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December 30, 2011

What was done right this year?
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Ezra Klein asked this morning that the Administration had done well this year and, jokes aside, I filled up my 140 Twitter characters an embarrassing number of times.

1. Rebalancing in Asia. Maintaining productive ties with China while signalling to our neighbors and China's allies that the US is with them for the long haul and sees value in balance between a growing China and the concerns of its neighbors.

2. Finding its feet on human rights.  Few will have noticed even among the wonk-erati, but from institutionalizing government procedures for catching potential genocides in advance, focusing on women's role in international peace and security and improving Pentagon training on human rights, the Administration put several long-fought initiatives into place this year.  Secretary Clinton's LGBT initiatives only got noticed at home when conservatives tried to make political hay out of the radical idea that sexual orientation should not be a death sentence; her speech that accompanied the women's initiative in December didn't even get that much attention.  but in the rest of the world, where sexual and gender violence are all-too prevalent, and three women were among the Nobel Prize winners, this kind of US leadership will matter.  The relevance of the US intervention in Libya for human rights will be debated for decades; what should be remem bered is how it also allowed a UN Security council-backed mission to remove a sore election loser in Cote d'Ivoire and end developing carnage.

3. South Sudan.  That the new nation was able to come into existence successfully, and relatively quietly, this year is due in no small part to the Administration's interventions at the UN and on the ground. 

4. Iraq troop withdrawal. Not so long ago, this didn't seem a foregone conclusion at all.

5. Inflection point in Afghanistan.  Whether the speed of the drawdown is too fast or too slow, it has at long last begun.

6.  Decline of Al Qaeda. US military actions, including but not limited to the killing of Bin Laden, have hastened the organization's decline and its loss of support among the global Muslim community, dramatized so vividly in the Arab Spring.

7.  Durban agreement to negotiate a climate change convention. Not every administration, confronting half-a-dozen political opponents who "don't believe in climate," would have agreed to get anywhere near even this future-oriented gesture.  It was a late glimmer of hope on what has been a very bleak vista.

An interesting problem.  These achievements-- which are real and substantial-- are for the most part downpayments on a better future, on a set of global institutions and relationships which work better and function smoothly in a different, more prosperous time.  It is hard, from either a security or an economic perspective, to stack that long-range view up against the real or perceived challenges we face, or that we hear shouted about on cable. 

December 28, 2011

GOP Foreign Policy v. Reality -- A Messy Divorce
Posted by David Shorr

The-Madness-of-King-Georg-001With war fever mounting for an attack on Iran, Michael builds on Steve Walt's and Dan Drezner's take-downs of the new Matthew Kroenig charge bugle call Foreign Affairs essay. Like Michael, I want to look through a wider angle lens so that we see the bigger problems with the far-Right GOP approach to the world. The right wing's tendency to inflate threats and discount potential blowback is indeed part of a larger pattern of playing fast and loose with reality.

In a weird way, I'm kind of envious of the critics who offer themselves as a replacement for the Obama administration. Foreign policy is so much easier the way they do it. True to Mencken's classic put-down, they have a clear and simple answer for every complex problem. I like how Michael encapsulated it in a recent piece on the candidate debates:

To listen to the GOP candidates on Iran is to think that an American president can use a little military force here, drop a few sanctions there, and voilà, the Iranian nuclear program will be stopped dead in its tracks.

Right, magical thinking.

Plus, they get to feel all Winston Churchill-ey -- which may indeed be a main point. As Churchill's presumptive heirs, they pride themselves on unique insight into the true nature of the threats we face (i.e. worse-than-Democrats-recognize) and the necessary response (i.e. tougher-than-Democrats-would-do). Republicans have become so entranced by this political self-image that they are staking their entire foreign policy on moral clarity, threat-inflation, defiance toward the rest of the world, and toughness for its own sake.

It's left them with a strange commander in chief test in their primary contest. Rather than showing how they'd serve as wise stewards of American power and steer the country through turbulent times, the candidates have been straining to outdo one another in pure bluster. When second-generation North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il dies, obviously the priority is to express America's repugnance, rather than to worry about possible escalation in one of the world's hottest flashpoints.

And since this is a competition to reinforce ultra-conservative image and ideology, facts and reality have no bearing on the matter. As I outlined in my recent Republican FP Mad Libs post, part of the formula is to call for "tough-sounding steps that might / might not be practical and President Obama may or may not already be doing." Michele Bachmann's proposal to shut down an American embassy in Iran that's been closed for over 30 years was merely a high/lowpoint in a steady flow of absurdity. In her own mind, and those of the GOP base, it was plausible that President Obama has an ambassador in Tehran -- since, you know, he's such a reason-with-evildoers appeaser. Conversely, the Republican monopoly on toughness means President Obama must be denied any credit for killing Osama bin Laden. If you'll recall, the cognitive dissonance prompted several true believers to actually give Obama's predecessor the credit, which must have set some kind of world record for audacity.

This is how a major political party loses its foreign policy sanity: via a slippery slope from delusions of Churchillian grandeur to just plain delusional. But let me trace back to where I began. The topic was the way Republicans rig up a whole parallel universe to bolster their foreign policy approach -- one where a nuclear-capable Iran brings the most dire of consequences, but attacking Iran is nearly cost-free. Again, this is part of a much more extensive pattern. As a close observer of the proponents of ultra-hawk foreign policy, let me run through the main precepts of their approach:

  1. Get-tough policies will consistently produce the desired result, and without unintended consequences. These people are so good at painting rosy scenarios, it's just astounding that they try to tag Dems with being naive. 
  2. The targets of US policy will do terrible things if we don't show them who's boss, but will be cowed by our displays of strength. I've always liked Phil Gordon's retort to Donald Rumsfeld's pet idea about weakness being provocative; as Phil noted in his Winning the Right War book, "it turns out that toughness can be provocative as well." As I read Cohen, Walt, and Dresner, I was struck particularly by the Right's beilef that Iranian leaders will somehow make a lot of mischief if we don't attack them, but will behave if we do.
  3. The rest of the world should just say "thank you," and go on their way. Fans of "A Few Good Men" can call it the Col. Jessup Doctrine, but international sentiment isn't much of a factor in the Right's foreign policy -- except as something they make a big show of flouting. For all the conservatives' talk about respecting America's allies, they can be rolled right over whenever they take issue with US unilateralism. 
  4. Do as I say, not as I do. Another convenience of American exceptionalism (more properly labeled infallibility or narcissism, as I've argued) is that it gives us a HUGE amount of license for us to shrug off international obligations while we run around telling others to abide by international obligations. Since our moral authority is inherent, America's actions cannot be questioned along with the behavior of others. According to the Right wing's rules of domestic political debate, anyone drawing a link between the two will be accused of believing in a moral equivalence between America and the bad guys. 

Which is a long way of saying they haven't learned anything from the Iraq War debacle. During our time in the political wilderness, we progressives actually wrestled with the challenges of exerting American influence in a fast-changing world. By the look of things, our conservative friends -- the loudest ones any way (a key distinction) -- have become intellectually inbred. I'm not hearing anything that sounds like it's been updated since 2002. Put it this way, if Pamela Geller and Donald Trump are associated with your movement as any kind of spokespersons, you have a problem. (Sharia law, really!?@?#?)

But hey, I guess it's good for Democrats, even if it is tragic for the two-party system. The Republican foreign policy argument has been so tailored to their base that it's left them without a plausible case for being able to govern. As scary and out-of-touch as these ideas are, though, the good news is that a sizable majority of Americans (and certainly of swing voters) will find them just as horrifying in 2012 as they did in 2006 and 2008. They haven't forgotten the Iraq debacle and know very well that the real world doesn't work according to Right wing dogma.

December 23, 2011

Next Stop Tehran
Posted by Michael Cohen

Next-stop-logo-dropshadowMatthew Kroenig a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations has written this year's version of Ken Pollack's "Next Stop Baghdad" - namely the Foreign Affairs article that makes the case for US war in the Persian Gulf. Nine years ago, Pollack was writing about Iraq; this year Kroenig is writing about Iran.

But to be fair this is an article that could have been written nine years ago insomuch as the author appears to draw no lessons whatsoever from US military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan - and while we're at it, Vietnam.

Over at Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt has done an excellent job of demolishing the main points of Kroenig's piece, which is poorly reasoned, based on overly optimistic scenarios and dramatically overinflates the strategic impact of an Iranian nuke on Iranian regional behavior. But I want to pick up on a few points that are not only problematic about this whole problematic argument - but indeed much of the foreign policy analyst community.

The problems begin at the top of the piece:

The truth is that a military strike intended to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, if managed carefully, could spare the region and the world a very real threat and dramatically improve the long-term national security of the United States.

And is summed up at the end:

Iran’s rapid nuclear development will ultimately force the United States to choose between a conventional conflict and a possible nuclear war

Notice what happens in these paragraphs and the assumptions that are made - Iran is a threat to not just the region, but to "the world"; a military strike can be "managed carefully" (more on that later) and finally that waging such a war would improve the "long-term national security of the United States" with the untested and unassessed assumption being that to allow Iran to get a nuke would imperil the long-term national security of the United States.

Moreover, in Kroenig's construct the only real option ultimately facing the US is war . . . or war. The possibility of a diplomatic or containment solution doesn't really enter into the equation.

This is of practically the default position of the DC-based foreign policy analyst; war can be waged carefully, US national interests are so broad and acute that even using force is a price the country should be willing to pay to protect them and lastly every challenge is a "threat" (and a global one at that) that can best be managed not via diplomatic or other coercive means, but rather by the use of force. 

Of course to draw such conclusions one must begin with the assumption not only that the US has a direct national security interest in preventing Iran from getting a bomb, but that such a situation while perhaps not an existential threat, is of grave danger to the United States and its interests. This is the strawman that Kroenig constructs:

A nuclear-armed Iran would immediately limit U.S. freedom of action in the Middle East. With atomic power behind it, Iran could threaten any U.S. political or military initiative in the Middle East with nuclear war, forcing Washington to think twice before acting in the region. Iran’s regional rivals, such as Saudi Arabia, would likely decide to acquire their own nuclear arsenals, sparking an arms race. To constrain its geopolitical rivals, Iran could choose to spur proliferation by transferring nuclear technology to its allies -- other countries and terrorist groups alike. Having the bomb would give Iran greater cover for conventional aggression and coercive diplomacy, and the battles between its terrorist proxies and Israel, for example, could escalate. And Iran and Israel lack nearly all the safeguards that helped the United States and the Soviet Union avoid a nuclear exchange during the Cold War -- secure second-strike capabilities, clear lines of communication, long flight times for ballistic missiles from one country to the other, and experience managing nuclear arsenals. To be sure, a nuclear-armed Iran would not intentionally launch a suicidal nuclear war. But the volatile nuclear balance between Iran and Israel could easily spiral out of control as a crisis unfolds, resulting in a nuclear exchange between the two countries that could draw the United States in, as well.

Let's put aside for a second the first two sentences of this paragraph which assume that constraints on US freedom of action in the Middle East or "acting in the regionare actual casus belli for war.

Dan Drezner also noted the bolded contradiction above - and it's an important one. If Iran is not intent on committing national suicide that would assume a certain level of rationality by the mullahs. So with that in mind, why would they follow the course of action above and potentially inflame Israel and/or the United States . . . and risk national suicide. Many countries have had nuclear weapons; few that are as economically, politically and military vulnerable as Iran have followed as provocative a course as Kroenig is suggesting Tehran will. I can see no reason to believe that Iran is different from these other nuclear nations and at the very least Kroenig hardly makes the case that it is. Indeed, this entire argument is a bit of 1% doctrine on steroids or perhaps the domino theory (another worst case scenario theory that proved to be disastrously wrong). Everything potentially bad that Iran could do, says Kroenig, they will do. 

In addition, Kroenig later writes that even after the US strike that he believes should occur Iran might feel pressured to act out against its neighbors, but Kroenig says they won't: "It would also likely seek to calibrate its actions to avoid starting a conflict that could lead to the destruction of its military or the regime itself."

Again why would Iran not make the same strategic calculation after it has a bomb? It's not as if the bomb provides Iran with omnipotence. Iran would still want to avoid the destruction of its military or the regime itself, wouldn't they? Kroenig says that the US could impose "redlines" on Iran even after conflict breaks out. Again, as Barry Posen has suggested, why can't redlines be imposed on Iran after it has a bomb?  Is Iran the only country ever to get a nuclear bomb that can't be deterred or have redlines placed on its behavior?

Now Kroenig is certainly correct that if Iran gets a bomb things could easily spiral out of control in the region. Indeed I made precisely this argument not long ago - and it's one of the reasons why efforts to stop Iran from getting a nuke are quite important. But here's the thing I don't understand - couldn't things just as easily spiral out of control if the US went to war against Iran? Why is it only worst case scenarios occur when the US does nothing; but when the US acts militarily everything goes rosy? Now granted if Iran doesn't have a bomb you have a lessened chance of nuclear conflict - but there are many out of control situations that can develop below nuclear conflict yet still quite deadly. 

Indeed, wouldn't the safer course of action for the US be not to create new conflict in the region, but rather create a security structure that will ensure that even if Iran gets a bomb worst case scenarios can be minimized? Quite simply, isn't containment a smarter, likely more effective approach than war? it's not as if the United States didn't spend 60 years successfully carrying out a containment strategy versus a nuclear power. We have some experience in this area.

This gets to the inevitable next part of the "pro-war" argument - containment doesn't work. This of course was the exact argument used in the run-up to the Iraq War. Although Kroenig approaches the question from a different perspective; he says containment is too difficult and too expensive:

To keep the Iranian threat at bay, the United States would need to deploy naval and ground units and potentially nuclear weapons across the Middle East, keeping a large force in the area for decades to come. Alongside those troops, the United States would have to permanently deploy significant intelligence assets to monitor any attempts by Iran to transfer its nuclear technology. And it would also need to devote perhaps billions of dollars to improving its allies’ capability to defend themselves. This might include helping Israel construct submarine-launched ballistic missiles and hardened ballistic missile silos to ensure that it can maintain a secure second-strike capability. Most of all, to make containment credible, the United States would need to extend its nuclear umbrella to its partners in the region, pledging to defend them with military force should Iran launch an attack.

In other words, to contain a nuclear Iran, the United States would need to make a substantial investment of political and military capital to the Middle East in the midst of an economic crisis and at a time when it is attempting to shift its forces out of the region.

This is by far the weakest part of Kroenig's argument and I found it to be so poorly conceived that is practically disqualifying of the entire piece. Kroenig is asserting that rather than put in place a containment structure that "might" cost several billion dollars, the more cost-efficient approach would be go to war. How is is possible to argue that containment would be a "substantial investment of political and military capital to the Middle East in the midst of an economic crisis" and not say the same thing about initiating military conflict?

I suppose this makes sense; it's not as if foreign wars have ever cost more than assumed at the beginning of the conflict. Just ask Larry Lindsay. 

Although Kroenig has a bit of a solution to this problem:

The U.S. government could blunt the economic consequences of a strike. For example, it could offset any disruption of oil supplies by opening its Strategic Petroleum Reserve and quietly encouraging some Gulf states to increase their production in the run-up to the attack. Given that many oil-producing nations in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, have urged the United States to attack Iran, they would likely cooperate.

It begs a rather obvious question: if the US can get Saudi Arabia to cooperate in helping pay for the consequences of a war in the Gulf . . . why can't the US get them to cooperate in helping pay for a containment regime in the region? The lack of seriousness with which Kroenig addresses the containment question is a telling sign. Containment is by far the least intrusive, most realistic alternative to the use of force against Iran. Kroenig's inability to honestly and forthrightly grapple with it as an alternative suggests to me that he doesn't have a good explanation for why such a strategy should not be undertaken. Quite simply, the weaknesses of his own argument - and his clear bias in favor of force - is evident. 

it is worth noting also that we have a great deal of evidence demonstrating that countries, even nuclear powers can be contained. Iran's neighbor Iraq was contained quite effectively for 12 years. North Korea got a bomb; it is still largely contained. India and Pakistan is a little trickier, but for the most part both countries have avoided actions that would risk nuclear conflict. There is no reason why Iran should be any different. In fact, already Iran has found itself more and more isolated in the region . . . and it didn't even take an air campaign to do it.

This gets to the last point - Kroenig's bizarre assumption that war against Iran will be easily manageable and obviously successful. I'll just use a few small quotes to demonstrate the fallacy of Kroenig's argument:

Attacking Iran is hardly an attractive prospect. But the United States can anticipate and reduce many of the feared consequences of such an attack.

. . . A carefully managed U.S. attack would prove less risky than the prospect of containing a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic -- a costly, decades-long proposition that would likely still result in grave national security threats. 

Really? When in American history or in the history of warfare for that matter has the US or any other country correctly anticipated and reduced the consequences of going to war?

Forget history - how about the last ten years? Did the US anticipate not being welcomed in Iraq as liberators; did they anticipate an insurgency; did they anticipate full-fledged sectarian war; did they anticipate that its key allies and the UN would largely abandon the effort; did they anticipate a nine-year occupation at the cost of several trillion dollars? I could point to similar examples in Afghanistan, in Vietnam, the first Gulf War, hell even Kosovo.  

If there is one lesson that every serious foreign policy analyst should take from the study of armed conflict it is that war is utterly and completely unpredictable. Precisely for this reason if you are going to make the case for war it is essential to argue that truly no other option, short of war, exists. Kroenig doesn't even come close.  He adopts a position that would have made the Johnson and Bush war cabinets proud - 'there is no recourse short of the use of military force.' And even more bizarrely he writes, "attempting to manage a nuclear-armed Iran is not only a terrible option but the worst." How can anyone possibly believe this when the alternative is the initiation of military conflict with all its obvious uncertainties and unknowables? 

As Stephen Walt pithily puts it, "Kroenig makes the case for war by assuming everything will go south if the United States does not attack and that everything will go swimmingly if it does. This is not fair-minded "analysis"; it is simply a brief for war designed to reach a predetermined conclusion."

The thing about this article is that eleven years ago it would have been considered a crazy and easily dismissed polemic. But one would think that after the Iraq disaster there would perhaps be some introspection and humility among those making the case for another war in the Persian Gulf. One would think that there would be perhaps more meditation on whether rosy assumptions about the use of US military force still hold up under the harsh light of scrutiny. 

But alas, instead you get articles like Kroenig's - ones that present the use of military force as both the default position in dealing with international challenges and the ONLY option for protecting and furthering US interests. It makes you wonder if after ten years we have learned anything.

December 22, 2011

Republican Foreign Policy Mad Libs
Posted by David Shorr

Lens14116691_1286593564MadLibsFor many of those traveling for the holidays, this will involve a long road trip by car. When I was young, the best way to amuse ourselves was Mad Libs. So I thought our Republican friends might enjoy a Mad Libs edition of their foreign policy argument:

This president has been a disaster in foreign policy. That’s because he doesn’t believe in ________________. Over and over again, Pres. Obama

                      Superlative about American greatness 

has acted as if it matters what they think in other countries. He lets foreign leaders believe they can disagree with America and refuse to do what we tell them. 


We need a president who will be _________________________ . When

                                  adjective that sounds good when said with set jaw / steely gaze

___________ is president, the rest of the world will understand that they

GOP candidate

can’t run around disobeying the United States.   The key to foreign policy is an unwavering belief in our rightness and policies that drive home our unwillingness to compromise. President ___________ will never allow _________  to do / have __________. 

                                                                                          GOP Candidate                                   bad guy / country                                bad thing

S/he would _______________________________________________

tough-sounding step that might / might not be practical and President Obama may or may not already be doing


Most disastrous of all, President Obama has not supported America's allies _________. A Republican


administration would _____________________________. It's obvious that this president doesn't take the threat 

                             action or position that'd be extreme-right even in Israeli politics

of a nuclear-armed Iran seriously, because he hasn't attacked Iran yet.


And speaking of wars, it's also obvious that President Obama doesn't understand the need for more of them. Why is he pulling US troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan? As the party that has for decades benefitted politically from an image of being pro-military, we call for presidents to listen to military commanders. Because as it says in the Constitution, the president is the advice-receiver-in-chief. 

My bit of holiday fun for our Republican friends. Hope they enjoy it. Best thing is, none of the mad libs have to have a basis in fact.

Needed: Political and Diplomatic Solutions for Iraq
Posted by The Editors

MalikiThis post by Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

The series of bombings in Baghdad this morning and a growing political crisis inside of Iraq’s government show that Iraq remains a bitterly divided country along political, ethnic and sectarian lines –- divisions that were downplayed in America’s policy debate over the past few years. Despite all of the talk about smart power and the need to lead through civilian power with diplomatic, political and economic tools in the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, the simple fact of the matter is that the military and security components dominated the Iraq policy debates.

These latest events have prompted some to argue that the Obama administration should have kept troops in Iraq and ignored the deadline set by the security agreement that the Bush administration signed in 2008 with the Iraqi government. 

It is important to keep in mind Iraqi government did not want the United States to stay – as NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel reminded us this morning on the Today  Show, “We did not have a choice to stay in Iraq – the Iraqis threw us out… this is a false debate [about whether we should have stayed]. The US was leaving, the Iraqis wanted us out, and now they are fighting again over the real character of this country.”

The surge in Iraqi nationalism and desire to take back control of their affairs has existed for years now. People forget that in 2006 the Iraqi government initially opposed the surge of U.S. troops that was implemented in 2007. As Michael Abramowitz and Peter Baker reported in the Washington Post, when President George W. Bush flew to Amman, Jordan, and met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki on November 30, 2006 at the Four Seasons Hotel, Maliki and his national security advisor did not want more U.S. troops, just more authority for Iraqi forces. In a PowerPoint presentation, the Iraqis asked that U.S. troops withdraw from outside of Baghdad as a devastating sectarian civil war raged in the capital city -– one that changed the sectarian composition and contributed to a major refugee and internally displaced persons crisis. This is a point worth noting once again because it says something about the intent and motivations of the leadership in the Iraqi government at that time. It also helps provide some understanding about the Iraqi government today, still led by Prime Minister Maliki.

Flash forward towards the end of 2008, when the additional U.S. surge troops started to depart –- and no doubt Iraq had become a more secure country compared to the devastating years of 2005-2007. This was largely due to the increase in Iraqi forces -– as my colleague Larry Korb and I pointed out in this article, the surge of U.S. troops amount to only a 15 percent temporary increase in U.S. troops. Whereas the surge that really mattered was the doubling of the size of the Iraqi security forces during that same period.

By the end of 2008, even though Iraq was less violent, it remained divided politically. As I wrote in this report with some colleagues analyzing Iraq’s enduring internal political divisions as U.S. troops started withdrawing under the Bush administration, “the increased security achieved over the last two years has been purchased through a number of choices that have worked against achieving meaningful political reconciliation. The reductions in violence in 2007 and 2008 have, in fact, made true political accommodation in Iraq more elusive, contrary to the central theory of the surge.”

In other words, the additional troops and money America spent in 2007-2008 in Iraq helped eliminate some very deadly security threats, but it did little to address the core political divisions that Iraq faced –- and continues to face. Instead of motivating Iraqis to deal with their political divisions, the surge ended up freezing those divisions in place.

A few years ago, there was a strong debate about what to do about those Iraqi divides -– Vice President Biden co-wrote a plan with Les Gelb that talked about decentralization and greater autonomy, and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group put regional diplomacy at the core of its ideas. In reports I coauthored, including Strategic Reset, a number of recommendations about placing political reform and regional diplomacy at the core of a strategy to address Iraq’s internal divisions were a key feature. Others argued that the United States could use its military presence and assistance to shape and influence political progress in a conditional engagement strategy.

These ideas were either ignored or were tried half-heartedly, but in any case they failed to produce sustainable results. With Iraq now in the rear view mirror of most Americans, it seems there won’t be much of a debate about what’s likely to happen in Iraq over the coming months. A continued fight over power in Iraq could get even more violent in the coming months. Sending large numbers of U.S. troops back into Iraq seems unlikely -– and it wouldn’t address those core political divisions anyways. What’s been missing for years is the lack of a coherent political and diplomatic strategy for Iraq. The U.S. debate has instead focused on the surface level debate about the number of U.S. troops, rather than the broader elements of power that could shape and influence outcomes in Iraq.

The recent events in Iraq serve to highlight how weak the political and diplomatic elements of the U.S. strategy in Iraq have been -– under both the Bush administration and the Obama administration. It also reminds us that military success or tactical gains produced by counterinsurgency efforts do not necessarily produce sustainable political outcomes on their own, a point worth keeping in mind on Afghanistan. With U.S. troops out of the country, the Americans who remain in the largest diplomatic presence the United States has around the world face daunting challenges. On center stage is the current political crisis in Iraq. The next few months will present one of the most difficult tests of U.S. civilian agencies and the notions of smart power discussed for many years.

Photo: Flickr

December 21, 2011

The Leon Panetta Is Trying Too Hard Watch
Posted by Michael Cohen

Panettta2At times, I feel a little sorry for Leon Panetta. He just so badly wants everyone to like him! It's so obviously important to Leon that everyone thinks he's tough enough and salty enough to be a Democratic running the American armed forces, well bless his little heart, sometimes he just goes a little overboard.

  • There was the time he claimed that Obama was sending troops to Uganda to fight al Qaeda affiliated terrorists
  • Or when he said the US was in Iraq because of 9/11 . . .
  • . . . at the same time he contradicted the President by saying the US would keep 70,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014
  • That was a doozy
  • And remember that time he said that cuts to the defense budget would "invite aggression"
  • Or when he suggested that returning the DoD to 2007 budget levels would be "catastrophic," "draconian" "doomsday"-inducing and akin to America "shooting itself in the head." 
  • Adorable!
  • Oh and then there was two times that he intimated that India might be a threat to the United States
  • Boy, DoD really had to backtrack from that one
  • Of course my favorite Panetta-ism was when he said that no Democratic President could ever afford to go against military advice
  • And keep in mind the guy has only had the job since the summer!

But just in case you were concerned that Leon Panetta would stop putting his foot in his mouth or saying deeply inappropriate and wrong things about US national security . . . you can stop your worrying. 

You see this week, Panetta kept it up at a rapid pace. First he said that because Iraq was now stable (HA!) and "stabilizing factor" in the region (HA!) the US effort there had been "worth it." You see in Panetta-land whenever there is an opportunity to pander to the troops - there is always room to pander more.

Then this week he said this about Iran's nuclear program:

“It would be sometime around a year that they would be able to do it,” he said. “Perhaps a little less.”

Turns out that's not actually true. In fact the recent IAEA report on the subject of Iranian nukes said that Iran has suspended its nuclear program. In what has become a regular occurrence for the DoD press office, Pentagon spokesman George Little was forced to walk back the Sec Def's comments

Panetta also said that Iran's ability to become a nuclear-weapons state could be accelerated if there was “a hidden facility somewhere in Iran that may be enriching fuel” and that an Iranian bomb would be unacceptable and a red line for the United States. Because when there is a chance for Leon Panetta to try to sound as tough as possible - there is always room to sound tougher. 

December 20, 2011

Robert Gates Channels His Inner David Broder
Posted by Michael Cohen

BroderFormer Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is apparently unhappy that people in Washington can't get along. Last week in a speech at the Atlantic Council honoring Brent Scowcroft he bemoaned the lack of bipartisanship in Washington and the rise in scorched-earth politics. 

Civility, mutual respect, putting country before self and country before party, listening to and learning from one another, not pretending to have all the answers and not demonizing those with whom we differ: For all the platitudes to the contrary, these virtues, in this town, are – seem to be increasingly quaint, a historic relic to put on display at the Smithsonian next to Mr. Rogers’ sweater or Julia Child’s kitchen. Zero-sum politics and ideological siege warfare are the new order of the day.

So why is this happening? Says Gates it's a result of "structural changes taking root over several decades" including the gerrymandering of congressional districts "to create safe seats for incumbents of both parties, leading to elected representatives totally beholden to their party’s ideological base," and "wave elections" where each party "seized with ideological zeal and the rightness of their agenda" makes compromise impossible, the decline in congressional powerbrokers and finally "a 24/7 digital media environment that provides a forum and wide dissemination for the most extreme and vitriolic views leading, I believe, to a coarsening and a dumbing-down of our national political discourse."

The result says Gates is that at "just at the time this country needs more continuity, more consensus, and, above all, more compromise to deal with our most serious long-term problems, most of the trends are pointing in the opposite direction."

I read things like this and I really wonder what world Bob Gates has been living in for the past several years. What goes unmentioned in this list of woes is the actual reason for dysfunction in Washington - not some made up fantasy world of equal party malfeasance - the unceasing, historic and unprecedented obstructionism of the modern Republican Party.

Any analysis of the problems in Washington that fails to mention this salient factor in DC dysfunction is not an analysis that should be taken seriously at all. Here's a handy chart that I've pilfered from Kevin Drum, which explains this. Virtually this entire increase in use of the filibuster came during periods when Republicans (the one in red) were in the minority.













If one looks closely one will note that the unprecedented rise in the use of the filibuster has precisely coincided with the control of the Senate by Democrats and the Republican party being in the minority. Keep in mind, this chart is from November and since then Republicans filibustered a bill to maintain the payroll tax and the nomination of Richard Cordray to head the newly created Consumer Protection Bureau .  . simply because they don't like the agency.

It is also worth noting that Gates argument claiming gerrymandering is causing polarization in Washington has been regularly disproven by political scientists. Also, it's pretty rich for Bob Gates to be complaining that political parties come into office on political waves and then seek to impose their agendas on the country. I wonder if Gates is familiar with the Democratic president who hired a Republican whose name rhymes with Shmiil Shmates to run the Defense Department. Finally, Gates must have been asleep or otherwise occupied during the many unsuccessful efforts by President Obama to reach out to Republicans on a host of domestic policy issues. This would be familiar to anyone who has been relatively sentient - and living in DC - over the past three years.

There is a simple, not hard to understand explantion for Washington's fundamental dysfunction - Republicans.

Some will say this is a partisan argument. Meh. Pointing out facts is not partisan, particularly since facts have a long history of possessing non-partisan credibility. Moreover, why should this be considered a political argument - Republicans are not exactly hiding from their unprecedented obstructionism. They argue it is a necessary tool to stop Obama and the Democrats. Fine. Under Senate rules that is certainly their right. But let's call this what it is. One party is pretty much single-handedly responsible for the ills that Robert Gates describes about our current political system. For Gates to lump both parties together in this cavalcade of incapacity not only gives Republicans a pass it furthers their agenda to prove to Americans that Washington is a horribly dysfunctional place where nothing can get done. It's a horribly dysfunctional place because Republicans have made it this way.

Why is it so difficult for people to acknowledge this fact?

December 19, 2011

Remembering the “There Is No Spoon” Tour
Posted by The Editors

KJIThis post by Price Floyd, who served at the U.S. Department of State from 1989 until 2007.

Yesterday's passing of DPRK leader Kim Jung Il has brought back memories of Secretary Albright’s visit to North Korea in October of 2000. I was on the advance team that arrived a week before the Secretary and stayed until the day after she left.

The title of this blog refers to a quote from The Matrix movie which had just come out the year before and highlights the fact that nothing we saw was authentic or “real.” (For the film clip, see here.)

We arrived in the capitol of Pyongyang via multiple cars and vans that we drove across the DMZ from South Korea. Each of our vehicles had any South Korean or western writing and/or images covered up with tape. This included the license plates and even the Chevy symbols on the car hoods. 

We saw the massive defensive works put in place by the North to thwart any invasion by South Korea -– huge cement boulders that could be rolled into the road way, giant anti-tank barriers, etc. During the entire drive from the DMZ to the capitol there were thousands of people digging a trench along the road with wooden shovel –- not sure why. Not one of them turned around to look at our motorcade, even though we were the only vehicles on the road.

When we arrived at our hotel and checked in, I met a Russian hotel guest who was grateful for our visit as they now had electricity and hot water for the first time since he had been there –- he noted that the power had been turned on the day before our arrival.

We then began a series of visits to a circus (where they used an electric cattle prod to get a bear to “dance,” a dance performance at a fairly small theater, visit to the Great Leaders Mausoleum and a visit to a kindergarten class. We demurred on the need to bring the Secretary to the bear “dance” and the visit to the mausoleum (but I have to admit the glass sarcophagus was pretty cool looking) and had settled on most of the visit being all business and bilateral meetings.

Here is a list of some of the highlights of what actually happened:

When the Secretary’s plane arrived all the reporters had their satellite phones confiscated since the DPRK officials didn’t want uncontrolled information getting out of the country.  NOTE: These were returned after negotiations.

Bilateral meetings did take place and happened at their own pace and schedule.

After several rounds of meetings a senior staff member emerged from the talks and said that the sides had agreed to attend that nights performance of what was described as a gymnastic exhibition at the local stadium.

I was dispatched along with the other advance officer to reconnoiter the site and make sure there all was as it was supposed to be. What we found was a huge stadium filled with tens of thousands of North Koreans practicing what seemed to be cheers. On one side of the stadium directly across from the official seating area there was an entire section devoted to a massive flip card display that rotated through hydroelectric power images (not sure what the fascination is among pseudo-Marxist with hydroelectric power), launching of their latest missile –- the Taepo-dong I think -- and various other impressive totalitarian images.

We could not communicate back to the Secretary’s party as the North Koreans wouldn’t allow us to have repeaters so they wouldn’t work and at the time there was no cell phone coverage in country. Secretary Albright arrived and we sat through what seemed like hours of precision marching, goose stepping, etc… all set to ear piercing traditional North Korean Marxist music (at least it sounded traditional to me).

I also negotiated the return of a camera from NBC Correspondent Andrea Mitchell’s production team as they had gone walking around town without their “minder” and took pictures of people walking out of a barber shop.  Tisk-tisk.

Then there was the final press conference by Secretary Albright. I was standing outside the location and it was pitch black outside as there were no street lights that I could see.  Suddenly, when the Secretary was about five minutes away the street lights did come on.  Then the outside lights of the building across the street, and finally the traffic lights came on (remember there are no cars on the roads). All of a sudden the entire scene looked like a perfectly normal downtown city anywhere in the world. The only problem is that it hadn’t existed five minutes before then.

And the highlight: I was asked to be the protocol person since we had not brought someone to perform those duties. I stood between Secretary Albright and Kim Jung Il as our interpreter explained to the Dear Leader what our gift -– a basketball signed by all of the Chicago Bulls. The Dear Leader seemed appropriately impressed. I can’t remember what his gift was to Secretary Albright as I was intent on not dropping the basketball.

In short while I have no idea what will happen next in North Korea, if past is prologue, what that regime wants to have happen will play a large role.

Photo: Flickr

To Fix the OAS, Threats Are Not the Answer
Posted by The Editors

Connie MackThis post by Johanna Mendelson Forman, senior associate in the Americas Program and the William E. Simon Chair of Political Economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views represented here are solely those of the author and do not represent CSIS.

As if the House of Representatives had nothing else to do this week, the Sub Committee on the Western Hemisphere of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, will mark up a bill introduced by Representative Connie Mack (R-FL) that seeks a reduction in U.S. contributions to the Organization of the American States (OAS). Specifically, the bill would seek a 20 percent cut in OAS funding (the U.S. contribution is $48.5 million a year) each time the Permanent Council of the OAS, when in session, failed to condemn Venezuela for breach of the Inter-America Charter. This treaty, signed by member states in September 2001, addresses the principles of democratic governance and what must be done in the event of a coup, or other interruption of the democratic process. Mack specifically references Article 20 of the Charter which states:

In the event of an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state, any member state or the Secretary General may request the immediate convocation of the Permanent Council to undertake a collective assessment of the situation and to take such decisions as it deems appropriate.  The Permanent Council, depending on the situation, may undertake the necessary diplomatic initiatives, including good offices, to foster the restoration of democracy.

This is not the first time that Mack has attacked the OAS. In July he proposed to shut down the institution when the Sub-Committee was reviewing the FY 2012 State Department authorization bill. While unsuccessful in that attempt to defund the institution where the U.S. can engage with all the nations of the hemisphere, save Cuba, Mack is now going for the cudgel by seeking to end the OAS by a thousand cuts.

OAS bashing is not a new sport in this Republican dominated House. It mirrors the deeper distaste that exists for any multilateral institution. There is no doubt that the OAS has its problems. There is a bloated bureaucracy that needs to be trimmed. It also could benefit from better oversight and administration. But we are bound to membership by treaty. And since 1948 when Secretary of State George Marshall signed the founding Charter, it has been part of a uniquely American international legal regime to which our government and 34 others subscribe. Cutting off U.S. support would send a powerful signal to countries in the region that already have doubts about our nation’s commitment to supporting them except for counter-narcotics efforts. At a time when the our neighbors are joining other multilateral organizations that specifically exclude the U.S., why would we want to close the door on a forum that can provide an important diplomatic tool in a region that is still our most important trading zone, and from which our energy security depend and has remained democratic and at peace?


Correction: An earlier version of this piece included Stephen Johnson of CSIS as an author. He is not, and his name has been removed from the byline. -JJS

December 15, 2011

How Crucial is a Climate Change Treaty?
Posted by David Shorr


Reading assessments of the recent Durban conference by leading climate wonks, many of them argue that the issue of a binding treaty -- to eventually take the place of the Kyoto Protocol -- must be viewed against a broader backdrop. In other words, the push to eventually enact global obligations for emission cuts is a fraught endeavor, and other tracks are just as important.

Which raises interesting general questions about treaties as a focus of multilateral effort and public hopes. Are binding treaties always good litmus tests of seriousness in addressing international problems? Are there cases in which the quest to codify and ratify is Quixotic, when the best is truly enemy of the good?

Not that I have anything against treaties; some of my best advocacy has been around treaties. For some issues they're essential -- last year's New START agreement on strategic nuclear arms, for one. It's important, however, to remember that international accords are not ends unto themselves, but instead are means to address real-world problems. The essence of multilateral cooperation is to induce sovereign governments to take steps on behalf of the common good that they'd shirk if left completely to their own devices. It's like the idea that no one is an island, but then, some nations actually are islands, and they're the ones most threatened by global warming.

The Durban meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) drove home the points that a) treaties are not the only way to spur this kind of virtuous dynamic, but beyond that b) they can actually backfire. The Council on Foreign Relation's Michael Levi explained the perverse incentives in a pre-Durban Financial Times piece, looking back at the progress achieved at the last two UN climate conferences in Copenhagen and Cancun:

Countries enter binding international agreements with an eye to ensuring that they will be able to comply with their commitments. The legally binding nature of an international deal can thus deter national ambition in the first place. It is near-certain, for example, that China would not have pledged in Copenhagen to cut its emissions intensity to well below current levels had it been required to embed that in a treaty. The same is true for the absolute emissions’ cuts pledged by the US. It is similarly unlikely that India, China and others would have accepted formal international scrutiny of their emissions cutting efforts had that been made part of a system for enforcing legal obligations. 

The question of committing to a timeline for reaching some sort of binding global agreement was the subject of intense diplomatic brinksmanship in Durban and almost tore the process apart, the Europeans having pressed the issue as an ultimatum. As Michael explained in a post-conference piece over at, the resolution was a classic fudge that leaves itself open to multiple interpretations and hardly supports claims about putting the UNFCCC on a clear path to a treaty.

Looking at it another way, the conference's success wasn't setting a glidepath to a Kyoto successor agreement, but building on earlier successes and keeping the entire enterprise from disintegrating. Here's how Joe Romm of Center for American Progress put it in a post on CAP's Climate Progress blog:

It’s worth noting that the alternative was not a binding agreement to stabilize at 2°C ( 3.6°F) warming, but a complete collapse of the international negotiating process.

The Climate Progress team have offered a comprehensive overview of international cooperation on climate, including in other settings than the UNFCC. Perhaps the most important track within the UN process, though, is "climate financing," funds to aid developing countries as they struggle with the challenges and consequences of global warming. This financial commitment from industrial powers like the US is a key test of their credibility and a sensitive issue for poorer nations likely to be affected by climate change. Indeed, as extreme weather intensifies, it's inevitable that those countries will say don't push us when we're hot.

Photo credit: Sheri Jo / tenderliving

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