Thursday, November 29, 2007

Seeing Other People, At Least that's What We Say We Are Doing

Ilan Goldenberg flags an interesting story that reports how Kurdish deputy prime minister Omer Fattah Hussain was regaled by some prominent ex-White House figures (and longtime supporters of the invasion of Iraq), while embarking on a trip to court US oil companies for the purpose of cutting deals in circumvention of the Iraqi central government:

Two top Kurdish leaders are a long way from the mountains of northern Iraq this week.

On Monday night, Omer Fattah Hussain was the toast of a dinner held at the 10,000-square-foot McLean mansion of Ed Rogers, a Reagan White House political director and current chairman of the lobbying firm Barbour Griffith & Rogers. In an opulent living room just off an art-filled entryway with a curved double stairway, the deputy prime minister of the Iraqi Kurds' autonomous region mingled with such luminaries as former assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle, former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and former White House press secretary Tony Snow.

One wonders whether such staunch war supporters such as Richard Perle were warning Hussain that the oil deals he was seeking would serve to undermine the central government's authority and make the passage of an equitable oil sharing law an even more remote possibility.

Today, Hussain travels to Houston with Ashti Abdullah Hawrami, the Kurdish regional oil minister, to woo an even more important audience: U.S. oil companies.

After more than a year of political deadlock in Iraq over a national petroleum law, the Kurdistan Regional Government unanimously adopted its own petroleum legislation in August. In the past month, it has signed a dozen oil exploration contracts and hopes that foreign firms will ultimately invest $10 billion in the oil sector and bring 1 million barrels a day of new oil production from the Kurdish region over the next five years. [...]

Hawrami said the contracts posed no conflict with Iraq's federal constitution. The Iraqi central government, however, is irate over the Kurdish contracts -- and the State Department isn't happy either. The Bush administration has been striving mightily over the past year to get a national petroleum law approved before international firms jump in.

In addition, a group of 60 Iraqi oil professionals signed a letter saying that the recent Kurdish contracts were a "dangerous step that has no legal or political standing whatsoever." Iraqi oil union leaders have also opposed the contracts.

An additional fear is that Kurdish unilateralism could set off an arms race of sorts by spurring other regions to abandon the effort to forge a national accord governing oil industry practices. Expecting other groups to stand down while the Kurds start reaping profits from the oil located in Kurdish controlled regions might be too much to ask. It could create a haphazard and chaotic framework of one-off deals and localized arrangements with highly specialized terms as other regions rush to get a piece of the action:

Several major international oil companies have been talking to Baghdad about resuming work in the same giant southern fields where they had worked when Saddam Hussein was in power. And the central government indicated to them that it might rely on Hussein-era oil laws or offer service contracts if the new petroleum legislation is delayed, according to Kamal Field Aldasri, an economic adviser to the Iraqi government.

That isn't stopping key Bush allies from putting their personal, pecuniary interests ahead of what is often touted as the most important foreign policy challenge of our era - by the President himself:

Some of the recent signing activity may have begun when Dallas-based Hunt Oil, whose chief executive Ray L. Hunt is a member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and a major contributor to Bush's campaigns, signed a contract in September. Smaller U.S. companies have followed suit.

The Hunt contract upset the State Department, which has been pressing Iraq to adopt a petroleum law that would delineate the division of authority between the central and regional governments.

If the various oil producing regions begin to pursue, in earnest, oil deals that cut the central government out of the loop, this will only exacerbate the devolution of power that has been abetted by the recent Sunni outreach efforts undertaken by General Petraeus. Once that process begins, forging a national oil law out of a patchwork of side deals with inconsistent terms and conflicting interests will be made all but impossible absent a widespread re-negotiation process that could meet stiff resistance from several quarters.

And where would that leave the aggrieved Sunni parties that inhabit the mostly oil-barren western region? It is highly unlikely that Sunni groups will be willing to continue their forbearance and tacit cooperation as Kurdish and Shiite groups begin to exploit oil resources independent of the Sunnis. These developments may also have wider-ranging implications:

According to one person at the meeting, the officials warned that some of the blocs being offered by the Kurdish government lay outside its territory and might extend into Turkey or Iran.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

And You Will Know Us By the Trail of....RSVPs?

Via K-Drum, Zev Chafets unintentionally damns President Bush with the faintest of praise:

This is Bush's bash. His name is on the invitation. The party is at his place. The guests are strictly A-list. Every country that matters, and a lot that don't, will be represented. The European Union, the United Nations and the Arab League will be there too. They are all coming for the same reason: They have been summoned by the one man in the world to whom no one wants to say no.

It turns out that Bush, far from wrecking America's prestige and influence, has compounded it. Every government in the world knows that attending the Annapolis conference under the aegis of the president of the United States is an unmistakable acknowledgment that America remains the world's indispensable state. [...]

Despite the assurances of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the U.S. has not been humiliated in Mesopotamia. On the contrary, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent determination of the American occupation have concentrated the minds of the (ever fewer) anti-American Arab despots.

Disregard his disastrous policies, and the radioactivity of brand America throughout the world - a condition that has deteriorated under his stewardship - because those assessments are just the product of partisan spin. The proof? Bush world leaders to attend a conference. Wow. No President before him, or likely after, will be able to make that claim. Or something. I mean, it's not John Hinderaker, but it's not as far off as it should be either.

Sadly, the conference itself is unlikely to produce any breakthroughs in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict - an end result that can hardly be placed at the feet of George W. Bush alone, though his inattention hasn't aided the process any either. Worse still, his lack of concern has actually exacerbated the negative image that Chafets comically claims has been undermined by the mere attendance at Annapolis of actual factual world leaders.

On the other hand, Blake Hounshell thinks that there is a compelling backstory worth paying attention to: whether the decision by Syria to attend signals a potential opening in the effort to normalize relations with Syria and thus peel that nation away from its alliance with Iran.

The Syrians are desperate for a deal, but they don't want it to look like they're surrendering—and they don't want to burn their bridges with Tehran until they have faith that entering the Western and Arab fold will be worthwhile. Many questions remain, among them:

  • Are the Syrians willing to essentially "sell out" the Palestinians and make a separate peace, à la Egypt? Or will they hold out for a comprehensive settlement?

  • Is the United States willing to sell out the Siniora government? The Syrians will seek to reassert their hegemony in Lebanon as part of any bargain.

  • And how to square this with Syria abandoning its support for Hezbollah, as the Israelis want?

  • Is Israel willing to give up the Golan back to the 1967 lines, as the Syrians have been demanding for years?

Blake's checklist covers the central tenets, but again, we run into one of the key impediments to an Olmert/Abbas brokered accord: an Olmert that is too weakened to hammer out a deal with Abbas isn't really in a position to offer the necessary concessions to the Syrians either. Nor will Assad have faith that Olmert could follow through such that he would be willing to sever ties with Iran under the circumstances.

Still, there is something to be said for the concept of getting everyone together to talk and begin the process of moving toward larger deals if and when leaders with more robust mandates come to power. But then, to echo the Armchair Generalist, we didn't have to wait seven years for that.

(cross-posted at NewsHoggers)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Protect Ya Neck

Glenn Reynolds may be the master swordsman of Dolchstoss, but Noemie Emery is making her own bid for entry into the 36th Chamber. She has mastered the Wu-Tang style:

Eagerly anticipating the defeat in Iraq to which they are so much attached, some on the left have also been preparing for another contingency: the assault that they think they see coming, a drive to pin the whole wretched failure on them. Apparently, this will be "stab in the back" redux, a new iteration of the theme deployed so successfully in interwar Germany by a resourceful, ambitious Austrian corporal, who managed to propel his rise to power with the claim that World War I would have been won by his country, if not for sinister forces at home. Then, it was subversion by Jews and other disloyal elements. This time, in the left's imagining, the blame will fall on the press and the Democrats who, by pulling the plug at just the wrong moment, caused the loss of Iraq.

Matt Duss gives a play by play of the verbal acrobatics involved:

One has to be impressed at how Emery can mock Democrats for being wary of the "stab in the back" charge in a piece entirely built around the offensive assertion that Democrats long for an American defeat in Iraq. Silly leftists, such imaginations!

It's all in the method, man.

When the Spring Blows Back

Like Blake Hounshell, I recommend this op-ed by Stephen McInerney and Andrew Exum on the precarious political situation in Lebanon, and how the US can better address the various exigencies:

Lebanese President Émile Lahoud's term expires today, and Lebanese democracy faces a stern test. With the apparent failure of rival political factions to agree on a new president, Lebanon could see the formation of two parallel governments -- or, worse, the outbreak of civil war.

The United States, as President Bush said recently, "strongly supports the success of democracy in Lebanon." Yet by viewing Lebanon through the lens of confrontation with Iran, the U.S. is failing to give Lebanese democracy the help it needs.

In the administration's view, Lebanon is a potential risk to U.S. security interests primarily because of Iran's ties to the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. The fear is that Tehran will manipulate those ties to further its influence in the region and use Lebanon as a pawn in an international confrontation over its nuclear aspirations. [...]

In the context of the current political stalemate, the administration cannot afford to view the possible selection of a consensus candidate acceptable to Hezbollah as a greater danger than the failure to select anyone at all.

Blake's take is right on the money, as usual:

More broadly, Lebanon is just one more example of a mistaken U.S. approach to foreign policy that dates back decades and across administrations of both parties. Here's how it works: The United States says it supports democracy, but ends up backing pro-Western leaders when push comes to shove. Take the case of Pervez Musharraf, whom U.S. President George W. Bush described Tuesday as "somebody who believes in democracy" despite the fact that the Pakistani leader has suspended the Constitution, thrown many of his opponents in jail, and gone after independent media outlets. Or consider the Palestinian territories, where the White House called for elections and then blanched when the distasteful Hamas won them fair and square. Is it any wonder that U.S. rhetoric on democracy isn't taken seriously?

This is not to say that there aren't some tough choices confronting U.S. policymakers. But it would be better, in my view, to either dial back the grandiose democracy rhetoric or else be more consistent about supporting democratic "rules of the game" rather than always backing the more pro-American side, win or lose, and calling it "supporting democracy." If you want to get more in depth on this topic, Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment, which publishes FP, offers some practical suggestions here.

In addition, the authors identify yet one more example of the increasingly familiar pattern whereby the overt support of the US government for a given faction deligitimizes that group in the eyes of the indigenous population. The US hasn't been popular in the region for quite some time, for sure, but the situation under the Bush administration has rendered our imprimatur unduly poisonous such that it has become of meager help, if not outright counterproductive. Far cry from the prematurely vaunted "Arab Spring," huh?

There is another aspect of the McInerney/Exum piece that I wanted to focus on, however, and that is the penchant for the US to make unsavory alliances for the sake of a short term interest, only to have the erstwhile allies emerge as a more serious threat down the road. The arming and funding of the mujahideen in Afghanistan is only the most popular recent example. Similarly, there are valid concerns that some of our recent Sunni outreach efforts in Iraq could pave the way for the further destabilization of the current Iraqi government, and lead to warlord state down the road. McInerney/Exum hint at another such noxious mixture that could be brewing in Lebanon:

And, beyond this week's crisis, the focus on Hezbollah and Iran has distracted from the rise of Al Qaeda-inspired Sunni radical groups in Lebanon -- groups that represent a far greater strategic threat to the U.S. and its allies.

These groups don't have the popular support in Lebanon that Hezbollah boasts. But that also means they have no "red lines" of violence they will not cross. And, while Hezbollah wants to play an expanded political role in the Lebanese state, the Sunni extremist groups would like nothing more than to see the collapse of the state into anarchy and civil war -- truly a worst-case scenario both for Lebanon's fragile democracy and for regional security.

...While promoting their own interests in the power vacuum created by the Syrian military withdrawal in 2005, some of America's closest allies in the Lebanese government and nearby Saudi Arabia and Jordan are believed to have supported the growth of the Sunni extremist groups. Moreover, thanks to a steady stream of Sunni militants from Iraq -- the types responsible for the most horrific attacks there -- continued growth is expected for the foreseeable future. At least, as long as the U.S. continues to look the other way, and as long as U.S. efforts to help the Lebanese military confront such groups are viewed with suspicion.

Neither author accuses the US of supporting these Sunni extremist groups in any way. While unconfirmed, there have been reports in local media that the US has offered at least a tacit blessing to the efforts of our close allies in nurturing these Sunni groups under the theory that they could be used to counter Hezbollah. This would be an enormous strategic blunder, however, given the chaos that could be sown, and the fact that failed statehood breeds, rather than counters, the type of extremism that should be the chief focus of our efforts. Not only should the US government not offer tacit or overt support, but it should make it clear to its allies that such efforts on their part would be unacceptable.

Our Man in Baghdad

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who heads a Shiite party that is, ostensibly, one of our strongest allies in Iraq (SIIC) takes the time to remind us all that he may have left his heart in San Francisco Tehran:

Iraq's most influential Shiite politician said Sunday that the U.S had not backed up claims that Iran is fueling violence here, underscoring a wide gap on the issue between Washington and the Shiite-led Baghdad government. [...]

The Americans have long accused the Iranians of arming and training Shiite militias, including some linked to the U.S.-backed government of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

U.S. officials have also alleged that Iran has provided weapons used to kill Americans — a charge the Iranians vehemently deny.

"These are only accusations raised by the multinational forces and I think these accusations need more proof," Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraq Council, told reporters.

Al-Hakim, who has been undergoing treatment for lung cancer in Iran, said the Iranians have insisted in meetings with Iraqi officials that "their true will is to support the Iraqi government" and to promote stability.

"They have a long history of standing by the Iraqi people and that is their official stance that is presented to the press without any hesitation," he said.

Kudos to the AP for actually putting the following information in print, a rarity:

Al-Hakim spent years in exile in Iran during Saddam's regime and is considered closer to the Iranians than any of the major Iraqi Shiite leaders. His party has also closely cooperated with American authorities since the 2003 collapse of Saddam's regime, and he has met with President Bush in the Oval Office. [emphasis added]

I'd go one step further and add Maliki to the list of Iran aficionados (and ex-exiles). Less so with Sadr, though the media has an annoying tendency to invert the respective relationships, as I've long complained.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Mortician's Ruse

In the rush to proclaim "victory" in Iraq - a concept whittled down to a wisp of its former self - many war supporters obscure the larger strategic framework. By most reasonable definitions, we are not pushing for "victory", but rather are trying to finesse damage control: attempting to mitigate the enormous destruction that we have unleashed, and struggling to stave off the potential catastrophes that still loom on the horizon. This is as worthy a mission, and a necessary one, and it deserves our careful attention and support. But this is not about achieving "victory" in Iraq.

Victory in Iraq was supposed to be a quick war, of minimal costs and casualties, creating little strain on our military, that resulted in a liberal, democratic, unified peaceful state that would set off a chain reaction of democratic uprisings in the Muslim world, while vastly weakening al-Qaeda and other extremist organizations. By the warmakers' own lofty predictions - and by the nature of their shifted goalposts - victory has been rendered a moot point.

Now, after shedding the grandiosity that hubris engenders, we seem content to search for some way to create a balance of power, whereby the competing factions (sufficiently exhausted from intense fighting, and withdrawn to homogenous areas through massive sectarian cleansing) will perceive each other as sufficiently powerful enough that a cold war-like peace can settle in and some overarching accords can be forged to share some of the bounty at a quasi-national level. We would now redefine victory as: a loosely democratic construction, though theocratic and not liberal in at least two parts of the tripartite quasi-state, that is not truly unified or stable. It would be an object lesson to the region in not embracing democracy and a boon to extremism. But there is the possibility that Iraq could return to the status quo ante in terms of al-Qaeda's presence. Certain regions may be allied with us, but others would be as close or closer to Iran.

This new version of victory has been assigned modest euphemisms that betray the grim reality: "sustainable stability" and "stable equilibrium." Pollack and O'Hanlon declare this new objective as, "A War We Might Just Win," and indeed we might (though I remain pessimistic even using their new calculus). But what a pyrrhic victory it would be. Nothing will change that at this point.

Already, our actions have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and grievous injury to hundreds of thousands more. Millions of Iraqis have fled the country, and millions more have fled to other areas within Iraq. Tens of thousands have been imprisoned and abused, terrorized and humiliated. When considering that this large number of dead, wounded, persecuted and displaced has been borne by a population of only 25 million people, it is safe to say that Iraq has been thoroughly traumatized. Is it possible to locate many Iraqis south of the Kurdish regions whose lives have not been devastated or deeply affected by loss, trauma or anxiety?

Then there are the costs to the United States in terms of thousands of soldiers dead (and the ramifications for the families), tens of thousands seriously injured and a military that will take many years to rehabilitate. The economic costs to this country will eventually top out in the trillions (that's trillions with a "t" in front and an "s" on the other end for those keeping score). Our fiscal outlook has gone from potential surplus to raging deficits that have left us ill prepared to face pressing domestic challenges, and have greatly weakened the dollar (as predicted).

Our image in the world, our alliances, our goodwill, our respect have all been diminished more than al-Qaeda could have ever achieved on their own. Speaking of al-Qaeda, we have helped them in numerous ways: from undermining reformers and pro-democracy movements in the region and destabilizing allied regimes to providing a new staging ground for the next generation of jihadists. As Matt Duss points out:

...[I]n supporting the Sunni tribes' fight against AQI, the U.S. has simply helped to contain a problem of its own creation, as al-Qaeda was not present in Iraq in any significant way before the 2003 invasion.

...[B]y creating a new jihad front, the war in Iraq has given another generation of fundamentalist mujahideen its own Afghanistan. In the words of one Iraqi Arab observer, "The Arabs went to Afghanistan and got a master’s in violent Jihad, but in Iraq they're all getting Ph.Ds." We have given them the opportunity to develop tactical and technological expertise against the most formidable military in existence, expertise that they have transmitted around the world. This is something that will not be reversed, even if AQI is completely eradicated.

We have been distracted abroad as well - ignoring many important emerging and dynamic regional realignments that at least require our attention. No foreign commitment has suffered more, though, than Afghanistan. Consider some facts:

NATO has a little over 40,000 troops operating in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force. The United States and Britain are the largest contributors, with 15,000 and 7,700 soldiers, respectively.

Those numbers pale in comparison to Iraq where at the peak of operations there were nearly 200,000 troops on the ground and where around 160,000 remain.

The neglect, of course, goes far beyond simple troop arithmetic. The comparative allocation of reconstruction dollars and other tangible and intangible resources has been equally disproportionate. The results have been predictable:

The conflict in Afghanistan has reached "crisis proportions," with the resurgent Taliban present in more than half the country and closing in on Kabul, a report said on Wednesday.

If NATO, the lead force operating in Afghanistan, is to have any impact against the insurgency, troop numbers will have to be doubled to at least 80,000, the report said.

[The Taliban's] ability to establish a presence throughout the country is now proven beyond doubt," it said. "The insurgency now controls vast swaths of unchallenged territory including rural areas, some district centers, and important road arteries."

Senlis said its research had established that the Taliban, driven out of Afghanistan by the U.S. invasion in late 2001, had rebuilt a permanent presence in 54 percent of the country and was finding it easy to recruit new followers.

It was also increasingly using Iraq-style tactics, such as roadside and suicide bombs, to powerful effect, and had built a stable network of financial support, funding its operations with the proceeds from Afghanistan's booming opium trade.

"It is a sad indictment of the current state of Afghanistan that the question now appears to be not if the Taliban will return to Kabul, but when," the report said.

It is the legacy of Iraq that even now, no "sustainable stability" or "stable equilibrium" can undo the vast and staggering level of damage already done in so many areas, in so many parts of the globe. Those that claim that victory is still possible, and that it could prove to be a boon to the GOP policymakers that perpetrated this calamity, have developed a pervasive and ongoing amnesia. This would not even be a hollow victory, just a thin veneer of makeup applied to a corpse.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

This Would Seem to be Clear Common Sense

Quotable Blake Hounshell:

Anne Applebaum airs the familiar complaint that the Iraq mess has made real sanctions on Iran less likely. She then goes on to say:

What, then, are we left with? Fingers crossed, that those who say Iran's nuclear bomb is years away are right. Fingers crossed, that maybe Iran really does just want a civilian nuclear program. Fingers crossed, that if Iran gets nukes, its government will behave responsibly.

Fingers crossed? Anne, like many other pundits, seems to have forgotten about a well-developed doctrine called "deterrence." During the Cold War, math whizzes at places like the Rand Corporation churned out reports and game-theory matrices on the subject; in other words, we know a lot about it, and it's a lot more sophisticated than a pundit's "fingers crossed."

But you don't have to have a black belt in deterrence theory to understand the issues when it comes to Iran's would-be nukes. Let's take the case of Israel, which would theoretically be the country most threatened by an Iran with nuclear weapons. Israel reportedly has upwards of 200 nuclear bombs and/or warheads and second-strike capability. Notably, Israel has three nuclear-armed submarines; Iran has no technology that can detect them.

In the extremely unlikely event that the mullahs are foolish enough to launch their unreliable missiles on Tel Aviv and/or Jerusalem (most likely killing tens of thousands of Muslims and destroying several major Islamic holy sites in the process), Israel will annihilate Iran. With their submarines, the Israelis can do so even if their entire country is destroyed first. Boom. That's deterrence.

It's that simple.

Now, now Blake. You're taking the fun out of everything.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Half Man Half Amazing

For various observers and actors, with differing motives and agendas, Moqtada al-Sadr has been described as either an extremist, anti-American provacateur and Iranian Vassal at the root of all that ails Iraq, or an heroic, inclusive, nationalist force, hostile to any foreign involvement (be it American or Iranian), selflessly serving the interests of all Iraqis while keeping the flame for a united Iraq alive. The outsized criticism and adulation, respectively, only prove that it is possible to be overrated and underrated at the same time.

Neither caricature is entirely accurate. In truth, Sadr has a complex set of motives, objectives and traits that translate into a mixed bag of policies and rhetoric that are sometimes in conflict with each other, and almost always at odds with one side or the other of his janus-like public persona. There is an underlying quest for power (political, economic and religious), a willingness to work with foreign agents when it suits his purposes, as well as a streak of Shiite chauvinism. That side is mixed with a willingness to reach out to Sunnis, nationalist impulses, hostility to foreign influence, as well as a resistance to occupation, and all while operating a network that provides vital services to the most needy.

Juan Cole flags a recent example of Sadr's representatives acting in a way that runs counter to the narrative that Sadr is a true champion of Sunni outreach and a non-Sectarian agenda:

A senior official of Iraq's Sadr movement Thursday blasted a new draft law aimed at integrating former members of Saddam Hussein's regime into government, saying it would reward the ousted dictator's "agents" at the expense of his "victims."

Fallah Hassan Chanchal, member of parliament for Sadr City, a sprawling Shiite neighbourhood in northeastern Baghdad, also accused the Iraqi and US governments of wanting to reinstate members of the former regime.

"It is a coup against the constitution," Chanchal told AFP in an interview in Sadr City, bastion of the movement of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

"The law recognises the rights of agents of Saddam Hussein, but not of the victims of Saddam Hussein," said Chanchal, who presides over parliament's de-Baathification Commission.

Swopa recently caught another:

An Iraqi judge has ruled that there is enough evidence to try two former Health Ministry officials, both Shiites, in the killing and kidnapping of hundreds of Sunnis, many of them snatched from hospitals by militias, according to American officials who are advising the Iraqi judicial system.

...the NYT story contains extensive descriptions of how Baghdad's hospitals turned into slaughterhouses for Sunnis after Moqtada al-Sadr's faction took over the Health Ministry. This had been previously reported elsewhere, but it might be useful reading for anyone laboring under the misperception that Mookie is some sort of misunderstood, noble Che Guevara-like figure just because he opposes the U.S. occupation.

This is not to unfairly bash Sadr. He is demonized and scapegoated enough. But neither does he deserve to be lionized. The nuanced reality defies the clunky good/evil frame that so many prefer to use (a frame that, for example, leads US officials to laud SCIRI, but fault Sadr). Zeyad from Healing Iraq said it best:

Hint for the U.S.: There are no "bad guys" and "good guys" in Iraq. Everyone has dirty hands. It makes no sense for you, nor is it going to improve anything in Iraq, to side with one bad guy against another, just because you're so confused that you can't differentiate between friend and foe. Just please remember that.


Stabbed If You Do, Stabbed If You Don't

Glenn Reynolds, master swordsman of Dolchstoss (via P-Diddy):

If, as seems likely, Iraq succeeds, Republicans will be able to say it was in spite of the Democrats' efforts. If, as remains possible, it fails, Republicans will be able to say it was because of the Democrats' efforts.

What remarkable analysis. Without definining, or even hinting at the definition of "success," Reynolds breezily sweeps aside myriad factors that have contributed to the failure of the Iraq endeavor to leave the blame solely at the feet of the Democrats. Not satisfied to leave the Dems on the hook for failure, Reynolds suggests that even if Iraq does succeed, we could still blame the Democrats for its near-failure. The troops have been stabbed in the back and that much is sure, says Reynolds, but the patient might yet pull through.

This type of crass revisionism is only possible by first embracing two rather blatant counterfactuals. The first major exercise in willful blindness involves the dumbing down, and misrepresentation, of the complexity of war and democracy promotion.

Simply disregard the enormous difficulty of successfully birthing democracy from preventitive war - a strategy without a successful precedent in history (creating democracy through any type of war is itself extremely rare relatively speaking). Then, put aside the pivotal crisis created by the post-regime change power vacuum that was filled with too few troops, and the subsequent conflicts that were allowed to percolate based on the ensuing struggle for money, power and control.

Throughout, ignore or downplay the endless litany of rank incompetence displayed by the Bush administration and a CPA populated with far too many underqualified ideologues who were more obedient than capable - from decisions such as the disbandment of the Iraqi army, to pervasive de-Baathification to lax oversight that has invited corruption and embezzlement in the handling of both funds and weapons. Table the deletirious effects of regional powers and populations that have augmented and intensified many of the internal conflicts pitting various factions against each other. For starters.

The second leap of ignorance requires one to vastly exaggerate the Democrats' influence on the war effort to a point that resides beyond absurdity. Recall, the war was started with a healthy level of Democratic approval. Regardless, and throughout the vast majority of its existence, the war has been fought with a Republican in the White House and a Republican controlled Senate and House that worked together in seamless unison. Even with the recent gains by the Democrats in the House and Senate, President Bush has gotten everything he's asked for in Iraq legislation (even if he has had the burden of having to initially veto certain legislation that he has found unacceptable).

In Reynolds' world, though, none of this matters. Bush and his GOP compatriots have not been the cause of failures in Iraq even though they have been in control of every decision - large and small - every step of the way. Nor do the Iraqi people or regional rivals have any agency, apparently. No, an impotent, out of power Democratic Party that has made a total of zero decisions, and passed not a single piece of legislation against Bush's wishes, will be the cause of failure in Iraq, or the chief obstacle to a success that comes only through perseverence in the face of such obstructionism.

Heh. Indeed.

Friday, November 16, 2007

When a Plan Comes Together Like That

Back when it first became apparent that the Bush administration had opted to support Ethiopia's "benevolent" invasion of Somalia, I raised caution flags concerning both our decision to get so deeply involved in a complex regional conflict, as well as our choice of proxy. At the time, Ethiopia was portrayed by those lauding the invasion as a concerned neighbor that wanted to assist Somalia's return to prominence, while protecting itself from Islamic extremists and staving off unrest in the disputed Ogaden region. Ethiopia sought to achieve these ends, ostensibly, by invading Somalia, toppling the ruling Islamic Courts Union (ICU) government and helping to install the exiled and unpopular (though UN and AU backed) Transitional Federal Government (TFG) regime.

While some or all of those interests could be viewed as worthy goals by the Ethiopian leadership, there was a baser motive that might have been superior to all in Ethiopia's calculus. Ethiopia is a long-time regional rival of Somalia, as the two nations have fought wars over disputed territory (the Ogaden region mentioned above) and access to the ocean. Thus, it is in Ethiopia's interest to keep Somalia destabilized, chaotic and weak so that Somalia cannot challenge Ethiopia's territorial acquisitions and regional hegemony. While these more cynical goals might be consistent with Ethiopia's national interest, it has been an enormous and ongoing error to enmesh ourselves with such objectives.

A recent report from the Jamestown Foundation (h/t Brian Ulrich) reveals the unsurprising:

The conflict in Somalia is spreading, drawing in fighters and displacing increasing numbers of civilians. Violence has erupted in the previously calmer north of Somalia, with border clashes between the forces of semi-autonomous Puntland and the self-declared republic of Somaliland.

Ethiopia, true to form, is allied with the Somaliland faction that, again, is pursuing an armed conflict that is destabilizing Somalia. As for securing the Ogaden region, the invasion has actually sparked unrest in some quarters, and has been used as a pretext by the Ethiopian government to brutally crackdown on the region's inhabitants in others (see here for some details).

This McClatchey article (cited by China Hand), fills in some of the more gruesome details of Ethiopia's campaign in Somalia - one that we have, somewhat unwittingly, adopted as our own:

More than 114,000 people fled their homes over the past two weeks, according to United Nations estimates released on Friday. Humanitarian officials said that many more fled over the weekend after Islamists ambushed a convoy of Ethiopian troops and dragged the dead body of a soldier through the streets, triggering a spasm of Ethiopian reprisal attacks.

"Somalia's worst displacement ever took place in the last few days," said an official with a Western aid agency in Mogadishu who asked not to be identified for security reasons. "Nearly four districts of the city have been totally cleared out."

Some 850,000 Somalis — perhaps one in six — are displaced within their own country, the most in years. Fewer than 10 percent of them are receiving any humanitarian aid, and most live in desperate conditions in makeshift refugee encampments scattered around Mogadishu's outskirts.

The latest turmoil is producing a ghastly conclusion to an apocalyptic year, even for Somalia, which hasn't had a functioning government in 16 years.

But, you might argue, surely the unrestrained brutality of the Ethiopians is paying off in terms of clamping down on the insurgency just as so many conservative pundits assured us, right?

Human rights groups charge that the Ethiopian forces are carelessly killing civilians.

Some Mogadishu residents said that the Ethiopians retaliated brutally to last week's fatal ambush, fanning out across the city in tanks on Thursday and spraying neighborhoods with bullets. Bodies lay in the streets overnight, where they bled to death as frightened residents barricaded themselves in their homes, witnesses said.

"We collected 16 bodies, mostly elderly people, women and children. They were shot in the heads," said Daud Soleyman, a resident of the Hamar Jadid neighborhood who described the scene the morning after the Ethiopian reprisals. Ethiopian forces returned that morning and again opened fire, Soleyman said, and it took hours to collect all the bodies.

Such tactics seem certain to fuel the insurgency.

"The Ethiopians are becoming impatient, meaning that they now retaliate indiscriminately," said the Western aid official. "That, of course, leads to more resistance."

The US justified its intervention based on links between the ICU and al-Qaeda - even though the extent of those links was somewhat exaggerated, and backing Ethiopia's invasion was a counterproductive means to combat al-Qaeda regardless:

The violence, growing in intensity as well as spreading across the wider Somali region, is being exacerbated by the escalating insurgency in Mogadishu....It is feared...that the fighting is boosting the influence of hard-line powerful militias, which use long-standing local grievances to strengthen their own radical movements.

Not only is the US helping to strengthen the very movements that it seeks to undermine, while engendering a potent anti-American backlash by tying its image to the brutal and self-serving Ethiopian regime, but the instability that we are complicit in creating provides fertile ground, and ample space, for extremism to flourish and operate.

The ICU had several serious shortcomings as a ruling regime, and there was much to take issue with. This is not to suggest that they were worthy of our support. But under the ICU's brief reign, Mogadishu was at least relatively peaceful, as was northern Somalia. Crime in and around the capital was vastly scaled back - which considering the incessant roadblock embezzlement engaged in by warlords, is no small feat. As a result, the economy was returning to normal and ordinary Somalis were getting a respite from decades' worth of non-stop violence.

Now, Somalis are being displaced in record numbers, hardships are eclipsing past record levels (which is saying a lot) and the country is plunged into pervasive chaos and violence. As Rob Farley pointed out, the unrest has even given a booster shot to the piracy racket off the Horn, which was somewhat waning under the ICU's stewardship.

In exchange, neither the US nor Ethiopia has realized any of their respective stated goals. From the perspective of US interests, we have not captured or killed the high value al-Qaeda targets that were rumored to be in the region, al-Qaeda operatives are still free to operate in destabilized Somalia (many foreign fighters have actually streamed in post-invasion) and we have given a boon to extremism and anti-Americanism generally speaking. Ethiopia, for its part, has not helped to calm Ogaden (the opposite has occurred), nor has the TFG been able to bring stability to Somalia (again, the opposite).

Then again, Somalia is destabilized, chaotic and weak. But I'm sure that's just a coincidence.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

When Knowing Is More than Half the Battle

I have maintained, since at least January 2005, that a military strike against Iran was unlikely due to the paucity of viable military options. Nevertheless, there has been no shortage of reckless rhetoric, bellicose posturing and eerie deja vu to make me doubt that stance - on more than one occasion. Further, there are powerful factions within the White House - and the wider conservative movement - that are urging for military confrontation. Thus, and because the results from an attack on Iran would be so detrimental to US interests, even those of us that think the eventuality unlikely, must speak out to ensure that actual events match our hunches, and that sanity (even begrudgingly) prevails.

In relation to this, there was a tidbit in recent news surrounding the IAEA's probes into Iranian activity that seemed to have connected some dots. First, some background. A few weeks back, I took note of an interesting shift "in rhetoric from President Bush regarding potential red lines associated with Iranian nukes that, if crossed, would require a military response from the United States." Here was the first example:

I believe [the Iranians] want to have the capacity, the knowledge, in order to make a nuclear weapon... So I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.

And the second:

In a speech Tuesday at National Defense University, Bush declared that "the need for missile defense in Europe … is urgent" because "Iran is pursuing the technology that could be used to produce nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles."

In that post, I argue that making "knoweldge" or usable "technology" the trigger instead of the possession (or near possession) of weapons grade material, or the actual weapons themselves, was a means of lowering the threshold for military confrontation. Weapons and weapons grade material are, by most estimates, several years away. Knowledge?...not so much. Which brings us back to the IAEA story:

Earlier this week, Iran released documents that the IAEA has been demanding for two years: blueprints showing how to machine uranium metal into spherical shapes appropriate for the core of a nuclear weapon.

Sounds like an important piece of evidence if one were seeking to build the knowledge/technology case. That link comes via Eric Hundman at Passport, who has this to add:

Fortunately, though, these documents apparently did not contain blueprints for an entire nuclear weapons core. Machining enriched uranium (or plutonium) metal into a perfect sphere is merely one of many engineering challenges posed by an implosion nuclear weapon—an explosives array must be carefully designed to compress the metal effectively, for instance, and as we've seen with Iran, the enrichment process itself is very difficult to perfect without help.

However, given Iran's track record for reticence in dealing with the IAEA in connection with these issues, it is quite possible that they are in possession of the additional technology required.

Not that such a fact should be considered a casus belli, but that danger exists.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Grand Don't Come for Free, Part IV

Civil or Union?

Colin Kahl is at least partially correct to note that:

A key divide between Katulis and me is [our respective positions on] whether there is anything that the U.S. can do inside Iraq that can shape and shove the system into a stable decentralized equilibrium that is sustainable once we inevitably begin to leave. [emphasis added]

It's not entirely accurate to present it in such stark terms, however. Katulis would concede that the US can do something to move the system closer to equilibrium - actually, the Katulis plan outlines several such measures. The better question is, can we do enough to bring about the desired result by maintaining troops in Iraq for years, if not decades, to come (and even then, at acceptable costs)?

While "equilibrium" is a pleasant enough euphemism, the crux of the debate centers around finding a means to forestall a continuation, or exacerbation, of the various civil wars/conflicts plaguing Iraq. By his own admission, Kahl's plan does nothing to address the intra-Shiite civil wars percolating in the south, nor does it address the tinderbox that is Kirkuk and its environs in the north. In Kahl's defense, Katulis' plan doesn't necessarily offer real solutions in this regard either - as Kahl himself points out.

What of the Sunni-Shiite civil wars then? From Kahl:

Katulis frets that bottom-up engagements with Sunni tribes and former insurgents will derail any prospects for national reconciliation by increasing Shia anxieties...this is a genuine concern...But let’s not push the argument too far. Katulis argues: “The evidence demonstrates that these decentralized security efforts could actually make the chances of national accommodation and a sustainable security arrangement LESS likely, rather than more likely.” I would ask, less likely than what? It is not as if the Maliki government was keen on reconciliation before the bottom-up movement began.

This point is not without merit, but in making it, Kahl hints at the great weakness of his proposal: How does Kahl's plan change the calculus of Maliki and the rest of the UIA such that these Shiite leaders would be willing to make major concessions? The answer, from Kahl at least, requires a few leaps of faith, and the cultivation of a delicate military balance that is likely too fragile to perservere.

Moreover, the solution to the danger of magnifying Shia parnoia is not to give up on the bottom-up process, but rather to take steps to address Shia anxieties...By calibrating Sunni defensive capabilities in the way I suggest; by working hard to vet the huge influx of Sunni volunteers; by using the biometric information collected on volunteers to keep them in line; by integrating them at least loosely into the ISF so that the Shia-government is aware of their activities; and by making Sunni groups financially dependent on the central government (as opposed to U.S. payments) so that they are deterred from turning against the Shia government and the government, in turn, has confidence that they have some leverage over these groups.

This is another case of easier said than done. Sure, if all of those feats could be achieved, then we might be able to assuage Shiite fears. Even then, would establishing the financial dependence of armed Sunni groups satisfy the Shiites? Coups and power grabs have been perpetrated repeatedly throughout history (including in Iraq) by military forces that were, at the time, financially dependent on the target/toppled government. Furthermore, as the Washington Post reports, there are logistical obstacles to US forces applying the necessary controls:

The U.S. effort to organize nearly 70,000 local fighters to solidify security gains in Iraq is facing severe political and logistical challenges as U.S.-led forces struggle to manage the recruits and the central government resists incorporating them into the Iraqi police and army, according to senior military officials.

...the volunteers pour in by the hundreds every week, forming a massive but cumbersome force lacking common guidelines, status, pay or uniforms....

"To give you a sense of the bureaucratic challenge here, the entire British army is just under 100,000," said Maj. Gen. Paul Newton..."What we've seen in this campaign is already therefore three-quarters of the size of the British army, without any kind of human resource management structure to recruit it, train it, vet it," Newton [said]...

Unsurprisingly, the same article shows that even with the prospect of maintaining financial leverage, the Shiite government is not exactly eager to allow the process to continue:

The Iraqi government so far has balked at permanently hiring large numbers of the volunteers, resisting pressure from U.S. commanders to lift caps on the number of police in Anbar and Diyala provinces. Only about 1,600 of the volunteers have been trained and sworn in to the Iraqi security forces, primarily with the police.

As Juan Cole observes, there are even more troubling signs:

Al-Zaman reports in Arabic that PM al-Maliki has taken the controversial decision to recruit 18,000 members of Shiite militias into the Iraqi government security forces (In fact, the Iraqi military has de facto been recruiting a lot of Shiite militiamen anyway).

You have to wonder if this step is intended to offset the American military's pressure to recruit Sunni tribesmen and neighborhood volunteers into the security forces.

Kahl could argue that these are temporary setbacks, and that progress, while possible, won't be quick or easy. So how to push these policies further, and motivate Shiites to make the deals that Kahl says are necessary?

Katulis wonders how my suggestions would motivate Sunni-Shia accommodation. To understand how it might, we should start with the recognition that many in the Maliki government (and major Shia parties) do not seek accommodation; rather, they seek to run the government solely on their terms. In the face of a weakened Sunni community, they have few incentives to compromise because the costs of ignoring the Sunnis are low. Sunni tribal engagement and other bottom-up efforts address this issue. At the same time, the events of 2006-2007 have probably convinced Sunnis that they cannot win the civil war.

This is, unfortunately, too optimistic a reading of the calculations made by competing Sunni and Shiite power centers. Far too many Sunnis have not been convinced, as Kahl suggests, that they cannot win a civil war - or that there aren't territorial gains to be made absent a victory that would return Sunnis to their position of control of all of Iraq. Marc Lynch's periodic updates on the discourse amongst Sunni insurgent groups provides near daily reminders of these hardened attitudes. Rather, some elements of the Sunni insurgencies have decided that it makes more sense in the short term to play ball with the Americans in order to halt US attacks, eliminate a common enemy (al-Qaeda in Iraq) and receive coveted arms, money and the official Iraqi government imprimatur.

In response to this read of motivations, Kahl asserts that, "these groups could probably get money and weapons elsewhere (e.g., from Saudi Arabia, through criminal activities, etc.)", and thus courting the Americans for these resources is unnecssary. The problem is, though, that Kahl then claims that cutting off the funds/arms/support from US forces flowing to these Sunni groups would make them vulnerable to al-Qaeda in Iraq, as well as Shiite elements. There is something of a contradiction in the value that Kahl ascribes to our provision of arms and financial support. If the loss of our support would make these insurgent groups vulnerable, then attaining our aid surely makes them stronger.

A recent piece on Abu Abed (a former Sunni insurgent leader recruited to rid the Ameriya neighborhood of al-Qaeda in Iraq with his "Ameriya Knights" militia) in the Guardian highlights some of the advantages that American support can bestow:

A senior Sunni sheikh, whose tribe is joining the new alliance with the Americans against al-Qaida, told me in Beirut that it was a simple equation for him. "It's just a way to get arms, and to be a legalised security force to be able to stand against Shia militias and to prevent the Iraqi army and police from entering their areas," he said. [...]

The only vehicles in the streets belonged to our screeching convoy...Ameriya is a closed zone, surrounded by high concrete walls. Only pedestrians are allowed through the two Iraqi army checkpoints out of the suburb. The "knights" are the only authority inside.

Even if these insurgent groups could acquire arms and money from alternative sources, they could not command authority openly - without being targeted by Americans - absent such accommodation. While the US press focues on the falling US death toll, Sunni insurgent groups are also experiencing a welcomed respite from mounting casualty counts. This does not mean, however, that they have given up fighting the Shiites, nor concluded that civil war is categorically unwinnable. As Abu Abed suggests:

"Ameriya is just the beginning. After we finish with al-Qaida here, we will turn toward our main enemy, the Shia militias. I will liberate Jihad [a Sunni area next to Ameriya taken over by the Mahdi army] then Saidiya and the whole of west Baghdad."

Kahl's proposal to create equilibrium involves strengthening the Sunni militants to the point that the Shiites view them as a credible threat (which they do already, as Maliki's countermeasures illustrate), but not enough to embolden Sunni militants to seek to retake territory seized by Shiite forces (a highly unlikely forbearance given the passions and motivations fueling the violence).

Added to this already volatile situation, are questions related to the return of over 4 million internally displaced and foreign-based refugees. Will these refugees be able to move back into their seized homes and neighborhoods? If not, will they buy in to equilibrium?

I admire Kahl's effort to find some less bad outcome to the truly horrific situation that we have, in large part, helped to create. However, the magnitude and depth of the hostility and competition for power, and the extremely low probability of finessing the intricate military balancing act required, renders Kahl's admirable attempt to mitigate the damage an enormously costly, yet doomed, gambit.

We've had too many of those already.

Monday, November 12, 2007

License Too Ill

Noah Shachtman is right, this does sound like "a recipe for something ugly":

The Iraqi interior minister said Wednesday that he would authorize raids by his security forces on Western security firms to ensure that they were complying with tightened licensing requirements on guns and other weaponry, setting up the possibility of violent confrontations between the Iraqis and heavily armed Western guards. [...]

“Every company will be subject to such examination, and any company that does not follow the law will lose its license,” the minister, Jawad al-Bolani, said of the planned raids. “They are called security companies. They are not called violate-the-law companies.” [...]

Within Baghdad’s relatively safe and heavily guarded Green Zone, there have been early indications of a battle over who controls Iraqi streets. Private security guards say that Iraqi police officers have already descended on Western compounds and stopped vehicles driven by Westerners to check for weapons violations in recent weeks.

Any extension of those measures into the rest of the country, known as the Red Zone, could quickly turn into armed confrontation. Westerners are wary of Interior Ministry checkpoints, some of which have been fake, as well as of ministry units, which are sometimes militia-controlled and have been implicated in sectarian killings. Western convoys routinely have to choose between the risk of stopping and the risk of accelerating past what appear to be official Iraqi forces.

And because Western convoys run by private security companies are often protecting senior American civilian and military officials, the Iraqi government’s struggle with the companies has in some cases become a sort of proxy tug-of-war with the United States.

That dynamic was laid bare in the weeks immediately after the shooting on Sept. 16 in Nisour Square in Baghdad. The Iraqi government at first suggested that it would ban Blackwater, which has a contract to protect American diplomats, from working in Iraq. But the government was embarrassed when it discovered that its legal options were limited, and the United States — after placing a few new restrictions on the company — quickly sent it back onto the streets.

Interesting notion of sovereignty: the "sovereign" Iraqi government has only limited legal options for regulating mercenary forces hired by a foreign power that are operating within Iraq's borders. Solving problems such as these through the legal/legislative/route route has advantages over attempts to assert sovereignty through the confrontation of armed groups (i.e., less dead and wounded) - or so we have been lecturing Iraqis ad nauseum. But then, you need both sides to buy into that model of governance for it to work, and with respect to this issue at least, we haven't exactly led by example.

A Grand Don't Come for Free, Part III

80 Grand Don't Come for Free

Colin Kahl has responded to Brian Katulis' response here, and I wanted to, once again, jump in the middle to offer my pair of pennies. First, though, this excerpt from Ilan Goldenberg sets up the contrast nicely:

The problem with Kahl’s plan is that for it to work a tremendous amount would have to go miraculously well. If it doesn’t we will have wasted more American blood and treasure, still have 60K-80K American troops in Iraq and will not have gotten around to addressing other national priorities. For Katulis’s plan to work, everything will also have to go miraculously well. The difference is that if it fails we won’t have American troops in Iraq and will be in a better situation to try and get back to other security priorities such as Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, etc…

The comparative costs and benefits of the two approaches cannot, and should not, be ignored. However, Kahl has shown a penchant to ignore or downplay the enormous costs associated with the Iraq occupation despite the centrality of that variable to the decision making process (which, together with the potential benefits and probability of success, represents the three main pillars). We are talking about continuing an occupation that has already generated a price tag that will eventually top out in the trillions - with the requirements of ongoing activities burning through resources with a relentless consistency. This comes at a time when a plunging dollar, shaky economy and looming entitlement obligations require fiscal discipline to free up room for greater agility and fortification (leaving aside the budgetary demands that universal health care and infrastructure reinvestment will make).

Further, Kahl's plan necessitates the continuation of a military commitment that has already greatly degraded the readiness and efficacy of our armed forces - leading to remedial recruitment/retention measures that are compounding these problems and/or driving up financial costs. Not to mention the deaths and grievous injuries suffered by US military and civilian personnel that will continue to mount up, even if the pace is lessened.

In addition, dating back to the months before the invasion, and continuing today, our Iraq commitment has created a vortex that has greedily hoarded the eyeballs of this nation's leading diplomatic, military and intelligence policymakers (amongst many others) despite the ever growing list of serious foreign policy challenges that reside elsewhere. Some of those challenges, such as reducing the levels of anti-Americanism and improving our image in the world, are greatly hampered by the prolonged occupation of a Muslim country that, serendipitously of course, happens to rest on top of the second largest oil reserves on the planet.

And that is just the short list of costs, all of which will continue for years, if not decades, under the Kahl plan - a plan with long odds:

A key divide between Katulis and me is [our respective positions on] whether there is anything that the U.S. can do inside Iraq that can shape and shove the system into a stable decentralized equilibrium that is sustainable once we inevitably begin to leave. If one believes that there is zero or close to zero chance of achieving these objectives by keeping (any level of) U.S. forces in Iraq to influence events, and can demonstrate that the marginal costs of staying (at any level) outweigh the marginal benefits, then the Katulis/CAP “outside-in” position or a containment model makes a lot of sense. If, however, one believes the probability of managing the conflict from inside Iraq along the lines I suggested in my post are low but not approaching zero, then the magnitude of the interests involved suggest that we should try, using the Katulis/CAP position as the natural fall-back.

This passage is notable for at least three reasons. First, as mentioned above, Kahl reinforces the notion that his plan has a low probability of success. Second, Kahl makes no mention of the enormity of the costs of even attempting his plan. Finally, Kahl performs a bit of a rhetorical bait and switch by pondering the hypothetical marginal costs of staying in Iraq at "any level" when his own plan would require a rather sizable commitment. Here, Kahl informs the reader what "any level" really looks like:

However, assuming somewhat more permissive conditions facilitated by the bottom-up dynamics unfolding in Iraq at the moment, movement toward a residual force of 60,000-80,000 (including advisors, support, SOF, and quick reaction forces) in the timeframe sketched by CNAS (about 18 months) seems like a realistic halfway house to ensure our national interests on the path to a total withdrawal. [emphasis added throughout]

Got that? Kahl suggests that we may be able to move toward 60,000-80,000 troops over a period of 18 months if we assume that more permissive conditions will emerge over that time frame. That's a lot of "ifs" and caveats. This plan for contingent drawdowns should also sound familiar. It has been the public position of President Bush and the military leaders in charge of the Iraq campaign for some time. For years, literally, military and political leaders have been declaring that the goal is to drawdown forces as the situation on the ground allows (actually, that was the pre-war plan enunciated by Paul Wolfowitz - down to roughly 30,000 by Fall 2003). Ground level developments have not been, shall we say, overly cooperative.

But even if we assume that this will change, and that the situation will dramatically improve over a prolonged period such that we can safely protect a contingent as small as 70,000 troops by May 2009 (a contingent engaged in the operations outlined by Kahl), we would still have 70,000 troops in Iraq in May 2009 and beyond. That ain't cheap - nor, even then, would we necessarily be certain, or even likely, to stave off the negative outcomes that Kahl's plan seeks to address.

...a country that is not a safe haven for al-Qaeda, where the risks of humanitarian catastrophe on a genocidal scale are reduced, and the level of violent conflict stops short of a regional conflagration.

Each of those negatives would still be subject to the willingness and ability of a Shiite dominated government, that doesn't under Kahl's vision incorporate Sunni elements, to implement a scheme for the equitable distribution of oil revenue, as well as oversee the impartial command of a national-minded, non-sectarian Army. Without those accords, we would merely be delaying the inevitable by putting off our long overdue withdrawal - and possibly slowing down the pace of civil war related violence while we remain in-country.

It's not enough to suggest that a given plan (Plan A) has a better chance of leading to positive outcomes than another (Plan B) - which Kahl has, in my opinion, achieved to some degree. It must also be shown that Plan A is worth the costs compared to Plan B, and that the odds of success justify incurring those costs. Kahl has failed to make a persuasive case with respect to these last two questions, and that is a fatal shortcoming.

Friday, November 09, 2007

A Grand Don't Come for Free, Part II

I know I said there was going to be a Part II to my first post on Colin Kahl's essay, but fortunately, Matt Yglesias and Brian Katulis said everything I was planning on saying - only better. Here's Matt:

I would also put giant red flags all around any policies whose own advocates say things like "This could work in theory -- although the probabilities are difficult to assess and are probably not particularly high." That suggests to me that we're not actually disagreeing about the merits of the sort of scheme Kahl's putting forward. I think his plan won't work and he thinks his plan won't work. He counters that not trying is even less likely to work. That's true, but of course there are costs (and opportunity costs) to staying and trying. As I said yesterday, the question of regional strategy is incredibly important here. The implicit calculus behind Kahl's thinking is that though his plan probably won't work, if it did work the gains would be very large and the costs of attempting it are very small.

I don't really see things that way....the costs of continued involvement in Iraq seem quite high.

And a teaser from Katulis' more comprehensive piece:

Kahl’s argument suffers from important substantive weaknesses. In sum, simply offering a tactical military plan that hardens up different sides in Iraq’s internal conflicts may in fact make an accommodation among Iraq’s increasingly fractured and fragmented groups more difficult to achieve. There are four key problems with his analysis....

Links to those posts, and one from Badger on the same subject matter, can be found at the Aardvark's.

In Praise of Sadism

The National Review sure knows how to pick 'em. Contributing editor Deroy Murdock sounding like Mitt "Double Gitmo" Romney when declaring: "[w]aterboarding is something of which every American should be proud." Proud?

That was from a piece he penned for the magazine, which prompted Ramesh Ponnuru to seek clarification. Deroy abides:

[T]he whole point of my piece is that I AM complaining that we do NOT waterboard enough. Yes, we need to waterboard more. At the moment, waterbaording appears to have been banned by both the CIA and the Pentagon. As I say pretty directly in my piece, Bush should reinstate waterboarding publicly and proudly, and I called him deluded for thinking he would gain anything by going along with the Left and ditching waterboarding. . . .

I hope this clears up any confusion you might have had.

How very different my conception of America is than that of Murdock. The thought that he would have this country proudly tout its use of torture is just beyond the beyonds.

Shadi's right. It defies explanation.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

New Slang

Justin Logan is certainly right about the prevalence, and debate stultifying effect, of the infamous Hitler analogy as wielded in all its ahistorical glory by the salesmen of various and sundry wars. But a new inflammatory turn of phrase has been making guest appearances in the speeches and statements of White House officials - including and especially the President himself. The new verbal trigger is "World War III."

A few weeks back, Bush first warned of this type of global conflagration in the context of Iran (he also ushered in another shift in rhetoric centered around "knowledge" related to - rather than actual possession of - nuclear weapons):

But this -- we got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel. So I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.

William Arkin catches Bush at it again yesterday in Germany:

"[T]his is a country that has defied the IAEA -- in other words, didn't disclose all their program -- have said they want to destroy Israel. If you want to see World War III, you know, a way to do that is to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon. And so I said, now is the time to move."

How exactly would an Iranian attack on Israel trigger World War III? It's never fully explained - or even hinted at. Nor does Bush account for the myriad other, more probable scenarios from which a world war could spring from the instability in Iraq, outward.

Iran is neither powerful enough, nor does it have the number of dedicated - or even close - allies necessary to arrange the magnitude of front required to rise to the level of "World War." I'm reminded of Fareed Zakaria's recent attempt to inject a dose of sanity as an antidote to Norman Podhoretz's tirade about the Hitler-esque threat posed by an Iran intent on...well, taking over the world:

Iran has an economy the size of Finland's and an annual defense budget of around $4.8 billion. It has not invaded a country since the late 18th century.... Israel and every Arab country (except Syria and Iraq) are quietly or actively allied against Iran. And yet we are to believe that Tehran is about to overturn the international system and replace it with an Islamo-fascist order? What planet are we on?"

And yet President Bush would have us believe that as isolated and middling a nation as Iran would be able to muster the forces necessary to wage world war? The country that barely fought Saddam's Iraq to a decade long standstill? Not a chance, and the people that evoke World War III and Hitler know this. Instead of trying to engage the issue on its merits, however, they make a play for debate-ending scare tactics designed to gin up emotional, irrational responses from the populace.

The Arkin link comes from Blaktiki Hounshell, who also links to a rather interesting Barbara Slavin piece on the Bush administration's diplomatic bumbling vis-a-vis Iran. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

A Grand Don't Come for Free, Part I

Colin Kahl has a guest post over at Chez Aardvark that raises some interesting points regarding the trajectory of "national reconciliation" in Iraq, as well as the rationale for a continued US presence in that country. In this first part, I'll comment on Kahl's assessment of the brave new reconciliation:

Iraq is moving in the direction of a highly decentralized state. It will not be a neat three-way division as soft partition proponents envision. Rather, "all politics is becoming local," in the sense of some relatively homogenous provinces, and others with pockets of homogenous and mixed communities, all attempting to provide for their own security and governance.

This is an apt description of the current dynamic in many respects. The next part gets a little tricky, though:

In this emerging context, I don't think that the emergence of a stable security equilibrium in Iraq necessarily involves some huge grand bargain inside the central government that addresses every Sunni grievance and fully includes them in the national political process. That was the old notion of national reconciliation -- and, as [Marc Lynch's] recent commentary on Maliki points out, it is not likely to materialize anytime soon.

Even trickier still, it depends what type of accord we can reasonably expect to emerge that would fall short of a "huge grand bargain," yet still satisfy the various warring factions. Kahl's thesis:

A minimalist notion of national accommodation, in contrast, would focus on two and only two political compromises at the center: an oil deal and provincial powers/elections. In conjunction with bottom-up security mobilization and efforts to professionalize the Iraqi Army, this could "potentially" lead to a stable equilibrium...

To which I am tempted to respond: Oh, is that all? For my money (counted in dinar), finding a formula for the equitable distribution of oil revenue is the grandest bargain that the central government would make pursuant to the maximalist notion of national reconciliation. Knocking that one out - while also integrating Sunni militias into the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and forging a secular, professional Iraqi Army (Kahl's other two prerequisites for equilibrium) - would satisfy the most important components of the full-throated version of that elusive national reconciliation. So, yeah, if the Iraqis can hammer those deals out, then there might be some form of equilibrium established without an accommodation made for all Sunni grievances.

Easier said than done of course, which Kahl himself concedes, admitting that "the probabilities are difficult to assess and are probably not particularly high." There are many reasons why those probabilities are so low (I would put them in the single digits). One important reason is that Kahl's model suffers from a serious structural flaw, namely that these accords will have to be implemented by the national government despite the fact that the Sunnis will not be "fully include[d] the national political process."

Along those lines, it is hard to imagine how an increasingly decentralized state consisting, primarily, of localized power interests will manage to impose - and more importantly enforce - a national oil revenue sharing scheme. Especially when considering that the oil revenue plan would need to be operated with relative impartiality and fairness from a centralized government that doesn't fully include Sunni elements. The two concepts don't seem to be particularly compatible.

Similarly, there is a tension between Kahl's prescription for integrating Sunni militia into the ISF, while also forging "a relatively neutral, professional Iraqi Army." In Kahl's defense, he seems to conceive of the Sunni militias as local "defensive" forces, which would remain separate from the central Iraqi Army. Unfortunately, having so many armed factions sprinkled throughout the country doesn't bode well for the longevity of peaceful equilibriums (even with the restrictions to "defensive" weapons provided to the Sunni elements). Even then, though, we encounter the same tensions as with the oil compact: somehow, a central government that does not fully integrate Sunni elements will, nevertheless, maintain a national Army that would not show sectarian biases.

Let's not forget, either, who it is that is heading up that central government and who, given demographic realities (and lack of viable alternatives), will likely continue to do so for years to come: the Shiite UIA bloc, in concert with a largely disinterested Kurdish bloc. Maliki's recent declaration of mission accomplished with respect to national reconciliation is more than just premature or propagandistic, it is indicative of the underlying sectarian mindset of the ruling Shiite bloc. The UIA considers reconciliation a dead letter and it shows no intention of agreeing to share the political power and economic resources necessary to revive it. Kahl's delicate formula, though, depends on the notion that the UIA bloc will suddenly change its tune on such impactful issues as sharing oil revenues and correcting sectarian leanings in the Iraqi armed forces, and carry out those imperatives with the impartiality and enlightened dedication to fairness required to see them through.

So how do you square that circle?

Missing the Forest for the Leaf

Generally speaking, the poorly named "War on Drugs" has been an ongoing disaster of enormous proportions: costing hundreds of billions of dollars, ruining millions of lives, diverting valuable and finite resources and skewing social priorities related to criminal justice and education - all for little to nothing to show for the effort in terms of lessening drug use. Dale Franks' views are largely representative of mine on this point.

Nowhere is the War on Drugs more illogical, counterproductive and utterly pointless than in connection with the criminalization of marijuana - a drug with minimal health risks that has, nevertheless, received an undue level of attention from the criminal justice system. In a regrettable twist, the wrongheaded approach to marijuana could end up having a negative impact on another poorly named and poorly conceived "War." Passport's Joshua Keating passes along this bit of myopic prioritizing:

A major victory has been scored in war against opium cultivation in Afghanistan. In the Northern Province of Balkh, once home to 27,000 acres of poppies, opium cultivation has been nearly eradicated. Balkh's achievement can be attributed largely to stepped up enforcement, prosecution of poppy farmers, and the increasing prevalence of an alternative crop. And that crop is... marijuana.

As The New York Times reported Sunday, many farmers in Balkh are switching to cannabis, which has been cultivated in the region for over 70 years. Other than poppies, farmers say that cannabis is the only crop they can grow that will feed their families. Farmers can earn almost twice as much for the stuff as they do for an equal amount of legal crops like cotton. Balkh's tough-on-drugs governor, Atta Mohammed Noor, has held back so far, but he has no plans to allow the cultivation to continue:

Mr. Atta says he has a plan to eradicate cannabis next growing season. Farmers have begun to harvest their current crop, and officials say they do not want to destroy the farmers' livelihood without giving them time to plant an alternative.

"Marijuana is not difficult to control, like poppy," the governor said in an interview in October in his vast, opulent office in Mazar-i-Sharif. "It's very easy to eradicate. It's a very simple issue."

Perhaps, but that doesn't answer the question of why he would bother. Is it really worth spending Afghanistan's meager financial resources (and the United States' for that matter) trying to eradicate a profitable and non-harmful alternative to one of the country's greatest social ills? Atta says the province is still waiting for development money to help farmers grow alternative crops. That would be a good step of course, but in the meantime can we really justify punishing farmers for finding their own alternatives?

Our misplaced fixation on poppy eradication in Afghanistan has undermined the Karzai government, alienated many farmers, unnecessarily pushed locals into the arms of extremists and other opponents of the Afghan government and created a wave of anti-American backlash. Oh, and it hasn't worked (as Brian Ulrich and Matt Yglesias, amongst many others, have pointed out frequently).

So when an economically viable, less pernicious alternative to opium, such as cannabis cultivation, emerges, one would assume that rational policymakers would welcome the shift as a way of taking pressure of Karzai, winning back some hearts and scythes, and improving our image in the region generally speaking.

Of course, the key word in that sentence is "rational." Unfortunately, our policymakers are suffering from an acute case of reefer madness.

And It Looks Like We Might Have Made It

It appears I've underestimated the media savvy of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Luckily, Marc Lynch is around to show me the errors of my ways:

In the course of commenting on my post about Maliki's declaration of victory and national reconciliation on al-Arabiya, Eric Martin writes:

Yeah, I'd say the only thing Maliki's declaration of victory needs is some pageantry. Does Iraq have any aircraft carriers?

What, you think Maliki didn't take full-spectrum notes? Yesterday, Maliki took a John McCain vintage victory tour of Baghdad to push his message of victory. In what all news accounts describe as a rare appearance in the streets of the capital city, Maliki ventured out for a full half-hour, ringed by heavily armed security while the entire neighborhood was sealed off.

Well, give Maliki his due. Like Bush's infamous photo op, however, Maliki's recent media stunt was less than, how should we say, steeped in authenticity.

He declared victory over the "terrorist organizations and militias": "we have achieved victory against terrorist groups and militias. Things will not return to the way they were." Because nothing says "life has returned to normal" better than a heavily armed security detail and a totally sealed off neighborhood.

Lynch also explains how compliant the Western media was in preserving the illsuion. But hey, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. With that in mind, I'm gonna go ahead and consider this gesture to be a belated gift of flowers and candies. See, Glenn Reynolds was right after all!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Why, Look You Now, How Unworthy a Thing You Make of Me!

Justin Logan (who, with Henley, is my other favorite libertarian) does his part to fight back the hordes of Godwin:

This Hitler mania has many pernicious implications. First, and most obviously, seeing Hitler and appeasement everywhere risks plunging the United States into endless war. By representing the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, for example, as Hitlerian, one stymies debate about policy. (Are you opposed to confronting Hitler?) It is particularly bizarre that those who view American power as having an almost magical ability to transform the world also believe that any number of two-bit dictators measure up to the threat posed by Hitler.

In truth, the gap between a Saddam Hussein or an Ali Khamenei and Adolf Hitler is enormous. All of the supposed modern day Hitlers have presided over sclerotic economies and led states with barely a hope of defending themselves, let alone overrunning an entire continent or the world. Hitler, by contrast, existed in an entirely different environment. The military balance in 1930s Europe made it far from irrational for Hitler to think that it may be possible for Nazi Germany to consolidate control over the continent. [...]

As Jeffrey Record of the Air War College observed in his book The Specter of Munich, "no post-1945 foreign dictatorship bears genuine comparison to the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler." Record argues that "the problem with the Munich analogy is that it reinforces the presidential tendency since 1945 to overstate threats for the purpose of rallying public and congressional opinion, and overstated threats encourage resort to force in circumstances where nonuse of force might better serve long-term U.S. security interests."

All of which brings us back to Iran. Another AEI scholar, Michael Ledeen, has argued that there is a danger that Washington may decide to "surrender" to Iran's desire to "create a global caliphate modeled on the bloodthirsty regime in Tehran." But how would this would this work, exactly? Do we have reason to believe that anyone -- the Russians, or the Chinese, to say nothing of ourselves -- are going to somehow acquiesce to Iranian domination of the world order? It's never spelled out.

When you hear the specter of Hitler, Munich and/or Chamberlain being evoked in the context of a foreign policy discussion, bells and whistles should go off. The speaker is almost certainly engaging in a cynical excercise whereby an analogy to Hitler is used to vastly inflate the threat posed by the new "Hitler" and cut off rational debate surrounding possible ways of confronting that leader/entity.

In other words: the Hitler analogy is used by proponents of military solutions who are not confident that they can make a sound case for war on the merits, and so instead go for cheap scare tactics and rank pathos. But if such pundits and policymakers can't make a sound case for war without employing deeply flawed historical references that are chosen to maximize emotional, fear based reactions, then there most likely isn't...a sound case for war.

Something to keep in mind, especially considering the Hitler du Jour who's all the rage.

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