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Friday, May 30, 2008

The Middle East, Sort Of

For an optimistic take on how recent events in the Middle East might advance American interests, there's Bob Kenner in The National Review, and Scott Peterson in the Christian Science Monitor. Kenner explains how popular resentment over Hizbollah turning its weapons against fellow Lebanese, as opposed to Israeli occupiers, might turn their battlefield success into a Pyrrhic victory. Peterson discusses how an Israeli-Syrian peace deal, admittedly a longshot, might if not drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, at least accentuate the differences in their parallel but not common regional interests. (For an even more thorough examination of where Damascus and Tehran diverge, see the Sami Moubayed Asia Times Online piece which I flagged yesterday.) For a more pessimistic take, there's Eric Trager at Commentary, who keenly observes that it's all France's fault, or something to that effect.

My own feeling is that we might be approaching some sort of epistemological limit of what we can actually know what's happening, and we've certainly moved well beyond any ability to predict future events. Our efforts to "manage" the Middle East have brought me back to a recurring image of the Democratic primary campaign between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Think of how much ink has been spilled (and pixels formatted) in an effort to explain the dynamics of that race, and we still don't have a firm understanding of what really transpired or how it will end. Now toss in a couple armed militias in each state, and no guarantee that either candidate will respect the party bylaws come the Convention, and imagine that some policy wonk in Tehran is trying to arrange all the moving pieces to make sure their horse wins, and you've got something that resembles our Middle East policy.

What leaves me most pessimistic is the feeling that not only don't we have too many good options, we insist on pursuing bad ones. Parag Khanna argues in a new WPR piece that propping up "moderate" Shiites as an alternative to Hezbollah and Iran is not the answer, and Johnathan Steele at the Guardian makes the case that it's foolish to believe we can stabilize Iraq and the Middle East without accomodating Iran. Nevertheless, we continue our search for "moderate" Shiites, and refuse to even consider the idea of trying to find a negotiated regional settlement with Iran. Which means our only real hope for success is if our adversaries overreach and falter, like Hizbollah and al-Qaida, before we do.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

To the Fallen, and the Standing

I would have liked to post this on Monday, but I was in NY with my son on a surprise visit for my Dad's 80th, and between jet lag and family time, I didn't get a chance to. That morning, me and the Lil' Feller had about an hour to kill before meeting up with everyone, since we were both waking up on Paris time. All weekend, there'd been a steady stream of Navy personnel in town for Fleet Week, and it occurred to me there might be some fun events programmed for a seven year-old. Sure enough, the USS Kearsarge was docked at Pier 90, a straight shot down to the water from the hotel, and it was open to the public. So we hopped in a Yellow cab and within ten minutes we were wandering around the various military vehicles -- a tank, an Armored Personnel Carrier, an amphibious landing craft -- stored in the hold.

I asked one of the Marine hosts, not even half my age, how many people rode in the back of the APC, which looked like an oversized oven fitted down the middle with two back-to-back benches about the width of a car seat. "Eight," he replied, before pointing out that by eight, he meant fully armed and equipped. "You don't want to be in there for more than five minutes," he assured me. Toss in the fact that as often as not an APC is transporting its passengers in a war zone, and I think it's safe to say that you don't want to be in there, period.

I was moved by the sight of all the young men and women in uniform in a way that I've never been before. I come from a family with a long history of pacifism and, yes, anti-militarism. Among the earliest photos of me in the family album is one, circa 1969, sitting in my stroller with a wool pennant reading "Bring the GI's home" draped across the front. In our family culture, though, hostility to the military was limited to the generals who sent young men into needless wars. The young men themselves were always regarded with a mixture of respect and regret.

This was the first time I'd ever really been surrounded by American soldiers during wartime. That it was also the first time I was face to face with the American military since my increased professional interest in national security and military issues probably also played a part in my heightened sense of appreciation. Clearly I was the target of a very effective info ops campaign, but I wanted to find some way of expressing to them my respect, my admiration, my emotion, not for their mission, which I find regrettable, but for their service, which I find heroic. The fact that it was Memorial Day, in the middle of a lightning visit back to my hometown, only reinforced the urgency of the sentiment. But as much as I wanted to say something, it would have felt silly to say it to only one of them, and impossible to say it to them all. I thought about trying to find an officer to use as a collective conduit, but the idea struck me as grandiose.

But more significantly, I felt curiously ashamed of expressing my appreciation, because to recognize the enormity of their service is also to recognize the normality of my own life. Unlike World War Two, where every segment of the population was mobilized into the war effort, or the Vietnam War, where the draft served to distribute the nightmare, if not equally, at least more widely, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have remained largely private wars: On the one hand, a mobilized military bearing an enormous burden; on the other, a demobilized citizenry bearing little to none.

So instead I explained to my son how moved I was, because these young people were serving at a time of war. And when we got to the transport helicopter fitted with medical stretchers up on the flag deck, I made it clear to him that these courageous men and women fly out every day knowing that they might be flying back strapped into one of them. War, I explained to him, is not a game. I hope to God he understood.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iraq   

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Media Appearance

I'm not sure I'll have a chance to post again beforehand, so for any Sirius Satellite Radio listeners, I'll be representing the WPR blog on Sirius' The Blog Bunker program this Tuesday, May 27, from 5:30-6pm.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   

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Friday, May 23, 2008

The Iran Fallacy

In case you haven't noticed the front page, WPR has got a pretty solid one-two punch of must read articles today. The first, by Charles Crain, discusses the ways in which the Obama-McCain dust up over negotiating with enemies like Iran is divorced from the reality that we already are negotiating with enemies like Iran. The second, by Brian Burton, dissects the ways in which the consensus view of Iran as the source of all the Middle East's problems is divorced from the reality that the Middle East is the source of all the Middle East's problems.

I'd been meaning to make Crain's point for the last few days, so I'm glad he saved me the trouble. And I've been guilty of what Burton is talking about, using the shorthand of "symptom" when referring to Hamas, Hizbollah and Syria and "disease" to refer to Iran. There is the not insignificant detail of Iranian funding, supplies and training, but Burton is spot on in his argument that Hamas and Hizbollah -- and the popular discontent they represent -- would exist independently of Iranian influence. Burton's policy correctives read almost like a diplomatic version of the U.S. Army's new COIN tactics writ large:

The best way to counter expanding extremism and Iranian influence is not through more conventional state-to-state military action or diplomacy. It is by beating Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Sadrists at their own game: Standing up for repressed populations of the region, addressing their local grievances, demonstrating care for their concerns, offering aid and a clear vision of a better future. Extremist groups like these will not fade away until their constituencies have a more attractive alternative, and America should be ashamed if it cannot do a better job than Iran at providing that alternative.

You might remember the discussion we had here on the blog a few weeks back about Barack Obama's foreign policy "crusade." I think that underneath Obama's transformational rhetoric is really just an ambition to put what Burton describes into practice.

My point at the time was that presenting the case in transformational terms risks raising expectations too high. Hamas and Hizbollah didn't just suddenly appear as their constituencies' best hope to get their political grievances redressed. They are the product of over forty years of failed policy, and in many ways their rise reflects a level of desperation which will be difficult to move past. But regardless of whether we actually do end up transforming the Middle East or the world, what Burton (and Obama) is proposing is the right thing to do.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   The Middle East   

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Sons of Iraq

If you haven't already, give David Ucko's piece on the Sons of Iraq a read. I'm probably guilty of dismissing that particular aspect of the improved security situation too quickly. As Ucko makes clear, it's risky and far from conclusively resolved. But it can't be reduced to an effort to buy off guns to get them pointed in another direction, and doing so only ignores the significant opportunities it offers for real progress.

The catch, as always when it comes to progress in Iraq, is consolidating it into something that resembles a cohesive national government. Ucko puts his hopes in the upcoming provincial elections in October, followed by national elections in December 2009. In a way that makes sense. The Sunnis by and large boycotted the last elections, so this will really be their first go at the new Iraqi political process. But a lot still depends on the Shiites' willingness to accomodate them. And the proof of the pudding will have to wait for the first time political power in Iraq changes hands from one faction to another, to find out whether that transfer ends up being a peaceful one or not.

I remain largely skeptical about the longterm durability of the progress in Iraq, and pessimistic about the chances that all of the broken bones will set in time for Iraq to be able to bear its own weight anytime soon. But now would seem to be the wrong time to precipitously remove the plaster cast (namely, American troops) that's holding it in place. I fear that we're chaperoning a failed policy towards its ultimate demise. But I'm willing to admit to my own pessimism, and hope that it's ultimately proven wrong.

Update: Behind the gimmick of comparing the SoI to the Sopranos, this LA Times story suggests that internal power struggles are already surfacing among the Sunnis as the American-Sunni partnerships (and the advantages they bestow) solidify. This doesn't at all contradict the significance of the strategy that Ucko identifies, but it points out yet another potential faultline that must be navigated.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Online Event Alerts

Steve Clemons from The Washington Note passed on a couple items of interest via a mass mailer. He's hosting UK Foreign Minister David Milibrand for a presentation at the New America Foundation, and the live stream (10:30-11:30 am EST) can be found here.

Then from noon to 1 pm EST, Steve's live streaming a George Soros presentation to the London School of Economics here. Should be good stuff.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Technical Difficulties

I suppose one of the downsides of being an amateur programmer is that you do things that get you into trouble with your root server, like inefficient php scripts and the like. I still remember when I decided to start this blog, looking around at the available templates and not finding any I liked. At the time it seemed like a great idea to design my own. A few months later, after ruining my eyes on html, css, php and mysql online tutorials, I actually had something I liked that worked. But apparently it uses too many congruent processes, so bear with me if you get an internal server error message instead of the site. I'm trying to work it out with tech support.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Easy Targets

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

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

Here's bin Laden:

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   The Middle East   

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Not Happening

This is why I'm so confident that John McCain stands no chance of winning the presidency:

Everybody needs to relax. There's no way John McCain will beat Barack Obama. Period.

Update: As an afterthought, it occured to me that videos like this are useful up to a certain point, but Barack Obama himself should avoid using frontal assaults on McCain's "straight talk" reputation. Instead, he and his campaign should very simply and knowingly begin referring to McCain's "credibility problem." If pressed for comment, he should reply, "People who have actually been listening to John McCain over the years know what I'm talking about."

Confronting someone with the obvious falsehood of one of their bedrock assumptions is a surefire way to trigger their defense mechanisms. As an example, imagine you wanted to inform a friend that his "devoted" wife is actually having an affair (leaving aside, for simplicity's sake, the question of whether or not you should, in fact, do such a thing). Tell him the missus is cheating on him and you're as likely as not going to end up with a black eye and one less friend. Mention in passing how a mutual acquaintance got wise to what those "extended business lunches" were all about and he's liable to start asking himself some questions. The key is not to give people answers they don't want to hear, but to get them to ask themselves the questions that will lead them to those answers.

The advantage of taking McCain's "credibility problem" for granted is that it confronts McCain on one of his core strengths, while forcing his most loyal constituency the press to do the legwork on examining the claim. And it does so without raising the natural defenses of voters who have integrated years' worth of puff pieces into their construction of reality.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Big Picture on the Long War

Amidst the signs of progress in Iraq, two cautionary notes: despite the Maliki government's solidification of its hold on power by military means, very few of the major political challenges to national reconciliation have been addressed, let alone solved; and the security gains of the past year have now exerted a "push me-pull you" pressure on Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their homes, which have either been appropriated or walled off behind sectarian lines. In other words, having returned the security situation to what resembles a frozen civil war (or a tenuous and sporadically violated ceasefire), we're now confronted with the difficult, costly and lengthy challenges of nation-building.

Which brings us to Andrew Bacevich's LA Times op-ed (via AM's Dr. iRack), which calls into question the broader context of the "Long War." In essence, Bacevich argues that in setting out to change the world, we've weakened ourselves from within. Now, if we don't rein in our own profligacy and hubris, we'll no longer have the luxury to engage in nation-building abroad. It's a convincing argument, if only for the fact that we're better at national renewal than we are at international transformation. And it's one worth considering, given that somehow the Iraq War seems to have had little impact on the instinctive reflex in some circles to reach for American military power when faced with a thorny problem, whether it be Iran's nuclear program or humanitarian crises in Burma and Darfur. Add to that the fact that the U.S. Army is retooling in the image of a counterinsurgency force adapted to stabilization and reconstruction operations, and the implications of Bacevich's assessment become pretty dire.

In the aftermath of 9/11, America understandably confused a security threat with a national security threat; a threat to Americans was mistaken for a threat to America. But it also confused the calculus of the terrorist threat for a zero sum game. The impact of the Iraq War (which having been wrongly folded into the "Long War" narrative must now be included in its assessment) has demonstrated that America can both weaken al-Qaida and itself at the same time. That is, in the War on Terrorism, both we and the terrorists can lose.

That Iraq also demonstrates the limits of America's ability to mold societies in our own image is even more reason for a sober reassessment of the interventionist urge. The way things are shaping up around the world, there will be plenty of situations where we'll be tempted (perhaps even required) to apply the military lessons we've learned in Iraq in other countries, under other circumstances. But unless we integrate the political lessons we've learned in Iraq first, we're likely to meet with the same frustrating results.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iraq   

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

No Trade-offs, Good Deal

Apparently, House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman didn't get the memo that U.S.-Russia relations are no longer based on trade-offs. More seriously, as the Richard Weitz article I flagged yesterday points out, nuclear cooperation with the U.S. provides Russia with lucrative alternatives to its relatively modest (and at times unpaid) commerce with Iran.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Saving Burma

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

U.S.-Russian Nuclear Agreement

Richard Weitz' roundup of the nuclear agreement signed last week between the U.S. and Russia is the most thorough I've read so far. I'd been under the impression that the agreement threatened efforts to reduce Russia's stock of weapons grade uranium. But Weitz points out all the other ways that the agreement opens up areas of cooperative counterproliferation. Among the most convincing is that by offering Russia access to both the American domestic nuclear market and, via cooperative mechanisms, various foreign markets, the agreement provides a lucrative alternative to Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran. Ironically, that's the very sticking point around which Congressional opposition seems to be gathering. Weitz offers the caveat of requiring Russia to dedicate some of the potential windfall towards nonproliferation efforts. But unlike the India 123 Agreement, where there were legitimate NPT concerns, the Russian agreement seems like a pretty good step towards improving cooperation in an increasingly strategic sector, with very little downside.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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Thursday, May 8, 2008

Dept. of Shameless Plugs

I've got a rundown of Nicolas Sarkozy's one-year anniversary as president of France up on the front page over at World Politics Review. Here's the lede:

One year to the day after his election as president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy strikes an increasingly lonely figure on the French political scene. Having referred to himself as the "buying power president" to emphasize his goal of increasing disposable income, he has instead become the object of a nationwide case of buyer's remorse. His popularity has plummeted in opinion polls, and in the absence of any true political opposition (outside of an increasingly hostile press), he faces growing disenchantment within his own UMP majority. In a country where politics is a blood sport, and where the only thing worse than success is failure, his precarious position has already led some to wonder whether his presidency is past saving...

Feel free to leave comments here. 

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Obama and Soft Power

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

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

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Al-Sadr Flips a COIN

It's not often you get to read a full, English-language interview with Moqtada al-Sadr's official spokesman, which is why I'm linking to this one, even if it is a week old. Sure, it's with PressTV, the Iranian version of Fox News, but hey, the Bush administration has got Michael Gordon to push its talking points, so what the heck.

The two things that stand out to me from Sheikh Salah Obeidi's version of events (major caveat there) are the lengths to which the Sadrists have gone, and are going, to try to walk the intra-Shiite power struggle back from a shooting war. From calling a ceasefire at the outset of the Surge, to holding their fire in the face of Maliki provocations after the Basra truce, to meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani last week, the Sadrists have made it clear that while they won't turn over their weapons (whether Iranian-furnished or not), they're willing to put them on ice.

The second was Obeidi's explanation for the Basra assault. The American press has primarily linked the attempt to crush the Sadrists to October's municipal elections.Obeidi does, too, but also mentions the fact that among Iraqi political parties, the Sadrists are the most likely to oppose the status of forces agreement currently being negotiated by the Iraqi government with the Bush administration. Which adds more urgency to getting them out of the way now.

The recent emphasis on crushing the Sadrists seems odd, though, given the Army's new COIN tactics. Al-Sadr is one of the few figures in Iraq who lead not just a constituency or a militia, but a movement. It might not be a movement that serves our interests, but according to Gen. Petraeus' very own COIN manual, that's not something that you crush, especially when, as Spencer Ackerman points out, al-Sadr is filling more governmental roles for his followers than the Iraqi government is able to. Saddam Hussein, using far more brutal methods, never managed to, and that was before the Sadrists had a militia to defend themselves. So I don't see how the Iraqi Security Forces are going to, even with our help.

What's more, we're going after the one Iraqi Shiite whose legitimacy doesn't depend on our, or the Iranians', support. The logic of counterinsurgency, though, assumes that the counterinsurgents are defending a legitimate government in the face of an illegitimate armed challenge. Otherwise what you have is puppet theater. And as all failed counterinsurgents eventually find out, puppets don't hold up very well in a warzone.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Business Never Personal

A few weeks back, I wrote that the real danger of Gen. Petraeus being promoted to CENTCOM is not so much that his regional strategy might be weighted towards Iraq to the detriment of Afghanistan, although that's certainly a risk. The real problem is that Gen. Petraeus' view of the Iranians is colored by the fact that he's been engaged in a low-level proxy war with them for the past year and a half.

But as this Dr. iRack post over at Abu Muqawama demonstrates, Petraeus isn't alone. Here's the good doctor discussing one possible reason why American policy-makers dismissed Iranian overtures for broad, regional negotiations following the recent fighting in Basra:

In recent weeks, Dr. iRack has been at a number of events with very senior U.S. officials discussing Iran's lethal involvement in Iraq. To a man, these officials have, over the past month, been rocketed by weapons made in Iran (although direct links to the regime remain murky). Dr. iRack is no psychologist, but key U.S. figures on the ground in Baghdad just don't seem to be in the mood to talk to folks with American blood an their hands while they're being shelled.

This, of course, is why it's not a good idea to put people who have been deeply engaged in-theater in broader regional policy positions. Again, the point is not that the Iranians are angels, or that their overture was necessarily credible. The point is that sometimes negotiating with the bad guys gets you a better result than fighting them, and personal animosities have a way of interfering with the judgment necessarily to make that sort of call.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Not-So-Ugly American

Two very interesting posts over at the Lowy Interpreter on how Americans present themselves to and are perceived by non-Americans (in this case, Aussies). The first discusses Americans' tendency towards self-deprecation and auto-criticism (particularly, but not exclusively, in terms of foreign policy); the second suggests that this is both a cover for "an unwavering belief in [our] pre-eminence" and a poker-playing culture's technique for eliciting information based on the listener's reaction. Significantly, the first is based on American officials encountered in Australia, whereas the second is based on American private citizens encountered in America, which might explain for the different readings.

To this American who has spent time both travelling and living abroad, both posts seem to hit close to the mark. I'm pretty critical of American foreign policy, but I tend to get a bit tight-lipped if I sense that I'm feeding someone's accumulated hostility towards the United States. That meant a few years here in France of agreeing with thoughtful criticism of American policy (often accompanied by an affectionate regard towards America itself), while rattling off the list of France's post-colonial record (torture in Algeria, the Rainbow Warrior, nuclear tests in the Pacific) in response to virulent anti-Americanism. France being France, those discussions were sometimes initiated before I'd put out the initial feelers mentioned at the Interpreter, but I did sometimes use them, if not consciously, both to signal my own position and to determine who I had in front of me.

On the other hand, to see how much America really is loved, sometimes in spite of ourselves, has been one of the recurring rewards of living abroad. The mere thought of the Star Spangled Banner being played at Elysée Palace following Sept. 11 is enough to get me choked up, and I'll never forget my surprise, on interviewing a noted French foreign policy figure, to see black and white photos of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin strolling the Vegas Strip on the wall behind his desk.

We often lose sight of how much goodwill capital we have accumulated around the world. It takes an effort on our part to undo it, but I'm convinced that even when we do manage to, it's only a temporary setback. People really do want to root for America, as long as they feel like we're on their side.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Friday, May 2, 2008

Cuba Libre

Last Friday the not-so-Lil' Feller had his seventh birthday. Which meant that, as promised many months ago, today was his first weekly allowance. Five euros a week, with a savings plan that we'd already agreed on: two in his pocket for comics and candy, and three in the kit for a larger purchase in a few months time.

Trouble was, we didn't have the "kit" to put his savings in, so we headed around the corner to the "Tabac", a combination newstand-cigar shop. The two white-haired, very Parisian ladies who run the place already know us, since we stop in regularly and pass by on the way to school every day, and because I tend to strike up conversations with shopkeepers whose stores I frequent. (You can take the kid out of Brooklyn, but you can't take the Brooklyn out of the kid.) They also love my son, because he's really well-behaved, very polite, and a natural-born charmer.

When I asked them if they had a spare cigar box lying around, they looked apologetic and explained that they either sell the boxes with the cigars, or throw the empty ones away. So I asked them if they could hold on to one for us, and with a very serious tone of voice and a wink of my eye (hidden from my son), explained what we needed it for. At which the whiter-haired of the two rummaged through the shelf under the counter, and finally came up with a tallish cigar box, white with yellow trim, that made my son's eyes go as round as saucers. I can't be certain his smile made their day, but I'd lay pretty long odds it did.

It was only after we left and were headed back home that I noticed that my son's allowance, his very first exposure to the bourgeois virtues of thrift and economy, would be gathered and collected in an empty Cuban cigar box. Hasta la victoria siempre.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Friday, May 2, 2008

Middle Power Mojo

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Turkey   

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Moqtada Paradox

For the past month, the Bush administration has been furiously rolling out the Iran-Sadr connection. Now Moqtada al-Sadr has begun to push back with the Iran-America connection:

Al Sadr Bloc spokesman in Najaf City Sheikh Salah Al Ubaidi accused Iran of working with the United Sates to share powers in Iraq.

That strikes me as a pretty smart play on al-Sadr's part, since it's looking more and more like he's the odd man out in Baghdad, Washington and Tehran. It also strikes me as the most accurate reading of what's going on, since at this point that's the only scenario that could possibly result in a stable Iraq.

Al-Sadr always seems to be most dangerous (or perhaps most agile) when everyone's busy counting him out, and something tells me this time's no different. Because if he's the odd man out, he's got no choice but to fight or strike a deal. And the idea that he's going to somehow settle for a deal with Maliki and SCII seems farfetched, since he already tried that and it didn't pan out so well for him.

The irony is that al-Sadr's vision for Iraq is by far the most compatible with our own, and in some alternate reality where we were watching this conflict from the sidelines or where we were not so heavily invested in taking him out, we would almost certainly be taking his side right now. In fact the only thing that kept us from doing so in the first place was our pipedream of a secular Iraqi democracy, and his mildly irritating habit of calling on his followers to drive out the infidel occupier, by which, curiously enough, he meant us.

We've obviously gotten over the Jeffersonian democracy kick, and in the case of the Sunnis we've managed to make nice with guys who initially weren't too keen on us sticking around. So I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't end up recognizing some of Moqtada's more lovable qualities before this whole thing is over. The question, though, is whether he'll learn to love us back.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Wright's Politics, and Obama's

I think Ezra Klein's right here, in that the essential problem posed by Jeremiah Wright is the political content of his remarks, and not the racial content. In fact, outside of the AIDS conspiracy theory, there isn't really that much racial content. But as I argued here when the sermon clips were first circulated, the political content of Wright's remarks grows out of the black American experience, one that has nurtured a dual identity, equal parts affirmation and ambivalence towards a country that is at once home and bitter exile. Ezra correctly traces the moral outrage over Wright's remarks to their Chomsky-ite quality, but it's no coincidence that, outside of the anti-globalization movement and far-left academia, black America is probably the most sympathetic echo chamber for Chomsky's analysis.

Ezra's thought experiment of a white candidate's white preacher espousing the same political views does support his argument that this is not a political issue simply because Obama and Wright are black. But it overlooks the ways in which Wright's views mean something essentially different in the context of the black narrative of the American experience, where they are inseparable from the struggle to move from object to subject in the larger national narrative, and from which they form a bridge between that national narrative and the global narrative beyond. The result is not a rejection of American history, so much as a correction to it, one that resonates all the more powerfully for coming from the ranks of the oppressed and not of the oppressor.

But the underlying ambivalence that comes from condemning America on the one hand, and fighting for one's rightful place in it on the other, means that a black politician like Obama can immerse himself in Wright's Chomsky-ite worldview without necessarily rejecting the broader socio-economic structure of American society. Within the black narrative, it is a radical perspective, but not a leftist perspective, anti-colonial, but not anti-capitalist. (Although Trinity UCC's philosophy does disavow "middle classness.")

The equivalent scenario for a white politician would have much broader implications, since they would suggest no ambivalence, but only a political orientation largely incompatible with mainstream American politics. Not only would this still be a story were Obama and Wright white, as Ezra argues, it would probably be a more politically damaging one. It would also be a very different story, as Ezra also argues, and that's very much due to the fact that Obama and Wright are black.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   Race In America   

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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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