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December 14, 2010
RICHARD HOLBROOKE: A LIFE IN DIPLOMACY

It is with genuine sadness that I wanted to briefly make note of Richard Holbrooke's death. When I first heard of the tear in his aorta, I feared the worst, indefatigable as he is (it's hard to write "was") and knowing full well he'd doubtless put up a valiant fight. Still, it seemed the 'Bulldozer' had taxed himself too hard this last time given his advancing age, marathon work days, and incessant travel to what has come to be called (inappropriately, in my view) 'Af-Pak'.
I can almost picture the scene where, turning blush red, he would have very much been wanting to make just one last point to Hillary Clinton on the 7th Floor at the State Department, with her instead wisely ordering him into the elevator to get rushed to the hospital. A passionate and tireless advocate, he blocked and tackled to the very end, in service to his country.

I was already well familiar with Holbrooke's storied career pre the Dayton Accords, whether getting an Assistant Secretary slot (East Asia) at the ripe age of 35, prior service as Director of the Peace Corps (for Morocco), and his journalistic forays at respected venues like Foreign Policy. But it was as a humanitarian worker between college and graduate school based in the Balkans that I came to develop immense respect for the man. Our policy in Bosnia had been floundering--feckless and directionless--and I saw the resultant human toll first hand, devastating and enough to leave one aghast (the fall of Srebrenica a particularly harrowing low-point).
Finally, and necessarily willing to negotiate with the likes of Slobodan Milosevic (whatever dishonor to his victims the moral quandary of negotiating with him posed was amply alleviated by the opportunity to spare perhaps many more lives looking forward), Holbrooke did what only he could do: push, corral, lecture, hector, harangue, strong-arm, charm, remonstrate, cajole, scream and, yes, generally 'bulldoze' men like Milosevic (needing to bring along Karadzic and Mladic), Franjo Tudgman (with his own maximalist Herzegovian Croats to deal with), and an indecisive and sometimes feuding Alija Izetbegovic and Haris Silajdzic. It was no mean feat, and I believe history will see this dogged and intrepid peacemaking as well more than a footnote, given the wider implications the conflict, if left to its own devices for longer, could well have had for wider European stability (like most deals, this one was imperfect for various stakeholders, and still contains to this day the seeds of future risks, but it was cobbled together with fierce energy and in a manner that has withstood a decade and a half plus).

Richard (or Dick, as his friends knew him) was not one to only partner with ideological bed-fellows. As the Dayton Accords were being hammered out, for instance, he reached out to Richard Perle, knowing the Bosnian Federation (composed of Bosnian Croats and the Bosniaks themselves) would require assistance combing through the military annexes of the Accords, as well needing guidance on the 'train and equip' program for Federation forces, a counter-point to Bosnian Serb and rump Yugoslavian military superiority (in today's hyper-polarized and infantilized Washington, such cross-party collaboration even on matters of national security is virtually unheard of). This policy initiative was pursued in the interests of stability, rather than revanchism, an effort I assisted with during a prior career. Holbrooke was a pragmatist, willing to work across ideological divides (knowing Perle could add value in this effort), or to negotiate with people who we didn't like, or more, were noxious and indeed bona fide war criminals (as with Milosevic), if a greater good could be achieved. A complicated man, perhaps with many neo-Wilsonian humanitarian stripes, ultimately I believe he was something of a hard-boiled realist (not in an overly academic or doctrinal way, but certainly possessing a clear-eyed view of the world).

One of the several occasions I was lucky enough to spend time with him I asked if he could write a brief dedication to my copy of his book regarding the Bosnian War, which I had obviously read with great interest: "To End a War". Ever playing to his audience, he scribbled a kind and generous note he knew would flatter a young man who had served in the region, writing in part: "With the knowledge that you will know what's left out of this story". A typical Holbrooke touch, even amidst the cacophony of his manic energy, bluntness, and imperiousness, he made gestures that resonated and I am sure were a helpful component of his overall diplomatic tool-kit. So while I would be remiss not to make mention of his human shortcomings which are the stuff of legend, friends and detractors alike cannot but admit that diplomats of this caliber come rarely indeed, a handful or so per generation. He will be sorely missed. And while I have a different view than was his of the ultimate advisability and strategic rationale underpinning the current war in Afghanistan, regardless, I must note his passing presents yet another set-back to the war effort.

I am told that some of his friends and fans were sending messages his staff were actively collating for him to read when he "woke up", perhaps after the second surgery. It was not to be. Farewell, Ambassador, you did many proud, and your achievements were real. My thoughts are with his family during this difficult time.
Posted by Gregory on Dec 14, 10  | Comments (6)  | PermaLink | TrackBack (0)
June 29, 2010
"GROWTH NOW" VS "AUSTERITY NOW"
PIMCO's Mohamed El-Erian, writing recently in the FT, attempts to bridge the divide between the two warrings camps:
The two sides are both right, and wrong. Their impasse will persist until both understand that the debate is incomplete. In particular their discussion takes too narrow an historical perspective, looking excessively to the past experience of industrial countries as opposed to also reflecting that of emerging economies.
As a general rule industrial countries need to adopt both fiscal adjustment and higher medium-term growth as twin policy goals. The balance between the two will vary. Some, like Greece, need immediate fiscal retrenchment. Others, like Germany, the US and Japan have more room for manoeuvre. But no one should pursue just one of these objectives.
To begin to achieve both, countries must quickly implement what were once known in the emerging market lexicon as "second generation structural reforms". Basically these involve enhancing the longer-term responsiveness of western economies that have had their comparative advantages eroded, and now see their populations stranded on the wrong side of significant global changes.
Squaring the circle of growth and fiscal stability needs policies that focus on long-term productivity gains and immediate help for those left behind. This means first enhancing human capital, including retraining parts of the labour force, and increasing labour mobility. Then new emphasis on infrastructure and technology investment is needed, with greater support for scientific advances that promise increased productivity. Finally all nations must begin an honest assessment of the social frictions coming in the next few years. In some countries (like the US) this means an urgent bolstering of social safety nets. [emphasis added]
I post this less for El-Erian's cogent observations generally, to include his apt recycling of "second generation structural reforms" in a non emerging-market context, more for his mention of "social frictions" to intensify in coming years. I suspect this is an issue that merits more attention than it has garnered to date, to include here in the U.S., as El-Erian suggests in his parenthetical.
Posted by Gregory on Jun 29, 10  | Comments (0)  | PermaLink | TrackBack (0)
June 25, 2010
THE MCCHRYSTAL FOLLIES
Amidst the reams of commentary on the General McChrystal fiasco, I found this snippet from George Will worth noting:
It is difficult, and perhaps unwise, to suppress this thought: McChrystal's disrespectful flippancies, and the chorus of equally disdainful comments from the unpleasant subordinates he has chosen to have around him, emanate from the toxic conditions that result when the military's can-do culture collides with a cannot-be-done assignment. In this toxicity, Afghanistan is Vietnam redux.
I would echo Mr. Will's observation. In Afghanistan we are enmeshed in a strategic blunder on par or worse than the Iraq debacle (incidentally, for those who have declared the Mesopotamian morass a victory, here's some level-headed reportage worth a gander lest we delude ourselves Dubya (or Petraeus, about whom more below) erected a Babylonian utopia in Baghdad, Fallujah, Najaf, Basra, Kirkuk, and Mosul. As for Will's Vietnam analogy, we might beware the perils of too easy historical analogizing, but with the Afghan war nearing a decade, it's certainly not an unfair comparison. I would add the following commentary on the McChrystal episode, piggy-backing on Will's apercu:
• It is profoundly sad that it is only McChrystal and crew's sophomoric dishing (President Obama "uncomfortable and intimidated" amidst all the beribboned military brass, Vice President Joseph "Bite-Me" Biden, the "clown" at the NSC, Dick Holbrooke, he of the scatological E-mails not worth opening, Karl Eikenberry, merely covering his behind for the history books, and, bien sur, the so lame and "gay" French), which collectively conspired to belatedly cause a genuine kerfuffle over matters Afghanistan. This is what has the print commentariat and cable pygmies aflutter, not that young Americans are dying in increasingly large numbers for a futile misson devoid now of even a smidgen of strategic sense? A sad testament, to be sure, on a variety of levels not worth detaining the reader with here. Suffice it to say empires die during periods of such obscene myopia.
• Equally, if not more disheartening, are that McChrystal's 'legacy issues' (to use a phrase in vogue) are evidently less concerning to most than the aforementioned juvenile aspersions from a liquored up gaggle at a tourist-trap Irish pub in Paris. That it has taken a young free-lancer from Rolling Stone to help sketch out the fundamental futility of the Afghan mission is, among other things, rather an indictment of a journalistic class increasingly propagandistic (whether purposefully or through languorous cluelessness might make an interesting thesis topic). But beyond this, McChrystal's prior indiscretions are arguably even more serious, to include presiding over such penal exuberances as Camp Nama ("No Blood, No Foul"!), or say, the parsimonious amount of information doled out up-front around the Pat Tillman episode. Are we to be surprised by the entrenched contemptuousness and disdain of civilian authority surrounding this physically courageous, but profoundly flawed, General? But no, warning signs are ignored, and instead, such conduct paves the way for promotions these days, or alternatively, audible yawns among our titular arbiters of appropriate conduct.
• Obama had to fire McChrystal (Eliot Cohen, whom I rarely agree with it, put it well in the Journal recently), though for a moment I'll confess I had to wonder if Barack had more Adlai Stevenson than Harry Truman in him (albeit a decision not to relieve him of command of the Afghan adventure would inevitably have been cloaked in 'team of rivals' soi disant self-confidence). This said, while Obama will doubtless garner some points for "decisiveness" and such banalities now, so that we must steel ourselves for a mini-season of such articles (charitably at best a stretch, as the BP debacle, watered-down financial sector reform and 'Runaway General-out, Petraeus-In' hardly constitute Churchillian fare, Sangerian stenography and self-preservationist Rahmian boosterism apart).
• The season of COIN-on-steroids beckons, as the think-tank apparatchiks dutifully chronicle whether Petraeus can turn Marjah from "bleeding ulcer" to Hamiltonian hamlet, before charging Kandahar and enlightening locals how to better run their jirgas, with the civil procedure treatises parachuted in. Apologies for the sarcasm, but my point is this: the war in Afghanistan, already Obama's, is now exponentially so. Having now demoted the American architect of what passes for modern-day counter-insurgency theory ("Government-In-A-Box"!) , as well the storied 'surge' proponent from Iraq, from CENTCOM to the field (in actuality, however, it will be increasingly perceived as a promotion, with the war elevated in stature too, and per the Washington echo-chamber, the 'war on terror'--or whatever moniker du jour--largely in Petreaus' hands), the die has now been well cast for this ill-fated Afghan fiasco to drift along at least through Obama's first term. Put differently, with the gloried Petraeus at the helm, we're now all-in in Afghanistan. And for what, there are perhaps, per Leon Panetta, 50-100 al-Qaeda operatives in the entire country, even fewer perhaps, and we have 100,000 or so men nation-building there? (For thoughts on why I view the Afghanistan mission as devoid of real strategic purpose, see for instance here).
• I stumbled on this letter of George Kennan's while re-reading his excellent memoirs, as he passes through Iraq in June of 1944, I believe on his way to Moscow:
So much for the handicaps; what of the possibilities of service in Baghdad? A country in which man's selfishness and stupidity have ruined almost all natural productivity, where vegetation can survive only among the banks of the great rivers which traverse its deserts, where climate has become unfavorable to human health and vigor.
A population unhygienic in its habits, sorely weakened and debilitated by disease, inclined to all manner of religious bigotry and fanatacism, condemned by the tenets of the most widespread faith to keep a full half of the population--namely, the feminine half--confined and excluded for the productive efforts of society by a system of indefinite house arrest, deeply affected--and bound to be affected--by the psychological habits of pastoral life, which has ever been at variance with the agricultural and industrial civilization.
This people has now come just enough into contact with Western life so that its upper class has a thirst for many things which can be obtained only in the West. Suspicious and resentful of the British, they would be glad to obtain these things from us. They would be glad to use us as a foil for the British, as an escape from the restraints which the British place upon them.
If we give them these things, we can perhaps enjoy a momentary favor on the part of those interested in receiving them. But to the extent that we give them, we weaken British influence, and we acquire native politicians. If they then begin to do things which are not in our interests, which affect the world situation in a ways unfavorable to our security, and if the British are unable to restrain them, we then have ourselves at least in part to blame and it is up to us to take the appropriate measures.
Are we willing to bear this responsibility? I know--and every realistic American knows--that we are not. Our government is technically incapable of conceiving and promulgating a long-term consistent policy towards areas remote from its territory. Our actions in the field of foreign affairs are the convulsive reactions of politicians to an internal political life dominated by vocal minorities.
Those few Americans who remember something of the pioneer life of their own country will find it hard to view these deserts without a pang of interest and excitement at the possibilities for reclamation and economic development. If trees once grew here, could they not grow again? If rains once fell, could they not again be attracted from the inexhaustible resources of nature? Could not climate be altered, disease eradicated?
If they are seeking an escape from reality, such Americans may even pursue these dreams and enter upon the long and stony road which could lead to their fruition. But if they are willing to recall the sad state of soil conservation in their own country, the vast amount of social improvement to be accomplished at home, and the inevitable limitations on the efficacy of our type of democracy in the field of foreign affairs--then they will restrain their excitement at the silent, expectant possibilities in the Middle Eastern deserts, and will return, like disappointed but dutiful children, to the sad deficiencies and problems of their native land. [emphasis added]
And imagine what this singular American diplomat would have made of Afghanistan, let alone Iraq, and coming out of our Great Recession (with a double-dip a real and present danger post the orgy of stimuli, bail-outs, so-called quantitative easing etc.)!
Moving beyond all the immediate events of last week, we are left to reckon with President Obama too. He said in his statement relieving General McChrystal something to the effect that war is bigger than one man, and he is right. So is the future of countries, polities, and empires. In the recent election, he defeated a Senatorial baron and fabled war hero as an African-American junior Senator fresh from a stint as a community organizer, an amazing feat for the history books, to be sure. Why? People were desperate for change, deep in their guts, after the catastrophic bungles wrought by George W. Bush. And yet, have we gotten said change? Do those who listened to his speech in Cairo still believe in it (assuming they ever did, though certainly there were some elevated expectations), a year or so out? Those who felt the 'moral Chernobyl' of Guantanamo required urgent closure of the detention facility? Those who hungered for financial reform that went after the root causes, such as shoddy underwriting and unmoored leverage, rather than the chaotic sausage-making emitting from Barney Frank's office? Or a bona fide restoration of the letter and spirit of habeas corpus, against the corrosive erosions of 'prolonged' detention, and so on.
Of course, Obama was dramatically, astoundingly even, better than the alternative, who'd have had us warring in Teheran and Tbilisi by now, with Sarah Palin regaling us with discourses about off-shore drilling job creation initiatives. But for some who held out the promise for more profound transformation, we are left with the underwhelming feeling, as Edward Luce put it a few weeks back in the FT, that a 'new and improved' stamp was simply affixed on the same fundamental narrative, no? A pity, for him, for the country, indeed, for the entire international community. Perhaps he is wiser than us, playing his cards and biding his time, being careful to secure a second term, and than wowing doubters with a more historic, transformative agenda. But I smell too much of a cautious, deferential institutionalist in him. In short, the man's story has been great, but the man may not be great himself.
After all, who serious can laud his approach to Afghanistan, with the almost dutifully subserviant default to a "surge", but one married to a supposed hard end-date for drawing-down, an awkwardly disjointed policy borne of a too long and divisive inter-agency review, with no one trusting the supposed end date for commencement of meaningful troop withdrawals regardless, especially with the ante upped with Petraeus now in. And if 'Government-In-A-Box' doesn't take root in Marjah and Kandahar (let alone the great one we have in Kabul, this one presumably specially gift-wrapped for us!), then what? Meantime, men are dying and our power is whittling away every day, as history increasingly occurs on other key stages far from this storied graveyard of empires where Obama, it seems, is essentially doubling-down, rather than seriously thinking of responsibly closing out this latest ill-fated chapter in American adventurism.
Posted by Gregory on Jun 25, 10  | Comments (14)  | PermaLink | TrackBack (0)
June 03, 2010
BLUNDERS ON THE HIGH SEAS
Much ink has been spilt about the so-called flotilla fiasco these past days, a botched Israeli commando raid of the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara vessel in international waters transporting, depending on who you ask, committed Gandhi-like humanitarians, or per others, hardened al-Qaeda linked terrorists. Amidst the cacophony of YouTubes with yellow highlighted arrows emblazoned about, helpfully highlighting metal poles and “objects”, stun grenades and firebombs, or talk of ‘Khaibar’ chanting miscreants flush with a million Euros, as well myriad spent non-Israeli bullet cartridges allegedly causing manifold gunshot wounds, or per other (equally heated) retellings, something of a pre-planned massacre by beastly IDF goons simply for the sport of it, not too much is yet definitively clear save that tragic loss of life occurred in an illegal operation (or one of dubious legality at very best), so that the Israeli mission was undeniably a failure operationally, tactically, and strategically. Let us take each in turn, though it is the last which is most important.
Operationally, it’s largely no-brainer fare what went wrong, as various military experts have opined ad nauseam. Why was the intelligence about the ‘activists’ on board so sub-par, to include presuming a more docile reaction to airborne commandos crashing the party at an ignoble pre-dawn hour? What of the somewhat surreal tidbit about paintball rifles, as the FT reports typically “used to bruise and mark suspects for later arrest”, as if either of these crowd-dispersal techniques on a sea-borne vessel make any sense whatsoever? Instead, with the intelligence badly flawed from the get-go, and thus the operational capabilities required fundamentally misconstrued, it was all too easy for live ammunition to be too liberally employed in the initial chaos leading to fatalities (nine and counting, with regardless even one death too many for a boat full of non-combatants, which contra the always enterprising musings of Alan Derschowitz, where he says that the flotilla’s passengers “fit uncomfortably onto the continuum of civilianality that has come to characterize asymmetrical warfare”--I suspect instead most leading public international law authorities would ultimately conclude, 'continuums of civilianality' or not, that these individuals were not rendered bona fide combatants simply because the ship was attempting to break a blockade, and given the totality of the circumstances).
Short to mid-term tactically, the operation was similarly a blunder. I don’t necessarily disagree with many Israeli commentators who contend that the Mavi Marmara’s nautical intrusions were less about delivery of humanitarian aid, more about breaking the blockade (I am however fatigued by the sophomoric rhetoric emitting from Prime Minister Netanyahu that the Mavi Marmara wasn’t the "Love Boat", or the less sophomoric, and more crudely propagandistic fare, say, that the mostly Turks on board were hell bent on helping set up an “Iranian port”, the better for Ahmadi-Nejad to ship in the processed uranium). But here’s the rub, assuming the activists were more minded to break the blockade than anything else, the fact that Israel’s botched operation caused major loss of life and widespread international outrage will now only intensify further the international pressure to end this very same blockade. Already there is talk about modifying the extent of the blockade even in Washington, and the NYT reports the Israelis are “exploring new ways” of supplying Gaza. As Washington is ultimately Israel’s only die-hard friend--if a tad more halting one of late—this is hardly a surprise.
But it is the strategic failure however which depresses most, and for many reasons. First, and perhaps most important, the Israeli-Turkish relationship has deteriorated dramatically, even dangerously. I am reasonably confident that had the Israelis not immediately repatriated all the Turkish individuals in their custody Ankara might well have truly contemplated terminating diplomatic relations. That’s really rather stunning, when you think of it, given the longevity of these ties. Related, deepening defense cooperation is still at real risk looking forward depending on Israel’s next moves regarding the blockade (as is restoration of full Ambassadorial-level diplomatic ties). And of course you have Prime Minister Erdogan’s statements—which cannot be wholly discounted as fiery rhetoric in the aftermath of the emotional death of Turkish civilians—that “nothing will be the same” in the context of Turkish-Israeli relations. While one senses, at least as of this writing, that both parties have pulled back from the brink some, the situation is still fraught with real tension and the bilateral dynamics are highly problematic to say the least.
Second, this all comes at a highly sensitive time geopolitically in the region with Turkey having sought to broker (along with Brazil) a deal respecting Iran’s nuclear program (incidentally, I hope the subject of a separate post soon). These efforts, whatever their merits, and having been rebuffed rather too high-handedly (or, alternatively, in too rushed and defensive a manner?) in various quarters, will have as a result the Turks likely intensifying their reach out to the ‘East’, especially given Washington’s tepid reaction to date on the flotilla incident (certainly from Ankara’s vantage point, witness but a proposed U.S. observer for an Israeli-led investigation into this fiasco!). In short, and post the Iraq War with its materially negative implications respecting the US-Turkish relationship, it is fair to say Israel’s botched intervention on the high seas has only made the sledding all the harder respecting helping calibrate Turkey’s evolving role in the neighborhood better from Washington’s perspective.
Related, this ill-fated operation was a blunder too as it will only render more complicated Israel’s objectives respecting the sanctions end-game at the United Nations on the Iran dossier, doubtless making it easier for the assorted ministrations of Brasilia, Ankara (as well other emerging powers) to work on peeling away Beijing and Moscow’s support for anything emitting from Turtle Bay that might have had real teeth vis-à-vis Teheran (to the extent these capitals were really minded to ultimately sign on to a robust U.S. draft to begin with, a dubious proposition ultimately, nor am I a fan of sanctions for sanctions sake, ineffective as they typically are, whether of the ‘smart’ variety or otherwise, so that we should be more focused on long-term containment initiatives likely).
Third, this presents yet another set-back likely to the mostly moribund launch of so-called ‘proximity talks’ George Mitchell has been pursuing for so many long months, a thankless task if there ever was one (if an important one nonetheless, given no credible, more ambitious initiatives are underway). Any setbacks to these fledgling diplomatic initiatives provide a shot in the arm to Hamas, further make life difficult for whatever assorted Fatah moderates in Ramallah, while putting more pressure on Cairo, Amman and possibly Riyadh, to the benefit of Damascus and other less conciliatory players.
And last, while there are still other strategic setbacks besides, the continued de-legitimation of Israel among large swaths of global opinion coming out of the ’06 Lebanese conflict, the dismal Operation Cast Lead, the Goldstone Report, and now this latest debacle, is worth highlighting as well. I know, I know, everyone would be beating up on Tel Aviv anyway, we are told by those who are always at the ready to provide carte blanche style rationalizations for whatever conduct Israel might deem appropriate, and with whatever the consequences, but this seems too easy a retort, no?
Meantime the mood in Israel, in the main, seems to be one of mostly defiance and rallying around the flag. There are vehement criticisms about the operational missteps, but few question the tactical wisdom of the operation itself with respect to the preservation of the blockade, fewer still the strategic challenges the botched operation have raised to the forefront per the above. Yes, something has changed in the Israeli public’s mood these past years, a thriving polity known for its rancorous and hard-fought debates across the political spectrum, not least when it came to national security issues. The rancor is still there, to be sure, but save outlier parties like Meretz a broad Likud-Labor-Kadima consensus has apparently congealed, one with little patience for the niceties of world opinion, international law, persistent diplomacy, and painstaking alliance-building. This extends beyond the political class itself, as some roughly 95% of the Israeli public polled believed the vessel needed to be stopped, ostensibly come what may.
The reasons are many, I suspect. The long campaign of suicide bombings engendered much hatred of the 'other' amidst the Israeli public. The fact that rocket attacks continued from Gaza after Israel’s withdrawal frustrated keenly, ‘what more can we do’, many asked? And legendary figures from the Israeli national security firmament are no longer with us, most notably, Yitzhak Rabin, so that the nation likely feels somewhat unmoored with only more second-tier players available. And yet these very sources of frustration are evocative of a lack of self-reflection among too many Israelis, one fears. If you withdraw from Gaza, but after an election Hamas wins (like it or not) cut back on the amount of basic goods allowed in--and then even more so after the ejection of Fatah from the Strip--is it any wonder frustration will mount within Gaza helping fuel further bouts of violence, for instance?
As for the current crise du jour, less about the flotilla (as symptom) ultimately than the blockade (as cause), can Israelis not better appreciate that acting as self-appointed commissars authorized to calibrate the precise amount of food aid, medical supplies and other goods allowed into Gaza (with nutritional issues still arising nonetheless, and post-Cast Lead rebuilding efforts hugely stunted), with what types of specific goods per detailed lists of authorized and non-authorized fare, offends sensibilities, indeed mightily, and in many quarters? Or that the communal punishment of 1.5 million people, for the acts of an off-shoot group of the Muslim Brotherhood which also incidentally provides varied social services (and with which frankly the U.S.—or a proxy—should open channels too given their key position within the Palestinian polity), similarly perturbs many fair-minded persons? Or, still, that the constant discussion surrounding a single IDF soldier, one Gilad Shalit, while heartbreaking for him, his family, his unit and Army, and indeed perhaps too the Israeli nation more generally, is nonetheless perhaps discounted in ‘net’ import some by those looking at the plight of well over a million Palestinians by comparison (Netanyahu has listed this single soldier as one of three key variables weighing on Israel’s posture vis-à-vis the blockade)?
I could go on, but this mood of national testiness, dearth of self-reflection, default to non-conciliatory postures, and easy resort to militarism is proving ever more debilitating to Israel’s overall position and future in the region, and indeed globally. More than anything, the tactical obsession with eradicating enemies (as if one even could every last Hamas or Hezbollah adherent), rather than more seriously moving forward towards an overarching peace settlement with the Palestinians (as well the Syrians and Lebanese) is what strikes me as most short-sighted. What is needed is more strategic patience, realism and wisdom among Israel’s leaders, as reminiscent of the aforementioned Yitzhak Rabin. Mssrs. Netanyahu and Barak have not mustered same, alas, certainly not of late.
Last, however, we would be remiss not to mention Washington in all this, which has proven overly halting, passive and cautious in its approach to this issue, despite its ever growing costs as strategic liability to the United States. President Obama needs to become more personally involved in pointing the parties towards the final parameters of a convincing settlement, while playing ‘honest broker’ more forcefully, and in out-of-the- box fashion (yes, I know, he’s rather busy, and more seed-work is required by Clinton and Mitchell). This means bold acts (at least by our paltry standards) to shake up dynamics some, like having a vigorous international investigation into this incident with, who could imagine, Turkish and Israeli observers, say, rather than simply Israelis running the investigation with a token US observer who will be widely viewed by the world as a white-wash enabler, or moving to engage Hamas (likely indirectly via EU proxies at first), or still skipping over proximity talks in favor of the real thing, meaning direct talks under U.S. mediation (by exerting adult supervision and real pressure on the parties to get them to the proverbial table). Did we vote for change? Real change? Well, where is it, one too often wonders, across a variety of areas. Except, really, this isn't really revolutionary change, it's called basic, robust and slightly more risky and creative diplomacy, which this nation has employed in the past on occasion, if not too often in recent memory.
In short, and as often, another dismal episode emitting from the Middle East, lots of noise and protestations and shrieks resulting, and little by way of intelligent, concrete policy-making apparently in the offing from any governmental quarters (like, say, more forcefully sketching out in Quartet, UN and other international fora the key parameters that everyone is aware are needed for an overall peace deal, while pursuing outreach to portions of Hamas that would be willing to renounce violence on the basis of a meaningful peace settlement). This also begs questions regarding how a ribald, Tweeting (Palin-style), special interest-laden, and hugely dumbed-down cable news addled mass democracy manages to run a serious foreign policy, but that topic is perhaps better left for another day.
Posted by Gregory on Jun 3, 10  | Comments (24)  | PermaLink | TrackBack (0)
August 03, 2009
LUNCH W/ THE FT...
...last weekend, with Rory Stewart. I blog the lunch interview really for this snippet:
Since arriving at Harvard in June last year, he has been consultant to several members of Barack Obama’s administration, including Hillary Clinton, and is a member of Richard Holbrooke’s special committee for Afghanistan and Pakistan policy. “I do a lot of work with policymakers, but how much effect am I having?” he asks, pronging a mussel out of its shell.
“It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’ And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says ...’” [my emphasis]
Incidentally, Stewart had not unrelated thoughts in the LRB a month or so back.
Posted by Gregory on Aug 3, 09  | Comments (3)  | PermaLink
July 06, 2009
ROBERT STRANGE MCNAMARA
It was Henry Ford II who reportedly said of Robert McNamara: "In our business, we are lucky if we make the right decision 51% of the time. What I have noticed about Bob McNamara is that he makes an awful lot of right decisions." And yet, of course, he also made some profoundly wrong ones too, most notably, with the gross misadventure of Vietnam. The below video captures some of the spirit of the man, both the good and the bad, if still a stubborn doggedness and recalcitrance, also greater appreciation of historical nuance and moral ambiguity, certainly at least in his older, more reflective years.
Regardless of history's verdict of him, which doubtless will be almost wholly about Vietnam, and thus mostly negative, this was nonethless a sharply penetrating, urbane man, and importantly one who could admit a mistake, unlike say, the unreflective (and far less elegant) Donald Rumsfeld, the two having not infrequently been compared to each other.
As McNamara said in Errol Morris's excellent documentary "The Fog of War" (from which I believe the above video is excerpted):
We are the strongest nation in the world today. I do not believe that we should ever apply that economic, political, and military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn’t have been there. None of our allies supported us. Not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we’d better re-examine our reasoning.”
"War is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.”
This last is probably what haunted him the most to his dying day.
NB: McNamara actually misquotes T.S. Eliot at the end of the excerpted YouTube. The relevant portion is from Little Gidding (No. 4 of 'Four Quartets'), namely:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
McNamara mixes the placement of "exploration" and "exploring" (and has the second line erroneously as "and at the end of our exploration"), while also substituting "we will return to" for the original "will be to arrive". The meaning is essentially the same, if McNamara's erroneously tweaked third line impacts the emphasis some, as "we will return to" evokes a sense of volitional action (a tad too certain, even cocksure?), while "will be to arrive" speaks more to preordained fate exerting its will (more deferential?). Arguably too, there is a slightly more pessimistic bent to 'returning' to the same place, rather than a sense of 'arriving' anew. Given the arc of his life, perhaps neither variation is surprising, albeit somewhat incongruous, if nonetheless helpfully evocative of the man's contradictions.

Posted by Gregory on Jul 6, 09  | Comments (2)  | PermaLink
July 05, 2009
BIDEN ON ISRAEL/IRAN
Via the NYT this Sunday:
Plunging squarely into one of the most sensitive issues in the Middle East, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. suggested on Sunday that the United States would not stand in the way of Israeli military action aimed at the Iranian nuclear program.
The United States, Mr. Biden said in an interview broadcast on ABC’s “This Week,” “cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do.”
"Israel can determine for itself — it’s a sovereign nation — what’s in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else," he said, in an interview taped in Baghdad at the end of a visit there.
The remarks went beyond at least the spirit of any public utterances by President Barack Obama, who has said that diplomatic efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program should be given to the end of the year. But the president has also said that he is “not reconciled” to the possibility of Iran possessing a nuclear weapon — a goal Tehran denies.
Mr. Biden’s comments came at a particularly sensitive time, amid the continuing tumult over the disputed Iranian elections, and seemed to risk handing a besieged President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a new tool with which to fan nationalist sentiments in Iran.
What was not immediately clear was whether Mr. Biden, who has a long-standing reputation for speaking volubly — and sometimes going too far in the heat of the moment — was sending an officially sanctioned message.
Brian Knowlton's somewhat amusing description of Mr. Biden apart, what do readers make of the Vice-President's comments, in particular, whether they were deliberative and pre-vetted, or instead, non-coached and instinctive, perhaps cause for some wincing inside the Beltway today? Meantime, a related and not uninteresting piece in Haaretz.
Permit me a brief personal vignette. On a flight a year or so back, I bumped into a former Cabinet member from a previous Administration (he will remain nameless, and I won't even mention his exact post or what Administration he served, suffice it to say a prominent man quite well known still). Discussing Iran briefly, he looked at me with his shrewd eyes and said (relying on memory and so probably slighly paraphrasing): "Perhaps we'll let the Israelis do it". The comment was revealing I thought for a couple reasons: 1) the notion that somehow we would 'authorize' the Israelis, as if they were our proxy to so delegate out the mission; and 2) perhaps less surprising, the fact he thought an extensive bombing campaign of Iran not a bad idea, essentially apparently just a dusting off of the Osirak precedent, I thought without sufficiently appreciating that this operation would be materially more challenging several times over, for many reasons, to include two hot wars on both sides of Iran with hundreds of thousands of American soldiers in the neighborhood.
This little anecdote leads me to a further thought, I think Biden was essentially just trying to refute "1" above, e.g. the sense that it's up to us, thus stressing Israel is a sovereign state that makes up her own mind about such things, so that perhaps he was purposefully distancing the U.S. some from a possible Israeli action, whether in scripted or unscripted manner I'm not sure (I'd probably guess the latter). Of course, how the region and world interpret his comments could be as more of a flashing greenish light, even if that wasn't the intent. Of course too, no one in the region would believe--even were it true (which would be highly unlikely)--that an Israeli action didn't enjoy tacit American support/approval, a variable that we should keep uppermost in our minds (among others) when dealing with the Israelis on this issue/dossier going forward.
MORE: See Aluf Benn on this too, who sees this as more of a purposeful warning to the Iranians.
Posted by Gregory on Jul 5, 09  | Comments (2)  | PermaLink
MEA CULPA (PART II)
Apropos of my last post issuing something of a mea culpa given some of the purportedly overly tiresome neo-con bashing (meaning really too, I guess, all the incessant intellectual squabbling from those removed from the conflict generally, particularly when mostly descending into mere sloganeering, rather than as accompanied by constructive policy criticisms), I thought I'd provide two links from people who have either been on the ground (in Ramadi, Iraq), or have suffered tremendously as a result of a close relative being in theater. The latter piece is particularly compelling, indeed profoundly heart-wrenching, really. And reminds us that were it not for medical advances, the number of dead American soldiers resulting from the Iraq imbroglio would doubtless number well in excess of 10,000-15,000, and counting (the massive Iraqi toll is, of course, unconscionable, if less discussed). To be sure, the phrase 'traumatic brain injury' (or "TBI") deserves to be more widely known as one of the 'signature' wounds of this conflict.
I am not excerpting either article, as both should be read in full. John Renehan's serves as good counter-point to the constant intellectual battling and haranguing here, tacitly admonishing us that whatever one might make of the conflict, some are actually there having to deal with its moral ambiguities day in, day out regardless; while Bethany Vaccaro's piece likely served as something of an exegesis as she grappled with the horribly debilitating injury her brother suffered, and continues to daily, to include the attendant toll on her entire family.
(For some reason, the linked pieces made me think of Ezra Pound's short poem, "An Immorality". Anyway, I recommend both pieces be read in their entirety, particularly, as I said, Vaccaro's).
Posted by Gregory on Jul 5, 09  | Comments (3)  | PermaLink
June 23, 2009
SOMETHING OF A MEA CULPA
Jeff Weintraub writes (in an otherwise favorable review: “(e)ven so-called foreign-policy "realists" are sometimes startled and moved by actual realities. Here is a fine and eloquent outburst from Greg Djerejian...”) of a recent post of mine:
I will skip the rest, since it is not so much about Iran as about the ideological dogfights going on here in the US, in the punditocracy and the blogosphere, about how the US government and the rest of us should respond to that ongoing political drama in Iran. Those debates have generated some light, but more heat than light--that is, they have been excessively pervaded (in my view) by inter-sectarian point-scoring, score-settling, predictable sloganeering, ideological posturing, and reciprocal accusations of hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty. (Yes, some of those accusations have been justified, to some degree, on all sides.) So I have mostly tried to avoid all that, and to focus on serious and potentially illuminating analyses of what is going on in Iran. With all respect to Greg Djerejian, I think (fairly or unfairly) that some of those critical remarks apply to at least some aspects of the non-quoted portion of his post (including the rather tiresome ritual "neocon"-bashing which is becoming too much of a reflex in some quarters). But not to all of them ... so anyone who is interested in considering the rest of his discussion can pursue it here.
I want to issue something of a mea culpa here. I have noted a tendency in this space with the passage of the years to engage in a decent amount of what might pass for neo-con “bashing”, whether ritual or otherwise. The reasons are many, to include:
1) the fevered overall tone of much of the blogosphere, where often ‘Fisking’ (itself a sophomoric moniker regrettably demeaning to a very talented journalist) another’s op-ed or posting serves as jumping off point for one’s own commentary;
2) in candor, writing on occasion as something akin to a shot at redemptive therapy, given that coming out of my experiences in the mid-90s in the Balkans I’d not infrequently made common cause with some of the neo-cons (looking for greater intervention by the West during the horrors of Bosnia), to subsequently include early support for our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq; and
3) at some point towards the second half of Bush’s second term, reaching a tremendous bursting point brought on by a confluence of Rumsfeld’s staggeringly poor stewardship of the Iraq War, essentially constituting criminal neglect, this followed by Dubya’s stubbornly childish and recalcitrant ‘Decider’ moment, before finally replacing a disgraced Rumsfeld with Robert Gates, as well the mind-boggling fiasco of Katrina and, of course, the horrific crimes that the top-down authorized torture apparatus authorized in far-flung outposts to include Guantanamo, black-sites in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, Bagram, and through Iraq, most notoriously (only because of the photographic evidence) at Abu Ghraib.
In short, I felt like we were living a period in American history where truly incredible blunders were being committed by national security miscreants on an epic scale, and so like many, and taken in conjunction with variables like “1” and “2” above, was using my little soap-box here to scream from the cyber-roof-tops, perhaps a bit loutishly at times, veering into polemics and arguably even ad hominems on occasion, or indeed as Jeff writes, generally engaging at times in: “inter-sectarian point-scoring, score-settling, predictable sloganeering, ideological posturing, and reciprocal accusations of hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty.” Do I regret it? Not really probably, all told, but still, I apologize for the sometimes overly fevered tone this space succumbed to, and indeed, may still going forward (I am only human).
But all this being said, let us return to the recent post where—in really charting out in the main my views on Iran—I did admittedly veer into reasonably lengthy commentaries about two of the most prominent neo-cons, namely Charles Krauthammer and Paul Wolfowitz. I must confess, I do remain truly stunned, not as much by Mr. Krauthammer (who I view as the more stubbornly incorrigible of the two) but more so Mr. Wolfowitz, that they continue to hold their heads up relatively high deigning to provide policy prescriptions after the manifold disasters that the Bush 43 policies precipitated. I can do little better than to quote Andrew Bacevich, writing in his well reasoned and very estimable “The Limits of Power” (here showing how Wolfowitz was becoming something of an increasingly untamed Paul Nitze on steroids):
So the aftermath of 9/11 found Wolfowitz venturing into precincts where Nitze himself had feared to tread, advocating a policy of “anticipatory self defense,” a euphemism for preventive war. Within forty-eight hours of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he was already declaring categorically that, in its response to 9/11, the United States had no intention of confining its actions to those directly involved in the terrorist conspiracy. Bringing Osama bin Laden and his associates to justice would not suffice. Rather, the United States was intent on undertaking “a broad and sustained campaign” against any and all states posing a terrorist threat. The aim went beyond targeting would-be terrorists themselves. The United States meant to deprive terrorists of sanctuaries or “safe havens” by nothing less than a policy of “ending states who support terrorism.” In NSC 68, Nitze had at least made a pretense of offering several options for consideration. For Wolfowitz after 9/11, there existed only a single option: open-ended global war…History will remember Paul Wolfowitz as the intellectual Svengali who conjured up the Bush Doctrine. In NSC 68, Nitze had rejected preventive war as “repugnant.” Wolfowitz now promoted it as permissible, essential, even inviting.
Absent in all this is a hint of a Niebuhrian humility Bacevich also cites in his discussion of Wolfowitz, that “the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management.” Instead, a cock-sure certainty prevails, despite the Iraq debacle (see the latest haughty pronunciamentos about what Obama should be doing in Iran).
Bacevich concludes his discussion here:
No doubt today’s Wise Men see themselves as devoted patriots. No doubt they even mean well. Yet that’s not good enough. As Paul Wolfowitz himself wrote, “No U.S. President can justify a policy that fails to achieve its intended results by pointing to the purity and rectitude of his intentions.” Much the same can be said of those who advise presidents and whose advice yields horrific consequences of the sort we have endured beginning on 9/11 and continuing ever since. They have forfeited any further claim to trust. [my emphasis]
Indeed, and coming from a man who lost his own son (to whom this somehow muted and dispassionate, yet very compelling, manifesto is dedicated) in the war in Iraq, this is a particularly compelling refutation, in my view.
As for Mr. Krauthammer, I don’t have much more to say, really. He is clearly no one’s fool, and has written some pieces considered important by some, such as The Unipolar Moment Revisited in the Winter 2002 National Interest. But it is perhaps instructive to take another quick peek at it now a half decade plus on. The overt triumphalist tone showcases well Krauthammer’s grandiose over-reaching.
Of Afghanistan, he wrote then, about the U.S. response to 9/11:
Being a relatively pacific, commercial republic, the United States does not go around looking for demonstration wars. This one was thrust upon it. In response, America showed that at a range of 7,000 miles and with but a handful of losses, it could destroy within weeks a hardened, fanatical regime favored by geography and climate in the “graveyard of empires.”
Would that it had been so easy! Here we are now some seven years into the Afghan conflict, embroiled in a hugely challenging counter-insurgency campaign that will drag on for many years yet, alas (I believe this mission all but doomed to failure, and have shared my views on occasion in this space, most recently here). But for Mr. Krauthammer it was mission accomplished by the late autumn of 2002!
Mr. Krauthammer has also not distinguished himself (indeed, you might say has disgraced himself) by becoming one of the more notable neo-con proponents of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, or stripped of the deadening conceit of this bland apparatchik Orwellianism, torture full stop. Like the abolition of slavery or habeas corpus rights, forbidding any use of torture has become a touchstone of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought and society, and screeds in the pages of the Weekly Standard about fanciful ‘ticking time bomb’ scenarios cannot be viewed as intellectually serious in the long march of history, even if many have leapt on this pro-torture bandwagon, right on down to the Kafkaesque imagery of possibly inserting a creeping insect into a confined space with a human being to maximize fears born of phobias about spiders or such, or inducing in them the feeling of being drowned, or as happened far too often, allowing some combination of extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation, and stress positions to lead to the deaths of scores of detainees in our custody. This is the legacy of the intellectual enablers of a pro-torture policy hoisted on a confused country enmeshed in fear and mourning after the ashes of 9/11. But this cannot be acceptable, staining so profoundly our honor and titular role as avatar of international human rights in the global system. As the English Law Lords had written in an opinion I’d previously cited in this space:
That word honour, the deep note which Blackstone strikes twice in one sentence, is what underlies the legal technicalities of this appeal. The use of torture is dishonourable. It corrupts and degrades the state which uses it and the legal system which accepts it. When judicial torture was routine all over Europe, its rejection by the common law was a source of national pride and the admiration of enlightened foreign writers such as Voltaire and Beccaria. In our own century, many people in the United States, heirs to that common law tradition, have felt their country dishonoured by its use of torture outside the jurisdiction and its practice of extra-legal "rendition" of suspects to countries where they would be tortured: Just as the writ of habeas corpus is not only a special (and nowadays infrequent) remedy for challenging unlawful detention but also carries a symbolic significance as a touchstone of English liberty which influences the rest of our law, so the rejection of torture by the common law has a special iconic importance as the touchstone of a humane and civilised legal system. Not only that: the abolition of torture, which was used by the state in Elizabethan and Jacobean times to obtain evidence admitted in trials before the court of Star Chamber, was achieved as part of the great constitutional struggle and civil war which made the government subject to the law. Its rejection has a constitutional resonance for the English people which cannot be overestimated. [my emphasis]
This dishonor, too, will irrevocably be part of the neo-con’s legacy (with such prominent neo-con adherents as Mr. Krauthammer, how can it not, even if some neo-cons here and there may have been opposed) and for this reason too, as Mr. Bacevich stated, they have “forfeited any further claim to trust.”
Mr. Krauthammer ended his National Interest article writing: "(t)he challenge to unipolarity is not from the outside but from the inside. The choice is ours. To impiously paraphrase Benjamin Franklin: History has given you an empire, if you will keep it."
It is instructive here to actually see what Benjamin Franklin said originally, and Scott Horton—if in a slightly different context--addresses this very well in Harpers here:
As Benjamin Franklin left the Constitutional Convention, on September 18, 1787, a certain Mrs. Powel shouted out to him: “Well, doctor, what have we got?,” and Franklin responded: “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Like many of the Founding Fathers, he was intensely concerned that the democratic institutions they were crafting would deteriorate over time. In particular, they were concerned—and talked ceaselessly during the convention about the risk that, under pressures and exigencies of war, a tyrant would collapse their system into something closer to the monarchy that they had just defeated. Over the intervening 220 years, the republic has maintained itself, though not without close calls. And today, while we face what may be the gravest challenge in the nation’s history, our media will serve up the next chapter in the life of Paris Hilton.
Mr. Krauthammer rather turns Benjamin Franklin’s logic on its head with his paraphrasing, quite “impiously” indeed, as many of the very policies Mr. Krauthammer advocates with such alacrity (an unbridled executive, use of torture, preemptive war) run directly contra Franklin’s admonition to fight to preserve a constitutional Republic.
Scott Horton goes on to quote the great jurist Learned Hand:
Near the close of the Second World War, Learned Hand–a man who embodies everything that constitutes a good citizen, a great judge and a patriot–made a powerful speech at the Great Lawn in Central Park. “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women,” he said, “when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.
Like many profound points, Hand’s description seems very obvious, even bordering on the banal. But it is a critical apercu. And it is what concerns me the most about present day America. In the (mostly) collective shrug about so-called ‘prolonged’ or ‘indefinite’ detention (a policy egregiously so afoul of the ancient writ of habeas corpus that, as with torture, I’d have thought essentially junking such a touchstone of post-Enlightenment societies, even if with some lipstick applied to the pig, could not be so uncontroversially countenanced across two political parties), in the general feebleness of refusing to mount a high-profile, relentless investigation into how a torture policy was allowed to encrust itself at the highest levels of the Executive of this great nation allowing for men to die in our custody in a veritable archipelago of detention centers worldwide, in the slothful obeisance to wars of choice dragging on possibly for decades, in all this do we not see liberty beating in the “hearts of men” less steadfastly than we’d hope for in a fabled democracy (one with many reasons to be prideful of its rich heritage, in the main)?
Do we not see in swaths of our society a country that risks—only too happy to, say, revel in a doubtless dystopian populism characterized by huge ignorance as with the Palin wing of the GOP, with say another terror attack and less capable political leadership than we enjoy at present—a descent into a populist form of authoritarianism infested by the moronic pensees and discourse we witness nightly on the network gab-fests? I am fundamentally more optimistic than this, not least given the hugely important Obama victory over McCain, but still there is a calcification in outlook on even totemic issues that has taken root across large swaths of the polity that gives fear (in its easy certitudes that, so self-contented, verge on the morally corrupt), so that it is not merely a matter of one political party over the other. But at very least, let us move away from some of the intellectual enablers of the worst of the excesses, as we fight for a brighter future! And so, I will apologize to readers who, like Jeff Weintraub, felt I may have succumbed too readily to sloganeering and intellectual posturing on occasion, but that said, I hope this post helps clarify the ‘why’, if you will.
Speaking of apologies, a final thought. Another reason many of us find the behavior of the neo-conservatives galling and offensive is, not only how wrong-headed their policy prescriptions were and are, but also that they have been so roundly unapologetic, indeed unrepentant and as stubbornly bull-headed as ever (save notable exceptions who broke early like Francis Fukuyama, who anyhow are now post-schism not regarded as one of the club by the residual die-hards a la Krauthammer and, evidently, Mr.Wolfowitz). Michiko Kakutani, in a book review of Bradley Graham’s Donald Rumsfeld biography, notes:
Asked to assess Mr. Rumsfeld’s tenure, Mr. Graham reports, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger gave him “high marks as a secretary of defense trying to revamp the U.S. military but scored Rumsfeld low as a secretary of war,” noting that the same was true of Robert S. McNamara, the only other Pentagon chief with an equally controversial term in office. Mr. Graham points out that both Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. McNamara came from the corporate world, both had keen analytic minds and “insatiable appetites for data,” both sought tighter civilian control of the military and both presided over long, costly and unpopular wars.
The big difference between the two men, Mr. Graham adds, is how they ultimately viewed their own tenures: “despite his public cheerleading for the Vietnam War, Mr. McNamara privately became dubious about its wisdom and effectiveness while still in office” and came to recognize “that he had failed as defense secretary because of mistakes he and others had made in Vietnam.” In contrast, Mr. Graham writes, Mr. Rumsfeld “did not leave office doubting his handling of the Iraq war” and “has acknowledged no major missteps or shown any remorse on the subject to date.” [my emphasis]
No acknowledgement of missteps (actually, with Rumsfeld of late, it is worse, more a disingenuous acknowledgement essentially seeking to remove himself from direct culpability). But yes, overall, no acknowledgements of material mis-steps. Democracy not necessarily a "default condition to which societies would revert once liberated from dictators" (as Stephen Holmes observes in a penetrating piece from the LRB back in '06)? Too much of a bovine tendency towards "​over-personalizing any 'regime' that they dream of destabalising, identifying it with a single reprehensible ruler", as Holmes also flags? Perhaps a truer more genuine reconsideration of the initial troop levels in Iraq, rather than now simply roundly feting and cheerleading a terribly belated 'surge', occurring so late that the damage done by any reasonable cost-benefit metric was already titanic enough so as to counsel strongly against prolonging a terrible misadventure. And so on. All this, with no remorse either, to Bradley Graham's point of the differences between McNamara and Rumsfeld.
Let me be clear, this is not a request for some Inquisition-style auto-de-fe , accompanied by protracted bouts of public flagellation. But to be a purported Wise Man or foreign policy expert, you must be able to recalibrate and learn from one’s mistakes. Instead, as David Rieff once quipped to me: “(l)ike the Trotskyists of yore, these people are never wrong if only they had been listened to and allowed to follow their mad utopian schemes to their limit.” This failure to learn from experience, this rigid ideological lock-step (indeed they essentially look to double-down even post the Iraq debacle, now with some calling for bombing Iran), in my opinion, displays a lack of character that is very worrisome and frankly reprehensible, especially given the human and other costs (of which more in a subsequent post). Forgive me therefore for not trusting their policy suggestions on Iran, or any other issues, for that matter. And forgive me too for on occasion having gotten overly hot-headed in the cyber-pages of Belgravia Dispatch, to Jeff Weintraub's point, which provoked this post.

Posted by Gregory on Jun 23, 09  | Comments (3)  | PermaLink
June 21, 2009
OBAMA'S STATEMENT ON IRAN
President Obama's statement:
The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost. We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people. The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights.
As I said in Cairo, suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government. If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.
Martin Luther King once said - "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." I believe that. The international community believes that. And right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian peoples’ belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness.
This is basically pitch-perfect. And shows real conscientiousness in its drafting, for which kudos are in order. To deconstruct some, keying off the key phrases:
1) “The world is watching”—A powerful admonishment to the Iranian regime as they calculate how severe a crack-down they can afford to contemplate and/or pursue, one issued personally by the world’s most prominent leader (and also a statement that will provide something of a back-door morale boost to the protestors, albeit accomplished indirectly via the more direct, explicit warning the statement portends to the key players around Khamenei);
2) “We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost”, not just ministerial fare, but rather showing this Administration is sensitized to the growing humanitarian toll;
3) A call on the Iranian Government to “stop all violent and unjust actions” against its people, as Andrew Sullivan has pointed out, the word “unjust” will resonate strongly on the ground, but still, this carefully parsed language is calibrated enough that it cannot easily be portrayed as incitement by a foreign power;
4) “The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights”. “Must be respected” risks sounding somewhat diktat-like, but this is softened by a reference to “universal” rights (and although Obama further risks sounding overly vague here, he is nonetheless careful in specifying the rights of ‘assembly and free speech’, which of course carry a clear import for Moussavi’s supporters, but while again being wisely couched in the language of the general rights of man);
5) Next, a nod to the Cairo speech, and that suppression of ideas “never succeeds in making them go away”, essentially linking the events in Iran to his key-stone speech to the region a fortnight or so earlier, in this way, further highlighting the historic import of the events underway in Iran;
6) “The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government”, very able again, in its ambiguity (what actions is he speaking of precisely?) as here he appears to be both a) staking out a U.S. position less hectoring than some European states who have weighed in too far I believe on the falsity of the electoral results, by more properly suggesting in the absence of internationally approved election monitors and the like having been on the ground the Iranians themselves will need to sort out electoral adjustments, if any, but also, and more likely his meaning here b) this is of course referencing too the crackdown, another warning shot across the bow that the Iranian public will be judging events, buttressed further by his next line: “(i)f the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.” (dignity is a very well chosen word in this context);
7) The MLK quote is splendid, as our first African-American President it resonates all the more to quote him, as “(t)he arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, could well describe how someone like Obama could ascend to the great office he holds today, given the long, painful struggles with slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights and so on in this country;
8) He reinforces and personalizes "7" immediately above, given again the dramatic heft these lines are given by the man delivering them, by stating: “I believe that”, and then without sounding the least bit presumptuous, stating the international community does too;
9) Perhaps the most important line, in terms of signal to the regime in Iran, “we are bearing witness to the Iranian peoples’ belief in that truth” to which he stresses again, we will continue to “bear witness”, as bearing witness is not the same as crudely intervening, an important signal really to all the players there (including too the protestors, who after all, must not be led on that the cavalry is coming as they make their courageous internal calculations in the coming days), and regardless, is all told the most we could offer at this juncture, while also affording the regime an opening to step back from the brink (though I doubt they will); and
10) Last, I can’t help saying it, what a relief to have some competence back at the helm, and if I shudder some to think at the Bush 43 statement that would have been issued, I shudder far more at the quasi-crazed meanderings a McCain-Palin Administration would have had us sketching out here, helping scuttle possibilities of avoiding more of a large-scale Tiananmen event (though alas we may still face one, but at least not yet) and rendering even more incendiary a hugely fraught situation.
Let’s admit it, we are all damn lucky Obama won, with many of his (increasingly frothing & rabid-like) opponents simply deeply envious of his extremely strong political talents and gifts. Worth noting too, I am all but sure he personally drafted and/or reviewed in depth this statement, which again shows real care and high intelligence and sophisticated understanding of history, to include the current Iranian situation, and regional sensitivities. Yes, he is very, very good. Frankly one of my few concerns as he goes about implementing his policies (both foreign and domestic) is that he not get overly cock-sure on occasion, there are flashes of conceit here and there (a conceit perhaps that by his very transformative being, perhaps, dramatic changes might more easily occur in forlorn spots around the globe, or for that matter, states nearing 15% U-3 unemployment like Michigan), but then again, we have Michelle for this!
Posted by Gregory on Jun 21, 09  | Comments (13)  | PermaLink
June 20, 2009
WHERE IS THIS PLACE THAT WE ARE ONLY SCREAMING TO THE WORLD WITH OUR SILENCE?
This place is Iran, a country on the cusp of possibly an even larger-scale violent crackdown than as of this hour (writing Saturday mid-afternoon, New York time), another revolution, or some alternative denouement unknown to us at this hour. With the howling cries of ‘Allah-o-akbar’ in the background, in a YouTubed video reportedly made Friday evening in Iran (via The Lede) the subject caption above is spoken by what sounds like a young female narrator (at the 1:35 mark). A hauntingly beautiful and arresting line--one which she breaks into tears uttering—seems to distill much of the spirit of the ‘silent’ protests of the Moussavi movement.
How can we not fail to be moved by her achingly sincere yearnings? How can our conscience not demand something be done? After all, aren’t these ardent cries of help aimed squarely at us here, meaning leading players in the international community? And then now this Saturday we are seeing the first flare-ups of more wide-spread and protracted anti-demonstration crackdowns. Via Andrew, another heart-wrenching YouTube (if in far more direct, brutish vein) here:
Of course we are deeply repulsed and outraged at this senseless and cruel violence. And so is it any surprise there is something of a zeitgeist increasingly taking root (accelerated of course by Ayatollah Khamenei’s deeply disappointing speech yesterday) that something need be done by these United States? That somehow President Obama himself needs to ‘step up’, meaning, say and do more?
For example, and as if on cue, the Washington Post allowed for a dual-pronged assault at the supposedly callous Obamaian realism, featuring Charles Krauthammer and Paul Wolfowitz. Meantime, youthful apparatchiks from the Dubya administration, painfully naïve but positively brimming with self-importance, counsel varied initiatives that need be undertaken in the pitiable, yellow-press editorial pages of the WSJ. There are saner, more sophisticated voices counseling for more action too, however. Roger Cohen, with typical passion and elegance, demands same here. And one senses that Andrew Sullivan, intensely enmeshed in his nonpareil coverage of the ongoing events in Iran, is nearing a breaking point, despite his wise disparagement of the reckless policy prescriptions of the incorrigible neo-conservatives that Fred Hiatt publishes with great gusto (Mr. Hiatt risks increasingly appearing rather the sheepish lap-dog of late, whether the unseemly defenestration of a notable blogger at that paper—interestingly shortly after this very blogger, the well regarded Dan Froomkin, raised Mr. Krauthammer’s ire--or the tiresomely repetitive neo-con boilerplate he allows be published with abandon in his opinion pages).
I mean, what can one say about Charles Krauthammer that hasn’t been already, a mendacious ideologue who writes with the assured certainty of a zealot? From his op-ed: “All hangs in the balance. The Khamenei regime is deciding whether to do a Tiananmen. And what side is the Obama administration taking? None.” What does Mr. Krauthammer suggest we do? Send in the dough-boys into Enghelab Square? He wants fire and brim-stone and really, he is a parody of some vague notion of Schumpeterian creative destruction, roll the dice, and just hope the brown-skins from Beirut to Lahore sort it out OK (and always in a manner befitting right-Likudnik conceptions of Israel’s security, of course, ironically actually serving to weaken Tel Aviv).
Mr. Wolfowitz himself has always been more subtle, and actually has been a policy-maker, rather than a perennial back-seat driver pissing on the pratfalls of those who must govern, rather than merely turn out a column a couple times a week or stare lugubriously into a Fox Studio camera to spoon-feed a wildly credulous audience rife with ignoramuses. But for his part, it must be said, Mr. Wolfowitz is very selective in describing some of his public service as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under George Schultz, where he pushed for stronger condemnations of the Marcos regime at the time (Update: Matt Steinglass has more worth reading on the Wolfowitz/Philippines angle). It is almost as if he is engaging in revisionist burnishing of his own background, taking the Iran events as convenient launching pad, and omitting some of the (arguably more) relevant take-aways of his more immediate professional past. He writes:
No two situations are identical. But the reform the Iranian demonstrators seek is something that we should be supporting. In such a situation, the United States does not have a "no comment" option. Coming from America, silence is itself a comment -- a comment in support of those holding power and against those protesting the status quo. It would be a cruel irony if, in an effort to avoid imposing democracy, the United States were to tip the scale toward dictators who impose their will on people struggling for freedom. And if we appear so desperate for negotiations that we will abandon those who support our principles, we weaken our own negotiating hand.
Mr. Wolfowitz can play pretend this is soi disant about desperation to preserve negotiations. But, of course, this is rather about the screamingly obvious fact that were Obama to wade into this domestic fire-storm by too nakedly taking sides, say cheerleading Moussavi, it would represent the immediate death-knell of this movement. Veteran diplomats like Henry Kissinger get this (having recently complimented Obama on his handling of the situation), as do other distinguished foreign policy practitioners of the right like Richard Lugar and Dick Armitage. But not Mr. Wolfowitz, still the noble warrior on behalf of “freedom” after all these years. Of course, nothing if not clever, he goes on:
That does not mean that we need to pick sides in an Iranian election or claim to know its result. Obama could send a powerful message simply by placing his enormous personal prestige behind the peaceful conduct of the demonstrators and their demand for reform -- exactly the kind of peaceful, democratic change that he praised in his speech in Cairo.
But these are weasel-words. Obama has more or less already lauded the courage of the protestors. Tell us Mr. Wolfowitz, what exactly you’d like said, and how, rather than airily condemn Obama’s inaction? If not, this op-ed lacks any substance, and is more feel-good nostrum, I'm afraid. Or, better yet, recalling recent inglorious pass-throughs at the World Bank and as Rumsfeld’s Deputy, Mr. Wolfowitz might consider staying on the side-lines more, lest such quotes spring too easily back to mind, ’03 vintage to a House Committee:
There has been a good deal of comment - some of it quite outlandish - about what our postwar requirements might be in Iraq. Some of the higher end predictions we have been hearing recently, such as the notion that it will take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq, are wildly off the mark. It is hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army - hard to imagine.
Wildly off the mark indeed, as are Mr. Wolfowitz’s Iran musings half a decade on today.
Instead what is very clear to most sane observers is Persia’s long history of being deeply skeptical, at best, of foreign involvement in its polity given, as the Economist puts it this week, that she was “buffeted between imperial rivals—Russian, Turkish, British and American—for more than a century”. Add to this the perennial Sunni-Shi’a rivalries of the region, closer to fever-pitch post the Iraq fiasco, that feed an ongoing sense of Iranian isolation to their West in a predominantly Sunni Arab Middle East, manifested too by Iran’s own long war with Iraq. Then there is the sense of encirclement with U.S. troops in the tens and hundreds of thousands on Iran’s Western and Eastern borders, with all the loose talk of regime change to boot emitting from Washington for years, and with memories of the U.S. role in the Mossadegh coup hugely fresh in the national consciousness of almost all Iranians still.
Taking this all in, is it not something of a total no-brainer to conclude Obama is right to be prancing somewhat delicately here and not interjecting himself, and this country, more full-square into the ongoing tumult? What a gift the Supreme Leader (yes Mr. Krauthammer, that is his title), to the Basij, to other reactionary elements, were Obama to proclaim that Moussavi was America’s candidate, and that we are firmly pitching our tent alongside his (make no mistake, despite attempting to elide this, this is what some of the neo-cons, at least those who purport to give a damn about the Iranian people—unlike the Ahmadi-Nejad cheer-leaders preferring a simple narrative to get to ‘bombs away’ asap—are essentially advocating). How much more quickly and easily would Moussavi and Co. be tarred foreign agents, with a possibly more gruesome crackdown by emboldened reactionaries likely resulting!
Apart from the neo-cons, there are more refined, sensitive voices like George Packer and the aforementioned Roger Cohen who are, and not to pigeon-hole, commenting arguably from something more of a ‘liberal hawk’ vantage point. Mr. Cohen writes:
A man holds his mobile phone up to me: footage of a man with his head blown off last Monday. A man, 28, whispers: “The government will use more violence, but some of us have to make the sacrifice.”
Another whisper: “Where are you from?” When I say the United States, he says: “Please give our regards to freedom.”
Which brings me to President Barack Obama, who said in his inaugural speech: “Those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
Seldom was a fist more clenched than in the ramming-through of this election result. Deceit and the attempted silencing of dissent are now Iran’s everyday currency. In this city of whispers one of the whispers now is: Where is Obama?
The president has been right to tread carefully, given poisonous American-Iranian history, but has erred on the side of caution. He sounds like a man rehearsing prepared lines rather than the leader of the free world. A stronger condemnation of the violence and repression is needed, despite Khamenei’s warnings. Obama should also rectify his erroneous equating, from the U.S. national security perspective, of Ahmadinejad and Moussavi.
Ahmadinejad is Iran’s Mr. Nuclear. He has rapidly advanced the program and, through preaching in every village mosque, successfully likened it to the nationalization of the oil industry as an assertion of Iranian nationalism. By contrast, Moussavi has not abjured the program, but has attacked Ahmadinejad’s “adventurist” and “delusional” foreign policy. These are essential distinctions.
Obama should think hard about whether this ballot-box putsch is not precisely about giving Ahmadinejad and his military-industrial coterie four more years to usher Iran at least to virtual nuclear-power status. He should also think hard about the differences in character: Ahmadinejad is volatile and headstrong, the interlocutor from hell, while Moussavi is steady and measured.
Shrugging away these distinctions like a dispassionate professor at a time when people are dying in the streets of Iran is no way to honor this phrase in his Inaugural Address: “Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.”
I admire Mr. Cohen and I can only imagine how one’s heart must stir reporting from the ground in Teheran these past weeks. But I must dissent from this caricature-like portrayal of an almost hapless, Adlai Stevenson like Obama speaking ineffective, academic-sounding sweet nothings from the sidelines. Nor was I as outraged by Obama mentioning that Moussavi’s policies—particularly on aspects of international policy to include the nuclear dossier—might not be hugely different than Ahmadi-Nejad's. Mr. Cohen can describe Ahmadi-Nejad as “Mr. Nuclear”, but Mr. Moussavi was essentially present at the creation of that program, and will not simply agree to junk Iran’s nuclear program, far from it. Indeed, he would arguably find it harder to make significant concessions here than Ahmadi-Nejad, with many hard-line clerics and others badgering him for any concessions from his right. And at the end of day, unless we are literally living a revolution as I write this that will unseat the Supreme Leader himself, let us recall he is ultimately the man who makes decisions on matters of maximal import like the nuclear issue. All this said, of course I would prefer Moussavi in power, the atmospherics surrounding the substance of the negotiations would improve, and this is not negligible. And to have an end to the noxious Holocaust questioning by Ahmadi-Nejad would certainly be very welcome. Not least, the people in Iran would have renewed hope for their future on myriad levels regarding the domestic policy front. But again, to side too openly with Moussavi is only to help the more reactionary elements!
Last, in comments to my own earlier post on Iran, there is a commenter who advocates more action, but more shrewdly, more here from a realist posture. This is perhaps the most compelling commentary I’ve seen advocating for a more proactive U.S. stance (though ultimately I remain unconvinced):
The Obama administration may not be able to prevent any of this. What it can do is take advantage of the political problems the Iranian regime has brought on itself. This doesn't just mean deploring violence and expressing admiration for large peaceful demonstrations. It should also mean pointing out the things that helped make undermine Ahmedinejad domestic popularity -- for example, his incompetence in managing economic policy -- and which America had nothing to do with. It should mean noting the divisions among senior Iranian clerics, some of whom were major figures in the revolution and who have called the election results illegitimate. It should above all mean depicting Iran's ruling powers as the people seeking trouble inside Iran and out. A month ago this would have been impossible. Right now it's imperative. There is some risk in the current situation for the United States, but there is more opportunity. A regime hostile to this country has put the ball on the ground; it's fine to look around long enough to figure out where the ball is, but the Obama administration needs to pick the damned thing up.
But I ask this commenter, what will our highlighting “divisions among senior Iranian clerics” do for the protestors on the ground, and the larger reform movement? Or even remonstrating Ahmadi-Nejad for having an incompetent economic policy (we here in the U.S. are running a spectacular one, of course!). And what of this commenter’s contention that: “(i)t should above all mean depicting Iran's ruling powers as the people seeking trouble inside Iran and out.” Haven’t we been doing this, already, for years and years, indeed, a score and half? And what a wondrous policy it has been, highly effective too! So I’m happy to “figure out where the ball is”, and “pick the damned thing up”, but in what specific manner, and to what specific ends?
At the end of the day there are issues of major national import, to include the Arab-Israeli peace process (see Hamas/Hezbollah), the nuclear issue, Iraq, Afghanistan, and more, that we need to discuss with the Islamic Republic of Iran. I ask you, can we afford to put aside any dialogue for another four long years? If Ahmadi-Nejad prevails, and we engage in a a strong, sustained condemnation of this regime, won’t we risk essentially closing the door to any discussions, and thereafter, essentially being on a war-footing? Is this good for us? For the Iranian people? For the region? The world? True, the carnage could reach such proportion we conclude a major suspension of possible talks is in order. As of this hour, we are all taking in the already grotesque, and possibly growing carnage in Iran. We are deeply repulsed and saddened, but we must exert caution admist these horrific events.
Meantime, some Europeans, notably the French perhaps most stridently so far, are screaming from the roof-tops about the election (which, hate to say and still at this late hour, none of us, I don't think, know for absolutely sure was rigged, or if so, to what extent), but as Philip Stephens points out in the FT, the Europeans are of course chomping at the bit in “inverse proportion to their willingness to act”, given the ultimate fecklessness we are drearily accustomed to when it comes to EU foreign policy, despite the frequent, merrily entertaining show-boating. Congress too is in a brewing tizzy, passing resolutions as a matter of great urgency (was it Molly Ivins who once quipped she could always tell when the Texas legislature was in session because every village in the state reported its idiot missing?). None of this hapless jaw-boning is surprising, of course, but it's worth noting only to point out none of it is helping the protestors on the ground any, and could yet come to hurt them.
No matter. As the blood flows in the streets of Teheran, the pressure will continue to build on the Obama Administration to do something more. Make no mistake, if a Tiananmen style crackdown ensues, we must condemn it, and loudly. We must reappraise the timing and manner of going forward negotiations. Iran policy will need to be re-calibrated on multiple fronts. And I will be even less hopeful for any going forward diplomatic successes, with an increasingly sclerotic, repressive, insecure regime hanging on now well beyond its time. But we should not be, in a fit of ennobled but deeply misguided passion, engaging in actions like having President Obama directly contact Moussavi, or delivering a taped message to the Iranian people, and so on. For these actions will be turned on the backs of the people like the young woman massacred in cold blood today, and in short order. While those here advocating something be done might feel morally superior as they spout such prescriptions from the comforts of far-away New York and Washington, the greater blood likely to be spilled should such policy routes be followed will be on their conscience, not those of us counseling against such shallow recklessness masquerading as plausible foreign policy.
Last, to answer this tortured woman’s hauntingly beautiful query which is the subject line of this post, ‘where is this place that we are only screaming to the world with our silence’? It is, to be sure, a horrible place tonight, but let her and us seek some solace in knowing that the behavior of the ruling Mullahs today will ultimately likely help precipitate the death of this regime, if not immediately, with the passage of some time. And, ironic and hard to accept during this emotional time as it may be, we will hasten that time likely by doing less, rather than more. Again, an edict to keep in mind here: first, do no harm. The President, I believe, understands this. Hopefully more of his fairer critics will too in the coming days, which will be highly charged ones, I know.
MORE: My quick takes on Obama's statement here.
Posted by Gregory on Jun 20, 09  | Comments (10)  | PermaLink
June 17, 2009
THE SITUATION IN IRAN
Before turning to a brief analysis of some possible scenarios in Iran going forward, let us begin by acknowledging none of us (really, it is true!) can genuinely know what exactly is happening in Iran now several days into this remarkable crisis. Iranian politics have always been tremendously opaque, and the situation unfolding now, despite so evocative, hugely moving scenes we are all witnessing through the vistas of blogs, YouTube, and Twitter (indefatigably being collated with unparalleled passion, at least in the U.S. blogosphere, by Andrew Sullivan), is no exception. No one can yet say definitively, for instance, that Ahmadi-Nejad didn’t win the election, even comfortably. This is not to say he might not have won by a much smaller margin, but regardless we cannot know with certitude as of this writing. On the other hand, it is possible that Mir Hossein Mousavi took this election by a mammoth land-slide, and this was the most brazen electoral theft and effective coup d’etat we have yet to witness in the new millennium. Again, we cannot know with unimpeachable definitiveness either way or whether even it was more an outcome somewhere in between, as is likelier.
Still, we can strive for some educated analyses and/or guesses, despite some of our strong suspicions arising only from what is more by way of circumstantial evidence, at this stage, than concrete determinative fare. The fact, for instance, that Mr. Mousavi is of Azeri background does render his relatively weak performance in certain Azeri areas of Iran suspect (if not a slam-dunk case of foul play, as has been pointed out not unfairly here, as Ahmadi-Nejad speaks Azeri quite well, has served on behalf of some of these provinces, and has proven a skilled campaigner with this population segment on occasion). Ditto some of the strong Ahmadi-Nejad polling numbers in the larger, urban centers raise suspicion. Analysts like Juan Cole, among others, have made reasonably strong cases here, to include debunking some the related notion of some massive schism as between North versus South Teheran, say, with Karim Sadjadpour making similar points. And yet, as credible and recent polling data showcase, Ahmadi-Nejad has, like it or not, continued to enjoy strong support among large swaths of the Iranian polity, though here too, Gary Sick makes the very fair point the poll in question was taken somewhat in advance of the purported Mousavian Green Wave (or was it a “surge”, that word again?). Then there is as well the sense that much of Iran’s youth would be far less inclined to vote for Ahmadi-Nejad, but here again, the record is mixed as this op-ed (related to above linked poll) discusses.
My point? Not only are Iranian politics notoriously byzantine, but parsing these electoral tea-leaves is no simple matter. All the above being said, however, my gut and heart and yes, even head, tell me this election, if not stolen, was a whole lot closer than the regime tried to have interested parties believe, at minimum (though I must confess sometimes I think Ahmadi-Nejad might have, only just, eked out a slight victory, though the ostensible gross rigging should render any such victory, had it even occurred, null and void, at least in any equitable system). And while Iranian elections have always been subject to such machinations, there was something here that smelled too brazen and over-the-top, not only to us here in the arm-chair classes sitting in far-away Manhattan and Georgetown, but much more important, to many thousands if not millions on the ground itself, living daily this tumult, contributing apparently to a quite persuasive feeling among many on the street that the regime was treating them like credulous, half-asleep ‘sheep’.
Why was this handled so ham-handedly, one wonders? While speculative, this is perhaps because some of the more ultra-conservative key Governmental interests were possibly seeing in the late-breaking electoral momentum a material and rapid up-tick in Mousavi’s support, and not least given the seeming ‘color revolution’ undertones (or counter-revolutionary, I guess), through the resultant over-reaction, gamed the election far too crudely (one senses the street protests would have been less massive and protracted, after all, the worst such disturbances in Iran since the 1979 Revolution itself, had the more typical Persian penchant for subtler action been taken, via say Ahmadi-Nejad only the victor by a thin margin, even if fraud were suspected, rather than this far cruder spectacle that seems for well too many to have appeared a grossly large-scale, overly blunt, and particularly galling gaming of the results).
Beyond this, one can’t help feeling that, mostly perhaps as a result of the sheer demographics of the mushrooming youth quotient in Iran, there is increasing fatigue with the now 30 year old Islamic Revolution, so that something profound has changed in the country. Put colloquially, there appears to be, certainly in large swaths of towns like Teheran, Isfahan and Shiraz, a collective shriek emanating: "enough, basta, no more”! Indeed, one senses real fear among some harder-right quarters of the regime, despite the Supreme Leader’s brave face on ‘divine victory’ and Ahmadi-Nejad’s smug (but still somewhat nervous) body language of late. Indeed, it was very revealing to witness the Supreme Leader’s abrupt volte-face with the recount ordered (albeit only a partial one) by the Guardian Council, if of course we can be far less sure of how transparent such a soi disant recount will prove. In short, we are sensing here an increasingly sclerotic regime, growing clumsy in this new age of Twitter and Facebook, being forced to back-track some after what was likely a gross over-reach born of these growing insecurities.
What of the road ahead? Very likely this recount is just a ploy for time, with elements in the regime hoping the streets quiet after the immediacy of the purported mass fraud fades. We know already they will begin complaining of “foreign” elements intruding on the election, the better to unleash false bogey-men and help fan the flames for a greater clamp-down (this despite the Obama Administration’s quite expert balancing act so far—imagine Sarah Palin weighing in on Meet the Press!--albeit I am not sure I would have personally had State Department officials, even junior ones, reaching out to Twitter and asking them to push back a regularly scheduled maintenance, as while apparently a routine, not hugely controversial intervention, it could nonetheless become fodder for propagandists in Teheran, but perhaps I am making too much of this). Also, overly strong allegations by too many international powers that electoral modalities were corrupt (at least without better proof) will serve to render more defensive a regime already quite insecure, which in turn could lead to much more bloodshed if a wider crackdown is ordered, so again, I would caution mostly silence be our watchword as events play out here (absent some Tiananmen scenario in Teheran, at which time all bets are off and we must be very clear in our denunciations, though alas, perhaps not wholly cut off the prospects of a re-positioned negotiation track on issues critical to our national security sometime in the future), as this is a matter in the main for the Iranian polity to sort out, not us here, despite the so justifiable passion these profound events cause many of us witnessing important, and often inspiring, history.
While we will all doubtless monitor these twists and turns in the coming days and weeks (other possible scenarios include a power-sharing arrangement coming out of a recount, with Ahmadi-Nejad and Mousavi sharing key portfolios, or far less likely, a huge retreat by the regime handing the election, on further reflection--or recount, so to speak--to Mousavi), one thing appears certain, there is a confluence of new elements in Iranian society (not only youth and students, but some in clerical, labor and security circles) that do not necessarily owe any profound allegiance to Ayatollah Khamenei, so that one espies something of a generational struggle underway, with an acute desire for greater change gaining strength among many (to be sure current players like Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, reportedly caucusing with some key clerical actors possibly minded to be anti-Ahmadi-Nejad, or nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, so far evidently continuing to signal fealty to Khamenei, remain key actors in all this, meaning veterans on the scene are certainly playing their roles too).
And while Mousavi would toe the nuclear line pretty much every bit as hard as has and would still Ahmadi-Nejad (let us not forget this amidst all the dramatic events), on wide-ranging domestic policies, and at least the atmospherics surrounding Iran's international diplomacy, a material change would result, though any dialogue w/ the U.S. would remain very hard slogging. Regardless, none of us have a crystal-ball, and cannot know yet how these events will unfold, whether a dramatic dimunition in some fashion of Ahmadi-Nejad's power (and thus Khamenei's, despite whatever face-saving measures would be employed), or more depressing, a return to some variant of the status quo ante.
Still, something has changed, permanently, and it appears the days of the Islamic Revolution, at least in its current increasingly outdated, reactionary form, might well be numbered, with Mousavi and the social forces he’s unleashed something of a Thermidorian reaction, against the excesses of Ahmadi-Nejad’s overly aggressive international stances which have caused significant isolation, crude populist policies that have proven, in the main, economically self-defeating, and increasingly belligerent and dismissive domestic postures, causing ever growing resentments to fester and now erupt. To allow this positive process to take further root, my strong instinct again to stress is that we resist very much here in the U.S. cheerleading sharper epingles being aimed at the Supreme Leader from President Obama’s bully pulpit (for make no mistake, criticism of the handling of election is direct criticism of him), lest this back-fire on us, or worse, the people bravely protesting on the streets.
Last, and I hope related so as not to be tangential, just a few words on the raging debate in the blogosphere. I have seen friends and/or writers with whom I very often agree, notably Andrew Sullivan and George Packer, deride Flynt Leverett (and his wife Hillary Mann, whom full disclosure I am acquainted with) as “​Ahamadinejad’s useful idiot” (Andrew), or accusing that their widely read op-ed is rife with “perverse interpretations, narrow legalisms, and ill-informed suppositions” (George). Perhaps the unfortunately shallow, cheaply provocative title of their op-ed helped lead to such broad-sides "Ahmadinejad won. Get over it", but I must say, I find it highly unfair to compare the Leveretts' in the same breath as, say, the execrable Marty Peretz, as George seems to here. The true villains, when it comes to Western bloviators, are those only too happy to see Ahmadi-Nejad win as it keeps the ‘narrative’ dumbed-down for facilitating the objectives of the ‘bomb Iran’ crowd, and they are quite a few of them, or somewhat related, assorted merry ignorants chastising Obama for having bungled his “3 A.M. moment”, not only getting the advisable policy prescription so deathly wrong, but also, to boot, resurrecting a particularly moronic portion of the recent campaign, which one might have hoped would have better been relegated to the dust-bin.

Posted by Gregory on Jun 17, 09  | Comments (11)  | PermaLink
June 04, 2009
OBAMA IN CAIRO
Barack Obama’s speech today in Cairo was a significant feat of public diplomacy, if not a great speech for the ages, say one where myriad lines will be quoted in depth many score years from now. Nor will it change the course of history, or even perhaps, materially alleviate anytime soon the deep divides and suspicions that have caused such tensions between the Western and Muslim worlds of late. But it was a very honest speech, in the main, and a very serious speech, one that not infrequently flirted with a certain impactful majesty of spirit, with its almost youthful optimism and earnest sincerity. And so it is a speech that must be applauded as representing the better angels of our collective human strivings towards continued progress.
The speech was interrupted some forty times with applause, and this by an audience well pre-disposed to be skeptical and cautious, but how could they not on occasion show their enthusiasm? Here was Barack Hussein Obama deftly employing (and pronouncing quite well!) words and phrases that did not emit easily—if at all—from many of his predecessors’ lips: salaam aleikum, the Qur’an, peace be unto them, zakat (though as Roula Khalaf points out in the FT, there was a small glitch to this seeming fluency when he referred to the hijab as the "hajib"). And while Mr. Obama was careful to reinforce his Christian bona fides, there stood a man in Cairo whose own father was not only from that very continent, but also of Muslim lineage. Even with such a gifted speech-maker as this President, there are times when the symbolism of the moment itself—a young, charismatic African-American President of part Muslim ancestry showcasing dignified respect to his hosts on a grand, international stage--transfixes perhaps more than the actual words being spoken.
But there were many words too. The speech ran just a few minutes shy of an hour, not atypical for Obama, but not a short foray either. It had as its main substance and center-piece some seven issues that Obama announced to the Muslim world “we must finally confront together”. These issues, violent extremism, the Israeli-Palestinian issue, nuclear weapons, democracy, religious freedom, the rights of woman, and economic development, were book-ended by, at first, a scene-setting respectful ode to the host country and Islam, and to conclude, an impassioned cry for peaceful co-habitation among the world’s three great monotheistic faiths, that ‘we do unto others as we would have them do unto us’, this maxim eloquently described as “a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the hearts of billions”.
The early applause lines were perhaps obvious crowd-pleasers, but they were nonetheless highly effective in extending the hand of mutual respect and understanding. After the traditional greeting and mention of the Qu’ran, the next applause came when Obama allowed that Islam “carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment,” followed by more applause when Obama allowed that “Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality”. In short, the message was (put bluntly): we understand and appreciate your rich history and contributions to civilization, and that you are not all terrorist-abiding evil-doers. It is true that President George Bush had occasionally expressed such sentiments, notably at a Washington DC mosque not long after 9/11, but uttered by him the lines too often felt like bromides, place-holders, throw-aways, spoken by Obama, with more carefully chosen substance and specifics, the effect was realer, more dignified, even elegant.
The core content of the speech however contained no dramatic new policy directions. On the first issue of violent extremism (the word "terrorism" went purposefully unmentioned), the gathered listeners in Cairo were told we were going to well slog it out in Afghanistan (at times it felt as if almost in Pakistan too), a decision I believe the President will ultimately regret, even with his ballyhooed coalition of “forty-six countries" (sound familiar?). On Iraq an almost mea culpa like tone could be detected (of course on behalf of the prior Administration, and not his own), although Obama nonetheless stated he believed the “Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein”. And, welcome as it is, it is not new news that he has outlawed torture, and ordered the shuttering of Dick Cheney’s noxious penitentiary in the ‘tropics’ of Guantanamo.
On the Arab-Israeli front, the content was reasonably predictable, but not necessarily boiler-plate either. It was note-worthy in itself that Israel-Palestine was the second issue Obama tackled (immediately after violent extremism), notably before the Iranian nuclear dossier. But this emphasis too is not new, by appointing a respected veteran like George Mitchell as Special Envoy, we well knew already that Obama realizes this issue is a paradigmatic one through the region that must be remedied if material, and sustainable, progress is to be made region-wide towards greater stability. Many on both sides of the conflict will be unhappy with aspects of this portion of the speech, Gazans who heard only of “humanitarian” challenges, and not the brutal carnage of a few short months ago, some Israelis on the settlements issue. There will also be some frustration that so-called ‘final status’ issues like Jerusalem and right of return were not discussed in any depth, but all told, and given the overall political realities this President faces, I found it a reasonably adroit balancing act, signaling he was intent to deliberately pursue a serious peace process (and so, for example, final status issues can be broached later after more preparatory work, though I'm far from sure this incremental approach is ideal, as it provides arguably too much opportunity to scuttle forward progress by varied spoilers), in sharp contrast to the deep bungling of this portfolio by the previous Administration. And if some might have felt rumblings of discomfort that discussion of ‘shooting rockets at sleeping children’ was too crudely aimed as a moral criticism of only one side (regarding Obama’s point about the surrender of moral authority), overall again, and given the growing tension of late between Tel Aviv and Washington, the middle-ground Obama forged was ultimately more an umpire-like demand, delivered in reasonably soothing, pragmatic, almost professorial tones (albeit with hints of admonishment), that both sides adhere better to the Road Map (no panacea, of course, but the Administration has yet to unveil dramatic new initiatives). We might have done well worse than that, at least as a starting point.
The discussion of Iran will cause much debate too, but it seemed to me to have been drafted with a good deal of conscientiousness, again with the overriding goal of showing mutual respect (interestingly, Obama used the phrase “played a role” both to discuss U.S. involvement in the Mossadegh coup, as well Iranian “acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians”). This parallelism I suspect was meant as tacit acknowledgment that both sides had committed acts causing anger and even revulsion to the other, but accompanied by a renewed offer to look forward, not backwards. And yet, the answer to Obama’s statement "I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not”, namely that he is “hopeful” that “all countries in the region” will “share in…[the] goal” of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, somehow I believe this will ring somewhat hollow in parts of Teheran. So the issue isn’t going to simply disappear, and again, no particularly new policy ground was broken here. Last, while it was in another part of the speech, Obama issued a powerful retort to much of Ahmadi-Nejad's blustery and cheap Holocaust rhetoric, a counter-point that will be further reinforced during his visit to Buchenwald tomorrow.
The speech risked meandering some after the ‘Big Three’ of, essentially, terrorism, Israel/Palestine and Iran, but even if at times one almost felt risking being subjected to an overly long laundry list a la State of the Union type addresses (digitize records, grow new crops, eradicate polio, science envoys, an entrepreneurship summit, and so on); there were still very effective lines interspersed within, as when Obama with subtleness ceased with the chest-beating American exceptionalism we far too often hear and spout, while still speaking legitimately to basic values of human dignity, stating that issues like the rule of law, equal administration of justice, transparency of Government, etc. were “not just American ideas, they are human rights," at which point the crowd peeled into its near thirtieth round of spontaneous applause.
In closing, after discussing the above mentioned seven issues, Obama painted his vision thus:
The issues that I have described will not be easy to address. But we have a responsibility to join together on behalf of the world that we seek -- a world where extremists no longer threaten our people, and American troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes; a world where governments serve their citizens, and the rights of all God's children are respected. Those are mutual interests. That is the world we seek. But we can only achieve it together.
Barack Obama speaks often of “mutual interests”. It is his inner Kennan, or Scowcroft. But this is no caricature of a cold-hearted realist looking solely at balancing state actors, reveling in Metternichian realpolitik. He has a passion for human improvement, a refined intellect, and high ideals. He speaks with eloquence, equanimity, and respect. Fundamentally, he is an optimist, one who looks forward (even if some of us wished he didn't quite so much on occasion). And so he really went to Cairo I think in his mind to help put a line under the past (arguably of course a conceit this is even achievable, but nonethless a laudable goal, particularly given some of the recent gross excesses of the Bush era), so as to beckon us to follow “God’s vision” that we “live together in peace,” in turn concluding his speech stating we make this our “work here on Earth.”
These are noble sentiments, but translated into the gritty environs and heavy baggage of this regional cauldron, they seem quite possibly quixotic and far-fetched. But we should allow ourselves at least enough faith to hope to be surprised by the results an Obama Administration might deliver. The President chose to go to Cairo too, ultimately, as a pragmatist, to extend a hand of mutual respect and comity in the very heart of the Arab Islamic world (after all, he could have given this speech in, say, Jakarta or Istanbul), so as to help ready the region to forge more fertile ground towards conflict prevention and resolution, all the while stressing the need for a collaborative approach. If there is much hard work ahead, I hope one can credit Obama this: he must know that poetical yearnings, even those purposefully crafted towards achievement of specific tactical objectives (such as short-term enhanced regional atmospherics), must nonetheless increasingly turn as the days pass to the hard decisions of actual governance and real-time crisis management. All this still awaits, but if an edict in this mine-field strewn arena might well be 'first, do no harm', this was accomplished by Obama today, even some good.

Posted by Gregory on Jun 4, 09  | Comments (12)  | PermaLink
March 12, 2009
A BRIEF (AND BELATED) WORD ON CHAS FREEMAN
UPDATED BELOW:
What can one say about Mr. Freeman's ill-fated appointment saga these past weeks? I've now been able to take a quick peek and take note of what some of the key blogospheric voices like Andrew Sullivan, Joe Klein, Glenn Greenwald, Daniel Larison, among others, had to say. In a word, what happened to Chas Freeman was repugnant, if I guess mostly predictable. As Larison writes:
What all of this tells me is that most of the criticism of Freeman on matters related to China was premature at best and was made without knowing very much about him, his views or his career. As to the questions of conflict of interest, the IG investigation would have resolved them one way or the other, but instead of waiting for an impartial and professional assessment of these matters the critics piled on with what were likely to have proved to be entirely baseless insinuations about Freeman’s integrity and accusations of working for foreign governments. As usual, character assassins typically reveal more about themselves than about the person they try to destroy.
Indeed. Incidentally, and lest anyone be concerned I've employed overly panegyrical tones re: Obama in previous posts of late (mostly because of the terror I felt at the hauntingly awful prospect of a Palinized putsch into the counsels of power), suffice it to say I have some disappointments, to be sure, which I hope to voice if I can come up for air sometime (both on the foreign and economic policy fronts).
And so it looks like I will need to add another now. After all, that Obama didn't deign to go to bat for Blair and Freeman, and instead we reportedly see the faux fevered calls from the Chuck Schumers to Rahm Emanuel helping scuttle things in the old Washington manner, well, it cheapens the Change Messiah imagery some, does it not?
As I said, more on other aspects later, but for now, I can only say Mr. Freeman on reflection will doubtless derive much comfort to be able to keep his keen and strategic voice at full-throttle as a private citizen, beholden to no Beltway muzzles or preordained red-lines, his own man, one whom fair-minded folks know well has maintained his honor and decency through this process, his opponents, far less so, I'm afraid, even those suddenly combing through Freeman's Tibetan and Tiananmen list-serv oeuvres with the voracious alacrity of born again human rights purists (many of these same ennobled watch-dogs far less concerned, if at all, by the recent years-long junking of the Geneva conventions, use of torture, and other such ostensibly passe Addingtonian/Yooesque fare).
Here's a snippet from Freeman I'd blogged earlier that struck me as very clear-sighted at the time, it's a pity we'll be prevented his counsel in digesting the nation's intelligence (adult supervision delivering tight, non-biased, rational work-product that ends up significantly helping define policy would have been greatly boosted by Freeman's presence in the job), and a pity too many of our best and brightest--even after the capsizing of Wall Street--steer clear of Washington exactly because of the cheap denigrations and empty spectacles we've just witnessed again with this tawdry episode.
Excerpt:
No country was then more widely admired or emulated than ours. The superior features of our society - our insistence on individual liberty under law; the equality of opportunity we had finally extended to all; the egalitarianism of our prosperity; our openness to ideas, change, and visitors; our generous attention to the development of other nations; our sacrifices to defend small states against larger predators both in the Cold War and, most recently, in the war to liberate Kuwait; our championship of international order and the institutions we had created to maintain it after World War II; the vigor of our democracy and our dedication to untrammeled debate - were recognized throughout the world. Critics of our past misadventures, as in Vietnam, had been silenced by the spectacle of our demonstrable success. This, our political betters judged, made the effort to explain ourselves, our purposes, and our policies through public diplomacy an unnecessary anachronism. The spread of global media and the internet, many believed, made official information and cultural programs irrelevant. Our values were everywhere accepted and advancing, albeit with some lingering resistance in a few out-of-the-way places. Our policies would speak for themselves through the White House and State Department spokesmen. Why not save the money, while simplifying the organization chart?
That was, of course, before we suffered the trauma of 9/11 and underwent the equivalent of a national nervous breakdown. It was before we panicked and decided to construct a national-security state that would protect us from the risks posed by foreign visitors or evil-minded Americans armed with toenail clippers or liquid cosmetics. It was before we decided that policy debate is unpatriotic and realized that the only thing foreigners understand is the use of force. It was before we replaced the dispassionate judgments of our intelligence community with the faith-based analyses of our political leaders. It was before we embraced the spin-driven strategies that have stranded our armed forces in Afghanistan, marched them off to die in the terrorist ambush of Iraq, and multiplied and united our Muslim enemies rather than diminishing and dividing them. It was before we began to throw our values overboard in order to stay on course while evading attack. It was before, in a mere five years, we transformed ourselves from 9/11's object of almost universal sympathy and support into the planet's most despised nation, with its most hateful policies. [my emphasis, for obvious reasons]
If you click the link you'll find more, much of it provocative, even on occasion, a tinge hot-headed. Which leads me to my last point, that Chas Freeman probably never could have--at least in this far more tedious era of technocrats climbing up the greasy pole to positions in the NSC and such--gotten a really top slot above things like Ambassador to Riyadh. He was too much an outsize personality, relative to this era of frequently mind-numbing ideological conformity, rife with group-think lick-spittles, ideological litmus tests, and assorted apparatchik-type dullards posing as 'experts'. We are the poorer as a nation for not having him in the job, to be sure, but deep down Freeman will be the richer for it. A small consolation, but I do wish it for him.
N.B. As I probably won't be back in this space again for several months, perhaps now is a good time to explain to readers why I've disappeared of late. As my revised bio indicates, there have been a couple changes in my life recently. First, the birth of a son, my second child. Second, I am currently enrolled in an Executive M.B.A. program at Columbia Business School, to help diversify my legal background (I'd always wanted to have a joint J.D.-M.B.A.). Given a demanding full-time job, busy family life with two children, what is a fairly rigorous M.B.A. program on weekends, not to mention the frenetic pace of life in Manhattan generally, you can see how--while it was always challenging to begin with--writing anything consistently in this space now given the above is simply impossible. Still, you might keep me book-marked if inclined, I will probably still try to comment every now and again, and once I've concluded some of the extracurriculars and the children are a bit older there may be some windows for more consistent production here. Best to all.
UPDATE: I have been having some technical problems with some more recent posts not staying on the main page. Regardless, this post helpfully includes a personal update that explains why new posts will be very limited for the foreseeable future, so likely makes most sense to have up as lead item for now. Time/tech issues permitting however I will try to get the old posts back up too. Apologies.
Posted by Gregory on Mar 12, 09  | Comments (6)  | PermaLink
January 22, 2009
WHAT WOULD REAL--RATHER THAN RHETORICAL--CHANGE IN U.S. FOREIGN POLICY LOOK LIKE?
It is hard to overstate the immense occasion that is Barack Hussein Obama’s inauguration as the 44th President of the United States. His name alone stuns, at least as that of a U.S. President, the surname eerily similar to the West’s post 9/11 arch-villain Osama bin Laden, his middle name the very surname of the dethroned Iraqi strongman. Throw in his status as the first African-American U.S. President since inception of the Republic and it is little wonder the whole nation (indeed the world) paused to marvel, not only at the momentous sight of this man taking the oath of office, but also America’s near awe-inspiring ability to re-invent itself.
So there is a sense of profound optimism that real change is afoot, if couched by a subtext of fear given the massive economic challenges facing the incoming Administration. And yet partly because of these very economic challenges—and the consuming efforts that will need to be directed towards alleviating them--one is concerned the scope of change required in the foreign policy realm may not prove quite as dramatic as necessary, perhaps with President Obama not being able to devote as much attention to same as he might otherwise.
Below I list six critical areas for Obama and his foreign policy team’s consideration, that is, if we are to move beyond the merely rhetorical (if inspirational-sounding) change, to the real thing, meaning a truly fresh start for American foreign policy after the profound strategic blunders of the Bush era.
1) Don’t Let Afghanistan Become Your Administration’s Iraq
The Iraq/Afghanistan narrative has become too trite these past years during the seemingly permanent election season. It goes something like there was a “good” war (Afghanistan) and a “bad” one (Iraq). Rapid de-escalation from the Mesopotamian morass is required, not only to hit a strategic ‘re-set’ button of sorts in the center of the Arab Middle East, but also the story has it, to allow for more man-power to be channeled to Afghanistan. While I agree with the former statement, I disagree with the latter one. And yet, too few skeptics in positions of influence question the wisdom of ratcheting up our involvement in Afghanistan (I’ve espied a few individuals like Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jim Webb, perhaps several others).
Here’s why it’s not such a no-brainer to march tens of thousands of reinforcements into the wilds of Afghanistan. Counter-terrorism is not nation-building. Retention of counter-terror surgical strike capacities and requisite intelligence-gathering capabilities can be maintained via a modest presence in key cities like Kabul, perhaps too temporarily bases like Bagram as we nonetheless move to phase them out, ‘over the horizon’ forces, drone strikes, a heightened ‘train and equip’ effort for the Afghan Army, and the like. U.S. marines should not be dying to try to de-Talibanize, if we might call it that, remote portions of the Pashtun south of Afghanistan. Why? First off, it’s a losing battle. The presence of foreign troops (like it or not, they are widely viewed as occupiers) only serves to further radicalize local Afghans (have the experiences of the Soviets, and before them, the British—thought us nothing?). Second, al-Qaeda is mostly scattered in parts Pakistan, rather than portions of Afghanistan where Marines are operating. And, even if not, or they move too freely back and forth, query: what was it about the 9/11 hijackers, say, that made it so critical that they’d enjoyed a safe-haven in Afghanistan? Was this safe haven needed to allow some of the hijackers to attend flight school in Florida, say, as former UK diplomat Rory Stewart has quipped? Can one only learn the finer usages of box-cutters—or more ambitious chemical and biological schemes for that matter—in far-away Afghanistan (to the contrary, one might argue it’s much harder in such parts, rather than in more advanced societies with easier access to the relevant technologies etc.)?
In fact, our most worrisome terror threats are probably far afield from Afghanistan, no matter how intellectually consuming and fodder for myriad think-tank ‘studies’ the latest folly-like fantasy of turning Afghanistan into a modern state might be (perhaps we can turn it into a Pakistan, say, albeit even this relatively ‘modest’ goal would require hundreds of thousands of men, tens upon tens of billions dollars—perhaps some TARP funds can be deployed?—as well as decades plus of far too many G.I.s on the ground). Put simply, any rational cost/benefit analysis should have us, not only forging and speedily implementing a responsible exit strategy from Iraq, but also accomplishing the same in Afghanistan. As I’ve said, the realer threats instead persist in Internet cafes and empty store-fronts in portions of the Parisian banlieu, the fringes of East London, and so on.
The alternative Mr. Obama confronts? Doubling-down for the long haul in a counterinsurgency effort all but doomed to failure, this in a country far larger and with more difficult terrain than Iraq, with NATO slowly but likely inexorably being torn asunder as too few other member states—certainly their populations—really believe in the ‘mission’, ultimately. And they are right not too, as we largely accomplished it already when al-Qaeda mostly scattered into parts South Waziristan in neighboring Pakistan, where last I checked no one sane was calling for a sustained nation-building effort, or alternately, an on the ground, years-long, robust counter-insurgency effort.
Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke is an immensely talented negotiator—with few able to cajole, harrumph, corral, threaten, bluster as relentlessly as he. In the context of his new role for Afghanistan and Pakistan matters I would hope that some of that relentless energy is spent—not having us sucked deeper into the Afghan counter-insurgency with Holbrooke thereby also spending precious time with the proverbial cup out for more NATO forces in varied European capitals, but rather, focused on helping stabilize critical parts of each country (say Kabul, Jalalabad, Peshawar and even Islamabad, for instance), while not forgetting to think about high level mediation efforts over Kashmir. A deal between India and Pakistan over that issue—however unimaginable it might seem from where we sit today—would go a long way towards de-radicalizing large swaths of Pakistani opinion, and help allow for a possibly viable rapprochement between New Delhi and Islamabad, while assisting our anti-terror efforts in Pakistan at the same time. A man of Holbrooke’s talents should be focused more on such issues, in my view, rather than spending too much time getting knee-deep with the Generals on a counter-insurgency effort I believe destined to fail.
This being said, we cannot underestimate how our presence--not to mention varied rhetoric and policies emitting from Washington during the Bush years--has helped contribute to an intensification of Taliban efforts, on both sides of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border (see this piece for vivid insights into the gravity of the situation, including how Pakistani Chief of Staff Kiyani is reticent to open up a second anti-Jihadi front in Punjab given he has his hands full in the Northwest Frontier Province, or NWFP, another reason incidentally Holbrooke should not forget the Kashmir issue as part of his mandate), so that I would stress again important cities and key populations centers like Kabul and Peshawar must be better protected, the former by NATO forces for the time being (as we continue to train and equip the Afghan Army), the latter where we should certainly be liaising with the Pakistanis as very closely as possible so as to monitor the efficacy of their efforts in strategic areas like Peshawar. This more limited mandate is at least a more realistic prescription than trying to convert 'hearts and minds' in a protracted counter-insurgency deep in the Pashtun heartlands.
2) De-Mystify Al-Qaeda, It’s Not All That
This young, charismatic new President has a near unique chance to captivate the world, more than any of his predecessors since at least John F. Kennedy. Imagine a major speech in Jakarta showing real sensitivity to the arrayed hundreds of thousands that this new African-American President whose middle name is Hussein understands that the phrase “global war on terrorism” (or ‘war on terror’, which the new President apparently is still employing) sounds far too much like a substitute for a “global war on Islam” to the billion plus Muslim faithful with whom we share this planet. Barack Obama can stand above the herd of typical politicians, and appeal not only to our better angels here at home, but across the world, as a reservoir of genuine good will exists for him to tap.
In this vein, there is no reason, Ahab-like, to get in the trenches obsessing about the GWOT and, in particular, Osama bin Laden. Robert Fisk is often derided in Western circles, but as a journalist with true regional expertise, courage and intensity, few can match him, as most of his fairer critics well realize. Here he is recounting his meeting with bin Laden in his gripping book “The Great War for Civilization”:
“Mr Robert," he began, and he looked around at the other men in combat jackets and soft brown hats who had crowded into the tent. "Mr Robert, one of our brothers had a dream. He dreamed that you came to us one day on a horse, that you had a beard and that you were a spiritual person. You wore a robe like us. This means you are a true Muslim." This was terrifying. It was one of the most fearful moments of my life. I understood Bin Laden's meaning a split second in front of each of his words. Dream. Horse. Beard. Spiritual. Robe. Muslim. The other men in the tent were all nodding and looking at me, some smiling, others silently staring at the Englishman who had appeared in the dream of the "brother." I was appalled. It was both a trap and an invitation, and the most dangerous moment to be among the most dangerous men in the world. I could not reject the "dream" lest I suggest Bin Laden was lying. Yet I could not accept its meaning without myself lying, without suggesting that what was clearly intended of me - that I should accept this "dream" as a prophecy and a divine instruction - might be fulfilled. For this man to trust me, a foreigner, to come to them without prejudice, that was one thing. But to imagine that I would join them in their struggle, that I would become one with them, was beyond any possibility. The coven was waiting for a reply.
Was I imagining this? Could this not be just an elaborate, rhetorical way of expressing traditional respect towards a visitor? Was this not merely the attempt of a Muslim to gain an adherent to the faith? Was Bin Laden really trying - let us be frank - to recruit me? I feared he was. And I immediately understood what this might mean. A Westerner, a white man from England, a journalist on a respectable newspaper - not a British convert to Islam of Arab or Asian origin - would be a catch indeed. He would go unsuspected, he could become a government official, join an army, even - as I would contemplate just over four years later - learn to fly an airliner. I had to get out of this, quickly, and I was trying to find an intellectual escape tunnel, working so hard in digging it that my brain was on fire.
"Sheikh Osama," I began, even before I had decided on my next words. "Sheikh Osama, I am not a Muslim." There was silence in the tent. "I am a journalist." No one could dispute that. "And the job of a journalist is to tell the truth." No one would want to dispute that. "And that is what I intend to do in my life - to tell the truth." Bin Laden was watching me like a hawk. And he understood. I was declining the offer. In front of his men, it was now Bin Laden's turn to withdraw, to cover his retreat gracefully. "If you tell the truth, that means you are a good Muslim," he said. The men in the tent in their combat jackets and beards all nodded at this sagacity. Bin Laden smiled. I was saved. As the old cliché goes, I "breathed again". No deal.
Perhaps it was out of the need to curtail this episode, to cover his embarrassment at this little failure, that Bin Laden suddenly and melodramatically noticed the school satchel lying beside my camera and the Lebanese newspapers partially visible inside. He seized upon them. He must read them at once. And in front of us all, he clambered across the tent with the papers in his hand to where the paraffin lamp was hissing in the corner. And there, for half an hour, ignoring almost all of us, he read his way through the Arabic press, sometimes summoning the Egyptian to read an article, at others showing a paper to one of the other gunmen in the tent. Was this really, I began to wonder, the centre of "world terror"? Listening to the spokesman at the US State Department, reading the editorials in The New York Times or The Washington Post, I might have been forgiven for believing that Bin Laden ran his "terror network" from a state-of-the-art bunker of computers and digitalised battle plans, flicking a switch to instruct his followers to assault another Western target. But this man seemed divorced from the outside world. Did he not have a radio? A television? [my emphasis]
Doesn’t bin Laden feel, well, small? And remember, this is in 1997, before the largest international man-hunt in history—still fumbled, alas—was in motion. Osama is probably even more desperate for news clipping these days, I’d think. Obama should keep him small and getting smaller, which is to say, not dignify him with any specialness (this is not to say U.S. forces should still not energetically be searching for him, but we should not elevate this mission to some special level of import in our public discourse, for instance, Ambassador Holbrooke should make very clear his Afghanistan-Pakistan mandate goes far beyond ‘bringing to justice’, to use an oft-used phrase, UBL). He has become yesterday’s man, even if he is alive (which I’m not certain he is), one can well imagine him barely cognizant of the events of the day, perhaps until weeks or months later, a vanishing specter we should not dignify with too great attention.
All this said, let us agree with the new President who said during his inaugural speech: “(f)or those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror . . . we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.” There is no doubt the perils we face on the terror front remain very real, and surely the intelligence briefings Obama has already been receiving during the transition period and now in office bear this out to some degree, but I am asking for some perspective, and that we not put Osama bin Laden on the same pedestal as we’ve done these past years, if understandably originally, emerging from the trauma of 9/11.
Beyond this, I am also suggesting that we re-order our national priorities so that, to be sure, combating extremism (in whatever manifestations) remains front and center, but that the sine qua non of U.S. foreign policy not be carried forward or advertised as part and parcel of the ‘global war on terror’. There are too many other threats to confront, and it is overly convenient to rebrand al-Qaeda’s brand of terrorism as the new ‘ism to replace communism and fascism as decades long center-piece of this country’s entire national security apparatus, which to my mind would prove too much of a distraction from the many other pressing challenges which confront us as well.
3) Resuscitate the Middle East Peace Process, But For Real This Time
The Middle East Peace Process, or lack thereof, seems everyone’s favorite topic, whipping-horse, perennial bugaboo—almost always approached with too much emotion and too little reason—by whomever is chiming in with their (usually grossly biased) views regarding same. Indeed, have we not all become tired of the various theories and clichés: ‘The Road to Jerusalem Runs Through Baghdad’, or is that the ‘The Road to Jerusalem Runs Through Teheran’, or perhaps Damascus, and so on? The platitudes and agenda-ridden sloganeering fatigues, with some wanting to prioritize neo-con like militarism via threats of regime change in Iran (and Syria), and others stressing that the Arab-Israeli conflict—were it to be solved—would serve as some region-wide panacea, so that Pavlovian-like ‘peace-processing’ is needed, nothing more, damn the intentions of the ‘bad guys’ on the ground (while I of course sympathize much more with the latter view, I am only pointing out that there are various other critical challenges that wouldn’t disappear the day after even a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal were inked, to include Iraq, Iran, Kashmir, and more).
What is nonetheless clear, however, as much as some would like to wish it away, is that the Arab-Israeli conflict acts as a toxin materially hampering forward progress in the wider region—while radicalizing tens of thousands, such as Mohamed Atta, to take one prominent example. Meantime the outgoing Bush Administration’s obsession (born of insecurity) to follow ‘ABC’ (“Anything But [Bill] Clinton”, e.g. no robust peace-making), isolate Arafat, forsake more of an ‘honest-broker’ role—while simultaneously airily obsessing about ‘free’ elections—all helped usher in Hamas’ rise to greater power in Palestine, with such radicalization further fanned by the war in Iraq.
All this, of course, hasn’t helped much. The result, the pitiable Annapolis process or not, is very clear to most if not all sober-eyed observers, which is to say, parts of the region are in flames or grappling now with Grozny-like misery, American leadership is at a depressing nadir (the French, Qataris, Turks, Egyptians and others have been vying to fill the vacuum, but none have any real influence where it counts—Tel Aviv—so that their efforts can only prove ultimately ineffective, and too often annoyingly poseur-like, frankly, particularly a recent spate of mostly feckless European interventions), the peace process in tatters and thoroughly moribund given this abject neglect, meantime the blood of far too many civilians needlessly lost in the recent conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza, Israel still without peace, of course, with her reputation near an all-time low internationally after the Gaza onslaught, and on and on.
(And so where were these United States these past 8 years, one asks? Mostly a bystander, with our former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice something of a Lilliputian in search of a legacy, uttering recently in a Washington Post exit interview “(t)here would have been no 1701 without me” (about the grossly belated Lebanon Resolution at the UNSC) or still, about Iraq, breathlessly relaying as if to showcase its democratic bona fides that Iraq even “declared Christmas a national holiday”. The mind still reels, now eight years into this horror show of massive incompetence masquerading as moral righteousness and ‘transformationalist’ diplomacy, or whatever its been called).
If we mean to cause real change then, we need to book-end this sorry chapter, and quickly. President Obama must immediately move to inject competence and strength into the uppermost reaches of American diplomacy, while also changing the substance and tone of America’s Middle East policy, not least, by recognizing the needs of both sides, to help restore our reputation as ‘honest broker’, rather than, in David Aaron’s Miller’s words, too often acting as “Israel’s lawyer.” (While Miller’s op-ed title might sound somewhat inflammatory to some, it is really anything but. Miller was merely calling for more pragmatic, even-handed handling of important negotiations, hardly controversial or incendiary fare, at least if one is sober-minded and interested in results-oriented diplomacy).
In this vein, I believe it a very positive signal that George Mitchell has been appointed special Middle East envoy (apparently with responsibility mainly for the Palestinian-Israeli brief, but also the Israeli-Syrian and Lebanese-Israeli tracks, all of which will doubtless demand much dialogue with the Egyptians and Saudis as well, in particular). I would recommend that Mr. Mitchell appoint a deputy (Dan Kurtzer, for example, a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel) bringing additional energy and more direct on the ground experience, to complement Mr. Mitchell’s gravitas, negotiating skills, and disciplined legal temperament, while also not being shy to fully use the Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs as well (to include the many talented and dedicated professionals in that Bureau).
And once the immediate, and inevitable, crisis management clean-up of the recent wreckage in Gaza is accomplished (first we need to help, if through proxies, mediate schisms as between Hamas and the PA, as well as more directly liaise with differing Israeli factions set to squabble mightily during the impending political silly-season there, where we may well end up dealing with the re-emergence of Prime Minister Netanyahu after the elections), thereafter the Taba precedent should be speedily used as launching pad, of sorts, with additionally other bold strokes considered, like asking the Israelis to free Marwan Barghouti, so as to help restore Fatah as credible counter-party to Hamas, and thereafter lead the negotiations on behalf of Palestine with the Israelis. Only a leader with charisma can close a deal of such magnitude and controversy, and Abu Mazen doesn’t have what it takes, particularly after Israel’s latest operation, given these grim (if woefully predictable) tidings.
In short it is high time to cease the hapless by-standing (pre-Annapolis), or alternately, the empty spectacle (Annapolis), and instead roll up our sleeves and get to the hard work of forging a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace without a moment’s delay, and with relentless energy (without getting bogged down necessarily in a months long series of anti-smuggling discussions with the Egyptians, in large part a waste of time given factors such as these, rather than focusing on the larger strategic picture). Such hard toil can and likely will pay-off (see Camp David, Madrid, Oslo, etc), but only if all instruments of American national power are used, and focus, intelligence and intensity are brought to bear consistently from the Presidential level on down, with pressure applied even-handedly to get to the (so elusive, but not impossible) goal-line. This, and follow-through, so that gains (as Madrid and Oslo) are not then frittered away. As I said, all things being equal, the appointment of George Mitchell alone is a strong start by the President and his Secretary of State, but the effort will need to be all hands on deck, hard-charging and even-handed (that phrase again), with bold ‘out-of-the-box’ strokes employed on occasion.
4) Iran: A New Paradigm, Moving Beyond “Carrots & Sticks”
It has become conventional wisdom to predict that the greatest (or at least most immediate) major foreign policy challenge awaiting the new President is that presented by the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is mostly of course because of the reasonably marked progress Iran is making on its nuclear program (though not quite as expedited as some would have it) and on this basis indeed makes sense as a major priority (though like General Abizaid and others of similar ilk have said, I am not persuaded we might not have to accept that the Iranians will ultimately either possess or have the capability to expeditiously produce nuclear weapons, so that aside from focusing solely on preventing same thought should also be devoted to how best to integrate such a capability into the regional security architecture, ideally without setting off an arms race including possibly the Saudis, Turks and Egyptians, and where a pledged U.S. security deterrent could play a strong role).
Obama has already made very clear he is keen to employ a new approach with the Iranians, and with some pull-back unfortunately having been signaled here and there (ironically, resulting from his campaign when then opponent Hillary Clinton took a more hawkish stance forcing Obama to retrench some) this nonetheless apparently still includes the prospect of direct negotiations without preconditions (leading up to Presidential level). Related and perhaps towards this end, I’d like to recommend this excellent article which has several key points, including: 1) don’t rush it (a major diplomatic push might well profit from waiting until after the impending Iranian elections), 2) link Iran negotiations to additional tracks beyond the nuclear issue to include Iraq and Afghanistan (each of where Iran can possibly be of some assistance to us where mutual interests converge, areas demanding fulsome dialogue and inquiry), and 3) employ a new tone in our discussions with Teheran.
I would add the following too. Additional tracks should be considered as well, meaning beyond the nuclear, Afghanistan and Iraq tracks, for instance, Iran’s role in supporting Hamas and Hezbollah. This track should not be included merely to scold and berate, however, but also to see if there is room for maneuver and collaboration (even if very limited) with the Iranians on the Arab-Israeli front (say liaison with Damascus-based elements of Hamas on new modalities for Hamas’ behavior in Gaza). Worth noting, a set-back on one track (say, Iraq, but more likely, the nuclear issue), should not result in freezing discussions on Afghanistan or the Middle East. Instead, an approach should be taken whereby dialogue is pushed ahead on all fronts as very much as possible—not necessarily to reach some likely chimerical ‘grand bargain’—but to better understand each parties’ ultimate red-lines, must-haves, etc. with regard to each individual track, thus facilitating making better informed strategic decisions regarding the overarching U.S.-Iranian relationship once a genuinely multi-faceted, good faith dialogue on all these issues has been sufficiently advanced.
Related, Secretary of State Clinton will need to give serious thought to whom will handle aspects of this dialogue, for instance, George Mitchell would seem the logical candidate to interface on Iranian issues as they related to Arab-Israeli peace, and Dick Holbrooke with regard to Afghanistan (as Iran is opposed to the Taliban and other Sunni extremists so can possibly be constructive there). And while I have heard rumors that a special Iran envoy might be appointed as well, we risk having too many envoys for one wider region, I fear, so that perhaps Secretary Clinton might take-up the Iran issue personally, as aided by appropriate Foggy Bottom and/or extant Special Envoy back-up, as necessary (frankly I’m tempted to have seen Holbrooke given the Iran mandate too, but then Iraq is left a bit off-kilter in neither of the two announced envoys bailiwick, so we will likely need to monitor how Clinton fills out the bench and better gauge logical responsibilities going forward).
Last, on Iran, we must not forget to employ a new tone in our conversations with the Iranians, something I’d advocated in the cyber-pages of this blog quite a while back
here, quoting the Iranian Ambassador to the UN about his displeasure about the usage of ‘carrots and sticks’ verbiage to describe Washington’s approach to Iran.
As the Ambassador put it:
If you deal with the other side as less than a human society, then don’t expect to have multiple outcomes. What I’m saying is that in Western terminology, concepts are used that would infuriate the other sides. Even the terminologies used by the United States in the liberal realist tradition—such as “carrot and stick”—are not meant for humans, but rather for donkeys. In studies of Orientalism, the Eastern part of the world is dealt with as an object rather than as serious, real human societies with longer, older civilizations with concerns and needs that have to be dealt with. [emphasis added]
It was therefore very gratifying to finally see prominent commentators like Pickering and Luers (full disclosure, I am acquainted and a fan of both men) making the same point in the pages of the NYRB:
A new policy also requires a new tone. Iran is a proud nation with roots in a centuries-old civilization; its insistence on being treated with mutual respect is not empty rhetoric. Continued denunciation of the regime will likely produce greater intransigence, especially as Iran enters its presidential campaign. Iranians bristle at the use of the phrase "carrots and sticks," which they associate with the treatment of donkeys and which in any case suggests that they can be either bought off or beaten into submission. More generally, the US government would do well to follow a first principle of diplomacy—when you want to change a bad situation, start by shutting up.
Not only Secretary Clinton, but the new President himself (who has used the ‘carrots and sticks’ phraseology, I believe, and in connection with Iran) might well profit from thinking through these subtleties of approach, perhaps with some luck paying real heed to them. It could make a difference towards getting to a break-through with the Iranians, at least certainly cannot hurt.
5) A New Approach to Russia?
Another area begging for real change in American foreign policy is our relationship with Russia. To start off strongly on a different foot, I would suggest a dramatic opening to the Russians whereby we signal we are contemplating revisiting so-called missile defense shield arrangements—at least to some extent and degree—in Poland and the Czech Republic (where we are moving along with interceptors and a radar station, respectively). Meantime my views on the Georgian fiasco are decently known in the blogosphere (see, in close chronological order, here, here and here), and I would suggest we not prioritize rushing, say, Ukrainian and/or Georgian NATO Membership Actions Plans, highly controversial given historic Russian interests in Crimea and the Caucasus.
There are critical issues where the Russians could be of significant assistance to us (notably nuclear proliferation issues, to include Iran, among many others) and nothing would be more effective to this end than signaling to the Russians that we are not simply hell-bent on extending some fictitious Pax Americana to the outskirts of Moscow and St. Petersburg via ‘encirclement’ on their southern underbelly (Georgia), and/or to their West (the missile defense issue in Eastern Europe)—which, like it or not, far too many in Moscow believe--rather than helping foster a high-level strategic dialogue with the Russians on these issues (having moved to put these particularly controversial issues on the table to signal our seriousness of intent about trying to forge a re-fashioned relationship).
Regardless, let us think seriously for a moment. Who really believes the Iranians, as if in some re-do of Islamic hordes charging the Gates of Vienna, are set to perpetrate missile strikes against Europe? And while it is true the Shahab-3 missiles have a range of some 1200 or so miles (enough to reach Bulgaria or Greece, say) do we really believe they are keen to attack Athens, Bucharest or Sophia? Or indeed if they roll out a Shahab-4 with longer-range in coming years, that Vienna or Berlin will suddenly be in their sights? Why would the Iranians do this? Please let us not pretend in ribald fashion because they are but ‘mad Mullahs’ or some such, with a collective suicide wish. As I said, this is farcical, and displays an ignorance of the complexities of Iranian statesmanship and the behavior of the Iranian nation-state.
Given this back-drop, we therefore might forgive the Russians not believing us that the true rationale for the contemplated missile shield system is really about Iran—or some other to be concocted Middle Eastern rogue hell-bent on lobbing missiles into central Europe--rather than as is more likely another 'legacy' containment tool aimed at Moscow. (Nor does it help, indeed it adds rather a good dollop of insult to injury, that such anti-missile shields are to be based in former Warsaw Pact nations under Soviet dominion not so long ago.)
Put simply, and at minimum, you would hope the incoming team would at least review both NATO enlargement and Eastern European missile shields anew for sense and impact on relations with Russia, as we have a major moment of opportunity with Moscow to re-fashion the relationship occasioned by the new American Administration having assumed power.
6) Guantanamo, Torture, and Looking Ahead Rather Than Backwards
Last but not least, real change would also mean shuttering Guantanamo and declaring unequivocally and without any ambiguity that the United States will no longer torture. It appears both goals are being followed by the new President, for which he should be lauded (though a more explicit statement that Army Field Manual interrogation practices will wholly apply also to the CIA might not be unwarranted). And while it would have been a more dramatic flourish to close Guantanamo within the first 100 days of his new Administration, it is understandable that there are several complexities and challenges to accomplishing same, some of which Matthew Waxman touches on here. This said all best efforts must be made to close Guantanamo within the first year of the new Administration, so that at least when the new decade is ushered in this gross stain on America’s repute will be no more. Indeed, and as has been vividly pointed out (hat tip:
Glenn Greenwald), this is Obama’s penitentiary now, alas, every day it remains open still.
But I write here, mostly, to broach Obama’s seeming unwillingness to prioritize analyzing whether war crimes or other illegal acts were undertaken by the prior Administration. First, a confession, Obama is a better man than this writer. His ability not to nurse grudges, his poise, his persistent optimism—we have seen it often already now. And second, he has said that Eric Holder will be the “people’s lawyer”, and certainly hasn’t indicated there will be a white-wash, and that whatever relevant evidence will be diligently analyzed. And yet, the emphasis has strongly been to move forward rather than look backwards, and while I understand the temptation of same, even some might argue, the wisdom (a perceived auto de fe could poison Obama’s attempts to position himself as a sunny Reagan of the center-left and there are myriad critical items on his agenda he doubtless thinks might be of even greater import than these war crime investigations, perhaps at least to the lives of ordinary Americans struggling without adequate access to health care, with jobs being lost by the hundreds of thousands, and the rest of a long laundry list of pressing issues). Still, however, there was something about the contempt shown by certain actors in the prior Administration (I am thinking less about Bush, whom I’ll confess I felt tinges of muted sympathy for as he hugged Obama with sincerity and wished him the best at the inaugural, in fairness too, he handled the transition reasonably well, and perhaps worth noting, the crimes committed were more often the acts of the real evil-doers who took advantage of his profound historical and constitutional ignorance) meaning men like David Addington, John Yoo, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, among others. We must at least ask that Eric Holder be allowed to do a ‘deep-dive’ into this dossier, and share his unfiltered findings with the American people, to the extent possible, so collectively we might better gauge the best way forward at the time. Let’s recall, after all, human beings died under American custody due to torture, quite a few of them, and this is therefore a tremendously grave matter, among other reasons too, meriting the most serious attention by the incoming Administration.
There are many other issues that would similarly present opportunities for real change and that I’d be keen to broach, but time and space constraints counsel ending here, rather than discussing Iraq (where a responsible draw-down needs to be implemented and the Baker-Hamilton report dusted off, as political issues will become increasingly important and problematic to its future, requiring major diplomatic efforts by ourselves and other interested parties), the far too ignored relationship with Latin America, particularly Brazil and Mexico, better managing an economic dialogue with China, a still rocky situation with North Korea, and putting Trans-Atlantic relations on a better footing, but to close, I would suggest a real departure point from the Bush Administration could well profit from some of the above recommendations, if only at least consideration of them, as they relate to Afghanistan, international terrorism, the Arab-Israeli peace process, Iran, Russia, and the legacy of the prior Administration’s torture policy.

NB: I should perhaps add a last word on Secretary of State Clinton, who after all, will be the person day-to-day charged with the managing of U.S. foreign policy for the new Administration. While I haven't necessarily been one of her biggest fans (I supported Obama during the primaries), and truth be told would have preferred another Secretary of State (like Gideon Rachman quipped a few months back, I would have preferred someone more "dull" for the job, not least after all the fevered missteps of the Bush Administration, and am a tad discomforted too that there is a seeming 'celebrification' of the Secretary of State slot these past years), one nonetheless cannot help admiring her sharp mind, strong work ethic and--accompanied by heavyweights like Mitchell and Holbrooke (and with Obama hopefully steering her away from stereotypical notions of 'toughness' and 'hawkishness' when inappropriate, see, for instance, Madeline Albright and "cojones")--she could well prove a superb leader at Foggy Bottom, and we might wish her only the very best as she embarks on this challenging new chapter in her career.
Posted by Gregory on Jan 22, 09  | Comments (7)  | PermaLink
January 12, 2009
OF WAR, AND TENT HOSPITALS
Via Andrew Sullivan, I came across this snippet from Jeffrey Goldberg:
I saw Sally Quinn, an adjunct member of my Torah study group, last night, and she had a smart idea: Why not erect a massive tent hospital in Sderot, staff it with Israeli army doctors, and treat the Palestinian wounded there? Israel is taking in some of the Palestinian wounded, but not enough of them. And Israel, as those of you who have been there know, has a lot of doctors. Sally's idea would be, at the same time, the right thing to do and a public relations coup. I told her I'm more cynical than she is -- that these sorts of sensible ideas don't get done, for whatever reason, but it would be nice to be proven wrong by the government of Israel.
This reminded me of a recent op-ed by Gideon Levy, who almost alone among high profile commentators in Israel has courageously been questioning the fundamental wisdom of Israel's operation in Gaza. Mr. Levy writes about his colleague Ari Shavit, but he could have just as easily been writing about, at least in this specific instance, Sally Quinn, or Mr. Goldberg, for that matter:
Rightists, nationalists, chauvinists and militarists are the only legitimate bon ton in town. Don't bother us about humaneness and compassion. Only at the edges of the camp can a voice of protest be heard - illegitimate, ostracized and ignored by media coverage - from a small but brave group of Jews and Arabs.
Alongside all this, rings another voice, perhaps the worst of all. This is the voice of the righteous and the hypocritical. My colleague, Ari Shavit, seems to be their eloquent spokesman. This week, Shavit wrote here ("Israel must double, triple, quadruple its medical aid to Gaza," Haaretz, January 7): "The Israeli offensive in Gaza is justified ... Only an immediate and generous humanitarian initiative will prove that even during the brutal warfare that has been forced on us, we remember that there are human beings on the other side."
To Shavit, who defended the justness of this war and insisted that it mustn't be lost, the price is immaterial, as is the fact that there are no victories in such unjust wars. And he dares, in the same breath, to preach "humaneness."
Does Shavit wish for us to kill and kill, and afterward to set up field hospitals and send medicine to care for the wounded? He knows that a war against a helpless population, perhaps the most helpless one in the world, that has nowhere to escape to, can only be cruel and despicable. But these people always want to come out of it looking good. We'll drop bombs on residential buildings, and then we'll treat the wounded at Ichilov; we'll shell meager places of refuge in United Nations schools, and then we'll rehabilitate the disabled at Beit Lewinstein. We'll shoot and then we'll cry, we'll kill and then we'll lament, we'll cut down women and children like automatic killing machines, and we'll also preserve our dignity.
The problem is - it just doesn't work that way. This is outrageous hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Those who make inflammatory calls for more and more violence without regard for the consequences are at least being more honest about it.
There is a lot of truth in what Mr. Levy writes above, and I urge commentators to honestly grapple with the issues he flags. This being said, I wish to be very clear. No country can tolerate frequent rocket attacks without punitive action being taken in response. This is true even when the fatalities have proven relatively low since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza several years back (I believe fewer than a dozen or so). And unlike the summer '06 war in Lebanon (which I addressed here, here and here at the time), it is quite likely that Israel's operation in Gaza may prove more successful, at least in the very short term. The topography in Gaza is more amenable, Ehud Barak is a more capable military leader than Amir Peretz ever was, and Hamas has neither the same stockpile of missiles (whether quantity or quality) nor level of training as enjoyed Hezbollah.
There is also the reality, of course, that Hamas militiamen have very little room to maneuver, much like the civilians in Gaza they are proverbial 'fish in the barrel' at this point (with the Egyptian border closed to boot). In addition, and even despite Condi Rice's terrific bungling of the cease-fire efforts surrounding the ill-fated Lebanon War (remember the gloried talk of 'birth pangs'?), there is arguably more of a carte blanche these past 15 plus days granted the Israelis than during the Lebanese fiasco (although the recent U.S. absention at the UNSC perhaps portends Israel's time for unfettered maneuver may be beginning to run out a bit, if for no other reason than the sheer scale of human misery ratcheting daily).
Throw in too the near total vacuum of power in Washington during the final days of the Bush-Barack hand-off interregnum, as well as Israel's hand being additionally advantaged by Mubarak's anti-Hamas stance (recall Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, an ardent thorn in Mubarak's side for decades), as well as Sarkozy's relative pro-Israeli tilt (he remains de facto European standard-bearer of late, even with France no longer holding the Euro-Zone Presidency), you might say Israel has played a pretty strong hand. In short then, Barak (along with Olmert and Livni) might really believe they are pursuing a reasonably successful operation, perhaps even beginning to praise themselves that victory may be nigh.
This however is most certainly not my view, for yet again (and as with the misadventure in Lebanon) the Israeli action is materially disproportionate to the threat being faced, thus reducing its ultimate prospects for success given a too heavy hand lending itself to further radicalization. I know, I know. Those who fancy themselves pro-Israeli scoff at the 'p' word (proportion). And yet true friends of Israel well realize that one cannot decimate terrorist or resistance movements through force of arms alone, even under the cover of phosphorus and half-ton bombs. Nor even fully eradicate the threat of rocket attacks, as Tzipi Livni seems to be signaling of late is the end-game marker the Israeli Government has set down for itself. Instead, you play into the hands of the radicals, while putting pressure on friendly governments through the region like Cairo and Amman forced to reckon with roiling bouts of popular anger, while not necessarily even having affected permanent changes to the security situation in the south of Israel given some of these strategic shortcomings.
And when you are operating in one of the densest areas on earth, matters surrounding the rights and wrongs of civilian casualties get very fuzzy indeed, in terms of allocating blame. For we can all agree, can we not, that a Hamas suicide bomber entering Israel to blow himself up amongst Israeli civilians in a pizzeria, say, is a terrorist. He posseses the specific intent to murder and cause mayhem to innocents, and coldly carries out his plans with all the horror this entails. But what of a bombing campaign so ferocious in an area densely packed with civilians—even when supposedly only targeting ‘militants’—that it is a virtual certainty that innocents will die, many of them? The serried ranks of the commentariat in this country making the rounds on mind-numbingly inane television news-shows have a pat answer, that is, it is unfortunate, but Hamas uses the population as ‘human shields’, or so we are told must be the case with any innocent that has been felled. It's Hamas fault, each and every time, you see? Thus the lines of morality that many argue can get quite blurred are instead unimpeachable, specific intent to kill civilians on the one hand (the Hamas suicide bomber say) is pitted against, not possible recklessness of scope of military action or even willfull misconduct in the heat of battle on occasion, but rather there can be no culpability or blame for the other side to the conflict, so that Hamas becomes responsible for all the IDF actions and ordinance too. But this is too convenient, I’m afraid. For example, let us for a moment ponder this grisly reportage from the NYT:
The story of the Samouni family has horrified many since Red Cross officials on Wednesday publicized their discovery of four emaciated Samouni children trapped for days in a home with the corpses of their mothers. The Red Cross said the Israeli military denied its paramedics access to the area for several days after the ground invasion began on Jan. 3, part of the offensive against Hamas that Israel says is intended to stop the firing of rockets into southern Israel.
Israeli officials said they were still looking into the Zeitoun episode. A military spokeswoman, Maj. Avital Leibovich, said Monday that the army had “no intention of harming civilians.” Hamas, which governs Gaza, “cynically uses” civilians for cover by operating in their midst, she said.
But some international aid officials are arguing that the plight of civilians in Zeitoun, as well as the shelling of a United Nations school where civilians had sought refuge, should be investigated as war crimes.
“Accountability must be ensured for violations of international law,” Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said in an address in Geneva to a special session of the Human Rights Council focused on Gaza. The council has a reputation for censuring Israel. Ms. Pillay is a respected South African judge who recently assumed the top United Nations human rights job, which is separate from the council.
Ms. Pillay said, “Violations of international humanitarian law may constitute war crime, for which individual criminal responsibility may be invoked.” She suggested that the council weigh dispatching a mission to assess violations committed by both sides.
The Israeli military has not said whether the strike on the house in Zeitoun was intentional or a mistake. In the case of the United Nations school, Israel has said that Hamas militants were firing mortars from a location near the school.
According to Ahmed and other witnesses interviewed at the hospital, soldiers came to several of the Samouni homes that make up a section of Zeitoun soon after the ground invasion started. They told family members to vacate their homes and to gather together in one home down the street. Ahmed said they were moved a second time as well, until nearly 100 of his relatives crowded into one house.
Soldiers searched and occupied the now-empty houses. The Zeitoun neighborhood is strategically located and is known to have many supporters of Hamas. Ahmed said the Israelis wanted to turn it into “a military camp.”
Samouni family members did not deny that Hamas militants operated in the area. A family member said there was no active Hamas resistance in the immediate vicinity, although militants were firing rockets at Israel a little more than a mile away.
At about 6 a.m. on Monday morning, Ahmed said, tanks started demolishing a wall of the house where the extended clan was sheltered. His father moved toward the door, presumably to warn the soldiers that civilians were inside, but the troops started shooting, he said.
The shooting then stopped, and the soldiers appeared to withdraw. But a short time later, three rockets and several shells hit the building and tore apart the rooms where his family was gathered.
Ahmed said he and his brother Yaqoub pulled blankets over their relatives and managed to shut the doors in an attempt to hide from the tanks and soldiers outside. Everyone was crying, he recalled, and he did not immediately realize the scope of the damage.
Some relatives, like Masouda Samouni, 20, Ahmed’s sister-in-law, managed to crawl out by themselves and arrived at the hospital that same day. A few hours after the attack on Monday, she recounted how she had lost her mother-in-law, her husband and her 10-month-old son.
At that time, witnesses and hospital officials believed that 11 members of the extended family were killed and 26 wounded, with five children age 4 and under among the dead. The first survivors who arrived at the hospital may not have been aware of the full extent of the disaster and apparently had not counted all those left behind.
Ahmed, rescued nearly three days later, named 27 relatives who died in the building where he was hiding; the Red Cross said three more corpses were found in a house nearby.
The survivors ate tomatoes, drank water and cooked noodles over a fire, but tried to avoid attracting the attention of soldiers in the area. Relatives who escaped repeatedly asked the Red Cross to send help, but Red Cross officials said their requests to respond to the emergency were rejected by the Israelis during the initial days of the siege.
It was 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday when help finally came, half an hour before the end of a three-hour pause in the fighting ordered that day by Israel to allow humanitarian aid and rescue workers to enter Gaza.
Antoine Grand, the head of Red Cross operations in the Gaza Strip, said in a telephone interview on Thursday that the first rescue team on Wednesday had to leave the dead and take out only the wounded, “horrible as that seems,” because they had only limited time and only four ambulances.
“We had no other choice,” Mr. Grand said.
He added that the ambulances had to stop on one side of an earth mound put up by the military. The team had to walk a mile to the houses and bring back the wounded in a donkey cart.
On Thursday, they went back to the same area and brought out another 103 survivors, three of them wounded.
A report issued by the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs on Thursday, based on telephone interviews with several members of the Samouni family, largely corroborated Ahmed’s version of events, saying about 30 people were killed when the house was shelled repeatedly. The report said the attack on the Samouni home was one of the “gravest incidents” in the Israeli campaign.
In another statement issued on Friday, the humanitarian affairs office emphasized that its report was not intended to render a legal verdict on the attack.
In a rare public statement on Thursday, the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross said it believed that in this instance, the Israeli military failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded. The delay in permitting entry to rescue services was “unacceptable,” it said.
The rescue team found “four small children next to their dead mothers in one of the houses,” the Red Cross said. “They were too weak to stand up on their own.”
It is all well and good to drop 'warning' leaflets urging residents to flee (but to where, one might ask?), to talk of funding and erecting tent hospitals, to have three-hour cease-fires that pass in a flicker to allow for another measly quotient of humanitarian aid to enter Gaza that is manifestly and woefully inadequate to the vast carnage and needs at hand. But the realities are far grimmer, are they not? There will soon likely be some 1,000 Palestinians dead (by Tuesday, at this rate?), many hundreds of them civilians, scores and scores of them children. Thousands more injured, some of them being carted about by donkey cart, literally, per the story quoted above. Children discovered helpless near their dead mothers, heart-wrenching in the extreme.
For what concretely realizable ends this ghastly suffering? To re-establish a 'new reality' in Israel's South? Mostly bunk, I'm afraid, as Hamas is all but sure to preserve at least some rocket-fire capacity, unless the IDF is ready to go into each and every back alley and basement of Gaza for another 60-90 days, in hand to hand fighting that would turn Gaza into a Grozny-on-the-Mediterranean, if it hasn't been already, or even worse. To show a re-invigorated deterrent to the 'neighborhood', notably Iran, after the Lebanon sortie that proved so ineffective? But the Iranians well know a campaign against Iran is of a magnitude wholly different by an exponential degree than against Gaza (so much so that even President Bush refused Israeli entreaties to pursue such an action), so they will not be particularly impressed.
Has real harm been inflicted on Hamas? Yes, to be sure, but could not similar ends have been achieved with less brutish force being employed, in better accord with international legal norms, with more humanitarian supplies let in? And must we hear of ‘shock and awe’ now each time a military campaign is launched (how horrid this phrase has become but braggadocio​-infused code for savage bombing campaigns showcasing technological superiority to devastating effect, too often in terms of the innocents slaughtered) where local gendarmerie are bombed to death in broad daylight, and targets whose legitimacy is questionable reduced to rubble? Again, is there not a more civilized sense of proportion that can be employed by the Middle East's strongest democracy so as to advance more calibrated actions and rational outcomes?
Look, what the Israelis are doing is no worse than similar suffering that has been unleashed by US forces (notably via aerial bombardments against erroneous targets causing 'collateral' damage, a matter too rarely discussed in this country where war is more of a 'pass the popcorn' phenomenon among the masses, and it would seem, most of our 'elites') in places like rural Afghanistan and parts of Iraq. We have been sucked into the Middle East gyre too, alas, as occupiers now of Islamic lands along with the Israelis. But little good will ultimately come of any of this and the President-Elect must focus now on diplomacy, not only for us, but also on behalf of our friends and allies as well. Too much blood is being shorn, and in too haphazard a fashion.
In Israel (and, to a lesser extent, the U.S.) a different war is being seen in print and television:
Overall, 13 Israelis have been killed since the Israeli military offensive began Dec. 27, and each death has received blanket media coverage, complete with family interviews and anguished funeral scenes.
Of the 13, four were killed by the persistent rocket fire from Gaza that Israeli officials say prompted the war. But even rockets that cause no injuries -- as is usually the case -- get extensive play on television. Benziman said that Channel 10 has camera crews stationed across the south, chasing down the remains of every rocket and going live when they find them. With an average of 30 or more rockets landing daily, rocket-chasing is a fixture of the prime-time schedule.
"Every minor injury is emphasized," said Arad Nir, foreign editor and anchor with Israel's Channel 2, the country's largest private broadcasting station. "Every incident that the soldiers are involved in is discussed at length."
The reason, Nir said, is not government pressure. It's what viewers want.
Israelis and Palestinians, longtime neighbors and adversaries, have in recent years begun to live far more separate lives. Since Israel pulled its troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005, Israelis have been prohibited from entering the strip. Nearly all Gazans, meanwhile, have been prevented by Israel from leaving.
Since the war was launched, no foreign or Israeli journalists have been allowed into the strip, except in the company of Israeli troops. And even if Israeli television crews were permitted inside, station executives here say, there is not much interest in documenting how Palestinians are coping amid Israel's relentless bombardment.
An anchor at Channel 2 recently became the target of an online petition seeking her dismissal because her tone was considered overly sympathetic to the Palestinians. Nir said any additional coverage of the lives of Gazans "would just make people angry."
"We are Israelis broadcasting to the Israeli public," Nir said. "Among the Israeli public, unfortunately, there's no empathy for the other side."
And yet empathy or no empathy, Hamas will likely survive in some capacity, perhaps even end up stronger over the medium term if peace-making doesn't restore some equilibrium to a devastated area, and most of the million plus residents of Gaza will still be there too once the guns fall silent. Neither party can wholly forget the existence of the other, even if they try to (as they both do), and even if they staunchly refuse to try to put each other in the others' shoes for a moment or two, if for no other reason than as simple thought experiment. Short of mass population transfer, or shunting Gaza off to Egypt (which Cairo won’t accept, ditto the West Bank back to Jordan), or quasi-genocidal action—Israel is struck with its Palestinian neighbors, and therefore there is simply no military solution, ultimately. To stress, the Gazans won’t now rush into the arms of Mohammed Dahlan so as to re-institute Fatah control, or some such, I wouldn't think.
No, there will instead be fresh grievances to nurse, and the cycle of retribution will likely churn on. To end this perennial madness, adult supervision is desperately needed, meaning President-elect Obama prioritizing a wholly resurrected peace process (including dialogue with Hamas via Turkish, Egyptian and perhaps European proxies) that allows for serious discussions to resume based off the Taba precedent, which has been ingloriously gathering dust during the reign of perhaps the most incompetent foreign policy team Washington has ever witnessed. This is a large task that will require something that had been missing from the Middle East for some eight long years. That is, responsible American leadership, an ‘honest broker’ that is also competent and seriously engaged, and never has it been more needed than before, both for the Israelis and Palestinians. True friends of Israel (think people like Dan Kurtzer, Aaron David Miller, Yossi Beilin, others, indeed, I suspect Jeffrey Goldberg as well) realize this. Let us hope President-Elect Obama, as well as his Secretary of State-designate, do as well. There is no time to waste, and the endless spilling of blood must cease so that this madness is brought to heel and both nations can begin to move forward towards a better future. In short, what we need now is an immediate cease-fire and a very ambitious, disciplined and persistent diplomatic initiative (an anti-Annapolis, if you will), one with region-wide ambitions so at minimum to include the Syrian and Lebanese tracks as well (as an aside, and like Richard Armitage, I am skeptical of too many special envoys being appointed by Hillary--Iran, India-Pakistan, others?--but let's stay tuned in the coming days). This would signal meaningful--rather than merely rhetorical--change to the international community, wouldn't it?
UPDATE: (NYT)
Israel hoped that the war in Gaza would not only cripple Hamas, but eventually strengthen its secular rival, the Palestinian Authority, and even allow it to claw its way back into Gaza.
But with each day, the authority, its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, and its leading party, Fatah, seem increasingly beleaguered and marginalized, even in the Palestinian cities of the West Bank, which they control. Protesters accuse Mr. Abbas of not doing enough to stop the carnage in Gaza — indeed, his own police officers have used clubs and tear gas against those same protesters.
The more bombs in Gaza, the more Hamas’s support seems to be growing at the expense of the Palestinian Authority, already considered corrupt and distant from average Palestinians.
Who could have known it?
Posted by Gregory on Jan 12, 09  | Comments (11)  | PermaLink
November 03, 2008
THE OBAMA IMPERATIVE
The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”
--Albert Einstein
We face tomorrow what could well prove the most consequential Presidential election of our lifetimes. I will be supporting Barack Obama, for reasons I describe in more detail below. First, however, a word or two on the present situation confronting the United States seems appropriate.
Our country is wracked by problems large and small, both at home and abroad. We face the largest systemic financial crisis since the 1930s. The Troubled Asset Relief Program’s (“TARP”) hasty reincarnation(s) (first from Paulsonian l’etat c’est moi three-page minimalist burlesque, then to the more reliably voluminous Congressional assorted mish-mash, and then in its seemingly final iteration—for now at least--into more of a convincing Gordon Brown-like bank recapitalization scheme) will help some so that the credit crisis may finally be entering late innings and beginning to ease (see improvements, if stilll not wholly convincing ones, in the TED spread, LIBOR rates etc.). Meantime however the real economy is hurtling towards greater trouble, at best towards a nasty, protracted (say 18 month) recession in my view. Consumer confidence is at historic lows, with the heretofore almighty American consumer buckling under the weight of the bursting housing bubble, high energy prices (albeit with some recent relief), and rising unemployment (I would not be surprised to see the main unemployment gauge in the high 8% range--or even low 9%--by mid to late 2009).
And all this assuming no further systemic risks precipitated by as yet unknown events of the ‘black swan’ variety, although we must be prepared at minimum for large amounts of hedge fund implosions going forward, greater emerging market contagion, the Euro-zone getting hit far harder than to date (in turn of course negatively impacting our export revenues), as well as the debilitating housing and financial sector tsunamis spreading towards new sectors quite unmercifully (see auto loans, credit card defaults, student loans, and commercial real estate perhaps). Which is to say, massive deleveraging is set to continue for the foreseeable future. All the while, our infrastructure is too often crumbling given long neglect, and too many Americans are concerned about whether they have enough retirement savings, can fund their basic health care costs, or even have a convincing handle on rising food costs. These are not happy go-lucky, freewheeling times, to be sure. Put differently, we can’t just “go shopping”, as the current President once memorably put it.
Overseas the picture for the U.S. is just as ugly, perhaps even worse. The surge in Iraq was undertaken in a near total strategic vacuum, so that whatever hard-won security improvements have been achieved have had a negligible impact on the larger neighborhood. Has the short-term stabilization in local security conditions there been worth the blood and treasure expended? I doubt it, sad to say. Everyone is largely in ‘wait the Americans’ out mode (and no, it’s simply not an option to stay 100 years), whether local Shi’a militias, or regional players like the Turks, Iranians, and Syrians. The Baker-Hamilton recommendation of placing an Iraq policy squarely (including support for a surge should commanders believe it warranted, one this blog supported too incidentally, only if, however, it was tied into a convincing regional approach) into an overarching region-wide strategy was roundly ignored. (How could it not be, it would have meant our current policy-makers had strategic foresight, were not easily satisfied myopic amateurs, and enjoyed a basic understanding of the undergirding dynamics of the region?)
Meantime, Iran’s march towards nuclear weapons continues apace, but save an Undersecretary of State haphazardly hurled into a meeting on occasion with no real follow-through, the United States continues to have no serious diplomatic contact with the Islamic Republic of Iran. What has been achieved by this? One must scratch one’s head in puzzlement, as a freeze in uranium enrichment can’t reasonably likely occur absent direct discussions (it still mightn’t, but is at least worth a try), and this very goal seems in the short-term our main priority vis-à-vis Iran. So why the lack of high-level contact? Lack of imagination and intellectual cowardice, presumably.
In other parts of the neighborhood, lately the U.S. has taken to allowing border incursions to messily spill over into Pakistan with increasing frequency (a depressing reality born of a losing war in Afghanistan where we are—much like Iraq—bogged down increasingly in nation-building where instead discrete commando anti-terror missions are what is more required), albeit cross-border raids seem to be ending some in favor of less politically volatile Drone-powered missions. To the west in Syria, we have recently seen more cross-border adventurism (seemingly a parting shot aimed at Asad from the predictably bovine Bush quarters—while meantime the French, Turks, Israelis, Qataris etc are engaging Damascus not unproductively).
Amidst all this—the fundamental issue of the Arab-Israeli peace process—formerly a priority of every American President since at least Richard Nixon—has become a ribald joke as handled by the current Administration, save alas the real world consequences of this abject neglect are anything but funny.
And what about beyond this strategic morass we face in the Middle East? Well, it is only too clear we are at another ‘Who Lost Russia?’ juncture, where are pitiable ‘support’ of Georgia accomplished little to nothing, while creation of a real, mature Russia policy under supposed Russia expert Condoleezza Rice has gone woefully unachieved, now a good half decade on from the hilarious conceit of some warm and fuzzy Spirit of Ljubljana.
In East Asia, alternate security and economic infrastructure are dutifully being cobbled together without particularly robust U.S. involvement, and one surmises Beijing is far less in the mood for lectures on economic policy-making imperatives going forward, yes, even from ex-Goldmanites of stature. Who can blame them, given the tottering framework of the West’s banking systems?
Our hard power thus poorly employed, meantime our soft power has been set back to a horrific extent these past 8 years. After the short-lived global solidarity resulting from the odious terror attacks on 9/11, a cabal in Washington decided to operate in the ‘shadows’. Habeas corpus was junked, torture legalized, multiple ‘black sites’ created, and the moral Chernobyl of Guantanamo was roundly feted by an increasingly Gestapoish class of Washington provincials who played pretend they were protecting we needy ones, allegedly needing to be baby-sat, as we were so far afield from the harrowing responsibilities facing the national security nomenklatura. Bush 43, blissfully ignorant of the manifold damage being done our international repute as he ferried between 1600 Pennsylvania and his Crawford ranch as the seasons came and went, was surrounded either by incompetent yes-men (Alberto Gonzalez), or arriviste hustlers who dutifully spun the theory of the unitary executive towards fantastical bounds, the better to genuflect on bent-knee and service the Vice President’s whims (John Yoo), or still, thuggish actors hell-bent on always proudly advertising their contempt for any controls on a wayward Executive (David Addington), this last masking deep insecurities born of profound constitutional and historical ignorance.
Across the Potomac over in Virginia this merry band was aided and abetted by Don Rumsfeld, himself only too happy to junk the Geneva Conventions like a good Prussian playing faux-macho at the cost of a few score Arabs or Afghans or whatever the brown-skins in question being killed or sodomized or having scantily clad female investigators swab ‘fake’ menstrual blood on those they interrogated, with thousands upon thousands more detainees beaten, shackled, and otherwise denied the protections of Geneva in ignominious obscurity. Around these real ‘bad apples’ (as opposed to the hapless low-level motley crew of miscreants at the midnight shift in Abu Ghraib) was the neo-conservative intelligentsia—which to this day save some noteworthy defections (Frank Fukuyama, George Will, perhaps a couple others), think all would be for right had we only not tolerated any deviationist cowardice (how dare we allow talented diplomats like Bill Burns to talk with Iran, or Chris Hill with the North Koreans, and so on), while meantime pleased as punch to see torture policy defile our good name as formerly leading avatar of international human rights around the globe.
And then did we, the fat, pop-culture addled, self-contented American mass, rush the barricades, what amidst these serial bungles, these orgies of law-breaking, these violent acts against the dignity of the Republic? In certain blogospheric circles one espied a cyber-samizdat zeitgeist of sorts, and there were other occasional dissents in places like the pages of the NYRB (or more often, the LRB across the pond, where dialogue was somewhat less policed by whatever commissars were busily monitoring ‘acceptable’ narratives to share with overly impressionable types), or even a talking head of two on MSNBC. But no, the shock of 9/11 had been too great, the insularity of our mass media mind-numbing in its naval-gazing inanities, in its coverage of pitiable non-stories amidst these titanic ones, and so now only after almost a decade has passed, and with massive economic problems helping finally spur some to action, does one so belatedly begin to feel we may have a real chance to start turning the page on this disastrous chapter in American history.
So tomorrow we Americans will have a choice. And while it seems too easy to say McCain represents continuity, and Obama an opportunity at a major course correction and even something of a shot at redemption, we must reluctantly conclude this is the core essence of the matter. I say reluctantly because John McCain, after all, has had a storied life, whether his service as fighter pilot, tenacity in captivity, long Senate career of some distinction, and more. And yet none of this matters finally, as he is nevertheless the standard-bearer of today’s Republican Party, alas. And today’s Republican Party is a disgrace, a dim shadow of its former self.
Indeed, the cautiously deliberative, fiscally conservative, great internationalist party one associates with names like Dwight D. Eisenhower is simply dead. Replacing it we have a cacophony of imbecilic voices like Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh (ask yourself—if you were a serious politician with a smidgen of intellect—would you even entertain questions from this veritable moronic inferno, or prefer to steer clear of such cheap carnivals?). Essentially, today’s Republican party is little more than a reincarnation of the Know-Nothing party (like the one of yore, this one too particularly outraged by immigrants, illegal ones only we are led to believe, of course…), a confused morass of vindictiveness crossed with fear crossed with abject ignorance (think Joe the Plumber, the supposed Country First Everyman who rants incoherently about how Barack Obama’s victory would mean the death of Israel, perhaps the greatest inanity I’ve overheard of all among so many in the awful din of this painfully long election season).
To soften some of the bleakness of this assorted Know-Nothingness fused with Christo-Authoritarian lugubriousness (think former ‘leading lights’, really ultimately dullards, like Rudy Giuliani or Fred Thompson) the G.O.P. has now become the Palin Party, she a somewhat bawdy Neiman-Marcus clad middle-aged ingénue (see the young males who strip down reverentially at her rallies like hard-up frat jocks, painting her name on their bare chests while panting her name breathlessly like desperate adolescents), who meantime warms the cockles of the soi disant compassionate with talk of special needs children (kudos to her, however, and let it be said genuinely, for her walking the talk with her fifth child), while also regaling us with deep policy thoughts on occasion, averring often from the stump about how we can drill our way out of the energy crisis (prima facie absurd).
What to make of Ms. Palin, or perhaps more important, Mr. McCain’s selection of her as his Vice-President (the only small consolation in the Palin pick of course was that it spared us the arguably even greater insult of the execrable Joe Lieberman being selected)? Annapolis Mac’s Hail Mary, then, that Americans would like the frontierish manifest destiny of his surprise pick (she’s from far-away Alaska, not tarnished by the lower 48!), that she’s a fellow “maverick” (why, she took on the old boy’s network over Juneau way!), and so on—is simply all profoundly unconvincing in the face of one simple test—is this individual prepared to assume the awesome responsibilities of the American Presidency? The answer, as serious observers like Fareed Zakaria and others could only conclude, was (and is) a resounding no, and shame on supposed party elders for not shouting this bracing reality more loudly from the roof-tops. Let's be perfectly clear, she is so profoundly ignorant on matters foreign policy it is simply certifiable to think she could navigate the ship of state without a calamitous degree of ignorance dooming her, and so us, every step of the way.
Yes, how sad this political season has been, as eminences like Henry Kissinger--easily lured by a festive klieg-light or two--deigned to meet this hapless woman who should never have been plucked from the wilds of Alaska for this job (imagine Dean Acheson or George Kennan spiriting such an ignorant around in some laughable Potemkin display meant to give credence to their supposed national security bona fides). Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure she’s a decent enough woman on a personal level, but again, wholly out of her depth--and regardless is this who we contemplate, really, as a prospective standard-bearer of one of America’s two great political parties? How can this be, and if so, God help us all! (Her interview alone with Katie Couric showcased the dangers in spades, in which Ms. Couric in that somewhat inimitable passive-aggressive Manhattan way skewered her to high heaven--put a fork in her, she’s done--as Ms. Palin held forth like a glazed deer in the headlights looking Ms. America, with talk about the evil Ruskies entertaining bombing runs across the hot Bering Strait). Let us be clear: shame on Mr. McCain for making such a grotesquely irresponsible choice, not least given his advanced age, but regardless of it, really.
But forget about Ms. Palin for a moment, hard as it may be to do so, given she'd be a heart-beat from the Presidency should McCain win. Ms. Palin apart, Mr. McCain seems to promise more by way of confrontation in the Middle East, with Russia, with China—indeed, he has taken on the highly worrisome trappings of an unreconstructed neo-conservative, always a troublesome prospect. "We are all Georgians!", he blusters. He looks into Putin's eyes and doesn't swoon, but sees three letters: "K.G.B." (what better summation of the total lack of imagination he'd likely bring to the Russian-American relationship). "Victory" will be achieved through the Middle East, even if we stay there many score more years expending countless billions (trillions?) more! He'll never sit with the Iranians like "that one" will. Diplomacy, you see, is really for wimps--our countless meetings and summits with the Soviets and Chinese apart. And so on. Foreign policy aside, on the other major issue of the day, namely the economy, we are left to wonder, does Mr. McCain even have a basic understanding of the economic crisis underway, or would we face a confluence of standard supply-side bromides coming out of what is perhaps the greatest regulatory fiasco and asset bubble in financial history, crossed with Palinomics (drill baby drill!). Early indicators do not inspire confidence, it must be said, as I am still not persuaded I've heard him in a single debate enunciate a persuasive analysis of the economic crisis this country currently faces. The answer, it seems, is lower Joe the Plumber's taxes, hardly a panacea, I'm afraid.
Into this cauldron, and on the other side of the aisle, we have Mr. Obama. He is not perfect, he is no messiah delivered from the heavens, and it is true his resume is relatively thin (to which one might respond, who had bigger, more experienced resumes than Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld?). But let us be very clear: Mr. Obama has nonetheless been a tremendous gift to us, and we would be foolish in the extreme not to hope dearly for his victory. He himself is a consummate professional with undeniable potential for greatness. To have already achieved what he has been able to speaks volumes, given all the road-blocks in his way. Meantime, he is surrounding himself by very serious and knowledgeable people on the economy (think Paul Volcker, Larry Summers, or Warren Buffett). On foreign policy while his posture on issues like Afghanistan and even Georgia have given me some concerns, his overall world-view and appetite to engage in robust diplomacy is light years better than the McCain approach.
Let us be plain: one man offers a continuation of the Bush Doctrine, in the main, the other, a repudiation of it. Mr. Obama's main stress on diplomacy as a neglected tool in our arsenal is of the highest importance, and lives in stark contrast to breezy 'bomb, bomb, bomb' Iran cretinism (as the saying goes, there is always a litle truth in every joke). And his election alone—in one major, fell swoop—would immediately go a long way towards helping restore much of America’s lost soft-power, by reminding the world that an African-American who was just a state senator a few years back, whose middle name is Hussein and last name rhymes with Osama, can, not only unseat the current premier Democratic dynasty (the Clinton’s, of course, who’d replaced the Kennedy’s), but then take on and likely prevail (fingers crossed!) over the hard-hitting, hyper-aggressive Republican Party, this only seven short years after the greatest terror attack ever inflicted on the American homeland.
Yes, we dare dream when we think of this story, and we must respect Obama for always remaining steady, holding on to his dignity, fighting hard but fair (sometimes definitely hard-ball so to win, as with public financing, but so be it, it was a no-brainer), keeping cool amidst the manufactured scandals of Wright, Ayres, Khalidi (even Marty Peretz stood up to be counted on this last), and the rest of the bogus trash hurled his way. It is very rare we have a paradigm-shifting, generational candidate like Mr. Obama, and as I said, we are very lucky indeed he has chosen to run this cycle, not again, because he is some deity, but because he is a major new talent who will inject desperately needed fresh thinking and approaches to a moribund Washington, the capital of a country in steep decline of late.
Why am I confident of this? Perhaps in closing a word or two about Mr. Obama’s foresight and character is called for, and let us begin with his own words. In a speech a few years back, Mr. Obama recounted his memories of 9/11, and too his view of the merits of going to war in Iraq:
I was driving to a state legislative hearing in downtown Chicago when I heard the news on my car radio: a plane had hit the World Trade Center. By the time I got to my meeting, the second plane had hit, and we were told to evacuate. People gathered in the streets and looked up at the sky and the Sears Tower, transformed from a workplace to a target. We feared for our families and our country. We mourned the terrible loss suffered by our fellow citizens. Back at my law office, I watched the images from New York: a plane vanishing into glass and steel; men and women clinging to windowsills, then letting go; tall towers crumbling to dust. It seemed all of the misery and all of the evil in the world were in that rolling black cloud, blocking out the September sun.
What we saw that morning forced us to recognize that in a new world of threats, we are no longer protected by our own power. And what we saw that morning was a challenge to a new generation. The history of America is one of tragedy turned into triumph. And so a war over secession became an opportunity to set the captives free. An attack on Pearl Harbor led to a wave of freedom rolling across the Atlantic and Pacific. An Iron Curtain was punctured by democratic values, new institutions at home, and strong international partnerships abroad.
After 9/11, our calling was to write a new chapter in the American story. To devise new strategies and build new alliances, to secure our homeland and safeguard our values, and to serve a just cause abroad. We were ready. Americans were united. Friends around the world stood shoulder to shoulder with us. We had the might and moral-suasion that was the legacy of generations of Americans. The tide of history seemed poised to turn, once again, toward hope.
But then everything changed.
We did not finish the job against al Qaeda in Afghanistan. We did not develop new capabilities to defeat a new enemy, or launch a comprehensive strategy to dry up the terrorists' base of support. We did not reaffirm our basic values, or secure our homeland.
Instead, we got a color-coded politics of fear. Patriotism as the possession of one political party. The diplomacy of refusing to talk to other countries. A rigid 20th century ideology that insisted that the 21st century's stateless terrorism could be defeated through the invasion and occupation of a state. A deliberate strategy to misrepresent 9/11 to sell a war against a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.
And so, a little more than a year after that bright September day, I was in the streets of Chicago again, this time speaking at a rally in opposition to war in Iraq. I did not oppose all wars, I said. I was a strong supporter of the war in Afghanistan. But I said I could not support "a dumb war, a rash war" in Iraq. I worried about a "U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences" in the heart of the Muslim world. I pleaded that we "finish the fight with bin Ladin and al Qaeda." [my emphasis]
This is mostly pitch-perfect, and shows us well that even in an atmosphere where accusations of being limp-wristed (at best) or a rank quisling (at worst) flew easily if one dared oppose the coming Mesopotamian adventure, this young politician—already armed with ambitious national aspirations--nonetheless stood against the mass. And, you say, so what? He was admittedly not alone in seeing the coming folly—borne of hubris and swagger and incompetence—which together conspired to create a fiasco that has cost us so much. And yet this caution was relatively rare, certainly among our supposed political elites, and thus worth noting. Why? It shows a capacity not to be bullied intellectually. It shows a reasoned temperament given to rational analysis rather than shrill hysterics. It shows someone hungry for national office yet unwilling to sacrifice his principles and worldview for any political expediency. It shows a willingness to buck conventional wisdom. And in its own modest way, it shows character and a quiet dignity.
In an informative NYT Magazine piece from about a year ago, James Traub discusses Obama’s 1995 book “Dreams From My Father" writing:
One recurrent theme of the book is how very little the world, at least the world in which most people live, responds to our wishes or our ideals. Obama’s Indonesian stepfather, Lolo, explains the rule of the jungle to the young boy: “Men take advantage of weakness in other men.” Obama’s mother, an innocent abroad, is shocked to learn that Lolo was conscripted into that country’s brutal repression of an insurgency and sent to the jungles of New Guinea, where he saw and did unspeakable things. In America, Obama writes, power was muted; in a place like Indonesia, it was “undisguised, indiscriminate, naked, always fresh in the memory. Power had taken Lolo and yanked him back into line just when he thought he’d escaped. . . . That’s how things were; you couldn’t change it, you could just live by the rules, so simple once you learned them.”
Indeed, for all his soaring idealism, Obama seems to have absorbed Lolo’s teachings about the world’s refractoriness. The foreign-policy figures whom he finds “most compelling,” he says, are the archrealists who shaped policy during the cold war, including the secretaries of state George C. Marshall and Dean Acheson and the diplomat-scholar George F. Kennan. “What impresses me is not just the specifics of what they did,” he said, “but the approach they took to solve the problem, which is, if we have assets or tools to deal with foreign policy, we know that the most costly is the military tool, particularly in a nuclear era, so we want to apply all the other tools that are less costly.” Obama said that he also admired the worldly pragmatists who served the first George Bush, including Brent Scowcroft, the national-security adviser: “The whole Bush team, I think, was not entirely aware of the opportunities of this new world, but they had a very clear-eyed assessment.” He has sought out the former secretary of state Colin Powell for counsel, and spoken with Scowcroft as well. [my emphasis]
This passage from Traub’s article is very instructive in better understanding Obama’s formation and worldview. For one, while I think Obama would not be shy to ultimately use military force if circumstances required (Lolo’s lessons regarding power), he innately realizes the often tremendous costs and stakes involved and so would likely proceed with utmost deliberativeness before resorting to military options. This is not tree-hugging pacifistic kumbaya fare (indeed, I believe Obama is essentially a realist), however, but really more in keeping with the approach of a Colin Powell, say (who unlike other leading former Republican Secretaries of State who should know better, did the right thing and stepped up to endorse Barack recently).
Put differently, he would not be shy to exert power as necessary, whether via recourse to the military (witness his position on al-Qaeda encampments within Pakistan), or via tough, tenacious diplomacy with foes like Iran. Related, however (and importantly), I believe he would prove modest and show real humility during exertions of American power, whether in case of military action, or in diplomatic fora. Put differently, his policy would likely be more muted and sophisticated—yet at the same time fresher and more ‘out-of-the-box’--than those we’ve witnessed these past years, where dynastic torch-passing, the dusted-off rolodexes, and tired nostrums seem to have calcified our policy-making function, so that bold initiatives appear all but impossible.
Worth noting too, Obama is clearly a committed multi-lateralist, but not of the wooly-headed variety. Instead, he strikes me as likely to be a deliberate institution and consensus-builder. At the risk of being accused of over-enthusiasm, I see him as someone who might forge a kind of neo-Achesonism for a post-post 9/11 world, not least aided by a freshness and openness (born of strength) to dialogue more intelligently, not only with all the allies we’ve ignored or treated in ham-handed fashion of late, but also with our foes, in an effort to enmesh them within the broader international community (steadily and with deliberate patience, not under the illusion of any imminent miracles). These would mean flexible institutions less focused on a state-centric lens as per the post-war era, not least given most of the critical problems of today, such as terrorism, genocide, disease, and global warming, often transcend borders. In this, and apart from McCain’s self-serving and reverie-inducing ‘League of Democracies’ fare (if the Russians and Chinese don’t agree, just go ahead and form a new group already!), Obama shows that unlike his opponent, he will work hard to achieve multilateral solutions, and well appreciates the inevitable shades of gray.
There is also this last snippet worth quoting from the Bai article, which further points to the transformational, paradigm-shifting potential Obama's victory could represent:
In 1981, Obama arrived at Columbia University, where he majored in international relations. He wrote his senior thesis on the North-South debate on trade then raging as part of the demand for a “new international economic order.” But he says that he was never much of a lefty. Obama offers himself as the representative of a new generation, free of the dogmas that still burden the Democratic Party. “The Democrats have been stuck in the arguments of Vietnam,” he said to me on the campaign plane, “which means that either you’re a Scoop Jackson Democrat or you’re a Tom Hayden Democrat and you’re suspicious of any military action. And that’s just not my framework.” [emphasis added]
Imagine, finally “that’s just not my framework!” You aren’t either a washed out anti-war activist, or a neo-con fellow traveler hell-bent on advancing 'democracy' via the butt of a rifle, but rather, there are other options afforded us. Put differently, the Albert Einstein quote I opened this post up with sums up my feeling well: (t)he significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” I mean, can we really afford to kick around the same tired narratives and shibboleths for another eight long years? Most certainly not, I'm afraid. Viewed via this prism, the choice for our Republic could not be clearer. McCain represents the past, Obama the future. The past can prove a comforting crutch, but it spells continued decline and backwards movement. We are passing through hugely difficult times where a global financial crisis lurches ahead demanding newfangled regulatory regimes of real complexity, where energy and environmental challenges will become ever more insistent, where we need to de-escalate from two wars and hit a strategic 'reset' button in our overall foreign policy posture, during which it will prove imperative we re-build our moral high-ground. These are the challenges the future presents us, and only Mr. Obama can convincingly tackle them head on with a combination of deliberateness, ingenuity, quiet resilience and confidence, in my view. So, for me, not only is this election not even a close call, but also I hope too that Obama wins by a huge landslide, by visiting a stinging, terrible rebuke to the Republicans. The defeat needs to be so crushing and total as to serve as a massive wake-up call that the Republican Party needs to be retaken by sentient, thinking adults, the better so it is led towards a necessary and massive course correction. Ultimately this is important because it is healthy for our country to have two great political parties, and a resounding defeat tomorrow seems our best bet to slowly have the Republican Party regain its sanity after the wreckage of the Bush 43 years. In the meantime, yes we can, yes we must, yes we will! Change is in the air, and it has never been more welcome than today.
UPDATE: Yes we did!
MORE: I've posted a YouTube below of an impromptu street celebration in Union Square (Manhattan) right after the news hit that Obama won the Presidency. I wasn't there (was further south down in Tribeca), but seeing it caused me to recall vividly the long days after 9/11 when people congregated for days and weeks in Union Square, where I lived at the time. How nice to see a historic event observed in that storied park that lends itself to raucous festiveness, seven years on, rather than long mourning and sorrow.
Note at the 2 minute mark a U.S. flag is held aloft, and at the 3 minute mark the crowd starts chanting "USA, USA, USA", as if to say, "we're back!".
Posted by Gregory on Nov 3, 08  | Comments (13)  | PermaLink
August 20, 2008
SOME ADDT'L THOUGHTS RE: GEORGIA
Just a few quick thoughts having scrolled through comments from the last post on Georgia.
--I did not mean to necessarily make the case that all NATO expansion was an awful idea coming out of the Cold War. We won it, after all, and there were arguably some legitimate reasons to extend the security umbrella of the "West" to central European nations formerly coerced into the Warsaw Pact by the Soviets. But there is a huge difference between countries like Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia on the one hand, say, and then Ukraine, Georgia and Latvia on the other. For instance, the latter grouping either have very significant Russian minorities (eastern Ukraine, including Crimea, and Latvia, of course, not to mention Estonia) or else at least disputed regions where Russians have significant interests (Georgia, as recent events painfully showcase). This is not the case with the Czech Republic and Hungary, of course. The point is not too dissimilar to the one's I quoted Kennan and Kissinger as making, to wit, the latter again: "the movement of the Western security system from the Elbe River to the approaches to Moscow brings home Russia's decline in a way bound to generate a Russian emotion that will inhibit the solution of all other issues." Which is to say, it's one thing for the Russians to accept the Czech Republic entering NATO, quite another Georgia, and some of the other countries I mention above (Poland is a harder case, of which perhaps more another day, though let me at least say for now the timing of the announcement of the missile defense arrangements is terrible). Or viewed differently still, what matters more to us, the "freedom" of South Ossetia (whatever that means given the tangled ethnic make-up and allegiances in the province, where most local inhabitants really are hankering for unification with North Ossetia--even as an 'autonomous' Russian republic perhaps--rather than integration into Tbilisi's orbit), or say, strategic cooperation with Russian on nuclear proliferation issues, whether loose Russian nukes, Iran, North Korea or myriad other issues? The answer is pretty clear, no?
--Most fundamentally, an alliance is about defending countries that come under attack, at the end of the day. If Putin moved to invade Prague, would we as a NATO alliance move to counter this aggression? I think we might well, though I don't think Putin would in a thousand years (despite some of the alarmist cover art making the rounds of late!). But let's say Putin made a significant military move in a part of Crimea, or a heavily Russian populated part of Latvia? Would we really go to war over it? Cheap, empty bluster from our pitiable national security team apart, who here seriously thinks we would send American men to die for Georgian (or Crimean) 'freedom'? Let's cut the charade, no? Some will tut-tut I am setting up a straw-man with this image of a massive land war with us on the front-lines beating back the Russian neo-imperial Bear across the Ossetian frontier. Instead, we have analysts (even ones formally affiliated with the Council on Foreign Relations, which I find quite shocking) salivating about sending Stingers and Javelins to Georgia, apparently with nary a thought (save a hasty, and quite underwhelming, blog "update") regarding the massive implications that would ensue. Arming the Georgians in this fashion would be interpreted by the Russians as an act of war, and we can forget about any strategic relationship with them full stop, and then begin to see them inexorably move to deepen their relations with the Iranians, Syrians, North Koreans, anti-American factions in Iraq, and more, with nary a concern at all for our concerns. Of course the chorus will scream, they already are cozying up to all those bad guys, so screw the Ruskies and send in the Stingers! But this is not serious, but rather barely concealed hysteria, or perhaps more accurate, post-adolescent preening passing as policy-making. Indeed, the truth is we've already over-reached in Georgia, as this C.J. Chivers piece makes clear:
In his wooing of Washington as he came to power, Mr. Saakashvili firmly embraced the missions of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. At first he had almost nothing practical to offer. Georgia’s military was small, poorly led, ill-equipped and weak.
But Mr. Saakashvili’s rise coincided neatly with a swelling American need for political support and foreign soldiers in Iraq. His offer of troops was matched with a Pentagon effort to overhaul Georgia’s forces from bottom to top.
At senior levels, the United States helped rewrite Georgian military doctrine and train its commanders and staff officers. At the squad level, American marines and soldiers trained Georgian soldiers in the fundamentals of battle.
Georgia, meanwhile, began re-equipping its forces with Israeli and American firearms, reconnaissance drones, communications and battlefield-management equipment, new convoys of vehicles and stockpiles of ammunition.
The public goal was to nudge Georgia toward NATO military standards. Privately, Georgian officials welcomed the martial coaching and buildup, and they made clear that they considered participation in Iraq as a sure way to prepare the Georgian military for “national reunification” — the local euphemism of choice for restoring Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgian control.
All of these policies collided late last week. One American official who covers Georgian affairs, speaking on the condition of anonymity while the United States formulates its next public response, said that everything had gone wrong.
Mr. Saakashvili had acted rashly, he said, and had given Russia the grounds to invade. The invasion, he said, was chilling, disproportionate and brutal, and it was grounds for a strong censure. But the immediate question was how far Russia would go in putting Georgia back into what it sees as Georgia’s place.
In short, we giddily trained and equipped the Georgians, and they in turn got carried away that national unification was in the offing (under cover of fancy American and Israeli materiel). But it wasn't to be, the bluff got called, and here we are looking the naive chumps, with blood spilled and innocents dead. There are many words for making representations and promises that you can't and won't fulfill--say bandying to all comers the prospect of rosy NATO membership--and then not following through on the implications of those false representations. One of them is B.S., and there is indeed plenty of that making the rounds in DC, day in, day out.
--Next in comments some thought I was overly symphathetic to the Serbs re: the Kosovo situation. Let me be clear. As anyone familiar with my background knows, I served over two years with the International Rescue Committee in the former Yugoslavia, working on deliveries of humanitarian aid and refugee resettlement. I am well acquainted with the brutishness of the Serbian and Bosnian Serb militaries and militias, was deeply repulsed by same, which was why I spent time between university and law school doing this humanitarian work in the early 90s. So I hold no brief for the Serbs, but I have spent enough time in the region to realize none of the parties were (or are) unadulterated angels. Bosnian Croats (especially in and around Mostar) could be every bit as nasty as Bosnian Serbs, and I know that some Bosnian Muslims were radicalized (say in the Zenica area) and committed their own atrocities. Ditto too in Kosovo--while the Kosovars have been subjected to the major lion's share of oppression there historically--the KLA has also oppressed the increasingly beleaguered Kosovar Serb minority there of late. So given this complex picture, a relatively headlong rush towards independence (Serbs, not to mention Kosovars, look at the history of Kosovo back over many centuries, so a decade or so is just a blip in time), rather than thinking through 'deep autonomy' arrangements with longer transition periods, not only was an affront to Belgrade, but also of course to its historical patron Moscow. My point is only that we cannot be too surprised that Moscow would deviously wield this supposed nefarious precedent to retalitate in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, like it or not.
--I also saw in comments some rather excited folks thinking Putin over-reached and would have his comeuppance shortly. I couldn't disagree more. His move was quite expert, and, despite the horrific military excesses (the Russians typically conduct such campaigns in brutal fashion, as Chechnya showcased in spades), nonetheless well calibrated in terms of not crossing major red-lines that would have united the world in massive anti-Russian ire. Contrast this precise action with the continuing blunders of our hyper-ventilating stewards of state spouting inanities about how 'everything has changed now' (vis-a-vis the U.S.-Russian relationship), that the 'seige' of Georgia will be lifted, that NATO membership is still in the offing, and so on. To this hokum and bunk and empty cacaphony Mr. Putin has been reasonably silent, but meantime delivered some cold, hard facts. This is rather more effective. I couldn't put it better than long-time Times correspondent Michael Binyon:
Vladimir Putin lost several pawns on the chessboard - Kosovo, Iraq, Nato membership for the Baltic states, US renunciation of the ABM treaty, US missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic. But he waited.
The trap was set in Georgia. When President Saakashvili blundered into South Ossetia, sending in an army to shell, kill and maim on a vicious scale (against US advice and his promised word), Russia was waiting.
It was not only Mr Saakashvili who thought that he had the distraction of the Olympics to cover him; the Kremlin also knew that Mr Bush was watching basketball, and, in the longer term, that the US army was fully engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the day that the Russian tank brigade raced through the tunnel into South Ossetia, Russia has not made one wrong move. Mr Bush's remarks yesterday notwithstanding, In five days it turned an overreaching blunder by a Western-backed opponent into a devastating exposure of Western impotence, dithering and double standards on respecting national sovereignty (viz Iraq).
The attack was short, sharp and deadly - enough to send the Georgians fleeing in humiliating panic, their rout captured by global television. The destruction was enough to hurt, but not so much that the world would be roused in fury. The timing of the ceasefire was precise: just hours before President Sarkozy could voice Western anger. Moscow made clear that it retained the initiative. And despite sporadic breaches - on both sides - Russia has blunted Georgian charges that this is a war of annihilation.
Moscow can also counter Georgian PR, the last weapon left to Tbilisi. Human rights? Look at what Georgia has done in South Ossetia (and also in Abkhazia). National sovereignty? Look at the detachment of Kosovo from Serbia. False pretexts? Look at Ronald Reagan's invasion of Grenada to “rescue” US medical students. Western outrage? Look at the confused cacophony.
There are lessons everywhere. To the former Soviet republics - remember your geography. To Nato - do you still want to incorporate Caucasian vendettas into your alliance? To Tbilisi - do you want to keep a President who brought this on you? To Washington - does Russia's voice still count for nothing? Like it or not, it counts for a lot. [my emphasis throughout]
So we know the winners here, but who are the losers in this sad affair? First and foremost, U.S. credibility (already eroded by the dismal Bush record on foreign policy), followed closely by Mr. Saakhasvili. Regarding the latter, even money the Georgians toss him out within 6-9 months, once the sense of unity borne of national emergency fades, as it likely will in coming months (barring new Russian forays into the south of the country). Saakhasvili badly blundered, betting that the cavalry was there for him. It wasn't, and won't be. Georgians will want more capable, realistic leaders. And so should we.
P.S. There is one other little item I meant to add here, as my initial post was quite anti-McCain, and some thought I gave Obama a pass. So, here's my unvarnished take on Obama...
For one, and it might sound silly, I would have liked Mr. Obama to don a coat and tie, get to an official-looking location in Honolulu (where I think he was vacationing), one that didn't seem right off the beach (or even get on a plane back to the continental U.S.), the better to give one serious, full-blown press brief/reaction to the events. Instead, we had a casually attired Obama give a somewhat halting-looking statement (or was it two? three?), with each time the goal-posts moving some.
I guess this happens after exhausting campaigns and when you have 300 foreign policy advisors. But it was not a particularly inspiring show, truth be told. This said, commenters who claim that the McCain and Obama positions were indistinguishable are simply blind. On the one hand we have one candidate declaring "We are all Georgians now", seemingly getting ready for another Cold War (“Russian aggression against Georgia is both a matter of urgent moral and strategic importance to the United States of America"), stressing again the NATO role ("In this country -- it's that little country, a country whose territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty NATO countries reaffirmed at their summit in April -- terrible violence has occurred."), and then this additional bit regarding NATO and the NATO Membership Action Plan: "NATO's North Atlantic Council should convene in emergency session to demand a ceasefire and begin discussions on both the deployment of an international peacekeeping force to South Ossetia and the implications for NATO's future relationship with Russia, a Partnership for Peace nation. NATO's decision to withhold a Membership Action Plan for Georgia might have been viewed as a green light by Russia for its attacks on Georgia, and I urge the NATO allies to revisit the decision." So McCain would have an emergency session convened and suggests the decision to withold a Membership Action Plan was viewed as a "green light" to Russia to attack Georgia, quite a dubious contention indeed, and with it of course the attendant naked cheer-leading to put Georgia right back at the head of the NATO membership line.
Meantime, contrast this with Obama's most forceful statement: "I have consistently called for deepening relations between Georgia and transatlantic institutions, including a Membership Action Plan for NATO, and we must continue to press for that deeper relationship". Forgive me if I cannot take commenters equating these statements as somehow identical seriously, even if I would have preferred Obama not mention the Membership Action Plan at all. And all these substantive differences apart, we should also mention the important differences in tone, which Jake Tapper spells out a bit here. Tone matters too, in all this. Indeed, very much so. Look, frankly I was somewhat surprised to see the quite heated views of people like Richard Holbrooke and Ronald Asmus on the Georgia issue, and so it is clear that a not insignificant number of Democrats were feeling rather hawkish on the issue, thus the tug and pull with Obama's statements. But make no mistake, even given this back-drop among some of his advisors (or more generally influential Democratic foreign policy voices like Holbrooke's), Obama's comments were significantly more sober than McCain's, and so I am more than happy to stand by my contention that Obama took McCain in the "3 AM test" (which, again, I consider laughable gimmickry, but nonetheless felt compelled to comment on), by the proverbial "mile."

Posted by Gregory on Aug 20, 08  | Comments (47)  | PermaLink
August 11, 2008
MCCAIN: LET'S COMPOUND THE BLUNDER!
We live in a season of risible "3 AM moments", where the breathless commentariat in this country overhear a strange overseas country's name--perhaps with tales of some military action underway--and rush off towards dim-witted debates about what candidate would better handle that resultant red-phone ringing in the middle of the night (this phenomenon I guess most immediately derivative of Mark Penn's desperately lame "positive ad"). This infantile fare passes for serious debate on generally well-regarded sites like Politico.com, or among the beard-stroking class chiming in from a Situation Room near you. There is really nothing we can do about it, this is the sad echo-chamber we dwell in, and it's not going to change anytime soon--so I won't belabor the point here.
This being said, if the horrors inflicted on varied Abkhazians, Ossetians and Georgians this past week (by both sides) must be seen from these provincial, grossly self-interested shores merely through the lens of the U.S. Presidential election, let me chime in very briefly within these contours. Regarding the 3 AM sweepstakes, Obama has taken it by a mile (if his Pavlovian movements to 'sound tougher' after his initial statement were a bit underwhelming, and sadly predictable). Witness this incredibly poor reasoning by McCain, jaw-dropping even by the standards of the mammoth policy ineptitude we've become accustomed to during the reign of Bush 43 and his motley crew of national security miscreants. Here is McCain:
Mr. McCain urged NATO to begin discussions on “the deployment of an international peacekeeping force to South Ossetia,’’ called on the United Nations to condemn “Russian aggression,’’ and said that the secretary of state should travel to Europe “to establish a common Euro-Atlantic position aimed at ending the war and supporting the independence of Georgia.’’
And he said the NATO should reconsider its previous decision and set Georgia – which he called “one of the world’s first nations to adopt Christianity as an official religion’’ — on the path to becoming a member. “NATO’s decision to withhold a membership action plan for Georgia might have been viewed as a green light by Russia for its attacks on Georgia, and I urge the NATO allies to revisit the decision,’’ he said. [my emphasis]
First, what does it matter in this context that Georgia was "one of the world's first nations to adopt Christianity as an official religion"? If it had been the first to adopt Islam, or Judaism, or Buddhism, would the situation be different? Perhaps this might get assorted Christianists in an excited tizzy or such, which come to think of it, might be why some clueless aide to McCain, fresh from a Google sortie, decided to plug this little factoid into his statement. But what is really mind-boggling here is that McCain would have us double-down, and cheer-lead having NATO "revisit" the decision not to extend membership to Georgia! It is precisely this type of profoundly flawed thinking (think too the League of Democracies crapola bandied about from centrist advisors to Obama to the fanciful Kaganites around McCain who want to pick and choose who the supposed good and bad guys are meriting membership in the splendid "League") that has gotten Georgia into this bloody mess.
As George Kennan had put it (would that we had a single diplomat in the entire foreign service of his stature and caliber today):
"(E)xpanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold war era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.
Or, related, as Henry Kissinger had recently written:
"Confrontational rhetoric notwithstanding, Russia's leaders are conscious of their strategic limitations. Indeed, I would characterize Russian policy under Putin as driven in a quest for a reliable strategic partner, with America being the preferred choice...But the movement of the Western security system from the Elbe River to the approaches to Moscow brings home Russia's decline in a way bound to generate a Russian emotion that will inhibit the solution of all other issues. It should be kept on the table without forcing the issue to determine the possibilities of making progress on other issues."
These are the systemic historic forces at play here, and McCain would just idiotically throw fuel on the fire. Meantime, my post here sketched out the specific bill of goods leading to this crisis, whether the ill-advised, rushed handling of Kosovo, or how Saakhasvili's over-reaching was a major factor in contributing to this Russian reaction, among other factors. On this last, C. J. Chivers recaps it well in this NYT piece:
Some diplomats considered Mr. Saakashvili a politician of unusual promise, someone who could reorder Georgia along the lines of a Western democracy and become a symbol of change in the politically moribund post-Soviet states. Mr. Saakashvili encouraged this view, framing himself as a visionary who was leading a column of regional democracy movements.
Other diplomats worried that both Mr. Saakashvili’s persona and his platforms presented an implicit challenge to the Kremlin, and that Mr. Saakashvili made himself a symbol of something else: Russia’s suspicion about American intentions in the Kremlin’s old empire. They worried that he would draw the United States and Russia into arguments that the United States did not want.
This feeling was especially true among Russian specialists, who said that, whatever the merits of Mr. Saakashvili’s positions, his impulsiveness and nationalism sometimes outstripped his common sense.
The risks were intensified by the fact that the United States did not merely encourage Georgia’s young democracy, it helped militarize the weak Georgian state. [my emphasis]
We know from Kennan that NATO encirclement of Russia is ultimately a poor idea (incidentally, what is the purpose of the NATO alliance anyway with the Soviet Union defeated--nation-building in eastern Afghanistan, or some such?). And Kissinger is right that Moscow has been in the hunt for a "reliable strategic partner, with America being the preferred choice" (remember the Spirit of Ljubljana!), so why push them away allowing a country on Russia's southern under-belly (one far less important to us strategically), to have become such a nettlesome U.S. proxy badgering the Kremlin?
Look, all of this would have been stupid and deeply flawed policy, but at least morally defensible, if we meant to actually defend the Georgians. But we don't, and never will, as this would mean a war with Russia. We've had a tough go of it fighting small militias and tribes in Iraq and Afghanistan, so even McCain would pull back from such unbridled folly (though doubtless some imbecile will pen an op-ed in coming days about the need for NATO airstrikes on Russian forces should they attack Tbilisi UPDATE: Sorry, I was a little off here--and putting aside the imbecile moniker, so as not to get too personal--but we're speaking of Stingers and Javelins, not airstrikes. Impressive 'contentions'!).
So here is where matters stand. Rather than talk and obsess about what we should do, it is the Russians, sad to say, who will determine the fate of Georgia in the coming days and weeks, and so we might take a moment or two and stop and think about what their next moves are likely to be. Will they stop at Gori (just south of Ossetia) as well as a bit to the east of Abkhazia (a similar 'exclusion zone'), or have they now decided to march into Tbilisi and unseat this Government whole stop (I think it's a closer call which way Russia will go than many of us realize at this hour, but won't hazard to make a call just yet. UPDATE: The latest Russian moves would appear to indicate the former). As a Georgian civilian put it more pithily: "The border is where the Russians say it is. It could be here, or it could be Gori". Or, indeed, it could be Tbilisi, as I say.
Meantime, a Georgian soldier tells a U.S. reporter in the same piece: "Write exactly what I say. Over the past few years, I lived in a democratic society. I was happy. And now America and the European Union are spitting on us." They are, aren't they? They had no business making the cheap promises and representations that were made. No business on practical policy grounds. No business on strategic grounds (though I guess it got Rummy another flag, near the Salvadorans, say, for the Mesopotamian "coalition of the willing"). And now our promises are unraveling and nakedly revealed for the sorry lies and crap policy they are, with the emperor revealed to have no clothes, yet again. This is what our foreign policy mandarins masquerade about as they play policy-making, in their Washington work-stations. It's, yes, worse than a crime, rather a sad, pitiable blunder.
And one McCain would have us compound, I stress, again! An honorable man who served his country well, it is clear his time has past and his grasp on the most basic foreign policy calls we'll need to make in the coming years is very tentative indeed. He'll be surrounded by second-tier 'yes-man' realists and residual neo-con swill, few with any ideas worth pursuing if we mean to take the national interest seriously with sobriety and freshness of perspective. So let us help him exit off-stage gracefully, as he served his country with dignity when called upon, but let us not sacrifice our children's future to ignorants with deludely romantic notions of empire. Been there, done that. Indeed, we have a President who has announced a pre-emptive doctrine which allows us to, willy-nilly, instigate regime change when and where we deem appropriate. Who are we to lecture Putin now? What standing do we have to do so? And what parochial and self-satisfied myopia has us indignantly thinking we are some unimpeachable arbitrer of right and wrong in the international system after the disastrous missteps of the past eight sordid years?
If we mean to help the Georgians escape an even worse fate, we must summon up the intelligence and humility to have a dialogue with Putin, Medvedev, Sergie Lavrov, Vitaly Churkin and the rest of them based on straight talk (not of the McCain variety, and if we can somehow find a messenger of the stature and talent to deliver the message in the right way, hard these days), to wit: we screwed up overly propping this guy up and he got too big for his britches, we understand, but for the sake of going forward strategic cooperation (and don't mention Iran here, at least not as the first example)--as well as stopping further civilian loss of life--agree to work with us in good faith towards a status quo ante as much as possible, don't enter Tbilisi, and throw show-boats Sarkozy/Kouchner a bone with some possible talk of a going forward EU peacekeeping role (if non-binding, for the time being). This is roughly what we should be saying/doing now, not having the President step up to the White House mike fresh back from the sand volleyball courts of Beijing to gravely declare Russia's actions are "unacceptable in the 21st century." Such talk will get us nowhere, instead, it might just fan the flames more (as will Cheney's threats of "serious consequences", apparently a favorite sound-bite of his, but this time mentioned only in the context of the U.S.-Russian relationship). Let us be clear: these men's credibility is a sad joke, and Putin knows it only too well. So let's get real. Before it's too late, and more facts are created on the ground, mostly on the backs of innocent civilians throughout Georgia's various regions.
Posted by Gregory on Aug 11, 08  | Comments (176)  | PermaLink
August 09, 2008
GEORGIA ON MY MIND
The commentary being churned out in the Western press regarding Georgia is rather pitiable in the main (most notably this dreary WaPo piffle, stinking of knee-jerk group-think as it does from beginning to end). A few quick points, in no particular order. First, let us disabuse ourselves from the notion that Mr. Saakashvili is some glorious democrat (the election he barely won in January included irregularities, and there continues to be endemic corruption in Tblisi). Second, let us recall that many south Ossetians and Abkhazians are not particularly keen to live under Tbilisi's yoke, indeed some prefer Russian influence to predominate there for the time being. Third, if there is any truth to Russian allegations that there are some 1,500 fatalities in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali--and they were caused by a major initial over-reach by the Georgian military (we will need to wait for more details to emerge)--expect many more brutish bombardments like the Russians apparently have conducted in the Georgian town of Gori, alas. Fourth, some context: ever since the overly hasty recognition of Kosovo went live, Putin has been very keen to intimate what's good for the goose is good for the gander, having personally threatened Saakashvili that Russia would formally recognize as independent states Ossetia and Abkhazia. Unfair and inconvenient, at least to Georgian 'sovereignists' (or, to others, irrendentists)? Yes, to a fashion, as the perils of too breezy analogizing among these different situations is quite clear. Still, the Kosovo precedent was going to be used to Putin's purposes, of course, humiliating as the events in Pristina were to Moscow, and with the barely concealed breezy cheerleading from Brussels and DC adding insult to injury.
Which brings me to a fifth point, and perhaps a more proximate causal factor contributing to this explosion of misfortune in Georgia, namely, that of stupidity, or at least, severe miscalculation. Saakashvili, an apparently quite idealistic 40 year-old former NY lawyer, seems to have erred too much in thinking that giddy summitry with Western big-wigs might pay dividends (or too his far too excited involvement in the Iraq adventure which, incidentally, looks to be coming to a quite precipitous end) but unfortunately, insufficiently appreciated the disastrous waning in U.S. power these past years, despite his constant hankering for NATO membership (which a resurgent Russia will never accept regardless of Kosovo or whatever else, best I can tell), and thus has fallen short with regard to better appreciating a variable which would have been more apropos, namely, a harsh dose of realpolitik. And this despite Putin having warned Saakashvili rather pointedly: "On April 21, Mr. Saakashvili called the Russian leader to demand that he reverse the decision [possible Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia]. He reminded Mr. Putin that the West had taken Georgia’s side in the dispute. And Mr. Putin, according to several of Mr. Saakashvili’s associates, shot back with a suggestion about where they could put their statements. Mr. Saakashvili, prudent for once, shied from uttering the exact wording, but said that Mr. Putin had used “extremely offensive language,” and had repeated the expression several times." Permit me to be less prudent than Mr. Saakashvili, who appears perhaps to be a poor prioritizer of where to be prudent and where not. Mr. Putin told him that he could (and excuse the crudity) stick American and Western European assurances regarding the territorial disputes in question up his rear end, I suspect, and I'm afraid that's not a too inaccurate assessment, if a bit biting and brusque (save if McCain trumps Obama and decides to ride the NATO cavalry up from Kabul to Tbilisi a few months hence--perhaps on the back of some more WaPo interventionist rhapsodizing--devoid of the merest smidgen of appreciation for historical context and subtlety, leading to another toweringly idiotic 'Washington consensus' of some sort).
What's needed now, rather critically, is rather a large dose of humble pie by Mr. Saakashvili (let Solana visit him to hand-hold some, and perhaps then send our own Condi-the-Great too, as face-saver, if she's not too busy showcasing our incompetence elsewhere), with an understanding that the main objective is an immediate cease-fire with the goal of returning to the status quo ante, which is to say, de facto Russian control of the provinces in question. We could do far worse (indeed Putin may be minded to just have them go ahead and declare their independence under Russian control, or simply annex them), and bloviating about the death of the Rose Revolution in far-flung Abkhazia and Ossetia, while doubtless fun cocktail chit-chat among the grandees of our favorite editorial pages, well, Putin might have an idea or two where to put such talk, and it won't save any lives at this urgent juncture either. Put differently, let's stop our fanciful reverie from points removed (and where the ramifications don't include rampant lost of life, say) in favor of trying to dampen back a bloodbath that is looming today in the Caucasus, especially should Saakashvili delude himself some quasi-cavalry might be in the offing, and push back on the Russians even harder. For there is no cavalry coming, save if cavalry can be construed as 'we must respect Georgian sovereignty' soundbites that will blanket around clueless anchors striving mightily to pose intelligible questions on the cable news circuit that might be overheard at the Tbilisi Marriott.
Last, and somewhat tangential, interesting to note in passing (though highly unsurprising) that when we are are not speaking of a hiccup in financial regulatory issues in Moscow or such (where Medvedev was taking to flexing some muscle), it is Putin who leaves Beijing for the staging ground of the operation, not Medvedev. All the more reason for Saakashvili to be concerned...
NB: Larison is on top of this as well, just keep scrolling over there--but this post might be a good starting point--as it's particularly cogent (especially his contention that "Kissinger and Cohen are right", with which I mostly concur, and helpfully saves me the trouble too of having to write about yet another Kagan).
UPDATE: WP: "U.N. Security Council met for the fourth time in four days, with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad accusing Moscow of seeking "regime change" in Georgia and resisting attempts to make peace." You can't make this stuff up. You'd think a capable diplomat like Zalmay K. would steer clear of such phraseology, not least given the gross attendant ironies given the Iraq imbroglio, no? Incidentally, I've espied commenters at other sites (where this post has been picked up) who appear to find me unsympathetic to the Georgian side. Not at all. It's precisely because I care about innocent Georgian lives being needlessly spilled that I'm so dismayed by Saakashvili's recklessness, including notably his naive belief in Western support should Putin get nasty (by the by, and to stress again, the notion that Georgia would become a full-fledged member of NATO was always absurd fare, and shame on Brussels and Washington for playing pretend). I should say too, any concerted military action by the Russians south of Gori begins to well cross red-lines (Putin will argue Gori is too close a staging ground towards Tskhinvali--not necessarily false, though civilian apartments don't pose a threat, but again, if you believe Russian reports, Saakashvili's excesses in Tskhinvali were even worse). Meantime, Saakashvili might take a peek at his reward for 2,000 men in Iraq: here is our charming POTUS (courtesy of Andrew Sullivan, for which thanks) cavorting about the sand volley-ball dunes of festive Beijing during Misha's time of troubles. Nero meets Crawford meets NASCAR, I guess. Send the pic to other possibly interested parties in Kiev, Central Asia and the Baltics too....
Posted by Gregory on Aug 9, 08  | Comments (18)  | PermaLink

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