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June 27, 2012

Re-Writing History - The Afghan Surge Version
Posted by Michael Cohen

ResponsibiltyI've been meaning for some time to read and write a bit about Rajiv Chandrasekaran's new book on Afghanistan, but deadlines, work and the raising of a 6-month old daughter tends to get in the way.

Still I've been struck by the popular reaction to the book, which appears to be an updated version of the Incompetence Dodge - namely it wasn't the idea to surge in Afghanistan that was the mistake, the errors instead came in implementation and execution (the original incompetence dodge references the war in Iraq and is made here by Sam Rosenfeld).

Case in point Andrew Exum's apologia today for war supporters in World Politics Review. Exum makes the argument that "what sunk Afghanistan was not the planning process but the execution." Exum's assertion, which appears to be similar to Chandrasekaran's, is that the US "squandered its best chance at reversing the momentum of the war in 2009" by sending troops into Helmand province and by the "vicious infighting among members of the Obama administration." While there is no doubt that these were serious challenges, they elide the real problems that hobbled the US effort it Afghanistan - namely adopting an unrealistic population-centric COIN "strategy" that had little chance of success and was practically destined to fail (some people did mention this at the time).

Even with perfect execution, the strategy pushed by the military and adopted by the White House was doomed to failure because it was predicated on a series of unrealistic assumptions, including that Pakistan would be a strategic ally of the United States (it's not); that the Karzai regime would be an effective COIN partner (they weren't); that a civilian surge would help provide good governance to Afghanistan (it didn't); and that US troops could act like armed social workers and "out-shura" the Taliban (they can't). This is not to mention the fact that it dramatically overstated the threat to US interests represented by the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

Yet, Exum implicitly rejects this argument and argues instead that, "the conduct of the Obama administration and the U.S. military in 2009 represents the ideal for strategic decision-making in terms of both process and the relationship between the military and its civilian masters."

Reading this quote I'm reminded of what George Romney had to say after Lyndon Johnson declared, in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive in 1968, that it had been a failure for the North Vietnamese. "If what we have seen in the past week is a Viet Cong failure," said Romney, "then I hope they never have a victory." If Afghanistan is a success I'd hate to see what a strategic decision-making failure might look like.

Indeed, as has been written ad nauseum at this blog the biggest problem in the strategic decision-making on the Afghanistan surge came well before implementation - and this was obvious well before the surge began. Rather it was that that a young president was bullied into a troop escalation in Afghanistan by military leaders who had gone from being advisors to open advocates. Indeed, the release of the McChrystal strategic review - along with the assembling of a think tank heavy roster of experts to write the review and then advocate for it upon their return from Afghanistan - was part of the public relations effort to push the President toward one strategy and one strategy only, population-centric counter-insurgency (and here I'm referring directly to McChrystal's review, which said that ONLY a POP COIN effort would succeed in Afghanistan).

There has been so much written on this topic that I won't bother to summarize all of it - skim Bob Woodward's book "Obama's Wars" for the fuller story. Woodward provides strong evidence of the oversized role of the military in pushing a COIN approach in Afghanistan; of the willfull efforts to keep non-COIN plans away from the President and of the military basically ignoring the President's dictates to stay out of areas that couldn't be turned over to the ANSF within 18 months (see Helmand offensive). But Exum thinks this is all much ado about nothing

"A few progressive commentators in the United States initially worried about a crisis in civil-military relations in the wake of the war’s escalation, but it was ironically the dismissal of McChrystal -- and the general’s conduct afterward -- that decisively demonstrated that these fears were unwarranted."

For the record I am the progressive commentator who shall not be named - but it's important to understand why this is wrong. The argument made at the time by those concerned about a civ-mil crisis was that the military was placing undue pressure on the White House. In fact the quote that informed the post linked to above, from Colonel John Tien who was working on the NSC, describes that pressure and challenge that Obama was facing from the military in vivid detail:

"Mr. President," Tien said, "I don't see how you can defy your military chain here. We kind of are where we are. Because if you tell General [Stanley A.] McChrystal [the U.S. commander in Afghanistan], 'I got your assessment, got your resource constructs, but I've chosen to do something else,' you're going to probably have to replace him. You can't tell him, 'Just do it my way, thanks for your hard work.' And then where does that stop?"

The colonel did not have to elaborate. His implication was that not only McChrystal but the entire military high command might go in an unprecedented toppling - Gates; Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command. Perhaps no president could weather that, especially a 48-year-old with four years in the U.S. Senate and 10 months as commander in chief.

The very words "I don't see how you can defy your military chain here" should cause every American who cares about civil-military relations to lose sleep. Tien's argument (though not endorsement) is that Obama is beholden to his military advisors - to defy them would risk getting in a public battle with the military that would cause no end of political harm to him. Now granted this is a challenge that is hardly all the fault of the military - it's one that is reflective of a particular political meme, cultivated by Republicans, that sees Democrats as oppositional to the military in mindset and, in practice, reluctant to defy them. Can you imagine anyone saying these words to President Bush in 2007 when he defied the military on surging in Iraq? That Obama felt this sort of pressure to abide by the wishes of his generals may not be a full-fledged civilian-military crisis - but it's definitely problematic. To state the obvious, a situation where the President feels under undue pressure to NOT defy the military's wishes in Afghanistan is most certainly not how a strategic decision-making process should work.

And it's a problem that is hardly obviated by McChrystal's dismissal a year later. Indeed, the very fact that Obama replaced McChrystal with David Petraeus was emblematic of the political pressure that the White House faced in replacing even a disobedient four star general. Picking Petraeus as McChrystal's replacement was a move born in politics (as was the decision to pack P4 off to the CIA a year later). Indeed, it is indicative of the country's civil military problems - and the pressure felt by Democratic Presidents to avoid public battles with the military.

Now in fairness, in the two years since McChrystal was fired President Obama has demonstrated an encouraging inclination to defy his generals (as he did on Afghanistan policy in July 2011 by pulling the plug on the surge). Part of the reason, it should be noted is because the lack of trust he felt for them after the Fall 2009 surge screw-up - although he gets no medals for not having the guts to stand up to them then. But this notable action does not change the fact that in 2009 the President was pushed into escalation by his generals who became activists and advocates for a particular policy choice - a policy choice that ended up being a failure. 

Obama like all those who advocated for the surge - or who kept silent about their concerns - have a cross to bear on this one. Getting the policy right in July 2011 doesn't absolve him of the mistakes made in December 2009 - and of the lives lost in the pursuit of a failed mission. But he's not alone. In this regard, Exum is quite right that the Afghanistan surge "should prompt much soul-searching."

June 21, 2012

This Week In Threat Mongering - The Existential Threats Version
Posted by Michael Cohen


So you ever wonder why it is that Americans are so fearful of the world; so convinced that we as a nation face innumerable threats from foreign bogeyman? This week offered a little bit of cause . . . and a little bit of effect.

First things first: Iran. Unlike most Americans I really miss the Republican presidential primaries; because it really was ground zero for the absolutely, craziest fear-mongering about Iran and its currenty moribound nuclear aspirations. For example, at various points during the GOP primaries Mitt Romney declared that "the greatest threat the world faces is a nuclear Iran"; Rick Santorum said Iran is "ruled by the equivalent of al Qaeda" and Newt Gingrich declared that he wasn't sure the US could "survive" an Iranian nuke. Even the adorable, yet unlikable, Jon Huntsman talked about putting boots on the ground to stop Iran's nuclear aspirations.

But one might have figured that with the primaries done and the need to appease the GOP's right-wing this sort of rhetoric would be packed up and put away and the presumptive Republican nominee would return to just graden-variety saber-rattling. Think again!

Here was Romney this week on Face the Nation:

If I’m President, the Iranians will have no question but that I would be willing to take military action, if necessary, to prevent them from becoming a nuclear threat to the world…I understand that some in the Senate, for instance, have written letters to the President indicating you should know that — that a — a containment strategy is unacceptable. We cannot survive a — a course of action which would include a nuclear Iran, and we must be willing to take any and all action, they must all — all those actions must be on the table.

Think about it: Newt Gingrich could take umbrage at Romney for stealing his crazy over-the-top rhetoric on Iran.

Of course, the notion that the US "cannot survive" an Iranian nuclear bomb is certifiably insane. After all, Mitt Romney was born in 1947, two years before the USSR exploded their first nuclear weapon - and in the 65 years since somehow the US and the world has survived the Soviet Union and now Russia having a nuclear bomb. Indeed, since Romney was born, France, the UK, Israel, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea have all gotten nuclear bombs. Not only has the US survived, it's prospered! 

And the United States dealt with a rather brutal and ideologically-opposed enemy in the Soviet Union that had thousands of nuclear weapons by "containing" it (and this was a legitimate honest to goodness peer rival). Perhaps a good follow-up question to Romney would be, if the United States could contain the USSR for all those many years of the Cold War; and China in the four decades since they got a bomb; and North Korea in the ten years since they joined the nuke club . . why is little old Iran, surrounded by enemies, rife with political discord and featuring a mlitary that is outdated and under-equipped not "containable." (Funny story: here's the actual follow-up question asked by Bob Schieffer of CBS News: "What have you learned out here on the campaign trail? You say you've been talking to regular folks. What are they telling you?")

Now to be sure Romney isn't the only Republican these days saying crazy things about what an Iranian nuke would portend. Last month, on the floor of the US Senate, Senator Lindsay Graham declared that the US is facing an "existential threat" from a nation "that has been a proxy for evil thoughout the planet." He was referring of course to Iran.

Some might just dismiss this over the top language as the usual sort of alarmist fare of the campaign trail. But, these words have an effect - they convince Americans that the world is a far more dangerous place then it really is. Case in point: this new fascinating survey from Dartmouth University on the foreign policy attitudes of Americans.

When asked if they agree of disagree with the notion that the United States faces greater threats now than it did during the Cold War . . . 63% either strongly or somewhat agree. SIXTY-THREE PERCENT! But even worse than that, only 5% strongly disagree with the statement - even though strongly disagree or perhaps "getoutofhere" is the only appropriate response to such a question. 

Granted the Soviet Union was contained during the Cold War; but they still had thousands of weapons pointed at the United States, a poor command and control infrastructure and as late as the early 1980s officials in Washington and the Kremlin actively debated the idea of whether a nuclear exchange was a winnable proposition (there was also the Cuban Missile Crisis). Compare that to today when there is not a single serious security threat to the American people and the US homeland.  More Americans die every year from lightning, drowning in bathtubs and furniture falling on top of them then terrorism and yet a strong majority of Americans think we are in greater danger now then when thousands of nuclear weapons were pointed directly at the United States.

Fear industrial complex . . . take a bow.


June 19, 2012

Iran Issue Pops Up at G-20 Summit
Posted by David Shorr

7397638010_0c8cb9a28bIf you read today's communique from the G-20's Los Cabos summit veerrry closely, you'll notice a pair of oblique references to Iran's controversial nuclear program. The subject is pretty off-topic for a forum devoted to the global economy, but the sanctions-related issues noted in Los Cabos signal the intense and widespread international concern about Iran. The summit took place against the backdrop of significantly tightened sanctions due to take effect at the end of June and beginning of July. (Big hat tip to John Kirton of the University of Toronto Munk School's G-8/20 Research Group.)

The more explicit of the two Iran-related passages of the communique concerns international efforts to clamp down on illicit financial flows. The G-20 leaders are expected to say:

We support renewal of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) mandate, thereby sustaining global efforts to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. 

The passage will represent the first-ever mention of WMD in a G-20 communique. It's no coincidence that the reference comes just as banking and oil export sanctions are notching up and could help spur diplomacy with Iran. 

The other connection to Iran has to do with energy prices. For some time volatility of food commodity prices -- and the derivatives markets based on those prices -- have been prominent on the G-20 agenda. The cost of staple grains have a big impact on household budgets, especially for low-income families around the world. In earlier G-20 communiques, though, the references to energy have focused on reducing subsidies and clean energy technologies. According to a draft of the Los Cabos statement, it will say:

We recognize that excessive price volatility in energy commodities is also an important source of economic instability.

Translation: a big spike in the price of oil could seriously undermine the world's fragile economoic recovery. And you don't have to be an oil futures trader to know the biggest driver of energy price volatility: fears about a war with Iran and reduced purchases of Iranian oil associated with sanctions (European nations are about to implement a total embargo). 

Photo: Gobierno Federal de Mexico

June 18, 2012

Blogging the G-20 Summit in Los Cabos - Reflections at the Outset
Posted by David Shorr

Avr_kjvCQAAx54OThis week the protracted Eurozone crisis rolls into sunny Los Cabos for the G-20 summit, where it will be Topic A just as it was for the Cannes G-20 meeting seven months ago. For many, the crisis has prompted them to watch financial markets with a sense of dread. In a sense, then, the Los Cabos summit is a political / diplomatic market in which governmental leaders give market signals regarding their respective stances and policies. 

Even before the meeting started, Presidents Herman Van Rompuy of the European Union and Jose Manuel Barroso of the European Commission used a press conference to talk up Europe's stock. Van Rompuy boasted that the OECD gives Europe high marks for structural reform. At the same time, he acknowledged the flaws in Europe's monetary union and spoke forthrightly about the work that will be needed to make the union "solid, secure, and safe."

It is interesting to trace some of the hot topics here at Los Cabos back to earlier G-20 summits. Just over two years ago, the Toronto summit exposed deep divisions over austerity that have hampered G-20 action ever since then to strengthen the fragile recovery from the Great Recession. Now the question is whether weak economic performance and recent elections in Europe have re-tilted the debate.

The Van Rompuy-Barroso press conference was an interesting mix of defiance, recrimination, and flexibility, and it made for some interesting euphemisms. My favorites: Van Rompuy's "investment and differentiated fiscal consolidation" and Barroso's "mutualization of public debt." In the category of defiance, Van Rompuy said Europe "will not spend our way out of the crisis." And Barroso wanted everyone to remember "this crisis was originated in North America." Got that?

At the November 2010 meeting in Seoul, the leaders emphasized the importance of putting a global financial safety net in place to mitigate any future crisis. In Los Cabos the G-20 leaders are marshaling an infusion of resources to boost capitalization of the IMF.

It is a sign of the times that the safety net might be needed sooner rather than later. Which reminds me of one of the common depictions of the G-20 and its evolution. The group is often portrayed as shifting roles from the crisis response function it played in 2008-09 toward serving as a steering group for the global economy. But many observers have wondered whether the crisis has really been put behind us or, rather, has continued on for the last several years.

June 15, 2012

No (Iran) War for Zero Enrichment!
Posted by David Shorr

2007_1207_iran_bh_mIn the run-up to next week's scheduled P5+1 talks with Iran in Moscow, there are a lot of big issues at play. What effect do US and Israeli domestic politics have? Do sanctions need to be eased? Do the major gaps between the positions of Iran and the others portend a drift toward war? 

Let's start with the good news / bad news from the US presidential campaign trail. The Romney camp is finally clarifying their candidate's Iran position. Contrary to the appearances they themselves fostered, Gov. Romney has not given up on diplomacy and decided war is the only course. Ali Gharib over at ThinkProgress reviews recent statements from Romney advisers, including Barbara Slavin of Al-Monitor's interview with Rich Williamson, and concludes that Romney's Iran position is nearly identical to what President Obama is already doing.

...with one notable exception. Williamson reiterated that a Romney Administration's bottom line with Iran would hew to right wing demands by factions in US and Israeli insisting that Iran be halted from enriching uranium even to low levels. So even after their attempts to clarify, the Romney campaign is still faced with an important question: how can you claim to favor a diplomatic solution when your proposed outcome is completely unworkable?


We need to be clear what's at stake here. The Obama administration has painstakingly built an impressive international coalition and the toughest-ever set of sanctions all with the aim of inducing Iran to negotiate seriously rather than just stalling for time. All of which to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. In other words, all with the aim of avoiding a war. 

Our friends on the right are using different goalposts, however. Beyond stopping Iran from getting the bomb, they want to stop Iran from having any civilian nuclear program either. There is no debate over the fact that Iran has the burden of proving the civilian purpose of its activities. Their record of deception is the heart of the dispute; it's why the stringent sanctions have been imposed. But the point of the negotiations is for Iran to meet that burden of proof. We need to look at the optimistic scenario of diplomatic progress -- not because signs are hopeful or the path is clear, but to ask how war can be avoided.

So let's say Iran indeed gets serious about the negotiations, cooperates more fully with inspectors, and allows its stocks of enriched uranium to be removed from the country. Imagine an agreement whereby the civilian character of Iran's nuclear program is verified through stricter measures than for any of the many countries with similar programs (easier said than done, no question). The position of right wingers in Congress, the Israeli government, and apparently candidate Romney is to go to war rather than take that deal. The best deal we would ever get from the Iranians because a negotiated agreement with zero Iranian enrichment is a fantasy.

There is a lot of tea leaf-reading of the Obama administration's position on enrichment, which has its own ambiguities. But I think there's less ambiguity than meets the eye. Just think of the many statements, including around Prime Minister Netanyahu's visit for the AIPAC conference, on the goal of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon. Every time that word is used -- as opposed to the conservatives' favorite, capability -- it isn't very hard to read between the lines.


Of course the negotiations do not yet have momentum toward a deal; in fact they are quite fragile. This leaves some analysts worried about a breakdown in diplomacy and inexorable drift toward war. Robert Wright of the Atlantic believes President Obama may not have left himself any way out. There's a real quandary here: is either side ready to give the kind of significant concessions that would prompt the other side to reciprocate. This is a bargaining process, after all. 

For Wright, this is all about election-year politics, Jewish voters, and the pro-Israel lobby. I'd offer another explanation; it might be about Iran's nuclear program. Not to be too flip, but let's not forget that Iran has shown a marked pattern of dealing in bad faith. Again, that's why we have the sanctions. Bob indeed gives the outlines of an attractive potential deal, but there's a key point that shouldn't be elided: sanctions can only be eased in exchange for pretty major moves by Iran. Here's how former senior Obama administration official Colin Kahl explained it to Al-Monitor's Laura Rozen:

Big sanctions have been put in place to hold Iran accountable. With UN Security Council resolutions, it’s difficult to scale them back for minor actions.

This dilemma may be the reason behind the idea, reported by Rozen, of trying to "go big" and enlarge the talks' scope. 


The other big topic of speculation (especially on Twitter with @robertwrighter and @TonyKaron) is the question of whether a President Romney would actually be so trigger-happy toward Iran. What are we to make of all the tough election-year posturing from the Republicans? Is it really an indication of how they'd govern? 

I'd just like to say that it matters what candidates and advisers say on the campaign trail even if it's different from what they'd do in office.  Sure, let's stipulate that cooler heads prevail in a Romney administration.  This would bring predictable headaches from the Republican base (would Bolton be in or out of the admin?), but that's really none of my business.  

My real concern is about the level of foreign policy discourse in our political system and culture. What argument really is there for shrugging off campaign rhetoric, rather than scrutinizing it as a platform for governing?  Should we be comfortable with a big gap between what politicians tell voters and the limited options of the real world? It's particularly strange to hear people discount rhetoric at a moment when the media has been doing a better and better job in closing that gap.  I was struck the other day, for instance, to hear Chuck Todd press a Republican on the question of what results will be achieved by being more confrontational with Russia. 

June 12, 2012

Unilateral Sanctions on Iran -- Less Unilateral Than You Might Think
Posted by David Shorr

Milli_Bank_Iran_251108As this Mark Landler NYTimes piece reminds us, the backdrop for upcoming talks on Iran's nuclear program in Moscow are new sanctions measures that will further clamp down on Iran's energy exports. First there is the European Union's embargo against any import of Iranian oil starting on July 1. For the rest of the world, US law will soon require many foreign banks to stop doing business with Iran or be banned from operating in the United States. (Here's an explainer I wrote recently for G8 Research Group/Newsdesk.)

For all intents and purposes, American banks are the guts of the global financial system. This gives the United States a privileged position in global commerce and a source of leverage in international politics and diplomacy. Through secondary sanctions, the US can force other nations to make an us-or-them choice regarding commercial ties with Iran.

With such an advantage, Americans might be tempted to see ourselves as holding the hammer, free to wield unilateral sanctions at will. And that is the temptation (aka hubris) that ensnares those among our conservative friends who've never met a sanction they didn't love. If the common blind spot of right-wing foreign policy is its denial of the military dictum that "the enemy gets a vote" -- that we can't count on the targets of our actions responding in just the way we'd like -- the problem is even worse for secondary sanctions. Don't forget, secondary sanctions put pressure on the target country through others; they threaten to punish not just Iran, but also Japan and South Korea. 

Note that the Landler piece focuses on exemptions from the Iran banking / fuel sanctions. The sanctions law exempts banks from any country that significantly reduces their dependence on Iranian oil imports. Key US allies like Japan and Korea get much of their energy from Iran and would find it very difficult to follow Europe's example of a total embargo. Now compare to one of the steadiest refrains of Republicans this campaign season: the need to be more supportive of America's friends and harsh with our adversaries. Okay, what does this platitude mean for the new sanctions, where a rigid get-tough approach would hurt our allies? 

The short answer is that you provide exemptions and work with countries that import Iranian oil, just as the Obama administration has done. And given the need to bring other nations along with us in ratcheting up pressure on Iran, unilateral sanctions don't look quite so unilateral. 

The point is a crucial one because of the added light it sheds on the political debate over President Obama's Iran policy. If each round of toughened sanctions depends on diplomacy and coalition building -- rather than just snapping our fingers -- then conservative demands to impose the toughest imaginable sanctions ASAP are unrealistic to say the least. The importance of gaining international cooperation and support also explains President Obama's success in imposing more stringent sanctions than President Bush ever did. 

June 05, 2012

We Can't Leave Until We Kill All the People that Want Us to Leave: Yemen Edition
Posted by Eric Martin

A-Reaper-drone-as-used-by-001Gregory Johnsen chronicles the disturbing "drift" with respect to the Obama administration's targeting criteria in Yemen, and the potential for an exceedingly costly, yet unproductive, escalation within that theater. What were once a narrowly defined set of targeting requirements - focused, sharply, on operatives of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - have now become a broader, if circular, rubric:

...[A]s this piece from Greg Miller has it, some "elasticity" has been introduced into the targeting. [...]

...officials said the campaign is now also aimed at wiping out a layer of lower-ranking operatives through strikes that can be justified because of threats they pose to the mix of U.S. Embassy workers, military trainers, intelligence operatives and contractors scattered across Yemen."

In other words, the US has inserted, trainers, operatives and contractors into Yemen in an effort to erode the threat presented by AQAP, but those trainers, operatives and contractors attract attacks from Yemenis who are upset with a foreign military presence (no matter how small) on their land. And then when these trainers, operatives and contractors come under attack as they have recently in Aden and Hudaydah the US feels the need to respond and so it widens the target list even further - which then drives even more people into the arms of AQAP.

As suggested by Johnsen, the mission is drifting toward a circle of self-perpetuating, self-justifying futility.  This pattern is not new, however. The same rationale has been used to justify the prolonged engagement in the Af/Pak region.  

Accompanying any discussion of a pull-back of US forces from the Af-Pak region are warnings that the withdrawal of our troops will destabilize Pakistan, and that we must continue to press the military campaign in order to contain the militant groups operating in that locale. Missing from that analysis - as with the analysis of the Yemen campaign and, in large part, the Iraq war before it - is an acknowledgement that our presence alone, and the use of military strikes in connection therewith, is itself a radicalizing, militarizing and motivating factor.  For example, Pakistan has been destabilized, not made more secure, by our Afghan campaign, so it is dubious to conclude that our continued presence in its current form will serve to ameliorate a problem that it has only exacerbated to date. 

Johnsen's conclusion is worth heeding:

I have argued for several years now that the US needs to draw as narrow of a circle as possible when it comes to targeting AQAP in Yemen. I worried then as I do now, that any expansion of targeting in Yemen would find the US in a war that it could never kill its way out of. And indeed that, I fear, is what is taking place right now. In an effort to destroy the threat coming out of Yemen, the US is getting sucked further into the quicksand of a conflict it doesn't understand and one in which its very presence tilts the tables against the US.

 Perhaps a surge instead?

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