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Foreign Policy

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Turkey Fan Club Grows

Regular readers of he blog will know that I've had my eye on Turkish foreign policy for a while. For one thing, Turkey's emergence as a regional mediator demonstrates the power of maintaining good relations across the faultlines of conflicts (its so-called "zero problems" policy). For another, it serves as a model of what I've called "Middle Power Mojo," or the use of regional middle powers to lighten America's footprint while at the same time advancing its interests.

Now a flurry of posts responding to Turkey's offer to mediate between the U.S. and Iran -- from Democracy Arsenal (Patrick Barry here, Shadi Hamid here) and Ezra Klein -- suggests the makings of a Turkey appreciation fan club. What I hadn't realized was that Middle Power Mojo has also been proposed by the Center for a New American Security's Pheonix Initiative under the formal name of "Strategic Leadership," whereby, as Ezra Klein puts it, "America begins thinking more about its interests than its preeminence." It's always reassuring to know that brighter bulbs than mine have been shining light on a subject of interest (although I still think Middle Power Mojo is catchier than Strategic Leadership).

In addition to its mediation role in indirect talks between Israel and Syria, Turkish initiatives include an effort to mend its relations with Armenia (accompanied by a mediation of the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute over the separatist Azerbaijani province of Nagorno-Karabakh), as well as offering to host talks between the Afghan and Pakistani governments. Perhaps the biggest problem that remains is the Cyprus issue, which continues to poison much needed EU-NATO cooperation. The EU's shifting position on Turkish accession also presents a longterm challenge.

One thing that American observers should understand, though, is that while we tend to think of Turkey as a crossroads or bridge between East and West (or Europe and the Arab world), Turkey has been increasingly assuming an identity of a central power, as much a part of the equation in the Caucasus and Central Asia as in the Middle East. This essay (.pdf), which I summarized here in June, by Ahmet Davutoglu -- foreign policy guru to Turkish PM Racep Tayyip Erdogan who I once saw referred to as "Turkey's Kissinger" --  describes the evolution in Turkey's posture and articulates its strategic objectives, both within the Middle East and beyond.

The difference -- that between object and subject -- is significant, and underlines the fact that whether you call it Strategic Leadership or Middle Power Mojo, the U.S. and Europe can not expect to simply instrumentalize strategic regional allies, but rather must listen to them as well.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   The Middle East   

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Sec. of State Clinton?

I'm not going to get into the habit of discussing transition rumors for the Obama administration. But one of the major criticisms directed at both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton during their primary campaign duel was the fact that neither of them had much foreign policy experience. So this doesn't strike me as a particularly inspired choice from the perspective of "hands on" foreign policy chops. That it's driven primarily by domestic political maneuvering is a point that won't be lost on the world, and seems like a clumsy initial gesture reinforcing the common wisdom that in the U.S., foreign policy is something of an afterthought. Another concern I'd have is over who would be responsible for selecting the various undersecretaries and other political appointees. If it's Hillary, that means that to a certain extent we'd be looking at a hybrid Obama-Clinton foreign policy, with a very healthy dose of Bill represented in both the former and the latter.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Politics   

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Obama's Foreign Policy: Challenges & Opportunities

In case you haven't seen WPR's front page today, we've got two great articles assessing the possibilities of Barack Obama's foreign policy. The first, by Thomas P.M. Barnett, takes a grand strategy approach and discusses the rule sets a successful Obama presidency must define. The second, by Nikolas Gvosdev, takes a realist approach and examines the possible deals an Obama administration might be forced to consider making. Two keen and insightful analysts, two fascinating pieces. Quite a pleasure having them here at WPR.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

WPR on Barack Obama's Victory

From WPR's editorial on President-elect Barack Obama:

The world has an ongoing love-hate relationship with America, born often of the higher expectations and disappointed hopes that it holds for the world's most enduring democracy. The United States also has sworn enemies and dangerous rivals. Much has been made of the symbolic impact Mr. Obama's presidency will have on global opinion. But more than his image, it will be his leadership that will define the United States' foreign relations for years to come. Just as America still needs the world, the world still needs America. Its national genius for innovation and historic willingness to advance fearlessly into the unknown, combined with its still unrivaled might, uniquely qualify it to lead the way and serve as a backstop in an age of uncertainty.

Mr. Obama's lack of experience on the national and international stage represents to a certain degree an unknown variable. But anyone watching the campaign he has waged over the past two years has reason to be optimistic about the kind of leadership he will deliver. With a steady and calm temperament, a keen and dynamic intellect, an easy smile and a wisdom and authority that defy his years, Mr. Obama has made his case by appealing to the best and loftiest of what America represents, without stoking the divisions and resentments that threaten the cohesion of our national fabric. It's a fabric that must hold, because only an America united of purpose can mobilize the effort, both at home and abroad, needed to face today's challenges.

More at the link.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Politics   

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

COIN vs. Conventional Diplomacy

Via Small Wars Journal, two complementary articles on the increasing encroachment of the military instrument on civil development and humanitarian functions. The first, a CSM op-ed by Catholic Relief Services director Ken Hackett, criticizes the recent use of naval gunboats to bring humanitarian aid to Georgia in the aftermath of the recent conflict with Russia. The second, a National Defense University monograph by Patrick Cronin (.pdf), discusses the ways in which the increasingly political nature of irregular warfare has put pressure on the traditional civilian-military balance of power in conflict zones.

Hackett's criticism is based on the need for humanitarian organizations to maintain impartiality in order to operate in conflict zones without being targeted by either side. Cronin's discussion, exemplified by this citation of Bob Gates, illustrates why that is an increasingly anachronistic, if perfectly valid, argument:

[T]he lines separating war, peace, diplomacy, and development have become more blurred, and no longer fit the neat organizational charts of the 20th century.

With the military already on COIN footing, the State Dept. is under increasing pressure to play doctrinal catch-up. The risk is twofold. First, once diplomacy and development have been adapted to the needs of the conflict zone, they will increasingly be deployed to them, to the detriment of other areas in need of our development aid. Second, once development becomes an element of the American war-fighting instrument, it will increasingly be governed by military logic. Here's Hackett:

. . .When the role of aid is to control or influence foreign governments or other parties in a conflict, the danger is that, instead of taking care of people's needs, the aid will simply fan the flames of the instability that led to the conflict in the first place. . .

The initial setbacks in our counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq have been the cause of a great deal of soul searching among the military community, and rightly so. The result has been the formulation of a broad "whole of government" approach to conflict, exemplified by the particularly effective team of Ambassador Crocker and Gen. Petraeus. But we shouldn't become intoxicated by our success to the point that we see the world exclusively through the lens of conflict, and conflict exclusively through the lens of counterinsurgency. Success in irregular warfare demands a "whole of government" approach, but the whole of government must not be reduced to the demands of irregular warfare.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Off-Duty Cop

The current issue of Military Review (.pdf, via Small Wars Journal) contains a quiet but significant article by Christopher Housenick titled "Winning Battles but Losing Wars" (p. 91). The overlap with French Gen. Vincent Desportes' analysis -- synopsis here (.pdf), interview here (.pdf) -- is pretty striking, especially with regards to the ways in which attacks on state infrastructure in the initial destructive phase of an intervention will inevitably hamper reconstruction efforts in the stabilization phase. According to Desportes, the challenge before Western militaries isn't to ". . .conduct a 'better war'. . .[but to] aim for a 'better peace.'"

The question underscores the need for a doctrinal evolution in American military strategy. So far, that's been limited to the still hotly contested COIN vs. conventional capacity debate. (Col. Gian Gentile, a WPR contributor here and here, has a recent CSM op-ed, also via SWJ, on the subject.)

I've been developing the argument this week that the debate should be broadened to include our global conception of the military instrument. So long as war is conceived of from a strategic and doctrinal perspective as an all or nothing proposition (that's to say total, with an objective of regime change and unconditional surrounder), the American military will be extremely constrained in its possible deployments. That, in turn, has an impact on American foreign policy.

Now, I'm not advocating for a banalization of military interventions or an embrace of limited war. What I'm suggesting is that American strategic doctrine is poorly adapted to the current geopolitical landscape of rapidly emerging, diffuse centers of influence. And so long as that doctrine hasn't been re-examined, we'll be susceptible to the same kind of strategic miscalculations that led us to underestimate the length and cost of our engagement in Iraq.

American power, both hard and soft, took its current shape in the global conditions of the post-WWII/Cold War era. Overwhelming and decisive force in the conduct of a total war was a sound approach to those conditions. But in many ways, those conditions were a strategic parenthesis, as was the post-Cold War unipolar moment. Now, both the geopolitical and military contexts have changed, and we need to adapt the ways in which we conceive of and apply our influence and power as a function of those changes.

That means finding a balance between America's historic traditions of isolationism on the one hand and global crusader on the other. The conflicts to come might not rise to the level of a crusade, but neither will we be able to comfortably ignore them. There will be no shortage of time- and resource-consuming stabilization and reconstruction operations to choose from, but there's also a growing risk of limited conventional conflicts, whether between regional rivals or larger powers and their weaker neighbors. We are no longer the world's reluctant policeman, neither in the eyes of the world, nor in our own. But we have yet to identify what role we will play, across the spectrum of hard and soft power. We'd better do so before events catch us offguard.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Coordinating Interagency Integration

If you haven't seen it on the WPR front page yet, give John Nagl's and Brian Burton's piece on the need for building civilian institutional capacity for counterinsurgency and nation-building operations a look. Obviously conflict zones are going to command a great deal of American attention and resources, and as Nagl and Burton make clear, unless civilian agencies adapt their training and institutional orientation, they will increasingly see their expertise farmed out to, or absorbed by, the military. As the article also makes clear, that won't happen until these agencies are funded and staffed to a level appropriate with their essential contributions to these efforts.

The piece emphasizes the need for more interagency "integration" of operations, but one question it leaves unanswered is who ultimately will play the overall coordinating role:

. . .The demands of large-scale counterinsurgency and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq are increasingly clear: The United States must integrate civilian reconstruction expertise with military force in conflict zones. Ad hoc measures, like the establishment of the civil-military Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and Iraq, were an important step towards creating this capability but are an incomplete solution. Recent State Department-led initiatives, which include the establishment of the Civilian Response Corps as well as the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (CRS) and the Interagency Counterinsurgency Initiative, represent an effort to establish effective civilian control of the political, economic, and social dimensions of nation-building operations.

One of the problems identified with PRT's is that, lacking any uniform command structure, they are essentially coordinated by the agency controlling the funding stream. More often than not these days, that's the Pentagon. As Nagl and Burton put it, the State Dept. initiative is only a first step. An overarching conceptual framework of how interagency integration functions might be a useful second one.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Obama in Berlin

I admit that I got chills up my spine when I heard that 200,000 people showed up to hear Barack Obama speak in Berlin. I don't know what it feels like to have almost a quarter of a million living, breathing human beings, spread out in front of you off into the distance, hanging on your every word. For that matter, there probably aren't too many people alive who know what that feels like. But I imagine it's not you're ordinary, everyday kind of adrenaline rush. (The only video I found so far of the event is kind of anti-climactic, though, since the audience is a little offbeat in their applause, probably due to the language barrier, but also due to the sheer time it took for the sound to reach them, and it seemed to hamper Obama's delivery.)

Anyway, I read a transcript of the speech, and truth be told wasn't that impressed. It hits all the right notes in terms of repairing the mistrust within the trans-Atlantic alliance, which Obama implicitly but correctly identifies as existing on a popular level. (The arrival of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy has already largely repaired the damage on a political level.) The two areas where he got bold were on global warming (on which he basically said, "Our bad, we'll get it right next time."), and Afghanistan, where he called for Europe and NATO to double down. On the first, I'm in agreement, on the second, I'm not.

After years of using the removal of military resources from Afghanistan as a club to beat the Bush administration over the head with for its conduct of the war in Iraq, Democrats (and increasingly Republicans) have come to believe that with more troops in Afghanistan we can achieve our objectives. I'm far from convinced that that's the case, and think that the claims of how important success there is to NATO's future are exagerrated.

More practically, calling for greater troop contributions from Europe ignore the fact that it's not going to happen. England's looking to reduce its engagement, Germany has already ponied up, and France has already downsized the contingent it committed to send at the April NATO summit.

The Afghanistan reference is pure Obama, who often uses his privileged iconic position to deliver a gentle chiding lecture. In that, it might disabuse his German listeners of what Josef Joffe calls in The New Republic "their infatuation with Obama":

After Inauguration Day, alas, Europe and the world will not face a Dreamworks president, but the leader of a superpower. Whether McCain or Obama, the 44th president will speak more nicely than did W. in his first term. He will also pay more attention to the "decent opinions of mankind." But he will still preside over the world's largest military, economic, and cultural power.

Finally, Obama closed with a call to "remake the world once again," a theme that I'm not terribly comfortable with. The speech probably works from a political perspective, in that by making demands of Europe and not assuming unilateral responsibility for the challenges the trans-Atlantic alliance has faced, he hasn't provided John McCain with any ammunition to use against him. It also probably did nothing to diminish his popularity in Europe. But if Afghanistan becomes central to Obama's European policy, he's in for some tough sledding.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Foreign Policy   

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Militarization of American Foreign Policy

I've made a point of not bringing the subject up for a while, because it's never good to get fixated on an idea and see everything through that lens for too long. But believe me, it hasn't been easy. So if none other than Robert Gates himself up and goes there (via U.S. Diplomacy), then I think I'm entitled to cut myself a little slack:

Overall, even outside Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has become more involved in a range of activities that in the past were perceived to be the exclusive province of civilian agencies and organizations. This has led to concern among many organizations – including probably many represented here tonight – about what’s seen as a creeping "militarization" of some aspects of America’s foreign policy.

This is not an entirely unreasonable sentiment. . . But that scenario can be avoided if. . .there is the right leadership, adequate funding of civilian agencies, effective coordination on the ground, and a clear understanding of the authorities, roles, and missions of military versus civilian efforts, and how they fit, or in some cases don’t fit, together.

There's also this, on what makes America strong:

. . .[M]uch of our national security strategy depends on securing the cooperation of other nations, which will depend heavily on the extent to which our efforts abroad are viewed as legitimate by their publics. The solution is not to be found in some slick PR campaign or by trying to out-propagandize al-Qaeda, but through the steady accumulation of actions and results that build trust and credibility over time.

It's striking to see a Secretary of Defense with such a keen understanding of -- and obvious affection for -- diplomacy. A lot of folks have been calling for Gates to stay on in the next administration as SecDef. Funny that no one's mentioned him as Secretary as State material.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Sarkozy's World

If you have an interest in French politics, you probably already know about Art Goldhammer's blog, French Politics. It's the most in depth and intelligent English language treatment of French domestic politics I've seen, equal parts policy analysis and cultural criticism. It's also the principle reason I don't spend more time writing about the subject here.

Art also has a piece on Sarkozy's foreign policy in e-International Relations which dovetails nicely with this week's WPR series on the French strategic posture review. I've seen Sarkozy's method referred to as that of an "avocat d'affaires" before (literally business lawyer, but with a dealmaker connotation). But Art draws the interesting parallel between the emerging global order and the political playing field Sarkozy navigated in his rise to power. There's a method to the madness, and Art does a good job of nailing it down.

As he suggests, the world order taking shape favors Sarkozy's style of working multiple deals simultaneously, although it's easy to imagine circumstances arising that could force his hand and make him pick a side once and for all. In the past, France has always responded by choosing France's side, for better or worse. But with Sarkozy increasingly identifying France as part of the "family of the West," this time might be different.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   La France Politique   

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Interview with Hubert Vedrine

The last installment of the French strategic posture review series is up over at WPR. It's the full text of my interview with former French Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine:

WPR: A quick question, off topic. Do you have any observations about the American presidential race?

Vedrine: I think that Bush's departure is going to provoke a huge relief around the world (except maybe in Israel, or in two or three other countries, and even there, I'm not sure). That it's going to create very high expectations with regard to the new president, expectations that will be strong if it's McCain, very strong if it's Hillary Clinton, and giant if it's Obama. Because there's a sort of Obama effect that I explain by the fact that the President of the United States is a little bit the President of the world. More than the Secretary General of the United Nations, in any case. And Obama is a personality who can give the impression that he understands the outside world. That's never happened before. Clinton managed to do it through his intelligence, but Obama gives the impression that he can do so by the path he's taken. So it's not the fact that he's black, that doesn't matter, either negatively or positively. It's the fact of his mixed background, in and of itself. That's an idea that could have an absolutely enormous impact in a large part of the world. And afterwards, there will obviously be a shock, and the higher the expectations, the bigger the shock will be. Because the President of the United States is, after all, the President of the United States. He's not the President of Brazil, or of China. But it could create an absolutely amazing moment.

The rest has to do with Sarkozy's foreign policy, the emerging world order, and France's place in it. Vedrine is a fascinating and gifted thinker, and one of the foreign policy world's "eminences grises". Definitely give it a look.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   La France Politique   

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Intervention Fatigue

I'm not sure about Phil Carter's take on the Madeleine Albright NYTimes op-ed that's generating a good deal of discussion. Here's the key passage from Albright's piece:

. . .And despite recent efforts to enshrine the doctrine of a “responsibility to protect” in international law, the concept of humanitarian intervention has lost momentum.

The global conscience is not asleep, but after the turbulence of recent years, it is profoundly confused. Some governments will oppose any exceptions to the principle of sovereignty because they fear criticism of their own policies. Others will defend the sanctity of sovereignty unless and until they again have confidence in the judgment of those proposing exceptions.

At the heart of the debate is the question of what the international system is. Is it just a collection of legal nuts and bolts cobbled together by governments to protect governments? Or is it a living framework of rules intended to make the world a more humane place?

Carter steers that last question back to a more practical one:

The next president -- whether Obama or McCain -- will have to do more than right the course in Iraq and Afghanistan. He must also decide what to do in places like Darfur, Burma and countries unknown, where both our ideals and interests will beg us to act. Other questions relate to this one, such as the role of international institutions and America's policy on respecting national sovereignty. But the crucial question for our next commander-in-chief will be whether, why and how he employs American power abroad.

Outside of self-defense and treaty obligations, the major arguments for intervention as they have shaped up over the past ten years are humanitarian reasons (liberal hawks), Western values (neocons), and the globalization stability function that's emerging. The arguments aren't necessarily exclusive. Interventions against terrorism, for instance, are defended based on a mixture of self-defense, values (democracy promotion), and stability. In fact, I think the argument can be made that on the level of American domestic opinion they might actually be mutually dependent.

The problem Albright has identified has more to do with the international wariness of American intentions due to the neocons' legacy more than the other two, and while the next president will in fact have to make the decisions Carter enumerates, he will have to do so in the context of a more complex constellation of interests and consensus. (Nikolas Gvosdev has some very interesting thoughts on that here.) Albright has already illustrated the ways in which the former influences the latter. The question Carter leaves out is how the latter will influence the former.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   

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Monday, June 9, 2008

No Solutions, No Problem

The funny thing for me about Robert Kagan is that I very rarely ever disagree with his analysis of the problem. It's his solutions that I usually have trouble with. So I really liked this Globalist interview, which is limited to one-sentence responses to analytical questions. I'm having trouble deciding which of these two I like the most. On whether a Barack Obama presidency would fundamentally change American foreign policy:

So long as U.S. power in all its forms is sufficient to shape the behavior of others, the broad direction of U.S. foreign policy is unlikely to change.

And on what the "crux" is for China (whatever that means):

The Chinese have learned that -- while it is possible to have capitalism without political liberalization -- it is much harder to have capitalism without cultural liberalization.

That last point is what I was trying to express in this post about what will happen to China's rise when it exhausts "copy & paste" capitalism and finds itself in desperate need of innovation. But I'm not Kagan, so it took me four paragraphs.

Meanwhile, how funny is it that not only does Kagan live in Brussels, but his wife, Victoria Nuland, is the U.S. ambassador to NATO? (The one who's been touting EU defense recently.) Think he makes her job more difficult from time to time? For that matter, think he needs a royal taster when he goes out to eat? Classic.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   

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Friday, June 6, 2008

The Pivot

If you haven't read today's WPR cover piece by Shawn Brimley and Vikram Singh, you should. I've been convinced for a while that more than any individual issues, or even collection of issues, this election is going to boil down to a generational choice. I don't know the demographics of U.S. voters well enough to know who that really favors. That said, the logic of the piece seems to argue for Obama without mentioning his name, although that might not be the authors' intention, and it might be my reading of it. I'm curious to hear from anyone who disagrees.

I remember some discussion about the Bush administration's tendency, in the days before 9/11, to emphasize state-based threats in a way that seemed destined to miss those posed by non-state actors. Obviously state-based threats still exist. But even the Bush administration's response to them, e.g. the idea of "containing" Iran, smacks of a certain strategic anachronism.

Brimley and Singh mention the way young voters experience the world via connectivity, which reminded me of a book I recently started (but have yet to finish) by Harold Innis titled, Empire & Communications. It discusses how the physical form of communication, from stone to clay tablets to papyrus to paper, impacted the organizational structure of the empires that used them. It triggered an undeveloped thought that, in some way, states will need to adapt the way in which they wield strategic power to the communication structure of the internet: rapid, fleeting nodes of hyperlinks, quickly dispersing only to reform elsewhere. This election seems like as good a place to start as any.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Politics   

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Monday, June 2, 2008

Rolling Back AFRICOM

I always feel a sense of satisfaction when the mainstream press catches up to a story that WPR has been out ahead of, like the scaling back of AFRICOM (here from a few weeks back in the CSM, and here from today in the WaPo and over at Phil Carter's Intel Dump). It's a fascinating story that combines a novel vision of an interagency military command with some highminded operational objectives, and throws them headlong into the wall of Africa's political realities, both historical and contemporary.

There's a lot going on here, and while AFRICOM is being downgraded to a more modest enterprise for now, I've got a hunch we'll be hearing more about it, if only as a prototype for the hybrid model of the future. What I find most concerning is that after initial efforts to create a truly interagency command structure, the final version features a military command with integrated, but apparently subordinate, civil components. That seems to represent less a desire of the Pentagon's civilian leadership than of the civilian branches that prioritize funding.

Most of the pushback against the Army's newly minted COIN doctrine has centered around its impact on classical warfighting capabilities. My own qualms have more to do with the way they militarize what in essence are civilian humanitarian functions, either outright or by appropriation. The more our humanitarian operational resources get fitted with military camo, the more likely we'll be to seek out warzones to stabilize, while ignoring other humanitarian priorities that don't require up-armored vehicles and interagency PRT's.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Easy Targets

Odd convergence when the news wires carry stories of President Bush and Osama bin Laden both chastising Arab leaders on the same day. Here's Bush:

After basking in a showy celebration of America’s close ties with Israel, President Bush criticized other Middle East leaders on Sunday, prodding them to expand their economies, offer equal opportunity to women and embrace democracy if they want peace to become reality.

Here's bin Laden:

Osama bin Laden released a new message on Sunday denouncing Arab leaders for sacrificing the Palestinians and saying the head of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah did not really have the strength to take on Israel.

What's striking, besides the accuracy of both criticisms ("exploiting the Palestinians" would be closer to the truth), is the hostility they're bound to meet from the Arab leaders in question, suggesting that the only thing we've got going for us in terms of our Middle East policy these days is the lack of serious competition. 

President Bush went on to declare that peace in the Middle East was possible by the end of the year, but that it requires "tough sacrifices." For a more serious analysis of the situation, I recommend Jon Alterman's WPR piece on Bush's failed Middle East policy, but make sure to put on your welding goggles, because the thing's got sparks shooting off of it. Among the list of faulty assumptions Alterman identifies as having contributed to the failure, this one has probably gotten the least attention:

. . .[T]he conviction that among the most powerful tools that the U.S. government could use against its foes was withholding recognition and refusing dialogue. It is hard to find a single instance in which such boycotts were effective.

In a region where American support is a double-edged sword, that one should have been predictable. But accepting reality is apparently not among the "tough sacrifices" President Bush is willing to make.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   The Middle East   

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Saving Burma

Those suggesting we should conduct a "coercive humanitarian intervention" in Burma would do well to consider this, from a WaPo article that otherwise describes the junta's efforts to mask the country's underlying dysfunction:

The primary focus of the rulers is to ensure unity in a country with 130 ethnic groups, many of which have fought the military -- dominated by the Bamar ethnic majority -- for six decades.

The moral arguments for intervening in Burma are irrefutable. And in a world where decisions were made free of any practical considerations, they'd suffice. So while I can't really say I object to the idea of a "coercive humanitarian intervention," I do object to the way in which it's being proposed.

We've already seen what happens when you remove a violent, repressive regime that holds an ethnically volatile population together. Even if the kind of militarized relief efforts being proposed don't trigger a war whose outcome would spell the end of the Burmese regime, there is the non-negligible possibility that they would destabilize it to the point that the country slides into anarchy.

In other words, the argument that needs to be supported is not whether to provide relief to the victims of Cyclone Nargis, but whether to declare Burma an international protectorate, and engage in the nation-building operations that will necessitate. With the added condition that the entire operation will have to take place outside the auspices of the UN, with no help and probably a good deal of hostility from the part of Pekin.

Given the moral calculus involved, that's still an argument that can be legitimately defended. But we should be clear about the task we're taking on, and just how we intend to accomplish it.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Obama and Soft Power

We've got an interesting discussion of Barack Obama's foreign policy agenda over at the World Politics Review blog. Hampton kicked it off with a critique of Obama's embrace of transformative soft power, to which Matthew Yglesias responded, drawing a response from both Hampton and myself. It's worth a read, because I think everyone raised some valid points.

Also, for anyone who's discovered Headline Junky recently, I do most of my posting weekdays at the WPR blog. So make sure to drop by. And while you're there, check out the rest of the site. The contributors are high-powered, and the range of subject matter is pretty incredible. And to get up on my soapbox a bit, it offers an outlet for writers who happen to work the lower-profile beats, as well as smart coverage for readers interested in parts of the world that get overlooked elsewhere. I know that there's something of an information glut out there, but that only means that smart sites like WPR should be rewarded.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Friday, May 2, 2008

Middle Power Mojo

I got some pushback via email on this post about Turkey, and the idea of formulating American foreign policy to take advantage of the leverage offered by regional "Middle Powers." In particular, the question was raised whether having the same policy as Turkey vis à vis Iran is more important than preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and more generally whether harmonizing policy with our regional allies should trump our own policy goals. The short answer is no.

The longer answer is that the Turkey-Iran example is complicated by the fact that I think we're trying to impose a flawed tactic (sanctions), in order to achieve an unrealistic strategic goal (containment). And the result is that countries like Turkey, India, and Pakistan, to say nothing about China and Russia, are lukewarm at best. Now, I'm not at all naive about the Iranian regime, and I think that it would be a strategic disaster if it acquired a nuclear weapons capacity. Not for any existential threat it posed to Israel, and much less to us (because I think that Tehran is susceptible to strategic deterrence), but for the destabilizing impact it would have on regional and global non-proliferation. More importantly, it's a safe bet that the Turks have no burning desire to see a nuclear-armed Iran. For that matter, neither do the Russians.

So, to walk the whole thing back a bit, I'm suggesting two things. First, and this was the central argument of my post, we should focus on enlisting the key regional leverage points, which I called the "Middle Powers," to do the heavy lifting for us in terms of regional policy, because for a whole host of reasons, the lighter our footprint right now, the better. Second, to do that, we need to start by finding the common policy goals with our regional allies, and use that as the starting point for formulating policy. In the case of Iran, that would be preventing the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, but not necessarily containment. America is no longer in a position where it can impose unpopular policies on its regional allies, so we need to find ways to achieve our goals through generating consensus, not twisting arms.

A third point, but one that is more difficult to standardize, involves identifying regional players who have got their mojo (for lack of a better word) working and piggy back on their momentum. Turkey, for instance, has demonstrated a very impressive ability to achieve its foreign policy goals over the past several years. France under Sarkozy has shown a knack for picking winners. It would be foolish to let pride keep us from taking advantage of our friends' lucky streaks.

It goes against years of instinct and habit, but until we restore both our soft and hard power, American influence might be best applied by enlisting savvy and sympathetic Middle Powers, and then following their lead.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Turkey   

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Obsolete Trade-offs

Matthew Yglesias flags this remark by Randy Scheunemann, John McCain's top foreign policy aide, in the context of an interview on Georgia and U.S.-Russia relations:

Well, I think first of all the administration has said very clearly and publicly that there will be no trade-offs. Trade-offs like that are kind of a relic of a bygone era of power politics.

Yglesias then responds with a pretty heavy dose of snark:

That's right, he thinks the entire process of bargaining for mutual advantage that lies at the core of diplomacy -- and, indeed, of almost all constructive human interaction -- is a relic of a bygone era of power politics. In the brave new future, either the Russians give way on all points, or else we raise up the national missile defense system and it's bombs away.

Now, I'm not a big fan of John McCain's foreign policy proposals, in particular as regards Russia, so I'm probably closer to the broader lines of Yglesias' vision than those of Scheunemann. But I think Scheunemann might be right here, and Yglesias wrong, but for reasons that neither seem to recognize.

The Bush administration's stance on trade-offs that Scheunemann cites is based on the misguided notion that each dossier can somehow be approached "objectively," and decided on the merits, independently of other dossiers. From this perspective, trading off concessions on one dossier (e.g. Kosovo) against advantages on another (e.g. NATO expansion) is unnecessary, because each individual conflict will be resolved based on a universal (and universally accessible) standard of fairness and justice. That turns a willfully blind eye to the fact that interests often determine values, or at least the perception of values, and that no nation will willingly sacrifice its interests, much less its advantages, based on notions of right and wrong with which it either disagrees or believes are not equally applied.

Nevertheless (and this gets back to the point I made here about America being a necessary but no longer a sufficient power), as the potential configurations for sufficient multilateral coalitions multiply, each individual crisis will increasingly determine the particular coalition necessary to reach a tipping point for its resolution, independently of other crises. The proliferation of regional multilateral institutions to confer legitimacy on a coalition-based intervention, for instance, will increasingly dilute the veto-power of the permanent Security Council nations. Obviously, there will still be overlap; Russia's stance on Georgia can only be understood as a reaction to Kosovo's declaration of independence. But the opportunities for blocking diplomatic progress that make trade-offs necessary and possible will become increasingly rare as the available detours around them become more accessible.

This kind of strategic environment almost demands that trade-offs be replaced by short memories and the ability to compartmentalize both crisis interventions and conflict resolutions, in order to resist the inherently destabilizing effect such a fluidity of tactical alliances might have. The alternatives, whether to impose a declining American hegemony or to resist the emergence of alternate avenues of consensus, are simply no longer possible.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Limits of Military Power

There's a discussion this week over at TPMCafe of Matthew Yglesias' imminently available book, Heads in the Sand. It focuses on Yglesias' vision of a "liberal internationalism," by which he means the forward leaning diplomatic engagement, under the auspices of a multi-lateral system of institutions and laws, that characterized American foreign policy throughout the Cold War. Specifically, on his blog, Yglesias has targeted the use of pre-emptive war as an effective non-proliferation strategy.

I call attention to it not only because it's an interesting discussion, but also because it folds in nicely with this short monograph (.pdf) by Carl Connetta, which I found on the Projects on Defense Alternatives website, and which serves as something of a backstory to Yglesias' argument. Connetta points out that, starting with the First Gulf War, America has become seduced by the image of a surgical, omnipotent military capacity.

. . .Back in April 2003, flush with the illusion of victory, President Bush had asserted that:

By a combination of creative strategies and advanced technologies, we are redefining war on our terms. In this new era of warfare, we can target a regime, not a nation.

This is the "new warfare hypothesis" and it did not originate with President Bush. It has helped shape US thinking about the utility of force since the 1990-1991 Gulf War. . .

This is the image that Donald Rumsfeld tried to impose not only on the invasion of Iraq, but on the Army in general. And I think possibly before the ideological and strategic explanations that Yglesias offers for recent American interventionism, but at the very least in addition to them, this tempting image of military power as a clean and efficient policy tool accounts for a great deal of the temptation to use it as a panacea to what otherwise would be considered problems in need of a political solution.

I've discussed the growing militarization of stabilization and humanitarian operations before. Connetta points out that pre-emptive threat prevention, too, used to be the diplomats' bailiwick:

In the past, threat prevention and "environment shaping" were largely in the purview of the State Department. But a feature of our post-Cold War practice has been the increasing intrusion of the Pentagon on the provinces of State. Parallel to this, diplomatic functions have been increasingly militarized. Thus, today, coercive diplomacy plays a bigger role relative to traditional "give-and-take" diplomacy. Similarly, "offensive counter-proliferation" -- that is, arms control by means of bombardment -- has grown in importance relative to non-proliferation efforts. Even US programs in support of democratization and development have gained a khaki tint.

The outcomes in both Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated that military power remains a blunt instrument, with unpredictable and costly consequences. Even given the narrowest and most clearly defined missions, it rarely achieves unassailable outcomes (consider that the Iraq War has been in part explained by the failure to topple Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War).

But not only have we expanded the mission set considerably, it's also become commonplace in policy discussions to concede the need to grow the military. The perverse logic, as Connetta points out, consists of demanding a greater capacity without questioning what it ought to be used for:

. . .What we have demonstrated in Iraq and Afghanistan is that the most powerful nation on earth, unobstructed by a peer rival, commanding 22 percent of the world product, and consuming 50 percent of all defense spending cannot -- in six years -- bring a modicum of stability to two countries containing just 1 percent of the world’s population. . .

These outcomes might and should teach us something useful about the limits on the utility of military power.

Both Yglesias and Connetta demonstrate the way in which the American foreign policy discourse has been overtly militarized. Part of that has to do with the domestic political residue of the Vietnam War and the rise in the 1990's of the liberal hawk movement as a response (one of Yglesias' central theses), part of it has to do with the Pentagon's bureaucratic imperative to grow, and part of it has to do with the very real trauma of the attacks of 9/11. The key point is that the military has done everything we've asked it to do, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem is not so much that we haven't given it what it needs to accomplish the task, although that is certainly the case, but that we've asked it to do too much to begin with.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Real Impact Of 9/11

A month is a long time in the era of online news and opinion, but I just stumbled on a Project on Defense Alternatives monograph from back in February that's really worth a mention. Carl Conetta makes a pretty convincing argument that the major significance of 9/11 was political, not strategic, and that the true historical pivot point of our time remains the fall of the Soviet Union.

Conetta begins with the paradox of American military primacy in the post-Cold War era. This nugget is enough to make any foreign policy writer green with envy:

With Soviet collapse, America won a windfall in a currency of power that - because of Soviet collapse - was simultaneously devalued.

He also makes the good point that while the 90's saw the birth of the liberal hawk movement, the embrace of American military intervention was far from universal, and often faded soon after the initial engagement with the enemy:

The disappearance of the Soviet threat also made it difficult to form a stable US domestic consensus on overseas military activism. During the 1990s, almost every contingency operation - Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kosovo - quickly became a point of acute contention. Outside the context of the global East-West struggle, America's security stakes in many far-flung conflicts seemed attenuated. Neither the notion of "humanitarian interests" nor that of "important if not vital interests" were sufficient to quell dissent. . .

Conetta articulates a three-point plan for developing domestic political consensus for military activism abroad in the post-WWII era, one that bears a remarkable resemblance to the selling of the Iraq War:

  • First, the national security stakes in foreign involvements must be perceived as real, present, and substantial;
  • Second, the United States must retain freedom of action abroad. In alliance or other multinational endeavors, it must possess a distinct leadership role; and,
  • Third, the modes of action must be perceived as "decisive" - that is: perceived as likely to yield clear, positive results. . . In military operations, it implies the demand for clear, invariant objectives and for using overwhelming force to win them quickly.

This gets us to the crux of Conetta's argument, namely that 9/11 changed everything not in the world, but in American public opinion:

What made a more energetic and proactive interventionary policy broadly acceptable within the United States was the 9/11 attacks - together with the initial impression that the US armed forces would be used in ways best suited to their capabilities. What has proved far less acceptable - and, indeed, has been the Bush administration's undoing - is the desultory occupation duties that followed the initial, conventional victories in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Concetta goes on to argue that the failure of the nation-building experiments in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate the fallacy of America's post-9/11 conception of military intervention:

What the next US administration can learn from this is that the "war on terrorism" framework, together with popular fears about the spread of weapons of mass destruction, can enable greater military activism, but only of a certain type: fast and decisive. An entirely different matter are protracted campaigns of occupation and those that either seem detached from clear security threats or seem to diverge from the warfghting model. It is disconcerting, then, that the American policy "center" seems to be trending away from a recognition of this lesson. Instead, it is gravitating to a putative midpoint between the Clinton and Bush administration positions.

By this he means the kinds of "peace and stability operations" (PSO's) that are now commonly referred to as nation-building. He wraps up by summarizing the true cost of not accurately assessing the failure of our recent military interventionism:

This failure points to a more fundamental one: seized by a sense of military primacy, we have failed to appreciate the difference and the distance between achieving military effects and achieving political-strategic ones.

This paragraph in particular jumped out at me, because it seems to encapsulize the national security debate embodied by an Obama-McCain presidential campaign:

In light of America's misadventure in Iraq - its great costs and poor results - it seems unlikely that the US public will be easily won [over] to attempt similar experiments on a grander scale. Not even the "war on terrorism" or the notion of a "global Islamic insurgency" seem sufficient motivators.

Clearly, McCain is running on the assumption that Iraq still satisfies the three-point checklist Connetta articulates above. Obama (and, to a lesser extent, Clinton) makes the case that the predominant challenge facing America is the political-strategic aftermath of the Iraq War, rather than the (mistaken) national security threat that lead to our invasion. The national security aspect of the campaign will boil down to which of the two competing narratives the American voters embrace.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Foreign Policy And The Press

There's been a lot of back and forth about David Signer's WaPo piece this weekend taking the major media to task for ignoring foreign policy in its coverage of the presidential campaign. Ilan Goldenberg at Democracy Arsenal has got all the links and some original insights that warrant a glance.

I'd add that part of the problem has to do not with a lack of interest so much as a sense even among journalists that foreign policy is better left to experts and the specialized press. Most people are comfortable discussing the political calculus of tax cuts, even if they aren't economists. Same goes for universal healthcare or education reform and a whole host of other domestic policy issues. But how many people really have an opinion on the expansion of NATO into Russia's periphery, or the best way to counter Chavez-style neo-Bolivarism in South America? Both foreign and domestic policy have concrete impacts on the lives of the end consumer of the news, but the former (outside of the big ticket items) are often more indirect than the latter, and more difficult to trace.

I'm also not sure how relevant it is to talk about foreign policy when what we really mean is a multitude of foreign policies, some broad and regional, others more narrow and local. Ideally they form a coherent strategic whole, but sometimes the result ends up being something of a patchwork of contingency and convenience that combines to offer a least bad rather than an ideal approach. While Matthew Yglesias is right in saying that the president has far greater control over foreign policy than domestic policy, it is often in the form of reacting to events on the ground rather than formulating and implementing a grand strategy. Which leaves me somewhat immune to foreign policy white papers and addresses, as well as the coverage they might inspire.

Meanwhile, although the major media has been remiss in this regard, the foreign policy press has been doing its job. Case in point is Ximena Ortiz's rundown of the three remaining candidates' foreign policy records, statements and agendas. None of them gets off easy, but Barack Obama scores some points for owning up to it when he changes his position. Worth a read.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Media Coverage   

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Friday, February 22, 2008

An Officer And A Gentleman: The Return Of American Militarism

I'd been meaning to write a piece yesterday about what I thought was my very insightful observation that this week's events in Kosovo serve as a sort of bookend for the "liberal hawk" movement that began with the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia and later passed through Afghanistan and Iraq, with less than stellar results. But Matthew Yglesias already got there in this American Prospect piece.

So instead I'm going to put the "liberal hawk" dynamic into the broader context of the rehabilitation of war as a foreign policy tool in the post-Viet Nam era, a theme which will allow me to trot out for the first time my "An Officer and a Gentleman" theory of American military renewal.

Of course, liberals were the last to sign on to the idea that America could use its military as a positive force in the world, and it took the crisis of conscience of the Yugoslavian tragedy to push them over the edge. The rest of the country had been seduced by the precision missiles and video game graphics of Operation Desert Storm. But it's easy to forget that before American triumphalism (reborn) could reach the sands of Kuwait, it had to pass through the moral vacuum of El Salvador and Nicaragua, the slapstick shores of Granada, and the cocaine-fueled police action in Panama.

The halting and tenuous progression from covert operation to training exercise to limited ground assault over the course of a decade illustrates the degree to which it would have been inconceivable in 1980 -- the year that Ronald Reagan proclaimed Morning in America* -- to deploy the American military (upon which any American resurgence depended) in a grand campaign. Not just because the nation would not have stood for it. The kids just weren't having it. Running against Sex, Drugs & Rock 'n Roll for possession of the cannon fodder generation's soul, the old military virtues of discipline and self-sacrifice weren't polling so high.

Enter Richard Gere, tattooed and shaggy haired, on a motorcycle. Like the bastard child of Easy Rider, he's an outcast and a misfit, only instead of heading out to the counter-cultural frontier with its now-discredited promise of freedom and transcendence, he has turned back for one last chance to come in from the cold: OCS, Officer Candidate School. Upon his arrival, Gere's nemesis, Louis Gossett Jr., summarizes the moral calculus that has brought the candidates and the country to where they now find themselves: while he, Gossett Jr., was serving his country in Vietnam, they were off getting high. Now it's time for penance.

The rest of the movie, down to the theme song performed by a newly rehabbed Joe Cocker (Joe Cocker, for crine out loud), is a brutal rejection of the excesses of the wayward left during the Sixties. Love no longer ushers in the Age of Aquarious. It lifts us up to where eagles -- and not doves -- fly. David Keith's repressed perversion immediately signals him as the film's "hidden threat". And sure enough, it's his ultimate awakening to his "real self" (that Holy Grail of the self-actualized generation) that gives the movie its tragic turn, since it turns out that his "real self" is nowhere near as compelling for the town girl he's been romancing as his officer's bars.

Richard Gere, on the other hand, knows better than to let anything as insignificant as his authentic self (a seething cocktail of self-absorption and inferiority complex) get in the way of accomplishing the task at hand. And the task at hand is to restore the image of the military's patriarchal values, in this case by kicking Louis Gossett Jr.'s ass (actually his balls) in an Oedipal coming-of-age ritual, and by making military dress uniforms look sexy again. By the time he returns to the factory to sweep Debra Winger off her feet and onto the back of his motorcycle, he has embraced the value of the Army's tough love. Whereas the previous generation had let it all hang out, Gere rides off with the girl because he has learned how to suck it up.

A year after the film's release, American forces were braving the dangerous shores of Grenada. The long march that would culminate in the rise of the liberal hawks had begun.

*Thanks to Justin, I stand corrected. (Morning in America was actually Reagan's campaign theme in 1984.) See comments for why I left it in the post.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   Foreign Policy   

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Back To Nationalism

Via Laura Rozen, President Bush has recognized Kosovo's independence and will officially establish diplomatic relations. So there you have it.

Paris, London, Rome and Berlin have also all moved rapidly to "avoid creating a vacuum with indecisive behavior," according to German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. But despite having unanimously approved a support mission including police and judicial training teams, as well as maintaining the 15,000 strong KFOR deployment, the EU has left it up to member states to determine their position individually, due to internal divisions on the question. Spain, Cyprus, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia are opposed to formal recognition due to fears that it might set a precedent for their own separatist minorities.

That's the beauty of the EU (a collective sovereignty or a collection of sovereignties, depending on the need of the moment) but also its internal contradiction, which yesterday's Le Monde editorial described well:

It remains no less the case that Europe is playing against type. Founded to transcend nationalisms, it now gives the impression that it's rewarding Kosovar nationalism. In the name of what will it then oppose the self-determination of the Serbs...of Northern Kosovo, or even that of the Bosnia-Herzegovina? (Translated from the French.)

Le Monde went on to point out that if this is to be the conclusion -- rather than a new chapter -- of the instability in the Balkans, then all of Europe will have to invest politically, especially to present Serbia with the image of a European consolation prize to make up for its current loss.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Foreign Policy   International Relations   

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Homer Simpson Diplomacy

Without getting into any of the more substantial aspects of Kosovo's declaration of independence, one thing seems pretty straightforward about the timing of the announcement: it sucks. Setting aside for a moment the merits of the case (and I think there are valid arguments on both sides of the issue), the Kosovo negotiations have been dragging on for years. Stretching them out for another month or two would not have meaningfully changed anything, except to avoid pissing off Russia and China (both opposed to the move) on the eve of a decisive Iran sanctions resolution. In a complicated geopolitical landscape, it's a good rule of thumb to steer clear of the inherently avoidable landmines. D'oh.

Update: By the way, in case you're wondering why China is opposed to Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence, the answer lies just across the Taiwan Strait.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Foreign Policy   International Relations   

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Friday, January 25, 2008

We Try Harder

That's the ad campaign that Avis launched in the early sixties to turn its no. 2 position in the rent-a-car business into a strength:

The results were dramatic…

In 1962, just before the first 'We try harder' ads launched, Avis was an unprofitable company with 11% of the car rental business in the USA. Within a year of launching the campaign Avis was making a profit, and by 1966 Avis had tripled its market share to 35%.

It's the first thing I thought of when I saw that Chinese President Hu Jintao had met with the chairman of Kazakhstan's senate on the latter's state visit to China. Now it's not surprising that China would want to provide a warm welcome to its neighbor, especially its neighbor that ranks eleventh in the world in both gas and oil reserves. But a president giving face time to the visiting senate leader of a "minor country" is almost a breach of diplomatic protocol, and it's the sort of thing that's hard to imagine an American president doing, even though the impact of the gesture is undoubtedly significant.

On a related note, compare the travel itineraries of President Bush, who just made his first visit to the Middle East after seven years as president, to Nicolas Sarkozy, who in less than a year has visited the Middle East, North Africa, China and now India, signing major contracts and nuclear cooperation agreements everywhere he goes, and vastly improving France's strategic position in the process. The president of the United States might very well be the most powerful person on earth, but that shouldn't get in the way of trying hard.

Posted by Judah in:  China   Foreign Policy   La France Politique   

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Balancing Resolve With Restraint

In a monograph for the Army War College, Nobel prize-winning economist Roger Myerson uses game theory to explain why, contrary to the assumptions of the Bush administration's doctrine of unilateralism, reinforcing multilateral institutions and subsequently respecting the restraints they place on American use of force reinforces the effectiveness of American deterrence. A policy balancing resolve (the willingness to respond to aggression) with restraint (the willingness to accept limits on the use of force) provides the necessary disincentives to aggression while maintaining the incentives for cooperation. If, on the other hand, a country knows it's going to catch hell whether it cooperates with the US or not, it has no incentive to cooperate.

The key, according to Myerson, is a reliable reputation for reasonable restraint among the international community. Our promises of restraint must not only be as clearly communicated as our threats of military action, they need to be as credible as well:

Thus, if we want our application of military force to deter our potential adversaries, rather than stimulate them to more militant reactions against us, then we should make sure that the limits of our forceful actions are clear to any potential adversaries. We need a reputation for responding forcefully against aggression, but we also need a reputation for restraining our responses within clear limits that depend in a generally recognized way on the nature of the provocation. These limits must be clear to our potential adversaries, who must be able to verify that we are adhering to the limits of our deterrent strategy, because it is they whom we are trying to influence and deter. (p. 21)

In the light of Myerson's analysis, the idea that America must at times submit its use of force to the judgment of the international arena takes on a central evaluative function:

When Americans judge our leaders for effectiveness in foreign policy, the central question should be how our policy is perceived by the foreigners whom we want to influence and deter. Letting these foreigners judge our reputation for adhering to our deterrent strategy can help us to guarantee its credibility. So a policy of submitting American military actions to international judgment and restraint can actually make America more secure. (p. 23)

Myerson's theoretical models reinforce a recurring sentiment in foreign policy circles that American foreign policy is in need of a corrective period of restraint. It's also comforting to know that the multi-lateral system works on a theoretical level to deter conflict in an increasingly multi-polar world. With any luck the Bush doctrine will soon be squarely behind us, and the suggestion that we should be formulating our deterrent policy based at least in part on the perceptions of those we're trying to deter will no longer be portrayed as a lack of resolve, but as an abundance of wisdom.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Narrower Than Zero

The LA Times has a sadly comic article on how the Bush administration is now narrowing its "foreign policy horizons" for its last year in office. Apparently, instead of magically solving all of the problems he either created or ignored, President Bush has decided it might just be better to play out the clock and let someone with more competence handle them come 2009.

One administration official claimed that they're still aiming high, but aded, "What you can do versus what you end up doing is always different." In this case, they can't do much and will end up doing less. But I guess that's what you get when you elect a guy president whose only travel abroad was a beer run into Tijuana.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Friday, January 18, 2008

The End Of Deterrence

Recently reports surfaced that Pakistan had used huge chunks of American cash grants to procure military hardware better suited to a conventional conflict with India than to the counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations the money had been earmarked for. The obvious conclusion was that as long as Pakistan feels more threatened by India than it does by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the problem on the Afghan border will remain a low priority in Islamabad. Another obvious conclusion was that a coherent American policy in the region would be to encourage to the greatest degree possible a detente between the two nuclear-armed countries, thereby progressively freeing Pakistan up to concentrate on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency.

Instead, Lockheed Martin is in discussions with New Delhi to help the Indians polish off their homegrown ballistic missile defense system. The system, once perfected, would effectively counter the threat of both Pakistan's and China's strategic forces, destabilizing what's already a precarious regional balance of power and possibly provoking a nuclear weapons build-up. Of course, America could not very credibly try to dissuade India from developing its own missile defense system, given our own insistence on dismantling the ABM regime. But we shouldn't be helping them put the finishing touches on it either.

The issue brings into focus one of the less-covered developments of the past seven years. The attacks of 9/11 demonstrated how non-state actors could use assymetric tactics to render conventional deterrence useless. Simultaneously, the Bush administration has worked tirelessly to render conventional deterrence between state actors obsolete. The net result is a world in which the threat environment has dramatically proliferated and diversified, and the disincentives to using force have been dramatically reduced. Either one would be alarming. The two together are potentially catastrophic.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   India   Pakistan   

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Friday, January 18, 2008

French Touch

Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias have both flagged the news that France has just signed an agreement with the UAE to establish a permanent military base just across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran. Kevin cites Marc Lynch, who writes:

Early spin has suggested that this will allow France to better cooperate with the US against Iran, but this seems shortsighted. A long-term French strategic position in the Gulf challenges American exclusivity, and potentially undermines the fundamental architecture of the hegemonic American position in the Gulf. (Link included from original.)

Matthew suggests that the latter might be a good thing, in that it will re-balance the dysfunctional relationship between American military commitments and European strategic interests.

The fact is, there's a bit of all three going on. The base in question is for the moment largely symbolic given its limited size and the fact that it won't be operational for a year at least. But its location at the bottleneck of the Strait of Hormuz and very close to Iran does in fact constitute a pressure point on Tehran. That France happens to be the most forceful and most credible advocate right now for preventing Iran from developing a nuclear fuel enrichment capacity is significant. Their position is not so much in alignment with ours on Iran so much as it is an ideal version of what ours should have been from the start: Clear-sighted, non-hysterical, with firm demands and rewarding incentives.

On the other hand, as I argued on the very first day of Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency, he has a very ambitious vision for France's role in the world, and he's pretty savvy about getting what he wants. As for the French presence he's establishing, it's not limited to the military and it's not limited to the Gulf. Sarkozy has been using a nuclear energy foreign policy to establish France's strategic position throughout the Arab world. In the eight months since he took office, he has already signed civil nuclear cooperation agreements with Morocco, Libya, Algeria, and the UAE, while offering assistance to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Significantly, this is in direct opposition to the American line of discouraging the proliferation of civil nuclear capacity in the Middle East, especially in the circumstances now surrounding the Iranian standoff.

So while Matthew is correct in suggesting that Europe in general and France in particular having the capacity to put their military money where their mouth is will balance the trans-Atlantic relationship, that will in effect be a development that lessens America's strategic leverage in the world. In other words, good-by to the world's reluctant policeman, hello to the long-announced French vision of the multi-polar world. This isn't going to happen overnight, but it is definitely the way Sarkozy would like to see things develop.

That it's ineluctable does not necessarily mean that it will be advantageous to the US. The alternative, however, of an America that serves as the military firewall to all the world's brushfires, is no longer sustainable.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Foreign Policy   La France Politique   The Middle East   

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Wooing Ankara

I once wondered whether the loss of Turkey might end up being the worst strategic outcome of the Iraq War. It looks like that was a bit premature, as American-Turkish relations have thawed out considerably in the aftermath of last November's meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Erdogan. A great deal of that has to do with the operational agreement they reached to help Turkey target the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan.

But if the PKK is the high profile issue that drove the headlines, the subtext of this rapprochement is the "Turkey-USA-Iraq trilateral energy working group", a seriously underreported initiative on the part of the Bush administration to win back Ankara's goodwill. Basically it amounts to an attempt to pry Turkey away from its flirtation with the Russian-Iranian energy-based tactical alliance with the promise of a central role in the development and distribution of Iraqi oil and gas reserves. It's also part of a larger package dating back to last March by which Turkey would become a regional energy hub connecting the European gas grid with Eurasian supplies, and making Turkey the point of transit for 6-7% of the world's daily oil consumption by 2012.

But it gets more interesting. Turkey has long had plans for developing a domestic nuclear energy program. Apparently there are now discussions in the works for turning it into a regional uranium enrichment hub. A meeting this Friday in Instanbul on the matter will be attended by representatives of the IAEA, the US, Russia, France and the UK.

Of course, a lot of the plan depends on whether Turkey and the US manage to address the PKK issue without alienating the Kurds, as well as on whether the US can keep Iraq from falling apart. But all in all it's a deal that ought to keep Ankara happy.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Turkey   

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Pipeline Diplomacy

Contrary to what an article I cited yesterday claimed, The New Anatolian reports that Russia did in fact increase its gas deliveries to Turkey to make up for the shortfall resulting from the shutdown of its Iranian pipeline. It also reported that following discussions between Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Iranian President Ahamdinejad, Iran's deliveries should be back to normal come Monday.

Still, there are a lot of reasons to think this whole episode had more to do with regional jockeying than with the weather, although as always with pipeline diplomacy, that served as an excuse. Not much mention was made in the American press of the American proposal that Turkey serve as a regional energy hub for Iraqi and Eurasian energy traffic, but I think it's a huge development, central to the way the Bush administration envisions the short-term strategic alignment in the region: using a combination of energy-poor Turkey and energy-rich Iraq and Azerbaijan to counter Russia's influence in Eurasian energy markets and Iran's expansion in the Middle East.

The sticking point had been the PKK, but the Kurds are above all else businessmen. And since Turkey is already the largest investor in Iraqi Kurdistan, they've got a lot of incentive to let Turkey and the US take care of the PKK, so that afterwards they can all take care of business.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Iraq   Russia   Turkey   

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sending It Down The Line

Just before New Year's, Turkmenistan shut down the gas pipeline supplying Iran with 5% of its domestic consumption. The reason was ostensibly technical malfunctions, but the malfunctions have oddly enough not yet been repaired. As the shutdown coincides with a fierce cold front that has gripped the region and sent temperatures plummeting, Iran in turn all but shut down the pipeline that supplies Turkey with roughly the same amount of Iranian gas that Iran imports from Turkmenistan. Russia, which has in the past made up Turkey's gas shortfalls, in this case not only refused, but suggested it would be forced to reduce its deliveries as well, due to a supply shortage.

The entire episode demonstrates either, a) the ways in which weather can impact on international relations; or b) the complex energy calculus underlying, and at times working at cross-purposes to, some of the strategic re-alignments in the region. And for a number of reasons, not least of which being that this is not a weather forecasting site, I'm going to go with "b".

For a little background, Russia recently secured a contract with Turkmenistan for its gas reserves. The deal was considered a serious blow to American and Western European hopes for securing Turkmenistan's gas supplies independently of Russia. It was also part of what some suggested was a broader cartel strategy by which Russia and Iran would carve up the gas market: Western Europe for Russia; Asia for Iran. Tehran's imminent pipeline and purchase deal with Pakistan, as well as its negotiations with China and India to develop domestic gas and oil fields can be understood in this context.

But the same deal between Russia and Turkmenistan is also the source of this week's rolling pipeline shutdown, because Russia agreed to pay twice the price that Turkmenistan gets from Iran, and the "technical malfunctions" notwithstanding, it's no secret that Turkmenistan is looking to renegotiate with Tehran.

As for Turkey, it's also no secret that both Iran and Russia were counting on taking advantage of recent tension between Ankara and Washington to forge closer relations with Turkey. Both Iran's decision to pass the gas shortage down the line and Russia's decision to sit on its hands coincide with the recent rapprochement between Ankara and Washington, culminated by President Bush's warm reception of Turkish President Abdullah Gul two days ago at the White House. The visit was the occasion not only to reaffirm America's strategic relationship with Turkey, but also to roll out a very ambitious role for Turkey as a regional energy hub for both Iraqi and Eurasian gas and oil reserves.

As the episode demonstrates, none of these tactical alliances are stable. The entire region is in a flux, and it's not at all clear how things will settle in the long run. The uncertainty, while volatile and unfamiliar, can also be used to our advantage, should we adopt an intelligent and flexible strategic approach. Our enemies and rivals of today might turn out to be, if not our friends of tomorrow, at least useful leverage points.

One thing is certain. There's a bunch of Greeks freezing their souvlakis off who had nothing to do with this whole mess.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   Turkey   

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Thursday, January 3, 2008

Guns And Butter

It's worth keeping in mind that, while American concern focuses on the twists and turns of the investigation into Benazir Bhutto's assassination and how secure Pakistan's nuclear installations are, Pakistanis are just as concerned about a national wheat shortage and electricity outages due to power supply not meeting demand. In other words, the daily challenges of life in a developing country.

With all the attention I give here on the site to geopolitical strategy, this is a good opportunity to point out that development aid can and should play an essential role in our national security posture. The fact that a country which has benefitted from $10 billion dollars in American aid over the past six years is experiencing a wheat shortage demonstrates a shortsightedness not only on the part of Islamabad, but also on the part of Washington.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Musical Chairs

I make it a habit, during media-dominating events like the Iowa caucuses or the Bhutto assassination, to keep an eye on some of last month's crises, like the Turkey-PKK conflict or the Iranian nuclear standoff. The idea being that some interesting things occur when the world's attention is diverted. And sure enough, today it was reported that Saeed Jalili, the man Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed to head Iran's nuclear negotiating team last month, just reshuffled the rest of the team to include two Ahmadinejad loyalists. The move is sure to harden the Iranian negotiating position in future rounds of talks.

In other news out of that part of the world, a region-wide game of musical chairs has broken out, only instead of chairs, they're playing for gas supplies. Apparently Turkmenistan closed off the pipelines ensuring Iran's domestic supply, which led Iran to severely limit its exports to Turkey to cover the shortfall. Turkmenistan blamed the shutdown on technical complications, but the entire episode brings into stark focus Iran's curious status as an energy importing country, despite sitting on oceans of gas and oil reserves.

Both developments play out against the backdrop of the "pipeline wars" going on in the region. Russia just sealed a deal for a pipeline linking Turkmenistan's gas supply to Europe, while China and India are busy lobbying for the right to develop Iranian gas and oil fields. Throw in Iran's recent pipeline deal with Pakistan and you've got the guiding logic behind the tactical alliance between Russia and Iran: the European gas market for Russia, the Asian market for Iran, even if both countries are in need of renewed investment to fully exploit their reserves.

But if their energy alliance incarnates the threat posed by the emerging multi-polar world to America's interests, it also represents the opportunities presented. In the same way that the end of the bi-polar world order removes the necessity of aligning with the United States, it also removes the necessity of aligning against us. In the context of an aggressive American posture, Russia and Iran seem like natural bosom buddies. But a shift in American policy towards either could just as easily provoke their latent rivalry.

Perhaps the biggest foreign policy mistake committed by the Bush administration, besides the Iraq War, is believing that we could afford to contain both Russia and Iran at the same time. One or the other, or one then the other. But not both at once.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   

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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Engagement's Off

Nicolas Sarkozy raised eyebrows last month when he dispatched two top advisors to Damascus in an effort to engage Syria on resolving the Lebanese presidential standoff. Sarkozy claimed at the time that he'd gotten Washington's tacit approval on the initiative. The move was at best a gamble and at worst an act of desperation, trading off the enhanced prestige it would lend to Syria for a face-saving outcome to France's months-long effort to mediate the crisis.

In the end, the continued failure to arrive at an agreement -- which this week led to a tit-for-tat series of declarations from Paris and Damascus announcing the suspension of cooperation -- amounts to a confirmation that Syria's influence in the region can't be wished away. On the other hand, those who have criticized the Bush administration for failing to engage Syria (and I count myself among that group) need to acknowledge that engagement is a tactic, not a strategy, and that for it to work, there needs to be willingness on both sides of the table to reach an agreement.

Meanwhile Lebanon remains without a President.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   La France Politique   The Middle East   

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Monday, December 31, 2007

Hammers And Nails

Ever since I read this Matthew Yglesias post about America's fixation on political personalities -- in this case Benazir Bhutto -- in determining its foreign policy, the following phrase has been buzzing around in my head: History might be determined by leaders, but policy is determined by interests. Of course, notwithstanding her checkered past and her uncertain democratic bona fides as a leader, Benazir Bhutto did, in fact, represent the best bet for American interests in Pakistan. In fact, according to some analysts, her vocal support for a hardline against Islamic extremists and openness to American military operations in the Pakistan-Afghan border area were more likely to get her elected in Washington than in Islamabad.

But the related question, which Steve Clemons raised here (see the Brzezinski quote), is what role America should play in the internal politics of other countries. The question itself has only limited application. Obviously, when France or England (or Portugal for that matter) choose their head of state, America doesn't exert its influence one way or the other. We wait for the electoral outcome and adapt to the winner. If it's someone we're comfortable with, so much the better. If not, we make due.

But then there's a whole slew of countries where America feels it has both the capacity and the obligation to intervene. The former, as demonstrated by events in Pakistan, is debatable. The latter is a legacy of the Cold War, where American interests were calculated in the context of a US-Soviet zero-sum game. The immediate consequence of 9/11 was to provide a needed replacement for the Cold War logic of American intervention, putting an end to America's brief flirtation with the idea of a post-American global order, where the "reluctant policeman" would somehow enforce the world's interests as opposed to its own. The world that emerged on September 12, 2001 had suddenly been re-polarized along the paranoid/hysterical neocon faultline of "us vs. them".

Over the past six years, our efforts to force the world's multi-polar pegs into bi-polar holes have led to a string of strategic miscalculations. At the same time that we've abandoned efforts to re-construct and solidify failed states, we've interfered with, undermined or overthrown functioning, if abhorrent, ones. Now it's time to apply more intelligence and restraint to our foreign policy. We still have regional interests around the globe, and we should still advance them forcefully. But we need to begin with the assumption that we can determine neither the leadership nor the policy priorities of the countries we're dealing with. There are just too many moving pieces and the necessary logic to organize them all into a coherent whole is too complex.

As the old saw would have it, when all you've got is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail. It's perhaps understandable that the trauma and shock of 9/11 caused America, in looking at all the varied tools in its kit, to see only hammers. Somewhere in there, there's an old forgotten jigsaw that we could probably use right about now. But it might even be too limiting to think of our foreign policy as a toolbox. What we need today is more a maestro's baton.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Global Awakening

Kevin Drum already took care of what the Maliki government's promise to disband armed Sunni groups once they've calmed "restive areas" means for our efforts at establishing a stable Iraqi state. So I'll limit my observations to the fact that defining "Awakened" as "pointing the weapons you bought with our money at somebody other than us" is obviously incompatible with the notion of a central government with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Our enthusiasm for it as a method reveals not only the legal fiction that is the current Iraqi central government, but also our acceptance that arriving at a more legitimate replacement will almost certainly require the outbreak of a full-scale Iraqi Civil War.

On a broader level, though, the Anbar Awakening model needs to be understood as part of an emerging temptation in American foreign policy circles to accept the fragmentation of multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian states to their lowest common denominator. An outright Iraqi Civil War will almost certainly result in the partition of Iraq into three separate states, even if the degree to which they'll be federated remains to be seen. That's the direction the Anbar Awakening model leads to, and that's how it needs to be understood when it's proposed for defusing the insurgencies in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan.

The problem in Iraq is similar to that of Kosovo, namely that there are other regional powers that have interests diametrically opposed to ours. Just as Russia has its reasons to oppose the Western-backed unilateral declaration of independence in Kosovo, so do Turkey and Iran have vested interests in preventing the emergence of a Kurdish region that increasingly resembles an independent nation-state. The same can be said for Pakistan and Iran vis a vis Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas.

America's fatigue with nation-building is understandable. But if accepting the atomization of failed states simply displaces the instability of local conflicts to the regional rivalries between global power, we run the risk of trading shortterm tactical convenience for longterm strategic advantage.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iraq   

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Let's You And Him Fight

In an Asia Times Online article, M K Bhadrakumar argues that Russia's tactical alliance with Iran must principally be understood in the context of the rivalry between Washington and Moscow for Eurasian energy supplies and transit points. Specifically, Europe's growing dependence on gas that either comes from or travels through Russia runs the risk of splintering the strategic interests of the Atlantic alliance. That's why Washington has been intent on encircling and containing Russia's resurgence, and Moscow on tightening its grip on gas fields and pipelines leading to Europe.

Iran represents a potential wedge, since by directing their gas supplies to the European market they weaken Russia's leverage. Russia's cooperative line with Tehran on bi-lateral energy policy is designed to divide the pie (Russian gas to Europe, Iranian gas to Asia) in such a way to maximize both countries' influence and triangulate America's strategic alliances.

But nothing about the Russian-Iranian tactical arrangement gives the impression that it's an indelible longterm alignment. So strategically, it seems intuitively obvious that Washington's got to decide on one of two options: either a broad deal with Russia, or a broad deal with Iran. But to ratchet up the pressure on both of them simultaneously will surely result in driving them even further into each other's arms.

Which leads me to wonder if American strategic thinking isn't at a natural disadvantage compared to countries where instead of a two-party system in domestic politics, there are multi-party parliamentary coalitions that make a political calculus of "You're either with us or against us" inconceivable.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

NATO In Afghanistan And Beyond

This Middle East Times editorial on NATO's faltering efforts in Afghanistan is throught-provoking for the questions it raises (and largely leaves unanswered) about the broader impact the alliance's first out-of-theater deployment might have on its future. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Afghanistan seemed like an ideal test-case to define the post-Cold War NATO's role as a multi-lateral global security organization.

Six years later, with the mission having evolved from nation-building to a counter-insurgency campaign that is fraying the alliance's cohesion and commitment, that initial optimism seems near-sighted. And while most attention has focused on how the lack of resource commitment on the part of member nations has limited the campaign's effectiveness, less has been paid to the structural problems that plague the NATO/ISAF effort, in particular the incompatible rules of engagement among the various country's contingents.

Meanwhile back in Europe, dramatically different perceptions of how to deal with Russia have divided the alliance along the lines of the former Iron Curtain, with attitudes reversed from those of the Cold War-era. Now it's Eastern European capitals, with memories of Soviet domination, that advocate a more aggressive containment strategy in the face of Russia's resurgence, while Western Europe struggles to find ways to smooth relations with Moscow. America's clumsy handling of its Eastern European-based anti-missile defense system, as well as its aggressive base-procurement policy among former Eurasian Soviet republics, has only exacerbated the tension.

But in many ways, NATO's identity crisis reflects the degree to which the current global geopolitical situation is beginning to take on the aspects of another major paradigm shift for which the post-War 20th century multi-lateral institutions -- from the UN Security Council to the IMF/World Bank to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to NATO to the EU -- are no longer adapted. As recently as a month ago I was arguing here that America's standing in the world could be re-established with a modest, determined course correction by the next administration, as opposed to a dramatic about-face.

But re-establishing our standing, ie. our image, is a modest goal in and of itself. The fact is, as someone I interviewed for an upcoming article put it recently, there's simply no inherent reason why the Arab world should be anti-American, and I think the point can be generalized to the world writ large. We have an enormous amount of goodwill capital that it takes quite an effort to override.

On the other hand, to strategically situate ourselves in order to effectively advance our interests will now demand a fundamental strategic re-evaluation of how best to adjust our own orientation towards the various emerging poles of power around the globe, how best to reform the multi-lateral institutions to better reflect that emerging geopolitical reality, and how best to harmonize the two. There's absolutely no guarantee that having articulated a theoretically sound strategy that we'll be able to put it into practice. The world is too unpredictable for that. But without one, we'll be reduced to putting band aids on wounds that will soon outgrow our ability to cover them.

Of all the presidential candidates, I think Hillary Clinton would probably be the most effective at the band-aid solution, which is not meant to be as much of a back-handed insult as it sounds like. She's almost certain to steer America very ably, protecting our interests while at the same time accomodating our friends and allies to the extent possible. As such she'll also undoubtedly manage to improve America's image in the world. Depending on which John McCain shows up for duty, he'd probably do just as good a job, at least on the former count, if less so on the latter. But I think Barack Obama's combination of analytical insight and intellectual synthesis make him the most qualified to oversee the kind of fundamental strategic overhaul that I'm talking about.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   Politics   

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

From Thermodynamics To Simple Mechanics

Justin Logan is right. If there's one positive result of the Bush administration's handling of foreign policy, it's that it has sparked a renewed interest in reconsidering America's role in the world. His comparison is noteworthy, since he says we haven't witnessed such a fundamental identity crisis since 1991 and the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. But whereas the last paradigm shift involved the disappearance of a global power and the resulting power vacuum that needed to be somehow filled, the current paradigm shift involves the appearance of new poles of power and the resulting demand for room to be made at the table.

The difference explains why the possible combinations have gotten so complicated, and why the first instinct of those proposing a major course correction seems to be towards restraint. But restraint taken to an extreme can result in isolation, and the prospect of a disengaged America is as worrisome as an overly assertive one.

My own feeling is that a move towards restraint is welcome if it implies a more intelligent approach to using our influence when necessary, as opposed to an unwillingness to do so. Specifically, instead of trying to solve problems, we need to start identifying and supporting regional players who can do the job for us. That means piggybacking our own regional interests onto those of carefully chosen tactical allies to the extent that it's possible.

In such a fluid and dynamic geopolitical landscape, the goal should be to find the points of leverage that, in combination with American influence, can achieve workable solutions. In so doing we can contribute to the formation of stable power blocs integrated into a realist multi-lateral order, as opposed to the utopian one proposed last time around.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

NIE: Final Thoughts

A couple news cycles have gone by, and the reaction to the NIE will soon be taking definitive shape in policy-making circles and public opinion. Having read through a wide range of analysis, I'm struck most by how the report's principle impact -- a reduction in the perceived threat level posed by the program -- is the source of both its most positive and negative effects.

The most positive consequence of this changed perception is that it has removed the threat of a unilateral American military strike against Iran, with all its potentially catastrophic consequences and no particular guarantee of success. The most negative consequence of the changed threat perception is that it has potentially undermined political and diplomatic resolve to pressure Iran to comply with its NPT obligations. Significantly, while the sense of urgency now attached to the issue has been dramatically reduced, the actual threats posed by the Iranian nuclear program have not changed. That they were never as dramatic as what the Bush administration was claiming does not mean they were never serious.

This reduced sense of urgency, while perhaps mistaken, does present some opportunities. To begin with, it has opened a window of opportunity for a period of reflection on all sides of the issue (ie. the 3+3: France, England, Germany and the US, Russia, China). For the US, that primarily means deciding how far we're willing to go in normalizing relations with Iran, which in turn means deciding how much we're willing to concede Iran a strategic role in regional affairs.

However desirable a broader diplomatic resolution to the issue as a longterm goal might be, though, any bi-lateral "grand bargain" between the US and Iran would be for the time being premature. For such an agreement to be durable, it needs to be negotiated by governments that enjoy more broadly based support than either the Bush administration (with its divisive character and lame duck status) or the Ahmadinejad administration (with its factional infighting and institutional opaqueness) can now claim.

For the Europeans, the NIE report certainly signals the deathknell of the Bush administration's already diminished relevance. That it came so unexpectedly only magnifies the degree to which it renders the Bush administration an unreliable partner, unable as it is to even guarantee the coherence of its own political line. The irony of course being that, for all the anxiety it was causing in America, the Bush administration's hardline rhetoric masked a significant recalibration of its actual negotiating position, which in combination with the European strategy of engagement was on the verge of isolating Iran from its principle support on the Security Council (Russia and China). The potential for a breakthrough round of sanctions was only increased by Iran's latest negotiating position with the EU's Javier Solana, which was universally considered to be disastrously confrontational.

A third round of sanctions is still possible, but its impact will almost certainly be limited. Which means the clock will continue to run out, and contrary to the impression people have taken from the NIE, there are many ways in which that aggravates the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program.

One thing no one has yet mentioned: The NIE gives an outside threat estimate for a nuclear Iran of 8 years, which is more than enough time to at least identify and introduce a sane domestic energy policy, one that diminishes our dependence on the strategic security of the Persian Gulf in particular and Middle East in general. Take all the unknown variables of the Iran nuclear program, then consider what happens when you multiply them by the three to six countries capable of pursuing similar programs in the next ten to twenty years and you'll get a sense of just how important such a policy really is.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   

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Saturday, December 8, 2007

Mutually Assured Dysfunction

I'll preface this post by saying that Matthew Yglesias' recent critical line on Hillary Clinton's foreign policy approach (as well as the team she's already assembled to advise her campaign) has been eagle-eyed in its analysis. He's really managed to weed out the obfuscations (tough with Clinton) and nail down the principle issue at hand: unilateral pre-emption as a plank of non-proliferation policy. In so doing, he's helped me bring my own thoughts on the matter more into focus. And while I think his conclusion that Democrats should categorically renounce unilateral pre-emption is admirable in principle, I think there are reasons why in the practice of foreign policy, it's not advisable.

To begin with, a minor clarification of terms. What Yglesias is in fact referring to is not pre-emptive intervention, which is a first strike in anticipation of an already ordered or already launched attack recognized in international law as a legitimate act of self-defense, but rather preventive intervention, a first strike in anticipation of a potential future threat, whether of attack or a less advantageous balance of power. Clearly, though, his point of reference is the Iraq War. And while he's right to conclude that the catastrophic results of the war weigh strongly in favor of abandoning preventive intervention, he's wrong to call for a public renunciation.

The decision to launch the Iraq War was a watermark for post-Cold War geopolitics because it demonstrated both the limits of American unilateral intervention and the limits of the multi-lateral deterrent on American power. In other words, it showed that while we can't accomplish anything alone, the world can't stop us from trying. While immediate analysis has focused on the destabilizing impact the episode has had on the global order, I'm convinced that in time it will be regarded as a useful failure. Everyone knows what happens now when the multi-lateral order breaks down, which means that everyone has a clear incentive to make sure it functions better next time around. For that to happen, everyone's got to take a step back towards the middle.

The obvious comparison would be the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which helped ensure that nuclear weapons were never again used, even though the logic of nuclear deterrence demanded that they continue to be stockpiled. In the same way, the Iraq War makes another American unilateral intervention unlikely, but only if the rest of the world has a disincentive to keep them from blocking our interests in mulit-lateral bodies. And that disincentive is paradoxically the possibility of another American unilateral intervention. By taking it off the table, we actually make it more likely, which is why the Iran NIE, contrary to what people are assuming, does not entirely eliminate the possibility of a preventive strike on Iran.

What's more important than a blanket policy renunciation (which wouldn't be worth the paper it would never be written on) is a clear strategic calculus for how we assess imminent, likely and potential threats, and a commitment to addressing them in the context of the multi-lateral order. Nurturing our frayed multi-lateral and bi-lateral alliances would also go a long way towards ensuring we don't go it alone again. Gradually, as we rehabilitate our international standing, the question will recede of its own accord. But in the meantime, any rush to restabilize the multi-lateral order by removing a necessary counterweight might only wind up further destabilizing it.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Iraq   

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Made In Iran

This week, Iran announced that it had built a new homegrown missile with a range of 1250 miles. Then yesterday it followed that up by announcing the launch of a first-in-its-class domestically produced submarine. Now my understanding based on what I've read in the military press is that it pays to take these sorts of announcements from Tehran with a grain of salt, as the technological expertise usually leaves something to be desired. On the other hand, what is significant here is that, a) Iran feels the need to publicize what amounts to second-strike capabilities; and b) that it is emphasizing its domestic production. (Iran already has three Russian-built subs patrolling the Persian Gulf.)

The first demonstrates that, for all the apparent ratcheting down of rhetoric recently, Tehran still feels very acutely under threat of an attack. We already saw the counterintuitive ways such a mindset can play out in Saddam Hussein's decision-making process before the Iraq War. So it's important to take that into account as we dial in our policy from here on out.

The second gets to the heart of what's at stake, I think, for Tehran in its standoff with the Bush administration. Psychologically speaking, this is a regime that desperately wants to be taken seriously. I think it also offers the possibility of an effective political line of approach: If you want to be taken seriously, you must integrate into the global order responsibly.

What we neglect by adopting an overly hostile worldview is that the emergence of new poles of power presents enormous opportunities as well as various risks. Influence and legitimacy bring with them obligations of responsibility. You can already begin to see the impact of China's emerging influence on its role in the global order. The same is true of India.

It's time we started taking advantage of this principle with regards to Iran as well.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Emerging World

It's old hat by now to talk about the Iraq War unlocking Iran's regional influence, creating the threat of a "Shiite Crescent" across the Middle East. What's getting less attention is the way in which Iran is engaged in a diplomatic effort to develop both bi-lateral and multi-lateral global alliances, in particular in Asia and South America. The goal of the effort, according to Benedetta Berti at PINR, is twofold. First, to consolidate China's support as an added Security Council rampart against sanctions. Second, to create a viable network of economic and strategic alliances so as to improve its position in the event of failed negotiations on the nuclear front leading to increased sanctions on the part of the US and EU.

It's important not to get too alarmist about Iran's ability to court countries like Venezuela and North Korea. The fact that it's successfully sealing energy deals with Pakistan (and most likely India), on the other hand, and pressuring the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to upgrade it from observer to active member merit more attention. Not because Iran threatens to become anything more than a well-connected, oil-rich minor power. But because it demonstrates the ways in which the post-post-9/11 world is increasingly taking shape.

In retrospect, 9/11 did not, in fact, change everything. Neither did our reaction to it. Combined, though, they managed to accelerate the development of the multi-polar world that inevitably must arise to counterbalance America's disproportionate power and influence. The run-up to the Iraq War demonstrated the limits of the multi-polar world's (as it was then constituted) deterrent power vis a vis an America bent on acting unilaterally. The aftermath of the war, on the other hand, has demonstrated the limits of America's ability to accomplish its strategic objectives when it goes it alone.

It seems intuitively obvious that while America's ability to wield its power unilaterally is destined to further decline, the influence wielded by alternative poles of power in the world is almost certain to grow. Iran's strategy of developing a broad network of alliances with emerging powers is one example of how that trend might take shape.

There needn't be anything defeatist or fatalistic about this view. An intelligent foreign policy would attempt to position America at the forefront of influencing the emerging poles' integration into the global order. Instead, the Bush administration has taken an enormous global reserve of sympathy and solidarity with the United States, in particular after the attacks of 9/11, and squandered it, much like it squandered the Clinton budget surplus.

I'm convinced there's still time to reverse course and rehabilitate America's image around the world. It will take a lot work, patience and humility, but it can be done. Perhaps most importantly, it will demand changing our habits. Instead of commanding, we'll have to start leading. And instead of talking, we should be doing a good deal more listening.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Open Source Chaos

In addition to a wave of Stateside optimism, the Anbar Awakening in Iraq has also given rise to a gathering new meme about how to address counterinsurgency, the War on Terror, and the challenges facing failed states in a globalized world. According to this new line of thinking, exemplified by this John Robb post and this Robert Kaplan essay, nation-building -- characterized by establishing democratic institutions and top-down political reconciliation -- doesn't work, especially in quasi-autonomous tribal societies like Anbar province in Iraq and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan.

According to Robb, "Politics and populations in our new global environment fragment faster than they can be assembled into cohesive entities." Robb's answer to "temporary autonomous zones and open-source insurgency"? What he calls "open source militias": Spontaneous, local militia movements that arise in reaction to the inevitable excesses of the initial insurgencies. These militias we do little to shape, supporting them only once they've taken form.

Kaplan limits his argument to the Iraq and Pakistan theatres, but it's easy to see how easily it might be generalized to apply to any location where kinship bonds trump national identity and local tribal loyalties take precedence over allegiance to a distant central government. In such areas, pragmatic opportunism dictates that we align counterinsurgency efforts with local tribal power structures, regardless of the implications for a broader democratizing agenda. For Kaplan, "Progress...means erecting not a parliamentary system, but a balance of fear among tribes and sectarian groups."

Now I don't think either Robb or Kaplan is necessarily wrong here, although it's ironic that Kaplan uses a principle of progressive social science (cultural relativism) to justify a principle of reactionary colonial rule (divide and conquer). But what's significant about their approach, which is sure to gain traction, is that it represents a sort of glum, post-9/11 pessimistic version of the euphoric, post-Cold War optimism that heralded the end of the nation-state and the coming of a harmonic global order. In Robb and Kaplan's vision, instead of being surpassed through supra-national agglomeration or reconfigured on the molecular level through direct NGO action, the state has been effectively put out of reach through a process of controlled atomization. Here's Robb:

The use of a plethora of militias to fight a global open source insurgency from Nigeria to Mexico to Iraq to Pakistan is effective within a grand strategy of delay (it holds disorder at bay while allowing globalization to work). Most beneficially, it eliminates the need for nation-building, massive conventional troop deployments, and other forms of excess.

That's about it in a nutshell: a grand strategy of delay. Needless to say, Robb's oblique reference to "allowing globalization to work" is the key to understanding the argument.

As I said, I don't think either Robb or Kaplan is necessarily wrong. To begin with, there are areas in the world where the writ of the national government is a legal fiction. Beyond that, their vision corresponds to the practical necessities of American foreign policy in its current interventionist formulation. But it's important to remember that the two counterinsurgency wars we're currently fighting, in Iraq and in Afghanistan/Pakistan, are wars that we created. In Iraq, as a direct consequence of removing a non-democratic but functioning state, and in Afghanistan/Pakistan as an indirect consequence of our Soviet-era Afghanistan policy, which instigated the very sort of contained chaos that gave rise to Al Qaeda and which both Robb and Kaplan now suggest we try to manage. (To his credit, Robb does raise the caveat of whether we'll be able to manage "something this complex or this messy".)

As importantly, local populations delivered up to globalization are very often exploited like just another raw commodity. In the absence of nation states to defend their interests, that's how globalization "works". Which is why I'd argue for a middle ground between euphoric post-nation state utopianism and Machiavellian failed nation state pragmatism, one that defends the centrality of the nation state, reinforces its effectiveness, equips it to provide the basic needs and services for its constituents, and encourages it (as much as is reasonably possible) to respond to their grievances and reflect their aspirations.

All of these interventions take enormous effort, strong and effective mult-lateral institutions, and time -- in short, the "forms of excess" that Robb seeks to avoid. But in the long run, they offer a better chance for building a sustainable international order, capable of dealing with the existential, strategic and ethical challenges we have no choice but to overcome if we as a species are to survive.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Global War On Terror   Iraq   Pakistan   

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Other War

I've gotten used to thinking of the situation in Afghanistan as an irritating stalemate, with the Taliban seizing outposts that we're not really bothering to defend, but posing no real existential threat to the Afghan government. But this just-released report from the Senlis Council, an English think tank "known for its expertise on Afghanistan" according to Le Monde, describes things in significantly more alarming terms than a harmless game of whack-a-mole:

The insurgency now controls vast swaths of unchallenged territory including rural areas, some district centres, and important road arteries. The Taliban are the de facto governing authority in significant portions of territory in the south, and are starting to control parts of the local economy and key infrastructure such as roads and energy supply. The insurgency also exercises a significant amount of psychological control, gaining more and more political legitimacy in the minds of the Afghan people who have a long history of shifting alliances and regime change.

The depressing conclusion is that, despite the vast injections of international capital flowing into the country, and a universal desire to 'succeed' in Afghanistan, the state is once again in serious danger of falling into the hands of the Taliban. (All emphases in original.)

In addition to benefitting from a popular upswelling of non-ideological economic and political grievances, the Taliban is also gaining valuable technical assistance from an influx of experienced foreign fighters from the Iraq insurgency. (Which raises the obvious question of whether the decrease in violence in Iraq needs to be assessed on a regional, as opposed to a national, scale.)

As a remedy, Senlis proposes doubling the NATO-ISAF forces in the country from 40,000 to 80,000, removing the restrictions various countries have placed on the rules of engagement for their troops, and authorizing operations within Pakistan's frontier tribal areas. That's in addition to a massive increase in development aid. (All emphases mine.)

Of course, since none of that is going to happen, it's worth considering what Senlis thinks is an increasingly likely scenario: a Taliban return to Kabul in 2008.

This is really where Democrats should be doing more to make the GOP pay for its linkage of Iraq to the War on Terror. Because if Iraq and Afghanistan really are two fronts in the same war, then the good news coming out of Baghdad needs to be weighed against the bad coming out of Kabul. And if by invading Iraq we created a strategic alliance between Saddam Hussein's officer corps and Bin Laden's foot soldiers, then Dick Cheney's pre-war Iraq-Al Qaeda flimflam has actually become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Beyond that, as Matthew Yglesias has been arguing all week, the lesson to be drawn from the entire enterprise is what it shows about the limitations of preventive war and/or regime change as a non-proliferation policy. Which means we desperately need to come up with a plan B, because with the region-wide stampede for nuclear "energy" programs, things are only going to get worse.

So far, if the US-India deal is any indication, the Bush administration's preferred method is still the "rule by exception" on a case-by-case basis. It would be nice to see someone try to pin the candidates down on a broad policy vision, because along with global warming and globalization, this is going to be the determinant foreign policy issue of the coming decade.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Just Not Another Texan

Recently I had a long argument with a friend about why this isn't true. I don't know the ins and outs of Bill and Hillary Clinton's power-sharing arrangement, but it's clear that she wasn't just Mrs. Clinton the way Laura is Mrs. Bush. America has a long tradition of First Ladies who stood out from the "Good Housekeeping/Better Homes and Gardens" archetype. Eleanor Roosevelt, of course, sets the standard. Roslyn Carter was another. Whether you admire her or despise her, Hillary Clinton definitely falls into this category. What's more, her work as First Lady was more closely intertwined with the President's function than the first two, who blazed their own trails.

As for today's "Re: foreign policy experience" campaign press release battle, the one criteria that everyone's ignored -- oddly enough, given that foreign policy is all about dealing with foreigners -- is how the candidates are perceived abroad. And on that score, Hillary Clinton is a known and recognized commodity among foreign policy makers, widely respected and by no means considered unqualified for the job of representing the United States to the world by the people who represent the world to the United States.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, is certainly less of a known quantity, but there's every reason to believe that people abroad would take him just as seriously and be just as impressed by him as everyone who has ever crossed the guy's path his entire life. It's possible that some of our strategic rivals might see fit to test him out early on in his term more than they would Hillary (think China and the Hainan airmen), but it's not certain.

Finally, a quick glance at post-War presidencies is enough to demonstrate that foreign policy experience or the lack thereof is far from a predictive factor with regards to performance. George W. Bush had none and the results have been disastrous. Bill Clinton had just as little with the results being a relatively successful mixed bag. Reagan, Carter, Kennedy and Truman had no meaningful foreign policy experience to speak of. Neither did FDR, for that matter, unless you count his appointment as Asst Secretary of the Navy during WWI. Ike, Nixon and Bush I, meanwhile, were all pretty fluent in the ins and outs of international diplomacy when they entered office. And on the whole, history treats all of them pretty well.

In fact, if you examine American post-War presidencies, it becomes clear that when the foreign policy hand you're dealt includes dominant military power, hegemonic economic influence, infectious cultural inventiveness and a tightly-knit network of alliances, it's pretty difficult to seriously screw things up. All of them stumbled, some of them fell. But all of them, save two (Bush II and LBJ), had their major successes that strengthened the country's standing as well.

So there's really no way of predicting, based on experience, whether someone will be a successful foreign policy president. There does seem to be a predictive factor for foreign policy failure, though, and it's not lack of experience. It's being from Texas.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Politics   

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Friday, November 16, 2007

The Homefront

Since I finally got around to reading Hillary Clinton's Foreign Affairs essay, I figured I should do the same for Barack Obama's essay from a few months ago. In doing so, I realized that the reason I didn't dive right into them when they first came online was that I'm never that impressed with these kind of exercises. They reward boilerplate platitudes, especially in foreign policy, which by nature is more unpredictable and reactive than domestic policy. Obama's (staff's) boilerplate seems to be as good as Hillary's (staff's) boilerplate: the same broad brushstrokes that seven years of Bush render somewhat obvious. That said, I liked this little throwaway paragraph at the end:

Ultimately, no foreign policy can succeed unless the American people understand it and feel they have a stake in its success -- unless they trust that their government hears their concerns as well. We will not be able to increase foreign aid if we fail to invest in security and opportunity for our own people. We cannot negotiate trade agreements to help spur development in poor countries so long as we provide no meaningful help to working Americans burdened by the dislocations of a global economy. We cannot reduce our dependence on foreign oil or defeat global warming unless Americans are willing to innovate and conserve. We cannot expect Americans to support placing our men and women in harm's way if we cannot show that we will use force wisely and judiciously. But if the next president can restore the American people's trust -- if they know that he or she is acting with their best interests at heart, with prudence and wisdom and some measure of humility -- then I believe the American people will be eager to see America lead again.

We tend to think of foreign policy as something that takes place beyond our borders, but obviously it grows out of our culture, our character, and our perceptions here at home. All the more so in the age of mass-media democracy. In fact, media infrastructure and government transparency combine to form one imbalance in the globalized world that in some ways handicaps America's ability to project its power and influence. American foreign policy is under much more scrutiny than that of, say, China, Russia or Iran, with fewer shadows to hide behind, relatively speaking.

In light of which, Obama's talent for sharp analysis and his ability to effectively communicate it really do make a compelling case for him being the better-qualified candidate to rally American opinion for the much-needed repair work ahead.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Dealing With Russia

If you're a little unclear over what's behind Russia's recent confrontational posture, this short article from the Power and Interest News Report gives a pretty good rundown. Russia's military modernization and tactical maneuvering have not occurred in a vacuum. The absorption of former Soviet Union states into NATO, the Bush administration's unilateral abrogation of the ABM treaty, and plans to install missile defense systems in Eastern Europe were all based on the assumption that Russian power was irreversibly in decline and therefore its national security concerns could for all intents and purposes be disregarded.

Now, the confluence of energy revenue windfalls, European dependance on Russian gas, and the strategic leverage of the Iranian nuclear standoff has conspired to put Russia into the position of regional spoiler. And they're using the CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) Treaty as a way to focus everyone's attention.

The bad news is that the Bush administration has been singularly shortsighted in its radical transformation of American foreign policy into a heavy-handed instrument of unilateral interest. The good news is that there are a lot deals to be struck that could conceivably bring things back into balance. They will initially involve concessions, since Bush has seriously overreached our hand. But in the absence of any further catastrophic failures, they're still do-able.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Sarkozy: A User's Manual

[Nicolas Sarkozy's DC lovefest kind of snuck up on me when I was busy moving. As a result, I missed the "news bump" to try to get the following op ed placed. So here's a freebie for anyone interested in what he really said, between standing ovations, last week.]

By now Nicolas Sarkozy has returned to France, having accomplished the primary purpose of his visit to Washington: to leave behind a legion of admirers. He made no secret of his intention, announcing upon his arrival that he was there "to win back the heart of America". To that end, he left nothing to chance. The entire visit was a carefully choreographed public relations campaign, tailor-made for the American audience. With a kiss on the hand for Laura followed by a slap on the shoulder for George, Sarkozy set the tone, alternating between seduction and business, and offering a little bit of something for everyone.

For those who might have heard he was a divisive figure, Sarkozy used the composition of his delegation – three women (one of Arab descent, another of African origin) and a Socialist – to present the image of a "new France", one that America could easily identify with. In his speech before Congress, too, Sarkozy gave everyone a reason to feel satisfied. For those on the right, who want a French ally that will fall in line with American interests, Sarkozy was tough on Iran, committed to Afghanistan, and resolute in the fight against terrorism. For those on the left, who want a French ally that will keep us honest, Sarkozy was (silently) unapologetic on Iraq, forceful on global warming, and convincing in his arguments for a strong Europe.

As a result, Sarkozy accomplished what every media consultant dreams of: To have each listener hear not what he actually said, but what they wanted to hear. But for anyone familiar with Sarkozy's method, his speech before Congress was more than just a successful public relations ploy. It was the outline of a bargaining position for what he conceives of as an unfolding negotiation with his newly reconciled friend and ally...

Continue reading Sarkozy: A User's Manual>>

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   La France Politique   

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Payment Due

Steve Clemons at The Wasington Note flagged this as a must read article. As usual, he's right. It's an up-close profile of one of our hired guns in the so-called Anbar Awakening. It seems to me the Sunni Sleep Walking would be a more accurate description of this strategy. We're not solving problems over there. We're papering them over to be dealt with sometime down the line. In effect, we're mortgaging them with high-risk loans, the foreign policy equivalent of the Sub-Prime Crisis.

It's the guiding metaphor for this moment in American history: Bush's fiscal irresponsibility, the extra-Constitutional measures in the name of national security, the fly-by-night alliances with shady characters (whether they be heads of state in Pakistan or tribal chiefs in Anbar). All of them serve to give the appearance of solving problems, just like "new credit instruments" gave the illusion of owning a home. Mission Accomplished. At least until the payments come due.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Development As National Security

As this post from Small Wars Journal makes clear, development aid can be determinant in stabilizing fragile countries that are either post-conflict or still experiencing insurgencies. The example the authors use, Sierra Leone, managed to conduct vigorously contested elections that remained peaceful just five years after a civil war had bitterly divided the country. Even the limited success of the post-conflict assistance went a long way, and the authors present a vision for what they call a "New Deal" for nation-building to improve the outcomes even more.

There's another point to be made here, though. Since the end of the colonial era, development aid is essentially the primary method for introducing pre-modern societies to modernism. But the idea that modernism exclusively presents gains to be offered, as opposed to an exchange to be made, is a fallacy. Modernism often entails a violent disruption of traditional social structures, resulting in alienation, loss of cultural identities, the rise of individualism, and other not so pleasant social consequences. The transition from traditional to modern economies also often entails transitional periods of intense dislocation, as largely agrarian populations adapt to urban productive economies.

An argument can be made that all of the painful consequences of modernism are worth bearing due to the enormous benefits that come with it. Improved health and sanitary conditions lead to both longer life expectancies and longer healthy life expectancies. Technological advances lead to improved living conditions and wider diffusion of the fruits of productivity. And modern social arrangements lead to increased innovation and personal freedom.

The trouble is that, in practice, very few of the benefits of modernism are actually reaching the populations we're asking to modernize. Which means we're essentially asking them to undertake this painful transition without delivering on the payoff. So it's not surprising to see a backlash, not only of insurgencies contesting control of the modernizing institutions, but also of movements -- such as radical Islamic fundamentalism -- that reject modernism completely.

Many, though not all, of the regional crises that we're periodically forced to parachute in on could be prevented through the much less costly approach of helping developing nations alleviate the conditions that lead to conflict in the first place. That requires a commitment to finally making good on the promises of modernism, something we have in our power to do. But it would first require seeing past the false distinction we've drawn between national security and development.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Conflating Two Threats

Matthew Yglesias is correct to point out the relationship between American support for anti-democratic regimes and anti-American sentiment, and it's true that we pay a much greater cost for a hands-off policy towards an authoritarian country we're friendly with than one we're hostile towards.

But I think causally linking the resulting anti-American backlash to extremist violence is only possible if you conflate the two distinct oppositions faced by regimes such as Iran under the Shah, and Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia today.

The Islamic extremists setting off bomb belts in crowded plazas aren't motivated by a yearning for democracy. To the contrary. They'd still be setting them off if Pakistan were ruled by a democratically elected civilian government. They don't target these regimes because they don't resemble America enough. They target them because they resemble America too closely.

On the other hand, the lawyers protesting martial law in Pakistan, who serve as a bulwark against Islamic militants and represent in principle the constituency most likely to be sympathetic to America, are much more likely to resent the hell out of us if we don't take a tougher line against Musharraf. And while they probably won't embrace extremist violence and terrorism as a result of our abandonment, they probably won't be very inclined to align themselves with us when they eventually do achieve democratic rule.

So it really does seem obvious that we should be doing everything we can to support them, while at the same time trying to find solutions to the broader faultlines that fuel the Islamic militants.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Pakistan   The Middle East   

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Monday, November 5, 2007

Less Is More

I haven't seen that much discussion of Barry Rosen's proposal to re-imagine America's foreign policy grand strategy, which is a shame. Because it's one of the more original, thought-provoking proposals I've seen recently, counter-intuitive in its willingness to go so far against the grain of what's been driving American strategic engagement, not just since 9/11, but since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Rosen argues that while the relative increase of America's power has increased our ability to pursue an activist role in world affairs, global trends -- including the diffusion of assymetric military capacity, globalization and the rise of identity-based conflicts -- have greatly increased the costs of such activism. That, combined with the empirical evidence of the failure of an interventionist approach, leads him to argue "The Case For Restraint", as the piece is titled:

...A U.S. strategy of restraint must include a coherent, integrated and patient effort to encourage its long-time wards to look after themselves. If others do more, this will not only save U.S. resources, it will increase the political salience of other countries in the often bitter discourse over globalization. If other consequential powers benefit as much from globalization as does the United States, they should share ownership of its political costs. If others need to pay more for their security, they will think harder about their choices.

It's similar to what I was suggesting in a few previous posts, namely that instead of concentrating responsibility for costly interventions in our own hands, we should be distributing them to everyone who stands to gain from the solutions. Rosen goes a step (or three) further and calls for a wholesale, top-to-bottom makeover of American regional alliances, most notably with Europe, Japan and Israel.

His argument -- that by subsidizing these countries' national security we're giving them a pass on responsible ownership of regional and global outcomes -- is compelling in the abstract, perhaps even convincing, even if it's probably less feasible from a practical perspective. But in his willingness to tackle the broader assumptions of policy, Rosen is provoking the kind of discussion we need to be having. Like I said, too bad it hasn't attracted that much attention.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Sunday, November 4, 2007

America The Necessary

Justine Rosenthal over at The National Interest, does a good job pointing out the many reasons why America ought to consider showing more restraint in its foreign policy. It's something I touched on indirectly the other day in a post about how nurturing a multi-polar world would in fact distribute responsibility for global crises. Rosenthal goes a step further and reminds us that in the absence of an easily demonized American hegemon, most of the world would actually solicit American support when faced with the rise and resurgence of China and Russia, to say nothing of Iran.

By resisting the temptation to intervene everywhere simply because we can, we will increase the likelihood of generating mulit-lateral support to intervene when we must.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   

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Friday, November 2, 2007

Neocon Dream, American Nightmare

I've got a tendency, in my reading and blogging habits, to focus on emerging hotspots and crises. I'm aware of it, and really do try as best I can to resist being overly alarmist about them. So instead of doing a post about the fact that the situation in Pakistan is getting dicey and deserves some urgent attention, I'm going to instead discuss the ways in which the situation in Pakistan illustrate the limits of the Bush/neocon world view and foreign policy approach.

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the emerging pattern of crisis and conflict around the world is the increasing overlap of the phenomenon of failed and "rogue" states with that of rampant nuclear proliferation. In the past, the very characteristics that put a state in danger of failing, or that isolated it to the point of adopting "rogue" or irresponsible policies, also dramatically reduced the likelihood that it would develop a nuclear weapons capacity. The technological and industrial requirements for such a capacity demanded a level of stability and wealth they just didn't have.

With the windfall of oil revenue, the widespread diffusion of technical know-how, and a few irresponsible proliferators, all that has changed. The neocons are right when they argue that the stakes of any worst-case scenario are dramatically higher now than they were even five or ten years ago. Their response -- to insist upon American primacy and the suppression of rival powers -- is misguided.

Something needs to be done to ensure that Pakistan remains a stable and responsible nuclear power, in the same way that something needs to be done to dissuade Iran from its nuclear ambitions. Something needs to be done to achieve a longterm solution for stabilizing Iraq, and the same goes for Afghanistan. There's no question that something needs to be done. The question is, who needs to do it?

The advantage of a multipolar world is that it by definition distributes the responsibility for regulating crises. By allowing other powers -- notably Europe, Russia and China -- to expand their spheres of influence, we at the same time oblige them to expand their definition of what constitutes a threat to their interests. We've already seen how China's growing global influence has contributed to its more active role in the North Korean nuclear negotiations, and to a lesser extent in Darfur.

By unilaterally invading Iraq (and continuing to occupy it), we turned the Iraq question from a regional problem into an American problem. The same goes for the Iran dossier. The Russians have absolutely no interest in a nuclear-armed Iran to its south. But as long as we're generously offering to shoulder the entire burden of the problem via a unilateral strike, they have no incentive to make any meaningful efforts to contain Tehran.

There are only two reasons America even considers these problems exclusively her own. One, we have the ability, at least in theory, to do something about them. And two, we've adopted the posture that letting another power do something about them is inherently a threat to America's national security. Neocon dreams to the contrary, the first is only possible to the extent we renounce the second.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Putting Iran In Context

Russian media recently reported that China has agreed to sell twenty-four J-10's, China's fourth generation fighter jet, to Iran. Not so fast, says Defense News; so far there's been no confirmation of any agreement. Nevertheless, the reactions to the reports of the deal are in some ways as revealing as the deal itself:

"At a minimum, this small number of J-10s could provide the escort necessary to allow one nuclear-weapon-armed Iranian F-4, F-14 or Su-24 to reach an Israeli target," said Richard Fisher, vice president of the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center...

But another China-watcher said there may actually be no J-10 deal, only rumors started by Beijing to persuade Washington to deny F-16s to Taiwan.

One rumor, two spins. The first serves to reinforce the meme that Tehran is desperately seeking the means to deliver its nuclear payload to Tel Aviv. The second, more relevant, reminds us that the Iran standoff is not playing out in a vacuum.

If both China and Russia have determined that it serves their interests to counterbalance the Bush administration's efforts to isolate Iran, it's not because they're eager to see a nuclear-armed Iranian regime. It's because America under the Bush administration has decided to aggressively contest these two country's historic spheres of influence. The message behind Russian and Chinese resistance to stronger UN sanctions on Tehran is that a successful diplomatic resolution to the Iran standoff will involve American concessions on missile defense and military bases in Eastern Europe, and on arming Taiwan in Asia. You want your sanctions, you've got to play ball.

But neocons don't play ball. They'll rewrite the rulebook and replace the umpires. They'll even eminent domain the playing field. But they won't play ball. That's why the broader context for understanding the Iran nuclear standoff is the neocon vision for American national security strategy, whose goal is to prevent the rise of rival powers. Contrast that with the reality of the limits of our power and it becomes obvious that something's got to give.

So far, the pushback against the neocon vision has been limited to piecemeal proposals designed to address particular crises. And in some ways, a realist approach to foreign policy is limited to this method by the value it places on pragmatism. But at a certain point, the effort to contain the damage done by the Bush administration suffers from the lack of a broad strategic vision for reconciling American national security with the need to co-exist with rival powers in the evolving geo-political landscape.

The neocons have their strategy, and it has the advantage of being reassuringly familiar to anyone who's played "king of the hill" as a seven-year old. We've got... What? Diplomacy? Negotiations? Those are tactics, not strategies. It's something we've often accused the Bush administration of confusing in its approach to foreign policy. It's time we took our own medicine.

Posted by Judah in:  China   Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Two For Two

Critics of the Bush administration's "See no evil, hear no evil" policy towards Pakistan have surely taken comfort in recent headlines out of that country. Not only has opposition leader Benazir Bhutto been allowed to return from exile, thereby providing a measure of legitimacy to upcoming elections, but the Pakistani military has recently begun a major military push aimed at bringing the badlands on the Afghan border under government control. The only trouble, as this article from The New Statesman points out, is that there's no guarantee that Pakistan can survive either: 

...In what amounts to total war on the Taliban and al-Qaeda, President Musharraf is planning to bring the whole region under military control. This is a high-risk strategy, as the consequences of failure could be devastating for Pakistan. They could even lead to the break-up of the country.

Behind the headlines, the state's contradictions and tensions are being tested to the limit. The arrival of Benazir Bhutto, supposed to help marshal the forces of moderation and reform, has increased political instability. Supporters of the other former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who plans a second attempt to return from exile to Pakistan in the first week of November, are preparing a mass campaign against Musharraf that could lead to political gridlock...

The point here, I think, is that while it's become a knee-jerk reaction to criticize the Bush administration for its mismanagement of American foreign policy, the fact is that as a result of that mismanagement, we're now faced with an array of regional crises, none of which offer any easy or straightforward solutions.

The political crisis in Pakistan, as a nuclear-armed country that also happens to be essential to any longterm stabilization of Afghanistan, is definitely worth our attention. But besides the sparring match between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton over unilateral strikes on Wajiristan, I haven't seen much discussion about it.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Sunday, October 28, 2007


Recent reporting on the North Korean and Iranian nuclear standoffs has revealed a recurring split within the Bush administration, one that basically boils down to Condi Rice and Bob Gates on one side arguing for restraint and diplomacy, Dick Cheney on the other arguing for a more, shall we say, pugnacious approach to the problems. To the extent that the Bush administration has shown more restraint on each of these dossiers than it did in dealing with the Iraq "threat", it's because the Rice-Gates faction has proven more able to push back against the Cheney gang than Rice and Colin Powell were able to do when Don Rumsfeld was backing Cheney up.

Of course, this shift is a direct result -- perhaps the most significant one -- of the November 2006 elections. The Democratic base expected the election to realign the balance of power between the Executive and Legislative branches of the Federal government. But given the actual numbers, those expectations were probably exagerrated.

On the other hand, the election did manage to realign power within the Executive. It's not quite what folks were hoping for, but given the circumstances, it's probably the only thing standing between us and a headlong rush over a neocon cliff.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Politics   

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Nuclear Fingerprints

Via Jeffrey Lewis over at Arms Control Wonk comes this NY Times article on the pressure the Bush administration is feeling from the right over its North Korean deal. Here's the key graf:

One senior administration official, who has seen the intelligence about the Syrian site and advocates a tougher line against North Korea, said he was frustrated that even in light of possible North Korean help on a Syrian nuclear program, “we are shaking hands with the North Koreans because they have once again told us they are going to disarm.”

From the moment North Korea was mentioned in connection to whatever Syria was doing out in the desert that warranted an Israeli airstrike, it was clear that there was more at stake here than just regional nuclear politics. Lewis goes through the recent satellite imagery and finds it inconclusive, whether as proof that the structure was a nuclear facility or that it was based on North Korean designs. (The fact that Syria has apparently swept the site clean probably means we'll never know for sure.) He also points out that the intelligence we've heard about so far has been leaked by the Bush administration insiders who lost the internal debate, that is those who argue for a tougher stance on North Korea and by extension Iran (ie. Cheney et al).

That's not to say that the intelligence is false. But keep this in mind as more of it gets leaked.

Posted by Judah in:  Dear Leader   Foreign Policy   The Middle East   

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Essential Power

Jason over at Voices of Reason brought this Walter Russell Mead article to my attention. The title alone (Failing Upwards: Relax, America will survive George W. Bush) is enough to calm the spirit. The characterization of American foreign policy as a sort of bumbling, stumbling Mr. Magoo that's historically managed to bungle its way to global dominance is pure genius. Then there's this:

This is an analysis of power, not a defense of failure. Had the Bush administration made different choices at key points, both the United States and the world would be much better off than they are. But, fortunately or unfortunately, the foundations of American power have less to do with the wisdom of particular policies than with the way that the priorities of American society and the strategic requirements of American power intersect with the realities of international life. It is not how smart we are; it is how well we fit.

It will take some time to know to what degree the Bush years have damaged America's influence in the world, and whether that damage is permanent or not. But if I had to single out one determinant factor it would be the one that Mead mentions: How well we fit. Mead is correct when he says that the international system is strong, and that the US is its essential power.

But the world has the capacity to change more radically, more quickly now for a variety of technological and ideological reasons. Potential challenges are as diverse as the rapid advances in the developing world to the regressive, anti-modernist movements springing up everywhere from Kansas to Karachi. Toss in the kind of destructive forces that can now be harnessed by non-state actors and the possibility of radical, paradigm-shifting events can't be ruled out.

That kind of volatility demands a commitment to calm, measured policies that provide a benchmark of stability for a world in need of reassurance. Not exactly how you'd describe the Bush administration's legacy. Eight years is a long time, long enough to mark the spirit of a generation. And the generation that has come of age worldwide during the Bush years is a generation that sees America as a problem, and one that has learned to look elsewhere for the solution.

Like Winston Churchill's adage about democracy, the question now is whether it will find a better alternative.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Lonely American

I spent the evening going through some IAEA reports, UN Security Council resolutions and a timeline of Iran's uranium enrichment program to get a better sense of why I'm feeling so pessimistic about the direction the deepening US-Iran standoff is taking. The good news is that the reading helped me locate the source of my pessimism. The bad news is that it did nothing to alleviate it. The problem is that the actual uranium enrichment conflict, as significant as it is, is really functioning as a pretext for underlying strategic faultlines, both regional and global, that have far wider implications. Any diplomatic resolution of the crisis will depend on taking these faultlines into account, which doesn't seem like a very realistic possibility these days. And any non-diplomatic resolution of the crisis (ie. unilateral military strikes) will only exacerbate them, regardless of whether or not it successfully eliminates Iran's enrichment capacity.

To get a better sense of just what those underlying faultlines are, it helps to examine the Bush administration's two-track approach to the issue. The first track is essentially a political/legal remedy to the difficulties involved in enforcing nuclear non-proliferation, namely that there's nothing inherently illegal about developing nuclear weapons. The only response is to build a diplomatic coalition capable of defining the terms under which the Iranian program is non-compliant with existing treaties and agreements. This was accomplished through the UN Security Council resolution of July 2006 which, as a result of Iran's failure to allow IAEA inspectors more intrusive access to its nuclear facilities (the so-called Additional Protocol that Iran voluntarily signed in December 2003), demanded that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment activity. When the IAEA later reported neither inspections progress nor enrichment suspension in its reports of August 2006 and November 2006, the US and its EU allies had what they needed to secure the two UNSC resolutions that first imposed and then strengthened sanctions.

The limitations of this political/legal remedy are that, a) sanctions might not suffice to persuade Iran to renounce its nuclear program; b) the Bush administration has not demonstrated the necessary diplomatic savvy to assemble a strong coalition capable of really tightening the screws on Iran; and c) Iran has shown increasing willingness to comply with the IAEA's Additional Protocol, as demonstrated by the relatively upbeat report the Agency issued in August 2007. If the Iranians do, in fact, end up cooperating with the intrusive inspection regime, the legal foundation of the Bush administration's approach (ie. crippling UN sanctions) crumbles, while Iran's ability to eventually build nuclear weapons stays intact.

Which brings us to the second track of the Bush administration's approach, which is exemplified by the President's recent "World War Three" remarks and can best be described as an extra-legal approach to the nuclear non-proliferation regime. The Bush argument essentially boils down to a subjective and unilateral determination of just who will and who will not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons. And it's this argument that brings into focus the strategic faultlines that spread out beneath the surface of this conflict in just about every direction. Because it's an argument that alienates small-to-middling regional powers who, whether they entertain nuclear ambitions or not, will identify with Iran's efforts to expand its sphere of influence. And it insults the sensibilities of major powers who have an interest in establishing these middling powers as their client states.

Take the Russians, for instance, who have got plenty of reasons ($1.2 million of them in the case of Iran's Bushehr reactor, to be exact) to refuse to grant the US an effective veto power over who they can and can't do business with. By increasingly aligning himself with Iran in this standoff, Putin is sending the message that he can and will make things difficult for Washington if it refuses to take Russia's interests into consideration. Behind the Russians, and basically echoing their annoyance, are the Chinese, and to a lesser extent, some of our EU allies. For the time being, Russia's posturing is mainly symbolic. They have yet to deliver the uranium fuel rods for the Bushehr reactor, and probably won't until Iran offers more oversight concessions to the international community. But that could change if the American position hardens into an even more obnoxious expression of the unilateralism that has already alienated so much of the world to date.

What's remarkable about the American position is that it's managed to crystallize so much international support for a prospect -- a nuclear Iran -- that otherwise doesn't play very well outside of Tehran. The reason being that given the choice between an Iran armed with a nuclear weapon and an America bingeing on unilateral military interventions, a significant portion of the globe would feel more comfortable with the former. We don't really know what the global balance of power will look like once a majority of nations identify their self-interest with opposing American interests. But we're sure to find out if we continue to strong-arm the Iran conflict towards a unilateral military strike.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Russia   

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Astute Diplomatic Efforts

To get a sense of just why we urgently need to rethink our approach to dealing with Iran in general and its uranium enrichment program in particular, read Kaveh Afrasiabi 's two articles over at Asia Times Online: this one, which discusses the internal divisions within Iran on their uranium enrichment policy, and this one, which discusses this week's Caspian Sea regional summit. Here's a clip from the first article quoting Hassan Rowhani, Iran's former chief negotiator on the nuclear dossier:

Today in the international sphere we are confronted with more threats than ever before. A country's diplomacy is successful when it does not allow the enemy to bind to itself other countries against the national interests of that country ... We should not create opportunities for the expansion of enemies ... Unfortunately, our enemies are increasing. Yesterday, England was standing next to America, but today, France has heatedly joined the United States.

The problem, as Afrasiabi points out, is that Iran isn't actually doing that badly in the diplomatic arena:

...Rowhani's blistering criticisms coincided with a two-day visit by a high-ranking delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), led by the Deputy Director-General, Olli Heinonen, who met with the Iranian officials and fine tuned the recent Iran-IAEA agreement pertaining to nuclear transparency and the timetable to resolve "outstanding questions" regarding the chronology of Iran's centrifuges.

Pointing to this agreement as well as the UN Security Council's inability to impose further sanctions in light of opposition by Russia and China, and Putin's much-anticipated planned visit to Tehran next week irrespective of the loud American objections to such a visit, Ahmadinejad's supporters have questioned the wisdom, let alone timing, of Rowhani's criticisms.

Now members of Ahmadinejad's parliamentary majority are calling for legal action against opposition members practicing "parallel diplomacy". In other words, Iran's diplomatic successes are making it easier to target opponents of Ahmadinejad's belligerent approach. And that was before this week's Caspian Region summit meeting, whose most significant outcome was a strengthening of the Russian-Iranian strategic re-alignment:

How did this summit come about? The answer is, first and foremost, by astute diplomatic efforts on Iran's part and, equally, by a strategic evolution of Russia's foreign policy that is no longer self-handicapped by prioritizing tactical or conjunctural interests above strategic ones.

Having reached this level, Moscow is now poised to enter into a new strategic relationship with Iran that will serve the geostrategic, security, and other shared interests of both nations...

A major achievement for Iran's diplomacy and particularly for Amadinejad's embattled foreign policy team, the "good news" summit will likely serve as the hinge that opens new breathing space for Iran's diplomacy, and not just toward the Caspian, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Iran's Persian Gulf policy is also bound to benefit from the improved image of Iran in the Middle East, making more attractive Iran's role as a corridor to Central Asia which the Arab world in general and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in particular can take advantage of in their external trade and energy policies...

To summarize Afrasiabi's main points, there's been a pretty dramatic shift in momentum over the past few weeks on the Iranian nuclear standoff. France's adoption of the American hardline position backfired, alienating both Russia and China. Now Putin is pretty clearly throwing his weight behind Iran. He'll need to show that he can get some concessions from Tehran, ie. a reasonable bargaining position with the IAEA. But Iran has already shown signs of moving in that direction.

The big question now is whether American diplomacy can prove itself as shrewd and adaptive as Iranian diplomacy. And if you're wondering, no, I never thought I'd see the day where that question wasn't the punchline to a Monty Python sketch either. Worse still, having boxed itself into a militaristic corner, the Bush administration doesn't exactly inspire optimism on the answer.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   

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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Peacemakers

Here's a thought-provoking passage I found while surfing through the Time Magazine archives. It's from a March 1969 article describing Spiro Agnew's charm campaign to improve his image as a bumbling moron:

He told the Gridiron Club dinner that Nixon had urged him to get on TV interview shows, and had the White House staff schedule appearances. Said Agnew: "I'll be on Meet the Press, opposite the Army-Navy game; on Face the Nation opposite General de Gaulle's arrival at the White House; and on Issues and Answers opposite live coverage of Julie and David's surprise party for Ted Kennedy — at the ranch." But Nixon also promised him, he said, "that when he's ready to recognize Red China, he'll let me announce it." (Emphasis added.)

The self-deprecating gag being that in March of 1969, the idea that Richard Nixon might one day recognize Red China was so farfetched that he could safely promise the announcement to his incompetent veep. Of course, in hindsight, the irony is that reality is sometimes more optimistic than our assumptions about it.

I don't know why, but I've recently had a recurring vision of President Bush touching down in Tehran, firmly, proudly, courageously. Talk about stealing Ahmadinejad's propaganda thunder. I've also wondered what the history of the last four years might look like if he had flown into Baghdad to confront Saddam Hussein personally, instead of sending in a hail of cruise missiles to do it for him.

The argument goes that meeting with our enemies legitimizes them, and demonstrates weakness. But has anyone ever looked at the pictures of Nixon in China without marvelling at the sheer improbability of it all? Or seen the images of Sadat in Jerusalem without a chill running down their spine?

In this moment when the collective imagination seems to be preoccupied with rumors of another ill-conceived war, I'd like to think that reality still has the capacity to outstrip our lowered expectations. It's been said that President Bush is obsessed with leaving his mark on history. He'd do well to consider that while history certainly remembers the men who wage war, it cherishes the peacemakers.

A dream? Maybe. But as the man said, "If you don't have dreams, Bagel, you got nightmares." Here's hoping.

Posted by Judah in:  China   Foreign Policy   Iran   

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

New Dog, Old Tricks

Ezra Klein links to a Rick Perlstein piece describing Ike's reception of Nikita Krushchev in September 1959. The conclusion they both draw is that this week's controversy over how to receive Iran's President Ahmadinejad reveals a diminished America, lacking confidence in its ability to defeat its adversaries on the merits.

While Krushchev's regal tour (which was more than anything else an elaborate stage production) certainly stands in contrast with the treatment Ahamdinejad received this week, there is another distinction to be made between the two. Krushchev represented a country that, in addition to being a sworn enemy with the capacity to annihilate us, we recognized diplomatically. And he was on an official state visit. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, represents a country that we do not formally recognize. And he was on a visit to the UN.

Fortunately, there is a better comparison to be made from 1959, when a young, charismatic leader hostile to American interests (though posing no existential threat) also visited the United States. His name? Fidel Castro:

Fidel's first trip to the United States (on April 15, 1959) demonstrated his intelligence. He neither requested nor accepted the classical official invitation; rather, he had himself invited by the press, the Press Club...

...He never lost his temper, always kept his good humor. And he visited progressive universities, liberal organizations, the zoo, Yankee Stadium; he ate hot dogs and hamburgers, and tried to make a media splash.

...Fidel was a hit.

...And in Washington the prevailing atmosphere was pure disdain. One incident typifies the entire scene. Someone came into the room where the delegation was waiting and was announced as "Mister So-and-so, in charge of Cuban affairs." To this Fidel could only reply, "And I thought I was in charge of Cuban affairs."

Now, granted, the United States and Cuba didn't formally end diplomatic ties until January 1961. But I still think this is the more appropriate comparison. The controversy over Ahmadinejad's visit reflects not so much a novel failure of American nerve as it does a traditional failure of American diplomacy. Namely, to enhance the status of petty goons by treating them as mortal threats, while at the same time proving unable to defeat them in the war of images.

Ahmadinejad is the latest in a long line of inflated nemeses (one that includes Saddam Hussein and Hugo Chavez, but not Nikita Krushchev). The answer isn't to roll out the red carpet for these guys. It's to reveal them for the frauds they are. I think Ezra and I are probably in agreement that the best way to do that is to engage and challenge them. I just wouldn't exagerrate the psychological significance of our failure to do so.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   

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Monday, September 17, 2007

You've Come A Long Way, Baby

Just a quick reality check for anyone who really believes the Bush administration's rhetoric about spreading democracy through the Middle East: Saudi Arabian women are petitioning the king for the right, not to vote, but to drive. And the Saudis are our friends.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   The Middle East   

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Pragmatic Idealism

I haven't seen any coverage of this, and it's worth a read. James Baker outlines his ten maxims for a sound foreign policy, something he calls "The Big Ten: The Case For Pragmatic Idealism". It's short enough not to need a summary here. I will cite his final maxim, though:

A last, but by no means least, important guiding principle: Domestic support is vital to any successful foreign policy.

The will of the American people is the final arbiter of foreign policy in our democracy. Generating and sustaining domestic support for foreign policy is in every way as important as the policy itself...

The rest is just as timely. God, I never thought I'd see the day when I'd think of James Baker as a step in the right direction. But that day is definitely here.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Do As I Do, Not As I Say

The Bush administration's zeal for promoting democracy doesn't seem to extend to our erstwhile ally in the War on Terror, Pakistan. Today, former Prime Minister Nazir Sharif returned from seven years of exile to challenge General Pervez Musharraf in general elections called for later this year. As this video from Ria Novosti shows, Sharif's experiment in democracy was short-lived. Arrested immediately at the airport, he was promptly expelled from the country. Before the standoff, four thousand of his supporters had already been detained by Pakistani police.

In watching the video, notice the shirts worn by the security forces that sealed off the Islamabad airport: Anti-Terrorist Squad. On second thought, maybe Bush really has exported American-style democracy.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Bully Pulpit

Another thing that occured to me while reading Getting to YES, the basic primer on negotiation, was the Bush administration's emphasis on what Fisher and Ury call positional negotiation. This is where one side locks itself into a firm position and either refuses to budge or is willing to do so only incrementally. The classic example is a buyer and seller haggling over a price, with the buyer starting low and the seller starting high. Either they meet somewhere in the middle or not at all. But the entire process essentially becomes a battle of wills.

They contrast that with principled negotiation, by which they mean not only determining one's negotiating position as a function of one's interests, but trying to understand the other party's interests in order to find creative ways to sweeten the deal for them. This could take the form of a buyer offering a lower price, but agreeing to forego delivery. Or a seller asking for a higher price, but guaranteeing the product. When interests determine bargaining positions, instead of a battle of wills, the negotiation becomes a cooperative effort to find the most mutually beneficial deal.

I think it's fairly obvious that the Bush administration's negotiating style is a pretty hard-nosed game of positional bargaining with a strong emphasis on "take-it-or-leave it" as their opening offer. And this whether they're dealing with the Kyoto Accords, Saddam Hussein, the Iranians, or Congressional Democrats. With the exception of the N. Korean settlement, the Bush administration has made it clear that they like their chances in the event that negotiations fail (what the authors call the BATNA, or Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement). Which is to say, they're willing to duke it out if they don't get what they want, be it in the courts or on the battlefield.

It's essentially an intimidation tactic designed to weaken the will of the folks across the table from them. And according to Fisher and Ury, both experts on negotiation and conflict resolution, it's not as efficient a negotiating method as one based on identifying interests and developing new options for advancing them. Why? Because it often results in "leaving money on the table", negotiators' jargon for mutual benefits that would have come at no cost to either party but which don't make it into the final agreement.

Now just to be clear, there are cases where I think in retrospect that the Bush administration correctly walked away from negotiations. Those with the Taliban preceding the invasion of Afghanistan, for example, where the non-negotiated outcome (had we not prematurely redeployed our resources to Iraq) would have left us in a better position than anything we might have come up with at the negotiating table. [Although it's important to remember that at the time, it appeared to many as if the administration was not paying enough attention to the Russians' Afghan adventure in its contingency planning. In other words, that it was over-estimating its BATNA.]

The Iraq War, as I said yesterday, is not one of those cases. Because while it's clear that Saddam Hussein paid a pretty high price for over-estimating his BATNA, it's equally clear that we did, too. I think the same can be said for walking away from the Kyoto Accords which, while it might not get a lot of domestic play, caused a great deal of resentment abroad. Resentment that, after a brief moment of post-9/11 solidarity, was quick to resurface during the run-up to the Iraq War. The applause that greeted Dominique de Villepin's UN Security Council speech did not occur in a historical vacuum, in other words. And that primed pump of anti-Americanism was one of the uncalculated costs of our previous positional approach.

As I also said yesterday, it looks like the Bush administration has every intention of repeating the same error in its approach to the Iranian dossier. Pre-conditions, threats and public finger-pointing are all hallmarks of rigid positional negotiations. In the case of Iran, which must feel pretty secure in its own BATNA right now, they are also ways of ensuring that no progress will be made.

I'll work up what I think an interest-based, principled negotiation framework between Iran and the US might look like tomorrow.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Iraq   

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Best Alternative

I’ve just finished reading Roger Fisher’s and William Ury’s classic on the art of negotiating, Getting To YES. Originally published in 1981, with a second edition released in 1991 (I’m sure there have been other editions since, but that’s the one I picked off my Dad’s shelf in New York), it’s as relevant today as it was then.

What I found particularly timely was the discussion of whether to negotiate with terrorists or tyrants. According to the authors, it depends on what they call the BATNA, or Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. That’s the best possible scenario you could come up with if negotiations either fail or don’t take place:

Even with someone like Hitler or Stalin, we should negotiate if negotiation holds the promise of achieving an outcome that, all things considered, meets our interests better than our BATNA. When a war does occur, in many cases it is a move within a negotiation. The violence is intended to change the other side’s BATNA, or their perception of it, so that they will more readily agree to our terms for peace.

Then there’s this :

Governments often make the mistake of assuming that they have a better BATNA than they do – for example, when they imply that if "political" and "economic" means fail in a given situation, then there is always the "military option." There is not always a viable military option…

Don’t assume you have a BATNA better than negotiating, or that you don’t. Think it through. Then decide whether negotiating makes sense. (Emphasis in original.)

I think that captures in a nutshell the mistakes made by the Bush administration, both in invading Iraq and in refusing to negotiate with Iran: It has consistently over-estimated its (our) BATNA.

Experience has shown that the threat of military force to reach a negotiated inspection regime would have been a far more efficient means of containing Saddam Hussein’s weapons program (in terms of cost in blood, treasure and regional influence) than the actual use of it has been.

So why didn’t we do some last-minute negotiating when our forces were massed on the Kuwait border? Partly because Saddam Hussein had a track record of being an unreliable negotiating partner. But mainly because the Bush administration wildly over-estimated our BATNA. Not in forecasting a quick and decisive military victory (which I don’t think anyone doubted), but in ignoring the ease with which our various well-wishers in the area could (and would) spoil the party afterwards.

All of this takes on even more relevance in light of the Bush administration’s refusal to negotiate directly with the Iranians over their uranium enrichment program (the authors consider that setting pre-conditions to negotiations, such as freezing the uranium enrichment process, is tantamount to refusing to negotiate), as well as its refusal to “take the military option off the table”.

Both of these tactics are designed to make the Iranians re-consider (ie. downgrade) their BATNA, thereby making negotiations more attractive and concessions more palatable. But they also reflect the Bush administration’s current best thinking on our own. Namely, that in the absence of the Iranians completely caving in on what they correctly consider to be a sovereign right (which is an exceedingly remote possibility, to say the least), we stand a better chance of containing Iran’s regional influence (because that’s what this boils down to) through military means than through negotiations.

On the face of it, that seems like a pretty obvious miscalculation. To begin with, the chances of completely crippling the Iranian enrichment program, as the Israelis did to Saddam Hussein's Osiraq reactor in 1981, are pretty slim. At best, we can set it back a bit, but that seems likely to provoke a wider conflict and possibly even all-out war. Again, the danger isn't a defeat at the hands of the Iranian army but the aftermath: A longterm, low-intensity bloodletting with periodic flare-ups that will require an American military commitment for the foreseeable future. Cue the draft, followed not long after by an angry American public and an eventual withdrawal. Like it or not, America is not ancient Sparta, and outside of Hollywood blockbusters, Americans don't have a taste for blood. Contrary to what Dick Cheney thinks, that's a good thing.

Which leaves us with engagement and mutual accomodation. Because despite the neocon tactic of equating any negotiations at all with the Munich Accords (ie. appeasement), effective negotiations allow both sides to maximize benefits and minimize costs. The obvious shortcoming of the Munich comparison is that it assumes that all of our regional rivals/enemies will be negotiating in as bad faith as Hitler was, and that we will be negotiating from as weak a position as Chamberlain was. But the Iranians have actually proven to be pretty reliable negotiating partners, and we're nowhere near as hamstrung as Chamberlain was in 1936, even if the Iraq fiasco has greatly weakened our bargaining position.

I’ll have more on the Bush administration’s emphasis on positional, as opposed to principled, negotiation -- and how this, too, has contributed to its sterling foreign policy record -- tomorrow.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Iraq   

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

They Might Be Giants

If you take a look at this White House video of President Bush chatting up the press before going off on a boatride with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, you might understand why the President's advisors made sure Poppy Bush stayed by W's side during the "private" meeting between the two. While both men share the same backslapping style that seems to be so shocking to French sensibilities, Sarkozy is so clearly the sharper intellect that it's almost embarrassing to watch them together. (Sarkozy arrives about halfway through the clip.)

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   La France Politique   

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Options On The Table

With the Bush administration planning to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization, and with the US military increasingly singling out Iran as the principle troublemaker in Iraq, it would be easy to mistake the US-Iran conflict for a one-on-one affair. Of course, that would be to ignore the other players involved, most immediately Israel and the Arab states of the Middle East, all of whom have vested interests in the containment of Iran's regional ambitions.

But there are wider, non-regional interests at stake, and it should come as no surprise that these hinge upon energy considerations. Take, for example, the recent deal signed between Iran and Turkey to construct a pipeline to provide natural gas to the European market. At a time when the US is desperately trying to isolate Iran, American strategic goals run headlong into those of our allies. Namely, the need for the EU to diversify its energy suppliers, thereby reducing its dependence on Russian natural gas. So at a time when we should be consolidating our alliances and trying to weaken those of Iran, our policies run the risk of doing just the opposite.

The problem with the Bush administration hawks who want to confront Iran militarily isn't whether they're right or wrong on the merits of their case against Tehran. (Iran's intentions are impossible to know for sure, and even less possible to predict into the future.) It's whether they've realistically assessed the potential for success.

Munich, 1936 has become the common refrain for those advocating an attack. But while Chamberlain need not have left those meetings with a worthless agreement, no more could he have realistically confronted Hitler's aggression militarily at that time. In other words, a military option with no realistic chance of success is not a real option.

On the other hand, the Iranian-Turkish natural gas pipeline could easily serve as a wedge to weaken Russia's support of the Iranian nuclear energy program. In response to the deal, Russia has already announced that it won't supply any gas to Turkey beyond the amount they've contracted for, as they did just last winter. With Iranian gas production lagging far behind their reserves, that could leave Turkey -- and Europe -- feeling this winter's bite. And that's an option that might prove more effective than any military strike.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   

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Friday, June 8, 2007

Tense But Manageable

The Jerusalem Post's got a good interview with Shaul Mofaz, the former Israeli Defense Minister and chief of General Staff who's now the Transportation Minister. They introduce it as pessimistic, but to me it seemed if not upbeat, at least not alarmist.

He gives strengthened UN sanctions a 50% chance of getting Iran to freeze its enrichment program. He also doesn't think the jihadi-based violence in Lebanon will spill over into Israel. And he thinks that although things are tense on the Syrian border, it's in neither side's interests to go to war. To that end, he advocates backchannel negotiations with the Syrians that could eventually lead to formal peace talks.

On the negative side, he believes that Hizbullah has re-armed and is now back to pre-war levels of military preparedness on both sides of the Litani River, and that Hamas is poised to take control of the Palestinian Authority. Complicating everything is the flow of arms from Iran and Syria to Hisbullah and Hamas.

Still, all in all it's a coolheaded assessment. Not surprising, then, that he met with Condoleeza Rice while he was in Washington for joint strategy sessions last week. Cheney was probably busy talking shop and picking targets with Bibi Netanyahu.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   

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Friday, June 8, 2007

Spears And Shields

No sooner did I click publish on that last post than I ran across this article on a proposed American-Japanese ABM system in the People's Daily Online. The system is meant to counter the N. Korean nuclear threat, but that hasn't stopped the Chinese from getting bent out of shape about it. Said Jin Linbo, a scholar with the China Institute of International Studies:

"We cannot regard it as a defensive system just because that's what it is called... Since ancient times both spears and shields have been regarded as weapons in Chinese culture - because shields can make spears useless..."

The Bush-Putin catfight isn't the story. The story is that we need to find a way to address the issue of rogue nuclear proliferation without undermining the concept that's served as the basis of nuclear deterrant for the past fifty years.

Posted by Judah in:  China   Foreign Policy   Russia   

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Friday, June 8, 2007

It's No Longer A Mad, Mad, Mad World

This past weekend, there was a medieval festival in the small village where I live in the South of France. And boys being boys, one of the demonstrations that the Lil' Feller and I spent the most time at was the catapult and cannon exhibit. Lined up side by side, the weapons really brought to life the way in which slow advances in technology expanded the range of our ability to project deadly force. (Or in this case, water balloons. But you get the idea.)

These were simple machines, at first disposable, later more sturdy, that became steadily more accurate and deadly. But it was a process -- of practical needs and technical progress driving design advances -- that lasted centuries. As a result, strategy and tactics had plenty of time to adapt to the new conditions on the battlefield.

Contrast that to the introduction of the atomic bomb in 1945, and the subsequent proliferation of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology. Within a matter of years, our collective destructive capacity accelerated exponentially until it achieved exit velocity. For the first time in history, humanity could not afford to learn the uses of its new arsenal through trial and error.

In retrospect, the greatest achievement of the generation that introduced the Bomb was the strategy it developed immediately afterwards to contain the consequences of its newfound technological capabilities: Mutually Assured Destruction. The counter-intuitive genius of M.A.D. lay in the notion that the surest way to prevent a nuclear launch was to guarantee that the risks always outweighed the potential benefits.

Which explains why anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems were considered so dangerous. By introducing the possibility of surviving a nuclear launch, they undermined the logic of MAD.

As I've mentioned before, the entire dust-up between the Bush administration and Vladimir Putin over the proposed American ABM system based in Poland and Czechoslovakia is a bit mysterious. On the one hand, it's an untested system to counter a non-existent threat. On the other, the idea that ten missile interceptors could seriously inhibit a Russian launch is farfetched.

Putin's opposition may be more posturing than real concern. But in its rush to dismiss it out of hand, the Bush administration has ignored the ways in which, by its very nature, the proposed system violates the logic of MAD. If the only way for Russia to overwhelm the system is to adopt a massive launch strategy, it creates a situation that amplifies the consequences of error and misunderstandings.

By the way, the proposed American system isn't the only example of MAD's recent decline as a guiding principle of nuclear deterrance. According to a recent analysis, the Chinese have begun to deploy nuclear and conventional warheads on the same class of missiles, greatly increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear conflict.

The Cold War might be over, but the doctrine that helped us survive it still serves an important purpose. There's no question that rogue states and global terrorism have created new challenges for nuclear deterrance. But those challenges demand a strategic response that enhances our security. Not an impulsive one that diminishes it.

Posted by Judah in:  China   Foreign Policy   Russia   

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Saturday, April 7, 2007

Friends In High Places

It must be reassuring to Syrian President Bashar Assad that his long, dark night of international isolation might finally be coming to an end. After all, it's been a while since we've seen headlines like this one: "Hungarian Party Official: Syria is guarantee of Peace and Stability in Region". Oh, wait a minute. That one's from the official Syrian news service. And the Hungarian party in question is the Hungarian Communist Workers' Party, which as of the last Hungarian parliamentary elections won 0.41% of the vote and no seats.

More seriously, though, the Economist notes that Assad has managed to take out a new lease on life, warming his relations with Iraq and Turkey, reconciling with Saudi King Abdullah (who came to the airport to welcome him personally to the recent Arab League summit), all while deepening his strategic alliance with Iran. Throw in visits from EU officials and American Congressional delegations and it's obvious that Assad is no longer the pariah he's looked like for most of the past four years.

Which means that the Bush administration's strategy of freezing Assad out is slowly but surely unravelling. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, they come up with as a fallback option. 

Oh, and since no story coming out of the Middle East these days is complete without some unintended consequence of the War in Iraq, there's this:

Appalled by the mess next door, few Syrians now doubt that their own secular dictatorship is preferable to the anarchy of supposedly democratic Iraq. Yet Syria's belated recognition of Iraq's government, skilfully portrayed as a graceful bow to American pressure, has brought big rewards. Syria is fast regaining its traditional role as the gateway to rich Mesopotamia. Iraq bought some 400,000 tonnes of Syrian farm produce last year. Near Qamishli, in the north-east, a queue of Syrian lorries heading for Iraq stretches 30km (19 miles). Even the influx of 1m Iraqi refugees brings some benefits: a boom in Syrian property, plus a surge in consumer demand.

The potential gains from Iraq are even greater. Large natural-gas fields lie just across the border in Iraq: the easiest export route for Iraqi oil is through Syrian ports. Iraqi officials already speak of enlarging existing pipelines, while Syria is expanding its refining capacity in anticipation.

So add Syria to the list of regional adversaries who have strategically benefitted from the Iraq War, which just might go down as the most generous elective war in history.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   

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Friday, April 6, 2007

Lending A Hand

Remember the al-Qaeda training facilities in southeast Afghanistan? The ones where aspiring jihadists from across the Middle East, North Africa, Asia and Europe used to come to develop combat skills back before we drove them out of the country?

Well, according to this short piece in The National Interest, al-Qaeda's replaced them with live fire training in Iraq. And the technical expertise their operatives have gathered, like sophisticated IED technology and anti-aircraft tactics, is now showing up on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia.

Keep in mind, Bin Laden cut his teeth in the Afghan insurgency. For him, terrorism is only the preliminary tactic of a three-stage longterm strategy:

  1. Draw the US into a regional war through the use of terror attacks;
  2. Inflict enough losses to drive the US out of the Middle East definitively;
  3. Topple the newly-vulnerable moderate Arab states through local insurgencies.

So as far as he's concerned, live fire insurgency training will definitely come in handy some day. Of course, the only way his plan can ultimately succeed is if we help him out every step of the way. But so far, that's exactly what we've been doing.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Thursday, April 5, 2007

When Everyone Hedges Their Bets

According to this NY Times article, Israel is lobbying the US to strip satellite guided offensive weapons out of a proposed American arms deal with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The impetus for the sale was to reassure the moderate Sunni states that regardless of what happens in Iraq (ie. even if we pull out and leave the place a mess), we'll still cover their backs against the Iranians.

Trouble is, Israel isn't so sure that the coalition of moderate Sunni states that's been talked about as a means of containing Iran is actually going to materialize. Plus they've got their doubts as to the Saudi kingdom's stability in the face of miltant Islamic extremists that have it in their sights. Which would put its "qualitative military edge" at risk.

Meanwhile, for their part, the Gulf states have been lukewarm about committing to the deal, for fear of antagonizing Iran with only an uncertain longterm American commitment to the region to go by.

So the question is, When the Iran containment train pulls out of the station, is anyone going to be on board?

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   

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Monday, March 26, 2007

The Essence Of Empire

Brig. Gen. Stephen Mundt, director of Army aviation, from an article in the Hill:

“While the military may be on a war footing, our nation’s industry is not on a war footing,” Mundt told a group of reporters at the Pentagon. He urged industry to get to a point where it is producing equipment faster.

Mundt was referring specifically to the difficulties the Army has had replacing the 130 helicopters lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. It takes two years from the time Congress ok's the funds before the helicopters are delivered.

I mentioned this before with regards to an eventual attack on Iran, but it bears repeating. The sine qua non of the neocon agenda is an America placed on permanent wartime footing. That is the essence of Empire: continuous partial engagement. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are first steps towards that goal, but they are still reversible.  Should we attack Iran, on the other hand, there will be no turning back for the foreseeable future.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   Iran   Iraq   

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

There's Room On This Planet For The Two Of Us

Call it age, or maybe it's the consequences of fatherhood. But despite my fascination with and natural inclination towards apocalyptic and worst-case scenarios, I'm willing to acknowledge that this is a very good sign. The Russians have apparently decided to use the yet-to-be-delivered fuel for the nuclear reactor they've built for Tehran as a bargaining chip in the uranium enrichment dispute.

My guess is that this is the payoff for the Bush administration's recent decision to take Russia's concerns over the planned Eastern European missile defense system seriously. Which is to say, it's striking what a little bit of good old-fashioned diplomacy can accomplish.

Update: The Russian National Security Council has apparently denied the link between the fuel delivery and the uranium enrichment program, saying,

"The allegations made in The New York Times that Russia delivered an ultimatum during Russian-Iranian consultations March 12 in Moscow have no relation to reality."

I still think a deal went down, based on this article from a few weeks ago, and that a gag rule was part of the agreement.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Russia   

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Building Consensus

Reading through the Defense Department's just released report to Congress on security and reconstruction developments in Iraq, a couple things struck me as worth mentioning. First, the "four war" approach to analysing the conflict first articulated by Robert Gates in January is now the party line. So:

  • The conflict in the north is characterized by sectarian tensions, insurgents and extremist attacks, and competition among ethnic groups (Kurd, Arab, Turkomen) for political and economic dominance, including control of the oilfields centered around Kirkuk...
  • Violence in Anbar is characterized by Sunni insurgents and AQI attacks against Coalition forces. AQI and affiliated Sunni extremists are attempting to intimidate the local population into supporting the creation of an Islamic state...
  • Violence in Baghdad, Diyala, and Balad is characterized by sectarian competition for power and influence between AQI and JAM, principally through murders, executions, and high-profile bombings...
  • The conflict in the southern provinces is characterized by tribal rivalry; factional violence among the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI)/Badr Organization, the Office of the Martyr Sadr/JAM, and smaller militias for political power; and attacks on Coalition forces...

As Philip Carter made clear in Slate last month, while this analysis helps explain a wide range of otherwise stubborn anomalies (such as how it is that "...we [are] making tangible progress in developing Iraq's security forces, government, and economy, yet the overall security situation [is] worsening..."), it is not an encouraging sign for our chances of success over there.

But what really caught my eye was this handy little table (AQI = Al Qaeda Iraq, JAM = Jaysh al Mahdi):

Goals of Key Destabilizing Elements in Iraq



Sunni Insurgents

  • Expel U.S. and Coalition forces from Iraq
  • Topple the “unity” government
  • Re-establish Sunni governance in Anbar and Diyala


  • Force Coalition forces withdrawal
  • Gain territory to export conflict
  • Provoke clash between Islam and others
  • Establish caliphate with Shari’a governance


  • Force Coalition forces withdrawal
  • Consolidate control over Baghdad and the GOI
  • Exert control over security institutions
  • Implement Shari’a governance

All emphasis is my own. But while it should come as no surprise that our armed adversaries in Iraq would be happy to see us leave, it's worth recalling that this correlates pretty strongly with the last public opinion polling in Iraq, from September 2006, which found that 71% of the population wanted American forces to leave within a year.

But wait, there's more. Because it turns out that this also happens to be the preference of roughly 60% of Americans. So the real question right now is, Given that all the interested parties want American forces to withdraw, how is it that what's instead taking place is a prolonged escalation of our military presence?

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Hiccup In The N. Korea Deal

Better get those corks back in the champagne bottles, and the confetti back in the packages. Because according to this WaPo article, the N. Koreans have refused to shut down their main nuclear reactor, as agreed, until we lift a freeze on their accounts in a Macao bank, also as agreed. We had thirty days to do so. Day thirty was today, and it's not yet clear whether the steps the US Treasury Dept. has taken will be sufficient to un-freeze the accounts. To be continued...

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Iran And The Israel Lobby

Scott McConnell's got an interesting article in The American Conservative on how the Iran question is driving a wedge between mainstream American Jewish opinion and the American Jewish "Israel lobby" (AIPAC, ADL, AJC), with the latter significantly more hawkish, and outspokenly so, regarding a potential American military intervention in Iran than the former. He then describes the dangers involved in, a) criticizing the lobby groups, and b) disagreeing with them, both for journalists and politicians. But he concludes by suggesting that bloggers, and Jewish bloggers in particular, have recently managed to puncture the lobby groups aura of invincibility, citing Matthew Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and yours truly (I'm quoted as a "regrettably anonymous" commenter on Ezra Klein's blog) as examples.

I think there's no disputing the fact that American Jews wield a disproportionate influence over America's Israel policy, in the same way that American Cubans wield a disproportionate influence over America's Cuba policy. And both have a sort of veto power over who gets elected based on their respective single issue litmus tests.

The difference lies in how generalized the veto power is. Someone running for Congress in Miami doesn't stand much chance of getting elected on a pro-Castro platform. I'm not sure it poses a problem for someone running in South Dakota, on the other hand.

Not so with the Israel lobby. Apparently, no one makes it to Washington, or the NY Times editorial board, unless they toe the AIPAC line. So goes a certain line of thought, anyway. One that, while often condemned (by the Israel lobby) for echoing the anti-Semitic trope of the Jewish "cabal", is not necessarily untrue.

Besides the paragraph quoted from my comment, though, I find this to be the most intriguing passage in McConnell's article:

It may be beyond the American people’s power to stop George W. Bush from launching another preventive war. But even though the president and his top advisers can isolate themselves from currents of public opinion, that is less the case for top military officers. And it is far more likely that they will find ways to raise meaningful speedbumps and roadblocks on the route to an expanded war if there is a large enough public outcry against it. Right now there is not.

I've often seen civilian command of the Armed Forces cited as a check on the potential bellicosity of the military. This is the first time I've seen the military cited as a check on the potential bellicosity of the civilian command.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Media Coverage   Politics   

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Monday, March 5, 2007

The Squeaky Wheel

Looks like Vladimir Putin's harsh words in Munich last month got some results. Which means that in the past week, the Bush administration has:

  1. Decided to negotiate with the N. Koreans;
  2. Agreed to join Iran and Syria in a regional conference about Iraq;
  3. Begun to actually treat Russia like the global power it is.

You'd almost get the feeling they're toying with the idea of re-joining the reality-based community. Seriously, though, what goes through your head when the collective delusion wears off and you realize that you very nearly brought the whole house of cards down?

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Russia   

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Friday, March 2, 2007

Let's You And Him Fight?

I'm not sure where this fits in, but it does seem to resonate with the Seymour Hersh story I mentioned the other day. Apparently Israeli and Western intelligence agencies are worried about a growing concentration of Sunni global jihadists in the southern Lebanon city of Tyre. The main concern, obviously, is the potential for attacks against Israel, Jordan, and the UN peacekeeping forces stationed in southern Lebanon.

But the article goes on to mention some tensions between the groups and Hezbollah, resulting from their sectarian (Sunni-Shiite) differences, and also from Hezbollah's insistance on veto-power over all locally-staged operations. Hersh suggested that the new American strategy in the region was to encourage the latter (internecine turf wars), and trust the Saudis to contain the former (any collateral damage to ourselves and our allies).

Looks like we'll see how that little gamble turns out soon enough.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Global War On Terror   

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Friday, March 2, 2007

Now That Wasn't So Hard, Was It?

A "Senior Administration Official" flies out to Pakistan to warn Gen. Musharraf that unless he gets serious about cracking down on the Taliban and al-Qaeda camps on the Afghan frontier, he can expect some serious consequences from the newly-Democratic Congress. Three days later, Pakistan announces the capture of the highest-level Taliban to date, the former Defense Minister and a senior leader in the Afghan insurgency, Mullah Obaidullah.

Good thing the GOP is the party of national security.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   Global War On Terror   International Relations   

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Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Office That Wasn't

I was a little busy last week to really get to Seymour Hersh's New York Magazine article on the shift allegedly taking place in American Middle East policy. But it's worth taking a second look at, and for more than just the sensational excerpts that have made the rounds. In case you haven't read it, it makes the following claims:

  • That elements of the Bush administration have identified the containment of Iran, whose influence has grown significantly as a result of the Iraq War, as America's highest regional priority.
  • That according to these elements, the most effective way to do this is to enlist Sunni proxies throughout the broader region, and in particular in Lebanon and Syria, to combat Iranian proxies and their interests.
  • That many of these Sunni proxies are cut from the same radical, extremist mold as al-Qaeda.
  • That the Saudis are largely underwriting the initiative, both from a financial and diplomatic standpoint, with assurances that they'll be able to keep the radical Sunni groups under control.
  • That a great deal of the American side of the initiative is being run covertly, in the manner of the Iran-Contras scheme, with no Congressional oversight.

Here's the operative paragraph from Hersh's article for the last claim:

Iran-Contra was the subject of an informal “lessons learned” discussion two years ago among veterans of the scandal... One conclusion was that even though the program was eventually exposed, it had been possible to execute it without telling Congress. As to what the experience taught them, in terms of future covert operations, the participants found: “One, you can’t trust our friends. Two, the C.I.A. has got to be totally out of it. Three, you can’t trust the uniformed military, and four, it’s got to be run out of the Vice-President’s office”... (Emphasis added.)

Why the Office of the VP? Well, as Tom Engelhardt points out in the Nation, because it's become something of a bureaucratic black hole in Washington. David Kurtz made the same observation over at TPM. And later followed it up with this pseudo-explanation offered by the OVP to justify their refusal to even provide a list of the personnel assigned to its staff to a Federal registry:

The Vice Presidency is a unique office that is neither a part of the executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch, but is attached by the Constitution to the latter. The Vice Presidency performs functions in both the legislative branch (see article I, section 3 of the Constitution) and in the executive branch (see article II, and amendments XII and XXV, of the Constitution, and section 106 of title 3 of the United States Code).

Notice that it is neither a part of the executive nor the legislative branch, rather than a part of both. The implication being that as a result of this Constitutional ambiguity, the Vice President is free to operate as a free electron within the Federal government, subject to absolutely no oversight.

These guys have taken what's historically been considered the most impotent office in the Federal government and transformed it into the most powerful, beyond even the limits of the separation of powers. It's time to do something about that.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Talking To Tehran

One of the problems with the Bush administration's stance towards Iran is that they've set it up so that the simple act of sitting down around a negotiating table becomes tantamount to defeat. Which is too bad because, if you read Ray Tayekh's article in the March issue of Foreign Affairs, it seems as if there are some very real, very attractive advantages to a détente policy towards Iran.

The Soviet Union posed more of an existential threat to America than Iran ever could, and yet we had diplomatic relations and ongoing negotiations with them throughout the Cold War. Nixon's diplomatic overture to China serves as another example of the stabilizing effects that dialogue can have even in the absence of any fundamental agreements.

Not every strategic rival is an enemy. And not every negotiated settlement is the Munich Agreement. The regional interests of the US and Iran converge in a number of areas. Reinforcing cooperation where they do can provide the leverage for inluencing behavior where they don't. But first you've got to agree to talk.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Can't Lose For Winning

You've got to hand it to these guys. Not only do they come up with whoppers, they do it on the fly like it was no thing. No sooner had Tony Blair announced that he would draw down British troop levels in Southern Iraq (by 1600 out of roughly 7000, with the rest to follow depending on conditions on the ground), than the Bush administration claimed it was a sign that things were going as planned. Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, didn't quite see it the same way in an analysis published today:

The British may not have been defeated in a purely military sense, but lost long ago in the political sense if "victory" means securing the southeast for some form of national unity. Soft ethnic cleansing has been going on in Basra for more than two years, and the south has been the scene of the less violent form of civil war for control of political and economic space that is as important as the more openly violent struggles in Anbar and Basra.

As a result, the coming British cuts in many ways reflect the political reality that the British "lost" the south more than a year ago. The Shi'ites will takeover, Iranian influence will probably expand, and more Sunnis, Christians, and other minorities will leave. British action will mean more pressure for federation and separatism, but local power struggles are more likely to be between Shi'ite factions than anything else.

He also had some sobering words for the Surge in Baghdad:

Just as the British confused Basra with a regional center of gravity, the Bush Administration may well have compounded these problems by confusing Baghdad with the center of gravity in a national struggle for the control of political and economic space that affects every part of the country...

Winning security control of the city and losing Iraq’s 11 other major cities and countryside to Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic factions is not victory in any strategic (sic), it is defeat. As has been discussed earlier, the minimal requirement for a successful US strategy is a relatively stable and secure Iraq, not temporary US military control of Baghdad.

So far, however, the US has not shown that it has a clear plan for taking control of Baghdad with the US and Iraqi resources it has available, or described a credible operational plan for moving from “win” to “hold” and “build.” It has completely failed to set forth a strategy and meaningful operational plan for dealing with Iraq as a country even if it succeeds in Baghdad.

He goes on to outline any number of tactics the insurgents could use to respond to the surge, including:

  • Stretching American forces thin across Baghdad to pick off isolated and weak outposts;
  • Carrying out high profile attacks against civilian targets, aid efforts and political leaders;
  • Carrying out high profile attacks on US forces;
  • Taking the fight elsewhere, thereby shifting the center of gravity of the conflict outside of Baghdad.

It seemed like public opinion had already come to terms with losing the war before the Surge. But at that point it had been lost, not to an enemy, but to the uncontrollable chaos and violence of the Iraqi civil war.

What happens if the Surge not only doesn't work, but actually exposes us to significant losses? Will the possibility of actually leaving Iraq as a "defeated" army be enough to restore public support for the war? Or will it, on the contrary, accelerate the calls for withdrawal? And if the goal now has been reduced to leaving Iraq with honor, as Cheney put it recently, will that be further justification for escalating our involvement?

Up until now I didn't really think things could get much worse. I'm not so sure anymore.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Surging Into The Abyss

From Foreign Affairs:

Even if the coming "surge" in U.S. combat troops manages to lower the rate of killing in Baghdad, very little in relevant historical experience or the facts of this case suggests that U.S. troops would not be stuck in Iraq for decades, keeping sectarian and factional power struggles at bay while fending off jihadist and nationalist attacks. The more likely scenario is that the Bush administration's commitment to the "success" of the Maliki government will make the United States passively complicit in a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing...

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   International Relations   

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Paradigm Shift?

Daniel Byman's got an intriguing op-ed in the WaPo about Iran's strategic interests in Iraq. He uses the example of Hezbollah in Lebanon to argue that Iran's arming of various Iraqi factions (a point which he takes for granted) should be understood more as a means of establishing a post-War influence in Iraqi affairs than as an act of aggression towards the US.  He also pointed out that it wouldn't be unheard of for the Iranians to enter into tactical alliances with Sunni groups if it served their longer-term strategic goals, as their sponsorship of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza demonstrate. But what really caught my eye was this:

Ironically, Iran's long-term position could weaken when the United States draws down its forces. At first, the U.S. withdrawal will expand the power vacuum and Iran will try to fill it, but the limited chaos Iran foments can easily become uncontrolled. Iran's economic and military power is limited, and Iran's theocratic model of governance has little appeal for most Iraqis. Even many Shiite militants have at times been hostile to Iran, and respected moderates such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani are careful to maintain their distance from Tehran. Sunnis already rage against perceived Iranian dominance.

In a postwar environment, Tehran will have lost a lever against U.S. pressure and may find itself both overextended and vulnerable in Iraq -- a weakness that the United States might exploit in years to come.

This is the second time in a few weeks that I've seen someone suggest that the worst-case scenarios of an American withdrawal from Iraq are far from inevitable, and may reflect a failure of imagination as much as anything else. Something tells me it won't be the last.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Iraq   

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Friday, February 16, 2007

The End Of The Bubble

I talked yesterday about how the tactics being applied in Iraq, ie. Clear and Move On, will become America's regional strategy in the event of a war with Iran. All it takes is a look at the ways in which the geo-political landscape has been altered over the past six years to understand why it won't work.

In January 2001, the United States was an often resented, but widely admired and respected superpower wielding a historically unprecedented global influence. Rightly or wrongly, we occupied a perceived position of moral leadership among the global community, which when coupled with our economic, diplomatic and military power made our involvement decisive in every continent.

Russia was too busy shaking down the oligarchs who had made off with all of the Soviet Union's industrial infrastructure and most of the Western world's capital infusion to spend much time on projecting its power abroad. China, while a looming economic giant, seemed fatally compromised by its abysmal human rights record to ever be more than a regional power. Chavez had his hands full holding onto power in Venezuela. And Iran was constrained to the role of regional troublemaker and spoiler in the Middle East.

If America faced a potential threat to its position of global hegemon, it was the prospect of an increasingly integrated and assertive European Union trying to contest it on the international stage.

Fast forward six years to January 2007...

Read the full post>>

Posted by Judah in:  China   Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Iraq   Russia   

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The President Who Cried Wolf

It could be, as some folks are saying, that this weekend's rollout of military intelligence linking Iranian weapons to the Iraqi insurgency is not so much a run-up to war as it is a means of pressuring the Iranians back to the negotiating table. Either way, for some reason or another, no one seems to be taking it very seriously.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Two-Track Mind

Both the Bush administration and the EU agree that only a two-track approach will get Iran to negotiate a settlement of the uranium enrichment question; sanctions alone aren't going to cut it. The problem is deciding what the second track should be.

The Europeans think we ought to offer the Iranians incentives, such as a security guarantee, to balance the dis-incentives represented by sanctions. Call it the carrot and the stick approach. The Bush administration thinks we ought to signal the clear threat of military action to let them know that things only get worse from here on out. Call it the stick and the aluminum baseball bat approach.

Of course, threatening a war with Iran is a tricky matter, since we don't really have the force levels for it, and we can't really afford the consequences it would have on our occupation of Iraq. Which might explain why an internal EU document accepts as a foregone conclusion that Iran will eventually have the capacity to produce weapons-grade uranium.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Gates Responds

Robert Gates just addressed the same European security conference where Vladimir Putin yesterday blasted American unilateralism as the primary force for instability in the world. He responded to Putin's speech using a blend of tactful irony and firmness to stand his ground:

“As an old Cold Warrior, one of yesterday’s speeches almost filled me with nostalgia for a less complex time,” Mr. Gates said. He paused for effect before adding, “Almost...”

“Russia is a partner in endeavors,” Mr. Gates added. “But we wonder, too, about some Russian policies that seem to work against international stability, such as its arms transfers and its temptation to use energy resources for political coercion.”

In other words, there are no good guys or bad guys, just nation states pursuing their national interests. As for the idea of a coming Cold War, v2.0, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov seemed to put a quash on it, describing the two country's relations as " mature that we are free to speak what we really think.”

As well as sell air defense missiles to whoever we like.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Strategic Recovery

Lt. Gen. William Odom (Ret'd) on Iraq:

The first and most critical step is to recognize that fighting on now simply prolongs our losses and blocks the way to a new strategy. Getting out of Iraq is the pre-condition for creating new strategic options...

Second, we must recognize that the United States alone cannot stabilize the Middle East.

Third, we must acknowledge that most of our policies are actually destabilizing the region...

Fourth, we must redefine our purpose. It must be a stable region, not primarily a democratic Iraq...

Realigning our diplomacy and military capabilities to achieve order will hugely reduce the numbers of our enemies and gain us new and important allies. This cannot happen, however, until our forces are moving out of Iraq...

If Bush truly wanted to rescue something of his historical legacy, he would seize the initiative to implement this kind of strategy. He would eventually be held up as a leader capable of reversing direction by turning an imminent, tragic defeat into strategic recovery.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Building The Case For War

The Bush administration's rollout of the case against Iran is kicking into high gear. We're already familiar with two angles they'll be pursuing: the nuclear proliferation dossier that's been bouncing around for a while now, and the more recently introduced accusations of material support for Iraqi insurgents.

But today the Washington Post shed some light on a possible third angle being developed by the administration: Tehran's handling of known Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives captured while transiting Iran. There's still some inside sparring going on about how hard to push this one, but if it goes down, the argument is based on UN Security Council resolutions 1267 and 1373.

The first, passed in 1999, effectively froze the Taliban out of the international community. The second, passed in the aftermath of Sept. 11, basically called on all member states to combat terrorism through, among other measures, refraining from active or passive support of known terrorists, and through denying safe haven and transit.

The Post states that the resolutions authorize the use of force, although it's ambiguous whether they're citing the administration's claim or making it themselves. Of course, at the time everyone seemed to agree that we'd invaded Afghanistan without any explicit Security Council resolution authorizing it.

Now six years down the line, the resolutions that didn't authorize an invasion of Afghanistan somehow do authorize an invasion of Iran. Don't you love it when that happens?

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Constant Partial Engagement

Josh Marshall made the point at the end of a recent post that however disastrous our Iraq adventure turns out to be, we as a country will survive it. It's a point that bears repeating: Contrary to the fear-mongering of the past four years, America does not face an existential threat. Neither in al Qaeda or Iraq.

And as important as it is to contain the fallout of the Iraq War, the same holds true should the neocons get their wish for a military confrontation with Iran. The danger of such a confrontation is not so much Iran's capacity for response, which though greater than Iraq's will remain limited and asymmetric. America as a nation will survive them. But at what cost?

The neocons' grand vision for re-making the Middle East into a liberal democracy has been exposed for the collective hallucination that it was. But that pipedream was always a cover for a more realistic project: The conversion of American society to a permanent wartime footing.

A regional shooting war pitting America vs. Iran will result, not in a major conflagration, but in a series of explosive incidents, some more sustained than others, requiring the constant partial engagement of America's military. This at a time when our Armed Forces are already straining from the attrition of four years of war, and having difficulty replenishing both their ranks and hardware.

Of course, America has the excess productive capacity to repair its military, as demonstrated by the staggering $480 billion Pentagon budget for 2008. The figure grows to $715 billion when the supplemental budget requests for the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, as well as global anti-terrorism operations, are factored in.

That represents 6% of US estimated GDP, roughly double what Russia and China, our two principle stragetic rivals for global influence, devote to their military spending. A sustained conflict with Iran would obviously only widen the gap, while making the reinstitution of the draft inevitable.

The question isn't whether or not America, the economy, can sustain it. It can. The question is whether America, the nation, can. I, for one, have my doubts.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   International Relations   Iran   

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Friday, February 9, 2007

Stormy Weather

We've all heard alot about the Iraq War's ramifications on the regional balance of power in the Middle East. Not so much has been mentioned, though, about two other major consequences it's had on the broader geopolitical chessboard. Namely, the widening divergence between Europe's regional interests and our own, and the increasingly aggressive posture taken by the Russians vis à vis American militarism. Throw in an Iranian regime cagily seeking to leverage any advantage it can, an Indian economy glowing red-hot, and the international ambitions of the Chinese and you've got the makings of a multi-polar counterweight to American unilateralism.

The glue that could conceivably hold it all together? Natural gas. Specifically, Iran and Russia's abundance of it, and the European, Indian and Chinese markets for it. Between China and India's energy appetite, Europe's desire to diversify its gas supplies, Iran's need to peel off allies in its regional rivalry with the US, and Russia's interest in both securing energy markets and countering America's influence in Eurasia, there are all the makings of a perfect storm.

Oh, and... guess who plays the boat?

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   International Relations   Iran   

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Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Cut & Stay

Not too long ago, in the comments section of the highly recommended site Voices of Reason, I suggested a tactical solution to the Iraq War quagmire. As I put it there:

There is an option no one's mentioned, which is probably the best strategic option, even if it is unpalatable and unlikely:

The U.S. withdraws its reduced troop presence to an outpost in the Iraqi desert somewhere, from which it guarantees the "autonomy" of the Iraqi government, and the "stability" of the region in general, leaving day-to-day patrolling to the Iraqis.

In other words, remove ourselves from the line of fire, without relinquishing a necessary presence to save a semblance of geo-political face.

So it's gratifying to see Edward Luttwak propose the exact same thing, using the eminently more dignified term "Disengagement", in an op-ed in today's Times. Now to go treat my shoulder for "Patting myself on the back" syndrome.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   Politics   

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Monday, February 5, 2007

Syria's Fifteen Minutes Of Fame

You've got to take anything anyone says about Iraq right now with a grain of salt, but this interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is definitely an eye-opener. Not really for anything he says, which is relatively boilerplate stuff, but the way he says it. Here's his response to whether Syria can stop the violence in Iraq:

First of all, the problem in Iraq is political, and talking to Syria as a concept means talking to all the other parties inside Iraq and outside Iraq. We're not the only player. We're not the single player, but we are the main player in this issue, and our role is going to be through supporting the dialogue between the different parties inside Iraq with the support from the other parties like the Americans and the other neighboring countries and any other country in the world. So that's how we can stop the violence. [Emphasis added.]

Another one that jumped out at me:

Sawyer: But in America they believe that you are all powerful, and you say the word and the border will stop.

Assad: Powerful is different from being omnipotent — power that you can control everything completely. You cannot control your border with Mexico, can you? You're the greatest power in the world, you cannot control it with Mexico, so how do you want Syria to control its border with Iraq?

And while we're on the topic of that famous porous border and what it represents, there's more to it than meets the eye. This Joshua Landis article describes in depth some of the logic behind Syria's past policy of openness towards Iraqi refugees, which was based on Baathist pan-Arab nationalism, as well as some of the reasons they've recently drastically altered that policy, much to Iraq's chagrin. He concludes a thorough analysis of Syria's motivation with this:

Syria will continue to seek improved ties with as many parties as possible in Iraq. It is genuinely fearful of the consequences of a meltdown and the failure of Washington's mission to bolster the present government. It does not like America's presence in Iraq, but for the time being neither does it want the US to fail in keeping the government afloat. As Foreign Minister Muellem declared a few weeks ago, Syria does not want American troops to withdraw precipitously, although, it does want to be included in talks.

Syria's recent policy shift toward Iraq underlines how futile and self-destructive Washington's policy of excluding Syria has become. US prospects of stabilizing the situation in Iraq are not good, but without cooperating from Syria, they are surely worse than they have to be. Syria shares many of Washington's objectives in Iraq - not all, to be sure, but enough to make cooperation the only wise policy.

But even if everyone gets on the same page and agrees that turning Syria is the strategic key to mitigating the disaster we've created in Iraq, that begs the question, Is it possible? Steve Clemons seems to think so:

Bashar al-Assad and the clique of nine who surround him and are the real decision-makers inside Syria are also self-preservationist/realists. Some in this clique are modernist reformers and others are nefarious thugs, but they are all ultra-rational...

Reform should always be on the table of American negotiators... but there are things that we can offer al-Assad and his backers to move them on a Libya-like course.

We need to drop our counter-productive obsessions with regime change and do a deal that offers Syria's rationalists an arrangement that meets their needs and begins to turn our fortunes a more positive direction in the Middle East.

I've said it before, but it's worth repeating. This administration is busy encouraging everyone within Iraq to settle their differences through negotiations and the political process. It's advice we'd do well to follow ourselves.

Update: Just to make it clear, none of the above is intended to make the Syrians out to be choir boys. Apparently things are heating up behind the scenes in Lebanon, with both the CIA and Syrian intelligence upping the ante in the power struggle between Hezbollah and the Siniora government. (Thanks again to Joshua Landis.)

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iraq   

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Sunday, February 4, 2007

Getting Back To The Constitution

Hillary Clinton made headlines yesterday by declaring at the DNC Winter Meeting, "If we in Congress don't end this war before January 2009, as President, I will." Forceful, categoric, and obviously aimed to pre-empt criticism of her vote for the Iraq War resolution back in 2002.

All fine and good. What I'd like to see, though, is a Statement of Common Principles committing all the Democratic candidates, if elected, to return the executive branch to the limits of Consitutional authority. What would it look like? Well, for starters, I'd include the following:

  1. An immediate closing of GITMO.
  2. The right to trial in open court for all GWOT detainees.
  3. The categorical repudiation of torture, including inhumane treatment, for interrogation practices.
  4. The repudiation of extraordinary rendition for all GWOT detainees.
  5. The repudiation of all forms of domestic warrantless surveillance.
  6. The repudiation of elective war as an arm of US foreign policy.
  7. The return to executive transparency by limiting national security classification to a strict minimum.

As terrible a humanitarian and policy disaster as it's been, the Iraq War is in many ways only a symptom of the Bush administration's assault on the separation of powers as laid out in the Constitution. And as much as anything else, the Democratic candidates need to make it clear that they're committed to remedying that.

Posted by Judah in:  Domestic Policy   Foreign Policy   Iraq   Politics   

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Biden Blows It?

Lost in the controversy over Joe Biden's assessment of Barack Obama in today's New York Observer is the central claim he makes in the interview, namely that none of the other Democratic candidates have got a clue, much less a strategic plan, for dealing with Iraq.

Biden is on record for partitioning Iraq into three autonomous regions, with a central government responsible for policing borders and distributing oil revenue. Regional players like Iran and the Saudis would be involved to help control the chaos of the resulting ethnic displacement. The Kurds would be on their own in the event they tried to break off, ie. at the mercy of the Turks and Iranians.

The plan has got its supporters (Chuck Shumer and the Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon) as well as its detractors (notably Wesley Clark and Richard Perle). It sounds like managed ethnic cleansing to me. Unfortunately, that might be the best we and the Iraqis can hope for at this point.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   Politics   

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Resisting The Wrong War

I can't help but think that Congressional Democrats are wasting their time and seriously overplaying their hand with the anti-escalation resolutions. Yes, Americans are strongly opposed to sending more troops. But Bush's Surge-lite is such a pathetically insignificant measure, it was practically an admission of defeat in and of itself.

A lot of factors contributed to making a show of toughness too tempting to resist, not least of which was the Democrats' desire to show they're not going to be pushed around by an unpopular, politically isolated, lame-duck President. But instead of drawing blood, Senate Dems are having trouble getting even the strongly-worded Biden/Hagel non-binding resolution passed.

There's only two ways to end the Iraq War while Bush is still in office: cut off the funding and impeachment. Neither one is politically feasible. Besides, cleaning up the mess he's made over there will be the full-time work of at least the next two administrations (if not more), whether there are still American GI's on the ground come January 20, 2009 or not.

So if the Dems really want to stop a war, they should get to work on preventing the one with Iran that's looking more and more likely. And if they really do want to pick a fight, they should make sure it's one they can win.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Iran Threat, Real And Imagined

To follow up on a point I made here, for at least a generation or so, it's been something of a truism when talking about the Middle East that a lasting resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the sine qua non of regional stability. Without denying the poisonous impact it's had on the neighborhood, I think that particular conflict has also served as something of a smokescreen to help Arab states mask their own internal faultlines. Faultlines that for the most part (the Iran-Iraq War and the Lebanese Civil War are obvious exceptions) remained manageable for as long as the status quo among the Arab powers held.

One of the original propositions of the Iraq War advocates was that in the aftermath of Sept. 11th, the status quo in the Middle East was no longer acceptable. Invading Iraq was a way to shake things up and see how they re-settled. Of course, what's primarily emerged from our reckless experiment is the threat of Iran as an unchecked regional power. Which has scared the daylights out of all the interested parties, most of whom were doing just fine with business as usual. And one of the big winners of this collective shift of focus has been Israel, who suddenly finds itself spared its traditional role of scapegoat for all the region's problems.

So I don't think it's a big surprise that one of the loudest voices pumping the Iranian threat right now happens to belong to the Israelis. According to this article in the Observer about the pitiful state of the Iranian nuclear effort, the Israelis have mounted a vigorous campaign to convince the major players that 2007 is a red letter year for intervening, despite the fact that Mohammed El-Baradei recently pointed out at the Davos Forum that the Iranians are at least half a decade from being able to produce a nuclear device.

Now Iran's ability to cause trouble is hardly limited to their acquisition of a nuclear weapon. There wouldn't be so many people scrambling to find ways to contain them if that were the case. But there are a variety of ways to accomplish that end without setting off a certain regional conflagration. (Steve Clemons has a post about how the Saudis plan to use the price of oil to take a bite out of Iran's cash flow here.) Here's hoping we explore some of them before it's too late.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Iraq   

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Fighting Words, Losing Words

So what about the line of argument that goes, "Dissent emboldens our enemies, whose tactical aim, given their inability to defeat us on the battlefield, is to weaken our resolve"? That opposition to the war is the only thing that will cause us to lose the war? That we're talking ourselves into defeat in Iraq, as Daniel Henninger argues in a WSJ Opinion piece? Let's take them one at a time.

To begin with, yes, the primary tactical aim of any guerilla insurgency against an occupying power is to weaken domestic resolve to continue the occupation. And it seems pretty hard to argue that the folks setting off car bombs and IED's in Iraq aren't encouraged by the growing level of opposition to the war in this country. Certainly they must consider it a sign that they are nearing their goal of getting us to leave, which must in turn embolden them in some way.

So is opposition to the war to blame for us losing the war? If you define defeat by withdrawal, then obviously the answer is yes. The Iraqi insurgency cannot militarily force America to withdraw its troops from Iraq in the same way, say, that America and the Gulf War Coalition forced Saddam Hussein to withdraw his from Kuwait. But in most military campaigns, defeat precedes withdrawal. In some, it precedes the initial deployment. And I think the Iraq War is one these campaigns.

Because so far, domestic opposition to the war hasn't interfered in any way with the war's prosecution. If we are failing to achieve our goals in Iraq, as just about everybody but Dick Cheney now agrees is the case, it is mainly because: 1) we never devised a broad strategy to guide our tactics; and 2) our tactical approach failed to achieve what few narrow goals we did define.

Which brings us to Henninger's piece. Are we talking ourselves into defeat in Iraq? Only someone who believes that we are on our way to achieving our stated goals there, and that for lack of political will we risk leaving those goals unaccomplished, can answer yes to that question. Okay, so make that just about everybody but Dick Cheney and Dan Henninger now agrees: The answer is no.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iraq   

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bringing Syria To The Table

One thing that seems increasingly clear as a result of the teetering mess that is now Iraq: a strong central government headed by Sunnis was a key to regional stability. Any other arrangement creates wider scale imbalances that invite meddling or outright intervention by Iraq's neighbors. Of course this is the reason that the US so strongly supported Saddam Hussein until his ambition got unmanageable. (Which is neither an endorsement of Hussein or American policy, but simply an observation.)

Now common wisdom has it that our options on the ground range from bleak to grim to catastrophic, with the President having chosen "none of the above" as his response. But I'd argue that our tactical options appear so limited because four years after the initial invasion, we're still playing catch up for faulty planning and have yet to revise or define our broader strategic goals.

So what might those be? There's no putting the genie back in the bottle, and a "democratic" Iraq will never be Sunni-dominated. And as much as we might try negotiating with the Iranians, the truth is we might get some concessions, but they will remain regional rivals whose vested interests will usually be at odds with our own.

But the same can't be said about the Syrians, who stand to greatly benefit from improved relations with the US and eventually Israel. Which is why efforts such as the Swiss attempt to broker peace talks between Syria and Israel described in this article have to be encouraged and rewarded. And why no matter what else happens in Iraq, we need to take advantage of whatever is left of our occupation there to lean on the Syrians and convince them that they have more to gain through cooperation than conflict.

Springing the Syrians from their marriage of convenience with Iran weakens Hezbollah and thereby limits Iran's ability to destabilize Lebanon, as well as threaten Israel's security. A weakened Iran will reassure the Saudis, and possibly contain the threat of Iraq's internal sectarian conflicts spreading beyond its borders.

Will it solve the problems in Iraq? Of course not. But it could lead to a re-configuration in the region's balance of power that mitigates the downside of our failed intervention there. Which is better than nothing at all.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iraq   

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