Archive for the ‘Foreign Policy’ Category

Flotilla Attack Only a Small Measure of Israeli Barbarism

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

Well would you look at that; the bastion of liberal democracy and respect for human right in the Middle East has caused a ruckus by having their military board a humanitarian mission’s boat (flying the flag of a NATO country), killing at least 10 peace activists on board and injuring dozens more. There’s a lot of things worth saying about how stupid the attack on the relief flotilla was. I don’t think Israel has done this much damage to their (already shoddy) reputation in decades, and there’s basically no way to spin this as benefitting them. Egypt is rescinding their assistance of the Gaza blockade in response, and even the United States is an a bit of a jam here, because Turkey is a NATO ally. If they decide to make a major fuss about it, reflexive, unlimited defense of Israel by the United States could threaten the foundation of the most important defense agreement of the 20th century, and further isolate the US from the rest of the West.

The real story here, however, should be the blockade of Gaza itself. Israel has asserted that they offered to let the flotilla send materials through Israel to be inspected, but this is absurd for a couple of reasons. The first is the casual assumption that the blockade is legal, and that Israel has a ght in the first place to decide what does and doesn’t get sent to Gaza from other countries. The second is that Israel knows good and well that the entire point of the flotilla was to take banned  materials into Gaza, namely building materials Israel has refused to allow in even after they destroyed most of the territory in 2008. Because of this, Gaza remains largely un-rebuilt after the violence, a situation compounding the already miserable existence of the people living in the territory.

It’s very difficult to comprehend the amount of suffering Gazans deal with everyday. You’re talking about the most densely populated piece of land in the world, an urban landscape with 1.5 million people living on it. And it’s basically been demolished. There’s food shortages, lack of electricity, lack of running water, disease, hunger, oppression, and just general misery. And yes, much of that is compounded by the harsh rule of Hamas as well. But this is one of the weakest, most devastated populations on Earth, and the Israeli blockade is just indescribably cruel. Israeli representatives are arguing today that this wasn’t a humanitarian effort, but rather an attempt to end the blockade, and to that I say; I certainly hope so. This blockade needs to be ended, and if Israel won’t do it of its own volition, then the world needs to make it clear to Israel that they won’t respect it. It’s not as if there isn’t precedent. And if it’s that important to Israel, let them face the choice of confronting British, French, German, and, yes, American boats and planes in the effort to physically enforce their brutal oppression.

The world has been jarred to its senses by the brazen umbrage of Israel’s actions yesterday, hopefully it winds up shining some light on the brutal policy those killed were seeking to end, and prompts some action from the west to alleviate the intolerable suffering of over a million Palestinians in Gaza.

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Settlements Are the Biggest Obstacle to Peace

Monday, March 15th, 2010

At some point I’d resolved to just ignore Chait’s writing on the Middle East, but this post really needs a rebuttal, so such is life. Chait is responding, somewhat critically, to a Wall Street Journal column regarding the latest dust-up between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government, involving the planned building of 1,600 new settlement homes in Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem:

No, the settlements aren’t “the” key obstacle to peace. But they are an obstacle to peace. And with the most moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank in history, provocative moves like the one Netanyahu’s government undertook appear designed to undercut progress toward a peace agreement.

The Journal is right that any realistic peace deal will have to readjust the 1967 borders. But the readjustment works both ways. And you’re never going to be able to get a stable Palestinian government that can maintain or even reach a peace agreement without some kind of claim to shared control over Jerusalem — not the pre-1967 split, but something. That’s why continued expansion in east Jerusalem is so problematic.

The point is fair enough, on some level, but it needs to be said as many times as it can be said that, yes, the settlements are the biggest obstacle to peace. And in fact, Chait seems to understand why that’s the case in admitting that the 1967 borders will have to be readjusted, a process that will already prove extrememly difficult. As Israel expands their settlements even further, it will only get more difficult, and considering that the settlements in the West Bank are constructed in such a way as to cut the Palestinian West Bank into ribbons, leaving any sort of functioning state in the territory more or less impossible to imagine.

Chait’s contention that Netanyahu appears to be intentionally undercutting the peace process is also laughable. How in the world could any rational observer of the process not know that’s exactly Netanyahu’s goal? Netanyahu has repeatedly talked down the peace process, and he’s formed a government including the most extreme right-wing elements of Israeli politics (although Kadima deserves a large share of the blame for that). I’m at a loss as to why anyone would believe for a second Netanyahu cared about the peace process, in fact, I don’t see how anyone could assume any of the major Israeli parties were serious about a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians.

The brazeness of the announcement of new development in East Jerusalem seems to have shocked Western media and policy makers, but it really shouldn’t have. Israel has been evicting Arab residents of the city for some time now to move Israelis in, and the government has barely concealed its intentions to develop even more territory in the West Bank. The only questions now are whether or not Israel is going to go ahead with a full expulsion of Arabs from East Jerusalem, and whether the US will ever muster the inclination to finally put an end to Israel’s destructive behavior before it’s truly too late.

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Dot Dot Dot: Taking Everyone’s Favorite Metaphor For Failure Out For A Spin

Monday, December 28th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

In the wake of the attempted terrorist attack on a Amsterdam-to-Detroit airliner, the WaPo’s editorial page breaks out my favorite way that the burden of failure is transferred from actual people to abstract concepts: “Connecting the dots.” From the editorial:

THE THWARTED Christmas Day airplane bombing raises three causes for alarm. First, it illustrates a screening system that remains porous enough to let a suspect board with the same explosive shoe-bomber Richard Reid attempted to use in 2001

Okay, I’ll give him that one, but it’s not exactly like it was unknown that the TSA is a complete disaster. Since 9/11, reporters and government types alike have repeatedly defeated the TSA’s security and gotten everything from box-cutters to guns to mock explosives aboard airplanes. So color me unsurprised.

Second, it exposes a terrorism bureaucracy too clumsy to catapult the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, at least to a higher level of preflight scrutiny after his father came forward with warnings that he might pose a danger.”

That may have something to do with the fact that both the no-fly list and the “extra attention” list are literally swamped with hundreds of thousands of names, ninety percent of whom seem to be on there for no apparent reason. This is thanks to a system called TIDEMART that literally runs off of a laptop in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) and NSA data-mining run amok. Add in an element of political intimidation (scores of antiwar activists found themselves on one of the lists during the Bush Administration) and you have the recipe for a system that may be worse than not having one at all.

And his father did warn the US Embassy in Lagos that his son had been radicalized, which did get him on the increased scrutiny list. Why no more than that you ask? Well, two reasons: One, the CTC and NSA are absolutely flooded with vague warnings from all over the world that may or may not be the real deal, which basically reduces it to going with the odds-on favorite. Two, despite the fact that pretty much every CIA officer in the world using official cover poses as a Foreign Service embassy official, the striped-pants set from the State Department and the spooks from Langley are generally at each others’ throats. Then you add in the disdain that the FBI, which is responsible for domestic counterterrorism, has for the CIA (the saying is, “FBI catches bank robbers; CIA robs banks”) and it is yet again a recipe for disaster.

Expect to hear about “breaking information stovepipes” (my second favorite in terms of blaming abstract concepts) and “not just moving boxes around on a chart” when moving the boxes into an arrangement that makes a lick of sense would probably be a good idea.

Third, if it is true that the suspect received explosives training from al-Qaeda in Yemen, the incident underscores the emergence of that troubled nation as a training ground for terrorists.

This is the kind of thing that makes my blood boil. Yemen is not “emerging” as a training ground for terrorists, Al Qaeda has been there at least since bin Laden was kicked out of the Sudan and moved to Afghanistan in the Nineties. Yemen acted as sort of a regional command center for AQ Central in the Persian Gulf, given that the ruling council was in a Central Asian country on the far side of Iran.

I mean, Yemen had a direct role in 9/11. Two of the hijackers came to America from Yemen; one actually returned there and came back during preparations for the hijackings. In fact, the best example of not “connecting the dots” before 9/11 involves Yemen. It goes like this: The NSA was actually tapping the communications of the Yemen command center, and identified those two future hijackers as AQ and on their way to America. The NSA told the CTC, but the call was taken by an FBI agent seconded to the Agency, who told his CIA boss, who for reasons unknown sat on the information.

At least this explains our targeted strikes in Yemen recently..

No screening system can be foolproof, and every system must balance security against the need to allow an acceptably free flow of travel. But the system apparently failed in the case of Mr. Abdulmutallab in significant part because available technologies were not employed. The explosive PETN, pentaerythritol tetranitrate, that Mr. Abdulmutallab allegedly carried would not be found through normal X-rays or metal detectors. However, it is detectable by bomb-sniffing dogs, by “sniffer” technology that blows particles off travelers, or by swabbing passengers for traces of explosives; full-body imaging might also have been helpful.

This is a whole bunch of words that can be boiled down to this: If someone in Lagos or Amsterdam had put the guy through a bomb sniffer, this would never have happened. Period.

The episode also serves as another sobering reminder that eliminating Afghanistan as a haven for terrorist planning is necessary but not sufficient. Yemen will be “a fertile ground for the training and recruitment of Islamist militant groups for the foreseeable future,” Andrew Exum and Richard Fontaine warned in a report last month for the Center for a New American Security.

Al Qaeda is in more than eighty countries, including every Sunni-ruled country in the Middle East, multiple countries in Africa, the Philippines, you name it. In spite of the fact that no one seems to know or care about it, Operation Enduring Freedom (the initial attack on Afghanistan) also included a Philippines component, with Special Forces pursuing and eliminating members of Jamaat al-Islamyiah, an AQ offshoot. So, again, color me less than surprised.

Hopefully this will be the final kick in the ass that will spark some serious intelligence and counterterrorism reform, but Your Humble Author remains doubtful. If 9/11 couldn’t do it, what can?

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How I Learned To Hate The Bomb Redux: The New York Times Gets In On The Act

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

Another give-war-a-chance Op-Ed about Iran, hitting most of the same bunk talking points I covered yesterday in my post about yet another holiday season hysteria over the ayatollahs (with as many Nazi references as you can get in).

Now, this Op-Ed wouldn’t look out of place at all any time since 2002 on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post, who have been rah-rahing a war with Iran for quite awhile now. The interesting thing is that it is the New York Times running this particular opinion piece.

This leaves Your Humble Author wondering if this is an attempt to mainstream the idea of an Iranian war with moderates and the center-left. Think back to 2002 and the hawkish stance on Iraq expounded upon by Thomas Friedman or Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaraia.

I covered most of the niggling details of an Iranian nuclear breakout and what it means to America and Israel yesterday, so let’s just hit the high points and call it a wrap:

Complete dismissal of diplomacy with a total disregard for the consequences of military action?

Tehran’s rejection of the original proposal is revealing. It shows that Iran, for domestic political reasons, cannot make even temporary concessions on its bomb program, regardless of incentives or sanctions.

Incentives and sanctions will not work, but air strikes could degrade and deter Iran’s bomb program at relatively little cost or risk, and therefore are worth a try.

Check.

Subtle potshots at Obama painting him as an appeaser in the mold of Jimmy Carter or (now officially the most overused analogy in foreign policy) Neville Chamberlain?

This would let Iran run the reactor, retain the bulk of its enriched uranium and continue to enrich more — a bargain unacceptable even to the Obama administration.

Negotiation to prevent nuclear proliferation is always preferable to military action. But in the face of failed diplomacy, eschewing force is tantamount to appeasement.

Check.

Pretending that borderline-crazy Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the real leader of Iran and not the pragmatic Supreme Ayatollah?

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad initially embraced the deal because he realized it aided Iran’s bomb program. But his domestic political opponents, whom he has tried to label as foreign agents, turned the tables by accusing him of surrendering Iran’s patrimony to the West.

Check.

Repurposed Iraq War talking points?

Iran supplies Islamist terrorist groups in violation of international embargoes. Even President Ahmadinejad’s domestic opponents support this weapons traffic. If Iran acquired a nuclear arsenal, the risks would simply be too great that it could become a neighborhood bully or provide terrorists with the ultimate weapon, an atomic bomb.

Check.

Completely destroying your own argument that a preemptive strike will constrain Iranian nuclear ambitions while acting as if it supports your case?

But history suggests that military strikes could work. Israel’s 1981 attack on the nearly finished Osirak reactor prevented Iraq’s rapid acquisition of a plutonium-based nuclear weapon and compelled it to pursue a more gradual, uranium-based bomb program. A decade later, the Persian Gulf war uncovered and enabled the destruction of that uranium initiative, which finally deterred Saddam Hussein from further pursuit of nuclear weapons (a fact that eluded American intelligence until after the 2003 invasion).

Checkmate.

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How I Learned To Hate The Bomb: The Renewed Campaign To Spark Hysteria Over Iran

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

First up, from Foreign Policy’s article on deterring and containing Iran:

Deterrence in the Middle East, they [policymakers and foreign policy analysts] argue, could be just as stable as it was between the United States and the USSR during the Cold War. “Israel’s massive nuclear force will deter Iran from ever contemplating using or giving away its own (hypothetical) weapon,” wrote Fareed Zakaria in the Oct. 12 edition of Newsweek. “Deterrence worked with madmen like Mao, and with thugs like Stalin, and it will work with the calculating autocrats of Tehran.”

But this historical analogy is dangerously misconceived. In reality, defusing an Israeli-Iranian nuclear standoff will be far more difficult than averting nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. This is true even if those Iranians with their fingers on the nuclear trigger are not given to messianic doomsday thinking. Here are five factors that will make an Israeli-Iranian nuclear confrontation potentially explosive.

Before we dive into these five factors, I’ll just pause to say that comparing a nuclear Iran to the American-Soviet standoff or even comparing Cuba during the Crisis with Iran is pretty specious and silly. And so:

Communication and trust.

The October 1962 negotiations that settled the Cuban missile crisis were conducted through a fairly effective, though imperfect, communication system between the United States and Russia. There was also a limited degree of mutual trust between the two superpowers. This did not prevent confusion and suspicion, but it did facilitate the rivals’ ability to understand the other’s side and eventually resolve the crisis.

Israel and Iran, however, have no such avenues for communication. They don’t even have embassies or fast and effective back-channel contacts — and, what’s more, they mistrust each other completely. Israel has heard Iranian leaders — and not just President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — call for its destruction. Meanwhile, Iranian leaders remain prone to paranoid and conspiratorial views of the outside world, especially Israel and the United States. In any future Iranian-Israeli crisis, each side could easily misinterpret the other’s moves, leading to disaster. A proxy war conducted by Iran through Hezbollah or Hamas against Israel could quickly lead to a series of escalating threats.

This actually is a serious problem. The Cold War MAD-speak for it is “redlines,” a series of negotiated agreements between America and the Soviet Union on what provocations from the other side could cause a nuclear response. The name comes from the Red Line, the teletype device that directly linked the White House and the Kremlin, installed in the wake of several clashes with the Soviets that almost led to nuclear Armageddon.

Of course, comparing the Israel-Iran situation to the Cold War is ludicrous, the best comparison is undoubtedly the India-Pakistan nuclear standoff. Here as in a hypothetical Middle Eastern cold war, there are no redlines and no communication between Islamabad and Mumbai on this issue. And, in the author’s favor, we have come to the brink of a third India-Pakistan war that most likely would have involved nuclear exchanges twice since 9/11.

Both times, both sides were slowly pushed back from the brink by Washington. I’ll pick back up on this in a minute.

Goals.

The Soviets wanted to extend their power and spread Communism — they never pledged the annihilation of America. Iranian leaders, however, have called for Israel to be “wiped off the map of the Middle East.” After the street protests that followed the June presidential election, Iran has entered into chronic instability. In a moment of heightened tension and urgent need for popular support, an Iranian leader could escalate not only rhetoric but action.

There is a strong precedent in the Middle East of such escalation leading to war. Arab threats to destroy any Jewish state preceded a massive invasion of the new Israeli state in May 1948. In May and June 1967, Egypt’s President Gamal Abd al-Nasser loudly proclaimed his intent to “liberate Palestine” (i.e. Israel in its 1949 borders), and moved his panzer divisions to Israel’s border. The result was the Six Day War.

The revisionist history that has sprung up around the Cold War in the two decades since its end is quite fascinating. Does Krushchev banging his shoe at the United Nations and shouting “We will bury you!” count for nothing anymore?

The author of the piece is right that despite all the rantings and threats, the main goal of the Soviet Union was to extend their power and influence into the Third World under the guise of World Socialism and to stay militarily competitive with America. But the same is also true with Iran: Despite the loud, blustery threats from the ayatollahs lo these last three decades, Iran has time and again proved itself to be a ruthless and crafty player of the Great Game, certainly not an irrational actor.

The analogy to the Six Day War is baffling and somewhat deceptive. It wasn’t Nasser’s rhetoric that caused the war, it was him moving his armies to the Israeli border. And the analogy is doubly misleading because Iran has very little conventional capability, their influence in the Middle East is almost entirely based on assymetric power.

And by the way: Panzer divisions? Really? That’s about as subtle as a kick to the groin.

Command and control.

In 1962, the two superpowers possessed sophisticated command-and-control systems securing their nuclear weapons. Both also employed effective centralized decision-making systems. Neither may be the case with Iran: Its control technology will be rudimentary at first, and Tehran’s decision-making process is relatively chaotic. Within Iran’s byzantine power structure, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) mounts an army and navy of its own alongside the regular army and navy, and internal differences within the regime over nuclear diplomacy are evidence of conflicting lines of authority. Recent events suggest that the IRGC, allied with Ahmadinejad, has increasingly infringed on the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As a result, no one can be certain how decisions are made and who makes them.

This one’s pretty easy. The entire nuclear program is under the control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (the Sepha-i Pasdaran), a shadow military and secret police that reports directly to the Supreme Ayatollah Khamein’i. Simple. There is no issue with unity of command despite their recent civil unrest.

Mutual deterrence.

Both the United States and USSR had second-strike capability made credible by huge land masses. They possessed hardened missile silos scattered throughout the countryside, large air forces equipped with nuclear bombs, and missile-launching submarines. In the Middle East, Iran stretches across a vast 636,000 square miles, against Israel’s (pre-1967) 8,500 square miles of territory. This point was made by ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani in 2001, who noted, “Israel is much smaller than Iran in land mass, and therefore far more vulnerable to nuclear attack.” If this is the way an Iranian pragmatist thinks, how are the hard-liners thinking?

In contrast, by 1962, the two superpowers implicitly recognized the logic of mutually assured destruction. And yet, they still came relatively close to war — in John F. Kennedy’s words, the risk of a nuclear conflict was “between one out of three and even.” When Iran goes nuclear, the huge disparity in size will pose a psychological obstacle for its recognition of mutual deterrence.

All things being equal, Israel’s small size would be a detriment to a mutually-assured destruction strategy. But things aren’t equal. Even if Iran obtains a handful of nuclear weapons and halfway decent missiles to shoot them at people with, Israel will be the only side that has a credible second-strike capability. Combined with the certainty of American assistance, this doesn’t seem like much of an impediment to MAD.

Even assuming the United States promises Israel a retaliatory nuclear umbrella, Iran will doubt U.S. resolve. The mullahs will be tempted to conclude that with Israel gone, the United States would see no point in destroying Iran. Given the criticism leveled today against President Harry Truman for using the bomb against Japanese civilians in World War II, what are the chances of American retaliation against Iran, especially if the Islamic Republic has not attacked the United States?

I seriously doubt the mullahs doubt American resolve when it comes to the Middle East, especially the Persian Gulf. Nuclear missiles exploding near the oil would be seriously bad for business, and if there’s one thing you can guarantee, it’s that America will respond swiftly and strongly to any perceived threat to our energy security. Not to mention, Israel is quite popular here in the States and they have a very vocal political lobby.

And the last sentence presupposes that if Israel is nuked by Iran, that America will have to nuke Iran in retaliation. We just might, but even if we don’t, American conventional power is strong enough to level the entire country in a month (despite its huge size, much of Iran is uninhabitable, and the population is clustered around urban and semi-urban areas). There isn’t a doubt in the world that America would descend upon Iran like the Wrath of God if they were to ever do something so stupid.

Crisis instability.

In view of the above dangers, if and when a grave crisis does erupt, Israel would be tempted to strike first in order to prevent an Iranian nuclear attack, which would devastate its urban core. Iran will be well aware of Israel’s calculations and, in the early years of becoming a nuclear power, will have a smaller and probably more vulnerable nuclear arsenal. This will give it, in turn, strong incentives to launch its own preemptive strike.

This will not happen as long as America has such a heavy military presence in the Middle East. Period. This favorite talking point of war hawk pundits was put to bed decisively in 2007 during the Bush Administration. They came to Washington to ask for the latest generation in nuclear bunker-busters for a strike on Iran (as well as permission to cross Iraqi airspace) and were turned down flat by Condi Rice and Bob Gates, who threatened to end the American-Israeli relationship permanently if they did go ahead and do it anyway.

Yes, you read that right. Israel wants to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program by dropping nuclear weapons on them. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Just a few more points to wrap up:

Once Iran is a nuclear power, the Middle East is likely to enter a fast-moving process of nuclear proliferation. Until now, most Arab governments have not made an effort to match Israel’s  nuclear arsenal.

Already happening. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have all those Chinese ballistic missiles hidden out in the Empty Quarter for nothing. But the fall of Iraq has as much to do with it as Iran’s nuclear program; that’s a whole ‘nother story though.

Contrary to the wishful thinking of some analysts that the possession of nuclear weapons could make Iran more cautious, a nuclear Iran will likely be emboldened. It could press Hezbollah to be more aggressive in Lebanon, flex its muscles in the Persian Gulf, and step up its challenges against U.S. forces in the region.

Iran is pretty bold now. Things really couldn’t be going any better for them if they had tried. Their unconventional warfare power by proxy in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, western Afghanistan and a host of other places makes them the de facto regional hegemon.

The most important point, and the one all these pro-war Iran pieces leave out, is that the critical factor in the Israeli-Iranian relationship is how the American-Iranian one  is doing. And it’s doing very very well, if you’re an ayatollah. With American forces tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan without sufficient numbers to pacify both countries, Iran has become sort of the unofficial peacekeeper in southern Iraq (where in true Iranian fashion they back every side and just wait to see who wins) and Herat in western A-stan. With a phone call they can make life very unpleasant for American soldiers in Iraq or start another Hizb’allah-Israeli conflict.

Bottom line, as long as these conditions persist America has very little influence to stop the Iranian nuclear program, but enough influence to stop Israel from attacking them preemptively, which is going to mean an enforced stalemate until something crazy happens or the strategic calculus changes drastically.

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Everybody Loves David: Another Exciting Capitol Hill Hearing

Saturday, December 19th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

General Petraeus goes to Washington:

The chief of the regional U.S. Central Command told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “additional mission force elements” would be sent to Afghanistan in the spring, but he declined to provide details in an open congressional hearing.

Although such “elements” have not been publicly discussed in the administration’s strategy announcements, counterterrorism efforts — missiles fired at specific insurgent targets from unmanned aircraft and bombs from manned planes, as well the use of Special Forces units and intelligence surveillance — are expected to increase along with the deployment of 30,000 more U.S. ground troops.

Off top, it’s nice to see someone talking about counterterrorism in Afghanistan rather than counterinsurgency.  Most folks think they are the same thing, and they are most definitely not.

The “additional elements” are almost certainly Special Forces and Special Operations teams that will spend a good portion of their time hunting Al Qaeda chiefs in the Pakistani borderlands. Throw in some more Predators and CIA paramilitary spooks for good measure. And here’s why:

The use of air attacks in Afghanistan has been curtailed in recent months as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander there, sought to avoid civilian casualties. But as described by Petraeus, the new concentration on pushing the Taliban out of population centers will allow more robust action against fighters in the countryside.

U.S. drone attacks have been used extensively against al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan, although their frequency has diminished recently as the Pakistani military has been engaged in a ground assault in South Waziristan. Obama has warned Pakistan that it must step up its effort in that region and others along the border it shares with Afghanistan or risk an escalation of U.S. activity.

The Pakistani offensive in South Waziristan, which is where the Al Qaeda ruling council most likely resides, is a joke, we most likely cut back drone strikes to avoid accidentally killing a Pakistani soldier and sparking a diplomatic incident.  Pakistan’s army is a conventional force that is geared entirely towards a land war with India, so we’re talking armor, mechanized infantry and lots and lots of artillery.

They are not cut out to fight insurgents in extremely mountainous terrain. They have engaged the Pashtun tribes several times over the years since 9/11 and managed to lose decisively to ragtag tribal militias. So this is either a public relations stunt to keep American aid flowing, or they think they can get the anti-Pakistani Taliban faction that has been giving them so much trouble in the Swat Valley, because they’ve been known to kick it with Al Qaeda from time to time.

These are not the same Taliban who are attacking us in Afghanistan. The leaders of the major Afghan factions like Haqqani, Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, are good friends with the Pakistani military and secret police.

Senators sharply questioned the officials about remarks Tuesday by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who said he anticipated a U.S. combat presence in his country for five more years — about the same timeline Obama described, beginning with an initial troop escalation that started in the summer and leading to a withdrawal that would start in July 2011, depending on Afghan capabilities. Karzai said he envisioned U.S. funding for Afghanistan’s own security forces to continue for 15 years, a cost that Petraeus estimated would total about $10 billion a year.

Noting that Karzai’s timeline would extend to 2024, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) noted that “we’re talking about $150 billion just on the security side,” for Afghan forces alone, “before we get to the development side.”

You have to admire Karzai’s cojones for just blatantly coming out and saying it, when most politicians would deny such a long-term commitment would happen despite the fact that they knew it was inevitable.  Not to mention that American-funded security for a decade or so is probably the only thing that would keep the Pakistanis from killing him (they’ve already tried twice). They see Karzai as pro-India (which he is) and the shady way he bounced pro-Pakistan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah out of the election has probably made them ever less happy.

Petraeus also provided additional details on plans to “reintegrate” Taliban fighters into Afghan society or security forces with monetary and other incentives. He described a new Force Reintegration Cell, headed by a retired British general who held the same job under Petraeus when the latter was the U.S. commander in Iraq, that will identify insurgents likely to switch sides if provided the right incentives.

This is the part that is going to drive both sides of the political spectrum insane, because the Taliban has been conflated with Al Qaeda for so long. I’ve said it before, but how long do you have to kill people for their government having bad house guests? It’s been almost a decade; they’ve most likely learned their lesson. Of course the strategy is sound, every counterinsurgency ends with political negotiations, but try explaining that to your average American.

Those who cannot be reintegrated “can be killed, captured or run off,” Petraeus said. But the idea, he said, was to make individual fighters “part of the solution instead of part of the problem.” U.S. commanders in Afghanistan said Wednesday that they are funding a raise in Afghan military pay — from $180 a month to about $240 for an entry-level soldier, along with other tangible benefits — to compete with the Taliban, which offers up to $300 a month.

Word. Good ideas.

The strategy also includes development of “community defense” forces, tapping local leaders to defend their territory in conjunction with coalition and Afghan forces. That effort has long been pushed by the U.S. Special Forces Command, which has argued that the extremely localized nature of Afghan culture should be matched by a localized U.S. approach.

“It’s a village-by-village, valley-by-valley effort,” Petraeus said, “and we’re using some of our best Special Forces teams right now to really experiment with this.”

This puts the American Special Forces in the role they are best at: Force multiplication and foreign internal defense. Though most people see them as elite hunter-killer teams (and there’s no doubt that they are),  a Special Forces A-Team of just twelve men can raise, train and command a company-sized unit of militia fighters. They are experts at turning a bunch of ragtag native fighters into a disciplined and effective fighting unit. Foreign internal defense (FID) is milspeak for fighting an insurgency inside a “host nation.”

And why are we just trying this now eight years later you ask? Well, it’s simple: It’s office politics. The Cold Warriors who trained to fight the Soviets in Europe that now run the Army have a reflexive distrust of the individual branches’ Special Operations Forces and especially the Special Operations Command, which covers the whole world and thus don’t fall under the authority of the individual theater commander where they are operating at.

Why? It could be resistance from generals who were lieutenants either during Vietnam or in the immediate aftermath and swore never to fight another counterinsurgency. It could be that the Army is a crazily massive bureaucracy (you would not believe the amount of typing and filing it takes to kill people in significant numbers all across the word) and turning it to a new direction is a painfully slow process. It could be that they don’t believe in the COIN mission and think there’s a better way

It’s most likely a combination of all three. Eventually, though, they need to accept the fact that unconventional warfare is the Next Big Thing, and that the combination of Special Operations units, SF operators, close air support and indigenous fighters can accomplish with less than a thousand soldiers and airmen what it used to take a massive conventional force to do.

If one looks at history, every occupation of Afghanistan has been a disaster, but punitive strikes have worked multiple times: Get in, kill a bunch of people, and depart posthaste. One would think the ghost of William Macnaughten would hover over our politicians’ shoulders in this debate, but how many do you think knew who he was or what he did?

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Making Headway Against AQ? A Suspiciously Timely Article From The Washington Post

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

By Tommy Brown

An article about efforts against Al Qaeda in AfPak that makes my spider-sense tingle, from the WaPo:

U.S. and international intelligence officials say that improved recruitment of spies inside the al-Qaeda network, along with increased use of targeted airstrikes and enhanced assistance from cooperative governments, has significantly reduced the terrorist organization’s effectiveness.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said that the combined advances have led to the deaths of more than a dozen senior figures in al-Qaeda and allied groups in Pakistan and elsewhere over the past year, most of them in 2009. Officials described Osama bin Laden and his main lieutenants as isolated and unable to coordinate high-profile attacks.
A convenient time for an article to come out extolling the success we are having against Al Qaeda, no? Here’s my problem with just these two paragraphs: First off,  this sounds exactly like what the Bush White House said for years about their campaign against AQ, right up until the point that it was revealed that bin Laden et al. had reconstituted their organization and were back on the grind and better than ever. The last sentence is literally word for word what the Bush administration used to say: UBL and his lieutenants are isolated and cannot coordinate attacks.

Second, the “enhanced assistance from cooperative governments” is rather obviously an allusion to Pakistan, and the reason it is phrased so obliquely is that if they came out and said Pakistan was doing a better job, they would be laughed at. The Pakistani government is coming apart at the seams. They are unable to affect anything in the Federally Administered Tribal Regions where AQ Central is hanging out; even when Musharraf, who at least made a half-assed effort to try to help, sent troops in to FATA and the North-West Frontier, they were beaten by the ragtag tribal militias. And on top of it all, the new head of the military (the real power in Pakistan) is an Islamist and former chief of the ISI-D who is explicitly pro-Taliban.

Third, the body count also harkens back to the days of yore, when Bush would give speeches talking about the number of high- and medium-value AQ targets that had been killed. He stopped giving those for a reason: Al Qaeda now has a pool of trained, combat-tested veterans to move up into managerial positions when one of the top dogs are killed. The phrase “and allied groups” gives me pause too, because this could mean that they’re killing Taliban chiefs, who are significantly easier to get because they actually come into Afghanistan to get killed, and not members of the Al Qaeda shura (ruling council).

A good analogy would be the prosecution of the American Mafia. After every high-profile case that ended in convictions (Lucky Luciano, Murder Incorporated, the Pizza Connection, the Five Families RICO case), US attorneys would crow about how they had killed the mob, or reduced them to unorganized street gangs. And of course, two years after one of these big convictions, the Five Families or the Chicago Outfit had quietly moved their veteran soldiers up into the executive positions and continued on as per usual. And this went on for seventy years, before any real headway was made against Cosa Nostra.

More from the article:

The most important new weapon in the Western arsenal is said to be the recruitment of spies inside al-Qaeda and affiliated organizations, a long-sought objective. “Human sources have begun to produce results,” Richard Barrett, head of the United Nations’ al-Qaeda and Taliban monitoring group, said Tuesday. Barrett is the former chief of Britain’s overseas counterterrorism operations.

Current and former senior U.S. officials, who spoke about intelligence matters on the condition of anonymity, confirmed what one former CIA official called “our penetration of al-Qaeda.” A senior administration official said that success had come “because of, first of all, very good intelligence capabilities . . . to locate and identify individuals who are part of the al-Qaeda organization.”

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair referred obliquely in an interview with reporters earlier this month to the use of spies, saying that “the primary way” that U.S. intelligence determines which terrorist organizations pose direct threats is “to penetrate them and learn whether they’re talking about making attacks against the United States.”

Now this is the part where I fervently hope that this revelation is psychological warfare against the Taliban and AQ to paralyze them with paranoia over moles in their organizations. It is a very effective tactic, see: James  Jesus Angleton. Given the incredible difficulty of inserting an intelligence officer into AQ, or even getting one of their members to flip and become a double agent, revealing that information for political reasons would border on the criminal.

Recent claims of significant success against al-Qaeda have become part of White House deliberations about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, centering on a request by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American and NATO commander there, for an expanded counterinsurgency campaign that will require more U.S. troops. Discussions began in earnest Tuesday as senior national security and military officials met with President Obama.

Those within the administration who have suggested limiting large-scale U.S. ground combat in Afghanistan, including Vice President Biden, have pointed to an improved counterterrorism effort as evidence that Obama’s principal objective — destroying al-Qaeda — can be achieved without an expanded troop presence.

And in the first paragraph we have the reason that the White House leaked this story to WaPo. McChrystal’s public demand for tens of thousands of extra troops, which really are necessary if we are going to nation-build the way the Hillary-Holbrooke axis wants to, has put Obama in an awkward position, because the Congress doesn’t particularly want to do that.  The bright side is, they do seem to be rethinking their strategy of just throwing more soldiers into the meatgrinder. Cyncial as I am, I don’t want to think that this is just a stall to twist arms on Capitol Hill.

I don’t want to give the impression that I believe McChrystal (and Clinton and Holbrooke) are right.  Nation-building will never work in a place like A-stan; I wrote an article about it a few months ago. Joe Biden has the right strategy, though he has so far lost the internecine battles: A smaller number of American troops, mostly composed of Special Operations and Special Forces operators with close air support, in a strictly counterterrorism role. So, despite the fact that this article is disingenuous, if it helps stop a counterproductive and downright disastrous troop escalation, I’m willing to take that.

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“Caught With Their Hand In The Cookie Jar,” Or Why The World Is Pretending To Be Surprised About Iran’s Nuclear Program

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

From the article  “Obama’s Iran Trap” in Foreign Policy:

The conventional wisdom on last week’s astonishing revelations about Iran’s secret uranium-enrichment site, tucked in a mountainside near the holy city of Qom, holds that Barack Obama has just pulled off a diplomatic coup, raising the pressure on Tehran going into a critical Oct. 1 big-powers meeting and finally getting the Russians to agree to U.N. sanctions with real bite.

First off, you should treat any paragraph that begins with “the conventional wisdom” with deep skepticism, because what it really means is “what the chattering class thinks” and that’s never a good barometer of reality.  Secondly, how in the world is the fact that Iran has multiple sites for its nuclear program an astonishing revelation? Even cable news has been talking about this for four years, how airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear installations would involve hundreds of sorties on dozens of targets. Is the fact that President Ahmadinejad disclosed the existence of just one of the numerous sites that even the public knows exists, let alone the CIA or Mossad, really all that jaw-dropping?

Don’t be so sure. Obama may not have had much choice given that Iran had just notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of its new nuke plant, but the U.S. president is the one with a problem now. By revealing this information, he has painted himself into a corner and made an Israeli strike more likely.

Obama has not painted himself into any sort of corner with this declaration. Here’s why. This “astonishing” announcement is just yet another in a series of posturing United Nations pressers that have been going on since former president Bush threw down the gauntlet concerning the Iranian nuclear program years ago, and almost all of it has been for naught.

And the chance of an Israeli strike on Iran  against the wishes of  Washington is virtually nil. A little known story is that at the end of the Bush Administration, then-Prime Minister Olmert had decided that Israel would take out the nuclear facilites at Natanz and other sites with, of all things, nuclear bunker-busters, to reach the facilities deep underground. Apparently oblivious to the irony, the Israelis approached the Bush White House with a request for the latest in air-dropped tactical nukes, and Olmert was told in no uncertain terms by Bob Gates and Condi Rice that the United States would not support it. The strikes, which were far enough along that pilots were already flying practice sorties, were quietly  scrapped.

Besides that, an Israeli attack into Iran would require traversing Iraqi airspace. Under the new Status of Forces agreement, Iraqi airspace actually belongs to the Iraqis again, and their Shi’ite-dominated government is very buddy-buddy with the mullahs.

For one thing, it’s not clear that “the Russians” have really agreed to sanctions. Yes, President Dmitry Medvedev emerged from his meeting with Obama last week to suggest he was on board. And we know that U.S. national security advisor James L. Jones pulled aside Sergei Prikhodko, his Russian counterpart, to tell him the news about the second Iranian plant. (Officially Medvedev’s advisor, Prikhodko is really Putin’s top foreign-policy boss, and chances are he accompanied Medvedev to New York to be the prime minister’s ears and eyes on the ground.)

What we don’t know is what Putin thinks. But as demonstrated last year when the prime minister abruptly left the Olympics to supervise the war with Georgia, he’s still very much in charge. (Right on schedule, a Russian foreign ministry source reportedly said today that everyone should “calm down” over Iran’s latest missile test and “not give way to emotions.”) And then there’s China, which came out with a typically milquetoast statement after Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy made their dramatic announcement Thursday morning at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. Everyone knows that serious sanctions mean fuel, as Iran, for all its oil, still has to import a great deal of refined petroleum (just how much is disputed) to make its economy run. But the Chinese get 15 percent of their oil from Iran. Needless to say, getting meaningful sanctions through the U.N. Security Council is far from assured.

It really doesn’t matter whether or not sanctions are actually pushed through the Security Council, Iran has been under sanctions for well over a decade and doesn’t seem too distraught about it. The only sanctions that would truly hurt them would be oil sanctions, but there is no way in hell China or especially Britain would ever go for that. The faux-dramatic press conference is just the usual dog-and-pony show while the real action takes place in the smoky back room.

The real dope is that whether or not the Russians will support tougher economic sanctions against Iran, they are in a position to make Iran’s life difficult in much more meaningful ways. They are their main arms supplier and have been supplying them with nuclear tech and know-how. The deal that was struck to scrap the anti-ballistic missile system in Eastern Europe seems to have been a straight-up horse trade with Medvedev (well, Putin really, as the article points out): Russia gets breathing room in the Near Abroad, and America gets transit rights involving Afghanistan and a stronger public stance from Moscow on an Iranian nuclear breakout. How much pressure Medvedev is willing to apply outside the auspices of the UN is the real question.

. . . .[T]he Iran issue is going to become a major headache for Obama. It’s going to strengthen Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s argument that Iran’s nuclear program, not West Bank settlements or the plight of the Palestinians, is the real crisis in the Middle East. It’s going to put wind in the sails of neoconservatives and Republicans in Washington, who are all too eager to paint the U.S. president as weak and ineffectual when Tehran doesn’t buckle. What is Barack going to do then? Bomb Iran himself and wreck his Middle East hopes? Let Iran go nuclear and turn the nonproliferation regime into a sick joke? Give sanctions “time to work” — and consign a generation of Iranians to radicalism, growing ethnic strife, and crushing poverty?

I’m not sure how much of a headache it’s really going to be, considering that no one in any position to affect American foreign policy should give a tinker’s damn what the American neoconservatives or the Likudniks (the Israeli neocons), especially Netanyahu, after seven years of watching that failed ideology drive our country’s national security and international clout off a cliff. Of course, there is a valid point to the observation, because our Very Serious journalists in the op-ed pages and cable news will hang on the prognostications of Bill Kristol et al. as if they have any credibility left after being spectacularly wrong about everything since 2002.

The one thing I wholeheartedly agree with is that Obama does not really have any good options concerning Iran, at least not if people expect the endgame to be Iran giving up their nuclear program. Like chess, where there are scores of possible opening moves but only a few that won’t result in your quick defeat, the president doesn’t have many diplomatic options to choose from. The absolute best-case scenario is that Iran only wants to attain a status like Germany and Japan, with no actual atomic built but the capability to put one together in a couple weeks if necessary. The more likely scenario, given that an Iranian nuclear breakout is virtually assured unless someone goes to war over it, is that America will have to switch its priorities from nonproliferation to counterproliferation, keeping Iran from selling its knowledge to even nuttier and more unstable Third World countries.

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Iranian Clerics Defy Regime, Criticize Elections

Monday, July 6th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

Just when it seemed the Iranian protests may be running out of steam, some of the most influential clerics in all of Shia Islam have voiced their disapproval of the regime, and criticized the recent elections:

An important group of religious leaders in Iran called the disputed presidential election and the new government illegitimate on Saturday, an act of defiance against the country’s supreme leader and the most public sign of a major split in the country’s clerical establishment.

A statement by the group, the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qum, represents a significant, if so far symbolic, setback for the government and especially the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose word is supposed to be final. The government has tried to paint the opposition and its top presidential candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, as criminals and traitors, a strategy that now becomes more difficult.

“This crack in the clerical establishment, and the fact they are siding with the people and Moussavi, in my view is the most historic crack in the 30 years of the Islamic republic,” said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University. “Remember, they are going against an election verified and sanctified by Khamenei.”

There’s a lot of ways in which this is important to the situation. The most apparent is the timing; the government has just recently threatened anyone who continues to dispute the election, hoping to be much like a parent who just says “enough” to end some behavior they don’t like anymore. But even after that, this group of clerics have announced their opinion, more or less in open defiance of the regime. Secondly, there’s the problem this creates for whatever shred of legitimacy Khamieni hoped to maintain. Remember that the Supreme Leader is supposed to be the final arbitrer on matters of religion and state, and even if many of the Grand Ayatollahs don’t really believe in the system the Ayatollah Khomieni constructed, they’ve more or less abided by it since the revolution. That’s no longer the case here, and this pronouncement is a blow to the Khamienists, who had been using the specter of divine blessing to bolster the “official” results of the election.

On a more practical account, this creates some real tangiable problems for the regime. We’re not talking about your local priests or country preacher here, these are some of the most learned, most respected scholars in all of Shia Islam, a branch of faith that deeply venerates it’s Grand Ayatollahs. There’s really no good way for the regime to respond here. A self-styled theocracy can’t very well imprison, torture, execute, or even really sanction it’s highest ranking relgious leaders and scholars while still maintaining the facade of religious trappings, and this is a real problem for Khamieni, who must choose between leaving the clerics alone, likely to rouse more headaches for him, or cracking down on them, exposing to everyone that the religious nature of the regime constructed in the Revolution is long gone, and Khamieni is just a typical dictator. Ultimatlely, I think the regime only has those two choices; crack down on all of the dissenters, including the religious leaders, and rule the country as a police state (this assumes that the security services are comfortable adding well respected ayatollahs, or even grand ayatollahs, to their “enemies list,” which shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion), or tamp down their own response some, and just hope that the air leaves the protesters sometime soon. I have no idea what they’ll do, but either way, I suspect the regime’s days truly are numbered now. I just don’t see how you reset things now.

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He’s Not God

Monday, June 29th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

I don’t know if it’s the central role the President plays in our contemporary political narratives, or a general desire to find one person to blame (for which The President is obviously a better stand-in than The Congress), but the tendency to blame Barack Obama for what are essentially Congressional, or structural, failings seems somewhat bizarre to me, if somewhat understanable, particularly coming from people who presumably spend enough time observing politics to understand the systemic problems. This post from Whiskey Fire seems representative of the genre:

The economy is in shambles and people realize that we need safety net services like extended unemployment and maybe a government health insurance option. The time is ripe to strike while the iron is hot and Obama is shrugging his shoulders and saying ” I don’t know what do you guys think we should do?” Spineless, like a jellyfish. They call themselves Centrists, but to me they are conservative reactionaries, including Obama. He seems to be waffling on all the important issues that he received my vote and that of many other liberals to address.

On health care he is providing little leadership and seems to be waiting for the lowest common denominator, in this case both parties, to decide what it will allow so that it looks like something is changing while allowing the insurance company fuckers to continue raping us all wholesale. He has made no movement on repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and has completely left the gay community to hang out in the wind on the issue of marriage. Guantanamo is humming along with no real trials in site for the people detained there. Lest we forget, that 16 month withdrawal timetable in Iraq seems to have evaporated.

Now, I can empathize with the frustration, but putting all of this squarely on Obama is somewhere between unfair and childish. To take the points individually:

1. On the question of a timeline for withdrawing from Iraq, we do have a timeline in place, as part of the Status of Forces Agreement Agreement with the Iraqi government. It’s not exactly the plan Obama proposed, but it’s close enough that the costs of a new government unilaterally abrogating agreements with other countries would have outweighed the benefit of going with the plan Obama was proposing during the campaign. And really, this is one of those times where political observers should take pains to note that sometimes events change plans. When Obama was a candidate proposing a 16 month timetable for withdrawal, SOFA was not in place. By the time he was inaugurated, it had been agreed to by both the US and Iraqi government. So this isn’t so much an example of a politician saying one thing and doing another, so much as it’s an example of changing plans based on a new circumstance. And people who rightly mocked Bush for his “stay the course” attitude and complained about the hubris of unilateralism run amok during the last 8 years shouldn’t be complaining that the new President won’t rigidly adhere to a peviously outlined plan made under a different set of facts, nor unilaterally abrogate an agreement with another government.

2. As far as Gitmo goes, I don’t really see how you can make this kind of a complaint without so much as noting in passing that Obama asked Congress for the money to facilitate closing the place, but Congress rejected it. Regardless of the other issues surrounding Obama’s performance here, Congress certainly isn’t without substantial blame.

3. I haven’t written much about Obama and gay rights, mostly because I don’t care to challenge what seems to be a pretty comprehensive truism at this point, and because my argument against it isn’t really that riveting. Bsically, I just don’t see what Obama can actually do. The progressive line on gay rights strikes me as very similar to the neocon line on Iran; if only Obama would say X, everything would be awesome. The notion that Obama can unilaterally end DADT is just false. The UCMJ is law, and as such it requires an act of Congress to change it. Obama could take a tougher line on it, but he’s just not likely to walk into that minefield while healthcare reform is working its way through Congress. And he could theoretically issue a stop-loss order to prevent the discharging of indiduals found guilty under it, but that would leave the policy in place, officially, and probably destroy any will on the Hill to repeal it altogether, which doesn’t strike me as being desireable from a social justice standpoint. On the question of gay marriage, the President has even less authority. Obviously he can’t order the states to recognie same-sex marriage, and it’s not even clear to me that Congress would have the authority to pass such a bill. Unsatisfying as it may be, the only real way the federal government can move anything forward on gay marriage is through the courts, which Obama has no control over, short of appointing judges, and through a Constitutional amendment, which the President has nothing to do with, and which is also highly unlikely to be successful. So while I can appreciate that the lack of progress on gay rights is frustrating, I really don’t see what the President, any President, could realistically do to change that fact given the present circumstances.

4. Finally, on healthcare, this is just a common refrain at this point; the bill has to go through Congress, and there’s nothing the executive can do to affect that. He can threaten to veto an ultimate bill, but that’s not going to work, because it just won’t be believeable, if for no other reason than that the White House needs a bill much more than Congress does. But this would be the case even if Obama were taking a more overtly active role in public; this would still be Congress’s baby, and the President would lack any real ability to substantively affect the sausage making.

On the one hand, I’m sure this all sounds like nit-picking, unjustified Obama defense. But I don’t really think that’s the issue. If you’re looking to “pressure” people i politics, it’s very important you pressure the right people. That goes for laying blame as well. If progressives are routinely blaming failings of Congress, or of the underlying system, on the White House, that just leaves you aiming at a target who can’t really respond to your criticism, because they’re not the problem, and it also deflects attention from the real problem spot, as well as giving Congress more cover to continue what they’re doing, because they’re not catching the heat for it.

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Rational?

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

Do the recent developments in Iran call the regime’s rationality into question? Ezra thinks so, but Eric Martin chides him for it. I tend to agree with Martin, for the simple reason that I keep coming back to a lot of my opinions about the Iranian situation; we don’t really have any hard information about the nature of the actions in Iran. And that’s a pretty relevant piece of information to this question. Namely, it’s very hard to evaluate whether an action is “rational” without knowing exactly who undertook said action, and for exactly what reason. There’s plenty of scenarios to imagine in Iran wherein the election rigging seems perfectly rational, and Tehran Bureau posits the most believable one I’ve seen yet. Namely, Khamieni, Amadinejad, and Ayatollah Yazdi are extreme hard-liners to the right of the Ayatollah Khomieni who don’t believe in the governing structure he set up, or his theological beliefs, and who don’t approve of elections in the first place. They’re afraid that Khamieni will die soon and Rafsanjani, who has led the Assembly of Experts, would be his most likely replacement. With that in mind, this was intended as a showy display that would repudiate Mousavi, another Khomieni ally, and by extension Rafsanjani, and raise the profile of Yazdi. That seems like a perfectly plausible thought process, and completely rational if you believe there was no other way to undercut Rafsanjani. And certainly Khamieni and Yazdi would have a better feel for the mood of the Assembly of Experts than anyone in the West commenting on the situation.

It’s also important to note that international relations is the wrong prism to gauge the rationality of the action through. Elections, particularly in Iran, wouldn’t really have anything to do with the regime’s relationship with the United States, so much as it would be a matter of who wields internal political power.

Bomb Bomb Bomb…

Monday, June 15th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

It was entirely predictable, of course, that the neocons would use the situation in Iran to urge the ratcheting up of rhetoric or some esoteric American action with regards to the situation, but that doesn’t really make it any less depressing. The worst offenders, from a moralist standpoint, are probably Max Boot and John Podhoretz, neither of which is really able to contain their sheer glee at the possibility that someone might launch a new military attack they could cheer on. What’s more, both of them, particularly Boot, seem downright happy about the situation, giving the lie to the notion that the neoconservative right-wing is in any way concerned about “the Iranian people.” But certainly the most unnerving remarks came from Senator McCain, who demanded that we “act?” Against whom? Beats me, and McCain doesn’t know either. In fact, none of us really know the answer to that, because we don’t really have any idea who exactly is involved in the conspiracy.

Ultimately this is just a reminder that the only way to understand the neoconservative mindset is through that of a child. Preferably a spoiled pre-adolescent. It completely lacks empathy, any sense of patience, and any understanding that everything is not about them. But that’s how neoconservatives see the world, as how it relates to them, and what they’re going to do about it. McCain is the bona fide poster child for this, as more or less everything about the world is filtered through his head this way.

On the other hand, it really is worth pointing out that we have no idea what is going on behind the scenes in Iran, and that the neoconservatives are playing off of that.

Here’s Jeffrey Goldberg, for example. Goldberg has been advocating for war with Iran for some time, that’s what he does, after all, but you’ll notice that, like Podheretz, he makes reference to “the regime.” So my question would be, what in the hell is “the regime.” Wouldn’t the Grand Ayatollah who accompanied Mousavi at his rally yesterday likely be part of the “mullahcracy?” What about the head of th Assembly of Experts, a former close ally of Khomieni himself, who was a major Mousavi supporter. What’s infurating about this warmongering is that, like the absurd assertions leading up the Iraq war, there’s just a large amount of obvious hackery going on, and people like Goldberg are smart enough that it has to be deliberate.

On a more positive note, the Obama administration is doing exactly the right thing by questioning the results, and little more. Obviously the US doesn’t have a lot of goodwill built up within Iran, and given the results of our last political intervention there, any explicit support for the opposition will create an immediate baclash against the reformers, who will be painted as US stooges. And, as I said earlier, there’s also the problem of not knowing exactly who is behind the coup, and to what extent various actors are involved. Waiting for a more complete picture to come into focus before any action is taken, or any direct rhetoric deployed, is far and away the best course of action. Indeed, it’s really the only one available to us.

Iran

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

To state the obvious, the Iranian election was a sham. Even assuming that it is possible that Ahmadinejad won more votes than any of the other 3 candidates, the idea that he won nearly 2/3 of the vote in a 4 way race is simply not plausible. And as Juan Cole helpfully breaks down, the supposed provincial results make even less sense. The question now is, who is responsible for what can only be called fabricating the results of the election.

The first thing of relevance to note is that Supreme Leader Khamieni is pretty clearly in on the conspiracy. He quickly certified the bogus numbers, even though he’s supposed to wait at least 3 days for the Guardian Council to present the numbers to him, and re-affirmed that today. It seems equally unlikely that “the mullahs” are behind the coup, for the simple reason that Ahmadinejad is very unpopular with the regime’s religious leaders. So the most likely scenario is one of coup-by-Revolutionary Guard, with an assist from the Minister of the Interior, an Ahmadinejad ally who’s been significantly advantaged by the past 4 years.

The relevant question now, of course, is how this will wind up breaking down. Mousavi supporters and college students are clashing with “police” (there’s some speculation that the police are actually refusing to confront the protesters, and it’s Basij militia forces carrying out the governmental violence) in a situation eerily reminiscent of the 1979 revolution. People are chanting insults at the Supreme Leader, and there’s actually rumors of a possbile “impeachment” by the Assembly of Experts. Mousavi’s supporters are planning marches tomorrow, with Mousavi planning on leading the one in Tehran, to end at the Khomieni shrine, if a permit is denied for the demonstration. If Khatami and Rafsanjani show up as well, the situation could be very volatile, with a government whose impulse will be violence restrained by the presence of such popular, high profile figures. If violence erupts in such a scenario, we could be looking at a bona fide Lincoln and Concord moment. The smartest play for the government is to ride out the protests in relatively non-violent fashion, but so far they show no inclination to do so.

Iranian elections may be limited, but we’re not talking about a state like Egypt, where everyone knows the voting is a sham. Iranians take their elections pretty seriously, and in the past the clerics have shown a lack of willingness to interfere with the voting. Khatami won 2 elections with overwhelming support, even if the ayatollahs ultimately frustrated the implementation of his espoused policy preferences. Such obvious fraud is an affront, not just to the young liberalizers, but to the mainstream of the Iranian populace, and plenty of players in the Iraqi establishment as well. Such an obvious fraud isn’t likely to be accepted by much of anyone, and the resulting violence, or more appropriately, the government’s response to it, could set off the revolution many of us have been hoping for in Iran.

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It’s No Surprise To Me…

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

Jane Hamsher is our own worst enemy. Now she’s trying to whip up opposition to the war funding supplemental:

I just want to take a minute to thank everyone who is taking time out of their day to make calls and stand by their commitment to end the war. When I look over the lists and read about the thousands of calls people are making to the offices of members of congress, and I see people like Toby who called 25 offices in one day, it makes it all worthwhile.

We really appreciate the efforts of everyone who has called, and who continue to call.  It’s a highly fluid situation, and Rahm Emanuel is furiously horse trading for votes.  Sources on the Hill say that they’ve never seen this kind of full-court press from the White House.  Members are being bribed, bullied and cajoled into abandoning their commitment to vote against any war funding that doesn’t include a time table to bring the troops home.

There’s some controversy about giving money to the IMF, which I’m not really as familiar with as I should be, so I won’t comment on that yet, but Hamsher doesn’t address that here either. Instead, she talks about “war funding that doesn’t include a time table to bring the troops home,” which is just bizarre. It’s not bizarre because we shouldn’t have a time table, of course, it’s bizarre because the US has already agreed to a time table for withdrawing troops from Iraq. It was one of, if not the, key point of the status of forces agreement we signed with the Iraqi government. So insisting on including something you already have in order to vote for something is just odd.

And that’s without even pointing out what a political disaster it would be to have Democrats killing funding for American troops in combat. Say what you will about public opinion about the Iraq war, people just aren’t going to be comfortable with cutting off funding for supplies while troops are in the field. Nor should they be. If Democrats do kill this, and I doubt they will, they’ll lose a lot of ground for it very quickly. And I doubt that much matters to Hamsher who, like a Rush Limabugh or a Sean Hannity, is much better served, personally, by being in the minority.

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The Right To Exist Canard

Saturday, June 6th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

Ultimately, the biggest barrier to a negotiated peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will be the more or less irrelevant flashpoints the parties, particularly on the Israeli side, will insist on bringing into the discussion, for the purpose of bogging down progress. One of the more common of these, hit on here at LGF, is the notion of Palestinian exceptance of Israel’s “right to exist.” To be clear, it would be helpful if more aspects of the Arabic side of the question would lose the eliminationist rhetoric, but either way, this simply isn’t a major impediment to a deal in any way.

The best way to understand why this doesn’t matter is to consider why the settlements do matter. It’s not because they’re an existential problem, per se, or even that they violate previous agreements and international law, at the base level, the settlements present a problem because they’re physical structures that are going to have to be dealt with some way in any agreement. Whether they’re dismantled or remain in place with some other land swapped, ultimately the two sides are going to have to sit down and negotiate a situation that is acceptable to both sides. The more settlements there are to negotiate, and the more occupied territory they’re sitting on, the harder it is to get a deal both sides can live with. The settlers know this, and that’s why they’re so fervent about building. Indeed, it’s why the settlements exist in the first place.

The question of who does or does not accept the right of Israel to exist, however, is completely irrelevant. It’s not something that needs to be negotiated between the two parties, or something that should provide a stumbling block. To pointout the obvious, Israel does exist, and their power is such that that’s unlikely to change. Certainly, none of the Arabic states are in a position to pose an xistential threat to Israel. And ultimately, this question doesn’t really have any bearing on Israel, he Palestinians, or whether or not a two-state arrangement works best for everyone. It’s only a stumbling block if Israel wants it to be one.

But of course, they do want it to be an impediment, as the language itself suggests. How many other places do you hear the “right” of a nation-state to exist being discussed? No one talks about Canada’s right to exist, or Somalia’s, or Tibet’s. From an ethnic state standpoint, you rarely hear anyone ask if maybe the Tamil don’t have a right to their own ethnic homeland. And this is the distinct problem you run into with Israel; the Jewish people’s conception of this right isn’t merely about the right of the nation-state of Israel to exist, it’s about the right of a Jewish state to exist in this precise spot, because of ancient religious tradition. And this is why this is such a tricky question, and why Israel brings it up, because the Arabs believe that their patriarch was the promised son of Abraham, and that, therefore, this land was promised to them. It’s something of a silly fight, and obviously you can’t resolve it in this context without picking sides between two religious traditions, but you obviously can’t solve it if you don’t understand it, or if you refuse to acknowledge the similar claims/feelings on the Palestinian side. Which isn’t to endorse either side’s ancient claim to the land, just merely to point out that the question is an inherent distraction, perpetuated by a player that has a desire to delay or derail the process. One that the United States should ignore in favor of more practical problems like the settlements, the status of Jerusalem, and other concerns that are going to be sticking points in the real world.

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