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International Relations

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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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Bob Gates for President

I know he's got an awfully long and crowded bandwagon these days, but the thought occurred to me the other day that one of America's great strengths is that it can produce men like Secretary of Defense Bob Gates. Here's a speech he gave at the National Defense University the other day that's worth reading in its entirety for the lucidity with which he treats the challenges facing American hard power and how to respond to them. But maybe what's more striking than the lucidity is the reassuring logic and, above all, lack of hysteria:

The defining principle driving our strategy is balance. I note at the outset that balance is not the same as treating all challenges as having equal priority. . .

The balance we are striving for is:

  • Between doing everything we can to prevail in the conflicts we are in, and being prepared for other contingencies that might arise elsewhere, or in the future;
  • Between institutionalizing capabilities such as counterinsurgency and stability operations, as well as helping partners build capacity, and maintaining our traditional edge -- above all, the technological edge -- against the military forces of other nation states; and
  • Between retaining those cultural traits that have made the United States armed forces successful by inspiring and motivating the people within them, and shedding those cultural elements that are barriers to doing what needs to be done.

Gates has of late come down strongly on the side of the emerging COIN/stability operations consensus in the military's internal doctrinal debates. That had caused me some concern, not because I'm against that consensus, but because I worry about the risk of COIN-toxication. But in his speech, Gates dials his support back in:

When referring to "Next-War-itis," I was not expressing opposition to thinking about and preparing for the future. It would be irresponsible not to do so -- and the overwhelming majority of people in the Pentagon, the services, and the defense industry do just that. My point was simply that we must not be so preoccupied with preparing for future conventional and strategic conflicts that we neglect to provide both short-term and long-term all the capabilities necessary to fight and win conflicts such as we are in today.

As for the danger that a COIN-centric footing might pose in terms of intervention envy, Gates had this to say:

We are unlikely to repeat another Iraq or Afghanistan anytime soon -- that is, forced regime change followed by nation-building under fire. But that doesn’t mean we may not face similar challenges in a variety of locales.

That these kinds of missions are more frequent does not necessarily mean, for risk assessment purposes, that they automatically should have a higher priority for the purposes of military readiness. . .However, the recent past vividly demonstrated the consequences of failing adequately to address the dangers posed by insurgencies and failing states.

I once suggested Gates would make an ideal Secretary of State. I've since realized that that would reinforce the kind of militarization of American foreign policy that I've been arguing against for some time. But here's hoping he's the next president National Security Advisor.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

COIN and the Limits of Nation-Building

Janine Davidson at Intel Dump cites a Tom Johnson and M. Chris Mason piece in the Atlantic, All Counterinsurgency is Local, before discussing the tension between the tactics of counterinsurgency, which emphasize engaging with governance and authority at the most immediate (ie. local) level, and the strategy of counterinsurgency, which emphasizes shoring up governance and authority at the national level:

[T]he question we need to examine is about tradeoffs. What are we sacrificing from a national or international security perspective when we focus on human security at the local level, as Johnson and Mason suggest? What might an international system with weaker nation-states look like?

Do we have to choose between strengthening the local over the national level systems? Is it possible to have both? And can we help build both simultaneously, or should we focus on the local level and then eventually aggregate efforts up to a national level?

It's a point I alluded to here, in discussing the ways in which targeting the faultlines of the Westphalian order is increasingly becoming a feature not only of asymmetric non-state actors, but of great power geopolitics as well. It's also a point that I was planning to develop today, even before reading Davidson's post. Preventing failed and failing states from becoming vectors of regional and global security threats -- whether through terrorism, organized crime (human slavery, money laundering), or drug trafficking -- has become the foundational logic of America's national security posture, as reflected in the U.S. military's doctrinal shift towards a counterinsurgency emphasis.

But the tactical-strategic paradox that Davidson flags, between COIN on the one hand and nation-building on the other, reflects a broader historical context that risks getting clouded by the need for practical solutions to the operational challenges of two wars. Because in ways that vary from Iraq to Afghanistan to the Pakistani tribal areas, America is running up against the fundamental and historically unresolved tensions between the modern Westphalian system and the traditional ethno-sectarian/tribal system. Our strategic posture amounts to a colonial crusade in defense of the Westphalian order, even as the tactical necessities demanded by that crusade identify the historical limits of that order's applicability.

We're essentially fighting a rearguard battle of the 19th century colonial wars, minus the colonies. The fact that we're engaged in this exercise at the very moment that our global dominance seems to have peaked and our financial foundation is more uncertain than at any time in several generations suggests that in ignoring history, we're condemning ourselves to repeat it.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   International Relations   Iraq   

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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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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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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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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Can Blackwater Save Darfur?

I'm not really sure what to make of this Michael Walzer TNR piece. He begins by making a pretty good point: People who oppose the use of private military contractors (read: mercenaries) often assume that the case for their argument is so self-evident that they don't actually have to make it. So Walzer offers a corrective by going ahead and making a pretty good case against the use of mercenaries in the conduct of war. The basis of his argument is the lack of accountability that results, both for the mercenaries themselves (which has been widely criticized) but also for the government that employs them (which has gotten less attention).

Simply put, the use of military force is a political act that should be part of the political calculus by which any government is judged. By using mercenaries (and Walzer uses Bill Clinton's use of them in the Serbo-Croatian war as an example), a government gets to enjoy the benefits or suffer the consequences of the outcome, but not actually be held politically accountable by its electorate, since the actual deployment is largely invisible.

Walzer also highlights the logical inconsistency of trying to stabilize a country like Iraq (an operation which as much as anything implies reining in private militias in order to return the monopoly on the use of force to the state), through the use of... private militias.

But just when I expected Walzer to wrap up and close the deal, he pivots:

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule...

Since neither the United Nations nor NATO has any intention of deploying a military force that would actually be capable of stopping the Darfur genocide, should we send in mercenaries...?

Whatever Blackwater's motives, I won't join the "moral giants" who would rather do nothing at all than send mercenaries to Darfur... But we should acknowledge that making this exception would also be a radical indictment of the states that could do what has to be done and, instead, do nothing at all.

Now I admit that after an initial "WTF?!?" double-take, I actually considered the proposition, and wondered whether it's not, after all, the kind of bold gambit that might actually be needed, given the diplomatic gridlock that's got the world sitting on its hands while a bunch of thugs go about the business of methodically committing crimes against humanity.

But in the final analysis, to believe that Blackwater or any other mercenary outfit could somehow lock down that corner of the world, given the highly complex ethno-sectarian-politico-tribal dynamics at play, involves a willing suspension of disbelief. The truth is, Darfur -- like Baghdad -- is a cautionary tale about the dangers of allowing guys with guns to operate without any accountability. Adding Blackwater to what's already a bloody and tragic mix is simply adding more of the problem and calling it a solution.

Walzer's frustration and disgust with the world's failure to act is exemplary. But I think the rule he articulates stands up better than its exception. A military intervention might very well be necesssary in Darfur. But if it happens, it should be under the flag of a nation or the flag of a collection of nations, not that of a private militia operating under cover of political invisibility.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iraq   

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The EU's Kosovo Problem

A quick followup to John's [WPR] post about the deep divisions among EU member states regarding whether or not to recognize Kosovo's independence. When you take a look at who's opposed and why, it becomes clear that for Europeans much more than for Americans, the question of national sovereignty vs. ethno-linguistic-sectarian autonomy is not some far-off problem. Spain has got a delicate situation with Catalonia, and a violent Basque separatist movement to deal with. Greece and Cyprus are both keeping a wary eye on Turkish Cypriot claims to legitimacy. Romania and Bulgaria are in a corner of Europe where separatist claims could stoke regional unrest. And that's just Europe.

I've limited my comments on Kosovo so far to how sloppily it's been handled. (See this brief Laura Rozen post for confirmation.) But one thing is obvious. The argument that it doesn't set a precedent for separatist movements has not resonated in the areas of the world where such a precedent would be most threatening. To the contrary, the dissolution of Yugoslavia down to its lowest common denominators (of which Kosovo is simply the final act) has been accepted as one of the principal models for dealing with weakly federated nation states. The Biden-Gelb Plan for Iraq, for instance, is a thinly disguised version whose Federal structure, should it be implemented, is unlikely to stand the test of time.

Now I don't dismiss the argument that Serbia's oppressive mis-governance of Kosovo created a special case. I'm actually pretty susceptible to it. But unlike Iraqi Kurdistan, for instance, which could actually make a pretty strong claim for being a truly autonomous sovereign entity, Kosovo is a legal fiction. Its declaration of independence is simply a facade papering over a NATO/EU institutional infrastructure. (See Jacqueline Carpenter's WPR exclusive for more.) So as much as Kosovo sets a precedent for separatist movements, it sets an even more dangerous precedent for -- or at the very least, leaves the strong impression of -- the enforced partitioning of sovereign states without a UN mandate.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   International Relations   

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Taps: A Vision Of Military Honour

Continuing with the theme of Hollywood and the post-Vietnam rehabilitation of American militarism, it occurred to me that no discussion of the subject would be complete without mentioning what is to my mind the most intelligent, complex and poignant cinematic treatment of military honour ever made: Taps.

Released in the first year of Ronald Reagan's presidency, the movie is perhaps best known for introducing America to both Tom Cruise and Sean Penn. But in addition to providing an early heads up that Tom Cruise is a psychopath, the movie also captured, to an extraordinarily subtle degree, the challenges faced not just by America's military, but by the military ethos in general, in the post-Vietnam era.

George C. Scott, who plays the commanding officer of the fictional military academy, Bunker Hill, sets up the movie's theme when he explains to Timothy Hutton's Cadet Major Moreland that the 150 year-old academy will be closed:

There's a feeling on the outside that schools like this are anachronistic and leaders of men like you and me are dinosaurs... [Y]ou go to the movies, you read books. A military leader is always portrayed as slightly insane. Very often more than slightly. That's because it is insane to cling to honour in a world where honour is held in contempt.

To be sure, the film's pivot plays on the widespread popular animosity towards the military and its institutions that was de rigeur in America at the time: A group of locals harasses the cadets attending the academy's commencement ball. In the ensuing scuffle, one of the locals grabs Scott's pistol and is accidentally killed when it discharges.

But if the death seals Bunker Hill's fate, it is only because it accelerates the decision to close it that has already been reached by the academy's trustees, who are eager to cash in on the campus' real estate value by selling it to a group of condominium developers. That the film situates military honour as under attack from the twin menace of popular anti-militarism and market liberalism loosed from its ethical moorings illustrates the internal contradictions of the Reagan Revolution. Again, George C. Scott:

Their field of honour was a desk top. They didn't consult me. Never hinted at what their plans were. They just papered it and pencilled it and went ahead and did it because that's what the numbers said.

Six years later, the same profit motive -- boosted by credit-fueled prosperity and now sporting silk shirts, suspenders and greased hair -- would be celebrated by Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone's Wall Street. But at the time in 1981, the way forward still left many naturally inclined members of the Reagan coalition doubtful.

When Scott suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma following the local's death, Hutton feels honour-bound to keep the academy from closing. He and the other cadets occupy the grounds, only to find themselves besieged, first by the local police and later by the National Guard. From here on out, the film becomes an Oedipal struggle for the Cadet Major's soul, with Hutton (and post-Vietnam America) offered the choice between three visions of military honour.

The first, already introduced through George C. Scott's character, presents honour as the pre-requisite for glory. But as his address announcing the academy's closing that sets the drama in motion demonstrates, it is a vision of glory inextricably tied to death:

I stand here today with you and look out over these young men and of course I am reminded of other commencement days and other young men, men of courage and conviction, men who have given everything... How, then, can others say this land is for sale? It has been purchased and paid for with the blood of our graduates.

The second, more critical view of honour, comes in the person of Hutton's father, a drill sergeant who is the first envoy sent by the local authorities to convince his son to stand down. The character epitomizes the hard-nosed, leatherneck ethic of the enlisted soldier. For him, honour is a fool's errand that distracts people from the more essential duty of advancing in the face of incoming fire, both literal and symbolic, without getting hit:

Look, Brian, all the men in our family have been soldiers... Plain dogfaces with a knack for surviving. I hoped somebody would break into brass.

More concerned with the nuts-and-bolts operational logistics that decide an army's fate than Hutton's embrace of Scott's vision of honour, the father punctuates their conversation by slapping his son in the face. But if the gesture seems to say, "You'll never be the soldier I was", Hutton seems to embrace the rebuke. As he explains later to the national guard commander played by character actor Ronny Cox:

They want us to be good little boys now so we can fight some war for them in the future. Some war they'll decide on. We'd rather fight our own war right now.

Finally there's Cox, the war-weary and decent officer nonetheless obligated to carry out his orders. In his patient attempts to coax Hutton into calling off the students' rebellion, he offers the movie's moral foil, representing eros to Scott's thanatos. His response when Hutton claims the mantle of soldier offers the movie's corrective to the dangers of couching death in the robes of honour:

A soldier? No, goddammit, I'm a soldier, with the career goal of all soldiers. I wanna stay alive in situations where it ain't easy, but you, my friend, you're a death lover. I know the species. Eighteen years old and some son of a bitch has put you in love with death. Somebody sold you on the idea that dying for a cause is romantic. Well, that is the worst kind of all the kinds of bullshit there is! Dying is only one thing. Bad. Don't find that out. Please.

By defining a miltary credo that marries duty with vigilance and a respect for life, Cox provides the country with the rules of engagement it can feel comfortable embracing in the aftermath of Vietnam's confidence-shaking trauma. Safely in between Scott's glorification of death and the father's trivialization of duty, Cox offers a middle way of resolve without self-delusion.

When one of the children under Hutton's command finally dies, he, too, sees the hollowness of an idealized version of honour bound up in death:

When I knelt next to Charlie, I tried to find some justification. But honour doesn't count for shit when you're looking at a dead little boy. You don't think of the book of remembrance or bugles or flags or 21-gun salutes. All you think about is what a neat little kid he was... and how you're gonna miss him.

In many ways, Taps reflects the jaundiced view of the military ethos common at the time. It very clearly rejects Scott's lofty vision of honour as some ultimate value more urgent than life itself. Similarly, it condemns both the calloused professionalism of the father character as well as the hotheaded bloodlust of Tom Cruise's praetorian guard leader. Besides Cox, the most sympathetic supporting character, Sean Penn, represents loyalty more than duty, but a loyalty that does not exclude clear-sighted criticism and dissent.

But in the end it is Cox's resolute fatalism, accepting the tragedy of a soldier's calling without ever embracing it, that the film presents as a way forward in the moment of national self-examination that followed Vietnam.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   International Relations   

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Bad Medicine

Alan Dowd has got a pretty eye-opening article on the WPR frontpage about the quantum leaps in American missile defense technology that culminated in yesterday's intercept of the failing US-193 satellite. Dowd argues that America has just ushered in the Missile Defense Age:

Like the Rocket Age, which terrified Americans when Sputnik orbited the globe and then transfixed the world when Armstrong took his giant leap on the lunar surface; like the Jet Age, which turned the skies over Korea into a killing field and then opened the way to inexpensive, high-speed global travel; like the Nuclear Age, which ended a war by erasing two cities, put Armageddon within man's grasp and then provided boundless supplies of energy; this new epoch promises to bring both highs and lows, worry and wonder.

Count me among the worried. Not because I don't see the practical value of missile defense. It's just that with all the challenges to dissuasion and deterrence posed by global terrorism and asymmetric warfare, it seems like a pretty dicey moment to be undermining the one area where we've actually managed to reach a stable status quo. I'm a non-believer when it comes to N. Korean or Iranian ICBM capabilities, and consider those nations (by definition) to be eminently deterrable even if they should eventually achieve a strike capacity. With regards to Russia and China, on the other hand, the new age that, as Dowd makes clear, is irreversibly upon us basically sweeps away the strategic underpinnings of the past fifty years, and this at a time when there seems to be a global sense of urgency about pushing back against the prerogatives that go along with American military dominance.

Missile defense as a national security doctrine seems to reflect the idea that America can somehow immunize itself from the world. Ironically, while it will very likely provoke an outbreak of local "rashes", it can't protect us from the most dangerous threat of "infection" (asymmetric attacks, whether conventional or non-conventional) that we actually face.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cherrypicking Serbia's Neighbors

I'm not sure the day that Serb rioters storm the US embassy in Belgrade is the best time to announce that NATO might very well pocket three more of Serbia's neighbors:

The Pentagon believes that Macedonia, Albania and Croatia meet the criteria for NATO membership and will support their bids at the Alliance's summit in Bucharest, a senior US official said.

"As regards NATO enlargement, the Pentagon believes that military criteria are certainly met. Six weeks before the summit in Bucharest, we will ensure that these three countries become members of the Alliance," said Daniel Fata, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense at the press conference after the meeting with defense ministers of the Adriatic Group (A3).

Again, to say nothing about the merits of Kosovo's claim to independence, the handling of the announcement has been pretty amateurish. This sort of timing leaves the impression that the federal functions of the former Yugoslavia have ultimately been outsourced to NATO headquarters.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Live And Learn

I expressed some surprise yesterday at Turkey's rapid recognition of Kosovo's independence, especially in light of their concerns over Kurdish separatist sentiment. Today I came across these remarks by a "high-level" Turkish diplomat in the Turkish Daily News:

Kosovo and Cyprus are two different cases and we are not trying to take advantage of the former's independence for the Turkish Cypriots. But we naturally cannot stop any third party's drawing similarities between the two.

The diplomat went on to emphasize that Turkey's priority is to proceed with Cypriot reunification talks under UN auspices, and to that end is watching the outcome of the Greek Cypriot presidential elections closely. But their recognition of Kosovo does seem to make more sense now, even if it seems like a pretty fine line to walk, given how closely the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq already resembles a sovereign state.

Meanwhile, to give you an idea of how prickly the Cyprus issue is, while Turkey has recognized Kosovo and the EU as a whole has not (leaving it up to individual members to decide for themselves), Turkey has warned that it will veto any NATO cooperation with the unanimously approved EU support mission being organized for Kosovo because of the presence of a Greek Cypriot contingent.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   International Relations   Turkey   

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Fear And Trembling In The Balkans

As many foreign policy experts expected, the most feared repercussion from Kosovo's declaration of independence has in fact materialized: the breakaway Moldavian republic of Transdnestr has declared that it will seek international recognition as an independent state. No word yet on whether an emergency session of the Security Council will be called.

All kidding aside, though, the development does lend weight to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov's claims that Kosovo will: a Pandora' Box of declarations of independence as de facto independent republics across the world asked themselves the question, "How are we any different?"

Meanwhile, another Russian lawmaker, cautioned against Russia using two Georgian breakaway republics as payback for Kosovo:

"We should understand that by recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia we could trigger a serious crisis in the CIS," Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the International Affairs Committee at the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, said, adding that over half of all ex-Soviet states "have their own Kosovo and Abkhazia."

Unfortunately, we're living in an age that seems to be characterized by little concern for triggering serious crises.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Russia   

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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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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Pipeline Faultlines

In the latest development in the ongoing pipeline diplomacy roiling the Middle East and Europe, Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, announced that Iran was willing to supply gas for the EU's Nabucco pipeline project. Most significant about the announcement, which comes on the heels of two major Russian gas deals that strengthened Moscow's grip on European supply routes, is that Mottaki made specific mention of Europe's desire to diversify its gas sources.

Obviously, the offer must be understood principally in the context of the ongoing nuclear standoff, as an Iranian attempt to weaken European opposition to its uranium enrichment program and create a wedge between Washington and its European allies. In light of today's announcement about the agreement reached over a third round of UN sanctions, that's unlikely to happen. Even if the sanctions were watered down to bring Russia and China on board, they are symbolically extremely significant.

But the offer also coincides with Tehran's lingering and increasingly bitter dispute over a gas delivery contract with Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan has shut down its pipeline to Iran citing technical problems, but most observers believe the move, coming in the midst of a particularly cold Iranian winter, is a bareknuckled attempt to renegotiate the contract to reflect the higher price (roughly double) that Moscow recently agreed to pay for Turkmenistan's supplies.

If the Iranian offer signals a potential faultline in the Iran-Russian tactical alliance, it's one worth pursuing. While sitting on the second largest known natural gas reserves (after Russia), Iran would need enormous investment to develop its extraction and delivery capacities, which explains its vulnerability to Turkmenistan's tactics.

So far, the Russians have continued to supply the nuclear fuel to the Bushehr reactor, and their reticence has contributed to watering down the latest round of UN sanctions. But Moscow did sign on, and its efforts to solidify its energy position have come at the expense of Iran's domestic supplies. In response, Iran seems to be signalling that its allegiance is not set in stone, and that for the time being all its alignments are tactical rather than strategic in nature.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   International Relations   Iran   

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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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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

One Strike You're Out

This is pretty serious stuff. Five senior Western military strategists, each of them a former Chief of Staff and some of them former high-ranking NATO commanders, just submitted a report that will be discussed at the upcoming NATO summit this April arguing that the risk of nuclear proliferation is "imminent", that as a result the West must seriously contemplate the possibility of limited nuclear exchanges, and that the option of a nuclear first strike should not be removed from the "quiver of escalation". Beyond that, they call for overhauling NATO's decision-making procedure, eliminating consensus and national veto and replacing it with a majority rules arrangement, in order to facilitate rapid response.

It's hard to ignore the fact that the announcement of the report comes on the heels of the Russian Chief of Staff's reiteration yesterday of Russia's longstanding first strike policy. But more than anything, the report represents an acknowledgement that the rules of the deterrent game have been scrambled and that from here on out we'd better be willing to scrap because chances are we're going to have to.

That's a pretty frightening scenario when you consider the impact of even a limited nuclear exchange on a second-rate power, and then consider the role failed states play in the current proliferation outlook. In other words, we're entering into a period where the only response left doesn't only fail to solve the problem, it exacerbates it. As I said at the outset, pretty serious stuff.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Invisible Hand Of Violence

Whether you love Steven Metz or hate him, you've really got to read him. His take on 21st century insurgency is nothing short of paradigm-shifting. Unlike Cold War-era insurgencies, where there were effectively two sides with at times sponsors in each corner, contemporary insurgencies more closely resemble a violently contested, multiple-player market where the commodity is power, and where participants dream of monopoly, aim for dominance, and settle for market share and profitability, both figurative and literal. And as Metz explains, for a variety of reasons, as the conlict takes hold, it becomes to everyone's advantage to perpetuate it in a controlled form rather than to bring it to an end.

Metz argues, as he has before, that the danger of contemporary insurgency is less the threat of a definitive negative outcome, such as a hostile government being installed, so much as the second-degree effects of protracted conflict: population displacements, regional instability, and organized crime and terrorism, for instance. Instead of militarily defeating the insurgency, the goal becomes stability, whether through rapid power-sharing arrangements or more labor-intensive methods:

If, in fact, insurgency is not simply a variant of war, if the real threat is the deleterious effects of sustained conflict, and if such actions are part of a systemic failure and pathology where key elites and organizations develop a vested interest in the sustainment of the conflict, the objective of counterinsurgency support should be systemic reengineering rather than simply strengthening the government so that it can impose its will more effectively on the insurgents. (p. 30)

And since Metz is far from optimistic about the potential for longterm systemic re-engineering, it should come as no surprise that he argues for extremely limiting the contingencies that justify the use of counterinsurgency intervention, and those primarily in the context of a multi-lateral coalition.

It's a fascinating read, sure to change the way you think about the news coming out of Iraq, Afghanistan and other trouble spots around the globe.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Monday, December 31, 2007

Kosovo Countdown

Somewhat neglected amid all the attention being given to events in Pakistan, over which we have limited influence, is the approaching endgame for the Kosovo impasse, over which we have enormous influence. As things stand, it's looking increasingly likely that come the new year, the US, the EU, and NATO are going to bypass the UN Security Council, where Russia has threatened a veto, and serve as guarantors of the breakaway Serbian province's unilateral declaration of independence. Here's how Mikhail Gorbachev described the Western approach:

"It is an unprecedented step, which will certainly result in failure, both politically and morally," Gorbachev said in an interview with the government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

"For the first time in history, two organizations are trying to assume responsibility for the future of a country - Serbia - which is not a member of either of them."

Serbia has already threatened retaliatory measures in the event of a unilateral declaration of independence, including suspending its membership proceedings for acceding to the EU. And as Dimitri Simes explained in this excellent IHT op-ed, the standoff has even broader implications for the West's relationship with Russia. If Kosovo serves as a precedent, it could legitimize the eventual absorption by Russia of two separatist Georgian provinces, which is why the West is trying to treat it as a one-off "policy by exception". But its heavy-handed dissection of Serbia's territorial integrity would deal Russia another humiliation at a moment when Moscow increasingly feels the need to demonstrate its resurgent influence.

I'll be writing more about this, not only because it represents a giant hornets' nest in practical terms. It also presents a lot of food for thought on theoretical levels. Addressing the potential atomization of multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian states deserves to be on the short list of our foreign policy priorities, right up there with global warming and nuclear proliferation. And whether we like it or not, how we handle Kosovo will of course determine a precedent, so exploring some its broader implications seems worthwhile. But for now I just wanted to get this up and into the mix.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   International Relations   Russia   

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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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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Outta Here Like Vladimir

I'm not sure if Vladimir Putin is really Man of the Year, as Time Magazine maintains. But if there were a MVL (Most Valuable Leader) award along the lines of the MVP in professional sports, he'd certainly be high in the running this year. Between his bellicose rhetoric on American missile defense, his high-stakes maneuvering on Iran, his suspension of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, and his reintroduction of long-range bomber sorties and Russian navy flotillas on the high seas, about the only thing Vlad didn't do this year was bang his shoe on a desk at the UN.

There's also a pretty strong argument to be made that he's about ready for a Lifetime Achievement award, too. Judging by his human rights record, the guy's a psychopath, it's true. But if you compare the bareknuckled arena of realpolitik to the Ultimate Fighting Championships, Putin's Royce Gracie. It's hard to think of another leader over the past ten years who has consolidated his or her country's position as effectively as Putin. Tony Blair comes close, but the Iraq War put a pretty big black mark on any assessment of his tenure. Meanwhile, neither Chirac, Schroeder, Berlusconi, or Aznar comes close to measuring up. He's had a bunch of help, ranging from George W. Bush's decision to run America into the ground, to the massive influx of oil and gas revenues. But like it or not, Putin's been at the helm for a pretty incredible turnaround in Russia's geopolitical fortunes.

Meanwhile, the difference between Time's gimmicky pick last year and their selection this year is sobering: viral videos on the one hand, ruthless realpolitik on the other. It's almost as if the shock of 9/11 is beginning to wear off and, in looking around, America's suddenly realizing that while we've been squandering our political capital, there are other countries out there who have been slowly but steadily building their's up.

What a difference a year makes.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Media Coverage   Russia   

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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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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Not So Easy Way Out

The coming showdown in Kosovo is worth our attention for a number of reasons. To begin with, in terms of pure power politics, it will have a major impact on Russia's orientation towards Europe and the West. That in turn will have consequences for some of the regional alignments where Russia can make things difficult for American and European interests, including the Middle East, but also Eurasia.

On a more theoretical level, given how questionable the multi-lateral legitimacy of the initial Kosovo War was, and given the degree to which the foundations of multi-lateralism have been undermined since, it's hard to imagine how a second Kosovo War could be anything but extremely destabilizing on a global level.

On an even more theoretical level, the Kosovo crisis raises questions for the West in terms of its approach to addressing ethnic and sectarian conflict in fragile and failed states. We seem to be moving increasingly towards an atomized vision of reducing nation-building efforts to the lowest common denominator. As an example, our vision for Iraq has moved from a central government, to a Federalized arrangement, to tribal "awakenings".

The element in these atomized "solutions" that seems to be taken for granted (read: ignored) is that in order to prevent them from completely degenerating into festering zones of violence and instability, they require some sort of longterm, outside military presence to stabilize them. It's easy to talk about an "independent" Kosovo. But if it takes a permanent outpost of EU peacekepers whose presence is contested by Serbia and Russia, it's a legal fiction.

There's an old joke about the French intellectual who, confronted with an arrangement that seems to be working, objects, "It's great in practice. But does it work in theory?" It's a question we ought to ask ourselves about our rejection of multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian nation-building. The path of least resistance is by definition easier to travel. But it doesn't necessarily take us where we want to go.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   International Relations   

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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, December 6, 2007

Make It Stop

You know things are getting wonkish in your brain when you see a conference coming up this weekend at the Hudson Institute titled The Azerbaijan-Turkey-U.S. Relationship and its Importance for Eurasia and you think to yourself, "Damn. Too bad I'm not in DC."

Oh, well. Maybe I'll just wander through the Louvre instead.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Friday, November 30, 2007

The View From Their Window

Once you get past the poor translation, this People's Daily op-ed on America's "capabilities of overseas interference" is pretty encouraging for anyone who takes a bearish view of America's influence in the world. According to Liu Weidong, a researcher at China's Institute of American Studies, a number of factors do in fact contribute to a relative decline in our global influence. Primary among them are the changes wrought by globalization. All roads no longer necessarily lead to Rome; bi-lateral and multi-lateral ties are increasingly being forged independently of the major powers. Beyond that, our soft power has taken a hit in the aftermath of the Iraq debacle. And finally, the folks most associated with interventionism (the so-called vulcans) "...have gone downhill...", to use the author's formulation.

But a relative decline is not the same thing as bottoming out. Here's Liu, rotten translation and all:

Nnevertheless, the primary factor for the successful intervention of global affairs is the hard power. In term of hard power or strength, the United States still ranks first. Its intervention capacity via the combination of economic means with coordinated military threat and remote or distance strikes remains very powerful and formidable...

Moreover, from a long-term point of view, the U.S. does not have a matching foe in a relatively long period to come. Although some regional powers have grown in strength, they do not intend to challenge its status and so they neither firmly support nor stay in a vehemently opposition to the intervention actions of the United States. This point is indicated distinctly by recent postures of the new French and German leaders to amend their ties with the U.S. respectively.

Liu minimizes the difference between the interventionist reflex of Republicans and Democrats, distinguishing them instead by their areas of interest and preferred methods (or as he puts it, "...What different is nothing but their focuses of attention and ways of solution they are good at.") Here's how he concludes:

...Global stability in the years ahead is, to a great extent, decided by how the American people relard or look upon international disputes, and whether or not they are able to contain and how to contain their government.

I think those of us horrified at the Bush administration's handling of foreign policy in the aftermath of 9/11 have a tendency to paint a very alarmist picture about how far our standing in the world has fallen. I know I'm guilty of it from time to time. I'm flagging this not because I think Liu's analyses is especially original or authoritative, but more to remind us all that regardless of how glum our own perception of America's standing in the world might be, the rest of the world still has a pretty healthy respect for American power, even if it's only our ability to screw things up even more. Despite everything we've squandered in blood, treasure and prestige over the past six years, we remain the pre-dominant world power, and perhaps the only one really capable of seriously considering the type of unilateral interventionism we've pursued during that time.

It will take a lot of work and effort, but should we decide both to elect a reasonable president and to contain the inevitable urge to excess that comes with such incommensurate capabilities, there's no reason to believe we can't rehabilitate our standing to reflect the true power we still possess.

Posted by Judah in:  China   International Relations   

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Friday, November 30, 2007

Petty Officers?

An AFP report claims that the US pressured Japan to cancel a scheduled tour of an Aegis-equipped warship for visiting Chinese sailors. The ostensible reason was concern that the Chinese might manage to glean some useful information about the cutting edge defense technology. But it's hard not to wonder if it doesn't have something to do with China's recent refusal to grant American vessels entry to Hong Kong harbor.

Japan denied that there was any American pressure, claiming the reason for the cancellation was that the ship was not in port. The visit by the Chinese destroyer is the first port call of the Communist Chinese navy in Japan.

Update: Add another navy vessel to the list of American ships to which China has refused to grant entry to Hong Kong harbor. The Reuben James' request for a New Year's Eve visit was denied at the same time that the Kitty Hawk was turned away last week. This little naval protocol spat seems to be rising to the level of a "perplexing" diplomatic incident.

Posted by Judah in:  China   International Relations   

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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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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 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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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Pakistan In Context

Another quick post about the State of Emergency in Pakistan, under which opposition activists (including the former head of Pakistani intelligence) have now been detained. Pakistan has found itself under increasing American pressure to both rein in its Islamic militants and restore some semblance of civilian democratic rule. My reading of the State of Emergency -- and I admittedly might be giving Musharraf and the generals too much credit -- is that Musharraf is clearly signalling that he can deliver one or the other, but not both. That, at least, is what he's claiming, and I don't pretend to know enough about the realities on the ground to assess whether or not it's true.

But as this clause from the Provisional Constitutional Order issued to suspend the Pakistani constitution demonstrates, it's obvious which part of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan gives way when push comes to shove:

Notwithstanding anything contained in the Proclamation of the 3rd day of November, 2007, or this Order or any other law for the time being in force all provisions of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan embodying Islamic injunctions... shall continue to be in force.

The biggest flaw in the Bush administration's response to 9/11 has been its failure to appreciate just how tight a tightrope our Muslim allies are walking. Because while the very limited cult of suicidal martyrdom represented by Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden represents no real existential threat to America, the much broader movement calling for the imposition of a fundamentalist Islamic theocracy throughout the Arab world does pose such a threat to our allies in the region. And the 20th century model of secular democracy represented by Turkey, or secular non-democratic modernism represented by Egypt and Jordan, but also Syria and Iraq under Saddam Hussein, is an increasingly obsolete alternative. Which seems to leave as the best alternative, at least for the time being, a hybrid form of theocratic-modernism, ideally with -- but predominantly without -- the trappings of democracy.

The transition to modernism has historically met fierce opposition everywhere it has taken place. So it's not surprising that the same should be true in the Islamic world. It's also impossible to speak of a universal modernism. The West modernized through hard-won democratic institutions; Russia, Japan and China through centralized totalitarian states.

By falling prey to the Clash of Civilations paradigm in the aftermath of 9/11, instead of addressing the unique challenges faced by the Islamic world in its pursuit of modernism, we've reinforced the environment of hostile conflict that in fact favors our enemies. Pakistan is just the latest symptom of that phenomenon.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Pakistan   

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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

Flower Power

One of the stranger phenomena of the past fifteen years is the way in which war has been rehabilitated as a policy tool at the same time that the actual casualties from military conflict have overwhelmingly shifted towards the civilian population. According to this graphic from RIA Novosti, in the early 20th century, 85-90% of war casualties were military personnel. By the late 20th century, 75% of casualties from military conflicts were civilians.

The suffering of war's innocent bystanders used to be a cornerstone of the pacifist movement. Yet now that their suffering is greater than ever, the pacifist movement has largely been "discredited" by foreign policy realists. The popular refrain now is to say, like Barack Obama, "I'm not against war, I'm against this war". But when I see those numbers, it's enough to make me wish for the good old days.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Putin & The Mullahs Redux

Matthew Yglesias is correct to argue that we ought to take Russia's relationship with Iran -- and its interest in deterring any strike on Iran's Russian-built nuclear energy program -- very seriously. But I'm not sure about his suggestion that Putin would just hand over the plans for a bomb or two in a fit of post-strike diplomatic pique. In fact, Russia's got plenty of reasons to consider the prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran with something less than enthusiasm.

To begin with, while the Bush administration's claims that Iran might develop a missile capacity to reach the American mainland are preposterous, Russia could one day very conceivably find itself threatened by an Iranian nuclear weapon. More immediately, an Iranian bomb would likely set off a regional nuclear arms race. Given Russia's history with Islamic insurgents in Chechnya, the idea of widespread proliferation in the Muslim world is not a particularly comforting one.

So while Russia, and a good part of the world, will very likely be majorly ticked off should we go ahead and unilaterally bomb Iran's nuclear program, I don't think that will play out as the nuclear weapons equivalent of a food drive for Tehran. On the other hand, it will make cobbling together a longterm containment and deterrent strategy significantly more difficult.

Update: Both Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan have now signed on to Yglesias' interpretation of Putin's declaration. Odd. There are plenty of sound arguments against a unilateral strike against Iran. But to suggest that the Russians will hand over a nuclear weapon to Tehran in response to such an attack doesn't seem like one of them. The reason we did not have to disarm a nuclear Poland, Romania, Hungary, East Germany, etc. is because the Russians did not share their nuclear weapons technology with them. And those countries formed a regional strategic military alliance at the heart of Russian national defense doctrine for more than forty years. By contrast, Russia's bonds with Iran are based on short-term tactical considerations and economic interest, hardly the basis for a nuclear kiss. Putin's threat is a combination of posturing and a warning that he can make things difficult for us. That alone is plenty.

Update 2: Ezra Klein has now added some water to the Kool Aid before tossing it back. Guys, nobody just gives away nuclear weapons. Desperately isolated states (ie. North Korea) sell them, as do desperately greedy individuals (ie. AQ Khan). A uni-lateral strike against Iran will certainly make it more difficult to use diplomacy to stave off an eventual Iranian second push for nuclear capacity, thereby locking us into a cycle of military intervention. But no one's going to just hand over the atomic goody bag to Tehran just to get back at us.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   Russia   

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Finding The Words

I'm not really sure what to say about this. It's certainly true that the Congressional resolution calling the Turkish massacre of Armenians a genocide will most likely damage our relations with Turkey, and thereby do harm to our interests in the Middle East. It's also true, although this point isn't made, that there's no urgent reason to pass this kind of resolution right now, and it carries with it no binding consequences. So I could almost understand the White House's discomfort at seeing this thing go to a vote at all.

But it's creepy to hear the State Department express its regret over the resolution now that it has passed, while quite clearly taking pains to avoid referring to what it actually addresses. As if the only way to get the statement out is to avoid its actual meaning: That this administration, ordinarily so devoted to moral absolutism, is willing to ignore a historical crime against humanity for the sake of political expediency.

You can bet the Sudanese government is sleeping a little bit more peacefully tonight.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Turkey   

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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Menage A Six

We know that Nicolas Sarkozy has increasingly re-aligned French foreign policy to a pro-American stance, most notably on the Iran standoff. So Paris and Washington are all smiles and George and Nicolas are buddy-buddy. Except that France will very likely be selling Pakistan air-to-air missiles and radar for use with its Chinese-made fighter jets, a move that will (potentially) provide China with access to the weapons and insight into effectively countering them. Which will strengthen the Chinese hand vis à vis Taiwan, whose French Mirage fighters are equipped with the same missiles, thereby royally pissing off Washington. So, no smiles after all. No playdate for George and Nicolas.

To complicate matters even more, while France (and the rest of the world) not-so-secretly covets the Chinese weapons market, they also covet the Taiwanese and Indian weapons market. And both Taiwan and India are likely to be royally pissed off about the Pakistani deal, too. Keep your eyes on this one. Whether or not the deal goes through will be a good indication of who's really in the driver's seat in the emerging Franco-American rapprochement.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   La France Politique   

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Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Die Hard

Back in March 2003, while the Bush administration and most of the country was busy preparing for war with Iraq, Stanley Kurtz had the foresight to consider the threat posed by a nuclear North Korea. Here's what he predicted in a piece for The National Review Online:

...Once North Korea processes weapons-grade plutonium and removes it from Yongbyon, that plutonium will be effectively hidden from spy satellites, inspectors, and military strikes. At that point, North Korea will be free, not only to construct more nuclear weapons, but to sell weapons-grade nuclear material to al Qaeda, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, and anyone else who will pay for it.

Continuation of this situation will be catastrophic for the United States. In the short term, North Korean sales of plutonium would lead to dirty bombs in American cities, rendering sections of Washington or New York uninhabitable for generations. In the medium term, plutonium sales will doubtless lead to full-scale nuclear blasts, set off by terrorists, in American cities. These will kill hundreds of thousands, even millions of Americans. Full-scale nuclear arms proliferation to rogue nations will also lead to yet more nuclear blackmail, of the type being practiced by Korea right now. In effect, America's conventional military might will be neutralized, and Saddam-like regional adventurers will become a constant threat. In short, if we overthrow Saddam, while still letting North Korea turn itself into a worldwide engine of nuclear proliferation, then we will have lost the war on terror.

Of course, North Korea proceeded to not only process its plutonium and remove it from the plant, but to successfully test a nuclear device. With the most catastrophic consequence (from the NRO's perspective, that is) being that negotiations over the shuttering of the Yongbyon plant have apparently progressed to the point that North Korea will soon be removed from official membership in the Axis of Evil (ie. the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism).

Now does this demonstrate that nuclear proliferation among rogue states is desirable? I suppose that depends on which side of the negotiating table you find yourself on. I, for one, am not too thrilled by the idea of a nuclear North Korea. Ditto for a nuclear Iran or Syria. (Same goes for Israel, the US, Russia, China, India, Pakistan et al, though I wouldn't put them in the same category, and I think their track records as nuclear powers demonstrate proven restraint in the face of provocations.) The North Koreans, of course, would probably see things differently.

What this does demonstrate, though, is that the assumption that possessing a nuclear weapon will automatically render hostile, rogue regimes recklessly and aggressively belligerent is unfounded. For all the caricatures of Kim Il-Jong as an erratic, laughable munchkin, the guy has played his hand skillfully to obtain exactly what he wanted. Which, it turns out, is not to dominate the world, or even Southeast Asia, but to simply secure his survival.

There's a lesson to be learned here, most obviously with regard to Iran, but also for re-inventing our nuclear non-proliferation strategy for the geopolitical landscape of the 21st century. Hollywood doomsday scenarios sell tickets at the box office. But solid diplomacy gets the job done in the real world.

Posted by Judah in:  Dear Leader   International Relations   Iran   

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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Old Times Redux

As so often happens, just after clicking the "Publish" button to send this post through the tubes, I found these remarks from former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto:

I would hope that I would be able to take Osama bin Laden myself without depending on the Americans. But if I couldn't do it, of course we are fighting this war together and (I) would seek their cooperation in eliminating him.

Ms. Bhutto also told the BBC that were she to win Pakistan's upcoming elections, she would be willing to allow the IAEA to question Pakistani nuclear godfather AQ Khan.

My understanding is that the reason Pervez Musharraf has backed off both of these options is that they're wildly unpopular with the Pakistani street. In particular, they're seen as caving in to American influence. So it will be interesting to see whether or not they harm Ms. Bhutto's chances.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Monday, October 1, 2007

Dreams And Nightmares

I admit that for a while now, I've taken Hugo Chavez seriously. Ever since the price of oil started skyrocketing, to be exact, and neo-Bolivarian candidates won elections in Ecuador and Bolivia, to be even more exact. I also admit that for a while now, I've felt like something of an idiot for taking Hugo Chavez seriously. Because, for me, Hugo Chavez represents everything that, in an ideal world, ought not be taken seriously.

So I don't know whether to be relieved or disappointed, or both, to learn that Max Manwaring, in a National War College monograph, takes Hugo Chavez very seriously:

President Chavez is pursuing a Super Insurgency with a confrontational, defensive, populist, and nationalistic agenda that is intended eventually to liberate Latin America from U.S. economic dependency and political domination. That is a Herculean task, but he appears to be prepared to take his time, let his enemies become accustomed to a given purposeful action, and then slowly move toward new stages of the revolution in a deliberate, slow, and phased manner. Thus, by staying under his opponents’ “threshold of concern,” Chavez says that he expects to “put his enemies to sleep—to later wake up dead.”

This is not the rhetoric of a “nut case.” It is, importantly, the rhetoric of an individual who is performing the traditional and universal Leninist Maoist function of providing a strategic vision and the operational plan for gaining revolutionary power. (pp. 32-33)

Not good. Fortunately, Manwaring (as I) believes that Chavez is unlikely to succeed in his effort to unify all of Latin America into a grand counterweight to the United States. But that's not the point. The point is that Chavez is willing to de-stabilize targeted governments in order to do so. In fact, it's part of his grand strategy. And failed states, as breeding grounds of violence, crime and non-state bad actors, might be even worse than a grand Latin American counterweight to the United States:

However, if misguided political dreams were to come true, Osama bin Laden would see the artificial boundaries of the Muslim Middle East and North Africa turn into caliphates reminiscent of the glory days of the 12th and 13th centuries. And Hugo Chavez would witness the metamorphosis of 15 or 20 Latin American republics into one great American nation. Experience demonstrates, however, that most of these political dreams never come true. Ultimately, the international community must pay the indirect social, economic, and political costs of state failure. Accordingly, the current threat environment in the Western Hemisphere is not a traditional security problem, but it is no less dangerous. (p. 8)

The comparison between Chavez and Bin Laden is no coincidence, because Manwaring sees them as two sides of the same asymmetrical warfare coin: Osama goes in for the high-profile attack; Hugo's more of a stealth provocateur. But they've both got pan-nationalistic goals, they've both identified the limitations of conventional conceptions of power, and they've both developed their strategic visions accordingly.

That's more than Manwaring can say for America, which is still locked into obsolete concepts and stultified organizational structures that hinder our ability to respond to tactical challenges to the full extent of our abilities.

Take deterrence, for instance. With the advent of 4th generation warfare (4GW), the battlefield is no longer (exclusively) a physical space where armies meet. War now takes place anywhere and everywhere that the conflict's center of gravity -- public opinion and leadership -- can be influenced: In the media, in the marketplace, and in the halls of the UN, to name but a few. Freed from the restrictive role of threatening a largely obsolete use of force, deterrence could be re-invented more broadly as prevention:

Deterrence is not necessarily military—although that is important. It is not necessarily negative or directly coercive, although that, too, is important. Deterrence is much broader than any of these elements. Deterrence can be direct and/or indirect, political-diplomatic, socioeconomic, psychological-moral, and/or militarily coercive. In its various forms and combinations of forms, it is an attempt to influence how and what an enemy or potential enemy thinks and does. That is, deterrence is the creation of a state of mind that either discourages one thing or encourages something else. Motive and culture, thus, become crucial. In this context, political-military communication and preventive diplomacy become a vital part of the deterrence equation. (pp.42-43)

But as our missile-rattling handling of the Iranian crisis shows, this multi-hued approach to deterrence has yet to emerge from its cocoon.

Manwaring's analysis does more than just rehabilitate Chavez from a certified loony to a legitimate psychopath, though. It calls into question the very nature of the security challenges America faces in the 21st century. In mobilizing America for an unnecessary war against Iraq, President Bush reduced the threat we face to a "War Against Terrorism", later re-labelled as a "War Against Islamo-Fascism".

But the real threat to American global interests is much broader than that. It lies in the limitations of conventional power in the face of asymmetric conflict, and the resulting vulnerability of already-fragile nation-states to non-conventional methods of de-stabilization. Neither of which are to be found exclusively in the Islamo-Fascist hinterlands of the Middle East.

It should come as no surprise that a world confronted with a solitary super-power should attempt to re-configure itself in ways that might counterbalance such immense unilateral power. Osama Bin Laden's dream of a Caliphate and Chavez's dream of a unified Latin American state are not very different from China's dream of a peaceful rise, or Russia's dream of a return to form, even if the methods differ.

By squandering our military strength and international influence where the enemy wasn't, instead of articulating a broad strategy that can help us outsmart them where they increasingly are, President Bush has brought all of those dreams one step closer to coming true.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   International Relations   Las Americas   The Middle East   

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Most commentary I've seen on the US-India nuclear deal has focused on wondering why President Bush would basically scrap American anti-proliferation policy to secure what amounts to an overwhelmingly one-sided (in India's favor) deal. But if this article in the Times of India is any indication, the consequences of the deal haven't gotten as much attention as they deserve. Because according to the article, a Pakistani government minister has demanded that we offer the same terms to Pakistan that we gave to India. If not, we run the risk of creating an imbalance in the regional nuclear equation.

This seems like a pretty foreseeable wrinkle. Not surprisingly, no one in the Bush administration seems to have foreseen it.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Monday, August 20, 2007


This is a point that I tried to make here, but which Adam Gopnik makes remarkably well in his article about Nicolas Sarkozy in the New Yorker:

[America's] military weakness has been exposed in Iraq, its economic weakness by the rise of the euro, and its once great cultural magnetism has been diminished by post-9/11 paranoia and insularity. America has recovered from worse before, and may do so again. But it is also possible that the election of Nicolas Sarkozy may be seen not as the start of a new pro-American moment in Europe but as a marker of the beginning of the post-American era.

America's current diminished standing in the world has left a power vacuum in the global geopolitical equation. The longer it lasts, the more opportunistic leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy or Vladimir Putin are going to move in and claim space that used to be ours. That's not to say that France or Russia will become a global superpower capable of unilateral interventions. But they will enhance their global influence at the expense of our own.

The danger is that what used to be unimaginable -- a world without American leadership -- is little by little becoming a reality that people are discovering they can live with.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   La France Politique   

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Easy As One-Two-Three

You can agree with it or not, but frankly, I'm not sure you can say that Bush ended up with nothing from the US-India civilian nuclear deal. With France inking deals to build reactors right and left, with the Russians already taking care of our good friends in Tehran, and with nuclear power effectively frozen stateside, the India deal gives Bush a bone to throw to the domestic nuclear power industry.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Markets & Finance   

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Just What Would We Be Preventing?

Quick. Which one of these two sentences makes you more nervous?

1) The West might just have to learn to live with Iran's uranium enrichment program.
2) The West might just have to learn to live with Iran's nuclear program.

I'll bet you picked no. 2. But whichever one you picked, I'll bet this one gets you even more scared: The West might just have to learn to live with Iran's nuclear ambitions.

To explain, I first started thinking about the significance of how we describe the standoff over Iran's efforts to aquire uranium enrichment capacity yesterday while writing up the Le Figaro interview with Shimon Peres. At first I used "uranium enrichment program", but went back and changed it to "nuclear program". Primarily because that was the expression used in the original French, but also because it struck me as odd to discuss sanctions with regard to an uranium enrichment program, since there's absolutely nothing illegal or prohibited about Iran developing the capacity to enrich uranium.

I started thinking about it even more last night while reading Colin Gray's monograph on Preventive War for the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute. It's a fascinating read for anyone who's found themselves wondering about just what kind of role unilateral preventive military force should play in our counter-proliferation doctrine.

The article is so chock full of quotes that I was tempted to just lift the entire thing and clip it into a post last night. But to stick to the most salient arguments, Gray begins by specifying the difference between pre-emptive war (a first strike in anticipation of an already ordered or launched attack) and preventive war (a first strike in anticipation of a potential future threat, whether of attack or a less advantageous balance of power).

Despite a confusion in terms in the policy debates of the last four years, the Bush Doctrine actually emphasizes preventive intervention in the face of proliferation threats. But the lengthened time component inherent in a preventive strike leads to a greater margin for error:

...preventive action has to entail striking on the basis of guesswork about more or less distant threats. And threats, of course, are a matter of guesses about capabilities times political intentions. Capabilities can be predicted with some, one must commit only to some, confidence, but political intentions can alter overnight. (p. 17)

Gray then adds a third category, with an even longer temporal component, which he calls "precautionary war":

...a precautionary war is a preventive war waged not on the basis of any noteworthy evidence of ill intent or dangerous capabilities, but rather because those unwelcome phenomena might appear in the future. A precautionary war is a war waged "just in case," on the basis of the principle, "better safe than sorry." (p. 15)

I think it's clear that a military strike against Iran would not qualify as a pre-emptive war. The question remains whether it would be a preventive or a precautionary one. The answer, of course, depends on what motives one ascribes not only to the Iranian nuclear program (ie. civilian or military use), but also to a nuclear-armed Iranian regime (ie. aggressive or deterrent intent).

Certainly, an Iranian state in possession of a nuclear deterrent becomes much more difficult to manage. But does it necessarily become a threat? Or would we be attacking it "just in case"? Again, Gray:

Most powerful strategic ideas are attended by potential pathologies. In the case of preventive war, a leading malady inseparable from it is a quest for absolute security. After all, a policy of preventive war amounts to an unwillingness to live with certain kinds of risk. (pp. 12-13)

In other words, Iran's "nuclear ambitions", whatever they are as of today and however they may evolve with time, present the risk of a threat. Are we willing to live with that risk? I think it's a valid position to declare that, No, we can't afford even the risk of such a threat. But that means we run other risks:

...the military option cannot offer a guarantee of complete success, and incomplete success might amount to failure. Preventive war, though practicable in some cases, cannot prudently be viewed as a “silver bullet,” as a panacea. It is not certain to be swift, decisively victorious, and definitive in positive consequences. (p. 40)

The fundamental calculation for any American or American-sponsored strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, then, has to weigh the likelihood for success against the likely consequences of a strike, whether successful or not. Frankly, I'm pessimistic about that calculation. Iran's got a pretty solid range of military and/or terrorist parries, and that's not even counting third parties like Russia deciding that now's as good a time as any to challenge American hegemony:

History shows that the anticipation of major shifts in the military dimension of the balance of power can be periods of acute peril. Other states may well reason “now or never.” Certainly they will consider the argument that since war in the future is judged highly probable, the sooner it is launched, the better. (p. 38)

America is clearly at a relative lowpoint in terms of both our international influence and our ability to militarily project our power. Yet our ambitions, at least as expressed by the Bush Doctrine, remain grandiose:

Obviously, the concept, perhaps the principle, of preventive military action, is open to abuse. An aggressive imperial or hegemonic power could wage a series of wars, all for the purpose of preventing the emergence of future challenges to its burgeoning imperium. (p. 28)

Russia and China both realize that, and it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that they, too, might be tempted to check American overreach now, while we're hamstrung, rather than later, once we've recovered.

Which means that the potential risks of even a successful attack (Iranian reprisal, both direct and by proxy, with possible support from Russia and China) seem to far outweigh the risks of an Iranian regime capable only (for the time being) of enriching uranium.

Here's Gray's checklist for assessing a potential preventive strike:

  • Force must be the last resort, not temporally, but with respect to the evidence-based conviction that the nonmilitary instruments of policy cannot succeed.
  • There must be persuasive arguments to the effect that the conditions to be forcibly prevented would be too dangerous to tolerate.
  • The benefits of preventive military action must be expected to be far greater than the costs.
  • There must be a high probability of military success. The U.S. preventor would be risking its invaluable reputation, after all.
  • There should be some multinational support for the preventive action; indeed the more, the better. However, the absence of blessing by the world community cannot be permitted to function politically as a veto. (p. 52)

I don't think a strike against Iran meets any of these pre-requisites, and it certainly doesn't make sense in the timeframe now available to the Bush administration. Unfortunately, my gut feeling is that the Cheney Gang is motivated by another agenda altogether: endorse a doctrine of preemption-meaning-prevention is to challenge the slow and erratic, but nevertheless genuine, growth of a global norm that regards the resort to war as an extraordinary and even desperate measure. A policy that favors military prevention proclaims that it is acceptable to decide coolly and in good time that war is preferable to the conditions predicted for “peace.” (p. 44)

Should they succeed in forcing an American strike on Iran, I'm convinced that it will result in America being placed on a permanent wartime footing for many years to come. And that strikes me as a greater threat to this country than a nuclear-armed Iran.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Surprise, Surprise

Regardless of what Frances Townsend might have to say about the matter, Pakistan remains resolutely opposed to an American attack against al-Qaeda on Pakistani territority.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   International Relations   

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Monday, July 16, 2007


A Belarus state security official has announced the arrest of a Polish spy ring that had been gathering classified information on Belarus and Russian air and missile defense systems. Now maybe I'm underestimating the strike capabilities of the Polish Air Force, but something tells me that Warsaw wasn't necessarily the final destination for the information the Poles were intent on gathering.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   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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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Gaza Goes Global

When Hamas won the Palestinian elections, the common wisdom was that the day-to-day challenges of governing would reveal the shortcomings of their militant ideology and before long the Palestinian people would return to the "moderate" Fatah fold. According to this NY Times article, the first part of that equation has been borne out. Unfortunately, instead of returning to moderate engagement, many in Gaza seem to be turning to even more extreme forms of global jihad and violence. And the on-again/off-again shooting war between Hamas and Fatah has left a power vacuum in which the increasingly radical groups can operate.

Norway has already resumed direct aid to the Hamas-Fatah coalition government. Apparently the Israeli government, under heavy pressure from the US, EU, Russia and UN, is considering releasing PA tax revenues it's been withholding, as long as they don't wind up in Hamas' hands. I think it's safe to say this will be the new "responsible" position to adopt, even though it's a sign of how desperate the situation in Gaza has become.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Blair Stoops To Conquer

I'm all for bringing renegade regimes, like Muammar Khaddafi's Libya, back into the fold of responsible state actors. But there's something disturbing about the idea of selling him a stack of missiles, and paying him a mountain of cash for the rights to his oil fields, when he's still holding the six health workers (five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor) sentenced to death for "deliberately" infecting Libyan children with the AIDS virus. For that matter, there's something disturbing about this photo.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Say What?   

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Misdirection?

Back in March, Seymour Hersh made some waves with an article in the New Yorker titled "The Redirection", which described an American/Saudi effort to arm radical Sunni militant groups throughout the Middle East in order to contain the growing regional influence of Iran and its proxies. Among the groups Hersh mentioned was Fatah al-Islam, a Palestinian splinter group that was supposedly receiving arms and funding from representatives of the Lebanese government who hoped to turn it against Hezbollah.

Hersh's piece targeted all the usual suspects -- Dick Cheney, Prince Bandar, covert policy cabals of dubious judgment -- to guarantee a good reception among jittery liberals concerned about the administrations rumored plans for attacking Iran. (Here's my contribution, which on re-reading seems respectably restrained.) The question is, was it accurate?

At the time the article appeared, Michael Young poked some holes in it with a piece in Reason Magazine titled "A Muckraker On The Wane?":

The Fatah al-Islam story is instructive, because it shows a recurring flaw in Hersh's reporting, namely his investigative paralysis when it comes to Syria... Most Lebanese analysts believe that Fatah al-Islam, far from being aided by the Lebanese government, is in fact a Syrian plant, deployed to Lebanon to be used by the Assad regime to destabilize the country...

This week's events in northern Lebanon, where the Lebanese Army has been engaged in fierce battles with Fatah al-Islam at a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli, would seem to bear out Young's criticism. Especially since Hezbollah has expressed support for the Army, despite it's fierce opposition to the Lebanese government of Fuad Siniora.

Hersh, for his part, stands by his story, maintaining that it's just another example of an American policy that "...bit us in the rear." 

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

After Tony... & Jacques... & Gerhardt...

The news that Tony Blair will be stepping down as Prime Minister of Great Britain at the end of June is significant for all sorts of reasons. One of them being the enormous question mark it leaves, not only in terms of British leadership, but also in terms of Western Europe as a whole. Because with Blair's departure, England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain will all be governed by relatively new heads of state. And this at a time when the United States is effectively governed without one.

Of course, these folks all know each other from conferences and summits and the like. And as far as the EU goes, the executive personnel are all seasoned pro's. But it takes some time for the balance of forces (and personalities) to settle. Time that -- considering all the sensitive dossiers on the table (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon) -- isn't necessarily available.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   International Relations   

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Thursday, May 3, 2007

See Dick Grovel

Seems odd that with Secretary of State Rice already in the neighborhood, Dick Cheney would be making another Mid-East trip already. Something tells me the idea isn't to dress anyone down like last time, since instead of Pakistan he'll be visiting Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Kind of makes you wonder... What's Cheney like when he's playing nice?

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bad For Business

You'll remember the series of articles I flagged a few weeks ago about tensions on the Turkish border with Iraqi Kurdistan. Since then, according to this Jamestown Foundation article, the Iraqi Kurds have reinforced their side of the border with Peshmerga units re-deployed from Mosul, heavy anti-aircraft machine guns, and armored vehicles:

Although most Turks and Kurds within their respective governments are eager to de-escalate and to resolve many issues through dialogue, a dangerous momentum may be building that both Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdistan region may not be able to resist if actions by both sides remain unchecked.

Fortunately, there remain significant disincentives to war on both sides. For the Turkish, the European Union accession process, which exposes them to a high level of scrutiny. And for the Kurds, the fact that the status quo works greatly in favor of their strategic calculations.

In addition, as the article points out, Turkey has found another method of exerting pressure on the Kurds. Namely, by re-routing their commercial traffic from the Kurdish frontier to Syria, thereby denying the Kurds of significant revenue in the form of collections tolls.

Which might go a long way to convincing them to crack down on the PKK, as Turkey has been demanding. Because as Laura Rozen's recent Mother Jones article made clear, more than anything else, the Kurds are businessmen.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iraq   

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Decline By Choice

I haven't had much to say about the Wolfowitz debacle at the World Bank, mainly because when you make fighting corruption your top priority, it seems pretty obvious that getting caught with your hand in the cookie jar is a hanging offense. But reading this NY Times article about a closed door meeting between Wolfowitz and the Bank's senior directors, I was taken aback to see this:

Graeme Wheeler, the bank’s managing director, said at the meeting that the fight over whether Mr. Wolfowitz should stay on at the bank amounted to the “the biggest crisis in its history.”

Now I'm not enough of an expert on World Bank history to know whether this is hyperbole or not. But seeing it put that way immediately triggered the thought, Is there any multi-lateral institution left that the Bush administration hasn't already confronted with a crisis of historic and/or existential proportions? Maybe NATO, but that's assuming the War in Afghanistan won't come back to haunt what used to be a regionally-confined alliance.

In case you're thinking that I'm unfairly blaming the Bush administration for Wolfowitz's misdeeds, the gist of the article is that the WB was already in crisis before the nepotism controversy erupted, primarily as a result of Wolfowitz's heavy-handed imposition of Washington's political line on Bank policies. And when the World Bank is in open revolt against Washington imposing its political line on bank policies, you know that something has gone very, very wrong.

It's hard to find another example from modern history of a world power that has squandered both might and influence to such a degree as George W. Bush's America has done from September 11, 2001 to the present. The only thing that even comes close is the post-WWII collapse of the British and French colonial empires.

But the dismantling of the colonial system was brought about by transformative movements for racial equality and national determination that swept the planet in the aftermath of a world war against tyranny. While certain policy choices made by the British and French might have served to exacerbate and accelerate the process, they were not the fundamental cause.

On the other hand, every single factor that has contributed to breaking our military, bankrupting our treasury, and reducing our standing in the eyes of the world over the past six years is the result of policy decisions taken by the Bush administration.

What we have witnessed is nothing short of the elective dismantling of American hegemony, not out of any commitment to a multi-polar world order, but ironically in the name of pursuing American hegemony. Which is another way of saying incompetence.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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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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Saturday, April 7, 2007

Draw-Draw Scenario

There's been alot of discussion on how to assess the outcome of the British 15 incident. Steve Clemons of Washington Note says Iran is the big loser:

Iran now looks unpredictable, dangerous (though some will correctly argue that Iran has always been dangerous), and irrational. To be trusted by the world with nuclear enrichment capacity of any kind, rationality, trust, and dependable and predictable behavior must be part of the equation.

Iran lost by convincing even its friends that it is a state that may not be in control of all it's own pieces, particularly a vital part of its military force...

Kevin Drum agrees:

Even countries friendly to Iran appear to believe that this whole episode was a pointless and foolhardy provocation; it's shown up the Iranian government as weak, disorganized, and unable to keep control of its own military...

...This was a plainly stupid miscalculation on their part, and one that they obviously lost control of once it began. Far from being scared off by their bluster, my guess is that this incident will make the world more united in its belief that Iran can't be trusted with a nuclear program, not less.

Meanwhile, commenters on the right are using the episode to trot out Churchillian quotes about Munich and clamoring for Tony Blair's head.

I think the truth is somewhere in between. And that becomes clearer when you separate out the two issues that have gotten tangled up here.

  1. The proxy war going on between the US and Iran:

    Whether or not the seizure of the British sailors was centrally planned or authorized, Iran comes out a winner for demonstrating it is willing and able to defend its territorial integrity, even in the most symbollic of ways. The method was amateurish, perhaps, but no more so than the American seizure of Iranian diplomats in Irbil and Baghdad. And it's already paid off, in that Britian has temporarily suspended their patrol operations in the Gulf.

  2. The uranium enrichment standoff:

    Both Clemons and Drum suggest that if this is evidence of divisions in leadership, or worse, lack of control over the IRG, it lends weight to the claim that Iran can't be trusted with nuclear enrichment capabilities. I tend to see the outcome as reassuring, since it shows that however opaque and convoluted the Iranian decision-making process may seem to us, it arrived at the right outcome. If it was a rogue operation, control mechanisms are in place. If it demonstrated division in central leadership, the cooler heads prevailed.

What really matters here, as Clemons points out, is whether the incident drives a permanent wedge between the Iranians and their support base (ie. the Russians, Chinese and Indians) in the uranium enrichment negotiations. If it does, the Iranians will find themselves essentially isolated on the issue and will be forced to either make concessions or escalate the standoff. If not, the incident demonstrates that the British approach of rallying support while engaging in conciliatory negotiations pays off.

In any case, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Bush administration comes out as the big loser. Its major contribution to the incident's resolution, by Britain's request, was to stand on the sidelines and not make matters worse. And given that we've got 150-odd thousand soldiers on the ground just next door and two carrier groups in spitting distance offshore, that says alot.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   

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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, April 2, 2007

Leaving The Comfort Zone

Lest we forget amidst all the discussion of how to get out of Iraq, the case for going in, back when it was first targeted for invasion four years ago, was the threat that Saddam Hussein's WMD posed to America. Of course, there was never any doubt here in Europe that Iraq had been effectively disarmed. So to see reasonable, responsible people entertaining the notion to the contrary seemed like some sort of hysteria-induced collective delusion.

What was even more shocking, though, was the neocon vision that served as theoretical apologia for what was so obviously an elective war in violation not only of international law, but of common sense. Who in their right minds could have actually believed that invading Iraq was to be the first step in a glorious transformation of the Middle East into a regional alliance of liberal democracies?

As events have unfolded since then, I've only become more convinced that we've witnessed perhaps the greatest strategic blunder in American history. From the bungled occupation and savage sectarian bloodletting within Iraq, to the unleashing of Iranian influence throughout the region, everything that could have gone wrong has, and often to the worst degree possible.

And still, there are moments when a particular news item or a general trend leads me to consider the possibility that I'm wrong. Not about the past, which is a matter of historical record. But about the future, which is still susceptible to the element of surprise.

Now, before you start worrying that I've been re-programmed by The Weekly Standard crew, let me state for the record that no, I don't think there'll be a Prague Spring breaking out in Riyadh anytime soon. But when the Arab League reactivates a dormant comprehensive peace plan and Israel responds by proposing a regional peace conference, there does seem to be the hint of a paradigm shift, if not quite a glorious transformation, in the Middle East. Ironically, if it does materialize into real progress, it will be as a result of our disastrous failure in Iraq, rather than because of any success.

If it has accomplished nothing else, the American invasion of Iraq has disrupted the status quo that has governed the region, with brief interruptions, for the past generation. Specifically, the fear of Iran has proven to be the kind of motivation that the Saudis needed to move outside of their comfort zone. They began their recent diplomatic inititiative by heading off a civil war between Fatah and Hamas, moved on to shore up a strategic opposition to Syrian/Iranian influence in Lebanon, and just might cap it off with a comprehensive regional deal formally establishing peace and diplomatic relations between the moderate Arab states and Israel.

Of course, the one player missing from the table, the one who until now was considered indispensable to any hopes of striking a deal, is the US. Who could have ever imagined, four years ago, that a drastic reduction in America's strategic position and influence in the region would coincide with attempts at this kind of broad coalition-building? Certainly not the neocons. And, I admit, certainly not me.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Monday, April 2, 2007

Standoff Within A Standoff Within A Standoff

As Ray Tayekh pointed out in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Iran's leadership is far from monolithic. What's more, the familiar fault lines between factions of reformers and hardliners are increasingly overshadowed by growing tensions between "the elders of the revolution" and "their more assertive disciples."

Now The Times of London is reporting that not even the Revolutionary Guards, often protrayed as a radical, rogue element of the Iranian regime, is immune from the power struggles:

The fate of the 15 British marines and sailors held in Tehran may depend on the outcome of a power struggle between two of Iran’s top generals, write Uzi Mahnaimi and Marie Colvin.

According to an Iranian military source, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards has called for them to be freed.

Major-General Yahya Rahim Safavi is said to have told the country’s Supreme National Security Council on Friday that the situation was “getting out of control” and urged its members to consider the immediate release of the prisoners to defuse tension in the Gulf.

However, Safavi’s intervention was reportedly denounced by another senior general at a meeting of high-ranking commanders yesterday.

Yadollah Javani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ political bureau, was said to have accused him of weakness and “liberal tendencies”. Javani is said to have demanded that the prisoners be put on trial.

These kinds of divisions should come as no surprise, given the political polarization currently on display here in Washington. What's more, they're encouraging inasmuch as they suggest possible lines of approach for engaging Iran.

But they're not only reason for hope. A divided leadership, while offering potential interlocuters for dialogue, also increases the chances of precipitous escalation, as one faction tries to force the hand of its adversaries. The same internal divisions that could lead Iranian extremists to provoke hostilities with the US could lead the Bush administration to pre-empt Congress and public opinion by launching a unilateral strike on Iran's uranium enrichment program.

The significance of the international standoff between Britain and Iran lies in how it impacts the internal standoff within Iran's leadership. Which in turn could influence the broader standoff between Iran and the international community regarding its uranium enrichment program. How the crisis is resolved will tell us alot about what the future holds for the Persian Gulf.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   

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Sunday, April 1, 2007

When Everyone's Backed Into A Corner

There were signs yesterday that the standoff over the 15 British sailors captured and detained by Iran was beginning to ratchet down a notch or two. Reports out of Tehran revealed the first signs of disagreement between the hardline Revolutionary Guards who carried out the operation and the ayatollahs who run the country, specifically over whether or not to release Faye Turney, the lone woman captive, as a gesture of good faith.

Meanwhile, the Sunday Telegraph reported that Britain was preparing to send an envoy to Tehran, and a defense official was quoted as saying:

We are quite prepared to give the Iranians a guarantee that we would never knowingly enter their waters without their permission, now or in the future.

We are not apologising, nor are we saying that we entered their waters in the first place. But it may offer a route out of the crisis.

But there were also signs that things could still get bumpy. After keeping a low profile for the past week, President Bush finally offered his first extensive comments on the matter, calling the capture of the sailors "inexcusable" and stating, "The Iranians must give back the hostages."

The same article also quoted remarks that Iran's President Ahmadinejad made in a speech, remarks that seemed to signal a hardening of the Iranian position:

"The British occupier forces did trespass our waters. Our border guards detained them with skill and bravery,'' Iran's official news agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying. "But arrogant powers, because of their arrogant and selfish spirit, are claiming otherwise.''

And in Tehran, police had to physically prevent protesters from entering the compound of the British embassy yesterday.

All in all, although it's in everyone's best interests to de-escalate and peaceably resolve the conflict, it's becoming the kind of situation that could spiral out of control, mainly because of the inherent weakness of everyone involved:

  1. Iran is using the show of national resolve to counter both their inability to keep British and American forces from entering their territory, and their increasing international isolation over their uranium enrichment program.
  2. Britain must balance the affront to its national honor with the fact that it has very few effective options for forcing Tehran's hand.
  3. And the United States can't risk disrupting the gathering consensus opposing Iran's uranium enrichment program by any heavyhanded involvement in a matter that ostensibly doesn't really involve them.

In other words, everyone's boxed into a corner, which is usually when people do desperate things. There's no shortage of third parties who have offered themselves up as mediators. Hopefully someone will have the sense to bring them in, otherwise things could get volatile.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   

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Monday, March 26, 2007

There's A First Time For Everything

The most curious aspect of the Iranian capture and detention of 15 British sailors has to be the President's deafening silence on the matter. From today's White House press briefing:

Q About the British sailors... Is there a deliberate effort to keep a backseat on this, for the White House to not mess up some sort of diplomatic efforts?

MS. PERINO: Well, you can be assured that we are in close contact with our British allies. We strongly support the message that Tony Blair sent yesterday, the strong message of the hostage taking being wrong and unjustified. But as far as further comment, I don't have anything for you.

Q Is the President not outraged by this?

MS. PERINO: We share the same concern and the outrage that Prime Minister Blair has.

Q Will we be hearing from the President on it?

MS. PERINO: I'll keep you updated.

Obviously, they want to avoid any unnecessary bellicosity to keep from aggravating the situation...

Wait a minute. Did I just say that? About the Bush administration? Like I said, the most curious aspect of the Iranian capture and detention of 15 British sailors has to be the President's deafening silence on the matter.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   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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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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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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Saturday, March 3, 2007

Tomorrow's Al-Qaeda Today

For a clearer look at how the new American regional strategy for the Middle East described in the Seymour Hersh piece will play out, check out this report from Iraq Slogger. The Mujahiden e-Khalq is an armed Iranian opposition group that operated out of Iraq with the full support of Saddam Hussein. Designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the US, they were disarmed and their bases dismantled after the 2003 invasion as a gesture of evenhandedness towards Iran, to say nothing of consistency with our own stated terrorism policies. But all that seems to have changed now:

The Sadrist Nahrain Net website reports increased contacts between Jordanian and Saudi authorities and the Iranian Mujahiden e-Khalq (MEK) opposition group in the Jordanian capital, according to sources in the Iraqi Accord Front. Immigration officials at the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman received instructions from the Jordanian Interior Minister last month to facilitate the entry and movement of MEK members carrying Iraqi and foreign passports, the website said, adding that the MEK has opened an official branch in Amman following a recommendation from the CIA to Jordanian authorities. The website also quotes unnamed Arab diplomats in Amman, who said that Saudi Arabia has also made a decision to embrace and fund Iranian opposition groups, such as the MEK, the Balochistani Jund Allah Movement and Ahwazi Arab groups, in an attempt to face the rising Iranian influence in the region. Encouraged by U.S. officials, former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Prince Bandar bin Sultan had met with an MEK delegation and promised them full support, the diplomats said.

Remember, the US is currently isolating Syria for, among other things, harboring headquarters of Hamas and Hezbollah, which can both arguably claim to have political wings in addition to their armed terrorist sections. Now we're involved in the same tactics. Shortsighted at best. Shameful at worst.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   International Relations   Iran   

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Friday, March 2, 2007

The Swiss Navy

Here's one that's good for a laugh, until you transpose it onto another part of the world. Apparently, a company of Swiss infantry accidentally "invaded" Liechtenstein when they wandered across an unmarked border in a nighttime training excercise. They got about a mile into the small principality before realizing their mistake and heading back. Liechtenstein's response was basically, No harm, no foul. As well you might expect from a country that has no standing army.

Now imagine for a second an American infantry company on maneuvers in Iraq, that accidentally wanders a mile into Iran. Think they'd get that far without being noticed? Think Iran's response would be, No harm, no foul?

I don't subscribe to the idea that dialogue with Iran is some magic bullet that will instantly resolve all the differences between us. But it could help to keep hypothetical misunderstandings from turning into real conflagrations. And that's good for something.

Posted by Judah in:  Say What?   International Relations   Iran   Odds & Ends   

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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

Add This To The Mix

There is one area of Iraq where Iran is not only not denying their intentions to intervene, they're actually announcing them. By way of Le Monde, Iran has threatened military action against an armed Iranian Kurdish group based in Iraqi Kurdistan if the Iraqi government doesn't take action against them. The group, PJAK, is the Iranian wing of the Kurdish PKK party. Operating from bases established in the Qandil mountains that lie on the border of Turkey, Iran and Iraq, PJAK has mounted raids into Iranian and Turkish territory for the past two years. According to the Iranians, violent battles have accounted for 40 PJAK deaths, with 7 Iranians killed, in the past week alone.

If the Iraqi government doesn't act, warned Yahya Rahim Safavi, a Revolutionary Guard commander, cited by the Iranian news agency Mehr, "...we reserve the right to pursue them beyond the (Iranian) border." (Translated from the French.)

The Iranians claim the group is armed and financed by the Americans and British. According to an article on the Kurdish nationalist site

Turkey and Iran are amassing troops along the Iraqi Kurdish border in a planned joint operation against the Partiye Krekarani Kurdistane (PKK), which is lodged in the Qandil mountains and launching attacks against Turkish and Iranian security targets. Although the Kurdish elite emphasize that their autonomous region is not a staging ground for terrorist activities, Massoud Barzani threatened that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) would retaliate if the region was militarily attacked by Turkey and Iran.

People have a tendency to think of Iraqi Kurdistan as the one trouble-free part of the country. But there are all sorts of potential troublespots that have to do with the Kurds' fierce desire for independence, and the Turks' and Iranians' fierce desire to maintain the status quo. And while the Kirkuk referendum being reportedly postponed for two years gives everyone some breathing room, stories like today's show how easily things could still go haywire.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   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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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Are You Scared Yet?

There's been a lot of chatter over the last few days about Israel seeking (and by some reports receiving) overflight clearance for a hypothetical airstrike against Iran, although the Israeli Deputy Defense Minister has denied the reports. At the same time, alleged contingency plans for an American aerial campaign against Iran have been leaked to the British press and now to the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, although the Pentagon claims there's nothing unusual about them, since they maintain and revise contingency plans for dozens of potential conflicts at any given time.

Now these reports might very well be true, although that's far from certain. What's clear, though, is that the psy ops campaign designed to convince Tehran that time is running out for them to freeze and eventually abandon their uranium enrichment program has just cranked up a notch.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   Media Coverage   

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Disempowering Terrorism

I noticed the headlines last week about the Friendship Express rail bombing in northern India, and I vaguely registered the Indian and Pakistani governments' reaction to it. But it wasn't until this morning that it occured to me what a remarkable story this really is.

Both India and Pakistan recognized that the bombing targeted the peace process between the two nations as much as the civilian victims of the attack. They responded by not only jointly condemning the violence, but by announcing an agreement that limits the risk of accidental nuclear war between them. They also called for renewed cooperation in rooting out the extremist gorups responsible for the violence.

It's important to hold governments accountable for their efforts, or lack thereof, to control terrorists operating from within their borders. And India didn't shy away from complaining, albeit delicately, about Pakistan's lackluster performance. But when negotiations are conditioned on the total eradication of terrorist attacks, it allows extremists of all stripes to exert a disproportionate influence on the peace process.

India and Pakistan didn't allow that to happen. Hopefully other countries whose efforts towards peace have been derailed by the violence of a relative few will take notice.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   International Relations   

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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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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Knockout Punch

The BBC claims that American contingency plans for an aerial assault on Iran are not limited to the uranium enrichment facilities that are at the heart of recent tensions between Tehran and the West, but instead include most of the Iranian military's command and control infrastructure. They also report that the trigger for any attack would be confirmation that Iran was developing a nuclear weapon, but also any high-casualty attack in Iraq that could be directly traceable to Iran.

If true, it confirms my suspicion that the strategy of any intervention will be to absorb the immediate reprisals that Iran may have already prepared (ie. infiltrated networks in Iraq, a Hezbollah attack against Israel) in order to permanently incapacitate the Iranian military.

Of course, the US has denied any immediate intention of going to war. But if it does go down, chances are it'll be a massive bombardment campaign rather than surgical strikes.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   

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Monday, February 19, 2007

What A Difference Forty Years Makes

With all the comparisons being made between Iraq and Vietnam, it's interesting to note one major difference in progressive opposition to the two wars. Unlike with the Vietnam War, opposition to the Iraq War is almost never expressed in pacifist terms. Critics take pains to point out that they're not anti-war, they're just anti-this-war. Then there's the oft-leveled criticism of the diversion of troops and resources from Afghanistan to Iraq, a criticism that implicitly accepts the necessity of the War in Afghanistan.

Of course, it's not surprising. The 1960's anti-war movement was conditioned by the pacifism of the civil rights movement that preceded it. A pacificism that became something of a knee-jerk reaction for the progressive left throughout the two decades that followed.

Already, a number of events during the Nineties would begin to change all that. The Yugoslavian wars, for instance, and in particular the ethnic cleansing that accompanied them, where isolated voices on the left argued in favor of armed intervention. Then there was the horror and shame that came from America's failure to intervene in Rwanda. By the end of the decade, although its instinct was still to consider military intervention a last option, the American left was no longer so monolithically pacifist.

Now, in the aftermath of September 11, pacifists seem like an endangered species. The only difference being, you still read about the spotted owl every now and then.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   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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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Winning Friends & Influencing People

Ever wonder what China's doing with its $1 trillion-plus foreign exchange reserves? Well, they're using part of the loot, as this article explains, to buy influence with resource-rich countries through generous foreign aid packages. Aid packages that undercut World Bank and other development organizations by offering more money, with less oversight, to countries where public funds have a tendency to end up in Swiss bank accounts. These are the kinds of deals that, if Tony Soprano were arranging them, would be called graft. And as with all graft schemes, the folks who suffer the most are the ones who might otherwise have ended up with a functioning railroad system, or an environmentally-friendly power grid, but instead wind up with nothing at all, if not worse. Oh, and for what it's worth, our trade deficit with China for 2006 was a little over $232 billion. How do you say, "Don't spend it all in one place," in Chinese?

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   China   Markets & Finance   

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Tactics Are The Strategy

It's hard to get into the heads of the neocon clique that's itching for war with Iran. If the definition of crazy is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, they would certainly seem to qualify. But it would be a mistake to write them off as a bunch of lunatics. These guys are not crazy. They got the result they wanted in Iraq. And they're looking for more of the same in Iran.

The fact is, Iraq is a catastrophe, but it's a manageable catastrophe. The only thing that threatens our continued occupation there is American public opinion. And it's become clear that Americans want to call it a wash and pull up stakes. Which is why attacking Iran has now become essential: in order to create the conditions that make a continued American garrison in the Persian Gulf a necessity.

But what about all the dire warnings we've heard about Iran's capacity for reprisal, through missile strikes on our carriers, through proxies in Iraq, and with the threat Hezbollah poses to Israel? They're overblown. Yes, there will be an initial wave of casualties, perhaps even severe casualties. But it will eventually recede once a massive aerial bombardment campaign deteriorates the Iranian regime's command and control capabilities, as well as their military-industrial infrastructure.

But then what? Between the civil wars in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and potentially Iran, most of the region will be a chaotic, deadly mess. And in that kind of geopolitical climate, the United States will be obligated to maintain a permanent garrison (probably in the order of what we already have stationed in Iraq, with a quick-strike capacity to respond to flashpoints of conflict as they spring up around the region) in order to guarantee the security of our Arab allies and Israel.

Mission accomplished.

The traditional counterinsurgency tactics of Clear, Hold, and Rebuild, as put into practice in Iraq, have become Clear and Move On. It's time to realize that this is no accident. The tactics have become the strategy, and the strategy is about to be widened to a regional level.

More later on why it won't work.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   Iraq   

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Monday, February 12, 2007

China's Getting Thirsty

We're used to thinking about the geopolitical race for natural resources in terms of oil, gas, minerals and metals. But reading through this rundown of China's strategic concerns by Gideon Rachman, the foreign affairs commentator for Financial Times, what jumped out at me was what came right after "Energy": Water.

Here's a map modelling global water scarcity come 2025, and as you can see, things don't look so good for the Chinese. The northern part of the country will be in physical scarcity, meaning the actual drying up of water sources, while the south will be forced to choose between either devoting its dwindling water supplies to agricultural irrigation, or maintaining its industrial production.

Something to think about when watching the pieces on the global chessboard move from square to square.

Posted by Judah in:  China   International Relations   

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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

Politics Ends At The Water's Edge?

Thanks to TPM for the link to this article about Aussie Prime Minister John Howard's broadside against the Dems in general, and Barack Obama in particular. Howard warned that Obama's deadline for withdrawing US troops from Iraq by March, 2008, would "...encourage those who wanted completely to destabilise and destroy Iraq...", adding:

If I was running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008, and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for Obama, but also for the Democrats. 

This is obviously a violation of diplomatic protocol, which looks askance at endorsing candidates in a sovereign state's elections, especially an ally's. It'll be interesting to see the White House's reaction, all the more so in light of Dems' very strong response to Hugo Chavez's UN remarks last year.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iraq   Politics   

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Back To The Future

Okay, either the AP wire service is recycling stories from 1987, or else things are really, really starting to heat up between Russia and the United States. Yesterday, the Russian military's Chief of Staff described American penetration into Russia's traditional spheres of influence as Russia's top national security threat. Quoted in the same article, Sergei Ivanov, the Russian defense minister, ridiculed American claims that the missile defense system we're installing in the Czech Republic and Poland is meant to defend against possible ICBM attacks from Iran and N. Korea:

Mr Ivanov said the two countries, both former Soviet satellites, were too far away to play a part in disabling missiles from North Korea or Iran. “Take a look at the map,” he said. He added that he did not believe the system would be effective against terrorist groups.

“They just don’t need missiles,” he said. “They have other forms of delivery – human bodies and civilian aircraft.”

Then today, in what John McCain called "...the most aggressive speech from a Russian leader since the end of the Cold War...", Vladimir Putin blamed American unilateralism for inciting nuclear proliferation:

"It is a world of one master, one sovereign ... it has nothing to do with democracy," he said. "This is nourishing the wish of countries to get nuclear weapons."

"This is very dangerous, nobody feels secure anymore because nobody can hide behind international law," Putin told the gathering.

It's a truism that Russian foreign policy is driven by a deep-seated territorial insecurity. But like the old saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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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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Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Tit For Tat?

Here's a story that will undoubtedly pick up steam, and I've got a hunch sooner rather than later. An Iranian diplomat, Jalal Sharafi, was abducted on Sunday in Baghdad by up to 30 armed men in Iraqi Army uniforms. Sound familiar? Maybe that's because of the incident in Karbala in late January, when four US soldiers were abducted and killed by a group masquerading as American GI's. American officials were quick to suggest Iranian involvement after that attack. So it should come as no surprise that in calling for Sharafi's release, Iran has put the blame for his abduction directly at America's feet.

Four Iraqi military officers are already in custody for the abduction, but questions remain about whose orders they were carrying out. Iraq and the US both deny any involvement, with the Iraqi Foreign Minister adding an expression of embarassment at the country's failure to uphold its obligation to protect the foreign diplomatic corps.

Now, I'm not sure which would be more alarming, this being an American operation, or the work of a rogue element within the Iraqi Army. The consequences of American involvement seem pretty clear: Escalation of the simmering proxy war between us and Iran.

But if this turns out to be an Iraqi job, it could mean that an internal conflict is brewing between Iraqi Shiites who embrace Iran and those who don't. At which point, there will be very little left of an Iraqi state to support. Whichever way this one heads, it's going to open up a can of worms.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   International Relations   Iran   

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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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Saturday, February 3, 2007

When Borders Fail

Josh Marshall has a good post on some of the difficulty involved in trying to tease out who's doing what to sponsor the factional and sectarian infighting in Iraq. And then he closes with this:

But this gets to a deeper fallacy of the line of argument about neighboring countries 'meddling' in Iraq. Every shred of the failure that is Iraq bleeds over into the neighboring states, either as a threat or an opportunity, since they are all of the same fabric, or rather the same patchwork bleeding over national borders. The Sunnis with their coreligionists in Saudi Arabia; the Shia with theirs in Iran; the Kurds with theirs in southeastern Turkey whose affinity threatens to bring the Turks down into Iraq as well. The more we fail in Iraq, the more the threads we pull will pull into neighboring states. In other words, our inability to come to terms with and deal wtih what we have created in Iraq will almost inevitably lead to a widening gyre of escalation across Iraq's frontiers. I take it that this is what the Iraq Study Group folks were talking about when they spoke of the bleak outlook in Iraq and the necessity of getting quickly to some regional negotiations rather than trying to fight our way out of this box.

We're used to thinking of buffer states, like Kashmir or Iraq, as flashpoints for violence. But there are other more cooperative models for dealing with demographic realities that overtake geographic borders. (California and Texas spring to mind, where despite protectionist reactions, Mexicans and Americans on both sides of the border continue to take advantage of economic opportunites to create a web of inter-dependence.)

Here's a thought experiment: Imagine a scenario where Iraqi Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds were dying in the thousands, but the cause was not a civil war but a deadly earthquake. No one would question the outpouring of aid and support that would immediately start flowing in from across the borders in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. That's the difference between a humanitarian crisis and sectarian warfare.

The key to extricating ourselves from Iraq while leaving behind the semblance of a stable state is to de-militarize the situation. And the only way to do that is to start dialoguing with the other regional players, ie. Iran. Right now, we're pressuring the Sunnis to accept less of the cake than they were used to under Saddam, in exchange for more of the cake than they'll get through war with the Shiites. Seems like pretty good advice for us, too.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iraq   

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Friday, February 2, 2007

Chirac Goes Nuclear

There are no do-overs in life and politics, according to Hillary Clinton. Apparently, nobody passed the word to Jacques Chirac. In an interview given to the Times, the IHT and the Nouvel Obs on Monday, Chirac raised some eyebrows with his comments about a nuclear Iran. On Tuesday, he hurriedly called the reporters back to the Elysée to retract and amend the offending comments. He claimed he had believed he was speaking off the record, and that the remarks were not reflective of either French policy or his own opinion.

Too bad, because they're kind of refreshing in their candor, and they don't strike me as being so far off the mark:

"I would say that what is dangerous about this situation is not the fact of having a nuclear bomb... But what is very dangerous is proliferation..."

Chirac explained that it would be an act of self-destruction for Iran to use a nuclear weapon against another country. "Where will it drop it, this bomb? On Israel?" Chirac asked. "It would not have gone off 200 meters into the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed to the ground..."

During the Monday interview, Chirac made clear that a more profound problem than Iran's possession of a nuclear weapon was that a nuclear-armed Iran might encourage other regional players to follow suit.

"...Why wouldn't Saudi Arabia do it? Why wouldn't it help Egypt to do so as well? That is the real danger."

You don't expect a guy who's been in politics as long as Jacques Chirac has (40 years) to make that kind of blunder. Which leads me to wonder whether it really was a blunder. Despite the hurried retraction and universal disavowal, Chirac's point strikes me as valid, namely that in a region like the Middle East, a nuclear bomb is more of an insurance policy than a threat. But the resulting instability due to proliferation drastically reduces even the security function.

Intelligence estimates vary wildly on how far away the Iranians are from having a bomb, but there doesn't seem to be much doubt that that's the direction they're heading in. And with the current political climate vis à vis pre-emptive military interventions, there may not be anything we can do to stop it.

So why not a little slip of the tongue to let the Iranians (and the Saudis and Egyptians) know that, sure, they might get a bomb eventually. But when they do, the rules of nuclear engagement, ie. mutually assured destruction, will apply.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   

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Thursday, February 1, 2007

The French Election: Who Cares?

In case you're wondering why the French election matters for America, it boils down to the kind of multi-lateral coalitions we'll need to build if we're going to start re-stabilizing the Middle East. France probably has more credibility among the Arab states, and especially the Arab street, than any Western power, mainly because it is (accurately) perceived as not having a pro-Israel bias. Its refusal to endorse the Iraq War only enhanced that reputation. And while relations have been complicated and sometimes strained in the post-colonial era, you can't underestimate the influence and savoir faire that comes from upwards of a century of colonial rule.

As a result, France will be essential to any resolution of the crisis in Lebanon, and their involvement in the Quartet will legitimize the kinds of pressure that can be brought to bear on the Israelis and Palestinians to get back to serious negotiations. As for Iraq, don't be surprised if the English begin to feel some serious war fatigue in the near future, especially if America continues trying to provoke a shooting war with Iran. Which means that we might soon be essentially going it alone over there. Depending on how much humble pie we're willing to eat, and how many oil contracts we're willing to part with, introducing a French diplomatic role could add some legitimacy and dynamism to any endgame dealmaking.

So with that in mind, how do the candidates stack up? Sarkozy is the closest to a hardliner. He's a law & order type who strongly supports the War on Terror. He criticicized French "obstructionism" during the run-up to the Iraq War, although he's since modulated his position. And he's the most openly pro-American, and pro-Israeli, of the candidates.

Ségolène Royal's foreign policy stance is more strongly rooted in a European vision. She's described the invasion of Iraq as a catastrophe, but in doing so, made a point of distinguishing between the Bush administration and the United States. She's called for the restoration of European aid to the Palestinian Authority under Hamas, and was a vocal critic of America and Israel during the aerial bombardment of Southern Lebanon. At the same time, she's a firm opponent of a nuclear Iran, going so far as to call even a civilian capability unacceptable. Her foreign policy footing is perhaps less sure than that of her opponents, but she's far from a pushover.

Finally among the major candidates, there's François Bayrou. He, too, is a deeply rooted European, who advocates a unified EU foreign policy. He was firmly opposed to the Iraq War, although his reasoning had as much to do with the precedent it set for dealing with rogue states in general as it did with the Iraq dossier in particular. His position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nuanced and balanced. And he's opposed to a nuclear-armed Iran, while accepting a civilian capability.

Assuming that American policy eventually shifts back in line with American and world opinion, I think that either Royal or Bayrou would, on paper, be the best partner for working towards peace and stability in the region. Still there's something about Sarkozy's dynamism that I find appealing. And despite his reputation for being provocative and reckless, he's known as an effective negotiator. If he does end up being a voice of moderation, his opinion might carry more weight with America and Israel, coming from a friend, than the same opinion coming from Royal or Bayrou.

Tomorrow: some of the issues on the French domestic scene that are driving the campaign.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   La Presidentielle   

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Out Of Hibernation

Fifteen years ago, the collapse of the Soviet Union relegated Russia to second-class status among global powers. But a flurry of recent headlines show that Russian influence is back on the rise. And with the US tied down trying to salvage Iraq and contain Iran, the Russian Bear doesn't seem to shy about pursuing its interests, um, how shall we put it? To the detriment of our own, maybe?

Here, in no particular order, are articles on the delivery of Russian air defense missiles to Iran, negotiations between Russia and Venezuela for the sale of more air defense missiles, the sale of Russian warplanes to India, and the construction of four nuclear reactors, again for India.

With all the talk about not emboldening our enemies, maybe Bush & Co. should be more worried about not emboldening our friends.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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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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Friday, January 26, 2007

Out Of The Spotlight

It occured to me in reading Iason Athanasiadis' article in Asia Times, as well as Issandr El Amrani's opinion piece in Tom Paine (although less in the latter than the former), that one under-reported side-effect of the disarray bordering on civil war in Iraq, and its unleashing of the Iranian boogie-man across the region, is that it has managed to take the heat off Israel in the Arab world. With the exception of the brief but brutal Israeli-Hezbollah standoff last summer, most everyone's been too worried about the Iranians flexing their muscle to pay much attention to Israel.

It would seem to be the ideal time for the Israelis to hammer out some fundamental principles with the Palestinians and the Syrians. If it weren't for the disarray bordering on civil war within the Palestinian Authority, that is. Oh, and the disarray bordering on civil war in Lebanon. Am I forgetting anything?

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   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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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

China's African Bid

Here's a follow-up article in the People's Daily to the one I mentioned here. This one goes into greater depth about China's ongoing campaign to make inroads in Africa, with investment and trade agreements that go well beyond oil and natural resources:

Observers said the strategic partnership features cooperation in areas such as telecom, food processing, tourism and infrastructure, paving the way for Africa to become a processor of commodities and a competitive supplier of goods and services to Asian countries.

I was also struck by this observation from Liu Naiya, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences:

He also said Hu's visit to Seychelles, a Chinese president's first visit to the tiny Indian Ocean islands, demonstrated Beijing's policy of treating countries on an equal footing no matter how large they are.

The Chinese have been at this statescraft thing for a couple millenia. We'd do well to pay attention to how it's done.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Soft Power, Soft Headlines

Here's a quiet headline you could easily overlook but that actually speaks volumes on closer inspection: Chinese President to visit 8 African nations, taken from the People's Daily Online. Click through to the article and it gets even quieter, a mere two sentences about a tour of eight African countries by Chinese President Hu Jintao. On the surface, nothing very extraordinary.

Here's a quick glance, though, at the CIA Factbook entries on six of the countries he's visiting:

  • Sudan is an oil exporter, with proven reserves of 1.6 billion bbl. China buys 71% of the country's exported goods, and provides 20% of the $8.7 billion worth of goods the country imports each year.
  • Cameroon and Mozambique both have proven natural gas reserves in the area of 100 billion cu m (cubic meters).
  • Liberia was a major exporter of iron ore until its economy was disrupted by civil war.
  • Namibia is a major producer of uranium, tungsten and copper.
  • Zambia is a major exporter of copper.

Now take a look at this headline from the Washington Post: Views on U.S. Drop Sharply In Worldwide Opinion Poll, based mainly on the lingering fallout from the Iraq War. In other words, while we're losing blood, treasure and global goodwill to secure the massive oil reserves of the Persian Gulf, the Chinese are cozying up to second- and third-tier countries for their natural resources through savvy investments and diplomatic courtship. Soft power, maybe. But power nonetheless.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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