What Does Oil Cost?
Posted by Jacob Stokes
Right on time, just as DC recovers from the salmon-induced hangover of the president’s State of the Union address, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce begins calling the administration’s plan to shift the country’s energy mix away from oil and coal “unrealistic” and insisting it’s too costly. Is the Chamber right? Let’s examine.
If shifting to clean energy is too costly, what does the status quo cost? As Gen. Wes Clark points out, the costs are enormous in terms of the money Americans send overseas:
It’s an $821-million-a-day addiction to foreign oil. That’s $300 billion a year, or about $1,000 for every American—man, woman, and child. In June we sent $27 billion abroad; in July it was over $29 billion.
Our dependency on foreign oil costs more than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s about 60 percent of the total U.S. trade deficit. If we weren’t sending the money away, it would be enough to repair America’s woeful infrastructure in a few years. Enough to send every child in America to college, and fix public education to boot. At a time when we’ve lost 8 million jobs, it would be enough to hire 3 million Americans at $100,000 per year, or almost 8 million at about $40,000 per year.
If a foreign country came here and said, “Pay us this tax,” we would consider it an act of war. Yet when a political party discusses trying to recapture $300 billion a year in taxes, it’s political suicide. Americans pay billions of dollars per month to foreign countries—some of them incubators of terrorism, nearly all of them unstable dictatorships—and it isn’t even a campaign issue.
And those are only the dollars we measure. Energy market scholar Peter Maass points out that a simple accounting from the trade balance misses a huge amount of the total costs, which are difficult to quantify. But a full accounting would likely show what anyone seriously watching already knows: it’s extremely expensive. Maass explains:
January 27, 2011
We've Seen This Movie Before
Posted by Michael Cohen
Reading through the Pentagon Papers today I came across this rather unsettling quote from early 1968 - remind you of any wars being fought today?
The paper entitled "Alternate Strategies" painted a bleak picture of American failure in Vietnam:
We lost our offensive stance because we never achieved the momentum essential for
military victory. Search and Destroy operations can't build this kind of momentum and
the RVNAF was not pushed hard enough. We became mesmerized by statistics of known doubtful validity, choosing to place our faith only in the ones that showed progress . . . In short, our setbacks were due to wishful thinking compounded by a massive intelligence collection and/or evaluation failure.
And right on cue Martine van Bijlert makes basically the same argument about the war in Afghanistan:
It has been said many times before, but the gap between rhetoric and what people experience is mind-boggling and ultimately leaves you feeling speechless. How often do you want to keep pointing out that media reporting is being manipulated; that the gap between what policymakers believe privately and what they propagate in public is so vast that it must hurt their brains (not to mention their conscience); that the definitions of success are being defined by what can be achieved and measured, rather than by what could be relevant.
Eerie, isn't it?
Whither the Tea Party on the defense budget?
Posted by Jacob Stokes
So will they or won’t they? Amidst the hype during last year’s election season, there was much ink/bytes spilled over the question of whether Tea Partiers would include defense in their budget-cutting fervor. As we come into budget season, it’s time for the rubber to hit the road -- and it’s beginning to look as though the Tea Partiers are going to cave under pressure from their party brethren, as well as for the age-old reason that defense spending benefits their district. Enter this story from today’s NYT and this quote about how House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon is “educating” – read: whipping – new members about the threats facing America:
Mr. McKeon, for one, is concerned, and has quietly been meeting with the new members — a number have no experience in government — to educate them on national security. One Congressional staff member who closely monitors the military said, “While McKeon would say that all members are entitled to advocate for positions they want to advocate, what he has been doing is working to educate new members on what the threats are, and why we need the defense budget close to where it is.”
To be fair, my contention that these new members are getting whipped into backing off defense cuts assumes that they were for reducing military spending in the first place, a proposition which Benjamin Friedman at CATO has so skillfully dissected.
It’s not a sure thing that the Tea Partiers have folded, far from it. There are still many high-level conservatives – most notably Eric Cantor and even Mitch McConnell – who have endorsed including defense spending in budget cuts. But my guess is it’s going to continue shaping up as we’ve seen the last few weeks, with assaults on civilian and diplomatic international affairs budgets – those at State, USAID, UN funding, etc. – without anyone calling out Buck McKeon for insisting on funding the programs the Pentagon and the service chiefs don’t even want, such as the EFV.
The end result of all this is the defense budget is unlikely to see any real cuts while the cuts that are made will undermine the civilian and diplomatic efforts across the world, including in Afghanistan and Pakistan. For a masterful takedown of this proposition as well as an explanation of why it shows conservatives still don’t understand today’s wars, see Andrew Exum.
January 26, 2011
State of the Union: On Democracy in the Arab World
Posted by Michael Wahid Hanna
Last night’s State of the Union address was, unsurprisingly, focused on domestic issues. For someone concentrating on the broader Middle East, the speech’s oblique references to foreign policy did not convey a clear sense of the social unrest and political malaise that have been on display for weeks as demonstrations and acts of self-immolation spread across the region. The only reference to these developments was the President’s brief reflections of the stunning developments in Tunisia:
“And we saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”
Absent from this remark was any mention of the unprecedented and ongoing demonstrations on the streets of cities throughout Egypt, a key ally in the region and a recipient of billions of dollars of U.S. assistance. In light of decades-long U.S. ties with and support for the autocratic Arab order, the United States is not in a position to radically revise policy in the space of a paragraph or two. U.S. support for Egypt and the Mubarak regime has been deep and consistent since the signing of the Camp David peace accords under Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar al-Sadat. And while the fundamental justice of the protestors’ cause might lead to a visceral sympathy for them, in many ways avoiding direct reference might be preferable to a short and transparently disingenuous statement.
For purely instrumentalist reasons, our relationship to political reform and democratization in the Arab world has been inconsistent. Short-term interests and considerations of stability have often taken precedence over long-held ideals about political participation and democratic norms. For the United States, the freedom to think proactively about democratic change in the post-Cold War Middle East continues to be inhibited by the events of 1979 and the Islamic revolution in Iran. Hence we have responded differently to portents of democratization depending on possible outcomes and geopolitical advantage. The post-election protest movement following the 2009 Iranian elections was greeted with genuine, if muted, excitement on the part of the United States. Other instances, such as Hamas’s successful foray in electoral politics in 2006 hastened policy retrenchment. The United States likes democracy when the right people win.
It is only natural that we would be more eager for like-minded leaders to emerge from periods of political transition. Again, while understandable in the short term, our perennial hesitation has become problematic over the course of decades. The Arab world and its leaders have proven wholly immune to the very notions of gradualism and internally-directed liberalization and there have been precious few political transitions to speak of. This has had quite obvious negative ramifications for U.S. interests in the region and beyond. While the United States cannot force political openings, our policies have clearly hindered their emergence.
However, the social unrest now emerging throughout the region and testing key assumptions of U.S. policy are fuelled by local discontent and popular organizing that has little to do with our State of the Union, as opposed to the frayed and tattered state of unions throughout the Arab world. In light of the disastrous state of affairs in the Arab world wrought by years of conflict, mismanagement, and repression, it is incumbent to think realistically about how we can support the democratic aspirations of Tunisians, Egyptians, and others. This cannot simply be a rhetorical exercise, and words alone will not shift political realities on the ground. And we must bear in mind that the prospect of political reform in the region is fraught with serious dangers. But while the Egyptian situation might not result in immediate effect, we should be on notice that our inability to encourage much-needed political reform by our allies might in the end endanger the very stability we prize.
Counterterrorism in the State of the Union: A Tale of Two Paragraphs
Posted by Eric Martin
Given that the State of the Union address tilted heavily toward domestic issues, should come as no surprise that US counterterrorism policy was allotted a mere two paragraphs. That said, the two paragraphs are instructive, and offer a stark contrast in approaches and, ultimately, efficacy.
First, the good:
Of course, as we speak, al Qaeda and their affiliates continue to plan attacks against us. Thanks to our intelligence and law enforcement professionals, we're disrupting plots and securing our cities and skies. And as extremists try to inspire acts of violence within our borders, we are responding with the strength of our communities, with respect for the rule of law, and with the conviction that American Muslims are a part of our American family.
Here, Obama hits all the right notes in highlighting what are by far the most effective tools in our counterterrorism kit: intelligence and law enforcement, as buttressed by cooperation from local communities, which can act as a tripwire in terms of detecting and reporting nascent plots.
Obama's direct reference to the American Muslim community is particularly timely considering some of the noxious anti-Muslim bigotry finding favor amongst certain elected Republican officials and pundits - notably, Peter King and his planned hearings focusing on Muslim-American terror activities and support for same.
As mentioned above, local communities can play a vital role in interdicting terror plots before they are carried out, and, contra Peter King, American Muslims have been instrumental in these efforts. According to the Muslim Public Affairs Council database:
7 out of the last 10 Al-Qaeda plots threatening the U.S. since 9/11 have been prevented with the help of Muslims.
Overall, almost 40% of all Al-Qaeda terror plots threatening the U.S since 9/11 were foiled with the assistance of Muslim communities.
However, that support could begin to wane if perceptions of persecution lead to alienation, fear and ambivalence.
While Obama's first paragraph was near-flawless, his second misses the mark in many ways:
January 25, 2011
The White House's Credibility Gap on Afghanistan Deepens
Posted by Michael Cohen
I've been watching State of the Union speech for for probably 30 years and I've yet to hear a memorable one - and tonight will not break that streak.
What a snoozer. Although frankly from a political perspective I thought it was actually pretty effective - makes Obama look like the adult-in-chief who is willing to work across the aisle with Republicans. But from a policy perspective there was very little of interest and it took all my energy to stop playing online scrabble . . . and in the end, scrabble won.
But then there was the foreign policy section, which actually wasn't boring . . . but instead blood-boiling:
We have also taken the fight to al Qaeda and their allies abroad. In Afghanistan, our troops have taken Taliban strongholds and trained Afghan Security Forces. Our purpose is clear – by preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people, we will deny al Qaeda the safe-haven that served as a launching pad for 9/11.
Thanks to our heroic troops and civilians, fewer Afghans are under the control of the insurgency. There will be tough fighting ahead, and the Afghan government will need to deliver better governance. But we are strengthening the capacity of the Afghan people and building an enduring partnership with them. This year, we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead. And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home.
I'm not sure how this could be any more misleading (or insulting with the obligatory 9/11 reference):
- Training of the Afghan security forces is not progressing well or did the President miss the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan testify this week that our efforts on this front are failing badly.
- Fewer Afghans might be under the control of the Taliban but far more Afghans live in provinces where security is deteriorating and in 2010 far more of them were killed in the war-fighting.
- Building an "enduring partnership" with the Afghan people; somehow I'm thinking the part where Hamid Karzai today lashed out at the international community "for fomenting a 'crisis' by pressing him to inaugurate parliament" is not what he had in mind.
- As for the notion that the Afghan government will deliver better governance . . the less said about that the better.
I'm a former speechwriter so I get that the President wants to offer American people a rosy view of the war - but nothing about how he described the situation in Afghanistan provides an accurate assessment of what is happening in Afghanistan. And there was no sense at all - beyond mere platitudes - of what troop withdrawals in Afghanistan will look like or under what conditions they will occur (just that they will happen, even likely in truncated form).
Two paragraphs of platitudes about a conflict being waged by 100,000 US troops is embarrassing and the lack of candor and public forthrightness from this White House about the war in Afghanistan should be downright scandalous. This Administration seems content to kick the can down the road and cede public diplomacy efforts to General Petraeus whose public pronouncements of progress are not even considered credible by other US officials.
There was once a time when I defended this president from the public pressure being placed on him by his military officers to escalate in Afganistan; but there is no defending him now - he seems tragically content to wallow in the same pool of generalities and misleading claims of progress about the war as they do.
*Oh and while I liked the section on Tunisia; the failure to mention anti-government demonstrators in Egypt kind of took the bloom off that rose.
Foreign Affairs Portion of the SOTU
Posted by Jacob Stokes
The State of the Union Address has been leaked to the National Journal. Here's the foreign affairs portion. What do you think?
Just as jobs and businesses can now race across borders, so can new threats and new challenges. No single wall separates East and West; no one rival superpower is aligned against us.
And so we must defeat determined enemies wherever they are, and build coalitions that cut across lines of region and race and religion. America’s moral example must always shine for all who yearn for freedom, justice, and dignity. And because we have begun this work, tonight we can say that American leadership has been renewed and America’s standing has been restored.
Look to Iraq, where nearly 100,000 of our brave men and women have left with their heads held high; where American combat patrols have ended; violence has come down; and a new government has been formed. This year, our civilians will forge a lasting partnership with the Iraqi people, while we finish the job of bringing our troops out of Iraq. America’s commitment has been kept; the Iraq War is coming to an end.
Of course, as we speak, al Qaeda and their affiliates continue to plan attacks against us. Thanks to our intelligence and law enforcement professionals, we are disrupting plots and securing our cities and skies. And as extremists try to inspire acts of violence within our borders, we are responding with the strength of our communities, with respect for the rule of law, and with the conviction that American Muslims are a part of our American family.
January 24, 2011
What’s Next After the “Palestine Papers”?
Posted by Jacob Stokes
Last September when I read Charlie Kupchan’s op-ed in the International Herald Tribune telling the Palestinians that they should “just say yes” and make grand diplomatic concessions in the hopes of jumpstarting the peace process in the Middle East, I didn’t necessarily like the conclusion, but I agreed with it. Kupchan wrote:
The Palestinian Authority should make Israel an offer it can’t refuse by leapfrogging the logjam and declaring publicly that it is prepared to accept the outlines of the deal that successive Israeli governments have put on the table.
To the end of securing its main objective — statehood — the Palestinian Authority should acquiesce to major Jewish settlements in the West Bank in a swap for territory in Israel; it should give up the right of return for most Palestinian refugees and instead secure monetary compensation; it should accept effective demilitarization of a Palestinian state in order to meet Israel’s security needs; and the Palestinian Authority should aim to locate its capital in Arab East Jerusalem.
Now, if the “Palestine Papers” released today by al Jazeera aren’t debunked as a fraud – as Palestinian leaders are now claiming in a frantic effort to backpedal – it appears as though Palestinian leaders had come to much the same conclusion as Kupchan, and years before. And unfortunately, both they and Kupchan were wrong: They recognized their relatively weak bargaining position, made grand gestures and got nothing for it.
What will the release of these papers mean? Matt Duss has a good first take. He writes that the papers “seriously challenge the theory that unquestioning U.S. support for Israel is necessary to give Israel the confidence to make concessions for peace”; that the papers “reveal the massive disparity in power between the two sides” (again, Kupchan); and that they will only serve to weaken an already embattled Palestinian leadership.
The Price Being Paid
Posted by Michael Cohen
In recent weeks I've been trying quite unsuccessfully to write less about Afghanistan. The reason is simple; how many times can one keep making the same argument over and over again - without seeing any sort of change in strategy - before it becomes simply exhausting. For nearly two years I have been writing about the strategy underpinning the war in Afghanistan both here at Democracy Arsenal and elsewhere - sometimes cogently, other times not.
And I have to say it has been nothing but a constant and unceasing source of frustration as assumptions continue to go untested, mistakes are repeated, missions creep in the direction of further escalation, military and political leaders obfuscate and purposely seek to inflame the public, and platitudes have taken the place of anything resembling rigorous analysis.
Sometimes when you focus so much energy on strategy and tactics the human toll is forgotten. Then I read stories like this one in the Los Angeles Times, which recounts the devastating impact of the war on just one Marine regiment, and I realize that voices must continually raised against the war in Afghanistan and the manner in which it is being prosecuted: When the Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, deployed to the Sangin district of Afghanistan's Helmand province in late September, the British soldiers who had preceded them warned the Americans that the Taliban would be waiting nearly everywhere for a chance to kill them.But the Marines, ordered to be more aggressive than the British had been, quickly learned that the Taliban wasn't simply waiting. In Sangin, the Taliban was coming after them. In four years there, the British had lost more than 100 soldiers, about a third of all their nation's losses in the war.In four months, 24 Marines with the Camp Pendleton-based Three-Five have been killed. More than 140 others have been wounded, some of them catastrophically, losing limbs and the futures they had imagined for themselves. The Marines' families have been left devastated, or dreading the knock on the door.
Please read the entire article. It packs an emotional wallop; but it also tells a story that needs to be re-told - about a war that is tangential to US interests; that is being poorly prosecuted by our military leaders; that has been sold by our political leaders as though it is in this nation's vital interests when it is anything but; and that is wreaking a terrible toll on both our fighting men and women in uniform and their families.
But above all, it is a reminder that this terrible and unnecessary war that is, in reality, doing very little to keep Americans safe is ruining too many young lives, both here and in Afghanistan.
January 21, 2011
Neocons Make the Sovereignty Argument for China
Posted by Jacob Stokes
Nina Hachigian of the Center for American Progress explains how American neoconservatives undermine the argument that China needs to be a responsible global stakeholder:
At base, however, Washington and Beijing have divergent ideas about how a great power should conduct itself in the 21st century. In that battle of ideas, China gets support from an unlikely corner: American neoconservatives.
China ducks international responsibility by citing its sovereignty. Neoconservatives unwittingly support that view when they insist the U.S. compromises its own sovereignty if it engages fully with today’s international institutions and abides by international laws. This sends Beijing a dangerous message: Stewardship of the international order is not the business of a great power.
She goes on:
Yet some American neoconservatives find themselves on the side of China’s Communist leaders in this debate. Though they have tended to criticize the Obama administration for not being adequately tough on Beijing, their own ideal of national sovereignty supports China’s.
John Bolton, President George W. Bush’s U.N. ambassador, lays out a current conservative view in his book, “How Barack Obama Is Endangering Our National Sovereignty.” Bolton argues that those who advocate for the U.S. to engage with international organizations to address global problems are really saying we should “cede some of our sovereignty to institutions that other nations will also influence.”
“That,” Bolton warns, “is unquestionably a formula for reducing U.S. autonomy and reducing our control over the government.”
So while China invokes a 19th-century ideal of sovereignty to justify decisions that harm U.S. interests, some neoconservatives are championing the same antiquated notions — legitimizing China’s rejection of international standards and rules.
In other words, unless America chooses to engage with and participate in international institutions and global governance, forefeiting a small amount of sovereignty and putting up with the frustrations inherent in multilateral diplomacy, there’s very little chance China will play by the rules either – and that will mean more than just little frustrations.
January 20, 2011
Is the Fuel Swap Back? Again?
Posted by Kelsey Hartigan
Could it be? Is the Zombie fuel deal back?With the P5 + 1 talks kicking off tomorrow in Istanbul, rumors of a revived fuel swap are surfacing. Again. Iran has denied claims that it intends to propose new terms for a fuel swap and the U.S. is saying that it’s open to the idea but not sure it wants to be the one to bring it up. It’s hard to remember, but despite all of the hype, the original Tehran Research Reactor deal was never intended to solve the Iranian nuclear question. It was however, supposed to serve as a confidence building measure. A big baby step of sorts. If the reports are true and parties are once again considering a fuel swap, it’s possible that this time around there could be some progress on the enrichment debate. Or at least the appearance of progress. In December, Hillary Clinton confirmed that Iran is "entitled to the peaceful use of civil nuclear energy," if and when Iran can demonstrate that that it is complying with its international obligations. A few Iran hawks on the Hill decided they didn't agree with this and announced instead that they preferred to "continue ratcheting up" the pressure on Iran, which for the record, is ridiculous. The U.S. and its partners have the right to demand that Iran temporarily halt its enrichment, but Iran’s hardliners can be counted on to torpedo any agreement that advertises such a requirement. The original TRR deal went south after Western diplomats publicly congratulated themselves for pulling a fast one on Iran and Ahmadinejad ran into trouble at home. It's hard for some to remember, but even Ahmadinejad has a base.
"China as Behemoth" Has a Military Edge
Posted by Jacob Stokes
Dan Drezner has a good roundup pushing back on Forbes magazine’s random and stupid article contending that Chinese President Hu Jintao is the most powerful man in the world. (Harry Reid also made a similar mistake, calling Hu a “dictator”.) Drezner tags the “Hu as powerful dictator” line as part of bigger “China as rising hegemon” meme. I’m not sure I agree with Drezner’s argument that the scope of Hu’s power is the argument that those who want to rebut the “China as hegemon” crowd need to target. It seems to me the more pernicious line is that China’s military is out of control. That argument contends that no matter how peaceful China’s civilian leaders seem, the military’s continual modernization and technological progress shows China’s desire to challenge American power the world over (forget the fact that the American military is still vastly superior and no one should be surprised by a rising country modernizing its military). And even if China's civilian leaders wanted to stop them, they couldn't. FPI has trumpeted this line
, as does Max Boot.
That line is convenient because it hedges (and everyone knows China fear-mongerers love hedging!) against any softening of the line coming from the civilian leadership. If the line softens – and I’m not saying it will necessarily, but it could -- it’s harder to trump up China as an enemy and make the case for increased defense spending to ensure the security of American allies in the Far East. Finally, it has the imprimatur of being intellectually aware, as there’s been widespreaddebate and analysis about the free-for-all going on in Beijing when it comes to conduct of Chinese foreign policy. Of course, by insisting that China’s rise cannot possibly be peaceful and therefore American power should be used to subvert its rise in all forms, peaceful or not, American conservatives are empowering the hardliners in Beijing – self-fulfilling their prophecy.
January 19, 2011
Tactics vs. Strategy in Afghanistan
Posted by Michael Cohen
Over at abumuqawama and registan.net, Josh Foust and Andrew Exum have posted a rather interesting exchange that examines the tactical efforts of the US military in Afghanistan. It's a fascinating debate between two smart people and one that I highly recommend.
But, and I mean this not to be insulting to either, it's a digression even diversion from the real issues regarding the current US mission in Afghanistan. To explain check out this quote from Andrew:
U.S. counterinsurgency operations at the tactical level were some of the best I had ever seen. Caveat lector, I do not know whether or not these improved tactics will yield a strategic effect. There are too many phenomena that we cannot even observe much less measure. And we still have a lot of known pains in our asses (like Afghan governance and sanctuaries in Pakistan) that could render tactical gains ephemeral.
It's good that Andrew makes this connection (because there seem to be a lot of folks who don't) but he's dramatically downplaying it's importance. In the end, it doesn't really matter how good the US military gets at counter-insurgency and it doesn't really matter if the Arghandab Valley is more secure than it was a year ago; particularly if the larger strategic impediments to success in Afghanistan remain in place. Indeed, our fetishization of tactical "successes" has become a distraction from our abundant strategic failures in Afghanistan.
Over the 18 months we've seen no evidence that the Afghan government is seriously interested in clamping down on corruption or is able to provide more effective governance for its citizens. We've seen no evidence that Pakistan has any interest in turning against the Afghan Taliban (in fact quite the opposite). We've seen little evidence that the ANSF will be able to take over from ISAF in providing security any time soon and the same goes for the police. And on the latter point, the lack of an effective judiciary system in the country tends to demonstrate how uselss a police force we are likely creating. All of this is happening while the clock is ticking on US engagement and NATO allies are becoming increasingly wary of their commitment to the fight in Afghanistan.
In short, from a strategic perspective we've seen very little progress on our larger objectives that are (and this is rather crucial) supposed to support the tactical gains that folks in the US military love to brag about. (And if I sound like a broken record on this point . . . it's because I am).
This is elemental to the success or failure of our mission and speak to the sustainability of our current operations. Indeed, if there are no guarantees that the ANSF can take over security in the Arghandab valley any time soon or that the government can provide vital services or that the spigot of fighters from Pakistan can be turned off . . . then all we doing here is "mowing the lawn."
The worst part of this is that by believing enhanced security in the Arghandab valley or elsewhere in southern and eastern Afghanistan is a metric of success not only distracts us from our real challenges, but it allows military commanders and in turn political leaders to resist needed shifts in strategy.
So for example, the recent "success" in killing Taliban insurgents is used, in part, as a justification for not embracing a more robust political strategy of reconciliation. Why should we if the enemy is on the run? We're winning, or so the story goes, and thus it's not a good time to open up a political channel or embrace confidence-building measures that might bring the Taliban to the table. From this perspective, believing that we are winning tactically in Afghanistan is our greatest curse; in fact, it's the root of all our problems. You see, if we recognized we weren't winning, we might shift course a la surge 2007 in Iraq, but instead we see progress where there isn't and ignore the many signs of failure.
This brings me to the final point: Andrew's evoking of the Wire (aka the best TV show in history):
I use The Wire a lot to explain everything from Lebanese politics to counterinsurgency, and I would liken the U.S. Army to the character Ellis Carver: when we meet him in Season One, all he wants to do is kick ass and take names. By Season Five, though, he’s become a much smarter police officer. He’s taken the time to get to know the people he’s trying to protect and can thus better separate the bad guys from all the people just trying to get on with their lives.
We could spend a whole week making a connection between international affairs and the Wire, but I think this misses the crucial takeaway from the Wire. Carver is not a smart police officer . . . he is a tragic figure. He doesn't realize that knowing the neighborhood better and separating the bad guys from ordinary folk does not change the fundamental nature of the Drug War, which overwhelms all efforts at effective policing.
You bust one corner boy, another one sprouts up; you take down a package, another comes in; you arrest a drug lord, guess what another one takes his place. Unless you try to change the very strategy a la Bunny Colvin and Hamsterdam, you're just spitting against the wind.
So if there is a lesson from the Wire it is that the tactical efforts of the cops is a waste of time and resources. It doesn't matter how good they get at their jobs because ultimately the game is the game . . and the game is rigged.
Sounds like Afghanistan, doesn't it?
January 18, 2011
Wanna Tighten the Screws on China? Focus on Coalition Building
Posted by Jacob Stokes
Chinese President Hu Jintao visits Washington this week amid much hang-wringing about continued obstinacy from China on a range of issues. So the question of the day is: What’s the best way to get China to play ball and become a more responsible power? One school of thought suggests the U.S. continue to ratchet up its responses to Chinese actions. But as Les Gelb points out, too much ratcheting on either side will empower the hawks in each country, leading to recriminations and a souring of relations between the two nations. That dynamic serves the interests of neither country.
In order to avoid that fate, and to more effectively pressure China, the U.S should avoid the G-2 framework which frames problems as bilateral. Instead, the U.S. should focus on doing the diplomatic spadework to build coalitions to lobby the Middle Kingdom to change its behavior. There are three reasons why this approach makes sense.
First, almost every issue cited in discussions of a U.S.-China rift affects countries beside the U.S. And those countries largely want to see the same policy solutions as the U.S. Talking currency? Engage other developing countries whose export sectors suffer from the artificially low value of the renminbi. Worried about the protection of intellectual property and indigenous innovation? Enlist our European and other Asian allies to push China to pay for licensing of software and remove regulations that force companies to release proprietary technology in order to enter the Chinese market. Feeling hot in here? Engage the Global South and other developing countries – those who will feel the effects of climate change most dramatically – to pressure China to continue to improve its environmental policies. Oceans feeling a little tense? Follow Secretary Clinton’s lead and pick up the pieces via ASEAN and other Asian regional fora when Chinese aggression spooks its neighbors; that would create a united international front, backed but not necessarily led by the U.S., against sprawling Chinese territorial claims. I could go on. But the point is: When possible, encourage others to lead the way.
On Village Razing . . . and Counter-Insurgency
Posted by Michael Cohen
There's been a lot of back and forth between Paula Broadwell and Josh Foust about the issue of village razing in Afghanistan. Those who need to catch up can follow the debate here, here and here.
I won't bother to summarize the entire discussion, but it began with what I think can be charitably described as Paula's less than empathetic response to an Afghan village being destroyed. What I find most striking about this is not the rather bloodless manner in which Broadwell describes the incident (although that is notable) but rather the fascinating, and unintentional, insight into how dramatically the war in Afghanistan has shifted in opposition to the population-centric policies being espoused a year ago.
A lot of COIN advocates will tell you that kinetic action is integral to war-fighting and that even though airstrikes are up 300% and targeted killings are on the rise and more homes are being destroyed since General David Petraeus took over command . . . it's still just counter-insurgency.
But for those with long memories the operational approach of ISAF forces in Afghanistan under General McChrystal was to avoid civilian casualties and even property destruction at all costs, even at the risk of putting US troops in harm's way. (Some even argued that protecting civilians was actually more important than killing insurgents).
Indeed as Foust points out
, when ISAF troops went into Marjah last February they appeared to be far more concerned about village destruction then what you are seeing in the Arghandab Valley today - and at the time went to far greater lengths to avoid bringing harm to both person and property there.
But look if you don't want to believe me; how about believing the guidance issued by General Stanley McChrystal
to his troops:
Conventional military action against insurgents consumes considerable resources with little real return and is likely to alienate the people we are trying to secure. Large scale operations to kill or capture militants carry a significant risk of causing civilian casualties and collateral damage. If civilians die in a firefight, it does not matter who shot him - we still failed to protect them from harm. Destroying a home or property jeopardizes the livelihood of an entire family - and creates more insurgents. We sow the seeds of our demise.
I find myself in violent agreement with Stanley McChrystal even if I think trying to fight a war on these terms is nearly impossible. But what McChrystal says here is also in violent disagreement from what Broadwell is describing happened in the Arghandab Valley. Indeed, it's hard for me to imagine that had this occurred in Marjah or elsewhere in Afghanistan when he was commander McChrystal would have been supportive of such actions. They appear to run directly counter to his guidance to troops - and yet I haven't seen anyone from ISAF publicly criticize the methods that are being employed in the Arghandab Valley.
Indeed, look at what Broadwell says about the clearing operation that razed a village to the ground: "Clearing operations are a necessary evil to weed out the Taliban, and they often leave devastating destruction in the wake. But what Aziz [President Karzai's advisor, Mohammad Sadiq Aziz] failed to note is the tremendous effort some units, like 1-320th, have made to rebuild his country." Does anyone really believe that because the US threw some money at the villagers this just washed away the sense of anger and frustration these individuals felt toward Americans?
You don't get a mulligan because you rebuilt the town you leveled.
But it's a far cry from what COIN advocates were saying a year ago. Then US/ISAF destruction of property was a bad thing because it "creates more insurgents." Today, destroying property, not such a bad thing because we helped the people whose homes were destroyed to rebuild them i.e. building trust.
It's perhaps another example that COIN advocates tend to define COIN by whatever definition furthers their arguments at that exact moment.
Armed Social Work in Action
Posted by Michael Cohen
This might be the greatest, most depressing and yet bizarrely symbolic picture depicting the US effort to stabilize and pacify Afghanistan. Here in an article from the New York Times that references a "humanitarian assistance patrol in Ghazni Province" which handed out "crank-powered radios, books, candy and drinks."
But check out the title of the book in the picture below:
That's right, US soliders are handing out English-language copies of "Chicken Soup for the Soul" for Afghan villagers.
Truly, you can't make this stuff up.
January 17, 2011
More Ideas For A Constructive Foreign Policy Debate
Posted by David Shorr
I spent last weekend at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School for a conference the Stanley Foundation co-sponsored with three of our favorite colleagues. The main subject was the prospect and challenge of international cooperation amidst pervasive change, but there were a couple of nuggets for the domestic politics of foreign policy. The first came from Rich Williamson, a highly accomplished practitioner and pillar of the Republican FP establishment. Rich's comment offers a sort of truce for some of the most contentious strains of the debate, one well worth exploring:
America’s foreign policy properly is driven in the first instance by national security concerns and then by vital interests, many of which will be economic. Yet human rights are integral to the American character. And a world in which human rights are respected is a safer, more secure and better world. At the very least we should speak out for voiceless victims and in behalf of human rights. During my many diplomatic jobs I have spoken the truth to many bad actors who have done bad things, and they have never been surprised. They know they are doing bad things. Rather they are surprised when America does not speak up. And when America is silent on such trespass of basic human rights it gives them more space to continue their abuse of human rights.
It sure would be nice to reach some consensus about dealing with repressive foreign leaders who present other problems for us besides their abuse of rights. The "coddling dictators" trope is classic political point-scoring. And those who argue that resolute-ness is all you need to whip bad guys into line are selling Americans unrealistic ideas about how we can achieve our aims in today's world. I know for a fact that many of my conservative friends don't believe this, and I appreciated Rich saying it.
Don't anyone worry, though, about the new civility stifling all debate and eliding all differences. For a start, I have a slight unease over how Rich's above paragraph is weighted -- it pivots pretty quickly from the acknowledgment of other policy objectives to several sentences on the upholding of human rights. Now back to my Princeton conference story. In a memo that Bruce Jentleson wrote for the conference, I was struck by the following excellent summary of the Bush and Obama administration approaches to US leadership and international legitimacy, as well as the response and results they elicited:
Debating the Tunisian Uprising on Bloggingheads.tv
Posted by Shadi Hamid
Issandr El Amrani and I took to bloggingheads.tv yesterday to debate Tunisia's almost-would-be revolution. What does it mean for the region, and what, if anything, should the US do about it? Issandr's twitter feed and website, The Arabist, has been one of the best places to follow events in Tunisia. A special bonus for viewers: Issandr and I offer predictions on which regime might fall next. We know that people like predictions, even when they're wrong. So we obliged. It is worth noting, however, that no one Middle East analyst on the planet predicted the fall of Tunisia. This, I hope, will be one of the main lessons of Tunisia: No autocratic regime is immune. Everyone is at risk - even the most "stable" among them. In any case, here's our debate. Enjoy:
January 14, 2011
It Isn't All About Us
Posted by Eric Martin
I cannot recommend enough my colleague Michael Cohen's piece on the need to take account of, and accommodate, Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan as part of our own strategic approach going forward. Cohen's assessment is realistic, thorough and takes care to recognize what Pakistani leaders (rightly or wrongly) views as its vital interests in Afghanistan, without falling into the trap of projecting our own goals onto Pakistan's leadership, or simply assuming that Pakistan will abandon its interests in a country it shares a border with for the sake of a mission undertaken by a power half a world away.
In the present context, Pakistan has long cultivated influence in Afghanistan via its Taliban allies as a means to counterbalance its larger, and more territorial vast, rival: India. In fact, as Cohen points out, the Pakistani security apparatus views almost all issues through the prism of India. Says Cohen:
Yet, for a policy that is so apparently solicitous of Pakistani needs, it is quite disconnected from actual Pakistani interests, particularly with regard to Afghanistan. In fact, the campaign to coax the Pakistani military into turning against its Afghan Taliban allies as well as the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan that seeks to defeat the Taliban and strengthen the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai undermines rather than furthers Pakistan's interests. In essence, U.S. policy consists of political and diplomatic efforts to convince Pakistan to act against its perceived interests. Instead, the United States needs to more seriously address Pakistani concerns about Afghanistan's future.
Pundit Accountability - What I Got Wrong
Posted by Michael Cohen
One of my biggest pet peeves as a denizen of the think tank and blogging world is the propensity of my fellow foreign policy analysts to make mistakes and errors of judgment - and never be held accountable for them. Why should we be above reputational scrutiny for making errors in what, after all, is our primary occupation - analysis? And after all a little humility is probably a very good thing, especially when you are regularly standing on a soap box telling other people what they don't know or what they got wrong.
So just to show that I am willing to put my money (or in this case reputation) where my mouth is, I, a bit belatedly, decided to review the lion's share of my blog postings at DA from 2010 and pick out the worst ones for public exposure. (I would encourage other bloggers and analysts to follow suit - it's actually quite cathartic.)
For the most part I feel pretty good about my track record and I think most of my writings hold up to scrutiny - of course is things start going well in Afghanistan I may have to revise this entire post! But there are a few stinkers out there - and while I'm sure I've missed some errors along the way these are the ones that really leaped out to me.
Let's start with this post from May of last year about the attempted Times Square bombing, which is just plain embarrassing and was indeed wrong about where responsibility lay for that foiled attack. I jumped to some overwrought conclusions and my rhetoric was really a bit over the top. I wish I could delete it.
In April, Jim Arkedis wrote what I thought was a rather harsh assessment of a piece I'd written about Afghanistan in Dissent. It seemed a bit unfair . . . but that doesn't really excuse the rather d***ish tone I took in my response. So if you're reading this Jim, my apologies. In November I wrote this rather blistering attack against Wikileaks. Now I still think that the basic approach of Wikileaks is dangerous and undermines US national security in ways that Julian Assange and his band of cohorts don't truly understand. But, I'm chastened a bit by the fact that Wikileaks has responsibly not leaked all the cables they have and has wisely redacted the names of those who might be affected. I'm hardly a Wikileaks supporter but I think there is reason to believe that my initial take on them was perhaps too dogmatic. Ok, now to some more substantive critiques related to Afghanistan. I wrote this in January 2010:
"'The more there is talk of negotiation, the more the Taliban view it as a sign of weakness. How do you make sure the reconciliation process does not embolden the Taliban to go on the march?'" It's a good question and it seems like the answer would be to put greater military pressure on the Taliban, but that isn't the strategy being espoused by General McChrystal."
Careful readers of this blog would know I've switched my position on the necessary precursors to negotiation - and I'm now generally opposed to putting greater military pressure on the Taliban. Honestly, it's a case of my view about the conflict evolving, but there is an apparent contradiction here that should be acknowledged.
Then there is this from April:
The idea that we are able to provide security in places like Helmand and Kandahar is nothing less than sheer folly; that we believe it will turn the tide of the war is far worse.
I stand by the turning the tide argument; but the US has been able to provide somewhat improved security in some parts of Helmand and Kandahar so I should admit that I was perhaps too skeptical in some of my earlier assessments. Of course, I still think those security improvement are mere tactical gains that don't fundamentally shift the strategic deficit in Afghanistan.
This post from June, which postulated that the "worm had turned on Afghanistan" was, um, wrong - and dramatically so. Even worse was my response to the McChrystal firing last June and what it might mean on the ground in Afghanistan:
And while this is unlikely to lead to a wholesale - and much-needed - change in strategy one would imagine that it might lead to other important tactical changes around the margins. For example, it will be very interesting to see if the long-planned offensive in Kandahar, which would almost certainly lengthen US involvement in the Afghan fight, still happens. Or perhaps there will be new efforts to open political negotiations with the Taliban. And I'll even be even more curious to see if the current, restrictive rules of engagement for US troops are relaxed by a general who hardly practiced the same sort of population centric COIN so favored by McChrystal. Quite simply, there is going to be enormous pressure on Petraeus to show results, particularly by December when the first major review of the Afghanistan policy is supposed to occur.
In the end, what matters perhaps more than anything else is that Obama is now quite firmly in charge of Afghan policy - and the longer, even open-ended, commitment favored by the generals is on the outs . . . Petraeus will now be under enormous pressure to stick by his promise to Obama and begin troop withdrawals by 2011. Maybe at one point Obama might have bended the rules or even been flexible if McChrystal or Petraeus were able to show "progress" in Afghanistan; not anymore.
I got the change in the Afghan rules of engagement part correct (but that was kind of an easy one) and I was right to suggest that there would be pressure on Petraeus to show results by December . . . but the how part was off 180 degrees. And the argument that Obama was back in charge of Afghanistan policy; chalk that one up to wishful thinking on my part. I completely misjudged and misunderstood Petraeus and what his ascendancy would mean to the war effort.
I doubled down on this silliness in July with a post postulating that we had hit an inflection point in Afghanistan that leaned toward de-escalation and not escalation. Yeah, not so much. These were perhaps my two worst pieces of prognostication . . . well except for this post that I wrote after the capture of Mullah Baradar by Pakistan:
Not only is this enormous as far as the US war in Afghanistan, but it suggests for perhaps the first time that the Pakistan government is willing to cooperate with the US in going after the Afghan Taliban. One can only imagine the impact on Taliban feelings of security and reliance on Pakistani support: that safe haven ain't feeling so safe anymore. One has to think this will affect the drive toward political reconciliation in a dramatic way - because if you're the Taliban this news suggests that time is no longer necessarily on your side.
I don't think it's an exaggeration to say this may be the most important to thing to happen to the US war in Afghanistan.This has the potential to change the entire complexion of the war in Afghanistan - and for the better. For the first time in a very long time, there is reason for optimism.
Jesus, that is awful. This is a great example of trying to write something that is absolutely outside my lane of knowledge (which is already a fairly narrow country road). At the time, I had a rather poor understanding of Pakistan internal politics . . . and it showed. I just had no idea what I was talking about (perhaps it reflected some desperate desire to say something good about the war).
To that last point, I can't help but note that the three worst blog posts of the year; the ones that most wildly missed the mark; the ones that put the greatest egg on my face - what they each had in common, was that they were perhaps the only three times all year I wrote something that offered an optimistic view of the war in Afghanistan. And as I now know that optimism was sorely misplaced.
I think there might be a lesson there.
Anyway, sorry for the navel-gazing; I'll get back to pessimistic Afghan blogging toot suite.
Accommodating Pakistan's Interests in Afghanistan
Posted by Michael Cohen
Over at World Politics Review I have a new piece looking at the disconnect between America's political and military strategies for dealing with Pakistan: At the heart of the U.S. war in Afghanistan lies a striking and unresolved contradiction. While the U.S. has sent approximately 100,000 troops to this impoverished, landlocked country to combat a fearsome local insurgency, the actual focal point of U.S. policy in the region largely revolves around protecting and stabilizing a country just across Afghanistan's eastern border: Pakistan.It's an ironic but not altogether surprising strategy. After all, Pakistan remains home to Osama bin Laden, his key lieutenants and other terrorist organizations intent on striking American targets. The country maintains a significant nuclear capability, and its ongoing conflict with India has the potential to spark a regional conflagration.Yet, for a policy that is so apparently solicitous of Pakistani needs, it is quite disconnected from actual Pakistani interests, particularly with regard to Afghanistan. In fact, the campaign to coax the Pakistani military into turning against its Afghan Taliban allies as well as the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan that seeks to defeat the Taliban and strengthen the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai undermines rather than furthers Pakistan's interests. In essence, U.S. policy consists of political and diplomatic efforts to convince Pakistan to act against its perceived interests. Instead, the United States needs to more seriously address Pakistani concerns about Afghanistan's future.
You can read the whole thing here
January 13, 2011
A More Civil Discourse -- Foreign Policy Wonks' Edition
Posted by David Shorr
As the country gropes for ways to lower the temperature and make political disagreement less disagreeable, I thought I'd look back to a 2006-07 initiative that brought together a bipartisan group of 20 foreign policy experts. The Stanley Foundation's Bridging the Foreign Policy Divide project was the brainchild of Derek Chollet, who is about to move from the State Department Office of Policy Planning to the White House NSC staff. Together with our our conservative friend and colleague Policy Review Editor Tod Lindberg, we recruited ten bipartisan pairs of co-authors who were commissioned to find points of agreement on different areas of policy. In the preface for the resulting book, I explained how the project worked and offered some reflections on foreign policy bipartisanship and the possibility for a more constructive debate about policy. I quote a couple passages below, but if you'd like to read the preface, it's pages ix-xiii at Google Books.
Here's how I described our consensus-seeking enterprise:
Politics today leaves little room for deliberation over issues; by and large, it is total war between sworn enemites. Rather than winning arguments on the particular merits of a matter, each side seeks to thoroughly discredit the other. As a result, what the public sees primarly are the caricatures that both parties draw to define their counterparts.
As a shared frustration with the low level of political discourse, many of the essays set aside the false choices that many politicians have sought to use as domestic political wedges: international law or power realities, China as partner or adversary, arms control regimes or the direct disruption of some nations' efforts to acquire the bomb, preservation of due process or the aggressive pursuit of terrorists suspects. In the place of these either/or choices, the authors stress the importance of managing inherent tensions and striking careful balances.
I'm not sure precisely how to apply these observations (though I took a stab recently at a respectful exchange on the question of sanctions), Maybe the key thing to say is that a resevoir of goodwill, personal relationships, and experience with cooperation do exist within the foreign policy community.
When Pro-Western Regimes Fall: What Should the U.S. Do?
Posted by Shadi Hamid
This is the second in a series of posts on the ongoing Tunisian uprising. You can read the first here.
One month ago, Tunisia seemed quiet, stable. Quiet and stable is generally what Western governments like to see in the Middle East. But Tunisia may be on the brink of the first genuine Arab revolution in recent memory. Talk of revolution tends to get US policymakers jittery, as it should. There is a lot at stake here. If Tunisia falls, it will likely embolden the opposition to pro-American regimes throughout the region. It already has, with solidarity rallies in a number of capitals and, more recently, a sort of awed fascination that what last month seemed impossible is, as we speak, happening. If change is going to happen, it's probably going to happen. There's only so much the US can do now that the ball has been rolling, with increasing speed, for 3 weeks (or depending on how you look at it more than 30 years). But it still can do something. And that something may make the difference in a delicate situation.
Some might argue that this is not about America but about Tunisians fighting for Tunisia. Accordingly, Obama and anyone else should just stay out of it. But the notion of democratic transitions as organic, homegrown – a post-Bush platitude – while technically true, is also misleading. What we know about democratic transitions suggests that Western support – in this case, the lack of it – can prove decisive. In their new book, noted political scientists Steve Levitsky and Lucan Way provide extensive empirical support to what many have long argued. They write, “It was an externally driven shift in the cost of suppression, not changes in domestic conditions, that contributed most centrally to the demise of authoritarianism in the 1980s and 1990s.”
The US may very well have limited leverage in Tunisia. But France and other EU nations have close relations with the Ben Ali regime. Tunisia depends on Europe for trade and tourism. So, first of all, the U.S. should be coordinating with its European allies. Maybe this wasn't so important yesterday. But now it is, and so it should call for serious, determined action on the part of the international community.
A phone call to President Ben Ali might be worth considering. Preferably tonight. Phone calls from American presidents to Arab autocrats do sometimes work, as the famed Bush-Mubarak call in 2005 did. What should Obama say? That, while the U.S. understands the security concerns involved, the U.S. will not tolerate the police/military shooting into crowds. And that any excessive loss of life will permanent damage Tunisia's relations with the West. For starters, the US could withdraw its ambassador in protest of mass killing (already around 50 are reported dead).
But some of this isn't about actual leverage, but optics. In the Arab world, perceptions sometimes matter more than reality. Protestors, after all, act not according some objective reality but to reality as they perceive it, in the moment. Here, the colored revolutions are instructive.
During Ukraine’s second round of elections in November 2004, President Bush sent Senator Richard Lugar as his special envoy. Lugar issued a forceful statement condemning President Leonid Kuchma’s government for election fraud. Soon after, Secretary of State Colin Powell refused to recognize the results and warned that “if the Ukrainian government does not act immediately and responsibly, there will be consequences for our relationship, for Ukraine’s hopes for a Euro-Atlantic integration, and for individuals responsible for perpetrating fraud.” The protestors in Maidan Square applauded when the Powell’s statement was read. Meanwhile, Lech Walesa, Poland’s first democratically elected president, assured the crowd that the West was on their side.
The West would be well-advised to show that, while it may not necessarily be on the side of the protestors (somewhat incredibly, Hillary Clinton already said the US won't take sides - talk about pre-emption), it will vigorously support their right to protest, assembly, and that it will not stand by while those fighting for freedom are shot to death. The protestors, who are, in fact, risking their lives, need to know that the world is watching. And that the world cares. This, presumably, is US policy, or maybe it used to be US policy. I'm not entirely sure. I do know, however, that President Bush said the following in his 2003 speech to the National Endowment for Democracy: "Militarism and rule by the capricious and corrupt are the relics of a passing era. We will stand with these oppressed peoples until the day of their freedom finally arrives.” I suppose this is the time to stand?
Of course, when Bush said this he put himself in a difficult position. How does one go about supporting both a regime and its opposition simultaneously? How does one take sides in such a fight? Morally speaking, there is a right side and a wrong side. Practically speaking, Ben Ali, however brutal, has been an "ally" for a considerable amount of time. This is why US policy in the Arab world has always struck me as fundamentally untenable in the long-run. Autocracies, to my knowledge, do not last forever. But we never took even preliminary steps of distancing ourselves from them, to prepare ourselves for the eventuality that they might fall. So now when tens of thousands of Arabs all across the region are stating, with unmistakable clarity, that they will no longer accept the authoritarian status quo, they are forcing us to take sides, testing our so-called "moral clarity." What they are really doing, I suspect, is forcing us to fall on the wrong side of history. This is not a good place to be.
Tunisia on the Brink of Revolution?
Posted by Shadi Hamid
There are revolutions that happen. There are revolutions that almost happen. And then's there's Algeria.
Today, we are witnessing a remarkable series of events in Tunisia, long considered one of the most stable Arab countries. But it isn't. It wasn't. As we speak, protests and riots have spread throughout Tunisia, including in the capital. Protestors have taken over a mansion of one of the Presiden's relatives and tried to storm government buildings. On many occasions, they've overwhelmed police. Western coverage is still somewhat spare, although a good place to start is Brian Whitaker's blog and the hashtag #sidibouzid
We are entering a critical phase, and the Western response - which so far has been lacking, to say the least - may very well prove decisive in pushing Tunisia in one direction or the other. But let me be clear, as some of my colleagues have criticized me for overestimating U.S. influence in the Arab world. What America does may not decide whether the revolution actually happens, but it will be crucial in the aftermath. Even if the Ben Ali regime falls, it does not mean it will be replaced by a functioning democracy. The most likely outcome, at least in the short run, is chaos. To turn chaos into something more constructive will require something beyond half-hearted Western statements of "concern." What will happen to Ben Ali and his family, if the presidential palace is overtaken? Will factions or remnants of the regime fight back?
The Tunisian regime has already shown that its willingness to "shoot into crowds" (something that less repressive regimes, like Egypt and Jordan would have more difficulty stomaching). The willingness to shoot is correlated with the perception that one is likely to get away with it. With France, Tunisia's former colonial master, tacitly (and not-so-tacitly) supporting the regime and military, the consequences of brute repression have been limited. So far.
It’s the Optics, Stupid: Why and How Hizbullah is Spinning the Lebanese Government’s Collapse
Posted by The Editors
This guest post by Anthony Elghossain, who blogs at Page Lebanon and is a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School.
After months of parading a purportedly imminent “Saudi-Syrian initiative” aimed at averting a crisis, Hizbullah and its allies have withdrawn from, and thus toppled, Lebanon's government. Meanwhile, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, having just concluded private talks with U.S. President Barack Obama, is en route to Paris for a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy to shore up international support for the pro-Western March 14 coalition.
The parties’ inability to resolve their dispute over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is not surprising. After all, any prospective deal would have involved core interests and first principles. It is unlikely, then, that Hizbullah’s toppling of the government was a reaction to a Hariri reversal.
To placate Hizbullah, March 14 would have had to denounce the anticipated STL indictment before its issuance, politically abort the STL. Over the past few months, however, various March 14 figures had made clear that a “resolution” could not come at the expense of justice.
For its part, Hizbullah would have had to accept the risk of an adverse indictment without total political cover from the Hariri camp. Not content with Hariri’s public withdrawal of past “political accusations” against Syria, nor with reassurances that March 14 would disentangle prospectively accused Hizbullah members from the party as a whole, Hizbullah had been pressing Hariri to denounce the indictment outright.
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