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January, 2007

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Biden Blows It?

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

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

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

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   Politics   

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Sarkozy On Charlie Rose

Apparently Nicolas Sarkozy will be tonight's guest on the Charlie Rose Show. Definitely take a look if you get a chance. He's an articulate and charismatic speaker, always good for a memorable soundbite. Don't believe me? How about this:

His most colorful comments concerned Turkey, whose entry into the European Union he opposes. Sarkozy insisted that Turkey was in Asia Minor, not Europe, interjecting: "Excuse me, but is Mexico part of the United States?" He added that Turkey's refusal to accept Cyprus as an EU member would be like a country's seeking to become part of the United States but saying, "Let's do away with California first."

This guy might very well end up being the next French President.  And I have a hunch that we'll be turning to the French more and more in the coming years to help repair some of the damage we've done in the Middle East. So he's definitely worth watching.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Resisting The Wrong War

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

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

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

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

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Politics, French Style

If I had to choose one thing to illustrate the difference between American and French political culture, it would be the absence in France of tabloid news as we know it in the States. No shouting matches on Fox News. No caricatural headlines on the front cover of the NY Post. That kind of coverage doesn't exist here, because that kind of politics doesn't exist here. Politicians are judged for and take pride in their debating skills, so talking points are unheard of. Questions are for the most part answered, not redirected. Issues are addressed.

This concern for preserving the sanctity of the political arena is reflected in the laws governing the election, which are designed to both minimize the advantages that accrue to major-party candidates and encourage healthy political discourse. Take campaign financing, for example. There's a strict ceiling on campaign spending, 50% of which is reimbursed by the state for anyone who gets more than 5% of the vote in the first round of elections, with a fixed amount for those that don't. Corporations and legal entities other than private individuals are forbidden from making campaign contributions. And commercial advertising isn't allowed.

Equality of media access is guaranteed, which means more than just evenhanded news coverage. Every night leading up to the election, a different candidate is interviewed for 10 minutes following the prime time evening news, with the order of appearances determined randomly. So by the time people vote, they've heard each candidate a couple of times discussing at length and in depth the various issues confronting the country.

The only requirements for appearing on the ballot are the eligibility to vote and hold office, and the signatures of 500 locally elected officials (not necessarily endorsements), allowing a host of minor political parties and radical candidates to be represented. (Consider that in 2002, there were sixteen candidates in the first round, which contributed to the splintering of the left's vote and allowed Le Pen to slip into the second round.)

So much for the playing field. Now how about the teams? To most American observers, the most striking feature of the French political landscape is the degree to which it's skewed to the left. The Communist Party still holds seats in the National Assembly. The Trotskyite party known as the League of Communist Revolutionaries is not only taken seriously, its candidate in 2002, a 28-year old mailman named Olivier Besancenot, won over 4% of the vote in the first round. (In all fairness, he's extremely articulate and a skilled debater.) Another Trotskyite named Arlette Laguiller, who has run in every presidential election since 1974 under the banner of the Worker's Struggle party, won 5%. In fact, if you add up the vote total of the various extreme leftwing parties, you end up with roughly 18% of the first-round vote. Throw in the Greens' 5% and you're looking at almost a quarter of the French electorate comfortably to the left of Dennis Kucinich.

But with the exception of François Mitterand in 1981 and 1988, no Socialist candidate has been able to garner the support of the French radical left, and Ségolène Royal won't be any exception. There's been some talk about a unified radical candidate for this year's election, but with the exception of Arlette, who's running again, there hasn't been any announcements. After the debacle of 2002, though, it's unlikely that people will be as frivolous with their first-round votes this time around.

Next up, a rundown of some of the issues on people's minds, the candidates' programs, and why Americans should care.

Posted by Judah in:  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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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Political Wire

A blog I read and link to just put out a call for feedback. It's called Political Wire, by Taegan Goddard, and it's basically a news ticker in blog format for all things political. The posts are short, to the point and readable. There's also news wire feeds, as well as blog aggregators categorized by political slant, which is a practical way to get a sense of who's paying attention to what.

There's not a whole lot of analysis, which is a drawback or not, depending on your point of view. I think it could use more of it to put the news in context. There's also a lot of posts, so you've got to be selective and prioritize what you click through on. But if you're a hardcore political junky who agrees with Goddard's assertion that the 2008 presidential election is already in full swing, it's definitely worth a visit.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Monday, January 29, 2007

The Third Man

My longshot bet to win the French presidential election, François Bayrou, has been making up ground in the aftermath of Ségolène Royal's choppy campaign debut. According to the latest polls, he's now climbed into third place with 14% of likely voters. While he still trails Sarkozy and Royal by a significant margin (Sarko 31%, Royal 29%), he's trending upwards. Most importantly, he's overtaken Jean Marie Le Pen, the ultra-nationalist right-wing candidate who traumatised the country by sneaking into the second round of balloting in 2002. (In France, anyone who collects signatures from 500 French mayors can appear on the ballot. The top two vote-getters from the first round face off in the second round two weeks later.)

In a country traditionally torn by right-left cleavages, Bayrou has steered his party, the centrist UDF, clear of entangling alliances with either. The advantage? People are genuinely tired of politics as usual, and are looking for a valid alternative. The disadvantage? French culture is instinctively conflictual, especially the political culture. People here are naturally distrustful of someone who won't come down on one side of an issue or the other. So while Bayrou's stock is beginning to rise with voters, he's already suffered some defections within his own party, where dissatisfaction with the UDF's refusal to participate in the right-of-center UMP government caused a number of Assembly-members to jump ship and endorse Sarkozy. It doesn't help that Bayrou is widely considered to "have the charisma of a coffee table."

Something tells me, though, that this campaign has still got some surprises left. To begin with, Sarkozy, while solidly backed by the governing UMP, is thoroughly detested by Chirac and his loyalists. There's also the question of Chirac's lingering legal worries from his days as mayor of Paris catching up to him as soon as his Presidential immunity comes to an end. So unless a backroom deal is struck to make those worries disappear, there's no guarantee that Chirac, whose known as "The Serial Killer" for all the political rivals he's left for dead, won't run one of his cronies to split the rightwing vote.

As for Royal, unless she recovers soon and strongly, one of her defeated rivals from within the Socialist Party (I'm counting on former Mitterand-era Prime Minister Laurent Fabius) might very well announce an independent run, effectively splitting the Socialist vote and putting Bayrou very much in the running.

I'll have more on the candidates' platforms, as well as some differences between the American and French political cultures and why any of this matters in the next few days.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Monday, January 29, 2007

Globetrotters

I remember a time when the world seemed exotic and far-flung, filled with adventure and mystery. Granted I was a kid then, but something's changed, and I don't think it's just a result of having gotten older. A headline like this one helps me put my finger on it: World tourism sets record in 2006.

A Parisian I know once described how he used to go to the Louvre several times a week in the 1960's and 70's. He'd discover a room a day, taking the time to experience the artwork in front of him. And when he'd found that he'd seen every room in every wing, he returned to the beginning and started again.

Of course, that's no longer possible today. When I visited Paris for the first time five years ago, I set aside an afternoon for the Louvre, feeling some vague obligation as a moderately cultured person to see Da Vinci's Mona Lisa at least once in my lifetime. What I saw instead was the reflection of flash bulbs in the shatterproof glass that houses it, and the backs of a couple dozen Japanese tourists' heads. Three years later in Florence, given the choice between waiting on line for two hours to enter the Uffizi or enjoying a plate of bolognese and a carafe of wine in the piazza, I opted for the pasta.

One of the ironies of the increasing democratization of tourism and travel over the past twenty years is that as our destinations become more accessible, the things we go there to see become less so. The real event at the Louvre is no longer the art on the walls. It's the current of humanity that courses through it each day. And the same is true to varying degrees of most of the world's great tourist destinations.

Cynical? Maybe. Elitist? No doubt. Truth is, I don't mind. The pasta in Florence wasn't that bad.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Monday, January 29, 2007

Headline Habits

Thinking about this question of why I have so little inclination to dip my feet into the pool of domestic policy issues got me thinking about the whole question of headlines that get a rise out me and those that I pass over. Today, for instance, I was watching a nature documentary on the North Pole with my son and I realized that I very rarely do more than scan a headline that includes the phrase "Global Warming" or "Climate Change". Do I think it's an insignificant issue? Far from it. Do I find this tendency laudable or recommended? Of course not. Am I saturated? Already convinced? Probably. But there's more to it, I think. Something about each of us having a "News Reading Profile" that either draws us into a topic or doesn't.

So I thought it would be interesting to do a couple Top 3 Lists. (I've limited it to three so as to involve an element of discrimination.) Here's mine:

Top 3 Headlines I'm Sure To Read:

  1. Iraq/Iran/Middle East Geopolitics.
  2. The Rise of China.
  3. Presidential Politics (French & American).

Top 3 Headlines I'm Sure To Pass Over:

  1. Avian Flu.
  2. Global Warming.
  3. Darfur. (Not proud of it, but there it is.)

And for a kicker, a Guilty Pleasure (surprise, surprise): Christian Evangelicals. So? What about yours?

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Guerilla Warfare 101

I'm trying to find some sarcastic way to say what anybody with a shred of common sense knows intuitively. Because you don't need an advance degree from the Army War College to know that when you send in the heavy guns against a guerilla insurgency, you usually come up empty. But all I can come up with is, Read it and weep.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Coming Up Empty

So the site's been up a week and I'm looking through it, relatively pleased with how quickly it's filled up with posts and links and most importantly an original thought or two. (I'm hoping the comments will materialize in time.) And then I click through to the Archive index and there it is staring back at me: A big donut under the Domestic Policy heading. (Don't bother checking now, all you'll see is this post.)

Now granted, I'm obsessed with the strategic nightmare that is our current Middle East policy right now, and the rise of China is a particular favorite of mine, too, and all the candidates lining up for 2008 has been grabbing a lot of page one real estate. But is the reason I just don't have much to say about Domestic Policy because I've never been much of a policy wonk? Or is it possibly because it's been six years now since I left the States? Can you have domestic policy insights when you're no longer domestic?

Posted by Judah in:  Domestic Policy   

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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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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Royal Pain

I mentioned I'd be trying to slip in some posts on the French presidential campaign, and while I was hoping to do a few backgrounders since coverage of foreign elections is pretty spotty in the States, things have heated up in the last few days.

A French impersonator named Gérard Dahan is known here for his telephone hoaxes. He once placed a call to Zinedine Zidane as President Jaques Chirac, and famously got Zizou and the entire French national team to place their hands over their hearts for the pre-game Marseillaise (an unusual gesture here in France).

Well, this week he got Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal to believe she was speaking to the Premier of Quebec, Jean Charest. And in the course of their conversation, Dahan/Charest compared Royal's recent controversial remarks in support of Quebec independence to a Canadian saying Corsica should be independent. To which Royal responded, "The French wouldn't disagree, by the way." Before breaking into laughter and adding, "Don't repeat that. That one there would cause an uproar in France. Keep it a secret." Little did she know.

To put it in context, Corsican nationalists have been engaged in a decades-long campaign to secure independence from France, a campaign that has included bombings of governmental buildings and assassinations of French governmental authorities and judges. Hardly a laughing matter here.

And although Royal's campaign tried, by turns, to brush the incident off as insignificant and accuse her opponent, UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, of dirty pool (Dahan is a known UMP sympathizer, although he denies being a party member), it's the latest in a series of ill-advised remarks ranging from the Middle East (where she claimed Iran should not even have civilian nuclear power) to China (she praised the efficiency of the Chinese justice system) to Quebec (both Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Quebec Premier Jean Charest roundly condemned her initial remarks as interference in Canadian internal affairs).

After coming out of nowhere to grab the Socialist Party nomination, based largely on charisma, popularity, and a vague promise to listen to the concerns of the French people before defining her platform, Royal has stumbled coming out of the gate, leaving the impression of a gaffe-prone candidate who can't be taken seriously.

It's still early, but unless Royal recovers quickly, one of the second-tier candidates, most likely centrist UDF candidate François Bayrou, ought to be able to capitalize on the anti-Sarkozy defectors she's bound to lose. In any event, the long-awaited showdown between Royal and Sarkozy has suddenly become far from certain.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

What A Difference Confirmation Makes

We've got another case of the "Flagging will, happy terrorists" argument, this time from Robert Gates. Here's what he had to say yesterday at a Pentagon news conference about the Congressional resolutions opposing the President's escalation:

“It’s pretty clear that a resolution that in effect says that the general going out to take command of the arena shouldn’t have the resources he thinks he needs to be successful certainly emboldens the enemy and our adversaries...

“I think it’s hard to measure that with any precision, but it seems pretty straightforward that any indication of flagging will in the United States gives encouragement to those folks,” Gates said, referring to the anti-government forces in Baghdad.

Now folks who oppose the war in general and its escalation in particular shouldn't be afraid of this charge, mainly because it's inarguably true, for reasons that I elaborated here. At the same time, I have a hard time believing that the resolution and the gathering opposition to the war that it gives voice to will embolden the enemy any more than the administration's catastrophic management of the war itself already has. For that matter, an argument can be made that the idea of having 20,000 more targets to shoot at, not to mention the satisfaction of knowing they're stretching our military to the breaking point in a damned effort, must give the bad guys some satisfaction too.

And while we're on the subject of boldness, I'd point out that the folks blowing things up in Iraq don't seem any more or less bold to me today than they did a year ago, or two or three or four. As far as I can tell, they're doing the same things now, when most of America wants out, as they were doing back in 2003, when most of America believed we were still going to find nuclear warheads somewhere in Anbar province. Only now, in addition to doing it to us, they're doing it to each other as well.

The President has proposed a plan that most of the country and Congress thinks will make defeat more, rather than less, likely. We'll know soon enough who's right. But if it depends on silencing domestic criticism for success, it's not much of a plan.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, January 26, 2007

The Audacity Of Dopes

Did anyone else find it surreal that as of the year 2007, the role of arbiter for the Civil Rights agenda goes to... Al Sharpton? The NY Times says here that Reverend Al is sizing up the Democratic field's commitment to the black community's interests, starting with Barack Obama, to decide whether his candidacy will be necessary in 2008.

Now don't get me wrong. I like Al Sharpton. Back at the height of his divisive incarnation as Tawana Brawley's consigliari, I almost got fired for heatedly defending him to my boss. My argument at the time? He's a pit bull for his people, and if I were a black man, victimized on account of my race and belonging to the social class whose grievances tend to be brushed aside, there's not a whole lot of people I'd think of calling ahead of Al Sharpton.

I also admire the way he came in from the cold and went respectable, successfully trading in his street thuggishness without losing a shred of his street credibility. How? By keeping it real, whether barking through a megaphone at a protest march, or talking into a microphone at a presidential debate. I'll actually miss his wit and candor if he ends up sitting the campaign out.

But from there to being the guarantor of the black community on the national scene seems like a stretch. After all, most people who are familiar with Sharpton's m.o. know that while he undoubtedly has the black community's interests (somewhere) at heart, first and foremost, Rev. Al looks out for Rev. Al.

Of course, the meetings in Washington yesterday had little to do with civil rights, and everything to do with delivering votes in New York. And from the looks of things, Obama would do well to have a little chat with Jesse Jackson about how Sharpton deals with rival black leaders. My hope? That Sharpton ends up running, while simultaneously broadcasting his campaign as a reality television program. Can't you just see it? The Rev. Al and Paris Hilton discussing tax policy over cocktails at the Four Seasons? On second thought, maybe not.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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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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Friday, January 26, 2007

La Presidentielle

Today I'll be kicking off a recurring feature on the French Presidential election, known here as "la presidentielle." It's a subject that gets almost no news coverage in the American press, which is a shame, really, because if politics were a sport, la presidentielle would be the Olympics. That's how well the French practice it. They realize that democracy, more than allowing the people to govern, is really a means of limiting the kingship in order to widen the field of those who might aspire to it. Longtime practitioners of courtly intrigue, the best among them have mastered the art of the subtle, seemingly effortless remark that in fact eviscerates.

The classic example is an exchange during the 1988 Presidential debate between incumbent President François Mitterand and the challenger, opposition leader and Prime Minister Jaques Chirac. (Here's a video link for any French speakers.) Remember that in the French parliamentary system, the Prime Minister governs, but at the mercy of the President, who appoints him. There is therefore an implicit hierarchy established between the two men, one that Mitterand attempts to exploit in his opening remark by referring to Chirac as Mr. Prime Minister. To which Chirac responds:

Allow me just to tell you that, tonight, I am not the Prime Minister, and you are not the President of the Republic. We are two equal candidates, who submit themselves to the judgment of the French people, the only one that counts. You will permit me, therefore, to call you Mr. Mitterand.

Mitterand's short but lethal comeback?

You are absolutely right, Mr. Prime Minister.

Now there's a little over two months to go until this year's election, with all the major candidates in place. The campaign should start in earnest any time now. So over the course of the coming week I'll try to sprinkle in some posts to introduce the various candidates, as well as to recap some of the maneuvering that has already taken place to narrow the field. Then we'll sit back with a good bottle of wine and enjoy the show.

A quick overview? Interior Minster Nicolas Sarkozy is the odds-on favorite to win. But I'm betting on darkhorse centrist candidate François Bayrou to stun the field.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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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

Sweet Dreams, Maverick

Inevitably, a moment comes along for every politician when the man converges with his destiny, providing the public with an indelible image that confirms what it had come to suspect about him. For Gary Hart, that moment was the Monkey Business photo. For John Kerry, it was the Botched Joke. For John McCain, it might very well turn out to be yesterday's State of the Union address.

I can't count the number of times in the past 6-8 weeks that I've heard or read that John McCain is washed up. According to this gathering meme, whatever dynamism he might have presented eight years ago as a maverick, straight-talking man of action has gone sluggish and tired. And of course it's true. But did he have to go and fall asleep on national television to prove it?

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

EPM: Eyeblinks Per Minute

This strikes me as the sort of tidbit evolutionarily adapted to the internet age: According to Broadcasting & Cable, Nancy Pelosi blinked her eyes 25-30 times per minute during the President's State of the Union address, compared to Dick Cheney's 3-4. They're also not the first to mention that the Veep's reaction to W.'s energy independence bit was, shall we say, less than convincing?

Posted by Judah in:  Say What?   

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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

They Deserve Better

With all the legitimate outrage over the Administration's tactical and strategic bungling of the War in Iraq, and amidst all the horrors and devastation that have been visited on that country as a result, it's easy to lose sight of the countless acts of courage, bravery and generosity that our soldiers carry out every day. Read this story from the Times and you'll see what I mean: American GI's put themselves at enormous risk to save a young girl's life.

Putting aside the obvious usefulness of such a gesture in a counterinsurgency campaign, doesn't it just make you proud to know that four years and God knows how many tours into this quagmire, these young Americans are over there trying to save lives? Doesn't it make your blood boil to read the rest of the article about the civil war they're now refereeing, knowing that their courage and sacrifice are essentially being squandered in the service of an unnecessary and now unwinnable war? For me it does.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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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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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Try Stopping This

That seems to be Iran's response to America deploying Patriot anti-missile batteries in strategic locations around the Gulf. How else can you explain their decision to conduct three days of War Games, complete with test-firing of their latest missiles, in the desert north of Tehran? One thing you can say for them: they don't seem to be planning on going out like Khaddafi. Of course, there's only one way to know for sure if they've got more bite behind their bark than Saddam Hussein did. Something tells me W. is going to try his best to find out.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Sam & Hillary

I don't know about you, but I'm getting the heebie jeebies just thinking about that as a possibility. Talk about re-living the battles of the Sixties, not to mention the sixty's (no offense to any retirees). Hillary's got the money and the brand recognition. So barring a popular wave like the one that Segolene Royal rode to the Socialist Party nomination here in France, based largely on her charisma and resolute refusal to define a clear program (are you listening Barack?), I think Hillary's obviously the Democrat to beat.

As for Brownback, I can't see how this doesn't help out Rudy and McCain tremendously, seeing as how they no longer have to pander to the evangelical lunatic fringe of the GOP (who know Sam's their man) in the primaries. Too bad, in a way, considering all the circus tricks the two of them had already boned up on.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Canary In The Mine

You've got to figure that the Kurds know Iraq a little better than we do. After all, they're Iraqis, despite the fact that they might prefer otherwise. So it doesn't strike me as such a good sign that the Peshmergas-turned-Iraqi regulars who have been Shanghai'd to surge into Baghdad alongside our own GI's are deserting in numbers substantial enough for one Kurdish General to call it "a phenomenon."

"The soldiers don't know the Arabic language, the Arab tradition, and they don't have any experience fighting terror," said Anwar Dolani, a former peshmerga commander who leads the brigade that's being transferred to Baghdad from the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah.

So just how does that distinguish them, say, from the reservists being called up here at home?

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

False Optimism?

Gen. Casey says we ought to see progress in Baghdad in the next 60-90 days, that the city will be measureably safer by summer, and that the troops that are just now "surging" could very well be heading back Stateside by late summer.

After that, maybe they'll get around to the murder rate in New Orleans. Just a thought.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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