Friday, August 29, 2008

Not Even the Funny Palin

So McCain announced he's picking Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. An interesting move. One thing it will offer the McCain campaign is a sense of historical importance - something they need in the face of Obama's groundbreaking run. Further, it offers something "new" from a Republican Party that is rightly viewed as musty and bankrupt of fresh ideas. It will also serve as a bid to attract the dead ender clique of Hillary supporters (though I think entirely too much has been made of their clout in terms of actual numbers).

Tapping Palin also signals that the McCain camp thinks that "drill, drill, drill" is one of their strongest domestic issues to flog. Who better to discuss the benefits of drilling than an Alaskan? Fear of the "seven houses" gaffe could have also played a part - making Romney less appealing, and the blue-collarish Palin more attractive.

One major drawback: How can McCain's main line of critique be Obama's putative lack of experience, yet his pick for vice president is a 44 year old politician who has only been in the Alaska state house for little over a year. Before that, she was mayor of Wasilla, Alasksa: population 8,000. This is the person that will be one heartbeat away from the presidency - a consideration of particular importance considering that McCain, if elected, would be the oldest president ever to be sworn in for his first term.

I mean this seriously: Would you trust Palin in the Oval Office?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Not Tear Gas Nor Baton Charge

Matt Yglesias discusses the tendency to misconstrue morality in intention and consquence when analyzing foreign policy options - especially relevant after the latest round of preening surrounding the conflict between Russia and Georgia (though the stench of "Bomb Burma for the Sake of the Burmese" still lingers in the air).

...I think a lot of people have a tendency to wave the flag of “morality” or “idealism” in foreign policy as a way of evading responsibility for the consequences of their ideas...There would have been nothing “moral” about it if Dwight Eisenhower had taken an “idealistic” stand over Hungary in 1956 and wound up causing a nuclear war. Nor would the fact that the resulting war would, in an important sense, have been the result of immoral Soviet actions really done a great deal to exculpate Eisenhower. There’s nothing new about this idea, it’s all in Max Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation” where he says that in the political domain we need an ethic of responsibility, where you put forth initiatives that actually lead to good consequences.

True to form, the McCain camp described Obama's level-headed reaction to the Georgia/Russia conflict (a reaction shared by our European allies and the Bush administration itself!) as a "naive" brand of "appeasement" - betraying a lack of concern for human suffering. Along these lines, McCain's allies shrouded their calls for a widespread confrontation between the US and Russia (and their exhortations to the Georgians to "let's you and him fight") in the cloak of compassion - defending the people of Georgia from a rapacious Russia which had morphed into some freakish Stalin/Hitler hybrid (our enemies always manage this transformation somehow).

In the rush to claim the moral high ground in the periodic game of king of the sanctimonious mountain, however, none of the would-be humanitarians were forced to account for the repercussions that would actually result from their preferred course of action. The death toll from the conflict if joined by the United States (or from a prolonged insurgency by Georgians with our aid) would be astronomical - potentially cataclysmic considering the availability of nuclear weapons. Yet war supporters were safe to bask in their smug judgmentalism in the knowledge that even the Bush administration would not be so reckless.

However, Andrew Sullivan is right to be concerned that when it comes to a potential McCain presidency, the safe harbor for the judgmental-set might be lost. Not that this would deter them. When their advocacy leads to disaster, the moral stalwarts will just hide behind the nobility of their intentions - Max Weber be damned!

There is another aspect of the tendency to equate bellicosity with righteousness that is worth analyzing: many of the deeply concerned idealists that reach the solemn conclusion that war is necessary (with a frequency that belies the supposed painstaking deliberations taken to reach the oft-visited option of last resort) tend to be unmoved when presented with non-violent means to better the lot of a beleagured population. The impassioned calls to action vanish, the brows un-furrow and the pious cloak is put back in the closet for another day. Humanitarian crises just seem to draw less consternation when one of the options to help the target population isn't to target the population. This commenter sums it up succinctly:

...[T]here is no one more contemptible than the people who are filled with sympathy for residents of poor countries only when it’s an occasion for dropping bombs on them.

Yes, it’s terrible that people were killed by Saddam, or the government of Sudan, or Milosevic, or whoever. It really is bad.

But it’s also bad that people are dying of water-borne illnesses, malaria, and many other problems that can be dealt with much more cheaply and reliably and without killing anybody. Someone whose empathy for the poor expresses itself only through advocacy for violence is much worse than someone with no empathy at all, who at least will leave them alone.

It is not just that a trigger-happy recourse to war is treated as the idealist's charge, but also the embodiment of strength. If a pundit or politician is willing to go to war with country X, that indiviual is described as a "country X hawk" or "strong on country X." Yet, just as the morality of a given policy choice should be derived from the actual moral outcomes (with costs factored in), so too should the strength of a particular course of action be judged based on the strategic consequences (again, when measured against costs).

A policy is strong in so much as it is effective in achieving the desired outcomes while keeping costs at optimally low levels. In some rare settings, this might involve the use of the military, but in the vast majority of circumstances, making strong policy requires, instead, the ability to employ subtler tactics to divine and exploit opportunities, advantages and mutual interests. Unfortunately, according to our great pundit class, nuance and subtlety are bad traits for leaders to possess - especially in the realm of foreign policy.

This anti-intellectualism has a price tag, though. In retrospect, did the Iraq war hawks deserve the "strong" label that was attached to their "War on Terrorism" credentials? Obviously not. They advocated a policy that has resulted in a foreign policy debacle of historic proportions, which has proven a setback in the effort to drain the appeal of radicalism and that has greatly weakened the United States on myriad levels. To state the obvious, there is nothing "strong" about a policy that makes your country weaker. Even if you blow lots of stuff up in the process.

Recourse to war is particularly unsuitable in the context of counterterrorism (as John Kerry accurately pointed out - much to his detriment as the media sternly punished his wisdom). The Somalia/Ethiopia conflict provides a recent and useful illustration:

Now, in the wake of an aggressive U.S. counter-terrorism program that has alienated many Somalis, there are signs that Al Qaeda may have its best chance in years to win over Islamic hard-liners in the Horn of Africa nation. [...]

Analysts say such talk highlights a growing radicalization of Somalia's Islamists. Although Somalia has long had hard-liners, most of the population practiced a moderate form of Islam, and even extremists limited attacks to inside the country or against Ethiopia, a longtime rival.

But some worry a more radical agenda in Somalia has been aided by U.S. counter-terrorism efforts during the last two years, including half a dozen airstrikes against suspected terrorist targets that often killed civilians.

Somalia's citizens are also outraged by the ongoing occupation of Mogadishu by Ethiopian troops, who came in 2006 to defeat a short-lived Islamic government that had taken power largely with help from Shabab fighters.

Yet, remarkably, John McCain is perceived as having an advantage over Obama on foreign policy. This, based largely on the fact that McCain is flippant about his willingness to bomb a whole range of countries, spanning several continents. His calling card is a promise to be even more reckless in the use of the military than the Bush administration, and the media, with a deference bordering on reverence, extols his "experience," "wisdom," "moral clarity" and, of course, "strength."

Gotta Give a Shout Out to the Large Professor

There have been some pretty serious developments with respect to the Maliki government's position vis-a-vis the Sunni Awakenings/Sons of Iraq groups over the past couple of weeks. The nickel version is that the Maliki government is shifting from a mere refusal to integrate the Awakenings/SOI into the Iraqi Security Forces (or grant them civil positions in the government), to an active military campaign to forcibly disarm and disband those same militias. Arms have been seized, some leaders have been arrested and others killed.

Marc Lynch has been out of town - so he has a solid alibi to explain away his silence on this important topic. I do not have such an excuse, but will take advantage of his return to make amends for my heretofore neglect. The Extra P:

A couple of weeks ago, I laid out the case that the problem of the future of the Awakenings was coming to a head. Well, while I was away, the issue seems to have exploded. McClatchy, the New York Times, the LA Times, and others have run important stories on what seems to be a concerted campaign by the Maliki government to crack down on the Awakenings movement - with what appears to be grudging American acceptance.

The Awakenings experience demonstrates the limits of American influence over the Iraqi government - months of sustained, intense pressure on Maliki to integrate the Sons of Iraq into the Security Forces has produced remarkably little results, and now Maliki is cracking down on a pillar of Gen. Petraeus's strategy against al-Qaeda. This should be another nail in the coffin of the popular idea that improving security will lead the Iraqi government to make political accommodations with its rivals.

As argued previously, the argument that all the Iraqi factions needed was a lull in the fighting to resolve the underlying political issues that led to the fighting in the first place was always tenuous. Further, the Awakenings/SOI strategy that preceded, and then accompanied, the Surge was working at cross-cutting purposes with the above. On the one hand, the deal with the Sunni insurgents reduced the levels of violence, but on the other hand, as Brian Katulis points out, it further fractured Iraqi society by creating - or strengthening - distinct power nodes outside the central government.

What has been extolled as a central “success” of the surge has also exacerbated existing political divisions and fomented new political cleavages in an already fractured and fragile Iraqi body politic. Newly empowered sahwa leaders are challenging each other, traditional Sunni Arab political parties, and the Iraqi government. […]

What’s worse, current U.S. policy in Iraq does not take into account how the sahwa movements have...[made] it more difficult to achieve progress in striking the power-sharing deals necessary to stabilize their country.

The hope, or roll of the dice, was that the Maliki government would eventually, if begrudgingly, incorporate the Awakenings/SOI groups into the government - leading to non-violent buy-in from a potentially destabilizing segment of Iraqi society. Maliki, however, feels no pressure to act. Why would he when he has the US military around to back his every move? The US government can't pressure Maliki when its leverage is undermined by the fact that leaders like Bush and McCain are promising to provide Maliki with military support for the next millenium - whether or not Maliki is willing to make political concessions. The violence in Iraq will flare up, however.

Maliki's actions should not be interpred solely through the sectarian (Shiite v. Sunni) lens, however. Rather, federalist/nationalist, or Powers that Be (PTB)/Powers that Aren't (PTA), paradigm is relevant. In this respect, Maliki has targeted political factions that do not currently hold power in the regional, and in some cases federal, government (the Sadrists, Awakenings/SOI). In doing so, he is pushing ahead with an anti-democratic consolidation of power - flirting with the formation of a military dictatorship gussied up with democratic trappings. Sam Parker (via a footnote to a Reidar Visser piece) explains:

The PTB/PTA dynamic is different from "government" and "opposition" in two important ways. First, PTA includes the Awakenings, Sadris, emerging nationalist groups, tribal leaders, etc. who either aren't represented in governing institutions at all or, in the case of the Sadris, for whom there is a tenuous relationship between the militant street movement and the guys in the COR. Moreover, many of these groups, first the Sadris and now the Awakenings (and whoever gets rolled up with these two groups along the way), are facing active, military persecution by the PTB. There is an intense effort to keep them shut out of all governing institutions. This portion of the PTA cannot accurately be described as "opposition" in any sense. They are too disenfranchised to be the opposition, and they're surely not in parliament.

Second, it is true that the PTA also does include the parliamentary opposition. But even here, opposition/government doesn't adequately convey the dynamics. In a normal parliamentary political system, there is an assumption that the government can be voted out and replaced, that this transition of power will occur peacefully as a result of everyone following the rules. But what if you have a ruling coalition that never intends to share power if it can get away with it, openly flouts parliamentary procedure, owns the "state" security services in a way that is very unlikely to be transferrable, all within a set of governing institutions that has not once experienced a peaceful transition of power? The PTB are trying to lock up and shut down the political system, whatever rudiments of democratic institutions may be formally in place.

Considering the above, I was hoping to find Marc Lynch's question harded to answer:

But here's a stumper. What if that battle is joined, but the "former Awakenings" ("the once and future insurgency?") choose not to turn those guns against their American "friends" but concentrate exclusively on the Iraqi government. Which side does the U.S. support? The Awakenings movement which it has built and cultivated, or the Iraqi government which it has built and cultivated? Could get messy.

Will get messy.

Thus far, the US has played an active role assisting in Maliki's crackdown, and there is little reason to think this will change. The Bush team is still banking on the hope that Maliki will eventually soften on the issues of permanent bases - or at least open up the oil fields to sweetheart deals (two items that his government has thus far resisted). I don't expect the Bush team to conclude that a better deal is possible from loosely organized, if at all, groups of former insurgents. In the meantime, however, our policies will further alienate the Sunni Muslim world. Lynch discusses one aspect of this dynamic:

...Tareq al-Homayed, editor of the Saudi paper al-Sharq al-Awsat, has a widely discussed piece voicing intense displeasure with the 'betrayal' of the Awakening (English version here). The crackdown could very well put the ice on the recent opening of relations between Arab states and the Iraqi government (which has not, at any rate, yet extended to the Saudis).

Perhaps more troubling, though, is the additional propaganda boon given to al-Qaeda and other anti-American elements seeking to radicalize the region. In short, the US will be portrayed (accurately in many respects) as assisting a Shiite-led, anti-democratic government in a bloody crackdown on Sunni factions - and other Iraqi factions that pose a threat to that government through the democratic process. All for the promise of beneficial access to oil and permanent military bases.

They will continue to hate us for our freedom.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Infidels Shiver in the Stench of Belief

Britain's MI5 recently conducted an extensive review of hundreds of case studies in order to attempt to create a profile of would-be terrorists (via Calpundit 2.0, not to be confused with the 3.0 model). While MI5 was unable to establish a holistic profile, they were able to dispel certain myths and shoot down other would-be indicators of a propensity to engage in terrorist acts. One such counterintuitive conclusion is as follows:

....[The British terrorirsts] are mostly British nationals, not illegal immigrants and, far from being Islamist fundamentalists, most are religious novices. Nor, the analysis says, are they "mad and bad". [...]

The security service also plays down the importance of radical extremist clerics, saying their influence in radicalising British terrorists has moved into the background in recent years.

....Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could actually be regarded as religious novices. Very few have been brought up in strongly religious households, and there is a higher than average proportion of converts. Some are involved in drug-taking, drinking alcohol and visiting prostitutes. MI5 says there is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation.

These findings are entirely consistent with the scholarship of Marc Sageman, especially as expressed in his most recent work, Leaderless Jihad [highly, highly recommended]. According to Sageman's more comprehensive analysis of available case studies (he does not limit his review to Britain for example), the ignorance of Islam, and lack of formal religious training, are prevalent traits found in many who populate the latest wave of terrorists.

While it's popular mythology to imagine radical Imams presiding over maddrassas where they indoctrinate pupils with violent messages, as students nod along in a trance-like brainwashed stupor. Reality, however, does not comport with the sensational script. As Sageman points out, only about 10% of the sample attended radical maddrassas (and much of that 10% attended one particular maddrassa in Indonesia whose unique characteristics made it every bit the outlier). On the contrary, receiving formal, religious training tends to innoculate students from pursuing terrorism or other radical-tinged violence (a conclusion reached by the MI5 study as well).

Further, many of the latest wave of terrorists don't read or speak Arabic, and fewer still (even those with the requisite language skills) actually read the Koran. In fact, one of the methods that jailers use to rehabilitate captured terrorists is to provide them with copies of the Koran itself - which often leads to realizations of past wrongdoing as informed by Islamic scripture.

While Kevin Drum laments the lack of an actionable profile with which to use in order to better focus intelligence/law enforcement assets, the conclusions reached by MI5 and Sageman are not exactly useless. At the very least, these findings suggest that, as much as possible, we should seek to remove the religious component from the discussion ("Islamofascism"), and de-escalate the perceived clash of civilizations (um, stop invading Muslim countries if at all possible). Sageman provides more detailed recommendations in his books, but David Ignatius provides a decent summary:

The heart of Sageman's message is that we have been scaring ourselves into exaggerating the terrorism threat -- and then by our unwise actions in Iraq making the problem worse. He attacks head-on the central thesis of the Bush administration, echoed increasingly by Republican presidential candidate John McCain, that, as McCain's Web site puts it, the United States is facing "a dangerous, relentless enemy in the War against Islamic Extremists" spawned by al-Qaeda. [...]

Sageman's harshest judgment is that the United States is making the terrorism problem worse by its actions in Iraq. "Since 2003, the war in Iraq has without question fueled the process of radicalization worldwide, including the U.S. The data are crystal clear," he writes. We have taken a fire that would otherwise burn itself out and poured gasoline on it.

The third wave of terrorism is inherently self-limiting, Sageman continues. As soon as the amorphous groups gather and train, they make themselves vulnerable to arrest. "As the threat from al-Qaeda is self-limiting, so is its appeal, and global Islamist terrorism will probably disappear for internal reasons -- if the United States has the sense to allow it to continue on its course and fade away."

Sageman's policy advice is to "take the glory and thrill out of terrorism." Jettison the rhetoric about Muslim extremism -- these leaderless jihadists are barely Muslims. Stop holding news conferences to announce the latest triumphs in the "global war on terror," which only glamorize the struggle. And reduce the U.S. military footprint in Iraq, which fuels the Muslim world's sense of moral outrage.

That, or, you know, put our foot down for another 100 Years. And then move on to Iran. Or Syria. Or both! They hate us for our freedom!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Well, What About the Whiskey and Sexy?

Back in May, I made mention of what was then a three-pronged plan to subvert the democratic process in Iraq being carried out by Prime Minister Maliki and his ruling coalition (the "Powers that Be," or "PTB"), with the backing of the Bush administration and US forces. A rough sketch of this plan is as follows (with more details and links available in the prior post):

1. Undertake military/police operations against the Sadrists and other Shiite and Sunni rivals in Basra, Sadr City, Amarah, Diyala and other regions in an effort to winnow the ranks of their respecitve constituencies, intimidate their followers and dislodge their leaders from government positions (with the last objective serving to faciliate fraud and other electoral malfeasance in upcoming elections).

2. Ban the Sadrists from participating in upcoming elections on the dubious grounds that no party that has a militia should be able to participate in elections (other than the parties of the PTB, and even other non-Sadrist parties that aren't PTB).

3. Implement a plan to stagger elections over several days in order to ensure "accurate" counting of ballots, despite objections made by many political factions that such a prolonged process would allow the vote counters more time and opportunity to manipulate the results.

Taking advantage of the success of the first step of the plan, Maliki and the PTB are, predictably, looking to consolidate their gains and ensure a strong performance in upcoming elections despite their dubious popular support:

Iraqi security forces loyal to the Shiite-led government are raiding voter registration centers and taking other steps to discourage participation in upcoming elections, says the head of Iraq's voting regulatory agency. [...]

A drive to register new voters is slated to end next week. However, only about 1 million people had registered as of Wednesday, a low turnout due partly to voter intimidation, according to Iraq's High Elections Commission.

"There are people who don't want these elections and the security forces are collaborating with these people in some places," said Faraj al-Haydari, the commission's chairman.

Opposition politicians such as Ali Hatem, a leader of a group of former insurgents known as the Sunni Awakening, accuse ruling parties of trying to sabotage the elections because they fear losing power.

Among recent incidents:

•Iraqi Army troops raided a registration center in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City and demanded a list of names and addresses of voters, al-Haydari said.

The area is the heart of support for anti-government Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The incident was confirmed by Iraqi Gen. Aiden Qader, the ministry of interior official responsible for election security.

Similar tactics have repeatedly occurred at another registration center in the Sunni-dominated city of Mada'in east of Baghdad, according to Mohammad al-Qinani, president of the Ayn Election Monitoring Network. His non-profit organization monitors 152 registration centers around the country.

•Iraqi troops have either removed, or allowed others to destroy, a large percentage of the 2 million posters distributed nationwide to publicize the registration effort, al-Haydari said.

As indicated by the nature of the incidents enumerated above, the range of anti-democratic actions is not limited to those targeting the Shiite rivals of Maliki/ISCI. Iraqi Security Forces are also being used to benefit the Sunni factions that recently returned to Maliki's government. I warned in April and July of this year that the the return of these Sunni factions could actually be a harbinger of the future subversion of democracy within the Sunni community - if the Sunni PTB's were conditioning their return to the Maliki coalition on Maliki's willingness let the ISF do for them what they were already doing for Maliki/ISCI vis-a-vis the Sadrists. Those concerns were well-founded. The risks for Iraq's long term stability are every bit as real now as they were when those prior admonitions were made:

"Well, what happens if the political system is rigged against those people? I think some of those people might return to violence," [Colin] Kahl said.

Ali Hatem...also predicted violence if the elections are perceived as unfair. A date for the provincial balloting has not yet been set by Iraq's parliament. But it is supposed to be held later this year.

"The governing parties have lost their popular base and they don't want these elections because they're going to lose," Hatem said.

"If there is any fraud in the next elections, Iraq will be a mess again," he said. "This time, we will use force to take control of things."

Well dip me in purple ink and plant me in the Rose Garden!

Then tell me again how the Surge succeeded, how the Iraq conflict is over, how we brought the magic of democracy to the benighted masses in Iraq and how the bright, shining exemplar (Iraq the Model, if you will) is going to inspire a succession of liberal democratic dominoes and, in so doing, extinguish the appeal of radicalism throughout the region.

Don't you know 9/11 changed everything, and we can no longer afford to prop up anti-democratic and unpopular regimes in the Muslim world.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

This is a Parting, Some Separation

In October 2005, I first plagiarized borrowed from publius the concept of "vectors" to describe the sought after cross-sectarian/ethnic political alliances that could be formed by the Iraqi electorate. These vectors are desirable because they would indicate that the Iraqi electorate was eschewing communal-based, factional politics that almost inevitably leads to instability or democratically enabled tyranny - a heavy-handed rule of the majority. Unfortunately, the Iraqi people have tended to vote communally, with each sectarian/ethnic constituency voting for similar parties/blocs with little, if any, crossover. This voting patterns has reinforced and exaggerated the sectarian/ethnic identification which has fueled certain of Iraq's multiple insurgencies and civil wars.

There are several causes for the centrifugal forces pulling voters into electoral enclaves: First, it is a typical human reaction to fear, anxiety and lawlessness (available in ample supplies during and after the US invasion). This is especially true in, though not exclusive to, a society that still has a vital tribal component. Second, political/social/religious developments in Iraq in the decades preceding the invasion had exacerbated sectarian/ethnic divisions while empowering resistance movements and groups that tended to organize around such totems, and so these groups were best positioned to fill the vacuum post-invasion. Finally, decisions by the Bush administration to organize the Iraqi government around a confessional power sharing arrangement, aka the "Lebanon Model," further entrenched these modalities.

Nevertheless, there have been recurring predictions that a new political consensus would emerge, one organized around the principle of Iraqi nationalism rather than religion or ethnic identity. Thus far, however, those predicting the imminent emergence of such a cohesive, non-sectarian, nationalist vector have been disappointed. Nevertheless, there are signs that a recent coalescence of disparate groups could establish the framework for such a conglomeration going forward.

As Reidar Visser argues, the recent scuttling of the provincial elections law represented a victory for a nationalistic, cross-sectarian bloc (with Sunni and Shiite groups - including the Sadrists and even some Badr!) prevailing over the entrenched powers most committed to the fragmentation of Iraq into semi-autonomous regions (ISCI, the Kurds and some of Dawa). Recall, the law could not be passed largely because the Kurds (and their staunch allies, ISCI) would not agree to a Kirkuk power-sharing arrangement inserted into the elections law. Visser:

Yesterday’s failure of the Iraqi parliament to pass the provincial elections law before the summer recess may well end up being blamed on Sadrists and other “recalcitrants” who refused to give up their principles and adopt a more “businesslike” attitude. Or, alternatively, as an AP headline puts it today, “Iraqi election bill falls to ethnic rivalry.” However, quite apart from issues related to Islamic radicalism or ethnic identities, first and foremost the parliamentary deliberations of the elections law exposed some of the fundamental weaknesses and contradictions of Pax Americana in Iraq. [...]

...On the one hand, there was a broad alliance of parties that pushed the elections agenda forward, and insisted on the insertion of a timeline in the legislation that was adopted in February this year. This group featured cross-sectarian cooperation and participation by secularists as well as Islamists, with the key parties being the Sadrists (Shiite Islamist), Fadila (Shiite Islamist), Tawafuq (Sunni Islamist), al-Hiwar al-Watani (Iraqi nationalist, mostly Sunni) and Iraqiyya (nationalist, secular-leaning). Those who opposed the prospect of early elections [and the power sharing provision] were primarily the Kurdish parties and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI, Shiite Islamist), with some support from the Daawa party of Iraqi premier Nuri al-Maliki.

So, with the fault lines established (more on those fault lines here), Visser examines the common platforms:

Why was the Kirkuk clause inserted, who did it, and why could it derail the whole elections process in Iraq? The question of who did it is easy to answer. The clause was supported by many of the same parties that had earlier challenged the Maliki government to hold provincial elections by October: Sadrists, Fadila, Hiwar, and Iraqiyya. Conversely, the power-sharing formula for Kirkuk was opposed by the Kurds, ISCI, some Shiite independents, and some members of Maliki’s Daawa party...

As for the underlying reasons for the voting patterns, deeper antagonisms have been at work. For some time, these two constellations of parties have faced each other in what is the most salient battlefront in Iraqi politics today – far more important than those supposedly “irreconcilable differences between Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis” on which some Western analysts like to dwell. Firstly, to a considerable extent, this is a raw battle of power and shares of the pie, as Sam Parker of the United States Institute of Peace pointed out when he coined the dichotomy “the Powers That Aren’t” (PTA, the Sadrists, Fadila, Iraqiyya, most Sunni groups) and “the Powers That Be” (PTB, the Kurds, ISCI, Daawa and the IIP) to describe the struggle between the two sides, first in an anonymous guest post on the Abu Aardvark blog, and later in an NYT interview. Secondly, to some extent this is also about ideology, with centrists versus ethno-federalists constituting the principal cleavage. The centrists are sceptical to any weakening Baghdad’s power and to any extension of the federalism principle south of Kurdistan. Above all, they have misgivings against an ethno-sectarian implementation of federalism that would partition Iraq into three statelets – Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite. The ethno-federalists, on the other hand, favour precisely this kind of Balkans approach to Iraq: they want a free hand for the Kurds in Kirkuk, in exchange for support for Shiite sectarian supremacy in the rest of Iraq – either through Shiite dominance in Baghdad, or through the establishment of a Shiite sectarian region south of Baghdad.

...when the Kirkuk issue came up recently, it became painfully clear that the Powers That Be did not enjoy sufficient parliamentary support to proceed with their preferred solution – a delay of the vote in Kirkuk without any changes to the local administration, which effectively would have perpetuated Kurdish hegemony in the province...

In this way the PTB were forced to resort to their emergency weapon: the presidential veto. By 2008, parliamentary majorities simply aren’t sufficient in Iraq: instead, bills are vetoed and lifted out of the parliamentary debate for closed-doors discussions among the “political leaderships”, which is mostly a euphemism for The Powers That Be themselves. This is what has happened to the oil legislation, the constitutional revision, and, this time around, the provincial elections law. The net result is that the PTB consolidate their grip on power, and no meaningful moves towards national reconciliation take place.

At the same time, the fact that the Powers That Be are unable to hold together is a remarkable testament to the endurance of certain Iraqi nationalist values that simply refuse to give way to the PTB agenda and that seem bound to create problems for the overall stability of the current system in the long term. Symptomatically, ISCI politician Jalal al-Din al-Saghir condemned unnamed politicians for having “listened to popular feeling” about Kirkuk – a cardinal sin from the Powers That Be perspective.

The ideas presented in these last two paragraphs should be taken into consideration when assessing our prior, and perhaps future, decision to unconditionally support the Maliki government in Iraq, more or less despite its agenda and popular mandate (or lack thereof). As I have argued previously, our support for Maliki, ISCI and the Kurds has been largely based on the Bush administration banking on those groups' willingness to countenance long term US military presence, and their openess to foreign involvement in the oil sector with very generous terms for the outside firms.

With Maliki and others indicating that the Bush team might have misjudged those tendencies, the continuation of US policy along these lines is even more incoherent (though, I would add, that our policies in this regard would still be incoherent and ultimately counterproductive even if Maliki is merely pretending to oppose a long term US military presence for the domestic audience - which is still very much a possibility). Visser examines this further:

At least, the actions of PTB are understandable: they simply want to grab ever more power, and to exclude everyone else. What is more difficult to understand is the behaviour of the international players. Why, for example, does the United States continue to support this steadily declining force? Previously, Washington may have considered them more malleable and susceptible to pressure, even if this factor is less evident today, and despite the fact that question marks concerning Iran’s influence in the PTB camp linger. But the Iraq that is being built by reliance on the PTB simply isn’t a sustainable one. Because it is based on appetite for power and extreme opportunism alone, it cannot survive except through the application of brute force and the use of material power: concrete walls (as seen in Baghdad), bribes to political enemies (particularly prominent among the Sunni tribes), and authoritarian handling of internal opponents (such as the Sadrists). When Washington’s ability and willingness to finance these kinds of measures comes to an end, the only way forward will be increased authoritarianism or increased reliance on regional patrons.

One of the many advantages of the Obama approach to a timed withdrawal from Iraq is that the US government will no longer be forced to tie its fortunes to those Iraqi political factions that seem, or are, most amenable to an American presence. We could, alternatively, begin to encourage - consistently -Iraqi nationalism, a political platform of reconciliation and a more responsive, democratic government. At the very least, we will not be the bankrollers for, and accomplices to, the increasingly authoritarian "PTB."

There is no guarantee that these political parties will be able to form a cohesive bloc around a broad--based agenda (Swopa has his doubts, as do I), but at the very least, the US could get out of the way of (and tacitly support) ad hoc coalitions that would tend to loosen the ethnic/sectarian grip and encourage nationalism, which would, in turn, give way to a budding array of mini-vectors that would push the process in what will be, in the long term, a more stable direction.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


As a general rule, when there's war, check in with the War Nerd. He rarely disappoints for the simple reason that he loves his work. Perhaps a bit too much. I don't consult Brecher to find my moral bearings, for example. But you read up on wars with the War Nerds you have, and his lack of sentimentality has its advantages considering the subject matter:

...Most likely the Georgians just thought the Russians wouldn’t react. They were doing something they learned from Bush and Cheney: sticking to best-case scenarios, positive thinking. The Georgian plan was classic shock’n’awe with no hard, grown-up thinking about the long term. Their shiny new army would go in, zap the South Ossetians while they were on a peace hangover (the worst kind), and then…uh, they’d be welcomed as liberators? Sure, just like we were in Iraq. Man, you pay a price for believing in Bush. The Georgians did. They thought he’d help. And I just saw the little creep on TV, sitting in the stands watching the US-China basketball game. (Weird game—the Chinese were taller, muscled the boards inside but couldn’t shoot from outside. Not what you expect from foreign b-ball teams at all.) I didn’t even recognize Bush at first, just wondered why they kept doing close-ups of this guy who looked like Hank Hill’s legless dad up in the stands. Then they said it was the Prez. They talk about people “growing in office”; well, he shrunk.

And the more he shrinks, the more you pay for believing in him. The Georgians were naïve because they were so happy to get out from the Soviets [that they thought] the Russians’ old enemy, the US, must be paradise. So they did their apple-polishing best to be the perfect obedient little ally. Then we’d let them into NATO and carpet-bomb them with SUVs and ipods.

Their part of the deal was simple: they sent troops to Iraq. First a contingent of 850, then a surprisingly huge 2000 men. When you consider the population of Georgia is less than five million, that’s a lot of troops. In fact, Georgia is the third-biggest contributor to the “Coalition of the Willing,” after the US and Britain.

You might be thinking, Wow, not a good time to have so many of your best troops in Iraq, huh? Well, that’s true and it goes for a lot of countries—like us, for instance—but at least we’re not facing a Russian invasion. The Georgians are so panicked they just announced they’re sending half their Iraqi force home, and could the USAF please give’em a lift?

We’ll probably give them a ride, but that’s about all we can do. We’ve already done plenty, not because we love Georgians but to counterbalance the Russian influence down where the new oil pipeline’s staked out. The biggest American aid project was the GTEP, “Georgia Train and Equip” project ($64 million). It featured 200 Special Forces instructors teaching fine Georgia boys all the lessons the US Army’s learned recently. Now here’s the joke—and military history is just one long series of mean jokes. We were stressing counterinsurgency skills: small-unit cohesion, marksmanship, intelligence. The idea was to keep Georgia safe from Chechens or other Muslim loonies infiltrating through the Pankisi Gorge in NE Georgia. And we did a good job. The Georgian Army pacified the Pankisi in classic Green-Beret style. The punch line is, the Georgians got so cocky from that success, and from their lovefest with the Bushies in DC, that they thought they could take on anybody. What they’re in the process of finding out is that a light-infantry CI force like the one we gave them isn’t much use when a gigantic Russian armored force has just rolled across your border.

The American military’s response so far has been all talk, and pretty damn stupid talk at that. A Pentagon spokes-thingy called Russia’s response “disproportionate.” What the Hell are they talking about? They’ve been watching too many cop shows. Cops have this doctrine of “minimum necessary force,” not that they actually operate that way unless there are video cameras around. Armies never, ever had that policy, because it’s a good way to get your troops killed needlessly. The whole idea in war is to fight as unfairly and disproportionately as possible. If you’ve got it, you use it...

If you want a translation, luckily I speak fluent Pentagon. So what “disproportionate” means is—well, imagine that you’re watching some little hanger-on who tags along with you get his ass whipped by a bully, and you say, “That’s inappropriate!” I mean, instead of actually helping him. That’s what “disproportionate” means from the Pentagon: “We’re not going to lift a finger to help you, but hey, we’re with you in spirit, little buddy!” [...]

The fretting and fussing and sky-is-falling crap about this war is going to die down fast, and the bottom line will be simple: the Georgians overplayed their hand and got slapped, and we caught a little of the follow-through, which is what happens when you waste your best troops—and Georgia’s, for that matter—on a dumb war in the wrong place. We detatched Kosovo from a Russian ally; they detached South Ossetia from an American ally. It’s a pawn exchange, if that. If it signals anything bigger, it’s the fact that the US is weaker than it was ten years ago and Russia is much, much stronger than it was in Yeltsin’s time. But anybody with sense knew all that already.

That would be everyone except John McCain, William Kristol, Ralph Peters, Robert Kagan, et al, who think that we're appeasing the once and former Stalin von Hitlerburg by not going to war with Russia in our present distracted and weakened state. In other words, like Brecher said, anybody with sense.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Smash a Mole

Colin Thomas-Jensen at the Wonk Room reminds us that tomorrow marks the ten-year anniversary of the US embassy bombings in Kenya. Three al-Qaeda operatives, thought to have had a hand in those attacks, have been active in the Horn of Africa region ever since. During this span, the US government has worked closely with regional allies like Ethiopia and Kenya in an effort to track down the wanted al-Qaeda members. As Thomas-Jensen points out, the al-Qaeda members have, purportedly, passed in and out of Somalia frequently during this ten-year period - taking advantage of the lack of a functioning state to move about freely.

In December of 2006, however, US policy in the region veered in a perilous direction when the US backed Ethiopia's invasion of neighboring Somalia, undertaken for the ostensible purpose of toppling the then-ruling Islamic Courts Union (ICU) regime and replacing it with the exiled, and unpopular, Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The ICU was an Islamist regime with reported ties to al-Qaeda - some real, and some imagined. To some extent, Ethiopia exaggerated the ICU's ties to al-Qaeda (as the TFG has continued to do) in order to secure US support (as an aside, Ethiopia has gone back to this "terrorism" well against other regional rivals, like Eritrea).

Regardless of the extent to which Ethiopia hyped the al-Qaeda connection, the strategy designed to limit al-Qaeda's range of motion and support in the region was ineffective at best - though outright counterproductive in many respects. Instead of applying sound counterinsurgency doctrine - seeking to stabilize the region and thus deny would-be terrorists safe havens and support afforded by failed states and radicalized populations - we adopted policies that have actually exacerbated the conditions conducive to al-Qaeda's success.

Thomas-Jensen calls it "Whac-a-Mole" but it's closer to "Smash a Mole":

But a ten-year manhunt is not a strategy to deal with the root of violent extremism in the region — the 18 years of political unrest and bloodshed in southern Somalia. The U.S. supported Ethiopia’s December 2006 invasion of Somalia to oust Islamists from power and install a transitional government in the capital Mogadishu. Yet as in Iraq, the invaders had no post-war political strategy, and Ethiopia — Somalia’s historic enemy — was quickly bogged down in a brutal counter-insurgency against Islamist and clan-based militia groups.

The insurgent attacks and Ethiopia’s scorched-earth response have driven two-thirds of Mogadishu’s residents — some 700,000 people — into the harsh Somali countryside. With rising food prices and failed crops, aid agencies are warning of famine. Meanwhile, the Bush administration supports Ethiopia’s presence in Somalia and, with help from Ethiopian intelligence, U.S. forces have launched at least four airstrikes targeting al-Qaeda suspects and Islamist leaders inside Somalia. Only one airstrike killed its intended target, and U.S. attacks have resulted in civilian casualties. Behind closed doors, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies refer to the U.S. strategy as ‘whac-a-mole.’ [...]

‘Whac-a-mole’ is not a viable strategy, and as the corrupt and abusive transitional Somali government hurtles toward collapse, the Bush administration is best advised to put the mallet down and pick up the phone. No one is saying that rebuilding a Somali state is an easy task, but sustained high-level diplomacy and close coordination with allies is the only way to help Somalis forge an inclusive government that can pull the country out of the abyss.

For those keeping score, our policies in Somalia have netted us the following thus far:

Low-to-non-existent benefits in terms of neutralizing known al-Qaeda operatives while the region has been further radicalized and support for al-Qaeda has surged locally. There is increased instability and violence that allows al-Qaeda and other terrorists to move about, and conduct business, freely (the ICU had provided stability to the capital of Mogadishu which has since evaporated). There has been an increase in the number of dead from the flaring of the conflict, massive refugee flows and widespread humanitarian crises befalling the beleagured Somali people. Our overt support for anti-democratic and belligerent elements has led to a sharp upswing in anti-Americanism as we have become closely identified with the brutality of Ethiopia and the TFG.

Heckuva job.

In assessing just how misguided US government policy in the region has been, it is important to recall that Ethiopia and Somalia are long standing regional rivals that have fought several wars and other smaller conflicts over the preceding decades (there is an ongoing territorial dispute over the Ogaden region, which is ethnically Somali, but falls within Ethiopia's borders). One of the Ethiopian government's stated regional goals is to ensure that Somalia remains weak and divided so as to forestall Somalia pressing its claims on Ogaden. Further, Ethiopia has an atrocious record on human rights domestically, and during its occupation of Somalia - in particular, it has acted with extreme brutality toward the ethnically-Somali residents of Ogaden.

Yet, instead of conducting a careful, narrowly tailored counterterrorism operation in Somalia, we backed the Ethiopian plan to invade and occupy regardless of the likely destabilization that would result. It's as if we took Ethiopia at its word that what it really wanted to do was help out poor, languishing Somalia, and that it would be greeted with flowers and candies by its long-time adversary.

It's a pattern that we have repeated in other contexts: We allow our terrorism tunnel vision to blind us to the various regional ambitions and imperatives of the dubious allies we increasingly choose on the narrow criteria that they (say they) will help us to fight terrorism. Reminds me of the recent stunning admission about the Bush administration's lack of appreciation of the centrality of India in terms of Pakistan's regional outlook:

One thing we never understood is that India has always been the major threat for Pakistan," said former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlain, now the president of the Middle East Institute.

Let's hope the next administration appreciates the interlocking regional rivalries of Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea (as well as intra-Somali tribal rivalries) a little better than the current one. That, and the notion that sometimes smashing everything in sight is not an effective means to disrupt the actions of a handful of al-Qaeda operatives.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Magically Delicious

Remember, Clive Crook is a conservative-leaning economist:

It is worth remembering where the blame for this neutering of fiscal policy lies: squarely with the Bush administration. At the start of this decade, the budget stood in surplus to the tune of 2.4 per cent of GDP. On unchanged policy, this was expected to grow to a surplus of 4.5 per cent of GDP by 2008. This year's actual deficit of 3 per cent of GDP therefore represents a worsening of more than 7 per cent of GDP, or roughly $1,000bn. Almost all of this deterioration is due to policy: to tax cuts, spending increases, and their associated debt-service costs.

That projected surplus was a priceless gift to the White House. It offered the Bush administration ample scope for outlays on homeland security and other unforeseen priorities, and moderate tax cuts as well, all within a budget balanced over the course of the business cycle. Instead, the administration knowingly opted for outrageous fiscal excess - adding insult to injury with its phony tax-cut sunset provisions, designed for no other purpose than to disguise the long-term fiscal implications. Eight years on, this startling record of fiscal irresponsibility has all but taken fiscal policy off the table as an available response to the slowdown.

The US economy had better have luck on its side. Luck is about all it has left.

While this might be true, Obama is awfully skinny, and popular too. So you can understand the dilemma I'm facing in deciding which candidate to back come November.

(h/t Eric Alterman)

Friday, August 01, 2008

Get Back in Line

Seriously, this country needs at least 8 years of Democratic leadership to even begin cleaning up the mess the GOP has made. There will be pushback of course:

Wal-Mart Stores Inc said on Friday it has held meetings with U.S. store managers warning them of issues that could arise if Democrats win power and pass a law that would make it easier for workers to unionize, but stressed it was not telling workers how to vote.

Wal-Mart opposes proposed legislation called the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to unionize by signing a card rather than holding a vote. [...]

The Journal report said Wal-Mart human-resources managers who run the meetings do not specifically tell attendees how to vote in November's presidential election, but they make it clear that voting for Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama would be tantamount to inviting unions in.

The weakening, and dismantling, of unions that began during the Reagan administration (and continued more or less uninterrupted since then) has not served America well. Yes, some unions go too far on some issues (corporations never do though!), but the alternative - a severely weakened and voiceless labor market - is considerably worse for most Americans. The pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.

Just one example: unions used to provide an effective check on out of control executive pay. Unions would rightly demand a cut of the pie when executives tried to give themselves out of proportion pay raises. It was exceedingly difficult for executives to argue that they deserved multi-million dollar raises, but that there was no money to offer a modest raise for the average company worker. The lack of union controls on this process is one of the factors that has led to vast disparities of wealth in the United States - disparaties not seen since the Gilded Age. To simplify matters: economies are stronger, and societies healthier, when the middle class is thriving. Unions can help to create a larger, more robust middle class.

The Wall Street Journal reported that about a dozen employees who attended meetings in seven states said executives told them employees would be required to pay hefty union dues and get nothing in return, and warned that unionization could force Wal-Mart to cut jobs as labor costs rise.

Right. It's the unions that do that to workers. Better to trust management to take care of its employees. Which Wal-Mart has done a fine job of.

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