and democratic rule (a defensible and compelling point) . . . but because people will like us better? Meh. 

As a foreign policy interest or a counter-terrorism strategy, public opinion is, well, of marginal importance and pretty hard to affect in any serious way. And if you do believe this is an important goal there are surely better ways to go about than fancy words without much in the way of follow-through.


*(There were also one decidedly odd turn in the speech worth mentioning; the part here Obama said, "one of the broader lessons to be drawn from this period is that sectarian divides need not lead to conflict" and then talked about how Iraq had turned a corner into a multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian conflict. That's a bit like arguing that the United States had moved away from regional and racial divides . . . in 1875. I mean there was this bloody, horrible civil war in Iraq, so it's not quite accurate to use Iraq as an example of turning the sectarian other cheek.)

May 19, 2011

Obama's Big Speech: Should He Apologize?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I have a new piece out in Slate previewing Obama's big Middle East speech today. I suspect Obama will not do what I suggested he do: apologize. You can read the piece here. I will also be live-tweeting the speech. You can follow me here. We can disagree on whether televised apologies are appropriate or whether they're political suicide with a certain conservative demographic. But my basic point is this: the Obama administration has been behind the democracy curve in nearly every single Arab country. I’m unaware of even one exception to this. Five months into the Arab spring, the U.S. still funds, supports, arms many of the region’s autocracies. I don’t think this has been lost on Arabs.

So, if there’s one message I want to convey, it’s: we can do better. Also, we should do better. Lastly, doing better is actually in U.S. strategic interests. 

We'll wait and see what Obama has to say about that in a few minutes.

May 18, 2011

Obama Must Chart a New Course in the Arab World
Posted by Jacob Stokes

My colleague and fellow DA blogger Kelsey Hartigan and I wrote a piece for Real Clear World on what President Obama should say in his speech Thursday on the Arab Spring. Here's a quick excerpt:

President Obama will give a speech Thursday explaining his vision of what the Arab Spring means for American policy in the Middle East. Coming nearly two years after his Cairo speech, it has the chance to become a historic address. The speech should include four main points.

First, the Arab Spring represents a profound opportunity to align America's interests in the region with its values. The Middle East that produced Osama bin Laden is, like the man himself, gone. Replacing it are mass movements of ordinary people standing up for their rights. Assisting those fighting for freedom and democracy is a bedrock American value.

Additionally, America has an interest in maintaining stability in the Middle East and, by extension, the steady flow of oil. In the past, protecting that interest meant supporting autocrats and dictators as they used unsavory methods to stamp out any dissent that threatened stability. As both autocrats and extremists are being challenged across the region, a fundamental truth is being learned again: stability comes when the legitimate needs, desires and aspirations of people can be met. Only democracy can provide that.

Read the rest here.

UPDATE: Our piece was picked as one of The Atlantic Wire's "Five Best Wednesday Columns." Thanks, Atlantic Wire!

May 13, 2011

Threats and Responses
Posted by James Lamond

Bob Graham, the former Florida Senator who chaired the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, has an op-ed in today’s Post about the threat posed post bin Laden. While his analysis that the current threat posed by AQ to America is from “significant but smaller attacks” is correct, Graham overstates AQ’s capabilities, matching them to AQ's intentions for a WMD attack.

He says, that:

What do we do now? What are al-Qaeda’s capabilities to do us harm?

For at least the past 15 years, bin Laden sought to acquire a nuclear or biological weapon of mass destruction. Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a career intelligence officer and former head of the CIA’s department on weapons of mass destruction, has observed that “al Qaeda is the only group known to be pursuing a long-term, persistent and systematic approach to developing weapons to be used in mass casualty attacks.” Bin Laden’s quest for a weapon of mass destruction was driven by his dogma that each attack against the United States or its interests abroad should be greater than any previous assault. This became operational in late 2002 or early 2003, Mowatt-Larssen reported, when al-Qaeda’s central leadership canceled a planned attack using a crude cyanide device on New York subways because it was waiting for “something better.”

Continue reading "Threats and Responses " »

How the Death of bin Laden Can End the "Democratic Weakness" Meme
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at the Atlantic I have a new piece up on how the death of bin Laden can end the stereotype that Democrats are "soft" on national security and give President the political space to chart a new course on national security:

In May 2004, a senior Bush Administration official was asked by the Wall Street Journal about the challenges facing John Kerry as he sought to address national security issues, and in particular the war in Iraq, in his campaign for the White House. "It's never stopped being 1968" for Democrats, the official said.

There was no need to spell out what "1968" meant. It was shorthand for the caricature of Democratic "weakness" and anti-military attitudes, dating from the party's opposition to the war in Vietnam, that has become the prism by which the Democrats are viewed on national security issues -- and by which the party often views itself. The challenge for Kerry wasn't Iraq; it was in battling this negative perception of Democrats as weak and indecisive on national security and foreign policy. As time would tell, it became one of the proximate causes of his defeat that November.

For more than four decades the perception of Democratic "weakness" on foreign policy and national security has been one of the most dominant and distorting political stereotypes in modern American politics -- affecting not only how voters perceive Democrats, but also how the party approaches these issues. It has become a knee jerk political mindset that shapes the attitudes, policy preferences and even career choices of progressive foreign policy and national security analysts. Perceived political vulnerability about the party's ability to keep America safe and strong has led Democrats, time and time again, to engineer their national security policies around looking tough rather than necessarily doing what they believe is best for the country. The politics of vulnerability don't just influence policy -- often, they trump it altogether.

But on Sunday, May 1, that meme may have finally died.

With the killing of bin Laden, Democrats have, for the first time in more than four decades, the chance to retire the notion that they are not tough enough to protect America from external danger. Beyond that immediate political function, it provides Democrats with the opportunity to chart a new course for American foreign policy. The question now is whether they will take advantage of this previously unbeknown political space.

Read the whole thing here

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